Italian Riviera: pretty towns on Italy’s Ligurian coast

Italian Riviera: pretty towns on Italy’s Ligurian coast

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Have you discovered the Italian Riviera towns?

The magnificent stretch of coastline in Liguria and its gorgeous towns warrant a lifetime of exploring. It’s one of our favourite places in Italy.

Famous for movie stars, super yachts and of course the magnificent Cinque Terre, the Italian Riviera has more well known hotspots than some countries.

As is often the case, exploring beyond the obvious yields wonderful finds but it is also true that the popular places have earned their stripes for a reason.


Camogli Italian Riviera

Here is a look at some of our favourite pretty towns on Italy’s magnificent Liguria riviera coast.  We’ve also provided tips on getting around and the best places to stay on the Italian Riviera.

Where is the Italian Riviera?

Strictly speaking the Italian Riviera runs from France’s Côte d’Azur to Tuscany. The city of Genoa, the capital of Italy’s Liguria region, is roughly in the middle.

Liguria’s beautiful rugged coastline and azure blue seas inspired literary greats Byron, Shelley and Hemingway. In fact The Gulf of Poets is named after Byron’s swimming adventure across Portovenere Bay.

Later, the small towns of the Italian Riviera were to become the playground of movie stars Orson Welles and Sophia Loren.

This article focuses on the stretch of the Ligurian coastline from Genoa in the north to La Spezia in the south.

Beautiful Italian Riviera towns

portofino italian riviera


The ultimate in luxurious getaways, Portofino is undeniably one of the prettiest places I have ever seen. Walking down the cobbled streets to its little harbour you cannot help but feel a little more glamorous than you did when you arrived.

Just add a jaunty silk scarf and you will fit right in. For a small town you will notice a high density of fashion boutiques and galleries catering to the super yacht and celebrity set.

Best for: a luxe romantic getaway

Don’t miss: the walk up to Castello Brown with gorgeous views of the harbour, star spotting from the cafes and restaurants, enjoying the Museo del Parco sculpture park

Where to stay in Portofino: The Belmond Splendido Mare – luxury hotel with picturesque views of Portofino

Santa Margherita Ligure

santa margherita ligure

A flock of super yachts dock in Santa Margherita but the town is also a working fishing port. Popular with Italian visitors, Santa Margherita is a practical base for exploring the region.

The town is not as glamorous as some of its neighbours but it makes up for that with its spectacular basilica and gentle rhythm of life. We enjoyed several mornings cafe hopping and talking to the local nonnas who had lovely things to say about my children which is always welcome.

The colourful seafront and harbour of Santa Margherita is lined with restaurants specialising in seafood and hosts a monthly antiques market.

Best for: a base for exploring the region and seafood restaurants

Don’t miss: the opulent Basilica di Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, splendid grocery store Seghezzo, trying trofie (Ligurian pasta) with pesto on the seafront

Where to stay in Santa Margherita Ligure: Hotel Sant’Andrea is a charming boutique hotel in an art nouveau building close to the waterfront

Read: 50 beautiful small towns in Italy


scenes from camogli liguria italy

Camogli is a fishing town with rustic charms. Sure it does not have the polished prettiness of Portofino but as you can see the black stony beaches provide a dramatic contrast to the colourful buildings with painted facades.

Eat a focaccia on the beach, take a dip in the sea and go for a stroll along the waterfront soaking up the laid back atmosphere. There are plenty of walking trails with amazing views if you are feeling energetic.

Best for: relaxing

Don’t miss: the basilica of Santa Maria Assunta perched over the rocky inlet, people watching at the Bagni di Lido and aperitivo as the sun sets

Where to stay in Camogli: enjoy the private beach and pool at Hotel Cenobio Dei Dogi

Sestri Levante

sestri levanta liguria coast

The sandy beaches were the original drawcard for me but then we saw the Baia del Silenzio with its narrow sandy beach hugged by colourful buildings. Sestri Levante is very popular with Italian visitors and it is easy to see why.

The small old town sits in between the beautiful bay and broader sandy beaches with colourful beach clubs on the other side of the peninsula. Here you can relax over a family lunch while your children play outside as the old town is largely car free.

Best for: family vacations and a lazy day at the beach

Don’t miss: exploring the tiny inlet of Baia del Silenzio,  an afternoon gelato stop in Sestri Levante’s pretty old town, and hanging out at the sandy beach clubs.

Where to stay in Sestri Levante: the junior suites at the Helvetia Hotel are perfect for a family getaway


riomaggiore cinque terre

Riomaggiore is the most southerly village and often the first stop for visitors to the Cinque Terre. Famous for its vineyards dating back to the 12th century, the medieval village is typical of the region and is incredibly picturesque.

Explore the narrow cobbled streets lined with case torri (tower houses) and soak up the atmosphere.

Best for: typical Cinque Terre experience

Don’t miss: strolling from the top of town to the seafront, clambering up rocky stairs for amazing vistas of the Ligurian coast and trying the celebrated local wine.

Where to stay in Riomaggiore: comfortable self catering accommodation with amazing sea views at Scorci di Mare

Monterosso al Mare

beach at monterosso italian riviera

Monterosso al Mare may not be the most celebrated of the villages of the Cinque Terre but we enjoyed the relaxed beachside vibe and fewer crowds. Don’t forget to explore the Borgo Antico or old town with its typically narrow streets, cafes and boutiques.

Best for: relaxing on the beach after trekking along the Cinque Terre. It’s one of my favourite Italian Riviera beaches

Don’t miss: lazing on the beach looking out at the Ligurian Sea, walking along the seafront to Vernazza and trying the local specialty – anchovies

Where to stay in Monterosso al Mare: located in the old town Hotel Margherita has modern conveniences

Explore the Italian Riviera further

It is hard to resist the colourful buildings, abundant seafood and rugged coastline of the Italian Riviera. You could explore for decades and still uncover more gems.

On our Italian Riviera wish list

  • stay in one of the central towns of the Cinque Terre, possibly Vernazza
  • hike some of the trails and ferry hop the five towns
  • visit Porto VenereLa Spezia and the Gulf of Poets
  • spend an afternoon at the monastery of San Fruttuoso 
  • explore the vintage seaside town of Rapallo

Practical information for visiting the Ligurian coast

italian riviera holidays

How to get there

Fly into Genoa to access Portofino and the northern Riviera towns. Flying into Pisa is another option – you can approach the region from the south.

I was surprised to learn that you can do a day trip from Florence to the Cinque Terre. It’s a long 12 hour day and transfer by coach.

If you are driving along the Ligurian coast you might like to read our tips on driving in Italy.

Getting around

I think the best way to see this beautiful part of Italy is by boat.

Ferries leave from many spots along the Ligurian coastline. You can do day trips to the Cinque Terre from Santa Margherita, Rapallo and Sestri Levante to the north and La Spezia to the south.

Unfortunately when we visited the seas were rough and the boats were not running. In this case, your best option is to go by train.

The train system in Liguria is efficient and runs to all the major stops on the coast including the villages of the Cinque Terre. As we found out, when the ferries are not running the trains become very crowded, bordering on unpleasant.

Do check the weather before setting out on a day trip to the Cinque Terre and decide if you are prepared to spend a lot of time on train platforms.

Beach clubs

beach club italian riviera

A word on beach clubs. For an Australian the concept of paying to go to a beach is about as foreign as it comes. However I am coming round to the idea after having a safe place to keep all our family things, and some shade.

I loved being able to relax in comfort with a cappuccino while the kids splashed in the water and build sandcastles.  Expect to pay €7 – €10 per chair with umbrella.

You can usually find a space of spiaggia libera (free beach) but needless to say they do not occupy the best stretches of beach.

Map of the Italian Riviera

Do you have a favourite among the Italian Riviera towns?

Planning your dream trip to Italy? Read my most popular post for inspiration and planning tips for the most amazing holiday in Italy

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  1. GirlAstray
    8th August 2016 / 11:12 AM

    All of these places look so charming and romantic! I would love to get back to Italy, I am thinking of going to Sicily if I can get a decent priced flight tickets…I like the small special tips you include for each place 🙂 Pinning this for later 🙂

    • Katy
      8th August 2016 / 2:15 PM

      Ohh I hope to go to Sicily next year. I really like the diversity Italy offers. I am sure Sicily will be a bit more rustic and raw than the refined north. Can’t wait!

      • GirlAstray
        8th August 2016 / 2:20 PM

        I heard only good things about it 🙂 Also, it´s been AGES since I´ve been to Italy so I am looking forward to see it with fresh eyes 🙂

        • Katy
          9th August 2016 / 4:25 PM

          Book that trip! You will have an amazing time

  2. WhenTwoWander
    8th August 2016 / 9:54 AM

    Italy is right near the top of my all-time list. THis article has really given me some food for thought for future trips, Portofino looks gorgeous and so glamourous. You can imagine 50s glamour pusses walking down the streets can’t you?

    Sam @ WTW

    • Katy
      9th August 2016 / 4:31 PM

      Ooh yes, it is incredibly glamorous and romantic too. I would definitely put it on your wish list

  3. Amandas_Wanderlust
    8th August 2016 / 10:27 AM

    Oh wow the Italian Riviera is so cute! I love all the pretty colourful buildings and would most like to visit Riomaggiore. It looks adorable. Thanks for sharing.

  4. 8th August 2016 / 10:55 AM

    You have to stop writing such enticing posts, Katy – it’s spoiling my self-imposed internet ban on holiday! I had a glorious few days at the fabulous Splendido in Portofino several years ago but you’ve made me desperate to go back and explore more of the smaller towns and villages along the coast,

    • Katy
      9th August 2016 / 4:26 PM

      Ha ha. Thanks Clare. I think I’d definitely enjoy a few nights at the Splendido without the kids in tow! enjoy the rest of your holiday

  5. The Soul of Seoul
    9th August 2016 / 3:00 AM

    That looks like so much fun and a great way to explore the coast. Great information. I think all of the beaches and coast line there would be right up my alley.. or I’d go it like you and hop hop hop down the coast to see what’s going on. Has certainly earned its stripes as a tourist destination for good reason to be sure.

    • Katy
      9th August 2016 / 4:18 PM

      Thanks so much! I think it would be impossible to have a bad time on this coastline. Recommended to everyone!

  6. Vyjay Rao
    9th August 2016 / 8:05 AM

    These towns are so picturesque and charming. I have never explored the interior of Italy and till now my travels have been confined to Rome, Florence and Venice. Need to start exploring the Italian riviera next time.

    • Katy
      9th August 2016 / 4:17 PM

      It’s hard not to fall in love with this part of Italy Vyjay but actually there aren’t too many parts of Italy that haven’t stolen my heart

  7. Chantell
    9th August 2016 / 2:08 AM

    I really love this post. It tells me everything I never knew that I didn’t know about the Italian Rivera! Thanks for the detailed explanation and highlights of each area. I totally understand the weird feeling of paying to visit the beach but it can be nice to have the safety and comfort of your own chairs and umbrellas.

  8. 9th August 2016 / 8:37 AM

    Oh I totally have to go to the Italian Riviera! 🙂 Thanks for the post!

    • Katy
      9th August 2016 / 4:16 PM

      Hope you make it there soon 🙂

  9. 10th August 2016 / 5:30 PM

    I feel so dumb… we went to Cinque Terre and I didn’t realize it was considered the Italian Riviera! We spent two nights in Vernazza and did hikes, and boats rides to the other villages. We had such a great time. Great compilation of spots to visit.

    • Katy
      12th August 2016 / 8:43 PM

      A rose by any other name Lillian 🙂 I would like to revisit the Cinque Terre one day and do all the walking and boat rides without toddlers.. it was a bit of a challenge! Sounds like you had an amazing time

  10. 11th August 2016 / 3:11 AM

    Great post Katy it’s got me itching to go – we’ve done the Amalfi Coast, we’ve done Tuscany, we’ve done Rome, but still have yet to make it to the Italian Riviera! Indeed looks out of the movies:).

  11. 11th August 2016 / 4:07 PM

    This is a great list! We visited Riomaggiore and Vernazza a couple of years ago but I did wonder about the towns we rode through to get there. I’d definitely like to visit again, especially for the seafood.

  12. 11th August 2016 / 4:58 PM

    nice places!

  13. Soraya @ Hello Raya
    16th August 2016 / 2:51 AM

    Oh my goodness! How beautiful is this part of the world. I have been to Italy several times, but mainly in the North, as we’d cross the border from Switzerland into Italy. Unfortunately missed the Italian Riviera. But next year I am planning to go and can’t wait to see this part of Italy. Thanks for sharing!

    • Katy
      16th August 2016 / 3:37 PM

      Lucky you Soraya! The Italian Riviera is one of the most beautiful spots in the world. Enjoy!

  14. 16th August 2016 / 7:28 PM

    We had a very memorable holiday in Santa Margherita (first time camping for more than 3 nights with a young kid and in a heatwave!) in 2004 and visited all these places. Portofino is amazing and the 5 Terre are of course stunning but I really fell in love with Camogli. Now we live close enough to go to the Italian Riviera that we often go for weekends or even just the day.

    • Katy
      17th August 2016 / 8:28 AM

      So lucky! Mind you I bet a lot of people think you are a bit crazy popping down there for the day. Love that Aussie road trip spirit

  15. 20th August 2016 / 12:33 PM

    We went to Rapallo for our honeymoon and visited Portofino and the Cinque Terre, amongst other places. It’s a lovely area.

    • Katy
      20th August 2016 / 12:42 PM

      How romantic Nicola! Have you been back since?

  16. MissLilly
    5th September 2016 / 1:18 PM

    really amazing places! Even though I’ve been in Italy several times, I never really explored Tuscany, Cinque Terra or the riviera, so it feels I’m missing a lot!

    • Katy
      6th September 2016 / 9:26 PM

      It’s so hard to choose with Italy isnt it? We’ll just have to keep exploring! Thanks for stopping buy 🙂

  17. 27th July 2017 / 9:52 AM

    These destination are really very cool and classy. It’s look paradise on earth. All the view are awesome and i think my pets stay here without any problem. I was looking for some pets holiday destinations in italy and liguria and your blog is really helpful. thanks for sharing.
    Mieten privat urlaub ligurien

  18. Christine
    21st September 2017 / 5:18 PM

    This was a very interesting site, full of information. Which area do you suggest, for a first visit, for the older traveller.

    • Katy
      25th September 2017 / 7:48 AM

      Thanks for stopping by Christine. I think all of the towns are suitable for older travellers although Portofino definitely has the glamour I aspire to in my retirement years! Perhaps the Cinque Terre villages (with the exception of Monterosso) may not be the best choice for a base as they are quite steep and have a lot of stairs. Hope you make it there soon