A year ago we spent a magical week-long holiday on the Italian Riviera. I often stop to think about that trip and ponder what I would do differently. Armed with more knowledge I would certainly explore deeper this region famous for movie stars, super yachts and of course the magnificent Cinque Terre. 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.
Here is a look at some of my favourite pretty towns of the magnificent Ligurian coast.
Where is the Italian Riviera?
Strictly speaking the Italian Riviera runs from France’s Côte d’Azur and Tuscany. 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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
Monterosso al Mare
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. Also worth exploring is the Borgo Antico or old town with its typically narrow streets,
Best for: relaxing on the beach after trekking along the Cinque Terre
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
Explore the Italian Riviera further
If we had more time I would have loved to explore this region of Italy much more deeply. It is hard to resist the colourful buildings, abundant seafood and rugged coastline. On the list is to stay on the Cinque Terre, possibly in Vernazza. Next time I would hike some of the trails and ferry hop to the other towns. I would love to spending time in Portovenere, La Spezia and the Gulf of Poets. Closer to Portofino we sadly missed the monastery of San Fruttuoso and the vintage seaside town of Rapallo.
I think the best way to see this beautiful part of Italy is by boat. Ferries leave from many spots along the 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.
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
Have you visited the Italian Riviera? What was your favourite place along the Ligurian coast?
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