Genoa, Italy's principal seaport, is easy to reach by public transportation. There's a small airport, ferries come into and out of its harbor, and its main rail hub easily reached from France, Milan, Turin, Pisa, and Rome. The city makes a good base or starting point for exploring the first villages on our Italian Riviera travel itinerary.
Genoa's historic center is said to be the largest medieval quarter in Europe and has a wealth of churches, palaces, and museums. There are many good restaurants, shops, and Europe's second largest aquarium.
Camogli, Picturesque Village by the Sea
Camogli is a charming fishing village on a rocky outcrop. Camogli has a nice beach with bathing establishments and a small harbor with shops and restaurants. Many of its colorful houses feature Trompe L'Oeil treatments. There's a carousel near the water and a big square where children play and people sit and chat. Camogli has an interesting old town section, too.
From Camogli you can visit San Fruttuoso, an isolated fishing village reached only by sea or a 3-hour hiking trail. There's a path to the village of Portofino, too. In May, Camogli holds a huge fish festival, the Sagra del Pesce.
Camogli has a train station and can be reached by ferry from Genoa.
Portofino, Italian Riviera Seaside Resort Town
Portofino is one of the most popular seaside resorts in the Italian Riviera and was the favorite of the rich and famous during its 1950s heyday. Portofino is a beautiful village of pastel-colored houses surrounding a half-moon shaped harbor lined with shops, restaurants, cafes, and luxury hotels. Castello Brown sits atop the hill overlooking the village. Portofino's crystalline green waters are great for swimming, diving, and boating. There are also opportunities for hiking in the area.
Portofino can be reached by ferry from Santa Margherita Ligure, Rapallo, Camogli, and Genoa. The closest train stations are in Santa Margherita Ligure, where there's a bus to Portofino from the station, making the town a convenient base for visiting Portofino (where there aren't many hotels).
Cinque Terre, the five lands, is a group of five picturesque villages along the coast surrounded by vineyards, olive groves, and woods. The villages can be reached by the train that runs between La Spezia and Genoa or by ferry from La Spezia, Portovenere, Levanto (the next village up the coast toward Genoa where there's also a train station), or other Italian Riviera villages. There are popular hiking trails between the villages as well as in the scenic hills above them.
You'll have to pay for entrance to use some of the trails since they are in the national park. Check out a Cinque Terre hiking guide and map beforehand so you'll know what to expect when you go. Note that you need to buy a Cinque Terre Card to use the blue number 2 trails that connect the five villages except when they're closed, as is often the case in winter and early spring due to flood damage, so be sure to check current trail conditions.
The Cinque Terre region is very popular and is very crowded in summer. Spending the night in one of the villages is a good way to experience the charm without the huge crowds but since they aren't packed with hotels, you'll need to book ahead.
Portovenere, on the Gulf of Poets
Portovenere, on the Gulf of Poets, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its picturesque harbor is lined with brightly colored houses while narrow medieval streets lined with shops lead up the hill from the ancient city gate to a castle. The tip of the promontory holds a picturesque church. Byron's Cave is a rocky area leading to the sea where the poet Byron used to swim.
There are several hiking trails leading from Portovenere. Across from Portovenere is the island of Palmaria where you will find a good beach and grotto. The ferries also stop there.
Portovenere can be reached from the port town of La Spezia by ferry from the port or by bus from the train station. Ferries to other Gulf of Poets villages and Le Cinque Terre also go to Portovenere.
Lerici and the Gulf of Poets
The Gulf of La Spezia is called the Gulf of Poets because of its attraction to some of the world's most celebrated poets who came, and even died, here. Shelley lived in the village of San Terenzo and died when his boat was hit by a storm. There's a grotto dedicated to Lord Byron at Portovenere where he used to swim. Both Dante and Petrarch spoke of the natural beauty of the Gulf.
There are small villages scattered around the Gulf. Lerici, the largest village on the Gulf of Poets, sits across the bay from Portovenere. From Lerici, you can walk to San Terenzo and there are hiking trails to small fishing villages to the southeast like Fiascherino, Tellaro, and Montemarcello. Lerici has a castle and a small old quarter.
Lerici can be reached by ferry from La Spezia, Portovenere, and Le Cinque Terre. Small ferries between the Gulf of Poets villages run mainly in summer. It's a scenic drive around the peninsula between the Magra River and the sea as well as up into the interior. There's a large pay parking lot between Lerici and San Terenzo with a shuttle bus that takes you into town although you can walk to either village from the parking area. There's a tourist information kiosk by the parking lot, too.
Beyond Liguria: Versilia - Tuscany's Coast
While many people don't associate beaches with Tuscany, the region has a nice stretch of coastal towns.
- Versilia, Tuscany's northern coast, runs from Liguria almost to Pisa and offers the best string of clean sandy beaches in Tuscany as well as clean water and interesting villages. Just inland are the Apuan Alps, famous for marble production, and cities like Massa and Carrara.
- Viareggio, a well-known resort, is the largest beach town in Tuscany. It was at its peak in the 1920's but is still a top Tuscan town for beaches, seafood, and nightlife. Art Nouveau style buildings now housing shops, cafes, and seafood restaurants line its promenade.
- Forte dei Marmi was one of Italy's first beach resorts, begun at the turn of the century. It's now a low-key resort popular with wealthy Italians. One of the beaches was chosen by Forbes in 2006 as one of the top ten topless beaches in the world. The town has a marble fortress built in 1788 and a good weekly market.