Italian Riviera: Planning Your Trip

View of CInque Terre

TripSavvy / Lauren Breedlove

Liguria, a small, crescent-shaped region of Italy, borders France and makes up the Mediterranean enclave known as the Italian Riviera. Fishing villages, majestic cliffside towns, and cosmopolitan resorts, like Portofino, contribute to the jaw-dropping beauty of this section of Italy. Travel further inland to the small farming villages protected from the coastal winter winds, making the region ripe for growing olives, wine grapes, and lemons. Then, bask on the beach or take a sailboat out to a remote island where you can swim and snorkel in crystal blue waters. Home of the Cinque Terre, the Italian Riviera includes the five authentic fishing villages of Corniglia, Manarola, Monterosso al Mare, Riomaggiore, and Vernazza. Peruse the streets of these seaside locales to immerse yourself in Italian culture, while dining on the region's specialties. Italian locals flock to this section of the coast in the summer to enjoy all it has to offer. Still, traveling in the off-season provides the perfect opportunity to experience mild temperatures, and to explore the area's cultural sites.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: The best months to visit Liguria are April and May, and September and October. Traveling during the slack season allows you to avoid summer tourists crowds while still enjoying warm temperatures and the fall harvest.
  • Language: Italian is the primary language spoken in the Italian Riviera.
  • Currency: The official currency in Italy is the Euro.
  • Getting Around: The best way to explore Liguria, from village to village, is by traveling by ferry or train. Driving through the region during the summer season can be frustrating, with busy, narrow roads and limited parking.
  • Travel Tip: Stay in Camogli, an authentic Riviera town, instead of the busier Cinque Terre. This village has a great beach and promenade, colorfully painted buildings, world-class eateries, and a train station that connects you to all other destinations.

Things to Do

The Italian Riviera is a foodie's paradise, as the region is full of village markets and restaurants that offer up the area's finest foods, like its world-famous pesto, olives, and wine. Outdoor adventurers will love taking advantage of hiking Liguria's public lands, like Mount Portofino Regional Nature Park, which offers expansive views of the coastline. You can also engage in an urban hike through Genoa's alleyways (or creuzes), in search of off-the-beaten-path restaurants, trattorias, and artists' workshops. Try scuba diving and snorkeling in the coast's crystal blue waters, or take a sailboat or ferry excursion to a remote stretch of beach. Many villages contain cultural destinations, like museums, monasteries, and castles. You can also embark on a walking wine-tasting tour or attend a wine and food pairing session.

  • Explore Le Cinque Terre: Le Cinque Terre (or, "the five lands") contains a group of five hillside villages—Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore—easily accessed by train or ferry. The ancient footpaths that take you from town to town allow you to explore this UNESCO World Heritage Site's castles, beaches, and numerous restaurants, including those that specialize in seafood dishes.
  • Sit seaside at the "Piazzetta” in Portofino: Lavish Portofino is known for luring Italy's rich and famous. And, there's no better way to catch a view of the scene than by eating outdoors at the town's small square overlooking the ocean. Here, you can sample a coffee or a glass of local wine while you people-watch and enjoy the sight of fishing boats and luxury yachts in the harbor.
  • Stop and smell the flowers at Riviera dei Fiori: On the far western part of Liguria sits the Riviera dei Fiori (River of Flowers), which provides a natural border between Italy and France. Here, the hills are covered with greenhouses growing flowers and basil, and the medieval villages offer panoramic views of the sea and its pristine beaches.

What to Eat and Drink

The warm, sea-kissed Mediterranean air provides the perfect climate for growing olives in the Italian Riviera. The olives that grow in the Cinque Terre National Park produce a specific type of olive oil with a distinctive taste, called Riviera Ligure. You can sample the flavors and learn all about production by embarking on an olive oil tasting tour, where you visit a farm and learn how to make pesto (the traditional mortar and pestle way), with a lesson from your hosts.

Genova is considered the birthplace of pesto, and you'll find this green sauce topping dishes throughout the region, like pasta (especially trofie and trenette), gnocchi, and focaccia. Pesto's main ingredient, basil, along with rosemary, thyme, and marjoram, are among some of the aromatic herbs that grow within the Cinque Terre National Park.

Even non-anchovy enthusiasts will appreciate the taste of these miniature fish caught straight from the Cinque Terre sea. While Americans usually enjoy these wonders canned and incorporated into salad dressings, the Liguria locals eat them straight up, drizzled in olive oil, raw with oregano, parsley, and garlic, stuffed, fried, and cooked with potatoes.

Of course, you can't take a trip to the Italian Riviera without tasting the local aperitifs. Famous local wines include Sciachetrà, a sweet wine made with dried grapes, as well as the common Cinque Terre variety. Take a guided wine tour to experience the flavors. In addition to vineyard grapes, lemons abound in this region. And limoncino, another alcoholic Ligurian treat, is made from the peels of this fresh, tree-ripened, citrus fruit.

Where to Stay

Genoa, the region's capital city, is located near the center of Liguria and serves as Italy's main seaport. Genoa makes a good home base for visiting some of the nearby Italian Riviera towns and villages, either by train or ferry. The city's sights include a large medieval quarter, Europe's second-largest aquarium, and the 16th-century Rolli Palaces, a group of palaces, some of which have been converted into museums.

Santa Margherita Ligure, a larger and more affordable town than the lavish Portofino, is often used as a base for visiting Portofino (by bus or ferry), Cinque Terre, Genoa, and the other towns in Liguria serviced by public transportation. It's on the coastal train line, and during late spring and summer, ferries run from its port. You'll find a good selection of luxury and boutique hotels here.

Lerici, on the Gulf of Poets, sits across the bay from Portovenere. From Lerici, you can walk to San Terenzo along the seaside promenade, and access hiking trails to small fishing villages, like Fiascherino, Tellaro, and Montemarcello. During the summer, ferries will transport you to Portovenere and Cinque Terre Lerici. The town has a castle, a beach, a small old quarter, and plenty of seafood restaurants.

Money Saving Tips

A trip to Liguria is not typically on the budget traveler's itinerary. After all, Portofino, in particular, is known for its five-star luxury resorts and expensive cafes. However, by implementing a few pocketbook-savvy tips, you can enjoy the cliffside towns and pristine beaches and still squeak it in under budget.

  • Pinch pennies on your Italian Riviera vacation by traveling during the off-season. Sure, the ferry and train schedules may not be as robust as they are during the summer, but airfare and hotel rooms will cost you much less than if you were to travel during the high season.
  • Lace-up your cross-trainers and walk everywhere! The Italian Riviera's villages and countryside can best be explored on foot. Plus, walking will save you a ton of money in transportation fees. Foot travel also allows you to sneak into the region's nooks and crannies to see sights you otherwise wouldn't.
  • Renting a villa with a kitchen and frequenting the local farmer's market still allows you to sample the region's exquisite cuisine, but at half the cost of going out to eat. Take advantage of seasonal produce and stockpile savory mementos to stuff into your suitcase, then just splurge on one or two nights out on the town.
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