From Cattolica to Trieste on the Adriatic, and from Ameglia all the way to Ventimiglia on the Ligurian Sea, there are scores of Blue Flag beaches in Northern Italy, a designation awarded to beaches worldwide by the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE), on the basis of water quality, cleanliness, and safety, among other factors. The province of Liguria alone lays claim to 27 Blue Flags.
With more than 400 miles (nearly 600 km) of coastline on the Adriatic and Ligurian seas, Northern Italy is rich with beaches and beach resorts, and many have received the Blue Flag award.
On most Italian beaches with any kind of development around them, you can expect crowds in the summertime, especially during the first two weeks of August, when most Italians go on vacation. Many beaches are dominated by stabilimenti, private establishments that rent umbrellas and lounge chairs set out in row after row. Most stabilimenti have showers, changing rooms, bars, and simple restaurants, and some even offer pools, playgrounds, and babysitting services.
Since there is no shortage of great beaches in Northern Italy, these featured beaches proudly wave a Blue Flag, has a touristy town behind it, and possesses its own vibe, from family-friendly to fashionable to funky.
Behind you are elegant art nouveau villas, flowering Mediterranean shrubbery, and a charming town dating to the 11th century. Before you are the crashing waves of the Ligurian Sea, interrupted by frequent breakwaters that create calm swimming areas. A long stretch of greyish-golden sand provides room for everyone, even in the frenzied months of July and August.
At the northern end of the Cinque Terre (the Five Lands), an area known for its stunning coastal hikes and colorful seaside villages, Levanto is a popular starting or ending point of a Cinque Terre tour.
The area draws Italian families on their annual vacations to il mare, but still retains a subdued feel. When the winds are favorable (usually when a storm is rolling in), surfers test their skills on waves of up to 10 feet (3 meters).
The vibe: Low-key family fun, with a dose of surfer culture
Santa Margherita Ligure (Liguria)
Santa Margherita Ligure is tucked between Rapallo and Portofino on the Gulf of Tigullio, yet this resort town has a slightly less pretentious attitude. You'll still find plenty of upscale offerings like its Liberty-style villas with Trompe-l'œil facades in all shades of yellow, cream, and salmon, plus the four Blue Flag beaches.
On the beaches closest to town, expect rows of lounge chairs and umbrellas at private stabilimenti and in high season, not much elbow room. Still, for those seeking quintessential Italian Riviera glamour, this place has it.
For a quieter stay, head 5 miles south to Paraggi, a tiny, picturesque cove with a handful of hotels and restaurants.
The vibe: Old money, just maybe a little less money than a century ago.
Finale Ligure (Liguria)
Claiming one of the longest stretches of sand on the Riviera di Ponente (“the coast of the setting sun”), Finale Ligure and its surrounding shores offer something of an anomaly along the Ligurian Sea—an affordable, relatively uncrowded beach destination.
Its four Blue Flag beaches are flat and sandy, fronted by calm waters and backed by historic towns (especially at Finalborga), modern apartment buildings, and clifftop hotels.
Head here if you want photo-worthy scenery without the Riviera prices and attitude. Mountain biking, hiking, and rock-climbing are also popular diversions.
The vibe: Italians in the know, outdoorsy types and middle-class families
It may not be the South of France, but you can see France from at least one of the two Blue Flag beaches at Bordighera, a tiny enclave on the westernmost Italian Riviera, from where several daily trains connect to Cannes, Nice, and the Principality of Monaco.
Monet painted here; the Queen Mother frolicked in the waves here as a child, and Mussolini and Franco plotted together here. Bordighera retains its exclusive ambiance, and to vacation here is expensive.
Bordighera’s beaches are pebble and stone, so a lounge chair is obligatory (and pricey). Still, for a see-and-be-seen vibe, it oozes Riviera atmosphere.
The vibe: Classy, cultured, and idle rich
Italian beach vacations don’t get more Italian than Rimini. This resort town on the Adriatic Sea is favored by families for its 9 miles (15 km) of wide, sandy beaches and calm, shallow waters.
It’s also got every diversion under the sun, from theme parks (how about Italy in Miniature featuring more than 270 detailed scale replicas of the country's major cities and landmarks) to marine zoos of dubious merit to pop-up concerts and markets. At night, vast open-air discos thump into the wee, wee hours, and revelers sleep off their hangovers the next morning under their reserved beach umbrellas.
Budget hotels, B&Bs, and campgrounds abound, making this one of Italy’s cheapest destinations for a beach vacation. Just be prepared for crowds, young families, and busloads of senior citizens by day, and scantily clad young Italians by night.
While Rimini’s city beaches can’t claim a Blue Flag, the province of Rimini, from Cattolica north to Bellaria, has several.
The vibe: Think Atlantic City boardwalk, with less gambling.