With more than 400 miles (nearly 600 km) of coastline on the Adriatic and Ligurian seas, Northern Italy has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to beaches. 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, a coveted designation awarded to beaches worldwide by FEE (Foundation for Environmental Education), on the basis of water quality, cleanliness and safety, among other factors. The province of Liguria alone lays claim to 27 Blue Flags.
On most Italian beaches with any kind of development around them, you can expect crowds in the summertime, especially the first two weeks of August, when virtually all of Italy goes 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 are no shortage of great beaches in Northern Italy, we’re here to help you decide into which sands to dig your toes. Each of our picks proudly waves a Blue Flag, has a touristy town behind it, and possesses its own vibe, from family-friendly to fashionable to honkytonk. Here are some of our favorites:
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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 means there’s 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. It 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 hang ten.
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Santa Margherita Ligure (Liguria)
Rapallo has its literary past as a stop on the Grand Tour. Portofino has its modern superyachts. And Santa Margherita Ligure? Tucked between its better-known sisters on the Gulf of Tigullio, this resort town cops a slightly less pretentious attitude, despite its Liberty-style villas with trompe-l’oeil facades in all shades of yellow, cream, and salmon, plus 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 in spades. 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.
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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 Instagram-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
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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 cache, and to vacation here is to not care if your Aperol spritz sets you back €10.
Bordighera’s beaches are pebble and stone, so a lounge chair is obligatory (and expensive). Still, for a see-and-be-seen vibe, it has Riviera atmosphere coming out of its pores.
The Vibe: It’s all Tom Ripley, Dickie Greenleaf, and the idle rich.Continue to 5 of 5 below.
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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 (Italy in Miniature, anyone?) 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—okay, afternoon—on their reserved umbrellas and lounge chairs.
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, 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 vice.