La Spezia is a busy port city on the Mediterranean Sea, in the Liguria province of northern Italy. After Genoa, it is the second-largest city in the province. La Spezia is home to a major Italian naval base and is considered a gateway to the Cinque Terre, the famous chain of five picturesque seaside villages. Many travelers use La Spezia as a base for day trips to the Cinque Terre and other nearby points of interest. The city was heavily bombed during World War II, and many of its historic buildings were destroyed. But La Spezia still has several worthwhile attractions to explore, and you could easily spend a day or two there before or after your trip through the Cinque Terre.
Here are eight things to see and do in La Spezia, the gateway to the Cinque Terre.
While many visitors depart from La Spezia for a multi-day trip spent hiking between the five villages of the Cinque Terre, not everyone has the desire or physical stamina for the journey. Several companies offer regularly scheduled and charters tours of the Cinque Terre towns, departing from La Spezia marina. It's an incredibly scenic way to see this famed stretch of coastline, particularly if you don't want to do a lot of walking and are content to just hit the highlights.
Wander the Centro Storico
Much of La Spezia centro storico, or historic center, was destroyed during the war. But there are some nice pockets of preserved buildings, as well as some interesting post-war architecture. Unlike many Italian centros with a real touristy feel, La Spezia is a lived-in, working city where you can get a feel for daily life in an Italian port town.
Explore the Castello di San Giorgio
Set on a hill overlooking La Spezia, Castello di San Giorgio is a castle-fortress founded in the 1200s, though most of the present-day structure is from the 1600s. There is an archaeological museum in the castle, with a good collection of Roman artifacts. You can walk up a series of stairs to reach the castle, or take an elevator.
Military and naval history buffs, and kids who like big guns and cannons will enjoy this small museum of the Italian Navy. There's also a nice collection of model ships. The museum is located near the harbor, at the entrance to the Navy Arsenal.
Visit the Santa Maria Assunta Church
This abbey church dates to at least the early 1400s, though it was almost completely destroyed during WWII bombings. It was rebuilt after the war and reconsecrated in 1954. Fortunately, many of its priceless artworks were spared during the war years, including terra cotta relief sculptures from Andrea della Robbia.
This museum of art presents works from antiquity through the 20th century that were once part of the private collection of La Spezia resident Amedeo Lia. The collection includes ancient Roman sculptures, religious works, and paintings from Titian, Tintoretto and the Italian Futurists. Art lovers should definitely make a stop here.
Tour the Gulf of the Poets
The body of water on which La Spezia sits is called the Gulf of the Poets, so-named because it was a place of inspiration for several English Romantic poets. Percy Bysshe Shelley actually drowned in waters nearby. Though the gulf is much more built up than it was during Shelley's era, it is still quite stunning. Consider hiring a boat for a self-guided or chartered tour of the gulf.
Find Hidden Islands and Beaches
The picturesque islands of Tino, Tinetto, and Palmaria in the Gulf of the Poets are well-worth visiting by boat. But if you wish to stay on drier land, the pebbly beaches at Lerici and Portovenere are a short drive from La Spezia.
Celebrate Italian Father's Day March 19
March 19 is San Giuseppe Day, the saint's day honoring Joseph (Giuseppe), husband of Mary. It's celebrated as Fathers Day in Italy, but it holds special significance in La Spezia, as San Giuseppe is the patron saint of the city. There's a huge market from March 17-19, and the 19th is the one day of the year that the naval base is open to the public.