Elba Island, or Isola d'Elba, is the largest island of the Tuscan Archipelago, a group of seven islands, including Giglio, in the Tyrrhenian Sea near the coast of Tuscany. This island (Italy's third-largest after Sardinia and Sicily) is famous as the place where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled in 1814. Apparently, Napoleon did not enjoy his time spent on Elba, but today, the island is a go-to destination for Italian and European travelers.
Only 40 minutes from the mainland by ferry, Elba is an easy day trip destination, but its scores of beaches and coves, crystal clear waters full of fish, charming seaside towns, and rugged, mountainous interior will also fill an itinerary for a week or longer. Since it's a destination for beach vacations, many hotels and restaurants close for the winter. Elba is best visited from April to October, with July and August being the most crowded months on the island.
Location & Geography
Elba is 10 miles (about 16 kilometers) from the Tuscany coast at Piombino, the departure point of ferries to the island. Although it's only about 12 miles wide, crossing from one side to the other is a 90-minute drive due to its mountainous terrain and slow-moving, curving roads. About 30,000 people live full-time on Elba, but this number swells greatly in the summer months.
There are at least 80 named beaches on Elba, with dozens more small coves. Beaches range from sandy to pebbly, and some have large rock formations at the water level. The interior of the island ranges is mountainous, with its highest peak being Mount Capanne at 3,340 feet in elevation. Since its earliest inhabitance, the island was valued as a source of minerals, including iron ore, rich deposits of which are still found. Its woodsy vegetation is made up of holly and cork oak trees, pine trees, thick underbrush, and numerous flowering plants. Wild boar and moufflon (a wild sheep) are the two largest wild animals on the island.
Where to Go on Elba
Elba has dozens of interesting, beautiful small towns to visit, many of which are built around a picturesque beach. Here are some of the major cities on the island:
- Portoferraio: The capital of Elba, its largest city, and Napoleon's home base during his exile, Portoferraio is where most ferries from Piombino arrive. The city has a huge waterfront fortress, Roman ruins, and several sights related to Napoleon's stay. While the industrial area around the port is not very appealing, the "centro storico" (historic center) is colorful and nice to walk around.
- Capoliveri: On the southeastern part of the island, inland Capoliveri consists of a pretty, medieval town with several good restaurants, lots of vacation rental houses, and apartments, and a relaxed vibe. Some of the best beaches in Elba are a few miles downhill, including Laconella, Felciaio, and Innamorata beaches.
- Marciana and Marciana Marina: West of Portoferraio, these sister communities are anything but twins: Marciana is high in the hills with a romantic, pedestrian-only center. Marciana Marina is a chic beach town, with a lively promenade lined with shops, bars, and restaurants.
- Rio Marina: This interesting town began life as an iron mining center, and its streets, houses, and even its beaches still bear a reddish hue. Today it's a beach resort, but the Parco Minerario (Mineral Park) attraction recalls its past history. The beaches nearby are especially good for kids.
- Porto Azzurro: On Elba's east coast and built around a protected cove, Porto Azurro is one of the island's top beach resorts, with Barbarossa, Terranera, and Reale beaches among the most popular. The town has an established touristic infrastructure, with plenty of hotels, restaurants, and interesting things to see off the beach.
- Marina di Campo: With its long stretch of sandy beach, and an abundance of seaside restaurants and hotels, Marina di Campo makes a good base for a beach vacation as well as for exploring other parts of the island, especially to the west.
What to Do on Elba
From beaches to museums to active pursuits, there's plenty to do on Elba.
- Beaches: Elba's top beaches are too numerous to list, but Biodola, Sansone, Sant’Andrea, Fetovaia, Cavolia, and Felciaio are favorites. Most beaches have free areas where you can carve out a little space for a towel, or you can pay to rent a lounge chair and umbrella. The water is clear and warm enough for swimming from June to mid-October.
- Museums: Napoleon's home in Portoferraio is viewable at the Villa dei Mulini and the National Museum of Napoleonic Residences, while the Linguella Archaeological Museum is built around an ancient Roman settlement on the waterfront. A visit to the Elba Museum of Minerals and Mineral Art in Rio Marina includes a tram tour of the Parco Minerario (the mineral park). At Capoliveri, the Maritime Museum looks at the history of sailing and shipwrecks around Elba.
- Other attractions: A unique, bird-cage like cable car takes riders to the top of Mount Capanne, from where they can hike or ride back down. Near Rio nell'Elba, the Volterraio Fortress is the oldest on the island, while the Medici Fortress in Portoferraio is a maze of bastions and has great views of the coast and town.
- Active sports: Snorkeling, diving, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding are all popular aquatic pastimes in the blue waters surrounding Elba. Inland, hiking and mountain biking trails offer challenges for adventure-seekers. There are also two nine-hole golf courses on the island.
Where to Stay on Elba
For a complete tour of Elba, it makes sense to stay in two or three different locations on the island and take time to explore in the near vicinity. Recommended hotels include:
- Hotel Ilio is a friendly boutique property close to the splendid beach at Sant'Andrea, and feels worlds away from the rest of the island.
- Hotel Biodola is a highly rated four-star property right on popular Biodola beach.
- Al28 B&B is right in Portoferraio center, but very close to a beautiful beach.
As for dining options, the island has a bevy of quality restaurants and plenty of run-of-the-mill ones. Most restaurants along the coast focus on seafood, while inland restaurants place emphasis on land-based fare. Ask for recommendations from locals, who will know where to eat well. In Portoferraio, Pizzeria Il Castagnacciao serves tasty rectangular pizzas. Ristorante Salegrosso in Marciana Marina offers high-end, high-quality seafood dining on the seafront promenade. In Marina di Campo, Paglicce Beach serves seafood and casual fare right on the beach.
Getting to Elba
Unless you can afford to travel via chartered helicopter or private boat, the only way to get to Elba is by ferry. Torremar and Moby both offer numerous daily sailings to Portoferraio, Rio Marina and Cavo, with Portoferraio being the busiest port. Sailings from Piombino take about 40 minutes. You can bring a car aboard most ferries. Unless you plan to stay in one area and just hit the beach, a car is recommended on Elba—just be prepared for twisty roads with some hair-raising drops and often distracting views.