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The Italian Riviera towns are quite simply some of the most stunning locations on Earth. Even in a country renowned for its beauty, these villages and towns on the Italian Riviera have added aesthetic appeal. Exploring the Riviera di Ponente and Riviera di Levante towns can uncover hidden delights, while the best known locations – the Cinque Terre towns – fully deserve to be as popular as they undoubtedly are.
Where is the Italian Riviera?
Stretching from the French border to Tuscany, the Italian Riviera stretches either side of Genoa along the coast of the region of Liguria. The Riviera di Ponente is found to the west of Genoa, while to the east is the Riviera di Levante. In this guide we cover the picturesque Cinque Terre villages as well as the larger Italian Riviera cities and towns.
Cinque Terre towns
The Cinque Terre National Park, stretching over a site of just a little under 4,00 hectares, is regarded as an area of landscape of great scenic and cultural value bu UNESCO. Home to around 4,000 people, it is famous throughout the world for its five colorful, cliff-side villages – Riomaggiore, Corniglia, Manarola, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare.
Riomaggiore is the most southerly of the Cinque Terre villages, and the closest to Tuscany and furthest from Genoa. The charming village is typical of the Cinque Terre and features a medieval castle, slender cobbled streets, 14th century churches and tower houses. It is also surrounded by vineyards dating back to the 1100s. The views across the Ligurian coastline from the rocky stairs at the seafront are well worth the climb.
Manarola is also encircled by the grapevines that sprawl across the cliffs. The area is famous for white wines in particular, and sampling these can be a highlight for many. San Lorenzo church has an enchanting rose window that’s not to be missed, while the sunset views from the village are spectacular. Visitors can also follow the carrugi – hilly, narrow lanes leading down to the sea.
If you want to discover a lesser seen side of the Cinque Terre, then Corniglia could be for you. It’s the oldest and smallest of the five villages, and can only be reached via 370 steps leading from the rail station. With pretty, peaceful beaches and Alberto’s fabulous gelateria, this is the quietest and secluded of the Cinque Terre settlements.
With a couple of small bathing beaches and a picturesque piazza, Vernazza is often referred to as the Cinque Terre’s jewel. The church of Santa Margherita di Antiochia looms over the square, and the village has a natural harbour. Packed with cobbled, cafe-lined lanes, this coastal spot is the perfect place to people watch while admiring the scenery. For even better views, climb the castle tower if you can.
Monterosso al Mare
As the largest of the five Cinque Terre towns, Monterosso al Mare is a great place to stay thanks to a broad range of accommodation. With relaxing sandy beaches and a laid-back feel, this is one of the least crowded resorts. Exploring the old town, with its appealing boutiques and cafes, is a most enjoyable way to spend the day. It’s also worth wandering along the coastline to Vernazza – and don’t miss tasting the local anchovies when in town.
Towns South of Genoa – Riviera di Levante
The Riviera di Levante lies close to Genoa, north of the Cinque Terre. This region is home to the most glitzy and glamorous of the cities on the Italian Riviera – Portofino – as well as several sleepier fishing villages.
Portofino is something of a playground for the super rich. Admire the gleaming yachts and slick designer stores, and don your finest scarf for a stroll around this incredibly pretty town. This is the spot for romance, luxury and indulgence – as well as a trip to Castello Brown, a historic museum overlooking the harbour. Despite its less than glamorous name, time spent at this castle can be a highlight of your visit. As can discovering the works of art at the sculpture park (Museo del Parco).
Santa Margherita Ligure
While glimmering yachts are also spotted at Santa Margherita, this is a more practical town – a working fishing port with a relaxed pace of life. Among Italians in particular, the town is prized for its seafood restaurants lining the colorful harbour, the breathtaking basilica and a monthly antiques fair.
La Spezia is central to tourism in the region, due to its train station and cruise terminal. The town’s attractions include an absorbing Maritime Museum, Mirabello harbour and a castle dating from the 1200s. It also makes a great base for exploring Liguria.
Characterised by brightly painted buildings, Camogli is also a working fishing port. The architecture contrasts most becomingly with the black pebble beach, which is the ideal spot for a swim as well as sampling freshly-baked focaccia. Lots of walking trails can be accessed locally, and wandering along the seafront is also a popular pastime. Santa Maria Assunta’s basilica enjoys a dramatic coastal location, and seeing the sunset over Camogli can be a special experience.
Deservedly popular with Italians, Sestri Levante straddles a picturesque bay and the wide, sandy beaches on the peninsula’s opposite side. As the old town is mainly devoid of vehicles, you can relax at a beach club while the children play or safely enjoy a leisurely stroll between shops, cafes and gelateria. The Baia del Silenzio waterfront is lined with photogenic buildings in warm tones of cream, pink, peach and terracotta.
Portovenere is another of Liguria’s pretty fishing villages and is characterised by pastel painted houses and steep, cobbled lanes. The castle gives visitors sweeping views over the Bay of Poets. In fact Byron himself used to swim here, and a local cave is named for the illustrious poet. Something of an undiscovered gem, Portovenere is UNESCO listed and ferries can take you across the water to the nearby islands of Tino, Palmaria and Tinetto.
Towns North of Genoa – Riviera di Ponente
Even more Italian Riviera beaches can be found north of Genoa on the Riviera di Ponente, including upmarket San Remo, the art deco waterfront of Savona, flower- filled Imperia, a church with frescoes in Noli and ancient Ventimiglia.
This Italian riviera city is home to one of the only casinos in Italy. An abundance of grand gardens adds colour to the resort, while the twisting medieval lanes of La Pigna are intriguing. A visit to San Remo reveals why this captivating spot has been a favourite among European royals for centuries. The balmy coastal climate also adds to San Remo’s appeal.
Famous for the production of flowers and somes of the world’s finest olive oil, Imperia’s Porto Maurizio is also lined with yachts. The Paraiso district’s winding streets are also car-free and characterised by warm-toned architecture, as they lead the way to the majestic cathedral. Appealing villas can be seen around town, including turreted Villa Grock.
With a charming art deco style seafront, a 16th century fortress, a stunning example of rococo architecture and a medieval center, Savona was the place Christopher Columbus called home for several years. This sizable settlement has a port and a pleasant beach.
Castello di Monte Ursino’s remains enjoy a prime position overlooking the dramatic rocky coastline at Noli. Regarded as one of Italy’s finest fishing villages, Noli also has a medieval old town and the nearby San Paragorio church. This was built during the 11th century in the Romanesque tradition, and boasts decorative frescoes and an attractive bell tower.
Ventimiglia lies close to France in northern Liguria, and is often visited by guests staying on the French Riviera, who venture over the border for a taste of Italy. Pastel painted homes, slender cobbled streets and a medieval old town are among its charms. With a popular weekly market held on Fridays, Ventimiglia also offers pleasant beaches, a botanical garden, a smorgasbord of gastronomic delights and easy access to nature trails.
Tips for exploring the towns of the Italian Riviera
If you’re considering a trip to the Ligurian Coast, here are some tips so you can make the most of your visit.
1 – Try to allow a week or more for your visit – you could keep returning every year and still uncover new delights. Pick a place to use as a base and you can go with the flow depending on the weather conditions and your interests and preferences.
2 – The towns and villages of the Italian Riviera are best explored by train or boat, as finding a parking space can be tricky – especially in Portofino and the Cinque Terre. Ligurian trains are efficient and stop at all the main destinations, and you can also take boat trips from places like Santa Margherita, Sestri Levante and La Spezia. It’s possible to ferry hop between the five Cinque Terre villages, and a sunset cruise is a must for romantics.
3 – For active types, hiking the trails dotted among the coastline and among the hills can be a highlight. Do bring the right footwear if you want to factor this into your plans, as large fines have been introduced to combat emergency call-outs to those wearing inappropriate heels or flip flops.
4 – Beach Clubs or Lidos are also popular in Liguria. Suitable for all kinds of beach lovers, they offer safe access to the best stretches of coastline and handy facilities like fresh towels, change rooms and snack bars.
5 – When in Liguria, make sure to sample local dishes like minestrone soup, pesto with trofie pasta, ravioli and focaccia bread. It’s also worth checking for local festivals before your visit. Cultural festivals or food festivals known as sagre are a great way to discover the unique local traditions of the coastline. Do be aware that local transport will be busier and car parking more difficult during these times.
Do you have a favorite of the Italian Riviera towns?
Whether you opt to explore the Cinque Terre towns, to spend time in the towns of the Riviera di Ponente or discover the pretty Riviera di Levante towns, we hope our guide helps you make the most of this beautiful part of Italy.