The French Riviera may grab glamorous headlines, but it’s the Italian Riviera that truly captures hearts. With its eclectic mix of culture, history, art, and natural beauty, this stretch of coastline delivers a rich cultural experience nurtured by the warmth of the Italian people, delivered alongside the undeniable elegance of Italian style.
Regions of the Italian Riviera
The Italian part of this laid back coastal Mediterranean playground is so big it has two distinctions, the Riviera di Ponente and the Riviera di Levante. Both of these Ligurian regions are dotted with charming villages, lovely beaches, and a lavish dose of culture. Genoa sits prettily in a vantage point that practically divides the two regions. Looking west, The Riviera de Ponente runs to the French border, a quiet stretch of coastal hamlets with no intention of competing with their French neighbors. Looking to the east and south, the Riviera di Levante stretches toward the Island of Elba, dishing up an itinerary with a lovely mix of old, new, urban, and rural that holds appeal for a broad range of tastes.
Genoa, the Hub of the Region
Established as an early historic financial hub and powerful trade center, Genoa is an industrial city built in fits and starts. This birthplace of Christopher Columbus boasts an interesting labyrinth of neighborhoods lodged into a network of steeply climbing, cobbled streets. Delightful discoveries in palaces, churches, galleries, and shops provide unique opportunities to explore the real Italy with an emphasis on the sea.
A stroll down Via Garibaldi imparts the feeling of the city’s lavish wealth during the 15th century, with fabulous palazzos like Rosso, Bianco, Tursi, and Spinola lining Strada Nuova, or “New Street,” as it was known in 1550. The incomparable grandeur of the palaces in the form of art, architecture, textiles, furnishings, and sculpture establishes a noble ambiance, surrounded by cafes, shops, and galleries.
The dining scene along the coast is wonderful, and Genoa is pesto central, offering a number of posh options to enjoy classic urban nightlife. Several multitasking operations cover the restaurant, bar, and club bases with style. Poldo’s Bar is a busy dinner and drinks destination right in the center of the city. Estoril Beach Club offers their brand of music, dining, and dancing right along the sea front. Prefer a divine seafood dinner with beautiful presentation and an exceptional wine list? Head to Le Perlage Ristorante on the south end of the waterfront in the city center.
Accommodations in Genoa are polished to perfection at The Melia Genova, Hotel Bristol Palace, and the Grand Hotel Savoia, all close to the Port. Also worth the walk are the antique shops at Via Balbi, the 19th century shops at Galleria Mazzini, and the contemporary shops at Via XX Settembre.
Celebrated in Guy de Maupassant’s stories as the “place where the fishing boats sleep,” Portofino’s beautiful waterfront sparkles beneath lush, green hillsides. An idyllic resort destination just south of Genoa, everything about Portofino suggests leisure and beauty.
Cruising up to the marina, the enclave smiles upon all who arrive, welcoming them to smart cafes and restaurants for a casual, comfortable repast. Others arrive in pursuit of an exquisite shopping experience, commanding international brands along with eclectic boutiques. Along the Piazza Martiri dell’Olivetta, silk, suede, python, and cashmere are on display. For collections nonpareil, a visit to the legendary Spinnaker satisfies all fashion pursuits, while a trip to Calzoleria Mingo Portofino offers artisan sandals and shoes.
Food in Portofino is local and fresh, with an emphasis on basil. For a view as sumptuous as the fine seafood, Da Puny on the harbor is a must, with classic lasagne in pesto corto, grilled pepper and anchovy nosh, and the amusing performance by the owner, Puny himself. At Taverna del Marinaio, also on the harbor, elegance is on the menu, along with wonderful outdoor dining on excellent seafood, beneath a pretty portico.
The town is a frequent stop for yachtsmen and their tribes looking for a brisk walk to the promontory, an excursion to the Benedictine abbey at San Fruttuoso, or a day at nearby Paraggi Beach, one of Europe’s best.
Cinque Terre Adventurous Trek
Upon arrival from the sea, Cinque Terre’s charming pastel houses appear to have been dropped from the sky, tumbling toward the crystal clear waters in waves, and ending in precarious positions along its cliffs. Attracting more adventurous souls, Cinque Terre’s five fishing villages challenge visitors to a healthy hike. The trails can be strenuous, but the railway and ferry offer options. The trail leads along the waterfront in most cases, connecting the cities through the adventure. Coves and beaches along the trail encourage sun bathing and picnicking, while gazing at the azure waters.
Basil and pine nuts, flavored with local Vessalico garlic and sea salt, topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese combine to make some of Italy’s best pesto, served in Cinque Terre institution Ristorante Miky in Monterosso. Also of note, Belforte positioned on the edge of Vernazza’s harbor, offers scrumptious baked sea bream, Santa Margherita pink shrimp, and outstanding mussels. For fabulous antipasti in Riomaggoire, order a sip and a nibble at A Pié de Mà Wine Bar.
Pisa’s Young, Vibrant Scene
Without a doubt, Pisa is most famous for its tilted towering architecture, but it is also the location of one of Italy’s finest universities, giving the city a truly vibrant cafe culture and abundant bar options. In addition to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, beautiful examples of Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance buildings, churches, and piazzas prove just as interesting.
The crowds visiting the tower make the square quite busy, so a quiet dinner enjoying high quality gourmet cuisine offers a respite at Osteria Bernardo. The clubs and pubs along Via Lugarno are open until the early hours of the morning, most serving a little breakfast nibble to keep the dancing going. The music at Dr. Jazz Music Cafe, and the opera at Teatro Verdi take a step up from the student inspired spots.
Additional worthwhile excursions include the Duomo Cathedral, the monument cemetery at Camposanto, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, the Piazza Dei Cavalieri, and the Clock Palace in Knight’s Square.
Elba Island: An Excellent Exile
The perfect location to endure an exile, Napoleon Bonaparte made his mark on this stunning island while serving his sentence. Bonaparte renovated a gorgeous di Medici villa for Maria Luisa that was later occupied by his sister, offering a very interesting peek into the past for visitors. Today, Napoleon is celebrated across the island through souvenirs, but there are additional reasons to make the trip to Elba.
Lovely walking trails up the Madonna del Monte lead to a monastery where concerts delight trekkers with natural acoustics in a stunning setting. The white pebble beach at Sansone, along with lots of coves and bays, offers outdoor water sports and hikes away from the busier parts of the island.
A rib of mountains, rich in minerals, stretches the length of the island. The mines there once boasted ores, crystals, and gems such as amethyst and beryl supporting a thriving industry. Tourism replaced it, inspiring delightful accommodations in a number of boutique hotels. Albergo L’Ape Elbana, the “Elban Bee,” once housed Napoleon’s guests but now gives comfortable rest to visitors. Hotel Ilio is a boutique hotel convenient for mountain biking, hiking, or sunbathing guests. Hotel Hermitage on Biodola Bay is resort style lodging with beaches, pools, wellness center and its own restaurants and bars, along with a nine-hole golf course, red sand tennis courts, and posh rooms.
Osteria del Noce is a friendly restaurant on the edge of the harbor in Portoferraio serving a local dish worth trying in the Pesce alla Genovese. La Ferrigna in the Piazza della Repubblica in Portoferraio mixes gingham table linens and a proud chef handing out smiles with every largely-portioned dish. Il Vecchio Borgo sits squarely in town, famous for mussels and fish dishes. To extend the evening, head out to L’Angolo nearby for a cocktail in this cozy, seaside bar, or to Anacoonda for amped up music enjoyed by the stylish crowd.