I was born in Milan, raised in Liguria — more than raised in the true sense of the word, I have spent every summer since I was a little child, in a small village next to Cinque Terre. Coming back from holidays, when I returned to my hometown for the start of the school, I always carried in my heart the nostalgia for the sight of a cobalt blue sea and sound of the waves crashing on the beach both typical of Liguria. This feeling accompanied me all year round until my return the following summer season.
For those who may not know, Liguria is a region in the north-western Italian coast and is well known for its beautiful views and the elegant town of Portofino. It’s the home to Focaccia and the ‘Pesto Genovese’, which is made with basil leaves, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, parmesan cheese and pecorino — even though every grandmother in Genoa has her own recipe these are her principal ingredients.
But this region is more than just this.
Liguria has a poetic atmosphere that envelops the whole landscape: from the views of the small villages overlooking the sea, to the colors of the sunset that, depending on the month, are tinged with different shades from orange to pink.
Thanks to this romantic aspect that characterizes Liguria, the southernmost tip of the eastern Riviera is called the Golfo dei Poeti, Gulf of Poets. The name derives from the fact that over the centuries many poets, writers and artists have spent extended periods of residence in the villages of the gulf, attracted by the beauty of this “amphitheater of water“. Among the most beautiful destinations in the area there are Lerici and Tellaro, two fishing villages, which thanks to their picturesque scenery always leave anyone who gravitates from them open-mouthed. Because a lot of people are drawn to other more popularized places in the region, Tellaro more often than not goes unnoticed by hordes of tourists, meaning that the summers are quiet here and the streets as well as beaches are mostly crowded by locals.
On the other side of the Gulf of Poets, in front of Lerici, you will find Portovenere. Another medieval borough which has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The beauty of this little village lies in walking through the narrow streets of the centre, getting lost among the fishermen’s houses built in rows with typical Ligurian colors, until you reach the small church of S. Pietro on the extreme tip of the village. Here is the best spot for breathtaking pictures with the island of Palmaria rising from the sea just in the back. This island, which together with Tino and Tinetto forms the only Ligurian archipelago, is characterized by peacefulness and typical Mediterranean vegetation. Unlike other Italian islands, Palmaria has high cliffs overlooking the water, in which there are many caves: the Grotta Azzurra, which can be visited by boat, and the Grotta dei Colombi, which can only be reached by abseiling with ropes, are worthy of note. Even the beaches remain rather hidden by vegetation, such as the Cala del Pozzale (or Cove of the Seagulls) known also as one of the most beautiful free beaches in Liguria. Today Palmaria, unlike Tino and Tinetto, is the only one to be inhabited with just 34 permanent residents all year round. On the whole archipelago there are several old military settlements that have been abandoned over time. These forts were built more than three centuries ago to defend the gulf and the various villages from possible attacks from enemies. Among the different ruins, the most spectacular one is the Scola Tower, once a dungeon, built on a little rock in the middle of the sea east of Palmaria.
Going up along the coast, the first inhabited centre above Portovenere is Riomaggiore, which together with Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola form the Cinque Terre. These are very small villages, each one different from the other, but all with suggestive views in every corner. They villages are ideal for a romantic trip as well as the perfect setting for a Ligurian-style aperitivo with sunset. Generally in summer they are a bit more crowded than the other boroughs previously mentioned because their arrangement overlooking the sea and picturesque colors of the buildings are fascinating, and surreal. They are certainly a must-see of this area of the Riviera and Liguria. It is possible to reach them by car, boat or train. For the most sporty ones it is possible to move on foot through breathtaking panoramic trails — the Cinque Terre were once all connected by a single path called ‘Sentiero dell’amore’ (Path of Love), today due to a landslide it is closed but some parts are still open.
Just a few stops away from the Cinque Terre, heading north towards Genoa, are three little villages: Levanto, Bonassola and Framura, each perfect for anyone who wants to enjoy a week or a period in Liguria, without finding themselves overwhelmed by the summer chaos of the hordes of tourists. Thanks to their strategic position it is possible to reach any destination comfortably. The three are interconnected by a tunnel, which was the old Ligurian railway, converted into a pedestrian-cycle road. The most magical is Bonassola, which preserves all the typical characteristics of a small Ligurian village. Not to be missed here are the Madonnina della Punta, a small chapel on the rocks where it is possible to enjoy a packed aperitivo, and the Villa degli Ulivi, one of the best Airbnb’s in the area for the services on offer and above all \the 360° view on the whole Bonassola. What surprises many about this small center is the beach which, unlike many other places, is characterized by stones and not sand. The solution, for those who prefer sandy beaches is a bit north along the coast in Baia del Silenzio in Sestri Levante: a small beach with super fine sand counted among the ten best in Italy. Certainly the context here makes everything more magical: the typical colorful Ligurian houses with important historical buildings frame the bay flawlessly.
One of the most important must-visits in the whole of Liguria is San Fruttuoso. A little beach next to Portofino famous for the Christ of abysses, a statue that lies on the bottom of the sea just a hundred meters away from the shore. Everything around this place remains rather hidden from the tourists that assault Portofino. For a great dive from the rocks in the “Italian way”, Punta Chiappa is the perfect spot not too far from San Fruttuoso.
The last tip to end a magnificent journey through the picturesque Ligurian boroughs and villages is Bogliasco. It’s a little gem that preserves an authentic atmosphere of yesterday. Its beauty is simple. The panorama is quite varied, consisting of serene beaches leading to the steep cliffs of Pontetto, a natural area overlooking the sea. Here you can embrace the gulf with your eyes!
My Liguria is magical and surprising, perhaps a little shy and in some cases even imperfect, and yet, once discovered, it is a sweet secret worth keeping.
WHERE TO STAY
Liguria has plenty of fascinating B&Bs, residences and private houses available for rent. I am lucky enough to own a house near the Cinque Terre, and so my recommendation would be to rent a nice flat near the beach or halfway up the coast to live a unique experience as a real Ligurian. Moving away from the most popular destinations there are also several particular small hotels / lodges scattered around the villages.
Villa degli Ulivi in Bonassola is a charming bed and breakfast managed by a very friendly host who is always available. The flat is situated in an enchanting olive grove with a terrace overlooking the whole gulf and a swimming pool. From here you can easily reach any destination.
L’eco del Mare a Lerici is a close second.The design and location make this hotel incomparable to any other in the area. Another gem, a few steps from Lerici and the Gulf of Poets,
OMHOM is the two suites small charming inn, a place with the atmosphere of luxury and the simplicity of everyday life.
Going towards Genova, if you are looking for a property with direct sea access without too many frills, Hotel Cenobio dei Dogi is your answer. While, if you are all about villas with gardens opt for, Villa Rosmarino described with their own words, as a house not a hotel. A place with no numbers on the doors. Nor dressed up the doorman. With no no hall or restaurant. “Villa Rosmarino, a place you don’t stay at … you live.” and for real garden fanatics Villa della Pergola in the less known town of Alassio, is a MUST, refined and elegant in full English colonial style, it will bewitch you with its romantic atmosphere and one of a kind garden. Last but not least, off the beaten track away from the hustle and bustle, perched in the hills at the top end of the medieval village of Chiesanuova the six room boutique hotel Sosta di Ottone III, offers an incredible view and an authentic experience, allowing you to truly discover this essence of the Italian Riviera. While, if you want to live it up Belmond Hotel Splendido in Portofino, will give you just that; la dolce vita at its fullest.
WHERE TO EAT
The places that have my heart…
Torre Aurora, Monterosso — Seriously good fine dining with outdoor tables covered with rambling bougainvillea.
Al Tumelin, Levanto —One of my absolute favourites. We always order the catch of the day,
Agave , Framura — The octopus is not to be missed!
Nessun dorma , Manarola —Unfortunately it’s not possible to book a table so get in line early to grab one with a view. If you are looking for a romantic place this is definitely at the top of the list. You can sip a glass of local wine with a flawless view over one of the Cinque Terre
Trattoria dal billy , Riomaggiore — The very best of home cooked Ligurian food and the closest you can get to eating with the locals.
Ristorante da Laura, San Fruttuoso — Run by a super friendly Ligurian local, this is among the best restaurants in Liguria. Must order the homemade pasta with pesto, it’s non-negotiable.
(If it’s full run over to Da Giorgio, you’ll be equally satisfied.)
Dai Muagetti, Camogli — Built over the wild Punta Chiappa, it offers a breathtaking view. Here you can drink an aperitivo while the sun goes down into the sea… Suggestive, refined and tremendously, here you are pampered.
La Langosteria Paraggi — From Milan to the Ligurian coast, Enrico Buonocore’s Langosteria arrived in one of the most elegant restaurant / beach clubs of the Riviera. Order the crab alla catalana.
Balzi Rossi , Ventimiglia — Although, situated a step away from the French border on a cliff, Balzi Rossi maintains a strong italian culinary heritage
U Giancu, Rapallo — Founded by papá Giancu, mamma Rina and aunt Lice on the hills above Rapallo, U Giancu is a country restaurant, which atmosphere and food perfectly capture the essence of Liguria.
WHERE TO SWIM
The locals often disagree on the best spots for a great swim in crystal clear waters, which means there are a lot of options.
The places where you definitely have to dive are La Spiaggia delle Uova (near Levanto), so named because a landslide smoothed all the stones, leaving them all somehow egg shaped.
Rocce Rosse isn’t a proper beach but you can find different small coves with red stones between Bonassola and Framura. Here the water is very clear and blue.
Baia Blu in Lerici offers one of the best hidden beaches of Liguria. The water here is as clear as Sardinia and is the best place for a relaxing day. For a different experience Sori at Bagni Sillo, is a bathing establishment built entirely on a cliff… if you want to swim you have to jump from the rocks. The place is calm and a nice alternative. You can also visit just for an aperitivo with sea view.
Liguria is plenty of promenades for those who love to walk.
The best hikes are surely the ones connecting Monterosso to Vernazza and Vernazza to Corniglia. They are long walks but the view is worth the length.
Another great one close to the Cinque Terre is the two thousand step Monesteroli stairway which passes through woods and vineyards. It has been described as “The most suggestive path in the whole Liguria”
WHEN TO GO
Like most places by the sea in Italy the months of July and August are quite crowded. Instead, enjoy the region for a few days at the end of May or June and come back in September for a last swim before the winter – you will have the best places nearly all to yourself.