Shaped like a half moon in the northwest of Italy, Liguria’s coastline stretches for more than 186 miles. Along that distance you can find imposing cliffs, minuscule bays and insanely elegant towns.
It’s spunky and rich, greedy but attractive. It’s also the closest sea that anyone in northern Italy can get to, and on the Mediterranean sea, it’s a favorite.
Though I’m not a regular visitor to Liguria, I have hiked in Cinque Terre as well as Portofino. I’ve taken the ferry up between Santa Margherita Ligure to San Fruttuoso, strolled Portovenere in the twilight and visited Camogli in the Golfo Paradiso. I’ve seen the region’s sophisticated coastline, its luxury yachts. By far the most beautiful stretch, I thought that was what Liguria was all about.
Then, I visited the Riviera di Ponente. The Riviera of the Setting Sun, in English, it’s the stretch of coast from Genoa to the French border and it’s the Cinque Terre’s hippie twin sister.
Why Visit Alassio, Liguria
Alassio as a tourist retreat was essentially created by the British. Each year thousands of Brits would descend on the tiny town to enjoy the mild winter temperatures. Swelling the town’s population, the Brits molded Alassio’s tourism industry and even modified the town itself: they built an Anglican Church, a Tennis Club and established an English-Language Library. The Church is now a cultural center, the Tennis Club is still going strong though likely a far cry from its 1930s popularity and the library is now the second-largest English-language library in all of Italy, though hardly anyone knows about it.
Though the town’s popularity with international tourists has since diminished, there is still one key draw of the town:
It has one of the only sandy beaches in all of Liguria
The Ponente coast in Liguria is sandwiched between two glamorous coastlines: France and that of Cinque Terre and while many would choose the fame of those coastlines, I’d choose sand over pebbles any day!
Alassio is one of the best beach towns in northern Italy. The beach is a wide, long swathe of gently slopping sand that stretches a bit more than two miles to the small town of Laigueglia next door. Shallow for yards, it’s the perfect swimming spot for small children. Most of the beach is controlled by various lidi, so you’ll have to pay for a chair and umbrella, but the comfort more than makes up for any costs. Directly behind the beach you have dozens of restaurants, cafés and lunch spots to choose from — making it easy to get a quick coffee, juice or anything else you might be craving while sunbathing.
What to Do and See in Alassio:
Alassio is a beach town through and through and that’s the real thing to do here, but it’s not the only thing to do.
Stroll along the “Gut”
Besides lounging all day on the beach, which is by far the number one activity in Alassio, take a stroll along the Budello, the roads Via XX Settembre and Via Vittorio Veneto running through the center of town and locally called the “Gut”. Check out the restaurants, cafés, clothing shops and quirky souvenir joints on your evening passeggiata.
Spot the celebrities on the Alassio Wall
The Alassio Wall is a low wall covered with hundreds of ceramic tiles with celebrities’ signatures. Scan the wall and you’ll find Ernest Hemingway, Jean Cocteau, Louis Armstrong, Woody Allen and scores of Italian celebrities’ signatures. Found in via Dante Alighieri in front of the historic Caffè Roma, apparently Hemingway and the café’s owner were the ones who started the wall in 1953.
Get some focaccia
Though not strictly related to Alassio, when in Liguria, it’s time to get focaccia. Fluffy, salty, oily bread, it’s the perfect picnic lunch on the beach. In much of Italy businesses close for lunch, usually from about 1 to 3. In Alassio, however, it seems that most businesses close from noon to 4 pm so plan your shopping accordingly. We made a pit stop on our way to the beach for several slices of focaccia, with cheese or tomato sauce or olives, to enjoy at lunchtime and beat the strange hours.
And a bacio d’Alassio
Bacio in Italian means kiss, but in most sweets shops this usually is two butter cookies “kissed” together by a chocolate filling. The Bacio d’Alassio is a high-calorie varient on this classic. Made with a hazelnut and chocolate dough then “kissed” together with chocolate ganache, the outer cookies are much softer and much richer than the classic butter cookies, creating a cookie as sweet as its name. (See what I did there?)
For those who itch to get moving after days lounging in the sun, the mountains surrounding Alassio offer some of the best hiking and biking in the area. Here you’ll find the infamous Via Julia Augusta, the 13th-century trail built under Emperor Augustus that still exists today. Try the stretch between Alassio and Albenga, an easy walk of about an hour with little elevation change. Starting from the 11th-century Santa Croce church in Alassio, this hike passes Sant’Anna ai Monti said to be Alassio’s oldest church, a Roman necropolis and ampitheater before reaching Albenga, the town of medieval towers.
If you do make it onto the trails surrounding Alassio, you’ll likely be the only foreign tourist around for miles.
Visit Gallinara Island
Less than a mile from the coast you’ll find a small island protruding out of the water like the shell of a turtle warming up in the sun. In fact, Gallinara Island is affectionately known as “Turtle Island” by the locals for its resemblance. Boats depart from Alassio several times a day during the summer to circumnavigate the island, because although you can swim or scuba dive from the boat, you’re not actually allowed to go on the island itself. Gallinara is now protected as a “Riserva Naturale Regionale Isola Gallinara” because it serves as a shelter for the herring gull, with one of the largest colonies of this bird in the Mediterranean, and for rare plant species and stretches of intact shallow sea floor. Still, from the boat you can see the San Martino da Tours chapel, the Saint who lived there as a hermit, a Benedictine Monastery and a Genoese watchtower originally built to sight pirate ships off the coast.
Scuba divers will want to see the Cristo Redentore degli Abissi, the sunken statue of Jesus.
Laigueglia is just 2.8 miles from Alassio. You can visit by train, car or a 30 minute walk from Alassio with a gentle uphill climb (so I’m told). A tiny beach resort village, Laigueglia has a gorgeous beach just like Alassio with brightly colored fishermen houses along the coast, giving it a slightly more characteristic, stuck-in-time feel. But head inland to tour the incredibly preserved medieval village called the “Colla Micheri”. With ancient stone houses, narrow streets and only about 15 people who live there full-time, the tiny village has an atmosphere all its own. Go for a stroll!