I come from a landlocked state. The closest beach is at least eight hours away and honestly, I probably haven’t even been there. I love the water, but have no expertise when it comes to beach vacations.
So, I had a lot to learn when I came to Italy.
Here, the summer traditionally means a trip to the mountains or a trip to the sea. A lot of people do both.
So though I once argued that you don’t come to Italy for the beach (not when you have so many incredible historic art cities to visit!) – you certainly could.
Italy has nearly 5,000 miles of coastline, meaning you have a ton of options to choose from. From pebbly beach to Maldivian sand beaches, from stairs trailing to the sea from steep cliffs, from marine pine forests to coves to gently sloping beaches – you can take your pick!
Here’s what to expect at an Italian beach:
Public vs Private Beaches
Italian beaches come in two forms: public and private.
Most of the beaches up and down the coast are private.
This can be a big surprise for visitors, especially those from countries where the beaches are free by law.
But look closely at Italy’s situation and it makes more sense. Italy is developed, very developed… perhaps too developed. It’s not rare to find a town of 20 permanent families with thousands of houses, built during the post-war building booms or beyond. Structures have been built so teetering on the edge of the cliff that in Liguria a landslide brought them down, literally.
All this construction and development doesn’t stop at the coast. True and proper free public beaches are few and far between.
In Italy, expect to pay.
Italian private beach areas are divided into different stabilimenti, lidi or bagni that can be used for a daily fee. Each is separated only by the color of its umbrella and the price is usually comparable as well. Here you’ll get a lounge chair, beach umbrella and a clean beach. You’ll usually have a shared dressing room also where you can leave your things, an outdoor shower and maybe even a bottle of water. Most are relatively near to restaurants or cafes or else have their own concession stand or café. A private beach often has a lifeguard and an opening and closing time.
The downside is that to make maximum profits, beach chairs are fit together like Tetris pieces, leaving little room between you and the next ombrellone over. Not only that, but locals with seasonal passes will have the prime positions.
Public beaches are free and open to all
Usually there are signs designating a spiaggia libera, but you can instantly spot them by the absence of uniform beach chairs.
Public beaches are free, but beware, they’re also not maintained and those closest to cities can be extremely crowded, loud and dirty. Though public beaches aren’t usually as clean or quiet as private beaches, some, like those found in nature reserves, can still be wonderful and as pristine as you’d like.
In general, there are far more public beaches in the south of Italy than in the north, but most areas with private beaches still maintain a small section for a public beach where people can lay down a towel or bring their own chair. Here you’re on your own – no toilets, coffeeshops, showers or changing rooms. And don’t scoff at the chair – not all Italian beaches are sandy!
Sandy vs Pebble Beaches
Italian beaches have little in common with the never-ending sandy beaches of America’s Atlantic Coast. Italian beaches tend to be much smaller, divided by the natural coastline or manmade borders. In Liguria, for example, the 2-mile beach of Alassio is one of the biggest in the region.
On the Mediterranean Coast you can expect pebbly beaches, cliffs and wild coves like the small but beautiful pebble sand beach in San Fruttuoso. The Italian Riviera in Liguria is certainly glamorous, but also largely devoid of sandy beaches, as is the much beloved Amalfi Coast, which is built on a cliff face. Expect dozens of stairs to even reach the beach, and it will most likely be small and pebbly. Beaches become wider and sandy down in Tuscany and Lazio, but following the coast into Campania (Amalfi Coast region) you’ll mostly find pebble beaches again.
If you’re searching for sand, head to the Adriatic Coast from Emilia Romagna all the way down to Puglia. Though there are still some pebble beaches, beautiful sand beaches abound. Or, choose an island to make your beach vacation a true “tropical” getaway. Sicily and Sardinia are full of spectacular sandy beaches.
Don’t knock pebble beaches before you try them, though, that’s all many Italians know and they have no problem navigating a pebble beach. You’ll need a chair and a pair of rubber clogs or flip flops to wear all the way up to the water. Another plus of a rocky beach? The water will be crystal clear and you don’t have to worry about cleaning sand out of everything you own!
How to Choose a Beach
If you’re stopping in for just a day, go where you know. Go where they say it’s beautiful. Go to the beach nearest to your accommodation. If you’re going expressly for the beach, look to the Blue Flag eco-label. The Blue Flag award is an international eco-label certification awarded to beaches and marinas that follow a series of strict environmental, safety and accessibility criteria including stringent standards of water quality and cleanliness. Blue Flag beaches are, in a word, beautiful.
The Blue Flag program is international and the list is constantly changing as they reevaluate. To find all of Italy’s Blue Flag Beaches use the map on their official page and zoom in to Italy.
What to Wear
Italians are nothing if not fashionable and this generally extends to the beach as well. Though beachwear is certainly more informal than city clothes, you still won’t typically find shorty shorts (on grown adults), flip flops or cut off shirts here. A nice cover-up is a necessity and when you do leave the beach, whether to eat, run an errand or even just head home, you’re expected to get dressed.
On the beach, European stereotypes still run free. Expect men in speedos and women in bikinis, no matter the age or weight. My first time to an Italian beach I was nervous, expecting glamorous, worldly sunbathers and super-model type bodies. Instead, you’re sure to find speedos with massive beer bellies and women over the age of 80 in bikinis. Honestly, I find it refreshing. Younger beachgoers tend to eschew the speedo for fitted swim trunks. What’s more, tanning topless (or even walking around) is still common and not designated to specific beaches. Europeans aren’t frightened by bare breasts like Americans seem to be, but completely nude beaches are specified.
It’s also common for Italians to come to the beach with two different swimsuits. After they take a dip in the sea with one, they’ll head immediately to their changing room (or behind a towel) and change out of the wet suit into a dry one. They do it for hygiene and comfort and a little bit because that’s what their grandmas always told them to do. Though at first I found it prissy, I’m now a total convert.
When to Go
As with errands and socializing and, of course, eating, there are unspoken time customs regarding the beach as well.
Read: A Note on Italian Time
It’s not uncommon for the elderly and families with small children to arrive at the beach by 8 am, when there are fewer people and it’s not so hot. By 9:30 am the beach is often packed. Italians tend to arrive at the beach early for prime sunbathing – not too hot, not too cold. After, the beach generally empties out during the hottest parts of the day, when everyone heads out for lunch. They tend to trickle back around 4 o’clock until the beach closes (if it’s private) at 7 or 8.
Beaches are incredibly popular and incredibly crowded in the summer months, especially August. In June and July Italians flock to the beach on weekends and in the south it’s not uncommon for people to stop at the beach for a few hours after work during the week. If you don’t love the crowds, you’ll have to hike to lesser known public beaches, visit Monday – Friday or else come in May or September. You might also consider renting out a beach chair for a week if you know you’ll be in the area – that way you’ll always have a spot.
People are always looking for something new to see in Italy and there’s nothing like slowing down and diving in to a classic Italian estate. It’s the sweet summertime, and we’re always dreaming of the sea!