You don’t come to Northern Italy for the beaches.
It sounds wrong, but it’s oh-so-true.
Italy has some spectacular beaches, but none as spectacular as white Caribbean sand and crystalline water. What’s more, Italy’s best beaches aren’t along the typical tourist trail. If you come to sail around the coast of Sardegna, or explore any of Italy’s many Mediterranean islands than you won’t be disappointed by the sand beaches and pristine water, otherwise, expectations should be dimmed.
Visitors come to Italy for the art, the architecture. They come for the views, the food, the spectacular scenery. The Italian coastline is known throughout the world for its beauty. The Amalfi Coast alone sees 5 million visitors per year (mostly in the summer) and Liguria to the north doesn’t fare much worse. Cinque Terre alone sees hundreds of thousands of tourists per year. So many that they’ve even discussed putting a limit on how many people can tour the towns per day.
Liguria is a favorite summer retreat for northern Italians. They go for the salty air, the salty food and the relaxation. Sometimes, they even go for the beach. But what international visitors to Liguria don’t usually know is that the entire Riviera has just two or so sandy beaches, the rest range from small pebbles to smooth rocks.
You don’t come to Italy for the beaches, but you can still enjoy the luxurious seaside towns, transparent water and some of the best coastline in the world.
It’s true that most know Liguria for the beautiful yet over-trodden paths of Cinque Terre, but I prefer to spend my time among three towns a bit north of Cinque Terre: Santa Margherita, Portofino and San Fruttuoso, my vote for Liguria’s Top Coastal Towns
All three are located just minutes from each other by bus or car, though having a car in these small and parking-less towns is often more of a hindrance than a help. Bus is the least expensive way to travel between the towns, but the most scenic way is by far by ferryboat. Beautiful, relatively inexpensive and regular, the boat offers a great perspective of the coast.
I had to laugh when I read a TripAdvisor review claiming that Santa Margherita is just like an “overpriced Little Milan.” The comment isn’t so untrue. Each summer thousands of Milanese leave the heat of Milan in a sort of mass weekend exodus, flooding the towns along the Ligurian coast. So many come, in fact, that I saw two of my students during my one day in Santa Margherita! In a town two and a half hours away from my school!
Despite its reputation as a resort town, it’s still well worth a visit. Though Santa Margherita doesn’t have the best beaches in the world, rent a chair and umbrella on one of the dozens of beaches to relax after your long drive. You don’t want to spend too much time searching out “the best” beach (they’re all quite similar – pebbles or rocks), this is just for a bit of sun and a bit of relax. Nearby Paraggi has sand but it’s about as big as your beach towel is long, so finding a spot can be difficult if you arrive after 6 am.
The next day, hop on the ferryboat to glamorous Portofino, a favorite port town of the rich and famous. Portofino is so famous, that by now it has less of its authentic feel and more of a Disneyland-on-the-sea atmosphere. But the people are nice and the port is incredible. Honestly, it seems impossible that real life places can be so beautiful.
After touring around Portofino and imagining life on one of the many yachts lining the port, it’s time to explore San Fruttuoso. San Fruttuoso isn’t really a town or a resort, it’s more like a spit of beach with an abbey. It’s also the cherry on the cake of this Ligurian trip.
There are no roads, no houses, just an abbey, beach and a couple of beachside restaurants. It’s pure relax and feels entirely exclusive. The only way to get there is by foot or ferryboat. Walk the gorgeous cliff-side trail from Portofino to San Fruttuoso. It takes just about two hours and offers some of the most stunning views of the region. If you’re short on time or energy, however, the boat is convenient. San Fruttuoso is famous for two things: It’s ancient Benedictine monastery that you can still visit today, and the Christ of the Abyss, a larger than life statue of Christ submerged about 50 feet under the sea.
Scuba divers can explore. I was content to simply dip my feet, take some laps around the designated swimming area and dream about the monks’ secluded life, Beyonce’s yacht and the really good Ligurian pesto I was bound to eat that night.
You don’t come to Northern Italy for the beaches, but this beach – sand or no sand – is one not to be missed!
Get more of Liguria:
Read about that time Marco tricked me into hiking the trail to San Fruttuoso!