Liguria is a boomerang-shaped region hugging Italy’s Mediterranean coast in the north.
Occupying the strip of land between the sea and the Maritime Alps, Liguria has colorful seaside villages, lush, flower-filled vegetation and richly salty food.
Its capital city, Genoa, was a large maritime republic, wealthy and powerful thanks to its port and trade. Today, the region’s historic wealth can still be found: Liguria is the seaside playground of northern Italians and a yacht parking lot for the world’s rich and famous.
Genoa divides the coast into two nearly equal parts – the Riviera di Levante and the Riviera di Ponente – each with a different geography and atmosphere. The area stretching from Genoa to the French border is the Ponente, or Riviera of the Setting Sun. From Genoa eastwards is the Levante, or Riviera of the Rising Sun.
The latter is the coastline that we all know and love. It’s the home of the wildly famous Cinque Terre, Portofino and San Fruttuoso. There’s Camogli, Rapallo and the jutting mini-peninsula that forms Portovenere. The headquarters of luxury and sophisitication, the Levante is where you’ll find Dolce and Gabbana’s seaside villa.
The Riviera di Ponente is less internationally known compared to Cannes or Portofino, but for some, that just might be its biggest draw.
If Levante is showy, Ponente is silently secure. Where Levante is ritzy, the Ponente doesn’t even notice. The Levante coastline is about seeing and being seen. The Ponente seems to be about the true beach life.
It’s slow, relaxed, easy.
While crowds flood Cinque Terre, decently-priced holidays can still be had in the down-to-earth Ponente Riviera.
Besides the atmosphere, the biggest difference between the two riviera’s is immediately visible:
The Ponente coastline has sandy beaches.
So how do you know where to go? First, choose a plant. The Ponente Riviera is further divided into two subdivisions: the Riviera dei Fiori (flowers) and the Riviera delle Palme (palms):
Riviera dei Fiori
The Riviera dei Fiori, named after its flower-growing industry, is the westernmost part of the coastline running from Andora to the French border.
Since the 1800s wealthy families from northern Europe flocked to this stretch of coastline to escape the cold winters up north and enjoy the mild climate. In return, they left behind magnificent seaside villas, beautiful gardens and the beginnings of a tourism infrastructure still found today.
The most famous of those beautiful gardens is just a few miles from the French border. The Hanbury Botanical Gardens built in the 1800s cover nearly 45 acres with Mediterranean and exotic plants and is a must-see in the area.
Following the via Aurelia, the coastal road that lies on the exact same route of the ancient coastal paths, you’ll arrive in one of the area’s most notable towns, Ventimiglia, with its large pebble beaches and old-time glamour.
Head inland to see Pigna and its thermal spas and Apricale, named one of the “borghi più belli d’Italia” or one of the most beautiful towns in Italy. Then make a stop in Dolceacqua, the town painted by Monet.
Further on lies the area’s big hitter: San Remo, famous for the annual Italian Song Festival and its Casino, along with its panoramic golf course and weekly market. From here there’s also a 15-mile coastal cycling path. The long path and sea views are a perfect addition to a slow travel holiday.
Riviera delle Palme
The Riviera delle Palme is about 45 miles of coastline filled with fun seaside gems and great beaches. Longer than the Riviera dei Fiori, this area is the Ponente’s most popular and there are multiple towns perfect for a seaside vacation.
Families love Alassio for its long, fine sand beach, elegant villas and hillside church. In adjacent Laigueglia, brighly-colored fishermen houses frame the gently sloping sandy beach.
Albenga will surprise some with multiple medieval towers and a perfectly intact baptistry from the end of the Roman Empire and Ceriale has a large water park to break up days lounging on the beach.
But perhaps the most famous in this part of Liguria is Finale Ligure, made of three colorful towns: Finale Marina, Finalpia and Finalborgo a bit further inland. Another town awarded the title of “i Borghi più Belli d’Italia”, Finale Ligure has elegant shops and restaurants, vibrant cafés and the region’s famous carruggi, or tiny winding lanes and alleyways.
But small Noli and popular Pietra Ligure are two other important tourist destinations that are great bases for summertime visitors.
Though one or two places seem to get all the international tourists:
There’s no shortage of incredible places to visit along the Ligurian Coast.
A lot of the towns are quite similar and they are all close together, dotting the coast like tiny seaside resort cities, that just happen to be ancient maritime villages. Next time you’re looking for a coastal break in Italy, consider branching out beyond the well-trafficked Riviera di Levante and head further north. You won’t regret it.