With a focus on the Italian Riviera, here are my personal recommendations for exploring the breathtaking region of Liguria.
Back in October of this year, I began suggesting travel itineraries for those of you who love Italy as much as I do (itinerary #1 was Umbria, which you can read here). I often say, with some truth, that twenty lesser countries were sacrificed to make one Italy. Few regions are more breathtakingly beautiful than Liguria.
It is likely you are already familiar with Liguria because that’s where you’d find Cinque Terre. And heck, who hasn’t drooled over photos of that place? Pastel-colored houses clinging to the sides of craggy hills, the turquoise sea glittering below, hidden coves and hidden hamlets, sand the color of pale wheat … it’s downright surreal.
Cinque Terre (it’s pronounced CHEEN-quay TAY-ray) is every traveler’s dream of Italy, a place where every bend of the hiking trail opens up to vistas so awe-inspiring, your soul actually dies a little. Well, mine does. In a good way. I wept when I first beheld the Ligurian Sea. It was that moving an experience for me, a sensory overload of heart-wrenching glory.
But here’s the part where I’m actually going to dissuade you from going to Cinque Terre. Surprise! There are other spots you can visit that are equally gorgeous without the ghastly crowds. And if you’re anything like me, the last thing you want to be is another cow in the herd, milling around, straining to see over other people’s heads.
If you don’t mind that, by all means go to Cinque Terre. Bear in mind that you will have to compete for tables, food, even gelato, with every tourist that just trundled off the cruise ship. Plenty of those ships are parked off the coast where they unleash their horror on these tiny fishing villages (the “cinque” in Cinque Terre means five), and that alone is the reason why I avoid this area like the plague.
Italy has yet to master sustainable tourism, and given the economic situation here, it is not likely to happen in the near future. The ones paying the price for it are, of course, the locals. They can surely be forgiven for their occasional lapses in courtesy (two friends of mine recently complained about the snarkiness of their food servers in Cinque Terre) since tourists descend on these villages like an invading Mongol horde.
As always, my purpose here is to make recommendations based on one guiding principle about coming to Italy: never try to see everything in one week. Doing the usual Rome/Florence/Pisa/Venice thing in 8 days gives you the most superficial of Italian experiences. Where’s the fun in taking the same tired photos everyone else does? Selfie in front of the Colosseum, selfie next to the statue of David (surrounded by a mob of tourists like most other attractions in Florence), selfie “holding up” the Tower of Pisa, selfie being gondola’d through a Venetian lagoon.
So, why not take the road less traveled and explore Italy one region at a time, the way it ought to be explored? Trust me, you’re going to want to come back to Italy to see more, and you will. It pays to do things the Italian way: slowly, savoring every coffee, every sunset, every cobblestone street. Italy is about letting go and letting life. She is no respecter of agendas, yours or anyone else’s. You’re on her turf now.
That said, I am going to recommend a Ligurian/Italian Riviera independent itinerary based on the usual 8 days with the suggestion that you find two B&Bs and a car rental.
If the thought of striking out on your own in a foreign country fills you with dread instead of excitement, an organized tour with a tour operator might be a better option. As a former travel agent, I used to sell tours (you can read that Cappuccino here), such as Globus, Gate1, Tauck, etc. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But my itineraries are designed for people who prefer to travel independently.
These recommendations are disinterested in the truest sense of the word. I’m not being paid or compensated or threatened at gunpoint to make them. I’m not a tour operator. I don’t write travel books. This itinerary is a reflection of my personal tastes based on my almost one-decade’s worth of experience living in Italy. My opinions may not be shared by everybody, but at least you know I have no agenda other than trying to steer you in a good direction. Plus, you can’t go wrong in this country. You could visit a gas station on the highway and still see the most beautiful sights in the world.
Itinerary #2: Region of Liguria aka Italian Riviera or Riviera dei Fiori, flying into Genoa International Airport and then going on to La Spezia-Bonassola-Sestri Levante-Finale Ligure-Cervo-Dolceacqua-Genoa.
All but one of these destinations is on the coast.
Why I recommend La Spezia: as the second largest city in the Liguria region after Genoa, La Spezia is a solid base from which to range out for the first few days. It’s also a little more than an hour from Genoa International Airport, making it a vastly more convenient alternative than coming in from Pisa International or Genoa City Airport. Better still, it’s on a bustling railway junction, which will make it easier for you to travel along the coast without always having to drive.
Having said that, I strongly urge you to rent a car at the airport. Being forced to depend upon Italian public transportation is not for the faint of heart, and even something as relatively straightforward as getting to a train station can become an all-day, vacation-killing ordeal. In car rental companies, I prefer Sixt (not the cheapest, but they won’t try to cheat you) or Centauro. Don’t use Thrifty or SicilybyCar unless you enjoy problems. And you know the drill: always go over the car and note any dings or scratches. Take photos, if you have to. Since La Spezia is an actual city where some of the younger locals speak English, I find it a nice segue into Italy. There will be plenty of dining options as well as lodging (hotel, Airbnb, B&B, hostel). You can go upscale or downscale, depending on your budget. Book a room for two nights, but you actually won’t be spending that much time in La Spezia since the idea is to visit the smaller, quainter, more picaresque villages along the coast.
Day #1 Itinerary: Flying into Genoa, renting a car, driving to La Spezia, getting situated at the hotel (a nap might be in order). I would probably spend the afternoon hiking Monesteroli or Parco Naturale Regionale di Porto Venere. Do pay attention to the degree-of-difficulty maps. Some of these hikes are intense. But the views! The views will change you on a soul level. At night, explore the town and maybe have dinner at any one of La Spezia’s great seafood restaurants by the water.
Why I recommend Bonassola: during high season, I might think about driving from the hotel to the train station and then training it to Bonassola (prettier than the highway route and about half the time). It won’t be empty by any means, but it likely won’t be mobbed either, making tiny Bonassola an ideal place to hike, bike, stroll, eat lunch, or hire a boatman to take you “cove hopping,” which is never inexpensive but well worth the money.
The light is different here. Soft breezes with just a hint of salt spray wash over you as you explore Bonassola’s medieval walkways and admire the diversity of its Mediterranean scrub. Flowers grow effortlessly here, perfuming the air everywhere you go. Quiet, charming Bonassola is the perfect place to get a feel for the Italian Riviera.
Day #2 Itinerary: I strongly urge you to take that boat tour of the coastline, starting in Bonassola and going in any direction your heart leads. If not, consider renting a bike after you’ve finished exploring Bonassola and pedaling to nearby Levanto (about twenty minutes) through the fabulous old train tunnels. I might think about having dinner there before heading back to La Spezia and to bed.
Why I recommend Sestri Levante: no coastal Italian village is devoid of tourists, but you will find fewer of them in Sestri Levante, which has the added “insider” advantage of being a vacation hotspot for actual Italians. Surrounded by olive trees, umbrellas pines, and oleanders, the sands of Sestri Levante’s breathtaking beaches start out fine, then become coarse, and then become rocky. The village itself is flanked by two bays, the Bay of Silence and the Bay of Fables, each contributing to the “water music” of this little slice of paradise.
Sestri Levante offers a best-of-both-worlds situation in that it is abundant in unspoiled natural beauty and medieval Italian charm. It sits on a peninsula where the sea and the sky meet without seams, one gigantic canvas of shimmering blue. More importantly, it is the village I recommend as an alternative to the teeming multitudes of Cinque Terre. I love Sestri Levante, and I know you will, too.
Day #3 Itinerary: Taking the train from La Spezia is usually no longer than 45 minutes, with ample opportunity to sightsee from the window. I would make this a beach day, since there are so many of them, and although Sistri Levante isn’t usually a madhouse, anywhere there’s a beach you will find vacationers, although here, most of them will be Italian. At the end of the day, I would take the train back to La Spezia, maybe grab an early dinner (well, early by Italian standards), pack your bags, check out, and then head to your next destination, which is Finale Ligure (it’s about 2 hours and 15 minutes away). Check into your new accommodations and sleep.
Why I recommend Finale Ligure: Now, you’re on the other side of the gulf, a part of the coast stretching all the way from Genoa to the French border. Accents are slightly different here, food is slightly richer, a near-perfect amalgam of French and Italian cuisine. In Finale Ligure, you will see limestone cliffs at one end of the beach and a castle perched above the glittering sea at the other. Your options: taking a long walk along that translucent blue water or going up to the palm-tree-lined promenade.
Finale Ligure is a real Italian town. You won’t find many tourist menus here, which means prices are reasonable, too—far more so than they are on the other side of the Riviera.
Day #4 Itinerary: Feel free to spend another day at the beach if you like, but I suspect you find even more to delight you by taking a short 20-minute walk up the hill to the medieval walled village of Finalborgo, which is so eye-popping, it earned a highly coveted Borghi Piu Belli d’Italia (Italy’s Most Beautiful Villages) award. Be forewarned: you will fall in love. I might plan on spending most of the day here and maybe even having dinner in Finalborgo before heading back.
Why I recommend Cervo: it’s a small village in western Liguria perched right over the sea, all pastel-colored houses and narrow streets. Everywhere you look, you see blue water, vine-covered limestone walls, and charming medieval churches. Like a lot of Italy, seeing the sights in this village requires sturdy walking shoes and a healthy amount of stamina, but you are more than rewarded for your efforts when you get to the top of Cervo and see such breathtaking beauty all around you.
Day #5 Itinerary: I would spend the day sightseeing in Cervo (pronounced CHAIR-voh) and perhaps take a walk on the beach, but don’t expect to sunbathe. It’s a rocky, tidal pool kind of beach, not a sandy, eastern Liguria kind of beach. Here, you will find the spectacular La Chiesa di Santo Giovanni Battista (Church of St. John the Baptist), Clavasana Castle, and the Oratory of St. Catherine, all of which afford you incredible views.
Why I recommend Dolceacqua: if you’ve been searching for a fairytale, look no further. Dolceacqua may be inland (the only village on this itinerary that isn’t coastal), but that in no way diminishes its charms. The name means “sweet- or fresh- water,” which tells you something about how irresistibly quaint the place is. The village may be small, but there is a lot to see besides Doria Castle. In fact, the entire area is a scenic walk, one that can be made by foot, on bicycles, or on rented scooters. The carugi are a dense labyrinth of alleyways that lead to Doria castle, but you can also take them to parts beyond. What I especially love is the 15th century bridge that ushers you into the medieval borgo itself.
Day #6 Itinerary: From your accommodations in Finale Ligure, take the scenic coastal route for an hour and a half to Dolceacqua, bearing in mind the fact that getting there is half the fun. Feel free to stop in Sanremo on the way (its near neighbor, Ospedaletti, is one of my favorite beaches in Italy), have lunch or a coffee, and then finish your journey in Dolceacqua. There will be much to delight you.
Notice that I have purposely left Day 7 open. That’s because keeping to a tight schedule is the opposite of having a vacation. You get to do whatever you like with your Day 7. There are a million stupendous sights to see, if that’s how you want to spend your free day, or you could make your way back to Genoa in comfortable leisure, where you could (if you wanted) spend your last night before flying home in the morning.
The best months for visiting Liguria are between the end of May and the end of September. These also happen to be the most touristy months. You might be tempted to try and be clever by visiting in late October or early November, but Liguria has only two seasons—wet and dry—and anything after October 1st is usually wet.
There’s a reason this part of Italy is so popular with vacationers, locally and from abroad. Hopefully, I’ve been able to provide you with a decent, less-touristy alternative to the usual Cinque Terre version of Liguria.
Because if there’s one thing in life I love above all else, it is taking the road less traveled.