From secluded coves to lively seafronts, there are plenty of places to sun worship in Italy. But with an increasing number of hotels charging for access to the sands, it’s hard to know where to spend your money. Here are 20 of the best beaches in Italy, no matter what kind of experience you're looking for.
Before we begin, here's a quick overview of Italy's main regions:
The main five beaches on Elba can get suffocatingly packed in high season – including the popular resort of Biodola. However, Forno, set in the bay of Biodola, is far less busy and the main beach is set in a lovely cove, surrounded by villas and dense vegetation.
Anchoring the westernmost point of the Cinque Terre, the small, unpretentious resort of Levanto in Liguria feels quite cut off by Ligurian standards. But it has a glorious sandy beach, which, despite the number of parasols, has a great surfy vibe.
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Despite being one of Sicily’s busiest international beach resorts, Cefalù has a parallel life as a small-scale fishing port. Naturally, the long, curving stretches of sand are the major attraction, but Cefalù is a pleasant town and nowhere near as developed as Sicily’s other major package resort, Taormina.
For the best swimming on Italy’s third largest island, head to Acquavivetta. Not far from Sansone, this shingle beach is backed by high rocks and the gently sloping seashore makes it a good spot for a dip – especially if you have kids in tow.
While upmarket Positano is expensive, the beaches are beautiful and don’t get too crowded. This large stretch of beach is backed by beautiful cliffs with sporadic green patches. The bar-terrace of the Pupetto hotel, which runs along much of its length, is one of the cheapest places to eat and drink in Positano.
Set in its own tiny cove, this old tuna fishery in the Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro was once home to writer Gavin Maxwell in the 1950s, where he wrote the The Ten Pains of Death – based on his experiences here. It’s almost too picturesque to be true: think rows of abandoned buildings on the quayside and ruined old watchtowers tottering on jagged pinnacles of rock above the sea.
Also known as La Polveraia, this sheltered, shingle beach on the island’s western coast is always fairly quiet, even in high season. The dark rocks here plunge straight down to the transparent water below.
This fine sandy beach, complete with sun loungers and bars galore, Sant'Andrea is a good alternative to the busy main beaches of Elba. A natural rocky barrier keeps the water shallow and you can rent boats, windsurf and dive here too.
San Domino is the greener of the three Tremeti Islands, its pines offering welcome shade from the heat. Although there’s a sandy beach right where the ferry lands (Calla delle Arene), it gets packed in the summer. Instead, head for the Calla dello Spido, one of many of the quieter coves in the west of the island.
This beautiful nature reserve and protected marine area gives beach-goers much more freedom, compared with the strict organisation of many other Italian beaches. Torre Guaceto is a lovely spot for scuba diving over small reefs of coral and sea grass. To visit, make arrangements at the Serranova visitor centre.
Higgledy-piggledly fishermen’s houses cluster above this black-sand beach on Rinella, which has something of a Greek island feel to it. A couple of good bars also make this a tempting destination for an aperitif watching the sunset over Filicudi.
This brief stretch of Basilicata's Tyrrhenian coast is the most visually ravishing part of the entire region, with its tall, sheer cliffs rising dramatically above rocky coves and some first-rate beaches. These do get overcrowded in summer, but the encircling mountains mean that there has been minimal development by the holiday industry. Most beaches are well signposted, but don’t hesitate to explore the less obvious ones – the coast is home to 50 or so grottoes, most accessible only by boat (enquire at the tourist office for boat rentals).
This is the closest beach to the town of Taormina, and far lovelier than the huge resort of Giardini-Naxos. With a much-photographed offshore islet, several fish trattorias (informal restaurants) and a cable car that runs every 15 minutes from Via Pirandello (the road that encircles Taormina), it’s the ideal place to relax after sightseeing or shopping.
This lovely coastal nature reserve, Riserva Naturale de Vendicari, is 10km south of Noto, where little paths lead to unspoilt beaches of white-gold sand and salt lakes, that, between October and March, attract flamingos, herons, cranes, black stalks and pelicans.
Rapid development of the Cala Gonone settlement has not spoiled the sense of isolation on this part of the coast, with its various secluded coves and grottoes. This small resort was once only accessible by boat, but now a tunnel through the 900m-high rock wall off the SS125 provides a zigzagging road down to the bay.
Below the walls of this charming town, rows of pleasure boats are moored off the wide quays of the port, which are bordered by bars and busy with kiosks offering boat tours. The town's beaches begin further north, backed by hotels – you'll find the most tranquility at Le Bombarde and Lazzaretto, two beaches around 8km west of town.
A short distance from Rome (only 40km), and fairly free of the pull of the capital, Anzio is worth visiting both for its beaches and its history – much of the town was damaged during an Allied landing here in 1944. The town was also a favoured spot of the Roman emperor Nero, whose ruined villa is spread along the cliffs and down onto the sandy beach which stretches north from the town centre.
Nine “Lido” towns (small coastal resorts) line the 35km of coast here, with great nightlife and some summer excitement for those visiting the not-so-lively Ravenna. Marina di Ravenna and Punta Marina are both crowded spots, but when you head north there are quieter, golden-sand beaches at Porto Corsini, Casalborsetti and Marina Romea.
One of Sardinia’s most deluxe beaches, and undoubtedly one of the best beaches in Italy, La Pelosa has fine sand, turquoise water and views out to the Isles of Piana and Asinara. While it can get crowded in tourist season, nothing can spoil its stunning setting.
The fine old city of Vasto is all about the beach and this broad sandy stretch is palm-lined and beach-hutted in the centre, while growing wilder and rockier to the north. In the free central area, devices known as trabocchi are installed every so often – these are Heath Robinson-ish crane-like contraptions of wooden beams and nets, with a complex system of weights, designed for scooping up fish.
These top 20 Italian beaches are taken from The Rough Guide to Italy.
Top image: Wooden fishing boats on the old beach of Cefalu, Sicily, Italy © Aleksandar Todorovic/Shutterstock