Sheltering on the seaward side of the mountains that divide Piemonte from the coast, Liguria is the classic introduction to Italy for travellers journeying overland through France. There’s an unexpected change as you cross the border: the Italian Riviera, as Liguria’s commercially developed strip of coast is known, has more variety of landscape and architecture than its French counterpart, and is generally less frenetic. And if you want to escape the crowds, the mountains, draped with terraced vineyards and olive groves and speckled with pretty old villages, offer respite from the standard format of beach, beach and more beach.
The chief city of the region is Genoa, an ancient, sprawling port with a fascinating, labyrinthine old quarter complemented by a newly energized dockside district and a vibrant and ethnic mix. Genoa straddles the apex of Liguria's arching coast and marks the midway point of the Italian Riviera, dividing it in two distinct halves. The Riviera di Ponente to the west is the more developed stretch, a long ribbon of hotels and resorts packed in summer months – particularly with Italian families. San Remo, the grande dame of Riviera resorts, is flanked by hillsides covered with glasshouses, and is a major centre for the worldwide export of flowers; Albenga and Noli are attractive medieval centres that have also retained a good deal of character; while Finale Ligure is a pleasantly laidback seaside town with plenty of outdoor activities.
On Genoa’s eastern side is the more rugged Riviera di Levante, a mix of mountains and fishing villages, originally accessible only by boat. Drawn by its remoteness, the Romantics “discovered” the Riviera in the early nineteenth century, preparing the way for other artists and poets and the first package tourists. It’s still wild and extremely beautiful in places, although any sense of remoteness has long gone. Resorts like Portofino are among the most expensive in the country, although nearby Santa Margherita Ligure and Rapallo make great bases for exploring the surrounding coastline by train or car, as does the pretty fishing village of Camogli. Walks on Monte di Portofino and through the dramatic coastal scenery of the Cinque Terre take you through scrubland and vineyards for memorable views over broad gulfs and jutting headlands. At the far end of the Riviera is the bustling mercantile port and naval base of La Spezia, its shimmering Golfo dei Poeti bookended by the picturesque coastal towns of Portovenere and Lerici.
In a car, the shore road is overall a disappointment as the coast is extremely built up, but you can get a much better sense of the region's beauty by taking the east-west autostrada which cuts through the mountains a few kilometres inland by means of a mixture of tunnels and viaducts. Fleeting bursts of daylight between tunnels give glimpses of the string of resorts along the coast, silvery olive groves and a brilliant sea. It’s ten times quicker, too. However, the real plus of Liguria is that so many of the coastal resorts are easily accessible by train, with regular services stopping just about everywhere, and, because the track is forced to squeeze along the narrow coastal strip, the views are wonderful and the stations invariably located in the centre of town.
Liguria may lie in the north of Italy, but its benign Mediterranean climate, and to some extent its cooking, belong further south. Traditionally, the recipes from this region make something out of nothing, and the best-known Ligurian speciality is pesto, the simplest of dishes. Invented by the Genoese to help their long-term sailors fight off scurvy, it's made with chopped basil, garlic, pine nuts and grated sharp cheese (pecorino or Parmesan) ground together in olive oil. It’s used as a sauce for pasta (often flat trenette noodles, or knobbly little potato-flour shapes known as trofie), or served with a few boiled potatoes and green beans, or stirred into soup to make minestrone alla genovese. Look out also for pasta, usually Pansotti, served with a creamy hazelnut sauce – salsa di noci; and other typical dishes like cima alla genovese (cold, stuffed veal); tomaxelle (veal meatballs); tortapasqualina (a spinach and cheese pie with eggs); sardenaira (a Ligurian pizza made with tomatoes, onions and garlic); and, of course, the ubiquitous golden focaccia bread, often flavoured with olives, sage or rosemary, or covered with toppings. There are lots of things with chickpeas too, which grow abundantly along the coast and crop up most regularly in farinata, a kind of chickpea pancake displayed in broad, round baking trays.
Otherwise, fish dominates – not surprising in a region where more than two-thirds of the population lives on the coast. Local anchovies are a common antipasto, while pasta with a variety of fish and seafood sauces appears everywhere (mussels, scampi, octopus and clams are all excellent); you’ll find delicious polpo (octopus), usually served cold with potatoes, good swordfish, and dishes like ciuppin or fish soup, burrida di seppie (cuttlefish stew), fish in carpione (marinated in vinegar and herbs), or just a good fritto del Golfo (mixed fish fry-up). Salt cod (baccalà) and wind-dried cod (stoccofisso) are also local favourites. Many restaurants in Rapallo and along the Tigullio coast serve bagnun, a dish based on anchovies, tomato, garlic, onion and white wine, and in Cinque Terre and Levanto you’ll often see gattafin – a delicious deep-fried vegetable pasty. Liguria’s soil and aspect aren’t well suited to vine-growing, although plenty of local wine – mainly white – is quite drinkable. The steep, terraced slopes of the Cinque Terre are home to some decent eponymous white wine and a sweet, expensive dessert wine called Sciacchetrà, made from partially dried grapes. From the Riviera di Ponente, look out for the crisp whites of Pigato (from Albenga) and Vermentino (from Imperia), as well as the acclaimed Rossese di Dolceacqua, Liguria’s best red.
Tracing a slow arc southwest of Genoa, the Riviera di Ponente (Coast of the Sunset), is Liguria’s most built-up stretch, home to practical, unpretentious resorts, functional towns and the occasional attractive medieval quarter. The beaches are sandy and the prices relatively low, making it a popular holiday spot for Italian families. Almost every settlement along the coast from Genoa to San Remo is a resort of some kind, and extremely busy during July and especially August, when prices are at their highest. But there are some gems among the run-of-the-mill holiday towns, not least the likeable resort of Finale Ligure, nearby Noli, with its alley-laden old centre, the medieval centre of Albenga and the grand old resort of San Remo, which can also make a good base for exploring sections of the Alta Via dei Monti Liguri.
The Alta Via dei Monti Liguri is a long-distance high-level trail covering the length of Liguria, from Ventimiglia in the west across the ridgetops to Ceparana on the Tuscan border above La Spezia in the east – a total distance of some 440km. The mountains, which form the connection between the Alps and the Apennines, aren’t high – rarely more than 1500m – meaning that the scenic route, which makes full use of the many passes between peaks, is relatively easy-going. The whole thing would take weeks to complete, but has been divided up into 43 stages of between two and four hours each, making it easy to dip in and out of. Trail support and maintenance is good, with rifugi dotted along the path and distinctive waymarks (red-white-red “AV” signs).
Unfortunately, access to most parts of the Alta Via from the main coastal towns can be tricky, and requires juggling with route itineraries and bus timetables. For information on the Alta Via, the Associazione Alta Via dei Monti Liguri produces a full-colour wall-map of the route, along with detailed English descriptions and timings of all 43 stages (plus hotels and restaurants along the way). Club Alpino Italiano offices in the major towns have information on rifugi, and the Federazione Italiano Escursionismo (FIE) publishes detailed guides to all the inland paths of Liguria.
Finale Ligure, half an hour from Savona, is a full-on Italian resort, in summer crowded with Italian families who pack the outdoor restaurants, seafront fairground and open-air cinema, or take an extended passeggiata along the promenade and through the old alleys. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable place for all that, with a long sandy beach that stretches the entire length of the town and a busy, buzzy vibe that lasts long into the evening.
At its centre is Finalmarina, with a palm-lined promenade and a small quarter of narrow shopping streets set back from the seafront, focused on the arcaded Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. At the eastern end of town, Finalpia is a small district on the other side of the River Sciusa, with the twelfth-century church of Santa Maria di Pia (rebuilt in florid, early eighteenth-century style) and the adjacent sixteenth-century cloistered abbey at its centre. Finalborgo, 2km inland, is perhaps the most attractive part of Finale, a medieval walled quarter overlooked by bare rock faces that are a favourite with free climbers who gather at Bar Centrale in Finalborgo’s Piazza Garibaldi at weekends. It's also become a thriving hub for mountain bikers. Finalborgo has quite a chichi air, and is a nice place to eat, shop, wander the old streets, or take a look at the array of prehistoric remains and other local artefacts at the Museo Archeologico del Finale in the cloisters of the convent of Santa Caterina.
The small market town of Albegna is one of the most attractive places along this part of the Ligurian coast, an ex-port whose estuary silted up long ago but left a wanderable old quarter, still within medieval walls and following the grid pattern of its ancient Roman predecessor, Albingaunum.
In the centre of town, Piazza San Michele is home to the elegant cathedral, the main part of which was built in the eleventh century and enlarged in the early fourteenth. Just beyond, in the Torre Comunale, the Museo Civico Ingauno is home to an array of Roman masonry and fragments, including a patch of first-century mosaic floor. Around the corner from the museum, the ingenious fifth-century baptistry combines a ten-sided exterior with an octagonal interior. Inside are fragmentary mosaics showing the Apostles represented by twelve doves. Behind the baptistry to the north, the archbishop’s palace houses the diverting Museo Diocesano, Via Episcopio 5, where there are paintings by Lanfranco and Guido Reni. The archbishop’s partially frescoed bedchamber, next door to his private chapel, is also decorated with fifteenth-century frescoes. A few metres from here, at the junction of Via Medaglie d’Oro and Via Ricci, the thirteenth-century Loggia dei Quattro Canti marks the centre of the Roman town, while some 500m further north, beyond Piazza Garibaldi and along Viale Pontelungo, is the elegant, arcaded Pontelungo bridge. Built in the twelfth century to cross the river, which shifted course soon afterwards, it now makes an odd sight.
In the opposite direction, five minutes’ walk beyond the train station, lies Albenga’s seafront and beaches – mostly sandy and with a couple of reasonable free sections.
The coast east of Genoa, dubbed the Riviera di Levante (Coast of the Sunrise), is more varied and beautiful than its counterpart to the west, though not always the ideal destination for a get-away-from-it-all holiday. Its picturesque series of towns and villages that once eked out a living from fishing and coral diving have been transformed by decades of tourism. Still, it’s a glorious and rugged stretch of coast, its cliffs and bays covered with pine and olive trees and plenty of appealing resorts. The footpaths crisscrossing the headland that stretches to the upmarket resort of Portofino are a great way to get off the beaten track, and the harbour towns on each side – Camogli towards Genoa and Santa Margherita in the Golfo di Tigullio – are well worth a visit. Other highlights include big, feisty resorts like Rapallo, and smaller, quieter places like Sestri Levante. Further east, the main road (though not the railway) heads inland, bypassing the laidback beach town of Levanto and the spectacular Cinque Terre coast (now a national park and great, organized walking country). The road joins the train line again at the naval port of La Spezia, a short stop from the alluring towns of Portovenere and Lerici (the latter almost in Tuscany) on either side of the Golfo dei Poeti.
Camogli was the “saltiest, roughest, most piratical little place”, according to Dickens when he visited the town. Though it still has the “smell of fish, and seaweed, and old rope” that the author relished, its rough edges are long gone and it's now one of the most attractive resorts along this stretch of the coast. The town’s name, a contraction of Casa Mogli (House of Wives), comes from the days when voyages lasted for years and the women ran the port while the men were away. In its day Camogli supported a huge fleet of seven hundred vessels in its day, which once saw off Napoleon. The town declined in the age of steam, but has since been reborn as a classy getaway without the exaggerated prices found further round the coast.
Camogli’s serried towers of nineteenth-century apartment blocks line up above the waterfront and a small promontory topped with the medieval Castello Dragone. On one side of the castle there’s a busy harbour, crammed with fishing boats, and on the other a section of pebble beach, backed by a long promenade of bars and restaurants. Camogli is also known for its annual Sagra del Pesce (second weekend in May), when thousands of fresh fish are cooked in a giant frying pan in Piazza Colombo by the Marina.
Santa Margherita Ligure is a small, thoroughly attractive, palm-laden resort, tucked into an inlet and replete with grand hotels, garden villas and views of the glittering bay. In the daytime, trendy young Italians cruise the streets or whizz around the harbour on jet skis, while the rest of the family sunbathes or crams the gelaterie. Santa Margherita is far cheaper to stay in than Portofino and less crowded than Rapallo, and makes a good base both for taking boats and trains up and down the coast and for exploring the countryside on foot.
The town is in two parts: one set around a harbour and gardens and a small town beach, and a second, more commercial harbour around the headland. In between there’s a small castle, and behind this the shady gardens of the sixteenth-century Villa Durazzo, which hosts art exhibitions and the like. There’s a decent if small town beach, but the best beaches are out of town, accessible by bus: south towards Portofino is Paraggi, while to the north the road drops down to a patch of beach in the bay of San Michele di Pagana. In addition to its beach bars and crystal-clear water, a Crucifixion by Van Dyck in the church of San Michele may prove an added incentive for a visit.
Anchoring the westernmost point of the Cinque Terre, the quiet and unpretentious little resort of Levanto feels quite cut off by Ligurian standards, though that it precisely its charm, particularly after time spent among the crowds of Cinque Terre. There's a sandy beach that attracts a surfy crowd, inexpensive hotels and good transport links that make it perhaps the best base for exploring the area. As well as a number of trails and cycle paths heading south to Monterosso, there's also a wonderful new cycle path that heads north along an abandoned old railway track – it runs for 6km from Levanto to Bonassola and Framura, giving beautiful coastal views in between long stretches through dark tunnels. Levanto itself has few sights – only the Loggia Comunale on the central Piazza del Popolo, the black-and-white-striped church of Sant’Andrea in the old part of town, and the odd surviving stretch of medieval wall – but it's a pleasant and, for the most part, thoroughly Italian seaside resort.
The breathtaking folded coastline of the Cinque Terre (Five Lands) stretches between the beach resort of Levanto and the port of La Spezia. It’s named for five tiny villages – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore – wedged into a series of coves between sheer cliffs, and their comparative remoteness, and the dramatic nature of their positions, makes the region the principal scenic highlight of the whole Riviera. The scenery, certainly, is lovely, but bear in mind that it’s also the convenience which makes the Cinque Terre so popular: the main clifftop route is not particularly arduous – it’s pretty flat most of the way, the villages are not that far apart and all of them have plenty of amenities and places to stay, and if you get fed up with walking you can always jump on a train (or a boat). No surprise, then, that the area is teeming with travellers during summer, and the villages have lost some of their character to the tide of kitschy souvenir shops and overpriced, under-quality restaurants. But outside of August you should try to take in at least part of the area – it’s worth it, especially if you use quieter and more authentic Levanto or even La Spezia as a base.
Most people come to the Cinque Terre to walk, and these days it’s crammed mainly with Americans and Australians in full hiking gear. The national park’s most popular route is the coastal Blue Route from Riomaggiore to Monterosso (Sentiero Azzurro), and to walk that you have to invest in a Cinque Terre Card, which gives access to the path for one, two, three or seven days. All of the park’s other marked routes, including the inland Red Routes (Sentieri Rossi), are free and are mostly much, much steeper – proper hiking.
The most challenging is Path no. 1, which runs 25km all the way from Portovenere to Levanto – a great walk to do over a couple of days with an overnight stop. Despite its popularity, the Blue Route – Path no. 2 – is well worth doing, out of season at least (11km; around 5hr); it hugs the shoreline between all five villages, offering spectacular scenery along the way. However, before you set out do check to make sure that all sections are open; they have been prone to closure due to floods and landslides over recent years, and it’s likely that the Corniglia–Manarola stretch will be closed for some time. Another rewarding walk is Path no. 10, which leads from Monterosso station up through pine woods and onto a flight of steps that emerge at the Sant’Antonio church on the high point of the Punta Mesco headland (1hr), giving a spectacular panorama along the length of the Cinque Terre coastline.
Note that most of the paths are unshaded and can be blisteringly hot in summer – make sure you wear a hat and carry a water bottle for even a short stroll. Walking shoes are advisable as paths are rocky and uneven at the best of times. Also, take note of weather forecasts in spring and autumn, as rainstorms can brew up rapidly and make paths treacherously slippery.