Most people know what you’re talking about if you say you’re visiting Tuscany, but you might get a few blank stares if you told them you were heading for a holiday in Liguria. And that's completely topsy-turvy, says Sophie Smith: with its stunning beaches, beautiful countryside and great food – and half the tourists of neighbouring Tuscany - Liguria is one of the best regions in Italy for a summer holiday.
Genoa is the well-known capital of Liguria (and worth a trip to eat pesto alla genovese in the place it was invented), but if you head a little further south, you will reach the Cinque Terre and the Gulf of Poets. The Cinque Terre (Five Lands) is a series of five charming seaside villages north of La Spezia (the largest port city of this region, after Genoa), and the Gulf of Poets is the bay that surrounds La Spezia, with more stunning seaside towns of its own. And, if you are a seafood lover like me, make no mistake - Liguria is where you want to be.
There is plenty to see on this stretch of coast, and all within a two-hour radius. You could spend ages relaxing at each and every spot, but if you are strapped for time then you should be able to squeeze it all into two or three days. The five towns of the Cinque Terre are almost completely inaccessible by car, but you can get there either by train or by ferry from La Spezia. The train is cheaper, but I recommend the ferry – there’s something about swanning around the Italian coast on the water that really completes the experience! Once you are in the Cinque Terre, you can also hike over the hilltops between each town. You can walk the whole stretch (about a day’s worth), or just do one leg (the shortest at around 45 minutes).
Monterosso al Mare
The northernmost town of the Cinque Terre is Monterosso al Mare, the only village of the Cinque Terre that boasts beautiful sandy beaches. If you want to escape for a sunbathe and a swim in the crystal Mediterranean, then Monterosso is the town for you.
The next village heading south is Vernazza. This gorgeous little spot has one of the best restaurants in the region perched atop the cliffs (Ristorante Belforte, closed during the winter months, but worth the trip on its own during summer), with beautiful ocean views and excellent seafood. I’ve adopted the Italian mode of swimming off the rocks (I’m not such a fan of sand), and Vernazza is the perfect spot if that’s more your style!
The third stop south is Corniglia (pronounced “Cor-NEE-lyah”). This is the only town that doesn’t sit at sea-level, and you can either climb the hill (a walk much preferable on the way down, let me tell you), or you can pay 2 euros to catch a shuttle bus that will take you to the top of the mountain. Because it’s the only town up in the hills, the views are (if possible) even more spectacular than the rest of the Cinque Terre. Make sure you hit Bar Terza Terra - the terrace sticks out from the cliff like you wouldn’t believe, but the view and the fish are worth the vertigo.
Next stop on the tiki tour is Manarola. Manarola is my personal favourite of the towns in the Cinque Terre, and if you walk a little way along the path heading north out the town, you will completely understand why. A must-see in Manarola is the cemetery at the top of the hill. I’m a sucker for cemeteries in Italy (the mausoleums are so stunning!) and the cemetery at Manarola has one of the best views you could ask for – the photo above is taken from this very spot.
Last stop in the Cinque Terre, but definitely not least, is Riomaggiore. Tucked away in a narrow wee cove lies Riomaggiore, where the colours are the brightest, and the gelato is the nicest. Whatever the time of day, eat gelato for breakfast if need be, don’t miss out on Gelateria Centrale di Germani e Giacco. Then stroll down the main street, walk up the steep path on the left by the ocean, take in the view, and then pop back down for a second gelato!
The next town on the way down to La Spezia is Portovenere. This is not technically part of the Cinque Terre, but the ferries to the Cinque Terre often stop first at Portovenere, or you can catch a bus from La Spezia (no rail access unfortunately). For me, a perfect day in Italy takes place in Portovenere; head out on the ferry in the morning first thing, and grab a coffee (solo espresso, per favore) and a cornetto (croissant) when you arrive. Then take a stroll up the hill to the castle, have wander through the tiny streets, and visit the church at the end of the peninsula. Eat seafood pasta with Vermentino white wine for lunch at Da Iseo restaurant, and spend the afternoon swimming at one of Lord Byron’s favourite spots, Byron’s Grotto. Stay for an aperol spritz as the sun goes down, and you won’t soon forget Portovenere.
If you feel like splashing out (pun very much intended), you can jet across the bay from Portovenere to Palmaria Island for lunch at Ristorante Locanda Lorena. You make a reservation, and the water-taxi will pick you up from Portovenere and ferry you across. The terrace sits over the water, and you’ll never feel more decadent than when you’re sipping a chilly white wine, peeling giant prawns, and admiring the view of Portovenere across the bay.
For a true Italian dining experience like no other, stop at Fezzano, a tiny town between Portovenere and La Spezia. There lives the restaurant “O Chi O Ca Toa” (“Here or at Your House” in La Spezia dialect), where the owner has had his voice-box removed, but still insists on answering the phone to take reservations (they are sticklers for tradition, the Italians). There is no menu here, you simply eat whatever the chef feels like preparing that day, so it could be one huge baked fish with potatoes, or it could be literally a 14-course degustation. Simply unforgettable.
La Spezia is the bustling hub of this region, a port city of around 100,000 people. Not everyone is so impressed with La Spezia (it’s a working city, so not all of it is as picturesque as the towns surrounding it), but it holds a special place in my heart. There are plenty of excellent places to eat, along with the heavenly Mercato Centrale (doing your grocery shopping here is an absolute pleasure), and some pretty good shops - especially if you are into boutique shoe designers. Accommodation in La Spezia isn't as expensive as many parts of the Cinque Terre, so it’s a great base to visit everywhere along this gorgeous coastline.
The southernmost stop on my tour is a favourite spot of Lord Byron and Lord Shelley, Lerici (their fondness for this area is the reason it’s called the Gulf of Poets). Lerici is another beautiful seaside village, complete with multiple beaches and a castle to visit. Lerici is accessible by car, so it’s a good option if you want a break from public transport. My recommendation would be to park up at La Vallata (slightly cheaper than the closer parking lot), and then walk down and along the waterfront to Lerici (about 15 minutes). Bring all your beach things and settle into a nice possie on the sand or the rocks. Spend a beautiful day dipping in and out of the brightest blue water you’ll ever see, and when you get peckish hit Siamo Fritti (in English, 'We Are Fried') on the main road for some amazing deep-fried anchovies and calamari. Delicioso!