Mention “the Italian Riviera” and people are likely to respond, “Yes, the Amalfi Coast is on my to-do list.” But the Amalfi Coast, south of Naples and more than 640 km away, already has a name: the Amalfi Coast. The Italian Riviera, or Liguria, on the other hand, stretches between the Tuscan coast to where the country ends at the French border and the French Riviera. Paradoxically, despite its popularity, northern Italy’s Liguria is one of the most misunderstood places in the country, even among reasonably numerous travellers.
To complicate matters further, Liguria itself is split in two by the city of Genoa, with Riviera di Ponente (coast of the setting sun) to the west and Riviera di Levante (coast of the rising sun) to the east. . Because it wouldn’t be possible to tackle the whole Riviera in a long weekend (or even a week), it’s better to choose Levante, with all its cachet and relatively compact group of delights – mainly the peninsula of Portofino and the Cinque Terre – for a first trip to the region.
To get there, it’s best to fly to Milan Malpensa, often a cheaper ticket than Rome and closer to the Ligurian coast. The newer high-speed trains can get you to Genoa in less than two hours. A well-organized four-day trip will only scratch the surface of one of Italy’s most breathtaking seaside resorts, but you can still marvel at the most famous spots and see a town or two where the Americans rarely visit, but should.
Day 1: Portofino
Plan a night flight to maximize your time. You’ll land at Milan Malpensa, the largest international airport in northern Italy, and arrive at the Portofino peninsula around noon or 1 p.m. To get to the present town of Portofino, nestled in a picturesque harbor at the tip of the cape, you will need to take a ferry or hail a taxi from Rapallo or Santa Margarita Liguria. For accommodation, choose the incomparable: It would be Splendid, a captivating resort nestled into the hillside above the marina and managed by the famous Belmond brand. The former Benedictine monastery was converted into a hotel in 1902 and has hosted everyone from Winston Churchill to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to Beyonce and Jay-Z. Don’t leave for the day without strolling through the gardens and jumping into the stunning infinity pool.
In the waterfront town, grab a late lunch at the 60-seat restaurant by I Gemelli. Owned by twin brothers, Matteo and Paolo Giovannini, the mostly open-air restaurant caused a stir when it opened in 2018, as change is slowly coming to Portofino. But because the family has been in local hospitality for eight generations, they were warmly welcomed. Whatever the lovely brothers recommend, remember that Liguria is the birthplace of pesto – the restaurant offers two versions, one with trofie pasta and the other with trenettes. “I’m the king of pesto!” Matteo is very proud to say.
Now walled, discover the yachts and seaside art galleries of Portofino. Then it’s time to beachcomb, so head north on foot. Within minutes you’ll be treated to the sight that launched a thousand calendars and Instagram photos – Cannone Bay, the little cove that rests beneath a pair of pink and ocher washed villas. After a cool swim between the sea stacks, stay north along the coastal road. It’s about 15 minutes from the sandy Baia di Paraggi beach, with its small row of restaurants and beach clubs. You can swim for hours in the calm, sheltered bay, and if you’re still around for dinner, Eight restaurant’s top picks on the waterfront include buffalo mozzarella with ribbed tomato salad and roasted artichokes, and linguine with clams and chopped pistachios.
Day 2: Riomaggiore and Manarola
The iconic Cinque Terre (Five Lands), about 90 minutes away by train, has so much to offer that it would be insane and stressful to try to get a feel for it all in one day. Divide it. Continue straight to the easternmost village, Riomaggiore, which dates from the 13th century. This fishing village, located in a valley, rises from a small swimmable creek. It is said that the rustic tower houses were painted in bright and varied colors so that fishermen could spot them on their way home.
Hungry? Dau Cila is so well placed at the mouth of the creek, offering such stunning views, that it doesn’t have to be as good as it is. Even the interior, with its rock faces and vaulted whitewashed ceilings, is memorable if you can’t get a table outside. Continue your knowledge of pesto, because the preparation of Dau Cila – with green beans – is flavorful and uniquely textured.
Like most other Cinque Terre villages, this is a car-free pedestrian scene, and walking is one of the joys of the destination. There are narrow passages, hidden staircases, murals, terraces and paths along the vineyards to explore. How high and how steep you want to climb is up to you, but it goes without saying that you should wear comfortable shoes.
And for those in great shape, one of the signature Cinque Terre experiences is walking from village to village. By train, it only takes a few minutes between towns, but since there’s a big hill between Riomaggiore and Manarola, allow an hour to conquer the top of the Via Beccara walking path. Avoid midday and humid conditions. The ascent, a seemingly endless series of steep stone stairs, is extremely difficult, but you know you’re close to the top when you encounter winemakers carrying crates of grapes. From the vantage point you can see the hilltop town of Corniglia (the third of the Cinque Terra “lands”) and the spectacular and panoramic coastline.
The descent to Manarola is also steep, but the hike goes faster. In about 20 minutes you will see the pink tower houses of the city. At the bottom, reward yourself with a swim in the creek or jump off a rock like a local. Once you’ve wiped yourself clean, if you’re walking the curved path and away from town, look back to see the view captured on the cover of the novel beautiful ruins. You won’t be the only one. This is where everyone waits for the sunset over the sea.
Day 3: Sori and Camogli
Take the train west for stunning scenery and bragging rights – you may be the only American in Sori, about 20 km away. Bagni Savoia, right on the Lido, is a friendly place where you can taste the best antipasto di mare of your life. Owner Rossella Grassi will do this generously with a hearty version that includes mussels, clams, langoustines, octopus, sardines, potatoes and the catch of the day, thinly sliced.
The town square looks like something out of a post-war Italian film, with locals crowding the square, couples licking cones of gelato, children playing football and more, all centered around from the Chiesa di Santa Margherita di Antiochia in the square. Perhaps the most unusual thing about Sori is the public swimming pool that protrudes from the black pebble spiaggia (beach). For a few euros you can swim a few lengths and then relax with an Aperol spritz at the adjacent beach bar, Benvenuti a Bordo, while admiring the cypress trees towering over the seaside cliffs.
On the way back, between Sori and your hotel, is Camogli, a popular resort at the northwestern base of the Portofino peninsula. The beach here is wide with smooth gray stones, and you’ll notice that many of the pastel houses above the promenade are decorated with the Ligurian version of trompe-l’œil (trick of the eye), where the colorful shutters , bricks, stones, and elaborate window frames look real from a distance, but on closer inspection they reveal themselves to be meticulously realistic frescoes. You might want to linger and skip a traditional dinner to sample different versions of Genovese focaccia and various pies at one of Camogli’s best bakeries, such as Revello Focacceria or Panificio In Scio Canto.
Day 4: Monterosso al Mare
If you’ve planned well, your flight from Milan isn’t due until the evening, which means you can fly to Monterosso al Mare, the closest Cinque Terre town to Portofino. It’s actually the least characteristic, least hilly and dizzying village, and it has the most sandy beach, but don’t expect ordinary. The main spiaggia is divided into two crescents by a rock pyramid, making it one of the most recognizable and beautiful beaches in the world.
If you stroll along the seafront, dotted with green and orange striped umbrellas, a surprise awaits. Right at the edge of Fagina Beach, past the cafes, focaccarias and gelaterias, is a curious and fascinating sight: Il Gigante, a 40-foot classical-style sculpture of Neptune sitting on the side of the cliff. The nearby bar, also called Il Gigante, is a nice place to grab a panini or bruschetta, but your eye will continue to be drawn to the artistry of sculptor Arrigo Minerbi.
The giant is a little over a century old and it lost its arms during Allied bombing during World War II. Otherwise, it looks like it’s been here forever – a sentinel watching over one of Italy’s most spectacular coastlines, keeping it safe for your next inevitable visit.