Many travelers don't know Liguria at all. Yet "Italian Riviera" makes their eyes light up--and "Cinque Terre" makes them crazy in love. And there's the Bay of Poets for a bit of literary flair. Fishing villages of Camogli can steal a tourist's heart. And what can you say of the olive oil, some of the best in Italy?
The Ligurian arch has its capital, Genoa at its instep. Long out of favor with tourists, Genoa is making a comeback with its rebuilt port and narrow lanes called carruggi:
Leave the crowds behind at Piano's rehabilitated Porto Antico--Genoa's answer to Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco--walk under the 1960s elevated highway and into Genoa's carruggi. You've entereed Europe's largest remaining and most densely populated medieval neighborhood.
David Downie: Genoa's Port and Medieval Alleys
From Ventimiglia near the French border to La Spezia, the Cinque Terre, and the Gulf of Poets, you'll find many interesting destinations in Liguria.
Liguria has four provinces, shown on the map in various shades of gray. Each is named after the capitals: Imperia, Savona, Genoa and La Spezia. Genoa province is the most populated with almost 900,000 people. The province of La Spezia is the smallest but is dense with things for tourists to see, including Portofino, the Cinque Terre, Lerice and other fine coastal cities.
The Autostrada A10 [autostrada map] is called the Autostrada dei Fiori as it snakes along the coast from Ventimiglia to Genoa. You'll see the coastal cities and the greenhouses set on hillsides to catch the filtered sun. The rail line parallels it and gives access to even the smaller villages along the coast.
Exiting France, the first town of interest you come to is Ventimiglia, 4 miles from the border. It has a long history, starting with the Intemelii, a Ligurian tribe which resisted the Romans until 115 BC. There is a tenth century church, San Michele Archangelo, built on the foundations of a pagan temple. The cathedral or duomo is Romanesque built on the ruins of a Lombard church which sat on a Roman building. It's a popular beach resort town for Italians and for the French, who come looking for bargains in the weekly street market held on Friday. We generally stay in Ventimiglia when we've arrived at Nice Airport on our way to the Lunigiana. The hotel we like for quiet nights is on the beach and near the heart of the newer city (the older centro storico is on the hill) is the Hotel Kaly.
Sanremo you might know from a flashy songfest, but it's really an interesting city, known for its flowers and olive oil. The Art Nouveau Casino might interest you. The lower town is lively during the tourist season and there are plenty of car-free streets to make strolling a great experience. From the flashy yacht harbor can walk up the hill a bit to the more modern town, then find the gate to La Pigna, the medieval old town with winding cobbled streets and tiny piazze capped by the Madonna della Costa, which you can see in the upper center of the picture. See our Travel Guide to Sanremo.
The city of Savona hosts a fortress called Priamar as well as many museums and beaches. If your taste runs to medieval cities, Albegna has a famous old town along with diving facilities; divers like the beach for its shallow waters. You can view some of the Roman artifacts plucked from the sea at the Museo Navale Romano, the Roman Navy Museum.
One gem of this cost is Noli, a town which once spiked the sky with more towers than San Gimigiano. They weren't for powerful people to keep watch on other powerful people and the peasants, they were storehouses in a very sucessful town bounded by mountains and sea that couldn't expand. A must-see is the Romanesque Church of San Paragorio. Dating from the 11th century, it’s one of the oldest and best preserved churches in Liguria.
Finale Ligure is also quite picturesque.
Genoa is the cornerstone of this interesting province in Liguria. The rebuilt old port and Aquarium, one of the biggest in Europe, are reason enough to see this interesting city, but then there's the narrow lanes of Genoa's medieval core. Called carruggi, this is Europe's most densely populated medieval neighborhood.
Genoa is Renzo Piano's home town. The star-architect of Paris' Pompidou Center is responsible for the aquarium--Europe's most popular--made to look like a freighter. He also excogitated the spiderlike Bigo, a crane with a panoramic viewing terrace. Piano is currently at work on a whole new series of "improvements," some of which might actually improve the city. ~ Genoa's Port and Medieval Alleys
Of course, walking the city is a joy, and if you'd like some pictures and commentary, read Genoa Chiaroscuro and the Soul of a Port City.
For more on Genoa and Genoa province, see Martha's Italy: Genoa Guide.
What can you do in Genoa? There's the largest aquarium in Europe, you can go up in the Bigo panoramic lift over the rejuvinated port, and learn about the history of seafaring in the Galata Sea Museum. Like Palaces? We recommend a guided tour of the Rolli palaces in the heart of Genoa. Find out more about Genoa Activities and Tickets.
To the east of Genoa, spread over the Riviera like a string of pearls, are the resort towns of Camogli, Portofino, Rapallo, Santa Margherita Ligure and Chiavari. Near Camogli is the town of Recco, known for its focaccia al formaggio, a thin focaccia stuffed with stracchino cheese.
You know La Spezia province because you know the Cinque Terre, the five villages strung out along the coast between Levanto and Portovenere, where hiking reigns supreme. It can get crowded, even in the shoulder months.
La Spezia, the capital of the province, sits on a gulf known as the "gulf of poets" for the romantic poets Like Byron and Shelley who gathered along the gulf to swim and carry on. The smaller towns of Lerici, Tellaro, and San Terenzo are charming, old-time resort towns; in summer you can get boats from Lerici to Portovenere and the Cinque Terre. One of Italy's great strolls takes you from Lerici to San Terenzo, the town shown in the picture below. See a La Spezia Province map.
The town of Sarzana, just north of Lerici, is what I call "quietly spectacular". It's overlooked by tourists, but the compact historic center is crowded with small shops and fine restaurants and there are 2 restored castles and a church with the oldest known example of a monumental painted panel cross.
While there is something quite compelling about the months of April, May and October, one must remember that many ferry services shut down during the off season. The seaside will be booming in summer, yet that's the time when everything is happening. For a bit of detail on the weather and historic temperatures in the heart of the Italian Riviera, use the button below.
The Italian Riviera is awash in some of the finest fish in the Med. But remember, this long and narrow land is squished between the mountains and the sea, so the food has a range and complexity you might not expect. From the slopes we get pine nuts, chestnuts, and mushrooms. Lower down you'll find basil (and the important DOP Genoese Basil used in the real pesto), sweet marjoram, sage, laurel, rosemary, fennel. Rabbits like it here. So do particular wine grapes (especially vermentino) and the famous trees that make that special Ligurian olive oil. (See also: The Wines of the Cinque Terre.)
Special foods of Liguria that you shouldn't miss
When you're on vacation along the coast, you'll find places like the Albergo Ristorante Amici in Varese Ligure that serves all the traditional dishes, even the ones that haven't made it into the tourist "yum" list for their downhome and sometimes offal-ness. Don't pass up a chance to see what Ligurian mothers fed their families to keep them alive during the lean years.
Have fun on your Ligurian vacation. Eat well and prosper.