The Italian Riviera is one of the most beautiful parts of Italy. The dramatic coastline is home to colourful seaside towns, excellent hikes with panoramic sea views, and delicious regional cuisine.
The Riviera runs from the French border all the way along the Ligurian coast to the Tuscan border. This post will focus on the most popular side of the Riviera, the Riviera di Levante (“the coast of the rising sun”), from Genova to La Spezia, but we definitely recommend you check out the less-visited Riviera di Ponente (“the coast of the setting sun”) as well—see our Finale Ligure guide for details.
These 10 things to do on the Italian Riviera will help you make the most of your stay.
1) Stay in Rapallo
We spent a week visiting various towns along the coast, and on a previous trip we stayed in Cinque Terre, and it only confirmed that Rapallo is the best base to explore the Italian Riviera. It’s roughly half way between Genova and Cinque Terre and all the coast’s highlights are no more than an hour away.
Rapallo has colourful buildings and a lovely seafront promenade, but it feels less touristy than many of the popular places to stay. Portofino is busy and very expensive, the Cinque Terre villages are so tiny they get rammed with foreigners, and even Santa Margherita Ligure, which would be a good place to stay, attracts tour buses.
Rapallo feels like a real Italian town with locals shopping at the produce market and fresh pasta shops or strolling down the narrow backstreets on their evening passeggiata. It’s also cheaper than the rest of the coast with many affordable Airbnb rooms and apartments to rent.
I would also consider staying in the small village of Camogli, but there’s much less choice of accommodation and restaurants.
Read our Rapallo travel guide for more details including where to eat.
2) Travel by Train
The Italian Riviera is very accessible as trains stop at most towns along the coast (unlike the Amalfi Coast where you have to take slow nausea-inducing buses). From Rapallo, it is a three-minute train ride to Santa Margherita Ligure, eight minutes to Camogli, 40 minutes to Monterosso al Mare (the first Cinque Terre village), and an hour to Genova. And you can enjoy sea views along the way.
You can check train times and prices (which are low) on trenitalia.com. For regional trains you don’t need to book in advance—you can buy at the station machines or counter. Just remember to validate your ticket in the machines on the platform before you board the train. As we were travelling with an Interrail pass we could hop on and off any train we wanted.
3) Try Ligurian Cuisine
One of the reasons I love Liguria so much is the wonderful food. Of course, seafood is a speciality but there are also many vegetarian dishes. Pesto originates in Genova (pesto alla genovese) and this basil sauce is superb here—try it with trofie (small twists of pasta) with potatoes and green beans. Pesto is also used in lasagne al pesto, thin sheets of pasta with sauce, not at all like a typical thick meaty lasagne. Pansoti alla salsa di noci, cheese and spinach stuffed ravioli with walnut sauce, is another delicious dish found on most restaurant menus.
Don’t miss focaccia which originates from Liguria and is the tastiest we’ve eaten in Italy. This olive oil bread can be eaten plain or topped with olives, tomatoes, onions or other ingredients. It’s sold in bakeries and you usually pay by weight. A slice makes a great breakfast, snack, or light lunch.
The town of Recco near Camogli is known for its focaccia al formaggio. This bread is much thinner than typical focaccia, more like paper-thin pastry, and is stuffed with stracchino cheese and baked into warm, oozy deliciousness. Try to get it fresh out of the oven.
Another tasty snack is farinata, a thin chickpea flour pancake served in slices that’s crispy on the outside and creamy inside.
Many antipasti (starter) plates in Liguria are vegetarian or can be easily adapted to avoid fish and meat. They usually include torta di verdura, a local vegetable pie filled with cheese and greens or vegetables.
Liguria is known for its Vermentino white wine which is refreshing on a hot day. We usually got the house wine—a half-litre jug only costs a few euros.
4) Spot Trompe-L’oeil in Santa Margherita Ligure
All over the Italian Riviera you’ll notice the trompe-l’oeil or painted decorative details on buildings that trick the eye into thinking they’re real. The elegant seaside resort of Santa Margherita Ligure is one of the best places to look for it on the colourful buildings that line the promenade or further back in the historic centre.
Santa Margherita is a lovely town to wander. I especially like the pedestrianised area in the centre around Piazza Caprera with its curved street of decorated houses.
5) Walk to Portofino
Portofino is the most famous and glitzy town along the coast attracting the ultra-rich in yachts as well as the average tourist who enjoys the picturesque harbour. The best way to reach Portofino is on foot. Cars are banned from the centre, there’s no train station, and the buses are always crammed full.
From Santa Margherita Ligure it takes just over an hour. Most of the walk is flat along a pedestrian walkway that follows the coastline with fantastic views of fancy villas clinging to the cliffs. At the cute little cove of Paraggi the walk talks you up into the woods for another 15 minutes. We walked from Rapallo which adds an extra 40 minutes, but you can also get the train to Santa Margherita Ligure and walk from there.
The ferry is another good way to arrive in Portofino—you could walk there and take the ferry back. As we discovered, they don’t run if the sea is rough, though.
Portofino is very touristy and expensive but utterly gorgeous. The focal point is the cobbled piazza overlooking the small harbour where you can admire the colourful houses and fancy yachts. It’s worth splurging on a drink in one of the outdoor cafes to enjoy the view—we treated ourselves to an Aperol Spritz for €10 (with snacks) and even a soft drink will set you back €5. I would eat elsewhere, though.
It’s worth walking up to the bright yellow San Giorgio Church for the view, and if you have more energy than us, continue up to the castle beyond.
The quirky Museo del Parco sculpture garden (€5) is an overlooked thing to do on the hill leading to the church. Enjoy modern sculptures with a view.
6) Hike the Cinque Terre Villages
The five Cinque Terre villages are the most visited destinations along the coast. These colourful villages are dramatically located along the cliffs and are connected by hiking paths, trains, and ferries. Hiking is highly recommended as the trail takes you past steeply terraced vineyards and has wonderful views of the sea and picturesque villages.
The most popular trail is the Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Trail or SVA #2) which usually connects all five villages, but since devastating floods in 2011, the sections from Riomaggiore-Manarola-Corniglia have been closed (check the current status on the Cinque Terre National Park website).
We took the early morning train to Corniglia and hiked from there to Vernazza (1hr 15 mins) and on to Monterosso (1hr 30 mins) where we took the train back to Rapallo. Starting early meant it was cooler and we had the sun behind us, but we were shooting into the sun for the classic photo of Vernazza from above.
The trail is rocky so wear decent shoes (we were fine in hiking sandals), and you need to be reasonably fit as there are steep sections. We didn’t find it difficult. For more details on the hike see the In Cinque Terre and Walks of Italy websites.
All the villages are very cute, but in mid-September they were still packed with tour groups, and as they are so tiny, it felt a bit claustrophobic. Despite the crowds, the Cinque Terre are still a highlight of the Italian Riviera.
7) Visit Camogli and San Fruttuoso
Our favourite day trip on the Italian Riviera is the hike from Camogli to San Fruttuoso in the Portofino Regional Park. We had a focaccia breakfast in the cute seaside village of Camogli, hiked through the park to San Fruttuoso where an ancient abbey is the backdrop to a gorgeous bay, ate pesto lasagne for lunch, lazed on the beach, and then took the ferry back to Rapallo past the beautiful towns of Portofino and Santa Margherita. It was the perfect day.
San Fruttuoso can only be reached on foot or by ferry. Even if you don’t want to hike, I highly recommend taking the ferry to this stunning place.
I’ve written more about our perfect day in San Fruttuoso.
8) Take the Ferry
Although we mostly got around by foot and on the trains, which are cheaper and quicker, I recommend taking the ferry at least once. The journey from San Fruttuoso to Rapallo (€11, 30 minutes) was ideal as it passed through the picturesque towns of Portofino and Santa Margherita, which we’d already visited, but it was great to see them from the sea. I sat on the edge at the front of the boat, and with my feet hanging over the edge, the breeze in my hair, and stunning views passing me by I felt free and content.
Check ferry times and prices here.
9) Relax on the Beach
The beaches on the Italian Riviera aren’t the best in Italy as most of them are pebbly and crowded with the umbrellas of the quintessential Italian beach clubs. Sometimes you need a beach day, though, and there are plenty to choose from, even if you don’t want to pay to hire a sunbed. As the water in the Rapallo harbour is quite murky we walked ten minutes out of town until we discovered a small bay with clear water—perfect for a refreshing swim.
The best beach in the area is supposed to be at Sestri Levante which has a long sandy beach. We also loved our time at San Fruttuoso—the water colour is gorgeous. The Cinque Terre villages don’t have much of a beach except Monterosso where it’s fairly long and sandy.
The other side of the Italian Riviera north of Genova has longer, sandier beaches like those in Finale Ligure.
10) Visit Genova
The port city of Genova (Genoa) is usually overlooked by Ligurian visitors, but it’s worth visiting for at least a day. It’s another world from the glitzy Riviera, much grittier and more chaotic. It’s a cheaper and less touristy destination than elsewhere along the coast with lots of restaurants, museums, palaces, and charming backstreets to explore.
The historic centre is a maze of narrow lanes with washing lines dangling from crumbling buildings. Some parts feel African, others are typically Italian with wine bars serving glasses for €1 each (we’re not in Portofino anymore!) and bakeries serving up slices of focaccia and farinata. Other parts of the city are more elegant with grand palaces and a beautiful black and white striped cathedral.
Italian Riviera Map
This was my third visit to Liguria and it won’t be my last. If you like colourful villages, dramatic coastal hikes, and delicious food, don’t miss the Italian Riviera.
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