Italian Riviera: 10 Ways to Make the Most of Your Stay

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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.

It’s most known for the glitzy harbour at Portofino and the pretty cliffside villages of the Cinque Terre, but there are many quieter coastal towns to explore as well. 

In this post I share 10 things to do in the Italian Riviera that will help you make the most of your stay, plus useful tips on exploring the area. At the end of the post you’ll find an Italian Riviera map with all the best places to visit. 

This post was originally published in February 2017 and last updated in 2021. 


Video: Best Things to Do in Italian Riviera

Where is the Italian Riviera? 

The Italian 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 in Liguria.

I also recommend you check out the less-visited Riviera di Ponente (“the coast of the setting sun”)—see our Finale Ligure guide for details.

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1) Stay in Rapallo

Rapallo, Italy promenade

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 visitors, 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 apartments to rent. We stayed in this cosy one bedroom apartment which has the perfect location right in the centre, one minute from both the sea and train station.

I would also consider staying in the pretty 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.

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2) Travel by Train

Camogli beach, Italy
The cute fishing village Camogli is less than 10 minutes from Rapallo on the 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 (use Italian place names) or ItaliaRail (easier for English speakers). 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. 

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3) Try Ligurian Cuisine

Trofie al pesto at Gnabbri, Finale Ligure
Trofie al pesto

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. Pansotti 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.

Antipasti at Ai Cuattru Canti, Finalborgo, Italy
Antipasto of farinata and vegetable pies

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.

See my guide to eating in Italy for tips on food etiquette.

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4) Spot Trompe-L’oeil in Santa Margherita Ligure

 Trompe-l’oeil in Santa Margherita LigureAll 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 Ligure on the Italian RivieraSanta 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.

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5) Walk to Portofino

Simon on the walk from Santa Margherita to Portofino
Simon on the walk from Santa Margherita 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.

Villas outside Portofino
Villas outside Portofino

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.

Walking to Portofino is one of the best things to do on the Italian Riviera

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.

Portofino from San Giorgio ChurchThe 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.

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Portofino sculpture park6) Hike the Cinque Terre Villages

Hiking the Cinque Terre trail on the Italian RivieraThe 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.

Hiking past vineyards towards Monterosso al Mare, one of the Cinque Terre villages
Hiking past vineyards towards Monterosso al Mare

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.

Walking into Vernazza from Corniglia, Cinque Terre
Walking into Vernazza from Corniglia
Vernazza from above at the start of the trail to Monterosso on the Cinque Terre hike in Italy
Vernazza from above at the start of the trail to Monterosso

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 one of the best things to do in the Italian Riviera.

Hiking into Monterosso on the Cinque Terre trail on the Italian Riviera
Hiking into Monterosso

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7) Visit Camogli and San Fruttuoso

San Fruttuoso, Italy - The hike here from Camogli in the Portofino Regional Park is amazing
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.

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8) Take the Ferry

The view of Rapallo from the ferry
The view of Rapallo from 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 (€12, 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

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9) Relax on the Beach

The beach at Monterosso one of the Cinque Terre villages
The beach at Monterosso, one of the Cinque Terre

The Italian Riviera beaches 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.

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10) Visit Genova

Palazzo San Giorgio in Genova
Palazzo San Giorgio in 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.

Backstreet in Genova, ItalyThe 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.

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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.

If you enjoyed this post, pin it!

Hiking the Cinque Terre is just one of the things I recommend you do on the Italian Riviera. Click through to find out more ways to make the most of your stay along this stunning coastline in Liguria.

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  1. It was so helpful.. we stayed in Sta margherita as a base and visit from there by train the cinqueterre, Porotfino and Camogli.. definitively we will come back.. loved the Italian riviera

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      • Hi Erin

        I am about to go into Ligutia from Nice. You don’t mention any towns to see west of Genoa. What about Sanremo or others? I inside i won’t hear from you before I go as it is in just a couple days but I am sure it is something others might be interested in. Thanks

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  2. Hello! We are 4 adults visiting Bologna and continuing to the Italian Riviera ! We are confused on which town to use as a base. First, we looked into staying in La Spezia to visit Cinque Terre and then moving to Genova to visit Portofino, St. Margherita, Rapallo. Plan B is staying in either Rapallo or St. Margharite as a base town and visiting Cinque Terre by train and the other coastal towns close by. Plan to move from Bologna by train to the coast if its time efficient.
    Thanks for your help and comments!!!

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  3. Hi we are planning a trip to the Italian Riviera in June and we are flying from Orlando Florida and what airport would you suggest we land in. And we are going to rent a house maybe in Rapello rent a car from Milan . What are your suggestions.

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    • It would depend on the best flight deal you can find. The nearest airport is Genoa, but Milan is only a couple of hours away so that could work too and may have better connections for you. Pisa is another option 2 hours away.

      I’d rent a car from whatever airport you land in.

      Norwegian Airlines has cheap flights from Orlando to London Gatwick (we usually upgrade to Premium Economy) and then you could connect to a cheap flight to Italy from there. You would need to do a self-transfer, though, and collect you bags and then check in again, so it might not be worth the hassle.

      I would play around on sites like Kiwi and Skyscanner to look at the different route options. Good luck!

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  4. Hi Erin, loved reading this. It’s really helped kinda map out our travel along the coast from Cinque Terra! You mention in your blog that you wish you had time to go to Sestri Levante, would you recommend maybe that from Monterossa al Mare (our last stay in Cinque Terre) that we travel to Sestri Levante for 2 nights before going on to Rapallo for 4 nights before going onto Genoa for 2 nights? We then intend to travel through the Riviera Di Ponente and into the French Riviera. If you have any suggestions for that coastline it would be very much welcomed! But if we do the 8 nights mentioned above, we have just 15 nights left to complete the Ponente, French Riviera and in that time make it back up to Paris where we have our final 2 nights before flying out! Thank you :-)

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