The shining star of Italy’s Liguria region, the Italian Riviera stretches lazily along the Mediterranean connecting the South of France to Tuscany. Along that crescent-shaped coastline, you’ll find hidden turquoise coves sprinkled between stunning pastel-colored seaside towns.
After visiting Cinque Terre on our honeymoon, Dave and I were excited to head back to this beautiful part of Italy to see more. For this visit to the Italian Riviera, we chose Santa Margherita Ligure as our base of operation. With a central location along the coast and an abundance of reasonably-priced accommodations, it seemed like the perfect choice (and, indeed, it turned out to be).
We arrived in Santa Margherita Ligure after a ferry ride from our last stop on Elba Island and a 3-hour drive up Italy’s western coast. With just 3 days to explore the region, we wanted to limit our focus primarily to the stretch of coastline from Rapallo to Camogli, including Santa Margherita, Portofino and San Fruttuoso.
For our stay, we opted for an apartment instead of a hotel, which turned out to be the ideal home away from home. The Apartamenti un Mondo Per Te was a spacious, centrally-located, one-bedroom apartment with air conditioning, free wifi, a washing machine, a full kitchen and a terrace overlooking a lovely street. It was fantastic! And, more importantly, it was a steal at less than $150 a night.
First stop, Camogli!
After settling into our apartment, we wanted to make the most of the remaining sunlight hours with a trip over to Camogli. Our apartment hostess was kind enough to provide us with train and ferry schedules, maps and a little local advice to get us started. She recommended taking the train to Camogli as it was the quickest way to get there, just two stops away.
Thanks to her map, we easily located the train station and arrived with just 10 minutes to wait for the next train. It was a quick and painless train ride and in less than 15 minutes we were stepping off the train high above the beaches of Camogli.
Still an authentic fishing village at heart, Camogli’s name derives from case delle mogli, (the wives’ houses) in a tribute to the women left behind when the husbands went fishing. These days it’s a popular holiday spot for Milanese looking to escape the city for the weekend.
The pictures I’d seen of Camogli were drop-dead gorgeous but, skeptic that I often am, I was sure the real thing couldn’t live up to the images online.
I’m happy to say I was wrong. Dead wrong.
We began the descent down several flights of stairs and meandered between buildings as we made our way toward the coast. I couldn’t wait to get a glimpse of the beach and as we descended down one final set of stairs we emerged in the middle of a spectacular scene.
A sparkling, aquamarine sea lapping a rocky shore lined shoulder-to-shoulder with tanned holiday goers enjoying the sun’s remaining rays. Tall, brightly-painted villas lined the broad, curving beach along with a variety of cafes, shops and restaurants. It was mesmerizing.
We wandered the waterfront for a while, stopping in several shops before settling in for a glass of wine to enjoy the view. After sunset, we hopped back on the train, arriving back in Santa Margherita in time for a delicious dinner and a limoncello nightcap on our balcony.
Day 2 in the Italian Riviera – San Fruttuoso & Portofino
The next morning, we awoke to another beautiful day in paradise.
We spent some time in the morning exploring the streets of Santa Margherita and walking along the marina (drooling over yachts, of course!). Then we bought ferry tickets to the day’s ultimate destinations – San Fruttuoso and Portofino.
Without a doubt, ferries are the best (and certainly most scenic) way to get around the Italian Riviera. Boats run regularly from Santa Margherita’s main ferry terminal to a variety of destinations including Genoa, Portofino, Rapallo, Camogli and Cinque Terre.
The cost ranges from 5 to 30 euro round-trip depending on your destination. You can find more information on the ferries here.
A little before lunch time we boarded our ferry and got our first look at the coastline from the sea. Like our ferry trips in Cinque Terre, this was definitely my favorite way to experience the region. The views of the coastline were outrageously beautiful.
From Santa Margherita, the ferry first made a brief stop in Portofino to let off and take on passengers – a tease, really – before moving on to our first stop for the day, the azure cove of San Fruttuoso.
Secluded San Fruttuoso
You’ve probably never heard of San Fruttuoso, most people haven’t. Even those who consider themselves well-traveled within Italy. This secluded Italian cove is perhaps all the more desirable because of the difficulty in reaching it.
Access is only by water or a hearty hike and the nearest parking is more than an hour away in Portofino. However, during the summer months, ferries regularly make the trip from both Camogli and Santa Margherita Ligure.
The facilities in San Fruttuoso are minimal – no hotels and just one small restaurant – but what this picturesque spot lacks in convenience, it more than makes up for with a fantastic beach and two worthy attractions.
The first is an ancient Benedictine monastery that holds the burial vaults of the aristocratic Doria family of Genoa. At one time boats moored directly beneath the monastery’s supporting arches before nature decided to add a lovely beach to the already scenic spot.
The cove’s second attraction is a little harder to see, in fact it’s underwater. The Christ of the Abyss is a larger-than-life bronze statue situated just offshore about 50 feet under the sea.
Over the years, the site has become somewhat of a shrine for divers and you’ll see a steady stream of them emerging from the water during an afternoon on the beach.
In clear waters, it’s possible to see Christ’s outstretched arms raised toward the source of light from a glass-bottom boat but for those wishing to stay on dry land, there’s a replica in the church next to the monastery.
After spending a little time enjoying the scenery in San Fruttuoso we hopped on the next ferry back to Portofino for lunch. I’d visited Portofino once before, on a Mediterranean cruise, and completely fell in love with it. In all of my travels, I’ve found there are few places in the world that truly live up to their hype. Portofino is one of those places and I couldn’t wait to share it with Dave.
In fact, I’d hoped we could spend a night or two there but with only a few hotel options the local rates were more than we wanted to spend so we stuck to more affordable Santa Margherita. However, there is definitely a stay at the spectacular Belmond Hotel Splendido in my future someday.
As you cruise into Portofino’s petite harbor, the pastel-colored buildings and luxurious yachts make you think you’ve sailed quietly into a movie set. It truly doesn’t seem real. More like Italy brought to you by Walt Disney.
The town is part Italian fishing village, part famous holiday resort and attracts a variety of visitors from tourists and celebrities to artists in search of inspiration.
Ironically, in this luxe destination, one of Portofino’s best experiences is free: a hike along one of the scenic natural park trails that criss-cross the hilltops offering some of the Italian Riviera’s best views.
After a short hike, we chose to spend the rest of the afternoon strolling Portofino’s cobbled streets checking out the shops, sipping wine over lunch and enjoying the views of our magnificent surroundings. There is simply no better way to spend an afternoon on the Italian Riviera.
As dinner time approached, we caught the ferry for the quick 30-minute, scenic ride back to Santa Margherita. We found a terrific restaurant in a piazza near the apartment for dinner before again retiring back to our temporary Italian home for a limoncello on the terrace.
And that, my friends, is how you spend a day on the Italian Riviera.
Last Day in Italy
For our final day on the Italian Riviera, I wanted to see the nearby town of Rapallo.
Since it was just a mile or two away from Santa Margherita, we decided to walk and take in the views of the coastline along the way. It turned out to be a fabulous decision because the walk was just as beautiful as the destination.
The area between the two towns is lined with quiet beaches, exclusive boutique resorts and even the occasional castle. Not to mention a lavish marina filled with elegant sailboats and luxurious mega-yachts. It was a lovely walk and the perfect way to end our short stay on the Italian Riviera.
Once back at the apartment, it was time to pack up and make the 2 ½ hour drive to Milan for our flight to Germany.
Dave will again be working in Germany for the next few weeks and (because I can never sit still) I’ll be meeting up with my friend Shannon (of numerous previous travel adventures!) for a week-long road trip through Germany, Liechtenstein, France, Belgium and Luxembourg.
It’s been another incredible adventure with my husband through Ireland and Italy these past few weeks. We absolutely loved Ireland but Italy will always hold the most special place in our hearts since we got married here. It seems like every time we return to this diverse country we find even more reasons to love it.
Ciao for now Italia! We’ll be back.