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Inside: How to make the most of 3 days in the fabulous Italian Riviera.
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 are excited to head back to this beautiful part of Italy to see more.
Planning a trip to Italy in 2023?
From jaw-dropping destinations to how to find the best gelato, here’s everything you need to know to plan your trip to Italy.
What is considered the Italian Riviera?
Located in Italy’s northwestern corner, the coastal strip between the French border and the Tuscan border is widely referred to as the Italian Riviera.
It’s divided in the center by Liguria’s capital city, the port town of Genoa.
The coastal area to the west of Genoa is called the Riviera di Ponente. And to Genoa’s east, it’s called the Riviera di Levante. For the purposes of this visit, we’re focusing on the area to the east of Genoa which includes some of Italy’s most spectacular coastline and villages.
What cities are part of the Italian Riviera?
To the east of Genoa, the most popular and most visited cities that make up the northern Italian Riviera are: Camogli, Portofino, Santa Margherita Ligure, and Rapallo.
To the south, the region also includes the five seaside towns of Cinque Terre: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. (We fell in love with them on our honeymoon!)
But for this trip, we’re laser focused on the four scenic towns from Camogli to Rapallo.
What’s the best home base to explore the Italian Riviera?
The seaside town of Santa Margherita Ligure makes the perfect home base to explore the Italian Riviera. With a central location along the coast and an abundance of reasonably-priced accommodations, it’s the ideal choice for our stay.
We arrive in colorful 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 short days to explore the region, we will limit our focus to the stretch of coastline from Rapallo to Camogli, including Santa Margherita, Portofino, and San Fruttuoso.
Where to Stay in Santa Margherita Ligure
For our stay, we opted for an apartment instead of a hotel.
The Apartamenti un Mondo Per Te is 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 is fantastic and the ideal home away from home!
And, more importantly, it’s a steal at less than $200 a night.
First up…Camogli Italy!
We settle into our apartment, then decide to make the most of the remaining sunlight hours with a trip over to Camogli.
Our apartment hostess provides us with train and ferry schedules, maps, and a little local advice to get us started. She suggests the train to Camogli as the quickest way to get there, just two stops away.
We easily locate the train station and arrive just 10 minutes before the next train. A quick and painless 15-minute ride later, we step 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’ve seen of Camogli Italy are drop-dead gorgeous but, skeptic that I often am, I’m sure the real thing can’t possibly live up to the images online.
I’m happy to say I was wrong. Dead wrong.
We begin the descent down several flights of stairs, meandering between buildings as we make our way toward the coast. I am bursting with excitement to get a glimpse of the beach.
And then we descend the final set of stairs and emerge from a narrow passageway to a spectacular scene.
The sparkling, aquamarine sea is gently lapping a rocky shore lined shoulder-to-shoulder with tanned holiday goers enjoying the sun’s remaining rays.
Tall, brightly-painted villas line the broad, curving beach along with a variety of cafes, shops, and restaurants.
It is simply mesmerizing.
We stroll the waterfront, stopping in quaint shops before grabbing a table at a seaside trattoria for a glass of wine to enjoy the view. After sunset, we hop back on the train and arrive in Santa Margherita Ligure in time for a delicious dinner and a limoncello nightcap on our lovely balcony.
Day 2 in the Italian Riviera – San Fruttuoso & Portofino
The next morning, the brightly rising sun heralds the start of another beautiful day in Italian paradise.
We spend the morning exploring the streets of Santa Margherita and walk along the marina drooling over luxury yachts. Then we buy 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 Ligure’s main ferry terminal to a variety of destinations including Genoa, Portofino, Rapallo, Camogli, and Cinque Terre.
The cost ranges from EUR 5 to 30 round-trip depending on your destination. You can find more information on the ferries here.
Just before lunchtime, we board the ferry and get our first look at the Italian Riviera coastline from the sea. Like our ferry trips in Cinque Terre and the private boat trip on the Amalfi Coast, this is definitely my favorite way to experience the region.
The views of the coastline from the sea are outrageously beautiful.
From Santa Margherita Ligure, the ferry makes its first 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 Italy
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. You’ll spot 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.
Perfect Portofino Italy
We spend some quality time enjoying the scenery of San Fruttuoso, then catch the next ferry back to Portofino for lunch.
I visited Portofino once before, on a Mediterranean cruise, and fell completely 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.
I’m excited to return and can’t wait to share it with Dave.
In fact, I originally hoped we could spend a night or two. But with only a few hotel options, the local rates are more than we wanted to spend. Instead, we chose more affordable Santa Margherita.
However, there is definitely a stay at Portofino’s 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. It’s the fancy version of our earlier dreamy stop on the island of Procida.
Things to do in Portofino
Ironically, in this luxe destination, one of Portofino’s best experiences is free. Take a hike along one of the scenic natural park trails that criss-cross the hilltops. These trails boast some of the Italian Riviera’s best views.
After a short hike, we spend the rest of the afternoon strolling Portofino’s cobbled streets. Visiting 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 approaches, we catch the ferry for the 30-minute, scenic ride back to Santa Margherita.
We discover a terrific restaurant near the apartment for dinner. Later, it’s back to the terrace of our temporary Italian home for a limoncello nightcap.
And that, my friends, is how you spend a brilliant day on the Italian Riviera.
Last Day in Italy
For our final day on the Italian Riviera, the nearby town of Rapallo is at the top of the agenda.
Since it’s just a mile or two from Santa Margherita, we decide to walk and take in the views of the coastline along the way. It turns out to be a fabulous decision because the walk is just as beautiful as the ultimate destination.
The stretch of coastline 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’s a lovely walk and the perfect way to end our short stay on the Italian Riviera.
Once back in Santa Margherita Ligure, it’s sadly time to pack up and make the 2 ½ hour drive to Milan for our flight back home.
Wrapping up a spectacular trip around Italy
It’s been another incredible adventure 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 amazing country we find even more reasons to love it.
Ciao for now Italia! We’ll be back.
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