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Inside: All the best things to see and do on Tuscany’s best island escape.
After a wonderful stay in the Republic of San Marino, we are excited to move on to the next stop on this 2-week Italian adventure, the island of Elba!
But first, a few relaxing days just outside Florence at the villa where we got married. With our anniversary right around the corner, a reunion with our Italian family in Tuscany is the perfect way to celebrate!
The villa is still as magical as the day we said “I do” and I could have stayed for a month. But, alas, there are just a few days left on our trip and we have two more Italian destinations to squeeze in.
So after reluctant farewells, we hop back in the car and head for the coast.
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Where is Elba Island?
Located just off Italy’s northwestern coast, Elba Island is the largest of the nine islands that make up the National Park of the Tuscan Archipelago. The islands are Europe’s largest marine park.
It’s also the third-largest island in Italy, after Sardinia and Sicily.
What is Elba Island famous for?
Elba Island is perhaps most famous for harboring French Emperor Napoleon during his exile in 1814-15. But aside from Elba’s rich Napoleonic history, most visitors flock to Elba Island for clear blue seas and magnificent beaches rivaling those in the Caribbean.
But we’ll get to all those great reasons to escape to Elba shortly.
First, let’s cover the basics!
How to get to Elba Island
From Florence, it’s a two-hour drive west toward the coastal town of Piombino. By train, it’s a 2.5-hour ride to the station of Piombino Marittima.
From Rome, the drive takes about 3 hours or the train ride takes 3-4 hours, depending on routing.
Ferries to Elba Island depart from the port of Piombino on the mainland and run approximately every 30 minutes during the summer high season. Four ferry companies service the route: Toremar, Moby, Corsica, and Blu Navy.
Tip: The best site for booking ferries to Elba Island (or anywhere in Italy!) is FerryHopper.com.
Toremar & Moby Ferries
We booked with Toremar but later discovered that Toremar and Moby are the same company so tickets are interchangeable between the two.
Additionally, if you arrive at the terminal ahead of schedule, you can often take an earlier ferry than the one you booked. We booked in advance because our hotel offered a discounted rate code on ferry tickets that saved us nearly 20 euro each way (more on that below!).
I wasn’t sure exactly how long the drive would take from the villa, so I booked the 1:30pm ferry. We arrived at the port at 12:25pm and rolled right onto the 12:30pm ferry departure. (On the return, we booked a 12:30pm Moby ferry and ended up taking a 10:00am Toremar with our tickets. Again, no issues at all.)
How to save money on ferry tickets to Elba Island
The Moby tickets cost a few euro more each way than the Toremar tickets. Since they are interchangeable, it makes sense to book Toremar tickets to save a few euros. The ferries are not cheap, the regular price for 2 people and a car is approximately EUR 90 each way. With the discount code from our hotel, we paid between EUR 69 (Toremar) and EUR 73 (Moby).
Tip: Be sure to choose a hotel that offers a ferry discount!
Once on the boat, we are immediately impressed with the Toremar ferry. There is plenty of room to relax in air-conditioned comfort or enjoy the view from the deck. There is also a full-service café so we make use of the 1-hour ride to have lunch on the trip over.
Arrival on Elba Island
An hour after sailing away from Piombino, we arrive in the gorgeous port of Portoferraio. The colorful buildings and yacht-lined marina remind me a lot of Italy’s Maddalena Islands and I can’t wait to get ashore.
Read More: Sardinia & the Maddalena Islands
But we’ll have time to explore the island’s largest town later. For now, the first order of business is finding our hotel.
Do you need a car on Elba Island?
It’s true that Elba Island does have a very efficient public transport system. However, we found that to properly explore the island on our own schedule, it was a huge plus to have our own wheels.
And while it’s often less expensive to rent your car on the mainland, it’ll also cost you more to bring it over and back on the ferry. If you’re planning a longer stay on Elba, it might make sense to rent a car on the island just for a day or two of your stay to explore some of the beaches not as easily accessible via public transportation.
Wherever you rent, my favorite site for finding the best deal on rental cars is RentalCars.com.
Where to Stay on Elba Island
For our stay on the island, we chose the Grand Hotel Elba International.
Located on a hillside overlooking the charming town of Porto Azzurro, the hotel offers tremendous sea views at a very reasonable rate.
Another bonus? It has free parking.
Budget is important to us since we’re currently traveling for a month. However, if you’re looking for a splurge in an incredible beachfront location, there’s no better choice than the Hotel Hermitage on Biodola Beach.
The resort is made up of beachfront villas that come with their own private patios or balconies. The Hermitage also has a private jetty where guests can hire boats or go snorkeling.
We spend a few minutes settling into our room at the Grand Hotel Elba International and enjoying the gorgeous view of Porto Azzurro from our balcony.
Then, it’s time to hit the road and see what makes this island so special!
3 Reasons Elba is an Island Worthy of Exile
There many things that make up a terrific island experience – history, charm, excellent beaches – and Elba Island has them all.
1. The Napoleonic History of Elba
While many think Napoleon was “imprisoned” in Elba after his forced abdication in 1814, he actually chose the island for his exile. While he only spent 9 months in Elba, during his reign he united the island and worked to make many improvements.
Visitors to Elba can trace Napoleon’s footsteps around the island, including his primary residence (the Villa Dei Mulini) overlooking Portoferraio, the Teatro Dei Vigilanti, and the Sanctuary of La Madonna Del Monte.
Though Napoleon’s exile to Elba Island was short, he certainly left his mark. The island’s rich history is just one of many reasons to visit Elba.
2. The Charming Towns of Elba Island
Despite its diminutive size, the Island of Elba is divided into 7 communes, each very different from the next. The largest is the main town of Portoferraio.
We stop first in Portoferraio for a gelato (because Italy) and to explore the streets along the yacht-lined marina. The pastel-colored facades and profusion of flowering balconies are ubiquitous in Elba’s largest and most populous town.
Much of the island’s history can be explored right here in Portoferraio. From the imposing Linguella Fortress to Napoleon’s primary residence to the variety of historical monuments and holy places. A day spent exploring the nooks and crannies of Portoferraio is a must.
Like our earlier visit to the island of Procida, I can easily see coming back someday on our own boat to spend weeks enjoying every sandy cove and beachside trattoria this island has to offer.
The Spanish origins of the fishing town of Porto Azzurro are evident as you stroll the narrow lanes. Yachts and sailboats line the small marina and fragrant flowers arch gracefully over every shop and café.
With a wide range of accommodations and plenty of golden beaches nearby, Porto Azzurro makes an ideal home base when visiting Elba Island.
3. The Beautiful Beaches of Elba Island
Elba is known to have some of the best beaches in all of Italy and now it’s time to check them out for ourselves!
Biodola Beach & Scaglieri Beach
From Portoferraio, we head to two of the most popular beaches on the island, Biodola and Scaglieri. Unlike most beaches on Elba, Biodola Beach has fine white sand instead of pebbles.
Both Biodola and Scaglieri are surrounded by restaurants, cafes, and hotels (like the lovely Hotel Hermitage) so there are plenty of services are available for families and other sunbathers. The entire area has a Mediterranean-beach-resort vibe and makes a great place to stay for families or anyone looking for everything in one location.
These two beaches also offer some of the best sunset views on the island.
Located near Portoferraio, Sansone Beach is one of the island’s most famous. The entrance is located after Acquaviva and before the Enfola headland (the sign for the turnoff to the beach is small so these landmarks are helpful).
Reaching the beach takes a bit of a walk. There’s no official parking lot so parking is along the side of the main road near the Tre Colonne restaurant. From there, it’s a 15-minute walk down through a residential neighborhood and then onto a rocky path that winds down to the beach.
It is indeed a lovely beach, with bright white pebbles and sparkling azure waters. However, the water seems a little rough for swimming and the walk back up to the top could be a bit strenuous on a hot day.
But the best beach on Elba Island is Capo Bianco (in my humble opinion!)
From there, we drive down the road back toward Portoferraio to Capo Bianco.
This beach has a convenient pay parking lot just a few steps from a short flight of stairs leading down to the sea. Parking is EUR 6 but is free after 4:30pm. Luckily, it’s 4:35pm when we pull in!
There’s a small waterfront café just off the parking lot. From there, stairs descend down to a perfectly white stretch of beach lapped by calm, translucent turquoise waters. Dramatic limestone cliffs also make for a stunning backdrop.
Capo Bianco is my favorite of the four beaches we visited. Not just for its ease of access, but also because of its quiet, natural beauty. There are no hotels nearby, just one small café to provide anything you might need for your day at the beach.
It’s the perfect place to relax for a few hours under a brightly-colored parasol. And (as a bonus), if you’re staying in Portoferraio, you can walk here.
Dinner in Porto Azzurro
With our afternoon of beach-hopping complete, we head back toward Porto Azzurro for dinner. We discover a terrific waterfront restaurant called Delfino Verde and enjoy a fantastic meal.
Once back at the hotel, we catch the end of another brilliant sunset from our balcony before crashing into bed for the night.
Wrapping up an all-to-brief stay on Elba Island
We covered a lot of ground on our one-day driving tour of Elba Island, yet there is still so much more to see. But there’s one thing for sure, Napoleon had the right idea. This is one island worthy of exile.
And like our earlier visit to Ischia, we saved a few things to see when we come back someday…hopefully on our own boat!
The next day, it’s back to the ferry terminal to begin the journey to our final stop, Santa Margherita Ligure. We are beyond excited to end this amazing trip with 3 days in one of Italy’s most exclusive regions.
Next stop, the Italian Riviera!
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