Italy’s Ligurian Coast: Si, Per Favore

Beside the Ligurian Sea in Santa Margherita Ligure, Italy

Fancy a wander beside the seashore? Love seafood, wine and the architecture of a bygone era?

Unconvinced there’s beauty left in the world simply because you haven’t seen it for awhile?

Sounds like you could use a trip to the Ligurian Coast of Italy, also known as the Italian Riviera.

Here’s a map of the Ligurian Coast, which is found in the far northwest corner of Italy. The town in the lower left corner, Ventimiglia, abuts France’s Côte d’Azur, also known as the French Riviera. In a continuation on a relaxing seaside theme, the Italian version of this stretch of coastline is called the Italian Riviera.

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My traveling companion in Italy was my travel writer pal Alyssa, and the Ligurian Coast portion of our mid-May journey lasted three days. We started out from the delightful city of Genoa (aka Genova); meandered 16 miles (25 km) to cliffside Nervi and the fishing mecca of Camogli; spent a couple of nights in the seaside resort town of Santa Margherita Ligure; and swanned around tony Portofino.

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Roses in the Parchi di Nervi

Nervi

Set about 20 minutes southwest of Genoa, the former fishing village of Nervi seems to have one modern-day purpose: to delight you. By all means, park the car and give it a chance to do so.

Our greatest joy here was taking time to smell the roses, quite literally. Created from the gardens of three 19th-century villas (including what is now the graceful Museo Giannettino Luxoro), the 22-acre Parchi di Nervi was fairly fluffy with roses, including a bloom almost as big as Alyssa’s head.

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Alyssa and the Giant Rose of Nervi

At the end of the garden, an arched doorway leads to the cliffside Passeggiata Anna Garibaldi, where you can, y’know, passeggiata alongside the Ligurian Sea. Take a seat and linger over a limonata ice or just chuckle at the sign for this incongruously family-friendly restaurant

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Fishing boats and limonata ice along the seaside walk in Nervi

If you want to make more of a day of your visit here, bring a picnic and blanket so you can hang out in the park (like everyone else in town), and check out the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, the Raccolte Frugona, and the Wolfsonia, all full of Italian artwork and objects from the 18th and 19th centuries. 

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The fishing village of Camogli

Camogli

The famous annual fish-fry here is held the second weekend in May, and was Alyssa’s inspiration for this trip. Sadly, we didn’t actually make it to Camogli (pronounced “cah-MO-lee“) until the festivities were wrapping up for the day; all we managed to see was a dispersing crowd and an enormous vat of cooking oil…minus a whole lot of fried fish.

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Ground Zero for the Camogli Fish Fry = an enormous vat of oil

Why were we so late? Well, between a leisurely wander through Nervi and up into the surrounding hills, a jaunt up a long, forested driveway to the magnificent Art Nouveau-era Portofino Kulm (which is now closed/not accepting reservations), and then having to park a half-mile outside of Camogli itself, we simply ran out of time. The hilltop Portofino Kulm was an especially satisfying trade-off, though, offering stunning views of two Italian seas: the Ligurian and the Tyrrhenian. 

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Portofino Kulm, high above Camogli and the Ligurian Sea

Missing an epic fish-fry on a foreign continent could have served as one of the most disappointing travel failures of our lives, but instead we rallied in style. We wandered into the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, the largest and snazziest church in town; ate an insanely delicious focaccia al fromaggio (cheese bread) from a popular bakery called Revello; and just shy of golden hour, plunked down at a cafe on the seaside passeggiata to enjoy glasses of Vermentino, a rich Ligurian varietal of white wine.

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Clockwise from left: Santa Maria Assunta, a little Vermentino and Camogli’s harbor

Schlepping back up the town’s steep hill and past its cemetery, we were too busy laughing and telling each other stories to give (much) thought to the seafood feast we’d missed. 

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Santa Margherita Ligure in its pastel glory

Santa Margherita Ligure

This flowery, romantic 19th-century resort town is straight out of a Merchant Ivory film. Our home base for two nights was the Hotel Metropole, which felt like a sweetly outdated cruise ship that’s come into harbor for the last time. The public areas, especially the breakfast patio, feel comfortable and breezy, but considering the hotel’s elegant surroundings, the bric-a-brac furnishings in many rooms seem nothing short of dowdy. However, the Metropole is not without its consolations: an on-site spa, a little beach/patio amidst lush vines and palms, wide balconies with comfy chairs, and free Wi-Fi all over the hotel. 

The view from my and Alyssa’s room at the Hotel Metropole

SML itself looks like a series of picture postcards: window-boxes and hanging baskets stuffed full of geraniums; striped bathing tents from an era when people only waded while fully clothed; a jumble of small courtyards and piazzas; and little rowboats bobbing in the marina. 

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Postcard scenes from Santa Margherita Ligure

Our first night in town was a Monday, when many restaurants are closed; however, we managed to have a cozy meal at the casual Caffé del Porto. At close to 10pm, we were just about the only patrons, but I was thrilled by my grilled branzino, potatoes, tomatoes and pine nuts in olive oil, paired with a glass of Albarola, an especially crisp white Ligurian wine. 

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Grilled branzino at Caffe del Porto

The greatest joy of our visit here was an almost hour-long stroll past secret coves, stone castles perched high above the sea, and through a flurry of woods, depositing us in the legendary gorgeousness of Portofino.

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It’s a beautiful hour’s walk from Santa Margherita Ligure to Portofino

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The harbor at Portofino

Portofino

A little port town with a big bank account, this is a yacht-lined crescent of pretty that begs for white linen and a happy sigh. From the hand-painted ceramic signs to the walkways inlaid with smooth pebbles in intricate patterns, you can count on Portofino for great views of the Ligurian Sea, tourists in shiny outfits, and tiny glasses of limoncello that cost €9. 

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Me and Alyssa amidst the beauty of Portofino

Our ultimate destination, though, was the magnificent Hotel Splendido, way, way up above the town. Alyssa had arranged a site tour and dinner for us at this Orient-Express luxury property, the kind of place where before you’re even at the front door, valet is stacked with Ferraris…and the view is of the Ferrari family’s summer home.

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The (heartbreaking) view from the Hotel Splendido

I don’t think either of us will ever recover from our brush with this level of airy and heartbreaking glamour. I mean, for God’s sake, we saw the Barefoot Contessa lolling in the piano bar with her husband. She looked shocked to be sharing space with riff raff like us, but we soothed our bruised egos with exquisite cocktails, seafood, pasta and a bread basket that could make you weep.

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The dining deck at the Splendido

The main problem with not staying overnight in Portofino (not to mention the Splendido), is that once you’re done with dinner, you have to get home. Neither the ferry nor the bus back to Santa Margherita Ligure run at night, so you either have to hoof it for an hour in the dark, or take a cab ride that amounts to about $60 US.

Consider instead coming to Hotel Splendido for lunch. Then, contemplate a world in which you’d never have to leave again. 

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The Cinque Terre town of Vernazza

Cinque Terre 

Alyssa and I didn’t visit the Ligurian Coast’s famous Cinque Terre on this trip, but I’d highly recommend that you do so if you’re planning a trip to this area. Five of the most distinctive, romantic, drop-dead gorgeous seaside villages in Italy, the whole lot can be visited in a day, using Santa Margherita Ligure as your base. Personally, though, I’d recommend staying in the Cinque Terre and making 2-3 days of it.

Having once driven to the Cinque Terre, I can attest that it’s a terrible idea. Parking is difficult in every town, the roads are narrow, and you’ll really want to look at the scenery rather than concentrate on not going over a cliff.

Instead, take a train from Santa Margherita Ligure to Monterosso (one hour each way, starting at €4.70 per adult); if you’re very fit, you can walk between towns from here, or simply hop on and off the train to explore. Or, from April to September, you can take a ferry from Santa Margherita Ligure to the Cinque Terre (€33 per adult for an 8-hour round trip journey with stops in all five towns).

For more info on the Cinque Terre, check out: Italy’s Cinque Terre: Part One & Italy’s Cinque Terre: Part Two

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This mid-May journey along the Ligurian Coast was one of the most beautiful trips I’d ever taken, and I felt lucky to be sharing it with a dear friend. Our stay in Santa Margherita Ligure’s Hotel Metropole and our afternoon cocktails and dinner at the Hotel Splendido were all complimentary, but the opinions and observations presented here are my own. 

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