When it comes to basking in the beauty of the Italian Riviera, the Cinque Terre is tops for me. But there's much more to this region on the Mediterranean coast than those famous five villages.
A handful of charming towns lie within an hour of the Cinque Terre, with posh ports set against rugged mountain backdrops that have drawn poets, authors, and romantics over the years from Lord Byron to Elizabeth Taylor.
To the north of the Cinque Terre is a trio of beach towns: Levanto, the northern gateway to the Cinque Terre; Sestri Levante, stunningly situated on a narrow peninsula flanked by two beaches; and Santa Margherita Ligure, a thriving city with an active waterfront and easy connections to yacht-happy Portofino. At the south end of the Cinque Terre is the pretty resort of Porto Venere.
When most people imagine the "Italian Riviera," they're thinking of the shimmering resort towns north of the Cinque Terre, with their big, stately, Old World hotels looming over crowded pebble beaches. Here, fastidiously landscaped parks and promenades are jammed with more Italian visitors than American tourists.
These towns can be user-friendly home bases for day trips along the Riviera coast, but they're also worth visiting in their own right. After exploring the villages and trails of the Cinque Terre, they can feel like a return to civilization — for reasons both good and bad (modern amenities, urban scene, traffic).
Levanto, just minutes north by train of the Cinque Terre resort town Monterosso, is the handiest. Graced with a long, sandy beach, it's packed in summer with surfers and families. The rest of the year, it's just a small, sleepy town with kids playing in the square and locals whizzing around on bicycles. Levanto also offers an easy, level hike (or bike ride) to the sleepy village of Bonassola. Serious hikers can do the no-wimps-allowed hike to Monterosso.
A bit farther away, and with a little less train service, is Sestri Levante, a charming town on a peninsula squeezed as skinny as a hot dog between two crescent beaches. One of the bays — Baia delle Favole — is named in honor of Hans Christian Andersen, who visited in the mid-1800s (favole means "fairy tale").
The most appealing town north of the Cinque Terre — but also the most distant (one hour by train) — is Santa Margherita Ligure. This easygoing, old-school resort town has an enjoyable urban bustle and a handful of sights (including the Baroque Basilica of Santa Margherita), along with easy access to posh Portofino. While Portofino's velour allure is tarnished by a nonstop traffic jam in peak season, Santa Margherita Ligure has a breezy harborfront with a beach promenade, and its aristocratic architecture hints at old money.
From Santa Margherita Ligure, you can take a bus to Portofino, but a boat makes the 15-minute trip with more class and scenery, and without the traffic jams. You can also hike between the towns, either following the sidewalk along (and sometimes hanging over) the sea (2.5 miles), or you can take a quieter two-hour hike high into the hills.
Portofino is the movie star's Italian Riviera. The yacht-harbor resort with grand scenery — and its sleek jewelry shops, art galleries, and haute couture boutiques filling a humble village shell — has the sheen of new money. It's the kind of place where the sailing masts are taller than the houses and church steeples. But the piccolo harbor, classic Italian architecture, and wooded peninsula make Portofino an appealing destination nonetheless.
More out of the way (and better as a day trip) is Porto Venere, south of the Cinque Terre. This enchanting seafront village is perfect for a scenic boat or bus ride. An antidote to the gritty transportation hub of La Spezia just around the bay, this enchanting resort is as scenic as the Cinque Terre towns — but with a bit of glitz. The village clings to a rocky, fortress-crowned promontory. A rainbow of tall, skinny pastel facades rises up from an inviting harborfront promenade.
Porto Venere is fun to explore, especially if you climb up-up-up behind town for increasingly better views. Porto Venere faces not the open sea but the beautiful Gulf of La Spezia — more romantically known as the Gulf of Poets — where Lord Byron was said to have gone for a hardy swim despite rough seas and local warnings to the contrary. (He survived…at least, for a little while longer.) Scanning the bay, you'll see the outskirts of muscular La Spezia, the often-snow-covered peaks of the Apuan Alps, the resort town of Lerici, and — across a narrow strait — the rugged island of Palmaria.
Whether it's glitz and glamour, beach relaxation, or hearty hiking that inspires you, choose one or more of these gems for a classic Italian Riviera experience.