La Riviera di Levante:
Genoa to La Spezia

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Extending about 110 miles, with the sparkling Mar Ligure on one side and sun-bathed hillsides on the other, this is one of the most famed itineraries in all of Italy. The road winds over rocky cliffs, around wind-swept promontories, through ageold pine forests and past colorful fishing villages on its way to the tiny cove at Portofino and the vast bay at La Spezia. As spectacular as it is, in summer it is a maddening snarl of holiday traffic, complicated by tour buses and commercial vehicles, which perhaps is why it is so easy to travel from town to town by boat in this part of the world. We suggest you leave your car (in Genoa, Camogli, Santa Margherita Ligure, Rapallo, Levanto, Portovenere or Lerici) and travel by water, stopping in Camogli, the first of many charming villages you'll see on this trip. No great museums or exquisite churches here, just a peaceful fishing civilization that has existed pretty much unchanged for centuries. Get out and walk through the ramshackle streets and stairways, watch the workmen on the beach, linger for a granita di caffè at one of the cafes. Then take the boat (or walk the three-hour trail, marked with blue dots) to San Fruttuoso, an isolated fishing village reached only by sea or on foot. You can visit its recently restored abbey, which has a 13th-century church and a lovely Romanesque cloister. Then hop on the next ferry to Portofino or, if you're in fairly good shape, take the beatiful 2-hour hike instead. A well-marked trail winds around the headland, past countless wild flowers and sweet-smelling herb bushes.

For decades, Portofino (pictured at right) was Italy's premiere seaside resort town. There's now a wider choice of favorites, but this tiny multicolored village and its miniature cove are still among the most beautiful spots on earth, and certainly no traveler to Liguria should miss the sight. However, summer crowds can be atrocious, so you may not care to linger in town for a long time. Some relaxing alternatives are the walk to San Giorgio church, a stroll in the gardens surrounding castle Brown, the 20-minute walk to the lighthouse (signposted as "al faro") or the longer hike to Monte Portofino, a protected nature reserve just beyond the village. Or walk three miles in the direction of Santa Margherita Ligure, to the beach at Paraggi.

From Rapallo you can take a ferry to the picturesque fishing village of Sestri Levante, which faces onto two bays divided by a narrow strip of houses. Rising above the town is a rocky promontory crowned by the church of San Nicola. Boats leave from here for Monterosso al Mare, a starting point for exploration of the Cinqueterre, or travel farther on to Portovenere, a captivating town on the northern headland of the Bay of La Spezia, where Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned. This area has been inhabited since prehistoric times, and its strategic location accounts for its fortified nature, which culminates in the Genoese castle overhanging the very tip of the promontory. Next door, the 13th-century church of San Pietro has many 6th-century elements inside. The 12th-century church of San Lorenzo, above the port, has a romanesque façade. Lord Byron and D.H. Lawrence loved this haunting spot, which is often overlooked by foreign travelers.

Ferries travel often from Portofino to Santa Margherita Ligure, a pleasant town that makes a great base, and to Camogli or Rapallo, another fine resort town with a Roman bridge, a Baroque cathedral, a frescoed leper house and some great lace shops. There's a fairy-tale castle in the middle of the harbor, and a breathtaking cable car that goes up to the 16th-century sanctuary of Montallegro.

If you have driven to Portovenere, or if you aren't tired of boats yet, take one to the island of Palmaria to see its wonderful blue grotto, or visit the 11th-century abbey on the island of Tino, or Isola Tinetto's 6th-century monastery. Then head south (by boat or car) to the other side of the bay, where you'll find the lively resort town Lerici (pictured at left). Above its busy yacht harbor is a beautifully preserved 6th-century castle that is said to have inspired Shelley's wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, to write Frankenstein. It is definitely worth a visit. Afterwards, relax in one of the town's many cafes, watch the boats come in and out, wait for sundown and then get ready to enjoy some of Lerici's fun-filled night life

If you have time for one more side trip, make it the four-mile drive to Sarzana, a lovely hilltown with two medieval fortresses, a handsome set of 15th-century ramparts and a Renaissance cathedral. On the way back to Lerici, treat yourself to lunch in Ameglia, at one of Italy's most renowned restaurants, the nationally acclaimed seafood haven called Paracucchi.


More details about our independent travel package.

San Fruttuoso's Abbazia di Capo di Monte is open 10am-1pm and 2-6pm.

In Rapallo, the leper house (Casa di San Lazzaro) is in Via Bana; the cathedral is at Via Filippo Neri 1.

Portovenere's castle is open daily with a midday break in summer, and from 2-5 pm in winter.

Lerici's castle is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10:30am-12:30pm and 2:30-6pm.

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