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Exploring Portofino and the Italian Riviera

Sun, sea, sand and scenery – the staple ingredients of any holiday, and the Italian Riviera has all four in abundance, with a liberal sprinkling of fine food and wine thrown in. Meeting the more famous French Riviera at Italy’s northwest border, the scenic Italian Riviera lies on the Ligurian Coast and has been an essential stop on tours of Europe for centuries. Here are just a few of the many highlights on this enchanting stretch of the Italian coast.

The jewel in the crown – Portofino

If the Italian Riviera is the crown of Italy’s northern coastline, then photogenic Portofino is most definitely its sparkling jewel. Lying east of Genoa and founded in Roman times, this former fishing village found favour as an upmarket holiday resort in the 19th century, when wealthy aristocrats began to visit and build luxury villas on its leafy slopes. By the 1950s its picturesque harbour was frequented by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor, cementing its status as an indulgent holiday destination for the jetset. These days the summer yachts of the well-to-do rather outnumber the fishing boats, but the harbour is still the focal point of this charming village, and if you’re lucky, you may even glimpse a dolphin or two.

As you’d expect from a luxury resort, designer boutiques such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Hermes are firmly in evidence amongst Portofino’s elegant ochre buildings, but there’s still plenty to do if you’re there on a budget. Follow the brick pathways through the pines and palms of the hills behind to the exquisite Church of San Giorgio and on to the 16th century fortress of Castello Brown, which is open from 10am to 7pm in summer and until 5pm in winter. For lovers of modern art, the Museo del Parco, a terraced sculpture garden, is a must-see. If you feel like venturing further afield, take the two-hour trip to San Fruttuoso to see a 13th century Benedictine abbey by the sea.

Being a seaside village, it’s no surprise that seafood features heavily on the menus of Portofino’s many restaurants, which are mostly clustered around the harbour and have high service charges. After an aperitivo at convivial wine bar La Barrique, try some local Genovese specialities, such as green minestrone, at Ristorante Puny in Piazza Martiri dell’Olivetta – expect to pay around €65 a head (excluding wine), and note that it’s closed on Thursdays.

Where to stay – if money is no option, the luxurious Hotel Splendido offers a choice of either a harbour or hillside location and will set you back a whopping €880 a night, including breakfast. Alternatively, Domina Home Piccolo offers you the chance to stay in an elegant period villa for a cheaper nightly rate, and the 4-star resort hotel Eight Hotel Portofino is another good option. If you’re on a budget, you’re better off staying a little further along the coast in Santa Margherita Ligure.

The best of the rest…

Sanremo – home to the popular Sanremo Music Festival, and the city in which artist and writer Edward Lear lived and died, Sanremo is noted for its casino but loved for the quaint streets and alleyways of its Medieval quarter, La Pigna. Its hilltop symbol is the Madonna della Costa Sanctuary, which is well worth a visit for its stunning altar and paintings. The town is large enough that hotels stay open all year round, making it a good base for your exploration of the region at any time of year.

Ventimiglia – just 7km from France, Ventimeglia is worth a visit just for its bustling Friday market, where you can haggle for bargain prices on leather goods and much more. Ventimiglia also has a beautiful Medieval old town and some 2nd century Roman ruins, and it’s less expensive than many other towns on the Italian Riviera.

Rapallo – the largest seaside town on the Italian Riviera, Rapallo is famous for its interesting castle, which was built in 1551 on an outcrop of rocks in the sea and protected the town from attacks by pirates. The 8-minute funicular ride to hilltop Montallegro is well worth it for the beautiful views.

Cinque Terre – this rocky stretch of coastline is home to a stunning national park, a UNESCO World Heritage site that encompasses a number of quintessentially Ligurian villages built into the cliffs, which are much beloved of tourists. It can be difficult to access this region during winter, when it can suffer from flooding, so time your visit between mid-March and mid-October; August is best avoided, as it’s peak season and therefore significantly more expensive.

Genoa – no tour of the Italian Riviera would be complete without a mention of the region’s capital, the port city of Genoa. Famous for being the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, whose house of birth can still be seen in Piazza Dante, part of its old town is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Other attractions of this often overlooked city include its thriving port, aquarium (Europe’s largest) and the Mercato Orientale, a fabulous food market selling everything from delightfully fresh fruit to exquisite cured meats.

The Italian Riviera features so many incredible destinations that it’s impossible to mention them all here. If you've been on a tour of europe recently, what are your Italian Riviera highlights?

Share your experiences and recommendations in the comments below!

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This article was written by Rachel McCombie, a travel writer and lover of all things Italian who’s best known for her Rome blog, Rachel’s Rome Writings. Follow her on Twitter @RachelsWritings.

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