Notes From

The Italian Riviera, Reborn and Reconsidered

A road trip across Liguria.

WE AVOIDED IT for years. It was too touristy and not “Italian” enough. You can only get that “real” Italia by plunging south, we thought. So on our regular road trips from our home in Zurich‚ Switzerland — only a 2.5-hour drive from the Italian border — my husband and I always sped past Italy’s northwest regione of Liguria. Its glistening bays, cliff-dangling villages, olive groves, and vineyards tumbling to the sea were not enough to stop us from venturing deeper into the boot. Every time we did, I cringed a little at the glory of it all in the rearview mirror. There’s no reason to stop, I convinced myself. Tourists with a hunger for the new and authentic stopped going to Liguria long ago. Cinque Terre, a UNESCO site, is overrun with package tour groups and suffers all the problems of Insta mass tourism. Genoa is a gritty industrial port with a tawdry medieval core, a jarring Wellbutrin-induced port redesign, and dangerously dilapidated infrastructure. Portofino? Psshhh. You mean where our grandparents honeymooned in the 1920s? It recalls the Italo-American schmaltz and aristocratic English swanning that we avoid at all costs. In a nutshell, Liguria was lame.

As it turns out, we were wrong. Yes, Liguria has tourist towns with villas plastered in trompe l’oeil and villages cascading down to the azure sea, a scene so achingly color saturated it looks like a photoshopped screensaver. But this crescent-shaped region arcing across the Ligurian Alps and down to the sea along the Mediterranean’s northwestern coast is chock full of hidden gems and quiet greenery, and has been supporting Slow Tourism projects long before Slow Tourism was a byword for cool. In fact, Liguria is so not cool. And that’s why it’s cool.

During the pandemic, Liguria no longer saw our rearview mirror. It became our quickest access to the sea, and we were fortunate to make several getaways there to de-stress, tune out the bad news, and absorb its local rhythms. We tracked down local farmers’ markets, discovered overlooked osteria, and took walks on sea-kissed coastal paths that made the world feel better again. A long weekend here is all one needs to soak up some medicinal Med, but the longer we stayed, the more we fell for it.


Lay of the Land

Everyone’s first instinct when tackling Liguria is to travel its 160-mile length from the French border town of Ventimiglia to the city of La Spezia at the Tuscan border. This is the first mistake. Traveling this length by car or train may seem like an obvious drive-through and only takes between 3–4 hours to complete. But one of the things that made our trips so enjoyable was doing it out of sequence in order to better understand its dividing mountains, bays, bridges, and tunnels. Seeing the light fall across the Bay of Poets, witnessing a sunrise emerging from tidal fog, and catching fall foliage along the windy under-visited hinterland roads made our visits richer. More importantly, it kept us driving in the opposite direction of other tourists. So don’t be afraid to tackle Liguria piecemeal. But for the sake of sensible reading, I’ll explain our journey west to east.

Arrival: Riviera Ponente

If, like many, you’re coming to Liguria from France, prepare to gasp when you cross the border into Ventimiglia. Compared to the impeccably tidy and bourgeois French Riviera, with its manicured bougainvillea and lavender, this stretch of Liguria, called the Riviera di Ponente, can look downright derelict, with busted greenhouses, parched riverbeds, and blocky 1960s buildings tumbling down the hillsides. I first traveled this route with my dad many years ago, and right before we crossed, he warned me that these border towns were riddled with crime — a memory he had from a 1960s trip. He even, ridiculously, locked the car doors as we coasted along the autostrada, our mouths agape at the spectacle of it. While Ventimiglia remains an encampment site for African migrants seeking better lives by passing to France and Germany, it’s hardly riddled with crime. But if Ventimiglia is your first indication that Liguria is not gentrified, it’s also a smokescreen that belies the repose and beauty you can expect.

One such place of repose is the 30-acre Hanbury Botanical Garden, just two miles over the border. Its peach-hued Palazzo Orengo is a seventeenth-century masterpiece of marble loggias, and one of many vestiges of the aristocratic Genoese that define the Ligurian landscape today. Its grounds feature 5,800 unusual and exotic plants that thrive in the Mediterranean microclimate, including agaves, palms, a rare fruit orchard, and 60 species of citrus, such as cedro, bergamot, yuzu, and chinotto.

Hop back on the autostrada and push east past charming Bordighera to Italy’s music capital, Sanremo. To summon the spirit, crank up the volume on Radio 103.0FM Sanremo and head for a proper seafood lunch at Gente Di Mare. Italophiles and Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) buffs will recognize the name of this place as the hit song by Umberto Tozzi & Raf that was Italy's entry to the contest in 1987; it has since become a soul-stirring anthem for coastal-dwelling Italians up and down the boot. The bare-bones beach ristorante in scruffy Bussana is known locally for its 40€ seven-course menu, including local white wine and hyper-fresh seafood, like lustrous anchovies, octopus salad, spaghetti vongole, and branzino.

Italy didn’t win Eurovision in ’87, but it did in 2021, with Rome-based rockers Måneskin at the Rotterdam finals in May. The winning country must host the contest the following year, and now Sanremo is one of 11 Italian cities vying to hold the event in 2022. To some, it’s the obvious pick since it has hosted Italy’s popular Festival of Sanremo, the qualifier for ESC, since 1951. In other words, Sanremo is Italy’s Nashville, with all the glitz and soulful bellowing you’d expect from Italian cantautori (singer-songwriters). But instead of the Grand Ole Opry, there’s an art-nouveau casino, and in place of cowboy hats and denim, there are French and Russian tourists. Sanremo also has traces of Savoyard, Niçoise, and Genoese heritage that are fun to discover. A peppering of resident royals include Austria’s Empress Sissi and Nicholas II of the Romanov line, but commoners like Alfred Nobel and Tchaikovsky also gravitated to its sun-kissed shores. If it all sounds like a carbon copy of Monaco or Saint-Tropez, keep in mind that Sanremo’s laundry-strewn Old Town is quite authentic and at times very rough around the edges.

Indulge your inner tsarina at the 126-room Royal Hotel Sanremo, an unapologetically gilded palace set in a rambling subtropical garden surrounding a cantilevered outdoor saltwater pool designed by Milanese designer Gio Ponti in 1948. There’s also a beach club, three restaurants, and a spa offering treatments with Ligurian green clay, Piemonte mint, and pennyroyal.

The Hinterland

The second biggest mistake travelers make when visiting Liguria is to tether themselves to the coast. The Ligurian hinterland is where many Ligurians go to find local food and stretch their legs on hikes (or skis if there’s snow). Beaches are great across Liguria, but you’re always just 10 minutes away from the woodsy subalpine world, where I’ve stumbled on roadside porcini sellers, olive oil cooperatives producing some of Italy’s finest, azienda agricola (farm shops), and wineries. The ristoranti up here are almost always good and offer serious bang for your buck, but call ahead since many keep erratic hours. The Ligurian Coast borders the sea and France, but the hinterland borders Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, and France, so the bar is high for eating.

The hinterland is also home to several sleepy Slow Food villages, each often known for one specialty: Sassello for amaretti, Vessalico for garlic, and San Martino di Noceto for walnuts and salsa noci, a creamy walnut pasta sauce that I can’t get enough of. They’re great places to experience Liguria’s “homecoming cuisine,” coined as such because its seafarers craved it after long voyages. Once in this area, it won’t be long before you encounter potted, DOP-protected Genoese basil plants, regional variations of pesto, cooked rabbit, minestrone, and focaccia (all Ligurian specialties). Contrary to popular belief, Ligurian cuisine isn’t entirely seafood-based but earthy, herby, and more austere than that of other Italian regions. Italians especially scoff at Ligurian cuisine, calling it bland, dull, and uncreative. But like many things here, it grows on you.

Some hilltop villages are neither hinterland nor coastal, but still merit exploration. Finale Ligure, Gorra, Ortonovo, and Borgio Verezzi have incredible three-star hotels offering tranquil breaks from the crowded lidos, while maintaining arresting sea views.

Genoa

Genoa isn’t a city. It’s an empire. The maritime superpower was once the wealthiest city in the world. Its rule stretched from Lesbos to the Black Sea from the eleventh to the eighteenth century. My former New York self feels strangely at home amid Genoa’s buzzy broken charm, with its flashes of grit and luxury. Genoa’s noodle bowl of elevated freeways, bridges, train tunnels, villas, and container-stacked wharfs is a matrix. Or is it chaos? Whatever it is, it’s Italy's busiest port, and watching the ferries and cargo ships sail out of Porto Antico toward Palestine, Barcelona, Tunisia, and Marseille is a reminder of Genoa’s possibilities. One could be headed out to a simple dinner in town, then suddenly jump onto the 9 p.m. to Tangier.

Genoa is somehow both frenetic and languorous. It’s edgy and, at times, downright scary. It oozes darkness and mystery. You could be ripped off by a taxi driver, as I once was on a fare from Piazza Principe station to the port. Or a bridge might collapse on you, like the Benetton-owned Morandi Bridge did in 2018, killing 43 and marking the city’s low watermark. Or you might discover the best trattoria in all of Italy. This past spring, while exploring the delightful old-world candy shops, bakeries, and osteria in Genoa’s medieval Carrugi, a grid of cobbled narrow lanes, I was repeatedly propositioned by prostitutes. PC Genoa is not.


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Henry James called Genoa the “queerest city in the world.” It inspired Jean Genet and Dylan Thomas. Charles Dickens, who lived here for a year in 1844, described it as “a splendid amphitheater, terrace rising above terrace, garden above garden, palace above palace.” Today “La Superba,” as it is known, especially delivers on the idea of a connected, multicultural city. The colonnades running along the 13-mile-long port are bustling with a mix of immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, India, and East Asia. Unlike New York City, Paris, and London, whose immigrants often melt into a middle-class fondue before trickling into the suburbs, Genoa’s immigrant diversity is visible, urban, and located in one place.

Like the cheery new port in which it is located, the 140-room NH Collection Genova Marina was designed by Genoa’s native son, Renzo Piano. It’s one of Liguria’s few contemporary hotel designs and its brass-trimmed bar and wood-paneled rooms are an excellent perch for sundowner yacht-watching. It also has on-site parking — a total rarity. Yes, there are some boutique hotels in the medieval Caruggi district, but it’s such a schlep getting to them. And yes, the overly chipper new port with its glassy Eataly and family-friendly aquarium may be the Dr. Jekyll to Genoa’s moody Mr. Hyde soul, but it makes a sensible perch to explore the city.

Riviera di Levante

Continue south along the coast and Genoa’s grit slowly fades into wealth and leisure, as cargo cranes give way to pink villas and umbrella-studded lidos around upmarket Nervi. This next stretch is called the Riviera di Levante. Cinque Terre and its five picturesque villages are here and remain crowded with tourists even today. But there are dozens of equally picturesque villages to explore: Sori, Recco, and bigger ports like Rapallo and La Spezia. One personal highlight is Camogli, the Goldilocks of Liguria. Not too touristy, not too sleepy. Its tall pastel trompe-l’oeil-covered buildings and focacceria line the town’s main drag, Via XX Settembre, which hosts Camogli’s Wednesday-only mercato that hosts vendors selling pesto, pizza, and produce. And an end at Camogli-S. Fruttuoso train station sees black-and-white-checkered marble tile floors and weathered viaducts, with garlands of wildflowers sprouting from their cracks. If you visit one town in Liguria, Camogli should be it. Do as locals do, and pick up some fresh onion focaccia at Revello Bakery, visit the small swimming beach, and marvel at the chandelier-strewn Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta before ambling out to the town’s jetty at sunset for a dazzling display of Ligurian colors.

On one trip, after carbing up at the mercato, we hiked the old stone-walled mule trails that run through the four-square-mile Parco di Portofino, bypassing olive tree groves, rare orchids, tree frogs, waterfalls, and ancient abbeys like the beach-parked ninth-century San Fruttuoso Abbey. It’s all part of the Sentiero Liguria, a 419-mile-long hiking trail in 29 segments that snakes across the entire Ligurian coast. This area is also home to the Marine Protected Area of Portofino, eight miles of coastline known for its underwater visibility. It has wreck dives of steamers, German U-boots, and biodiverse microhabitats featuring magenta corals, violet gorgonian, and yellow cluster anemones. Who needs to fly to the Maldives when all this exists right here?

On another visit, we noticed that a train was departing for neighboring Santa Margherita Ligure, five minutes from Camogli, so we hopped on it to explore its tranquil cerulean harbors, sunbathing locals, and leafy parks during a chilly but sunny February day. Santa Margherita is arguably the most stylish town on the Portofino Peninsula. Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier honeymooned at its iconic Grand Hotel Miramare in 1947, cementing the hotel and town’s glam status. The hotel’s 78 rooms, many with wrought-iron balconies, serve some serious sea views. This old grand dame doesn’t shy from modernism, and hosts MiramART events and exhibitions of contemporary art, while the sexy pool draws a stylish young rosati-sipping set. The stoves at its restaurant, Vistamare, are manned by Abruzzo native Chef Claudio Fortuna, whose creative cuisine includes risotto with raw shrimp and veal tartare with fermented red turnip and summer truffle, though he also offers a vegan menu and makes gluten-free pasta.

Portofino is touristy, no doubt about it. But the pandemic might have tamed its mass tourism, and it’s once again becoming popular with Italians. I spied Berlusconi’s son jogging here on a visit this spring. One of Liguria’s most anticipated hotel openings in years is the newly opened 14-room Splendido Mare, a Belmond Hotel located on Portofino’s cobblestoned wharf just across the quay from a few billion euro worth of bobbing yachts. The former fisherman’s shelter turned stylish bolthole is an annex to the 70-room main property atop the hill. The rooms’ stylish nautical motifs make use of wood, rope, and brass, while snazzy striped tilework in the gleaming Carrara-marble-frosted bathrooms was inspired by lido cabins. Liguria is super connected by local ferries, but be sure to sneak in a traditional Gozzo boat excursion to experience it from the water at least once.

The last stretch of coast includes an overlooked sweet spot, Sestri Levante. Sestri, as locals call it, is adamantly Italian and has a young, raucous nightlife, great beaches, restaurants, and especially excellent gelaterias. Snag a beach table in the sand at Portobello Restaurant, with the Bay of Silence close enough to dip your toe. Go ahead, order the crudo seafood tower, fritto misto, and spaghetti vongole. There are more Ligurian dishes, but bending rules is a Ligurian art form. Save room for 100% Naturale Gelateria Artigiana (Via XXV Aprile, 126), a member of Slow Food. The seasonal, all-organic menu changes, but expect unusual and hard-to-find flavors like pine nut, persimmon, walnut-fig, and ricotta-pear. It’s even got vegan gelato, proving that change is possible, even in the depths of Italy’s least cool region.

Adam Graham’s Guide to Liguria

The travel writer shares his favorite spots to eat, stay, and soak up the spectacular sights of the Italian Riviera.

Stays

  • Royal Hotel Sanremo

    The 126-room stay is an unapologetically gilded palace set in a subtropical garden with a beach club, three restaurants, a spa, and a Gio Ponti–designed saltwater pool.

  • Grand Hotel Miramare

    San Margherita’s iconic establishment has 78 rooms, some with wrought-iron balconies and sea views, while a sexy pool draws stylish young rosati sippers.

  • NH Collection Genova Marina

    Genoa’s contemporary hotel was designed by Renzo Piano, with a brass-trimmed bar and wood-paneled rooms ideal for yacht-watching.

  • Splendido Mare, a Belmond Hotel

    One of Liguria's most anticipated hotel openings is the 14-room annex to the 70-room main property atop the hill. It is located on Portofino’s cobblestoned wharf, with rooms donned in stylish nautical motifs.

  • Royal Hotel Sanremo

    The 126-room stay is an unapologetically gilded palace set in a subtropical garden with a beach club, three restaurants, a spa, and a Gio Ponti–designed saltwater pool.

  • NH Collection Genova Marina

    Genoa’s contemporary hotel was designed by Renzo Piano, with a brass-trimmed bar and wood-paneled rooms ideal for yacht-watching.

  • Grand Hotel Miramare

    San Margherita’s iconic establishment has 78 rooms, some with wrought-iron balconies and sea views, while a sexy pool draws stylish young rosati sippers.

  • Splendido Mare, a Belmond Hotel

    One of Liguria's most anticipated hotel openings is the 14-room annex to the 70-room main property atop the hill. It is located on Portofino’s cobblestoned wharf, with rooms donned in stylish nautical motifs.

Eats

  • Gente Di Mare

    For a perfect seafood lunch, this bare-bones beach ristorante in scruffy Bussana serves hyper-fresh seafood like lustrous anchovies, octopus salad, and spaghetti vongole.

  • Portobello Restaurant

    With tables set on the beach, this is an ideal place to splurge on seafood towers and fritto misto.

  • Gente Di Mare

    For a perfect seafood lunch, this bare-bones beach ristorante in scruffy Bussana serves hyper-fresh seafood like lustrous anchovies, octopus salad, and spaghetti vongole.

  • Revello Bakery

    The onion focaccia at this Camogli bakery is a must.

  • Portobello Restaurant

    With tables set on the beach, this is an ideal place to splurge on seafood towers and fritto misto.

  • 100% Naturale Gelateria Artigiana (Via XXV Aprile, 126)

    A member of Slow Food, this organic gelato shop has a seasonal menu. Expect unusual and hard-to-find flavors like walnut-fig and ricotta-pear. Vegan varieties are on offer as well.


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Grand Hotel Miramare and Splendido Mare, a Belmond Hotel are a Fine Hotels + Resorts properties. When you book with American Express Travel, you’ll receive an exclusive suite of benefits including daily breakfast for two, a $100 experience credit that varies by property, guaranteed 4pm check-out, and more. Plus, book on AmexTravel.com and you can earn 5X Membership Rewards® points, or use Pay with Points, on prepaid stays. Terms apply.Learn more here.

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Our Contributors

Adam H. Graham Writer

Adam H. Graham is an American food and travel journalist based in Zurich, Switzerland. He’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Afar, and more. He typically spends a few months every year in Japan, and recently spent several weeks visiting Japanese vineyards in several different prefectures.

Ahonen & Lamberg Illustrator

Ahonen and Lamberg is a multidisciplinary design studio based in Paris. Founded in 2006 by Finnish designers Anna Ahonen and Katariina Lamberg, the studio concentrates on art direction, creative consultancy, and graphic design.

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