Below is a one-week itinerary for the Italian Riviera that my husband and I followed in April 2016. Part 2 of our trip can be found at: Italy Itinerary: Lake Como, Venice, Rome, Pompeii. Before you go, consider reading up on the history and politics of Italy. You can find my recommended reading list here.
Where is the Italian Riviera?
The Italian Riviera is located in the Liguria region of Italy. The Riviera is part of the Italian coastline, and it begins at the border with France in the northwest corner of Italy and stretches down to Tuscany. To further break it down, I explored the Riviera di Levante, which is the eastern half of the Italian Riviera. During the course of the week, we visited the towns of Rapallo, Santa Margherita Ligure, Portofino, Genoa, the Cinque Terre villages, Portovenere, and Camogli.
Is April a Good Time to Visit?
I was a wee bit concerned that April would be too cold, but the weather was practically perfect for sightseeing the entire trip. We also experienced fewer crowds, lower costs, and spring flowers. I read that one should not plan a trip during the two weeks surrounding Easter unless you enjoy crowds. For packing this time of year, think in terms of light layers.
Day 1: Rapallo
We stayed in an apartment for the entire week in Rapallo, which is on the Portofino Peninsula. If you are an American, you are now musing that you have never, ever heard of Rapallo. I know this because we did not meet any fellow Americans in Rapallo, and I have not met any Americans who have ever heard of Rapallo. Not one. Do I just seek out locations that will elicit blank stares from my friends in an effort to be contrary and elitist? No. I simply found a good deal in Rapallo and decided to visit. Sometimes, the best vacations are created on a whim.
We arrived in this lovely seaside town at sunset by train and settled into our apartment. This is the view from my balcony.
Day 2: The “Enchanted April” Hike
Have you ever tricked your husband into taking an entire vacation because you wanted to visit the filming site of one of your favorite movies? I adore the movie, Enchanted April, which was released in 1992 and filmed at a small castle in Portofino called Castello Brown. Enchanted April is the story of four women in post-World War I London who seek respite from their unsatisfying lives in a peaceful castle in Italy. At some point in 2015, I discovered that this castle was open to the public and in hiking distance from the apartment I was thinking about renting in Rapallo. Joy. Rapture.
Fast forward to April 2016. Our apartment was situated on a hill on the border between Rapallo and Santa Margherita Ligure. Both are attractive seaside towns that cater to tourists, but still retain a heavy presence of locals. Although you can travel quickly between these towns via train or bus, we walked from Rapallo down a path of stairs near our apartment to Santa Margherita Ligure. We then had lunch in a delightful town square.
It was about this time that we realized many people in this area did not speak English. Luckily, I had learned a teeny-tiny bit of Italian that helped us through the breach. I described these developments in How To: Speak a Foreign Language for Travel.
While researching my trip, I found instructions for a hike from Santa Margherita Ligure to Portofino on a website called A Path to Lunch. The directions for the “Overview Hike” were excellent, and there is no need for me to recreate them. The website is a veritable font of information about Liguria, and I highly recommend it. The hike was breathtaking and uncrowded, and it remains one of my all-time favorites.
At the end of our scenic journey, we arrived in Portofino, which is an expensive, refined, and touristy destination. I admired every pricey inch of it. We enjoyed the views of the water at the Winterose Wine Bar. We then walked up from the main town square to Castello Brown, the filming site of Enchanted April. The movie was a feast for the soul, and its filming site was a treat for the eyes.
Day 3: Genoa
Genoa is an easy, one-hour train ride from Rapallo. Really, everything on the Italian Riviera is an easy train ride from Rapallo, which makes it a great base for exploration.
I had done a ton of research on whether or not we should visit Genoa. Some tourists love it, and many others do not. I felt it was worth one of my precious, American days of vacation to find out more about this important port city. Genoa, after all, was the birthplace of Christopher Columbus and a mighty sea power in Europe. The “Strade Nuove” (New Streets) section of Genoa with its gorgeous palazzi from the 16th and 17th centuries has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city held the World Pesto Championships the day we arrived. What’s not to love?
We visited all the sites recommended in guide books and took historic walks. My conclusion is that Genoa is beautiful, but gritty. I have never had this particular experience before–knowing that a city should be magnificent, but realizing that it somehow wasn’t for me. It seemed as if we were looking at a black and white photo of something that should be bursting with color.
For instance, Genoa has the largest medieval center of any city in Europe. This sounds like a tourist’s dream, but these dark passageways felt a bit menacing in Genoa. Indeed, most of the research I did before the trip advised tourists not to enter this section of town after dark.
Genoa does not cater to tourists. Real people live and work in this city, and I know they are fond of it from the posts they have written. I do not regret visiting Genoa, and I probably would return if the opportunity arose. Next time, I would leave my picture-postcard, tourist mindset at home and dig into the city with more realistic expectations. I also would approach the city by boat rather than train. I had read that one better understands the vertical nature of the city with an arrival by sea.
Day 4: Rapallo
As noted earlier, we did not know much about Rapallo before traveling here. Although undiscovered by Americans, the town attracts many Italian and German tourists. Santa Margherita and Portofino appear to appeal to a ritzier crowd, but Rapallo was a lovely place to call home for a week with charming streets, strolling pedestrians, and great food and wine. I write about some of the fun things I learned about Italian culture in Rapallo and other Italian cities in Italy: Everyone Enjoys a Good Potato Chip.
Rapallo, like other towns in the area, backs up into the side of a mountain. We rode up this mountain in a cable car to the Santuario di Montallegro, a church built in the 1500s approximately 2000 meters above the sea in a lush, mist-covered forest.
We found a nice hotel and restaurant at the top where we sat outside, drank wine, and soaked in the views. We then walked behind the sanctuary, and we climbed a path through the woods that led to Stations of the Cross (the story of the crucifixion of Jesus). Regardless of whether you are religious, I would recommend making this short “hike,” but wear shoes with a grip, as the path can be slippery.
Upon our descent from the mountain, we walked along the seafront in Rapallo and then enjoyed some pesto, one of the specialities of the Liguria region. If you think you love pesto, but have never tasted it in Liguria, then you must stop reading this website and book a flight there immediately. We ate every combination of pesto in a week that one can imagine. I would have drunk glasses of pesto if anyone had served it as a beverage. Pesto pizza, pesto pasta, pesto on bread, pesto on sandwiches, etc. Americans make pesto all wrong. ALL WRONG.
Day 5: Cinque Terre & Portovenere
In case you have never heard of the Cinque Terre…just kidding. Apparently, the entire world has heard of the Cinque Terre, a series of five scenic fishing villages in the Italian Riviera. In fact, I think 90 percent of the world’s population was there the day we visited, lovingly eating gelato and posing for pictures. If my issue with Genoa was that it was a bit too rough for tourists, then my problem with the Cinque Terre is that tourists have ransacked the place. Obviously, I am impossible to please.
We took a two-hour hike between two of the villages, Monterosso and Vernazza. It was so crowded that it reminded me of a Los Angeles highway at rush hour. I would provide more detailed information on how to hike between the villages, but I really don’t think you should do this hike. I refuse to encourage you. Find a less crowded neighborhood.
You can travel by either train or boat between the Cinque Terre villages. Late in the afternoon, we boarded a boat to a neighboring village. As it turned out, we boarded the wrong boat. It was a bizarre feeling to be in a foreign country and have no earthly idea where we would disembark. I could have asked someone, but, instead, I helpfully had the following text exchange with my sister:
Maureen: “We got on a boat thinking we were going to another one of the Cinque Terre towns. Unfortunately, we just passed the last one. This is just a little adventure. Or, we are being hijacked. No one else on the boat seems concerned about a hijacking.”
Maureen’s Sister: “Ah, Italy! Please let us know where to send the ransom money.”
Maureen: “I would like you to be our spokesperson for the media imploring the U.S. government not to forget about us.”
Maureen’s Sister: “I will get right on that.”
I expended a small amount of anxiety wondering where we would land. It was worth the angst, because I finally was able say “Land, ho!” for the first time in my life when I spotted our destination. We arrived in Portovenere on the last boat of the day. The boat immediately turned around and returned to the Cinque Terre. My husband and I decided to look around Portovenere knowing it would be a challenge to get home that evening. Portovenere can only be reached by bus and boat–no train.
It was a glorious town, with a historic center and a beautiful church, San Pietro, perched on top of the sea. At the end of the evening, we took a bus to La Spezia and then a train back to Rapallo. Sometimes, the best journeys are the unplanned kind.
Day 6: Camogli
We expected to spend two full days in the Cinque Terre. Out of an abundance of sympathy for the overcrowded villages, we decided to take our touristy selves elsewhere. My first rule of travel is that if you aren’t having fun, do something else. I had read that Camogli was a fantastic fishing village, and it was located only a 9-minute train ride from Rapallo.
I hadn’t done much research on Camogli. We simply walked down from the train station in search of a waterfront, and we found it! We ate Italian food, drank Italian wine, and took some lazy walks to absorb the scenery. As you may discern, we were finally getting into the slow-paced swing of things in Italy.
While it may not be as famous as the Cinque Terre, Camogli is just as beautiful, and certainly less crowded. Spending an afternoon in Camogli was an absolute pleasure.
Final Note on the Italian Riviera: Trompe L’oeil and Door Knockers
There were two architectural/design elements that intrigued me in this area. Many buildings throughout the Italian Riviera are painted with the trompe l’oeil art technique. This painting style is centuries old, and creates a three-dimensional decorative facade on the buildings. I delighted in this technique, and marveled at the care it must take to maintain them.
I also appreciated the ornate door knockers of the area. I hadn’t read anything about them in advance, but we ended up having a bit of a treasure hunt for them in every town. The door knockers could be found on public buildings as well as private residences. I want one for my house.