The Italian region of Liguria is not very big, but it contains one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations – the villages of the Cinque Terre. Not only that, towns further toward the French border are common stops for smaller cruise ships sailing the Mediterranean, and the Ligurian capital is a major cruise port in Italy. With all of that in mind, then, let’s take a look at some of the places in Liguria that you can add to your Italy itinerary.
Liguria’s capital city of Genoa isn’t tops on most tourist must-visit lists, even when people are already making a beeline for the nearby Cinque Terre. Genoa (or Genova in Italian) is also a major port in Italy, both for freight and leisure ships, so don’t be surprised if your cruise itinerary includes a stop in Genoa or even departs from here. The bustling historic center, a relatively short walk from the cruise port, includes a 16th century street that’s on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, and on the waterfront you’ll find the second-largest aquarium in Europe. You may have heard of “pesto genovese” before – that comes from Genoa (hence the “genovese” part of the name), so be sure to look for it on menus, along with plenty of great local seafood.
The five tiny fishing villages of the Cinque Terre have been high on the tourist radar for well over a decade now, thanks in large part to Rick Steves, and now there’s a steady influx of American (and German) tourists to this collection of ramshackle towns. In October 2011, severe flooding and mudslides laid waste to two of the villages, but hard work and an outpouring of support from around the world means that both were open for business (albeit more quietly) the following summer. Hiking along the cliffs between all five villages is a popular pastime in the Cinque Terre; the entire area is a National Park, and you can pick up a park pass that includes train access if you get to one end of the hike and don’t want to walk all the way back.
The small town of Portofino is another popular day trip for cruise ship visitors docking in nearby Genoa. Portofino’s small harbor is still used by the many fishing boats that still work these waters, but it’s far too small for the big cruise ships. Sometimes you’ll find smaller cruises can get to Portofino, but most people arrive via land. The town is high on luxury – it’s a bit of a “playground for the rich and famous” – so don’t expect to find much in the way of cheap hotel rooms here. What you will find, however, are plenty of opportunities to shop in fancy boutiques, dine on fresh seafood, and stroll along the romantic harborfront. If you’ve got more time in Portofino, there are also beaches nearby.
Toward the other end of the Ligurian coast from Portofino, near La Spezia, is the town of Portovenere. This city, collectively with the Cinque Terre, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to a pretty waterfront, Portovenere is also home to the 12th century Gothic Church of St. Peter, the 11th century Church of St. Lawrence, and a 12th century castle built by a prominent Genovese family (complete with old city walls). There are three islands just off the coast of Portovenere which are also part of the UNESCO designation, and the main one – Palmaria – makes a fine day trip, especially for its beaches.
Very close to the French border is the resort city of Sanremo (sometimes written as San Remo), which is part of the so-called Italian Riviera. This is another popular destination for those aforementioned “rich and famous,” with its pretty harbor (check out all those expensive yachts) and pedestrian-only historic center. There are all sorts of boutiques, charming restaurants, and romantic high-end hotels, and there’s also a well-known casino. There also happens to be a lovely hilltop church that’s worth visiting, not least for its great views over the city. Visitors in late February/early March are likely to find the city abuzz with its annual song festival, and in March you may also get to see the end of the famous Milan-Sanremo bike race.
Ventimiglia is essentially on the French border – it’s less than five miles away – and so it has a French name, too (Vintmille). You’ll hear French intermingled with Italian, and especially now that there’s no passport control between the two countries it’s easy enough for people vacationing on the French Riviera to include a day trip to Ventimiglia (and vice versa). Tourist sights in Ventimiglia include a church that dates back to the 10th century, the ruins of a 2nd century Roman theatre, Italy’s largest botanical gardens, and an extremely well-preserved medieval city center.
Just to the south of the southernmost Cinque Terre village is the city of La Spezia. It often gets lumped in with the Cinque Terre, and you’re far more likely to find budget accommodation (or just available rooms) in La Spezia, but it’s not technically part of the Cinque Terre itself. It’s just a short train ride away, however, making it a good base for budget-minded travelers – and La Spezia has some of its own attractions, too. St. George’s Castle dates to the 13th century and has massive fortification walls. The austere facade of the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption gives way to an impressive art collection inside. And in March, La Spezia puts on a major rowing race and festival called the Palio del Golfo.