“Where to Go Next” articles come and go, but our love affair with Italy endures, verified by the sheer number of magazine covers, television series (bonjourno, Stanley Tucci), and Instagram feeds featuring its cities and landmarks. Up-and-comers like Sicily and Puglia are gaining tourist ground, but the classics (think Rome, Florence, Venice, Lake Como, the Amalfi Coast, and Cinque Terre) are just as popular following the pandemic’s pause on travel. By Lilly Graves
While belonging to a lesser-known region of Liguria, Cinque Terre in Italy is a household name thanks to PBS travel show host Rick Steves, who put the five vertiginous villages on the map a few decades ago. Mr Steves, whom I have great respect for, was so convincing that I hiked between these fishing villages in 2006 during a backpacking trip and experienced a rustic homestay and train cancellations due to strikes. I loved every moment of it.
Since then, Cinque Terre has become a little too discovered, with sizable crowds that wouldn’t feel out of place at a theme park. The streets may be automobile-free, but tourist-free they are not. I realised this on a recent trip to Riomaggiore, the southernmost of the villages, when I herded up the steps and waited my turn to get into position to take the same photo that would likely end up in all of our social media posts.
There is so much more to the Ligurian coast, though. On this same trip, which took place during Ferragosto, the annual August holiday that marks a two-week vacation for Italians, I was able to spend a few days in the Bay of Poets, or Golfo dei Poeti, which locals like to visit. It’s an area that remains blissfully uncrowded from mainstream tourism. Base yourself in one of these following towns and explore a slice of the Italian Riviera that inspired writers and poets like Dante, Shelley, and Lord Byron.
You can easily get around to all these places in Italy using one or more transportation methods, including ferry, bus, train, rental car, or moped. As for places to stay, the area is pleasantly free of large resorts; instead, people spend the night in boutique hotels, family-run bed-and-breakfasts, and Airbnbs.
This busy port city is often a base for those travelling around the Bay of Poets, and it stays active with Italy’s largest naval base, not to mention a cruise ship terminal servicing tourists who head straight for well-trodden Pisa and Cinque Terre. Those who take a closer look, though, will be rewarded with an elegant downtown that holds a daily market in Piazza Cavour (Monday through Saturday), where locals come to pick up their daily supply of produce, fresh fish, cheese, and cut flowers. Order an espresso and then do your shopping, or at the very least, buy some local pesto, a Ligurian staple, to take home.
From here, you can walk toward the waterfront while checking out the high-rise Art Nouveau apartment buildings, charming alimentari, and unassuming — and occasionally Michelin-starred — restaurants. At the waterfront, stroll along the palm-lined promenade of Costantino Morin and attached gardens that lead to a white steel pedestrian bridge, Thaon di Revel. Here, you can catch seasonal ferries to nearby Porto Venere (more on this later) and the island of Palmaria, which is home to beaches and hiking trails. Or, stick around town and explore the Technical Naval Museum followed by an IPA at La Spezia Brewing Company. There’s also a 14th-century castle and hilltop fort featuring local archaeological artefacts.
Driving into Lerici, just south of La Spezia, Italy, is positively dreamy. The pastel-hued harbour town could easily be confused for a village in Cinque Terre, with a centre that’s inviting and spacious. Take your pick between outdoor cafes serving aperitivos next to bobbing boats as you watch locals take their stroll, or passeggiata, along the promenade. When it’s time to eat, duck into one of the many fish restaurants in the main square, accentuated by a 12-century castle on a promontory. Or, head uphill along a narrow lane with more restaurant options that culminate at a pretty church. After a few Aperol or Hugo spritzes, you’ll likely start plotting a full-time move to Italy. If you’re here during the day, pack a swimsuit and follow a path along the coast toward a fishing village called Tellaro.
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This tiny, discreet village sits high above Lerici and offers magnificent views of the Bay of Poets with nothing in your path except a hill of olive trees. Once you find parking, explore the alleyways, steps, and little piazzas. Beyond that, there’s not much to do except snag a table at the local cafe and sip on a Campari and soda, said to stimulate the appetite, while gazing at the Mediterranean and listening to bells of the local church. For dinner, walk to Osteria l’Orto di Ameste for a seasonal menu, or drive a bit deeper into the mountains to Osteria di Redarca and dine outside in a forest setting.
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This charming hilltop village attracts hikers who are taking advantage of Parco Naturale Regionale di Montemarcello, which offers a range of trails through olive groves, pine trees, and maquis shrubland, with spectacular views overlooking the Bay of Poets. This also makes for a beautiful drive if you’re just after some wonderful photos of the Magra River and Apuan Alps, which are not snow-covered, but rather covered in Carrara marble. This is the marble capital of the world, after all.
This charming little town behind Lerici on the other side of the Magra River is well worth a visit, especially given its tourist-free streets. It’s located near the Tuscany border, which is why it seems to have a Tuscan flair. The historic centre is built around a castle and little streets are full of antique shops, artist stalls, women’s boutiques, and lovely little cafes and restaurants that come alive in the evening. On Thursdays, there is an outdoor market selling food and clothing.
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On the way to Porto Venere by car, moped, or bus, you’ll find this hidden gem of a waterfront village tucked between docks of colourful boats and a pretty hillside. It boasts a small beach and a few charming cafes, where you can grab a gelato and walk along a seaside path that offers plenty of places to sprawl out and catch some rays.
It has fewer tourists than Cinque Terre and less glitz than Portofino. What makes Porto Venere less traversed is that it’s not on the train route from La Spezia (unlike Cinque Terre), so it’s often overlooked by travellers. But once you get to this breathtaking UNESCO-listed beachfront spot in Italy by boat, car, or bus, you’ll be oohing and ahhing and wondering why you haven’t been here before. Take a relaxing walk through the colourful streets of Old Town while snacking on a piece of focaccia (another Ligurian treat). After taking portraits through the arched stone windows, look for a doorway leading to Byron’s Grotto, named for the poet’s favourite swimming and meditation spot in the early 1800s. (Bring your swimsuit.)
Walk up to the Church of St. Peter and light a candle, then meander back to the waterfront past a series of rocks and outlets where Ligurians tan. There are several cafes offering fresh salads and seafood that can be washed down with a Sardinian-made beer called Ichnusa. If you have energy remaining, hike up to Doria Castle or Forte del Muzzerone and its terraced gardens for more views over the Bay of Poets. You can also take a ferry to the island of Palmaria and spend a day hiking, swimming, and dining on fresh seafood.
Lucca and Pietrasanta
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The Bay of Poets area of the Ligurian border is wonderfully close to Tuscany with easy access to places like Lucca and Pietrasanta. Lucca, known as the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini, is a beautifully preserved walled city, with a wide path encircling the town (two and a half miles) where you can walk, jog, or bike. Head to the Puccini Museum to see where he lived in the heart of Lucca or visit his villa on Lake Massaciuccoli where each summer brings the Puccini Festival with live performances.
A bit closer to Liguria is Pietrasanta, where Michelangelo used to shop for marble. Today, the town still attracts artists who have come to open their bronze and marble workshops, as well as international filmmakers, like the Mexican-born Alfonso Cuarón (director of “Gravity” and “Roma”), who calls Pietrasanta home. Spend a day walking through life-size sculptures, as well as workshops, art galleries, and temporary exhibitions in this quietly sophisticated town.
If you are in the Bay of Poets area long enough and want to see Cinque Terre, get there in the morning, preferably midweek, before the crowds start arriving on the trains. If you prefer a visit later in the day, make a reservation at a waterfront restaurant like Nessun Dorma where you can bypass the crowds and take in the views from your own personal vantage point (no elbows here).