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My Fiat cruised out of Sanremo, Italy, a city located along the border like Monaco, as I chartered my way down the coast of northern Italy. My destination was Rome, but I had three days to kill along the way. The plan: Find a beach town where I would camp for a couple of nights, then take each minute as it came, Italian-style.
Perhaps one of the most breathtaking stretches of coastline is the northern coast of Italy along the Ligurian Sea. Picturesque towns on stony hillsides tumble down to the turquoise-and-cobalt Mediterranean Sea. A gently winding highway curves around the coast, moving at a slow and leisurely Italian-style pace, allowing travelers to take in the sights with a few stops along the way.
Following are several stops away from the tourist-trodden Cinque Terre, including suggestions by Matteo Della Grazia, co-owner and founder of Discover Your Italy, a local operator based in Perugia, Italy.
Finale LigureHere, white sand beckoned from the coastal road, as I parked the Fiat along the beach drive. Finale Ligure sits on a Mediterranean beach, with the Rock of Caprazoppa — a limestone mountain — looming overhead. A palm-fringed boardwalk borders the sea, lined with outdoor restaurants with expansive menus of wood-fired pizzas and handmade pastas.
There are several historic sites to catch in Finale Ligure, namely Castel Gavone, a castle said to be built in 1181 as the former seat of the Del Carretto Marquesses. There is also Castel San Giovanni, which is a 17th-century Spanish fort above the walled town, and Church of Sant’Eusebio, which is home to an 11th-century crypt.
But the main purpose for a stop in Finale Ligure should be to relax at a beach bar, soak up the sun and sip a bubbly Prosecco.
GenoaThe first stop after Finale Ligure should be Genoa, which for centuries has been one of the most powerful maritime cities in the Mediterranean and is also the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. Genoa is a rich port city, steeped in tradition. While in town, a stop at the local Opera House Teatro Carlo Felice is a must.
CamogliFrom there, continue south to Camogli. The sleepy fishing village, just a two-hour drive from Milan, is one of Italy’s best-kept secrets. The best way to know Camogli is by exploring the many hiking trails that, like the Cinque Terre, link Camogli with neighboring villages.
But unlike the Cinque Terre, you’ll often find yourself to be the only one on the trails here. Hike up to San Rocco, where you can take in a spectacular view, or dine at La Cucina di Nonna Nina, known for its excellent homemade Ligurian dishes, such as freshly caught fish, focaccia bread and pastas.
Santa Margherita LigureAfterward, drive farther south to Santa Margherita Ligure. The commune (municipality) is known for its amazing Villa Durazzo mansion and adjoining park. The 17th-century building is adorned with statues, frescoes, trompe-l’oeil, stuccoes and Genoese marble-grit floors. Guided tours are available of the villa-turned-museum.
PortofinoFrom Santa Margherita Ligure, continue to Portofino to take in the glamorous yacht culture. Arrange a stay at Abbey of San Fruttuoso, which is managed by the Italian National Trust.
Known as Golfo del Tigullio, the stretch of coast is best visited by private boat in order to easily hop from one beach town or village to the next.
PortovenereFinally, the road reaches the southeast coast of Liguria. A stop in Cinque Terre is certainly a must for first-timers, but in-the-know Italy travelers are aware that the five villages have been overrun by tourism. Instead, continue to the town of Portovenere.
This coastal city is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site (a title shared with Cinque Terre) and can be visited in a day, whether by boat around the city’s three famous islands or by hiking its stunning trails through the hills. Be sure to visit Church of San Lorenzo, built between 1118 and 1130, as well as the many caves in Portovenere on Palmaria Island.
The total travel time between Sanremo and Rome is less than eight hours — if you drive straight through. But Italy is less known for its efficiency and more for its relaxed beauty. So, when traveling the north coast of Italy, do as the Italians do — slowly, and with plenty of time for a coastal stroll.