The Italian Riviera
Italy's famed crescent of Mediterranean coast, where the Alps and the Apennines cascade into the sea, is defined by its sinuous, giddy landscapes. The Italian Riviera, synonymous with the Ligurian region, is shaped by its extreme topography – its daily life is one of ascents and descents, always in the presence of a watery horizon.
Anchored beside the region's best natural harbour is noble Genoa. Known as La Superba (the Superb One) to biased locals, it's a city that ruled over one of the finest maritime empires in medieval Europe. Fanning out on either side is the Riviera, home to many alluring destinations including the Portofino peninsula, the legendary Cinque Terre and more low-key seaside towns to Genoa's west.
This is both a deeply historic destination and a fabulously in-the-moment pleasure-seeking one, where you can explore lavish palazzi (mansions) or humble village churches and then simply swim, eat, walk or stare at the sea.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout The Italian Riviera.
The heart of medieval Genoa – bounded by ancient city gates Porta dei Vacca and Porta Soprana, and the streets of Via Cairoli, Via Garibaldi and Via XXV Aprile – is famed for its caruggi (narrow lanes). Looking up at the washing pegged on lines everywhere, it becomes obvious that these dark, cave-like laneways and blind alleys are still largely residential, although the number of fashionable bars, shops and cafes continues to grow.
Skirting the northern edge of the old city limits, pedestrianised Via Garibaldi (formerly Strada Nuova) was planned by Galeazzo Alessi in the 16th century. It quickly became the most sought-after quarter, lined with the palaces of Genoa's wealthiest citizens. Three of these palazzi – Rosso, Bianco and Doria-Tursi – today comprise the Musei di Strada Nuova. Between them, they hold the city's finest collection of old masters. Whether you visit the actual museums or not, the street is a must to wander.
When the sun is shining, do as the Genovese do and decamp for a passeggiata (late afternoon stroll) along the oceanside promenade, Corso Italia, which begins around 3km east of the city centre. This broad 2.5km-long pavement lined with Liberty villas leads to Boccadasse, a once separate fishing village that appears like a sawn-off chunk of Cinque Terre. Its pebble beach is a perfect gelato-licking location by day and its gaggle of small bars serve up spritzes to happy crowds on summer evenings.
Flemish, Spanish and Italian artists feature at Palazzo Bianco, the second of the triumvirate of palazzi that are together known as the Musei di Strada Nuova. Rubens’ Venere e Marte (Venus and Mars) and Van Dyck’s Vertumno e Pomona are among the highlights, which also include works by Hans Memling, Filippino Lippi and Murillo, as well as 15th-century religious icons.
If you only get the chance to visit one of the Palazzi dei Rolli (group of palaces belonging to the city's most eminent families), make it this one. A former residence of the Savoy dynasty, it has terraced gardens, exquisite furnishings, a fine collection of 17th-century art and a gilded Hall of Mirrors that is worth the entry fee alone.
Lavishly frescoed rooms in Palazzo Rosso, part of the Musei di Strada Nuova, provide the backdrop for several portraits by Van Dyck of the local Brignole–Sale family. Other standouts include Guido Reni’s San Sebastiano and Guercino’s La morte di Cleopatra (The Death of Cleopatra), as well as works by Veronese, Dürer and Bernardo Strozzi.
Dating from the late 19th century, this neo-Gothic beauty does indeed resemble a castle, and houses an astonishing array of ethnographic artefacts from around the globe. Italian navigator, writer and philanthropist Enrico d'Albertis assembled this collection during his many travels, and the sunny galleries contain everything from pre-Colombian pottery from the Americas, to installations exploring traditional medicines of the Far East. Unfortunately, there's little signage in English. The leafy gardens surrounding the castle offer fine views over the city.
At the end of the quay, a Cinque Terre panorama unfolds from the rocky terraces of a cave formerly known as Grotta Arpaia. Lord Byron once swam across the gulf from here to Lerici to visit the resident Shelleys and despite the cave's collapse, the rocky terraces remain quite beautiful and suitably dishevelled and affecting.
Set amid two adjoining palazzi, Savona's premier art collection features an impressive collection of paintings dating all the way back to the 14th century, including Madonna and Child by Taddeo di Bartolo, The Crucifixion by Donato de’ Bardi and Giovanni Battista Carlone's emotionally charged painting of Venus and Mars. Another area of the museum showcases 20th-century art, with pieces by Magritte, de Chirico, Man Ray and Picasso. The museum also houses the Italian Riviera's best collection of ceramics, with pieces spanning some six centuries.