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By the Sea: Cinque Terre, Liguria, Italy

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In the first installment of our “By the Sea” summer destination series, TPG Contributor Drew Limsky luxuriates in the sun-splashed, no-fuss dolce vita of Italy’s Ligurian Coast.

A beautiful view of Vernazza on the Liturgian Coast. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
A beautiful view of Vernazza on the Ligurian Coast. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

First, get your bearings: The Ligurian Coast is better known as the Italian Riviera, and is divided into two parts: west of Genoa to the French border (Riviera di Ponente) and east of Genoa to the Tuscan border (Riviera di Levante).

The Portofino peninsula and Cinque Terre are the jewels of the Riviera di Levante, and they’re spectacularly scenic, scalloped with luscious coves, blessed with verdant hillsides, and dotted with low-slung architecture decorated in rich autumn colors and trompe l’oeil facades. The Ligurian Coast is heavily touristed, but hasn’t lost its texture or charm—and the food (hello, pesto was invented here) is to-die-for, and not necessarily expensive. What the area offers is a laid-back spiaggia (beach) life full of active pursuits and convenient transportation that enables visitors to discover a variety of adorable seaside towns, some bustling, and others little more than remote fishing villages.

Getting There

The most convenient airport for American travelers is Milan Malpensa (MXP), which is served by American Airlines, Delta, United, Alitalia, Emirates and more and is 127 miles from Genoathis grand but hardscrabble city is the main transfer hub to Liguria’s smaller coastal towns. Direct trains run by Trenitalia are frequent, but one time I purposefully connected in Parma, dragging my rollerboard behind me, so I could check out this lovely college town and have some prosciutto di Parma near the source.

Don’t rent a car. The centers of the Cinque Terre towns don’t allow them. Local train service is cheap and convenient, and while ferries between the coastal towns are more expensive, you want to have this signature experience at least once or twice.

A stunning view of Manarola at twilight. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
A stunning view of Manarola at twilight. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Where to Stay

Part of the charm of the Cinque Terre is the absence of conventional hotel chains. I’ve had good luck in the area with Airbnb (a partner of American Express Membership Rewards), but just keep in mind that you want to be close to the sea, because the villages ascend steeply; the apartments tend to be small and often peculiarly designed, but many have terraces with great views.

Gorgeous Riomaggiore, the easternmost village, often has the most choice, but you may want to hold out for something in (smaller) Manarola, which graced the cover of Jess Walter’s popular novel, Beautiful Ruins. For tips on non-hotel lodgings, see our previous posts on finding short-and long-term accommodations and hotel alternatives.

About 40 miles away is Pisa (of Leaning Tower fame) and the AC Hotel Pisa by Marriott, but roughly 10 minutes away by train—and a beautiful draw in its own right—La Spezia offers a slew of full-service hotels, albeit few which enable points redemptions.

The beautiful Belmond Splendido hotel in Portofino
The beautiful Belmond Splendido hotel in Portofino

A bit closer to the Cinque Terre is the elegant enclave of Portofino and the iconic Hotel Splendido, set in a protected area overlooking Portofino’s marina and breathtaking peninsula. Rooms here start at $645 a night, but the hotel’s listing on the online booking portal Visa Signature Hotels allows holders of Visa Signature credit cards (e.g., Chase Sapphire Preferred, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier, Southwest Premier, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines card, Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve and US Bank FlexPerks), to reap savings like room upgrades, free Internet, free breakfast, and food and beverage credits.

Keep in mind that even if you don’t stay at the Splendido, lunch on the garden terrace is a must.

What to Do

Monterosso is a breaktaking village with views for days! Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Monterosso is a breaktaking village with views for days! Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Every Cinque Terre town is worthwhile. In addition to those mentioned above, be sure to visit Monterosso, with its dual-crescent sandy beach (concessions available), and tiny Vernazza. And the much photographed and so-called “sixth Cinque Terre town,” Portovenere, certainly merits the half-hour ferry ride. Byron’s Cove offers great swimming; the more adventurous will head for the grottoes. Every coastal town boasts beautiful water and swimming of some sort, but note that you’ll usually be jumping off the rocks (ladders are sometimes available). If you like that kind of experience, Riomaggiore, Manarola and Portovenere are pretty peerless.

Fresh seafood delights served up at Ristorante Belforte
Fresh seafood delights served up at Ristorante Belforte

The not-to-missed local dish is trofie al pesto, and you can get it anywhere for 9 or 10 euros (roughly $10 USD). But Portivene Un Mare di Sapori, located on the seafront in Portovenere, was the only place I found it served with tomato sauce, and it was sublime. Of course, you’ll want to try the fresh seafood everywhere; Aristide, located in Manarola’s main piazza, served it up brilliantly, but I was shocked by the flavorful pork in lemon sauce. Their gnocchi al pesto was also excellent. Meanwhile, the nautical-themed Ristorante Belforte in Vernazza (reservations strongly suggested—and specify your table beforehand), with its seating perched over the cliff, has cuisine to match the views; the seafood linguini is a favorite, and definitely order the mussels marinara, a local dish.

Looking for timely things to do in the area? Cinque Terre Tourism lists events such as the Anchovy Festival and Lemon Fest—which sounds delicious.

Helpful Hint

To learn about credit cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees—such as the Barclaycard Arrival Plus, Chase Sapphire Preferred and Capital One Venture Rewardsand therefore help you maximize your spending on overseas vacations, see Jason Steele’s post on Saying Goodbye to Foreign Transaction Fees.

If you’ve been to the Cinque Terre, please share your memories and impressions of the area—or if you’re going there, please share your plans in the comments below!

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