As we cruised down the Ligurian coast in our private taxi boat, we gazed at rolling green hillsides dotted with colorful villages and vineyards winding from the waters to the sky. Along the way the jagged shorelines with dramatic cliffs directed us as we passed by million-dollar yachts and humble fishing boats in the aquamarine colored waters.
Darting through caves and hugging the coastline, we made several stops along the Italian Riviera to explore the small villages. Seafood pasta tossed with oil and spices, crisp wine white, extra virgin olive oil and freshly-scented lemon soap were a few of the treasures we discovered along the way.
Santa Margherita Ligure: We began our adventure in the picturesque coastal town of Santa Margherita. A short train ride from Pisa and really anywhere in Italy, this charming spot showcases a sprawling marina, a castle perched on the main promenade and plenty of restaurants and shopping. It was also the only town to boast several five-star hotels with amenities perfect for an autumn holiday.
Portofino: A thirty-minute ferry ride from Santa Margarita Ligure took us to the small inlet village of Portofino. A not-to-miss spot, the collection of colorfully-painted buildings welcomed us into the harbor. On land, the streets are lined with gelato stands, cafes touting the freshest Italian fare and stiff drinks for a day of people watching.
For those eager to explore, there are hillside paths that wind upwards behind the village, past churches and through charming neighborhoods.
Cinque Terre: The holy grail of the northwestern Italian coastline, Cinque Terre is the name the locals have given to the five tiny villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Best known for their intricate web of hiking trails that link the villages, Cinque Terre is also accessible by water taxi, ferry and rail.
- Monterosso al Mare: The northernmost village of Cinque Terre, it is also the largest of the villages and the only one with a lengthy beach area. This town in home to a convent, a partially-ruined castle and lemon orchards.
- Vernazza: The birthplace of focaccia bread and referred to as the "truest fishing village" on the Italian Riviera, Vernazza has a church with octagonal bell tower, a castle and a sanctuary.
- Corniglia: Not on the sea but perched 100 meters above on a hillside, the village has a population of only 150 people.
- Manarola: Thought of as the oldest of the Cinque Terre villages, Manarola has a central church dating back to 1338 and is surrounded by hillside vineyards producing the local white wine referred to as Sciacchetra. Because of the narrow harbor, boats are lifted from the water and lined along the village streets for safe storage.
- Riomaggiore: The most famous hiking trail links Manarola to Riomaggiore and is called Via dell'Amore or the Love's Trail. The paths get more challenging as you venture northward and many are currently closed due to landslides; make sure you purchase a permit before beginning your journey as there are only so many travelers allowed at one time.
Portovenere: This town south of Cinque Terre is the only one in the area without a train station, but is accessible by ferry boat. The entering waterway is guarded by an impressive fort and castle which tower over the town on top of rocky cliffs.
With numerous restaurants and cafes, it's also the perfect spot to sample some of the region's typical cuisine: seafood and pasta dressed with pesto made of the finest local basil, pine nuts, garlic and Parmigiano Reggiano.
La Spezia: All roads may lead to Rome, but it appears all ways out of the Italian Riviera pass through the city of La Spezia. The namesake of the province housing Cinque Terre, La Spezia is the largest city in the area and the main rail hub. Along with being an active industrial port, it is also the gateway into the southern Tuscan region.