Curving between the French Côte d'Azur and Tuscany, Liguria is where the Alps and Apennines meet the Mediterranean. Its wooded slopes cascade down towards the endless blue of the sea, and the rugged coastline is dotted with protected peninsulas and pretty harbour towns. Most famous are the glittering resorts of the Italian Riviera (Portofino, Santa Magherita, Rapallo) and the Cinque Terre - a UNESCO-listed string of pastel-coloured villages which cling precariously to the cliffs. All swarm with tourists during July and August, but it’s easy to escape the crowds - just grab a pair of hiking boots and head into the hills, or take to a boat and hop between secluded coves. The region’s capital, Genoa, is also well worth exploring. Its medieval old town is an atmospheric warren of winding alleys that encompass splendour and shabbiness in equal measure, and its once-tatty port now houses waterside bars, maritime museums and Europe’s largest aquarium. As for Liguria’s food, it’s some of the finest in Italy, with artisan wines, the freshest of seafood, and delicious pasta and bread.
Touristy they may be, but the 5 villages which make up the Cinque Terre - Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore - are unmissable. Our favourite is Vernazza, whose green-shuttered buildings are clustered around the mouth of a steep-sided ravine; it was destroyed by flash flooding in 2011 but has since been beautifully restored. Climb the steps which twist up from the harbour and you’ll find Ristorante Belforte and its sea-view terrace - a wonderful spot to linger over mounds of pasta. Note that cars are banned from the centres of all 5 villages, but you can easily hop between them by boat (summer only) or train. They’re also linked by a scenic coastal footpath.
The fishing town of Camogli on the Portofino Peninsula is a wonderful place to base yourself, with bobbing boats, a pretty seafront promenade brimming with restaurants, and a long sweep of sand. It also plays host to 2 of Italy's most colourful and public-spirited festivals. In May as many as 30,000 sardines are fried in an enormous pan for the fishfest that is the Sagra del Pesce, and in August crowds gather during the Festa della Stella Maris to witness the release of 10,000 candles from the beach.
Near-vertical hillsides make vine growing a challenge in Liguria, but small producers are scattered across the region. Perhaps the most renowned Ligurian wines are the delicate, aromatic whites from the Cinque Terre, whose UNESCO-listed vineyards consist of dry-stone-walled terraces carved into the steep slopes. La Sosta di Ottone III offers fascinating tours with local guide Silvia Mertens, followed by tasting sessions with its sommelier Luca.
Liguria’s green mountains and jagged coast make for unforgettable hikes, and the region is criss-crossed with trails of varying degrees of difficulty. Our favourite is the spectacular Alpine path under Mount Toraggio, which takes in striking rock faces and beautiful larch forests; it’s strenuous in places, so allow at least 6 hours and consider taking a guide. If you're following one of the many coastal paths in Liguria, keep your eyes peeled for dolphins in the water.
The tangle of caruggi (narrow alleys) which make up Genoa’s old town are wonderfully atmospheric. Wander around and you’ll come across ornate palazzi, crumbling churches and raucous markets, before emerging onto the grand thoroughfare of Via Garibaldi or the Piazza di San Lorenzo, where the city’s cathedral sits guarded by statues of crouching lions. It can feel a little unnerving after dark, particularly near the red-light district to the west of Via San Luca, but it’s not dangerous.
Crusty, oil-drenched focaccia is a Ligurian speciality and comes in all sorts of varieties, from the plain strips often dipped in cappuccino at breakfast, to the herby, olive-spiked and cheese-stuffed breads served up with lunch and dinner. Some of the best can be found in the tiny neighbourhood bakeries of Genoa’s old town, and at Censin da Bea, a rustic trattoria set in an old watermill in the village of Borgomaro (where Relais del Maro is located).
Sandwiched between forest and sea, the magnificent 13th-century abbey of San Fruttuoso is only accessible by boat from Camogli or Portofino, or by hiking through the Portofino National Park. Entrance costs a few Euros and also covers the 16th-century watchtower nearby. After you’ve explored, head down to the beach below for a picnic and a spot of snorkelling.