Europe: The Italian Riviera

After years of talking about a family trip to Europe, and over 12 months of planning for it, my family finally made it to Italy this past spring. It's no small feat getting 8 schedules aligned for a 14+ day trip across the globe but we did it! We spent our first week together on the Italian Rivera before splitting off and pursuing different agendas. After Italy, Jared and my family returned to the US and I continued traveling around Europe for an additional 4 weeks.

I took thousands (not an exaggeration) of photos and documented the experiences via my journal almost daily. And now, I want to share them with you! I will be posting details and images of the journey through Europe starting with Italy and ending in France. Maybe these posts will spur your wanderlust or maybe even help plan your own European adventure. I enjoy swapping travel stories and helpful information so feel free to send any questions via the comments at the end of the post. 

Lerici: also known as "The Pearl of the Gulf" due to it's magnificent natural beauty, is located 7.5 miles south of La Spezia on the Ligurian Coast. 

While most travelers opt for to stay in more popular destinations like Cinque Terre or Porto Venere, I favored our choice to reside in a quieter locale with a distinctly local feel. Arriving before peak season meant we shared the town predominantly with locals, which made the experience feel more authentic. 

Town Notes

  • The town is conveniently located and we used public transportation + a rental car for day trips.
  • Many shops close in the afternoon, don't stay open late in the evenings, and are closed entirely on Sundays. 
  • Don't expect locals to understand English. Pick up a pocket language book and learn key phrases before arriving.
  • Walk along the seafront promenade (also a great running route) and stop for a dip at one of the many beaches.
  • Visit the famous monument Castello di Lerici, a restored castle originally built in 1152. 
  •  This area is known for its focaccia bread and pesto. Eat this delicious combo as much as possible! 

Day Trips: 

Cinque Terre: Not that it needs an introduction, but Cinque Terre is a protected national park, marine area, and UNESCO World Heritage site made up of 5 charming seaside villages. Surrounded by rich agricultural terrain, the towns pop with their brightly colored buildings nestled between steep seaside cliffs and vineyards. 

A 40-minute bus ride took us from Lerici to La Spezia train station where we purchased train and park tickets. We had planned to do the easiest trail from the first village (Riomaggiore)  to the second village (Manarola) since we had my 2 1/2-year-old nephew with us, but the flat trail is still closed due to the mudslide/flood disaster.  There are other trail options above the main path but they are considerably more challenging.  Instead, we decided to train to Corniglia and hike from there to Vernazza. The trail was busy but not overcrowded and we were blessed with gorgeous weather. It was difficult not to stop and take pictures at every turn as we hugged the coastline and got small *. 

Hike Information > Corniglia to Vernazza

  • 2.5 miles // 4km  one way
  • Estimated hiking time:  1 hr 45 minutes one way
  • Total elevation change:  1150 feet
  • My entire family (age range 2 1/2 - 65)  managed the hike just fine although my nephew did fall asleep towards the end and the up and down can be hard on the knees. 

Town Notes:

  • You will need a park pass to hike from one village to the next. You can purchase the pass and receive a map of the trails at the train station or small hut beginning at the trails.
  • Wear good walking/hiking shoes and expect to sweat a little bit.
  • Up to date Park Information: Cinque Terre EU
Cinque Terre Hike Corniglia to Vernazza
View of Corniglia hiking the Cinque Terre
Alleyways of Corniglia Cinque Terre
Spremuta lemon juice in Cinque Terre
Main Squre in Vernazza, Cinque Terre
piazza in venazza, cinque terre
aerial view of vernazza from cinque terre trail

Sestri Levante: Approximately halfway between Genoa and La Spezia, this ancient fishing village used to be an island and is now connected to the shoreline's promontory by a sliver of land. 

All 9 of us buckled up in a huge rental van to drive 45 mins north to another seaside town, Sestri Levante.  This is the spot that inspired my parents to plan a trip to Italy in the first place. My uncle Eddie spent his summers here and often relayed travel stories to my parents. When he passed away, he left them a large ariel photo of the town, and it had been on my Mom's mind ever since to visit. 

Town Notes: 

  • It was too cold to swim when we visited, but Sun Beach offered a nice stretch of sand to look for seashells and seaglass.
  • It's worth the short walk up to the Grand Hotel dei Castelli (an elegant hotel in a medieval castle) to roam their gardens lined with sculptures  and take in the views of the town from above.
  • If you're driving, parking can be difficult to find. Look for lots farther away from town and walk in to save yourself from stressful driving situations. 
view of sestri levante  from Grand Hotel dei Castelli,
Grand Hotel dei Castelli,
Grand Hotel dei Castelli,
beaches in sestri levante

Porto Venere: A medieval fishing village and UNESCO World Heritage site located just south of Cinque Terre. It is most recognized for its harbor, brightly colored homes, and ancient castle.  

A short (too short because it's really enjoyable!) 15-minute ferry ride across the gulf transported us to the 'sixth village of Cinque Terre'. It's easy enough to spend a day here, walking through the shops and visiting the famous Church of San Pietro, the Doria Castle, and my personal favorite, Byron's Grotto where the famous poet used to swim. 

Town Notes:

  • Start the tour of the city by walking past the palazzata, to the San Pietro Church which is located at the end of the promontory.  From their walk through the gates of Byron's Grotto and down to the water. Many drop by for a quick snap and continue wandering through the town but we explored the cliffs and enjoyed our quiet waterfront property for almost an hour.  
  • Do your stomach and taste buds a favor and go to Ristorante Portivene un Mare di Sapori for lunch or dinner. The area is known for seafood and we shared plates of fresh calamari salad and a mussel pasta. 

Harbor in Porto Venere Italy
ancient fishing village of porto venere
Byrons Grotto Porto Venere Italy
Byrons Grotto in Porto Venere
San Pietro Church, Porto Venere Italy 

Next Up? EUROPE Part 2: Famous Italian Cities! 

Have you visited the Italian Riviera? Did we have similar travel agendas? Share your experience with me in the comments below!