For about ten years, I've been travelling around the Riviera di Levante and the Cinque Terre. I have discovered basically every village and town along the coast, all the way from Tuscany to Genova. I was always wondering, what's on the other side of Genova, in the western part of Liguria. So I have started to visit this area as well, the Riviera di Ponente, which starts around Genova and goes all the way to the French border.
As I am really passionate about the Riviera di Levante, I was curious to see the other side. Am I going to like it? Or is it going to disappoint me? Well, I have to admit that it is much nicer than I expected. It is true that the coast is more built up so it is not so wildly beautiful, there are many bigger towns, some of them without much character, and you also find some industrial zones along the way, but there are many hidden gems around. You just have to know where to go. Also, there are long sandy beaches perfect for families, many resort towns with all the comforts and services, as well as more nightlife.
Train connections are not as good as in the Riviera di Levante, but there are local buses everywhere. Probably the best solution is to have a car, but parking is very difficult along the beaches in the main season. Don't forget that this area is very popular among Italian families, mainly from nearby Piemonte, but you will also meet thousands of tourists coming from Germany, Switzerland and France.
If you want to get to your destination quickly, use the A10 Autostrada, which is also called Fiori Autostrada. I love this drive as on one side you can see the beautiful Ligurian hills while on the other side you have seaview. You'll be driving through numerous tunnels and over very high bridges built over the valleys. However, if you have more time and the traffic is not so bad, drive on the road right by the sea, the so called Via Aurelia, it will take you through the charming coastal towns. (Not recommended in August.) This wonderful coastal drive also saves you money as this road is free while the autostrada is very expensive, like everywhere else in Italy.
The Riviera di Ponente is geographically divided into two parts: the Riviera delle Palme (Riviera of the Palms) between Genova and Capo Mele, and the Riviera dei Fiori (Riviera of the Flowers) between the French border and Capo Mele. These names already refer to the lush Mediterranean vegetation of the area. You'll find seaside promenades aligned with palm trees all over the place, while the Riviera of the Flowers is famous for its flower-growing industry. We also stopped to buy some unique agave and cacti into our own garden.
We have visited both areas, and would have loved to cross over to France as well, but unfortunately did not have time. There was too much to see on the Italian side. Below you can read about some of my favourite places in this part of Liguria. They are definitely worth a visit.
Varigotti is the pearl of Western Liguria. It's kind of like Portofino on the other side, very popular among VIPs as well. First I was hoping to stay there, but accommodation seemed too expensive, especially in the high season. It would have been very comfortable as we ended up on Varigotti's beach quite often in the crazy heat of July, it has become our favourite place for swimming and sunbathing. This beach was just amazing. The water was crystal clear and really warm, our baby girl loved it as well. We celebrated her first birthday here, and she swam in the sea for the first time in her life. Pretty good birthday present I guess. Needless to say, she loved it and so did we!
You can't miss Varigotti if you are travelling in this area. Look for the old part of the village with the orange, yellow and pink Saracen houses, tiny allies and characteristic piazzas right on the beach. We really enjoyed swimming in front of these historical buildings. There is another very famous beach here, the Bay of the Saracens. You have to leave Varigotti village and start driving towards Noli. It's an amazing beach with white sand, very popular and as a result parking is basically impossible. So arrive early, or maybe it's better to walk or take the local bus.
Noli is another favourite if you are looking for a nice beach with sand and small pebbles. While father and daughter were playing in the turquoise sea, I really enjoyed walking around and taking photos of the colourful fishing boats and nets. Although we were there in July, the beach did not feel crowded at all. Noli has a pretty seaside promenade with many palm trees and bougainvilleas. Make sure you also walk around the medieval town center where you will find several bars and restaurants as well as cute little shops. Noli is listed among the most beautiful villages of Italy. If you are lucky, you'll also bump into the lively street market.
You also find Finalborgo on the list of the most beautiful villages of Italy. It can be found just inland from Finale Ligure, a famous resort town. The village is surrounded by a medieval wall and once you enter on one of the gates, you will find yourself in a very welcoming and relaxing atmosphere, a perfectly preserved historical center. It's a great place to get away from the beach crowds during summer months and enjoy a nice lunch or gelato on one of the squares. Try the borage ravioli made with herbs of the area. You can also find some interesting craft shops in Finalborgo. The town is a well-known center for outdoor activities, mainly rock climbing and mountain biking.
Another one of Italy's most beautiful villages, situated between Finale Ligure and Pietra Ligure. You have to drive up a winding road to this small medieval village. From the village you can see a breathtaking view of the ligurian coastline and it is one of the best places to watch the sunset. Borgio Verezzi is hosting a famous theatre festival every summer, people were gathering for the evening play when we were there. It was a bit awkward, as everyone was quite elegant while we just arrived from the beach. I was a bit sad because we could not enjoy the small piazza and I could not take a nice photo of it as it was covered by the stage and the chairs. Plus we also missed the sunset. We'll just have to go back I guess.
You definitely have to leave the beach and spend some time inland as well. The Ligurian hills are full of charming towns and villages, such as Apricale, Castelvecchio, Triora, Zuccarello, Colletta di Castelbianco… They are usually 20-30 minutes away from the coast. Probably the most famous of them is Dolceacqua, a much photographed medieval town in the Val Nervia. The historical part of the town and the new area are connected by a pretty humpback stone bridge, while the Doria Castle dominates the whole view. In the old part you will find many artisan shops and bars in the narrow alleys, where you should not miss the famous Rossese wine. Dolceacqua also inspired Monet, he made several paintings of the town. He really loved the bridge and wrote about it as a "jewel of lightness".
The Hanbury Botanic Gardens can be found between Ventimiglia and the French border on a small winding road. We actually drove by and missed it as the entrance gate was under scaffolding. Don't expect a big parking area or crowds, you can easily park on the side of the road and there won't be too many people around. The 18-hectare garden is situated between the panorama road at about 100 meters above sea level and the sea, so the area is quite steep. It was established by Sir Thomas Hanbury in the 19th century, at that time they counted close to 6,000 different species from all over the world. The gardens are now operated by the University of Genova and at the moment there are about 2,500 kinds of plants. I love Mediterranean-style gardening, so for us this was a must. But even if you are not a garden lover, you can easily spend hours walking around, sitting in the shade and enjoying the view of the Ligurian Sea. There is also a small bar and a picnic area at the bottom.
Because of the extreme heat and because of travelling with a baby we did not see half of the things we wanted to see. So we are surely returning to this area soon. We are planning to visit more charming villages among the hills. We drove through Cervo and it was so beautiful, but we did not have time to stop, so have to go back. Same with Ventimiglia, the houses of the old town looked stunning. In Ventimiglia there is also a colourful Friday market, and I really need a new leather bag… I'd also love to cross the border and check out Menton, it looks so pretty on the photos. And besides all of this, we would love to spend more time on the tranquil beaches of the Riviera di Ponente.