While the internationally renowned Cinque Terre are spectacular places to visit on the Ligurian coast of Italy, they can be overrun with tourists. So much so, that stepping onto a carriage in the train that runs between the villages can make a can of sardines seem like a McMansion.
When we visited the Cinque Terre, I wanted a haven to start and end the days, so that we could spend some time in a less touristy part of Liguria. So I booked us into a hotel in the little town of Lerici, just a few miles away, on the Ligurian coast. Our time in Lerici and the nearby town of Portovenere was some of the most beautiful and serene we spent in Italy.
Lerici is located on the Golfo dei Poeti (Gulf of Poets), so called because its beauty enticed the likes of Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had a home near Lerici, and Lord Byron, who lived in Portovenere. For me, Lerici was like the calm before and after a storm, with barely any tourists and a very relaxed vibe. Be warned, though: although not yet on the international map, it is very popular with Italians. So it is best to avoid visiting during the European holiday months of July and August, if solitude and serenity are what you desire.
Lerici, and the neighboring town of San Terenzo, offer beautiful coastal walks and sandy beaches (some free, some not). There are opportunities to hike, if you are so inclined, on trails that are much less crowded than those on the Cinque Terre.
Like other Ligurian coastal towns, Lerici has pretty colorful houses overlooking the picturesque harbor, and a magnificent castle that towers over the town and bay. The town of San Terenzo also has a castle, and the castle-to-castle walk along the water, about two miles each way, is beautiful. From the castle rooftop, you get great views of the bay. It has an elevator, if you do not fancy climbing all those stairs to the top!
We walked a stretch of this promenade, from Lerici Harbor to the start of San Terenzo and back each morning and evening. It’s a popular route for the passeggiata, so you will see many locals out enjoying the sea air in the evenings. It is especially pretty after the sun sets and the lights of the towns start to come on.
In Lerici, we enjoyed one of the most memorable meals of our trip to Italy. We had dinner at a small restaurant called Il Frantaio. It requires a bit of a climb up the narrow Via Cavour to get to this restaurant, but the food is well worth every step of the climb!
My vegetarian trofie pasta with Genovese pesto, made in the region where it originated, was superb. My husband raved about his seafood platter. We ended on a warm fruity dessert topped with a crusty crumble that was delicious. We split dessert, and to this day, my husband rues the fact that we didn’t each get our own!
We didn’t get to hike when we visited, but the hike from Lerici to the nearby fishing village of Tellaro through the Parco Naturale Regionale di Montemarcello-Magra-Vara is supposed to be beautiful. It’s a shaded trail that passes through meadows and olive groves, and offers spectacular views of the water. On our next visit, exploring places near Lerici, such as Tellaro and Ameglia, is definitely on the agenda!
From the harbor at Lerici, you can take the ferry across the Golfo dei Poeti to Portovenere. We took the ferry on a beautiful sunny morning, with the waters of the bay sparkling in the light.
Portovenere has a little harbor where fishing boats are anchored. There is a row of colorful vertical houses along the waterfront, looking out onto the bay. These houses are called la palazzata, and the close vertical design was meant to be a defense for the town. The waterfront is lined with cafes and shops, and after our exploration of the town, we took an espresso break at an outdoor table at one of the cafes, enjoying the water views and the activity at the little harbor.
The pièce de résistance in terms of sights on Portovenere is the Chiesa di San Pietro, a little Gothic church built on a rock high above the water. The walkway, with steps, leading up to the church is spectacular, with stone arched windows that offer gorgeous views of the Ligurian Sea. On the way back, all of the sparkling beauty of the Golfo dei Poeti lies below you as you descend.
Portovenere also has a castle, the Castello Doria, with superb water views, and a second church, the church of San Lorenzo. There are three islands that you can see from Portovenere: Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto, and there is a boat tour from Portovenere that covers the three islands.
Getting to Lerici and Portovenere
Neither Lerici nor Portovenere has a train station. You can get a bus from La Spezia to either of these places. You can drive to both, park in the designated parking lots and then explore the towns. You can also take a ferry from La Spezia or any of the Cinque Terre (except Corniglia) to Portovenere or Lerici. Ferries also run between Lerici and Portovenere. Boat ferries generally operate from early April until the end of October.
We really enjoyed our time in Lerici and Portovenere. Their laid back vibe and beautiful surroundings make these towns truly appealing destinations if you plan to visit Liguria.
Do you have a favorite Italian coastal town? Comment below to respond!