April 18, 2021

15 Gorgeous Seaside Towns in Italy

From the Italian Riviera to the farthest reaches of Sicily, there are plenty of seaside villages to please travelers in search of pristine beaches, ancient ruins, art, culture, and delicious cuisine.

Have you ever been to Rome in August and wondered where all the locals are? The truth is that they’re likely in one of these towns, as Italians in major cities make a mass exodus toward the coast every summer. Many of the well-known beaches get crowded or too touristy, but this list also includes some under-the-radar gems where you can escape the hubbub. So why not do as the Romans do and head to the sea?

1. Positano, Campania

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It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Positano is one of the most beautiful places on earth. This small town on the Amalfi Coast awes visitors with its pastel-colored houses perched on mountains that rise above the sea. Positano has lived many lives—as part of Amalfi’s maritime republic during the Middle Ages, a major trade route during the Renaissance, a forgotten fishing village, and finally, an idyllic beach town experiencing a modern-day renaissance. John Steinbeck, who lived here in 1953, wrote, “It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” Then again, you might never want to leave.

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Bring comfortable shoes. Positano has many winding paths and steep staircases. On your way to the beach, stop by Le Sirenuse, Steinbeck’s stomping ground, for a meal or a drink by the pool. The famed hotel recently opened Franco’s Bar as an homage to one of the four siblings who founded the hotel.

2. Ravello, Campania

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Amalfi may be more famous, but Ravello tops it—literally. French author Andre Gide wrote that it’s “closer to the sky than the sea,” and he’s right. The town is poised high above the Bay of Salerno and is celebrated for Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone, two romantic gardens offering spectacular views of the water. Ravello became famous as the home of the noble families of Amalfi’s 12th-century maritime republic. It has also inspired countless artists, including M. C. Escher, Virginia Woolf, Joan Mirò, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Richard Wagner, who is celebrated every year with a music festival.

INSIDER TIP
Splurge on a room with a view at Palazzo Avino, a luxurious pink hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant, three levels of terraced gardens, and a swimming pool overlooking the sea, or at least stop by for an Aperol Spritz on the terrace.

3. Manarola, Liguria

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All five towns that make up the Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera are beautiful, but Manarola might just be the most picturesque. The whole village is built on a foundation of black rock, and colorful buildings hover over the small marina. Manarola was established in the 12th century and features the church of San Lorenzo, built in the 14th century. Stepped vineyards curve around the hillsides that join the five towns. The town produces wine and olive oil, which are readily available at shops in the historic center.

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The other four villages—Riomaggiore, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare—are easily accessible by a train and a hiking trail. Be aware that overtourism plagues the Cinque Terre, so avoid going in high season (summer) and opt to go in the spring or fall instead.

4. Portofino, Liguria

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Portofino became famous for la dolce vita in the 1950s and ’60s when movie stars such as Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sophia Loren vacationed here. The town is still a star-studded destination—Madonna, Cate Blanchett, Heidi Klum, and Gwyneth Paltrow have all been photographed in the Italian fishing village in recent years. Long ago, Portofino was an ancient Roman colony, seized by the Republic of Genoa in 1229. The French, Spanish, English, Austrians, and a 16th-century band of pirates have all taken their turn at ruling Portofino.

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Portofino caters to its affluent visitors, so if you’re traveling on a budget, you may want to stay in nearby Camogli or Santa Maria Ligure.

5. Sperlonga, Lazio

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Located about halfway between Rome and Naples lies the charming town of Sperlonga, once home to Emperor Tiberius. A museum constructed on the former villa of Tiberius displays sculptures celebrating the deeds of Odysseus, which were discovered in the grotto for which the town is named. Long stretches of pristine beaches draw Romans to the village today.

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Sperlonga is easily accessible by train from Rome, and the beach is much cleaner and more beautiful than those of Lazio’s more popular seaside towns, such as Ostia and Fregene.

6. Polignano a Mare, Apulia

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Puglia is still a bit of a secret, as foreigners do not often visit the area, the “heel” of Italy. But Italians sing its praises, from the pristine beaches with crystal-clear water to the laid-back lifestyle of its inhabitants. Polignano a Mare is an idyllic village perched on limestone cliffs above the Adriatic Sea. It’s a popular spot for cliff divers, but there are many tamer ways to enjoy the scenery, like strolling through the white-washed town, gelato in hand.

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Polignano a Mare is a great base for exploring Puglia’s many charming towns, including Alberobello, where you can see the Trulli (ancient homes with conical roofs).

7. Ravello, Amalfi Coast

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Amalfi may be more famous, but Ravello tops it—literally. French author Andre Gide wrote that it’s “closer to the sky than the sea,” and he’s right. The town is poised high above the Bay of Salerno and is celebrated for Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone, two romantic gardens offering spectacular views of the water. Ravello became famous as the home of the noble families of Amalfi’s 12th-century maritime republic. It has also inspired countless artists, including M. C. Escher, Virginia Woolf, Joan Mirò, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Richard Wagner, who is celebrated every year with a music festival.

INSIDER TIP
Splurge on a room with a view at Palazzo Avino, a luxurious pink hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant, three levels of terraced gardens, and a swimming pool overlooking the sea, or at least stop by for an Aperol Spritz on the terrace.

8. Capri Island

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The island of Capri was once the vacation spot of Roman emperors and derives its name from the herds of goats (Capra in Italian) that once inhabited it. The natural beauty of the Grotta Azzurra is unparalleled and became a symbol of the pastoral Romantic ideal when it was “discovered” by Germans August Kopisch, a poet, and artist Ernst Fries in 1826. A hidden opening in the cave allows light to refract, making the water appear an incredible shade of sapphire blue. Today, the secret’s out and Capri draws crowds of tourists, but it’s worth a trip for the island’s stunning beauty.

INSIDER TIP
Most visitors to Capri are day-trippers who arrive by ferry from Naples or the Amalfi Coast and leave with the last ferry in the evening, so the island becomes much less touristy at night. If it’s a calmer experience you’re after, consider staying at one of the luxurious hotels on the island, like J.K. Place Capri or the Capri Tiberio Palace.

9. Porto Ercole, Grosseto Province

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When we think about Tuscany, we usually envision rolling hills dotted with cypress trees and Medieval cities, but Tuscany has a coastline too, and a gorgeous one at that. About halfway between Florence and Rome lies Porto Ercole, “Port Hercules,” in the province of Grosseto. The town is the final resting place of Caravaggio, who died there on his way back to Rome to receive a pardon after being exiled.

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Porto Ercole is accessible by train, though it’s generally easier to get there by car.

10. Venice Lido

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The Venice Lido became the first European bathing resort in the 1800s when Lord Byron, Lido’s first famous foreign tourist, arrived. He certainly wasn’t the last. The Lido is a seven-mile strip of beach in Venice that became known as a luxury destination for the likes of Serge Diaghilev, Coco Chanel, and Thomas Mann, author of Death in Venice. As if Venice wasn’t already beautiful enough, the Lido only increases La Serenissima’s charm.

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Every year in late August or early September, the Lido hosts the Venice Film Festival, which draws a large international crowd.

11. Ponza, Lazio

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The picturesque island of Ponza is another popular destination for Romans fleeing the city in the summer. Legend has it the island was named after Pontius Pilate, whose family owned a grotto there. The Etruscans first colonized Ponza, which may be the last remnants of the lost island of Tyrrhenia, and archeologists have found the ruins of sunken Roman temples nearby. It is also rumored to be the home of Circe, the sorceress who seduced Odysseus and turned his men into pigs. More recently, Wes Anderson filmed some scenes from The Life Aquatic here.

INSIDER TIP
Circe’s cave—Grotta della Maga Circe—can be found on the western side of the island, between Capo Bianco and Chiaia di Luna beach.

12. Acireale

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Sicily is known for its alluring beaches, but Acireale is special. Formed on a volcanic rock from Mount Etna, Acireale’s beaches are made of stone, not sand. While this isn’t ideal for sunbathing, it makes for a truly unique place, where ladders descend from the rocks allowing people to climb down into the sea as if it were a swimming pool. Of course, most people just dive in and swim out to the next outcropping. Acireale is known for its ornate Baroque churches and beautiful public parks and nature reserves. It’s also famous for its Carnival festivities, considered the best in Sicily.

INSIDER TIP
There is an excellent open-air market in the historic center, but for a traditional Sicilian treat, try the granita, a semi-frozen dessert similar to gelato. Sicilians mix it with their espresso and dunk brioche in it for breakfast.

13. Otranto

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As the easternmost point in Italy, Otranto was originally a Greek village known as Hydruntum, which sided against Rome in the wars of Pyrrhus and Hannibal. The town gives its name to the Strait of Otranto, which connects the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, and on a clear day, you can see across to Albania. Over the course of its history, Otranto came under the rule of the Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Ottomans, and Napoleon’s troops. Travelers can swim in the pristine turquoise sea and trek up to the Castello Aragonese medieval fortress.

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Travel to Otranto by train from Lecce.

14. Numana, Marche

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Another off-the-beaten-path spot on the Adriatic, Numana is more tranquil than beach towns to the north, such as Rimini and Ravenna, and just as beautiful. Known during ancient times as Humana, the town later became an episcopal see. Numana’s city hall was once the Bishop’s palace and now hosts exhibitions. Though Marche is less wealthy and full of art than nearby Umbria and Tuscany, the region is celebrated for its rugged beauty. Travelers will find rolling hills peppered with vineyards and olive groves and stunning views of the Adriatic Sea.

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Ancona is the closest major city and another lovely seaside town.

15. Cagliari, Sardinia

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Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, has it all: gorgeous beaches, superb Italianate architecture, plenty of shops, cafés and restaurants, wildlife, and parks. On the Poetto Beach, flamingos roam in the marshy areas and people picnic under umbrellas. Sardinians call the city “Casteddu” (literally, castle) and the old part of the city high up on the hilltop is certainly worth exploring. Climb up to Castello for a walk through the narrow cobblestone streets, visit the impressive Bastione San Remy, and stroll over to Piazza Indipendenza for a glorious panoramic view of the city and the sea.

INSIDER TIP
Prepare a picnic with fresh food from the Mercato di San Benedetto, considered one of the best fish markets in Italy. Sardinia also has some of the best windsurfing in Italy.