If you’re an avid reader around here, you probably know RJ and I spend about a week or so in Europe each Fall. We pick a new city each year, yet our hearts cannot stay away from Italy! It is truly our favorite place on Earth. This year we decided on the Portifino area, Lake Como and Lisbon, Portugal. Switzerland last year was hard to top, but I think this was our best trip yet. I can’t wait to share our Italian Riviera Travel Guide!
I’m breaking down the time we spent in the Portofino area, more specifically Santa Margherita Ligure and Cinque Terre. Where we stayed, what we did, how we got around and all the delicious food we ate.
This post is pretty long and detailed. I tried to keep it very organized based on the bullet points I listed in the planning section if you want to jump around. I cannot recommend this destination enough, although I would say to pair it with another Italian city or cities depending on the length of your vacation. We paired it with Lake Como but logistically could also work with Florence, Tuscany or Rome.
Italian Riviera Travel Guide – Planning:
When we start planning for these trips, we make a list of a few places and countries we would like to see and then we look at airline and hotel prices, weather and season of travel. For example, both hotels we stayed in recently in Italy would have been 4x the price if we did not travel during the shoulder season. Not only is Fall the best time of year for RJ to take off work, but it also makes some parts of Europe more affordable, less crowded and less hot. There are a few downfalls to this though. Some places close in October for the season, the beaches will most likely be closed and it is too cold to swim.
Once I have a good idea of places we can fly within our budget, we pick the main city or cities we want to stay in. We like to see a lot while we are there, so I try to find a central location for a few things on our must-see wish list. This trip, we really wanted to see the coast (Almafi Coast, Cinque Terre and Portofino, and Lake Como). I knew that we wouldn’t be able to see all three of these coastal towns in one trip, so we decided to do the northern part of Italy and save Southern Italy for another trip. We were able to fly into Milan which is a large airport for a pretty budget-friendly amount.
I’m going to do a full post on how I organize, plan and book all our trips but I wanted to share a small breakdown of what I looked at for the Portofino area:
- Rental Car
- Things To Do
- Must-See Spots
Italian Riviera Travel Guide – How We Got There:
We booked a flight from Atlanta to Milan. We are lucky to live so close to a major airport and it really helps cut down on flight costs. I must add, usually, our flights are from Atl – Philidelphia or another domestic city. However, this flight was from Atlanta to Paris and then Paris to Milan. We prefer to connect domestically and save the longer flight for later in the day. This helps adjust our sleep schedule and it is less confusing connecting in America. Now we know!
Once we arrived in Milan, we had a rental car to drive to our hotel. This is our third time renting a car in Europe. We have not had many issues at all. The only time we’ve encountered problems is when you are traveling to a larger city (Rome, Florence, Zurich). Having a rental car was great for this trip as we did not go in to Milan and we were in more rural areas.
Italian Riviera Travel Guide – Where We Stayed:
My trip planning involves endless hours of researching our destinations on Pinterest, Facebook, and Instagram. I like to read multiple different blogs and Facebook groups to really get a feel for the area. Originally, I was determined to stay in the Belmond resort in Portofino. It was going to be a huge splurge but I really wanted to experience it. After further research, I discovered that Portofino doesn’t have a ton to offer in town. I also discovered that the neighboring town of Santa Margherita Ligure was equally as beautiful, had more to offer in terms of dining and coastline and houses a beautiful, historic hotel for half the price of Belmond – Imperiale Palace Hotel
Remember when I mentioned shoulder season before? Well, we really experienced the shoulder season benefits in Ligure. Our hotel was insanely gorgeous. The property was stunning, the staff was impeccable, our view was out of this world and we were one of four or five families staying there. Meaning we got incredible service and privacy. One of the cons of being there in shoulder season was that the beach access was closed. RJ and I both agreed, we want to go back one day when we can experience the beach season because it looked beautiful.
One of my favorite parts of the hotel was an unforgettable breakfast. I still dream about it to this day. Imperiale Palace Hotel offered a huge spread of fresh fruits, homemade pastries, meats, cheeses, an omelet bar, hand-squeezed juices, and unlimited champagne + wine. Plus, the view from breakfast was absolutely breathtaking and your server would bring unlimited cappuccinos that were out of this world. I seriously think about this (free!!) breakfast often.
In addition to the incredible breakfast, the view was absolutely insane. We were able to see the coastline, boats, and adorable town from our private balcony. Speaking of the adorable town – we were a very short walk away from the beach, restaurant, and shops. Once we arrived, we didn’t have to drive anywhere if we didn’t want to and this was so nice!
Italian Riviera Travel Guide – What We Did:
Day one started with our arrival to Milan around 9 am, we rented our car and drove to Santa Margherita. We arrived around 2 pm and took a quick nap before heading out to explore. Walking along the coast and through the town was so neat. I love comparing the architecture to different places around Italy. This being our first time on the coast was also extremely fun and new. After exploring for a bit, we found a mom and pop owned restaurant by the water. Settled in for pizza, pasta, wine, and their adorable puppy dog! We chatted with the owners quite a bit and he gifted us with limoncello shots. Afterward, we retreated to our room and enjoyed some dessert and wine on our balcony.
Day two, after our delicious breakfast, we headed to see Cinque Terre. If you are not familiar, Cinque Terre is five coastal towns that are very close together. We were able to visit two and they were pure magic. First, we went to Monterosso al Mare. We originally planned to take a boat tour from this spot, however, the water was so rough and we were worried we would get seasick. Instead, we decided to have lunch here, spend some time in the village and then road trip to another city. I’ll never know what we missed from the boat, but I am SO glad we decided on this plan. We had an absolute blast driving on the coast and stopping to see incredible views. To rewind though, at our first stop we had an incredible lunch overlooking the water and some of the best ravioli I’ve ever had. The restaurant was Torre Aurora and I highly recommend it. After lunch, we did some shopping in the village and headed to our next stop – Vernazza.
It was about an hour drive between the towns, however, we did stop a couple of times. The views were breathtaking and when you weren’t watching the sea, you were seeing olive orchards and grape vineyards everywhere. It was truly spectacular. Once we arrived, we went to Nessun Dorma, a tapas bar overlooking the town. (There’s a lot of eating in Italy!). We were lucky enough to get a table right by the edge and had the MOST incredible view. We spent a couple of hours eating and drinking here, the fresh burrata was incredible. Afterward, we wandered around the town before heading back to our hotel for a nap and dinner.
The parking in Cinque Terre worried us at first, but we were able to find a parking garage and a parking lot in both cities. I am so happy we spent a day in Cinque Terre. I hear a lot of people who say to skip it, but it was incredible to see. I highly recommend NOT skipping Cinque Terre. You could plan a day trip there from Rome, Florence, Tuscany or Milan!
This leads us to Day Three, our final day in the Portofino area. After breakfast at our hotel (our favorite part of the day!), we headed into Portofino to explore. Like I had previously read, there wasn’t a ton to do in the city but it was adorable. We walked around, shopped and then ate lunch by the water. It was a great way to end our visit to the coast.
So there you have it! The first stop of our annual trip, three days in the Northern Italian coast! Would I go back? Absolutely! We actually hope to take my parents to this spot sometime in the next two years. I really want to experience Imperiale Palace Hotel in the summertime. In a couple weeks, I will be sharing our guide to Lake Como which was the next magical spot on our trip! I know these posts are long so I try to break them up. Let me know if I missed anything or if you have additional questions. Until then, I’ll be dreaming of our next Italian vacation.