The birthplace of the Renaissance, the Square of Miracles, the city of the 99 churches, the five picturesque villages or the jewel of the Ligurian coast? The bigger the choice, the harder it is to choose. Therefore my first tip is: plan in an extra day for your stay in Northern Italy! Come along and join me on my trip through the Italian Riviera.
My name is Moana Meves. As a tour guide, I travel to the most beautiful corners of the world. Today, I have picked some attractions in Liguria and Tuscany. Trust me, making the pre selection for the final selection was difficult enough. You will hardly find any other holiday region with so many possibilities, so many historical and world famous sites, so much art and culture and so much natural beauty.
Several tempting names pop up, if you look into Tuscan cities. I have selected three of these for you- Florence, Pisa and Lucca. Don’t plan to do too much in a day, even if the three towns are quite close to each other. Pisa and Lucca make excellent one-day trips. For Florence you should ideally plan in a couple days or more. The best time to travel is early or late summer. Avoid July, August and the long bank holiday weekends in spring, when the Italian Riviera is overcrowded.
The capital of Tuscany is not only a beautiful, but also a very proud city. You will feel it when strolling through the streets and pushing through the crowds. It’s as if every stone, every column, every building radiates it – the pride in the great names, the famous history and the abundance of fabulous fine arts and culture. It dates back to the 15th century, when the family dynasty of the Medici made Florence one of the leading and richest cities in Europe. As this attracted the elites of the time, we continue to connect the names of many artists and clergymen like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Galileo Galilei with Florence. Due to the numerous museums, palaces and monuments, Florence is said to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Of course, the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and also attracts millions of visitors each year. Why do YOU need to go to Florence?
Florence is a must if you want to feel truly Italian and at the same time are a lover of art and culture. Plan a day that combines a few well selected famous attractions such as the beautiful Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Ponte Vecchio Bridge or the Uffizi with genuine Italian lifestyle. Have the courage to leave some gaps and take time to linger in the beautiful squares or discover the other, less touristy bank of the Arno River. My secret tip: visit the Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio weekly market, one of the most authentic non-touristy markets, where the “real” Florentine still shops.
The Piazza dei Miracoli does not describe a well-known convenience-food, but the composition of three famous and glorious pearly-white buildings on the cathedral square of the small Tuscan town of Pisa. The largest baptistery of the world, the cross-shaped cathedral Santa Maria Assunta and its Campanile – the Leaning Tower. The ensemble is one of the masterpieces of medieval architecture, has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987 and is a perfectly oiled tourist machinery. From a football field-sized coach park, tourists pilgrimage to the Square of Miracles – always accompanied by pushy traders who sell umbrellas or sunglasses depending on the weather and various useless kitsch. Sounds a bit off-putting? Reasons why you need to visit Pisa anyway:
For one, you need to visit, so that you can tick off “Leaning Tower of Pisa” and say you’ve “been there, done that”. It’s on the list of the things you have to have seen in your life. Seriously, don’t be put off by the masses. The buildings really are impressive. For another, you must go to Pisa if you want to explore an original Tuscan small town. Sounds paradoxical? Well, most tourist groups don’t get much further than the Square of Miracles. They are chased back to the coach park as soon as they’ve taken their obligatory tourist photos. You, on the other hand, should take time to walk away from the cathedral square. Stroll through the streets with the typical yellow houses, take a turn two or three times and you’re in a normal student city with bars and restaurants. Away from the Square of Miracles, Pisa is nothing special. But that is exactly what makes it special.
It’s easy to fall in love with the tranquil town of Lucca. Unless you’re from Pisa, in which case you have to “despise” Lucca – and vice versa. The relationship is something a little like the one between Düsseldorf and Cologne. The two cities are no more than 20 kilometres apart. And just like Pisa, Lucca is full of historical treasures, but less mass tourism. The impressive and wonderfully preserved city wall (on which you can also walk), the numerous churches, tower houses, winding streets and lively squares, all create a medieval flair.
If you are a lover of old towns and want to discover some original architectural treasures, you must visit Lucca. Don’t miss: Piazza dell ‘Anfiteatro, some of the 99 beautiful churches with illustrious names such as San Frediano, San Michele in Foro or San Martino Cathedral and one of the last remaining residential towers, Torre Guinigi. It is an impressive relic from the Luccan past, when hundreds of these towers dominated the cityscape. Textile magnates, who helped the city to its riches, competed against each other and literally tried to aim higher than their rivals. By the way: You can also shop and eat to your heart’s desires in Lucca. My insider tip: Get an ice cream from the Gelateria De ‘Coltelli in the Via s. Paolino. To walk it off, 4.2 km of city walls are on offer.
Now we step away from the cities of Tuscany and into the villages of Liguria. Splashes of colour on steep, green slopes or in front of deep blue water – this is the Italian Riviera in all its beauty! I promise that you won’t be able to resist their charm either. However, this charm always includes something a little morbid and run down. Houses often seem neglected and some alleys away from the main tourist paths seem ill kept, but nevertheless Ligurian villages are renowned for their exceptional beauty and location.
The most famous villages are surely the Cinque Terre in their fantastic setting. For about nine kilometres from west to east, the five colourful villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Rio Maggiore stretch along the Italian Riviera. All together they are a UNESCO World Heritage site and the rush of tourists is accordingly high. In addition to the masses of people to be expected, it is important to note that an arrival by car is possible but definitely not recommendable. Take the train or an excursion boat from La Spezia and enjoy the magnificent views of the coast. Due to the stunning views of the Italian Riviera, the Cinque Terre are also popular with hikers – almost too popular. The paths often resemble motorways. The Cinque Terre are exceptionally beautiful and definitely worth a visit, but if you prefer it a little quieter and more comfortable, I recommend the neighbouring village of Portovenere.
Portovenere is at the top of the Bay of La Spezia. It’s so close to the Cinque Terre that you can hike to or from Rio Maggiore. However, I strongly recommend you go to Portovenere by boat. From the water, the view onto the colourful, typically Ligurian houses is simply stunning. In Portovenere everything is a little more tranquil. You still won’t be strolling through the streets alone, but compared to the hitherto presented hot spots, the village is a lot more peaceful.
You should therefore definitely pay Portvenere a visit if you want a little time to catch your breath. Stroll through the village at your leisure, inspect the souvenir shops and sit at the harbour promenade. The Italian Riviera is very popular, but here in Portovenere you will find a small oasis of peace and quiet. The fortress and the church of San Pietro are also worth a visit. The small church is situated on top of the cliff and is surrounded by water on three sides. From here you can enjoy the view of the bay and the town, as well as the Ligurian coastline and let the wind whip around you.
I saved my favourite place for last. Portofino – a perfect blend of sweet fishing village and exclusive high society magnet. Here again I would strongly recommend you arrive by boat along the Italian Riviera (from Santa Margherita Ligure). In the small natural port of Portofino, yachts, sailing boats and the “cockleshells” of the fishermen are bobbing in the water. Lined around the harbour are the typical colourful and somewhat derelict-looking cottages, while villas and parks surrounded by lush greenery stand on the slopes.
Portofino is so small that you can easily explore it on foot. I particularly recommend walking up the slope to the church of San Giorgio and Castello Brown. You have the best panoramic view of the village from here. A place straight out of a storybook. Not only the church and the fort itself are worth a visit, but also the tiny cemetery. And a few steps along you have a fantastic view of the open sea. A perfect spot to reflect on your choice of holiday destination. If I were spoiled for choice once again, I would choose Portofino! How about you?