A gem of the Ligurian Coast
In the summer of 2009 my mom and I were only days from embarking on our first trip to Italy together I received the call that my dad had to have emergency heart surgery. His triple bypass was a success, dad was ok (and still doing well by the way), but we had to postponed our trip at the time. When rebooking the online, I stumbled upon the enchanting seaside retreat of Sestri Levante.
Sestri Levante is located on the northwestern coast of Italy in Liguria, nestled at the base of mountains between the village of Portofino and famous towns of Cinque Terre. Sestri Levante (literally translated, “sisters rising”) is a popular summertime retreat for Italian and other European families, with far less US Americans than you’ll find in other well known Italian vacation spots like Rome and Florence. It is an easy two and a half hour drive from Milan Malpensa airport, or you can take a train to town.
It’s easy to see why author Hans Christian Anderson was often known to be in residence here, and the Bay of Fairytales on the back side of peninsula was named in his honor
On the other side of the peninsula, the beach is decorated with thousands of umbrellas in a rainbow of colors, and and beach clubs line the main promenade.
Sestri Levante is a great home base to explore the Italian Riveria, as train lines and ferries transport vacationers up and down the Italian coast. While it is far less expensive than Portofino, in my opinion it is every bit as beautiful, and has better access to the beaches to take a dip.
At sunset, the skies shift from brilliant blue to warmer hues, reminding me of the yellow sunflowers of Tuscany and the cozy orange and burnt umber tones of the terra-cotta roofs decorating the surrounding hillsides, while nearby silhouettes of couples holding hands on a walk and children playing on the beach slowly fade into darkness.
After the glowing sun has slipped into the Mediterranean, families, couples and teenagers begin walk the promenade along the beach, and fill the nearby streets and cafes for dinner. It is a people watching delight. This is a fabulous place to get seafood pasta, also known as “frutto de mare”, with clams, muscles, and octopus… and even fried anchovies.
There are plenty of restaurants, stores, gelaterias, trattorias, and other haunts to get your gelato fix around town. I love to go grocery shopping at the supermarcados in Italy and always nab some cheese, yogurt, and paprika pringles among other highbrow culinary delights, while the kids go for the Haribo gummy candy.
Where I Stay
Each time I’ve visited Sestri Levante, I stay at the Grande Hotel dei Castelli near the point of the peninsula.
As one might expect from the name, the hotel boasts several castle like buildings on expansive grounds that you can explore, a delicious breakfast spread each morning (Nutella, cheeses, pastries, meats, yogurt and lots of espresso drinks and fresh juices and Prosecco), and a Michelin starred restaurant available on site. You can take two elevators down through the mountain upon which the hotel sits (yes, elevators in the mountain) which open up into lighted cave walkways that lead into town, or into the expansive beach club available at the hotel. It is $25 a day to rent two beach chairs, and well worth it. We spent the whole day sitting upon the terraced rocks, cliff jumping, and climbing ladders town into the intensely aqua waters to swim.
Hikes and Walks
First, I have to give full credit to my parents for recommending each of these hikes/walks after their own visits to Sestri Levante together. Second, take lots of sunscreen and water and wear appropriate shoes.
1. Punta Manara
This 3 mile out and back hike hike is moderately difficult, with steep inclines, severe drop offs, large rocks and broken bricked, even some scrambles in some places… but the view is well worth the journey. I recommend setting out just before sunset to watch the colors shift from blue to hues of orange and pink dancing just above on Fairy Tale Bay in the distance. Wear tennis shoes or hiking boots for this one if you can, and bring water.
This hike is a little bit tricky to find. Follow Vico Macelli just off the second street back from the promenade until you get to Moneglia-Sestri Levante. I’m going to drop the link from All Trails HERE so you can easily find it that way with your phone.
This path starts out as a steep brick pathway as it ascends out of town, eventually leading you past olive groves, up the mountain until the trail hugs the coastline 700 feet above. As long as you were watching them carefully, little ones can do this hike. Bring: water and a camera. Leave at home: high heels and complainers. The view is worth it, I promise!
2. Santa Margarita to Portofino.
This three mile hike is not difficult and can be done in sandals or street shoes. You can travel from Sestri Levante to Santa Margarita easily by train. Trains depart roughly every half hour, and are new and very clean. Take the train north toward Genova, and if buying a ticket at the automatic kiosk makes you nervous just buy at the window.
Santa Margarita is a busy little Italian town with a picturesque promenade, and just happens to be the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. To the right of the train station, descend down the vine covered staircase into town, and continue to walk north along the water until you reach infamous Portofino. Along the three mile hike, you will hear the Vespas zooming by and can watch Italian families playing cards, ping pong, or swimming with their pets as they enjoy the sun. Bring a towel so you can take a dip on a hot day your walk, and if you’re full of energy you can veer off onto the hiking trail in the woods and get some hills in.
Once arriving in town, grab a Negroni or gelato (or both), stroll to the top of the hill to see the Church of San Giorgio, watch the nearby mega yachts approach the harbor, and see if you can spot the hot pink meerkat statues below. You can take a bus back to Santa Margarita to take the train south back to Sestri Levante, but I prefer to take the ferry and enjoy the view of the Ligurian coast.
1. To the south of Sestri Levante is the popular (and increasingly crowded) Cinque Terre. You have to hike this 7 mile trail at least once in your lifetime.
2. Florence is a quick day trip from Sestri Levante and worth the train ride, as well as Milan. If you have to choose between the two, go to Florence.
3. Bring goggles and a tube for floating in the Mediterranean, or buy them from one of the little beach shops in town.
4. Get gelato, every day. Maybe twice 😉