Just down the Ligurian coast from Genoa, the aptly named Golfo Paradiso (Gulf of Paradise) offers a feast for the senses: bright turquoise water and dramatic green hills, beaches and trails galore, unique architecture and mouthwatering food…. It’s obvious why the Italians prefer this area when celebrating summer.
Camogli is where the Italians go. It has the same things going for it as Cinque Terre, but without the mob of international tourists. And because it’s a little bigger, you’ll find more choices for bars, cafes, and restaurants.
The town’s heart is busy little harbor, which lies on a promontory formed where landfill connects a tiny island to the shore. A piazza paved with pebbles laid on end leads out to a jetty, overlooked by a big Baroque church (the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta) and a small medieval castle (the Castello della Dragonara).
The harbor itself always has plenty of boats of all sizes coming in and out, as well as foot traffic. It’s a great place for eating or strolling, and occasionally some entertainment. Our favorite place was the perennially popular La Cage aux Folles Pub, which serves divine salads and bruschetta with anchovies and pesto. Liguria gifted the world with two culinary pleasures: focaccia and pesto. Camogli is one of only four villages producing authentic focaccia al formaggio (focaccia with creamy white cheese); to find it, just look for people lining up outside the local bakeries. Pesto is even easier to find: it graces focaccia, pasta, and plenty of other regional dishes.
The harbor’s rock jetty has a lighthouse at the end with 360-degree views of the town, the hills, and the sea.
Next to the harbor, the pedestrian promenade Via Giuseppe Garibaldi runs along the beach. The “public” part is at the end by the castle, or you can rent an umbrella and a chair at one of the lidos further along. The entire stretch is lined with places to eat and drink, and a few shops with beachwear. In the evening, every restaurant was full; I have never seen so many aperol spritzes in my life.
Camogli is famous for its architecture: pretty much every building is painted with trompe l’oeil (“trick the eye”) in a palette of terra cotta, dark green, and pastel hues. This is actually a regional tradition dating back to the 1500’s and not restricted to the town of Camogli. Fishermen liked the bright colors because they could see the buildings from the sea. Today the Minister of Taste requires residents to keep the paint jobs fresh. There’s not much left of older crafts like stone carving in this era, but skilled painting is still going strong here.
Camogli’s location at the northwest corner of the Portofino National Park means hiking trails start right at the end of the beach. Because the vegetation is so lush, these are a refuge on hot days. The network of trails connects Camogli, the abbey of San Fruttuoso, Portofino, and Santa Margherita Ligure. Getting around is never hard and always scenic — even the train stations are beautiful.
Classic Italian Riviera with no flashiness, Santa Margherita is larger than Camogli and Portofino, with a ‘downtown’ area, a large waterfront, and villas perched on the hills.
It feels timeless, with old-fashioned resort architecture and sweeping views. Unlike the other towns, Santa Margherita is big enough for cars and motorcycles – but they always stop for pedestrians.
We took the train from Camogli, and strolled around the harbor. The public beach is rocky but pleasant, and has a water spigot for washing or drinking. After an excellent panini at a waterfront cafe, we picked up the bus for Portofino. It was a drop-dead gorgeous ride, and the driver did an amazing job negotiating the tiniest, curviest road safely.
Unless you have pots of money, this is not a place to stay – or even eat. However, Portofino is a perfect combination of natural landscape with man-made structures and is ridiculously pretty enough to merit a morning or afternoon.
Castel Brown, the big historic site, was closed for a wedding when we visited, but we explored the paths wrapping around the hillside promontory underneath it. The mixture of naturalized plantings was shady and cool, with views in almost every direction from the little Portofino harbor to Santa Margherita across the bay.
The giant neon pink meerkats standing sentinel on the harbor (part of a small sculpture garden, the Museo del Parco di Portofino) are a fun counterpoint to the luxury brand stores and mega-yachts. Even if they are not your taste, watching everyone else’s reaction is entertaining.
Cute little Rapallo is another resort town with a laid-back vibe. Medieval streets wind along the coast, with plenty of restaurants and an antique market on the fourth Sunday of each month.
We went on a warm June weekend, and Rapallo was bursting with Italians flocking to the beach like bees to a hive. The town wraps around its own miniature bay, and the coast twists and turns to create more inlets. Towards the outskirts, the grounds of an old villa have been converted into a park with stunning views; the villa itself houses a museum of lace.
Rapallo is famous for its funicular, which runs up to the lovely Basilica di Monttallegro Sanctuary. Besides stunning views of the bay, the 1934 system also provides access to hiking trails in the hills. For more information, see the website.
Practicalities & Further Reading
Camogli’s access to trains and boats makes it an excellent base for exploring the region. The train station lies just a few blocks from the harbor, and ferries run up to Genoa and around the Portofino peninsula. In warm weather, ferries can get crowded, especially on weekends. The Golfo Paradiso website has more information on routes and whale-watching. For more on Liguria, see our posts on Genoa and Cinque Terre.