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9 Gorgeous Places to Visit in the Italian Riviera

Mention "the Riviera" and minds instantly drift to France's infamous seaside towns of Cannes and Monaco, but hop over the border to Italy and you’ll come across a completely different version—one where rugged cliffs and pastel-colored villages are each more picture-perfect than the last. Tucked between the South of France and Tuscany, here are nine incredible places to visit on the Italian Riviera’s croissant-shaped coastline.

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Ventimiglia

The Roia River divides the Italian border town of Ventimiglia in two, running between the old and new parts of the city. Start by trekking up the hill to the walled old town and its 10th-century churches, where you can take in sweeping views of the Ligurian Sea. From the coast, a section of the Via Aurelia—an ancient Roman road that once ran all the way to Arles—winds its way up to Hanbury Botanical Gardens, one of Italy’s most famous attractions and home to nearly 6,000 plant species from around the globe. After working up an appetite hiking around the 45-acre grounds, take a quick drive to the nearby town of Bordighera for a view just as scenic from cliffside eatery La Reserve. (We recommend pairing your rabbit-stuffed ravioli with a bottle of local Ligurian wine.) When you’re ready to walk off lunch, hit the boardwalk, or lungomare, back in Ventimiglia. On Fridays, the seaside promenade transforms into a sprawling, open-air flea market with nearly 500 stands hawking everything from handmade Italian leather gloves to fresh pasta to market goodies like cured meat and cheese. Housed inside a 16th-century building, three-room B&B Casa Fenoglio is a cozy place to call it a night in Ventimiglia’s medieval town.

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San Remo

In the mid-19th century, the resort town of San Remo was a winter playground for the Russian jet set (including the likes of Tsar Nicolas of Russia) and even sports an onion-domed church reminiscent of Moscow’s Basilica di San Basilio. Think of San Remo as the Italian Monte-Carlo, with a century-old casino in the city center and a string of lavish villas (including the former homes of Alfred Nobel and Russian composer Tchaikovsky) lining the Corso Felice Cavallotti. You could easily get lost exploring the covered alleyways forming La Pigna, the oldest part of the city, which opens up to hilltop gardens that earned San Remo the nickname “City of Flowers.” If you want to hit the high seas, set off on a whale watching tour from the old port with Whalewatch Imperia before ending your evening by the water at the five-star Miramare The Palace.

RELATED: The Most Stunning Hotel Villas in Italy

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Seborga

While technically part of the Italian Riviera, the tiny town of Seborga (population: 362) has more in common with Vatican City than nearby Ventimiglia. The principality boasts its own passport, license plate, and local currency (luigino), which you can purchase at a shop in the Old Town’s Piazza della Liberta. Stroll through the narrow cobblestoned streets for a find just as exciting—fresh pasta—at Osteria del Coniglio, where a handful of tables sit in a tucked-away cobblestoned courtyard.

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Portofino

Portofino is the kind of town Italian dreams are made of. Home to only 500 permanent residents, the harbor is surrounded by a hillside cascading with olive groves and vineyards and pretty pastel-hued buildings lining the waterfront piazza. British aristocrats flocked here in the 1850s to bask in la dolce vita, which isn’t hard to do at Belmond Hotel Splendido, a former Benedictine monastery turned boutique hotel where Richard Burton proposed to Elizabeth Taylor. Spend your days lazing by the saltwater pool or set off on the hotel’s private boat on a sunset cruise to the village of San Fruttuoso, accessible only by sea or footpath. Once there, you can have lunch on the cliffside at Ristorante Da Giovanni before kayaking over to Portofino’s mega yacht-lined main square, Piazza Martiri dell’ Olivetta, for an Italian aperitif come nightfall. If you really want to experience life in a traditional fishing village, hop on board the Castel Dragone boat to learn how to cast a line like a local. Another way to live like a Ligurian is by staying in the 18-room Eight Hotel Portofino, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, which sits a short stroll away from the piazzetta.

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Alassio

While neighboring Portofino continues to draw well-heeled crowds, Alassio has retreated from the spotlight and become something of a local secret, where Italians go to bask on one of the longest stretches of sandy beach on the eastern Ligurian coastline. A 45-minute hike along a stretch of the old Roman Via Aurelia will take you from the city to Capo Santa Croce, where a namesake 13th-century church towers over the sea. Another historic sight worth visiting is the round Torrione Tower—the village’s oldest building—which protected coral fishermen from pirates during the 16th century. In the 1950s, Hemingway was one of the many famous figures who frequented town and inspired the owner of popular meeting place Caffè Roma to create Alassio’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame—a stone wall dotted with 550 colorful ceramic tiles bearing autographs of other well-known names like Jean Cocteau. Follow up lunch at U Levantin, whose menu mixes local and internationally fueled flavors into dishes like Ligurian rabbit with baked potatoes, with some of Italy’s best gelato at Alberto Marchetti’s A Cuvea Gelateria. After a day of sightseeing, treat yourself to a round of detoxifying Thalassotherapy, or sea-inspired treatments, at the gorgeous waterfront Grand Hotel Alassio. If you’re looking for a more secluded spot to rest your head, hide away in the hillside Villa della Pergola, whose 12 rooms perched above the bay are surrounded by pine trees.

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Cinque Terre

Over 70 miles of stone hiking trails connect the five hilltop towns of Cinque Terre—the main mode of transportation when it comes to exploring the jewel-colored villages hugging the rugged coastline. The easiest trail is the 30-minute Via dell’Amore, which connects Riomaggiore and the town of Manarola, known for its wine and olive oil production. Sample some of the regional vino in the vineyards of Val di Vara in Riomaggiore at Cantine Litàn or in the town of Monterosso at Enoteca Internazionale. The unofficial capital of Cinque Terre, Monterosso boasts the only sand-covered beach in the area, Fegina. While you’re here, visit the village’s boutique vineyard of Buranco or take a seat in front of the main church of Saint John the Baptist at family-owned Ristorante Ciak, which serves up Ligurian seafood specialties (think seafood ravioli slathered in shrimp sauce) alongside local bottles of wine. In the middle of Cinque Terre, the oldest of the five villages (and only one sans beach), Corniglia, sits 370 steps above the sea surrounded by terraced fields growing grapes used in Vernaccia-based white wines. Get a taste at the cash-only Osteria a Cantina de Mananan, tucked inside a former wine cellar, which sources produce from the surrounding gardens and seafood from local fishermen. You won’t find much in the way of luxe lodging in Cinque Terre, but there are two standout spots to spend the night: La Torretta Lodge Manarola, housed inside an old tower with balconies overlooking Manarola’s vineyards, and the villa-style Hotel Porto Roca, with a saltwater pool carved into the cliffs above Monterosso.

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Portovenere

From Cinque Terre, hop on board a boat bound for the next town south, Portovenere, nestled along the “Gulf of Poets.” A favorite of English greats like Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, this town was once used as a major Roman base on the route from Gaul to Spain. Enter the ancient Latin-inscribed gates and make your way along the Via Capellini—the city’s restaurant-lined main drag—or head up to the hilltop 16th-century Castello Doria, where you can soak up views of the Romanesque San Pietro Church. From the promenade, speed off on a water taxi to Palmaria, the largest of the three islands sitting offshore known for its Capri-like Blue Grotto and seaside panoramic eatery and inn, Locanda Lorena, which is housed in a former post office frequented by sailors in the 1930s.

RELATED: 8 Gorgeous Coastal Getaways Around the World

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Genoa

Renaissance poet Petrarch once described Liguria’s capital as “superb for its people and its walls.” Frescoed palazzi dot the Caruggi district (old town)—the most remarkable being the Renaissance-style Palazzi dei Rolli, which is comprised of 42 palaces that once hosted royal families and nobility. Today, palaces like the 17th-century Palazzo Reale, the former residence of the Royal Family of Savoy, serve as museums where travelers can explore regal throne rooms, hanging gardens, and even a Hall of Mirrors. It’s easy to mistake Via Garibaldi 12 Lifestylestore for a museum: not only does the Baroque-style eight-room shop spread across the first floor of the Palazzo Campanella feature a selection of stunning home furnishings, it’s also part of the UNESCO-listed collection of palaces. You might know Genoa’s claim to fame as the birthplace of explorer Christopher Columbus, but it’s also where Italian pesto originated. (Sample the specialty at the century-old Il Genovese; we recommend ordering the pesto-topped gnocchi.) About an hour from the city center along the seaside Corso Italia promenade lies another spot worth the trek: the fishing village of Boccadasse. Legend has it the bay here boasts healing properties, so take a dip before grabbing a bite at one of the seaside eateries like Antica Osteria Dindi.

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Camogli

Cinque Terre’s trails may be overrun by tourists, so if you’re looking for a hike where you’ve got the path all to yourself, Camogli is your place. Once called the “City of a Thousand Sails” in celebration of its maritime past, the fishing village today is known more for sailing vessels of a smaller variety, with tiny painted boats floating in the harbor. From the coast, a stone footpath snakes past fragrant olive groves to San Rocco, the beginning of a scenic hike to the area’s best-kept secret—the rocky enclaves of Punta Chiappa—where a shrimp-lined cave aptly named Grotta dei Gamberi is a favorite among scuba divers. Back in Camogli, Hotel Cenobio Dei Dogi is the perfect place to call home for the evening, where you can take a seat on the seaside terrace and watch the sun slip behind the colorful tall homes lining the gulf, Aperol Spritz in hand.

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