From secret coves to quaint fishing villages, dip your toes back into travelling at these top seaside spots
We twisted upwards, along a winding road lined with parked cars. Suddenly below us lay an abandoned tower and a swimming pool-like tranquil expanse of the most beautiful sea we had seen in years: the famed La Pelosa beach in Sardinia. Sailing boats bobbed like toy models to the right.
“Ma questo e’ paradiso!” (“This is paradise!”) one of my son’s friends shouted from the back seat. “It’s more than paradise!” said my son. It’s the same with adults in Italy. While most of us enjoy beaches, I have never seen such childlike love for the sea as the Italians have. It’s so strong, it has religious fervour – the choosing of which beach club, which dish, which region, what time to take a siesta, whether to head to a national park or to a more serviced spot, what time to arrive, where has the best sunset.
Much like conversations here about football, or cuisine, part of the fun is in the friendly arguments that ensue. Sardinia has the best beaches. No – Puglia. No – Calabria. In more than a decade of living here, I have come to love to ask, “Where is the best beach?” and to sit back, silently making notes of where to visit next.
The 20 beaches I have chosen aren’t all necessarily undiscovered, but they all epitomise the spirit of Italian beach life – the idea of a day at the sea at its best, each in its own particular way.
The perfect spot for spaghetti alle vongole. A Benedictine abbey on the sea. Chic shaded tents on the prettiest cove. Boars that run on the sand. Fishing villages that lead to powder-white sand and turquoise sea. Islands lost in time. A boat ride or hike to your own stretch of seaside idyll. It’s hard to pick just one. So don’t.
Powder-white sand and transparent sea that could have been transported from the Caribbean. A postcard-perfect jewel box of a village with lost-in-time alleyways and barely a tourist in sight. Even Italian insiders gasp when they see Tropea for the first time, its blue-sky views reaching all the way to Stromboli. The church of Santa Maria dell’Isola sits on an island to the left of the beach – climb sun bleached white stairs for a view of the Aeolian islands – and then head to the Norman-style duomo, a memento from one of the waves of invaders that made their way here.
The beach under the dramatic white cliff is deemed one of the most spectacular in the country by Italians, and the few fortunate foreigners who make the trek. The only time you may find other sunseekers is in August, when a wave of savvy Italians head south. Don’t miss the swordfish at Osteria del Pescatore (Via del Monte), or an aperitif with young well-heeled locals at Al Migliarese (Largo Migliarese).
Where to stay: A short drive to Tropea, the Praia Art Resort has its own stretch of pristine beach and hammocks hung over the sea.
Remember the scene in the Oscar-nominated The Talented Mr Ripley when Tom Ripley, Matt Damon’s character, sees Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) and Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow) for the first time coming out of the sea like Greek gods? Well that incredible beach is Ischia’s Spiaggia dei Pescatori, tucked under an Aragonese castle with the ridiculously pretty fishing village of Forio behind.
The island has remained off the radar compared to spots like Capri, and that’s what makes it so appealing to its devotees. Rent a boat and circle the whole island, with lazy stops to swim in little secluded coves, or for lunch at the Slim Aarons-like Hotel Club Scanella, a beach club meets restaurant with some of the best food in Italy (the owner has his own buffalo in the hills above for just-made mozzarella with sun-warmed tomatoes). At Aphrodite Apollon dozens of hot thermal pools provide a rock-made jacuzzi experience overlooking the sea.
Where to Stay: The owners of Tuscany’s Il Pellicano have taken over Mezzatorre Hotel and Thermal Spa, a mix of chic and understated, much like Ischia itself.
Spiaggia Della Pelosa, Sardinia
The crush of VIP yachts has taken away some of the lustre of the Costa Smeralda’s powder-sand beaches and turquoise sea. To experience a more authentic and local side of the island head to Alghero in Sardinia’s northwest corner, a bustling local town, with spots like L’Anfora for the perfect Negroni, and Angedras for just-caught grilled fish. But it’s Alghero’s nearby beach of La Pelosa that’s the holy grail. With a shallow seabed one can walk or swim for miles through transparent water. Snorkelling here feels as though you are in a veritable aquarium.
It’s the kind of spot that brings even a seasoned beach lover almost to tears, and the backdrop of a watchtower creates one of the most beautiful photo-op settings in all of the country, so get there early in high season to ensure front-row dibs. To get even further isolation, take a day trip to the island of Asinara. This former First World War prisoner of war camp and then a high security prison for Mafiosi and other high profile criminals has been transformed into a national park with no residents except white donkeys, Arab horses, and wild boar. It’s hard to imagine that such a haven still exists these day.
Where to stay: Book a stylish room at the Art Nouveau Villa Mosca with nine rooms and views over the sea.
Cilento National Park, Campania
One of our favourite national parks in Italy, this exquisite area goes from the foot of the Apennines all the way to the sea. It’s no wonder that the paradise was deemed a Unesco World Heritage site in 1998. Make Palinuro your base with its pretty fishing boats bobbing in the sea and gentle coves for swimming. The cinematic spiaggia dell’Arco Naturale appeared in Clash of the Titans and leads to a network of caves that look like they were lit by James Turrell, and the tiny but exquisite spiaggia del Buon Dormire looks plucked right out of Thailand. The beaches around the Marina di Camerota are also a beachcombers dream with grottos galore.
After exploring the coastline don’t miss a day trip to Paestum, an incredible complex of Greek temples from the seventh century BC. Nearby, visit the Tenuta Vannulo where some of the country’s most famous mozzarella di bufala is produced. These gentle creatures lead a pampered life with classical music and daily massages among the treatments to keep them relaxed to produce their extraordinary milk. With its rugged mountains, preserved ruins, tasty ingredients, and empty beaches, it’s ironic that a region so close to Amalfi has been so undiscovered except by Italians. We can’t blame them for wanting to keep it that way.
Where to stay: Sant’Agata, perched above Palinuro, is a small agriturismo surrounded by olive trees and run by an Anglo-Italian couple; Palazzo Belmonte has its own stretch of private beach and a 17th-century feel.
Posh and Becks holidayed here in a golden haze of Instagram posts. Helen Mirren bought a ruin in Tiggiano as a present to herself. Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake got married nearby, and Madonna has spent almost every birthday in this part of the country. Not that we care about celebrities but they are putting the south of the boot of Italy on the map – no mean feat in a region that aficionados consider their own. Of course there is the Salento standout of the city of Lecce, considered the Florence of the south, with its Baroque churches and new generation of cocktail bars.
But what’s even more appealing is that as the land narrows as you head further to the tip, both the Adriatic and Mediterranean are within an easy drive depending on your mood (in fact native beachgoers call their nonna to ask which side has the better weather that day). Among the beaches a stone’s throw from Lecce and Otranto are spiaggia di Alimini (rent your day bed and have lunch at Kum Beach Club), Le Maldive del Salento (named for their Maldive-like white sand) at the region’s tip of Santa Maria di Leuca, the atmospheric port of Corvo, and Punta della Suina near Gallipoli (have an Aperol spritz at G Beach Club).
Where to stay: Salento has some of the best bolt-holes in the country, like Athena McAlpine’s divine Il Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli, the new Palazzo Daniele, an exquisite example of original architecture with just the right touch of modern design, or Masseria Trapana where Naomi Watts and other stylish types stay (we love the new underground spa there).
Riserva Di Vendicari, Sicily
Vendicari is one of Italy’s impressive number of national parks – a beautiful enclave with a swathe of pristine beach at the southern point of Sicily. Framed by a former tuna factory (tuna production used to be the main business in this part of Italy) this oasis for flamingos, herons and storks has a stretch of sand for everyone – the family friendly, the tanned canoodlers, the nudists and the gay (Il Marianelli is one of the most famous gay beaches in Italy). There are no services here due to its protected status, so for a beach club vibe head to Agua Beach resort in nearby San Lorenzo with a gentle beach that’s great for children and a stylish restaurant/bar for the grown-ups.
Don’t miss a visit to Marzamemi, too, an atmospheric fishing village with a walled main square encircled by a selection of lively restaurants and bars. Cortile Arabo is a standout for seafood and delicious pachino tomatoes. Ask for a table on the wooden dock over the water. Afterwards grab a cup of Bronte pistachio gelato at Il tuo Gelato 2.
Where to stay: Go for a villa, or hideaway Country House Villadorata outside the exquisite Baroque town of Noto with eight rooms set within acres of vines and olive trees, a 20-minute drive from the coast. It is currently temporarily closed to deter the spread of Covid-19, but check the website for updates.
This sleepy island is one of Lazio’s true gems, long favoured by well-heeled Romans who jealously guard this hideaway for good reason. With its port dotted with painted fishing boats and pastel coloured houses climbing into the cliffs, the spot looks too pretty to be true. While away days at spiaggia di Frontone, a beach made up of rocky and sand stretches, where after snorkelling in crystal-clear water you can have a fabulous lunch at Associazione Culturale Cala Frontone, also a museum, eating plates of melt-in-your-mouth anchovies and drinking crisp white wine under a vine-covered pergola.
In the evenings don’t even bother coming out until at least nine and hit the port with locals and Italian insiders for an peritif, before a dinner at Restaurant Eea (a cozy spot with some of the country’s best seafood). Carve out time for a boat excursion with Diva Luna to Palmarola, Ponza’s sister island, with its blue grottoes and crystalline sea. Ask your captain to pull up to Restaurant O’Francese where sailors spend hours over spaghetti alle vongole and grilled orata on the waterside terrace plates.
Where to stay: Hotel Chiaia di Luna has stunning views of the 328ft-high white cliffs shaped like a moon, hence its name, and a spectacular pool.
San Fruttuoso, Liguria
Just when you think Italy can’t possibly yield any more surprises there it is: a Benedictine abbey on the shores of a crescent beach. Between Camogli and Portofino, and only accessible by hiking or boat, it’s quite simply a show-stopper. The original church and abbey of the eighth century were destroyed by the Saracens and rebuilt by the Benedictines, with large windows looking onto the sea, the sound of the waves adding to the meditational effect.
The beach leads into beautiful clear water – where a statue of Christ sits at the bottom of the sea, said to protect the bay – and also attracts legions of fish to see as you snorkel past. Foodies won’t be disappointed either. Da Laura is one of Liguria’s best, famous for its homemade lasagnette di pesto, along with local white wine and fritto misto.
Where to stay: This coastline is dotted with towns worth a night or two at least. Villa Rosmarino in Camogli, with an infinity pool and boutique-chic rooms, is one such option, while Vernazza sul Mare in the Cinque Terre makes a great family-friendly choice with two apartments with beautiful sea views. And fit in a trip to Eco del Mare Beach Club. Owned by the wife of rock star Zucchero, it sits on its own stretch of sand with stylish beach set-ups, excellent food, and now a clutch of guest rooms for the lucky few.
Alberese Natural Park, Tuscany
Most visitors to Tuscany head like lemmings to the inner part of the region, to tour Florence or the hilltop towns. But the Tuscan coast deserves its own love affair, with its mix of manicured beach clubs and wild reserves to suit every travel tribe. Skip crowded, expensive Forte dei Marmi, and instead head to Alberese National Park (also known as Maremma Natural Park or Uccellina), once part of the Duke of Tuscany’s estate.
One of the overlooked gems of the region, the assets of this ruggedly beautiful protected park include acres for hiking and biking, and miles of pristine coastline, with soft sand and clear sea. Pine trees lapped by the water look like sun-bleached sculptures, and one can wander happily along its shores with just a wild boar family for company. Best of all, visitor numbers are capped, so even in high season it’s never too crowded. Nearby, the sweet village of Talamone feels almost forgotten despite its pretty cafés and medieval castle overlooking the sea. (If you want to take a dip, head to the beach club of Bagno delle Donne set into the rocks below.)
Where to stay: The olive tree-surrounded Casale Sterpeti just added a lovely pool; Locanda Rossa near Capalbio makes a great spot from which to explore the Tuscan coast (it’s also very family-friendly); Il Baciarino has exceptional views and wooden hot tubs; Casa Iris is a chic B&B in historical Orbetello.
Marettimo, Egadi Islands, Sicily
While the Aeolian islands get more attention, Italians know that the Egadi islands (just off Palermo) are easier to reach and even more low-key. Made up of Favignana, the largest and most well-known, Levanzo, with its famous Grotta del Genovese, and Marettimo, its most isolated and beautiful, the islands are a closely guarded secret. Make a beeline to Marettimo, the most charming of the three because it’s just a bit further out than its sister islands. With castaway beaches, deserted coves with translucent water for snorkelling, and rugged trails for hiking between them, this is not a spot for those who need constant action but rather a place to truly unplug (on much of the island you can’t even get phone reception – heaven).
I love the main town and port with its sun-drenched houses, quiet streets, and fishing boats (many available to rent for the day). Ask one of the wizened captains to take you to Cala Bianca, at the northwest point; you can only get to this show-stopper by boat but it’s one of Italy’s most beautiful beaches with a sea of turquoise and a sliver of sand (don’t forget your snorkelling gear). Another paradise is Cala Nera, reached after a three-and-a-half-hour hike through Marettimo’s gorgeous interior.
Where to stay: Marettimo is made up of locally owned apartments to rent and simple B&Bs; one of the most charming is La Tartaruga with five rooms and a lovely rooftop terrace. For a more upscale option the Thinking Traveller’s Egadi collection includes Hiera, a two-bedroom fisherman’s house that’s been lovingly restored.
Baratti Bay, Populonia, Tuscany
Almost intact Etruscan ruins and a wall-encircled perfectly preserved village. Check. A long gentle bay with soft sand looking onto the glimmering Med. Check. Delicious seafood restaurants with views on to the sea. Check.
Where to stay: Poggio ai Santi near San Vincenzo has panoramic views, its own destination restaurant, and makes a good base for both beach trips and to sweet hill towns like Bolgheri, famous for its supertuscan wines.
A favourite playground for fashionable Romans – it’s an easy drive from the capital down the coast – the beach area here is chock-a-block with quintessential beach clubs like Rosso e Vino alla Dogana. Comfy chaise longues, a whitewashed restaurant and bar that looks straight from a design magazine, and dishes like spaghetti al vongole (it will remain a holy grail for the rest of your beach days) are only some of the draws.
Where to stay: Locanda Rossa makes a great boutique spot from which to explore the Tuscan coast in all directions (it’s also very family friendly).
Consider it Amalfi without the crowds. Below the charming town of Maratea with its 42 churches and local cafés, is a coastline of beaches that alternate between caramel sand coves and smooth black stone beaches. Rent a boat from the port and take your pick between Acquafredda and La Secca di Castrocucco, stopping to jump into the emerald sea or to snorkel in the hidden caves.
Where to stay: A former monastery, La Locanda delle Donne Monache has a lovely pool that sits aside the former chapel.
Conero, Le Marche
Le Marche may not be on the radar for many foreign travellers, but they are missing out on a true national treasure. Part of a national park, Conero’s coastline looks more Sardinian than Adriatic, with sandy white beaches and translucent water. Mezzavalle, La Vela, Due Sorelle (hands down one of the prettiest beaches in the country) and Portonovo all deserve to make the list here.
Where to stay: Ever wished to spend the night at a fort? Try Hotel Fortino Napoleonico right on the beach.
La Maddalena, Sardinia
Off snazzy Costa Smeralda, the islands of the Maddalena archipelago remain much more authentic, and low key, than the former. Plus, the plethora of sandy white isthmuses, and turquoise and emerald green water, makes the oft comparison to Tahiti a compelling one. Among the prettiest beaches are Spargi, Cala Corsara and Budelli, though the latter can only be seen from the water as visitors were stealing its lovely pink coral sand to take home.
Where to stay: Set up digs at La Maddalena’s Grand Hotel Ma & Ma.
Eco del mar, Liguria
Chic Italians and lucky insiders were thrilled by the opening of the Eco del Mar beach club a few years back. Owned by the wife of legendary Italian rock star Zucchero, it sits on its own stretch of dreamy sandy beach book ended by rocky boulders. We really love the stylish beach set-ups with their gauzy tents, as well as dreamy dishes like couscous with salmon, and now a clutch of barefoot chic guest rooms for the lucky few.
This island off the Tuscan coast may be most well known for being the spot where Napoleon was exiled, but it’s the more than a hundred beaches that really deserve star billing. Sansone is the most beautiful of the lot, its white shore a mix of bleached stone and sand and a kaleidoscope of aquarium blues – the shallow water make it an excellent snorkelling, and family friendly, spot too.
Where to stay: Grab a room at the Ilio, one of the only boutique hotels on the island, with a stand-alone cottage on the beach.
Tremiti islands, Puglia
A nature reserve since 1989, these small islands off the Gargano coast are a little known paradise to most beachcombers who aren’t from the region. Make tracks to the isle of San Domino with its peaceful coves, underwater caves, and beaches like the Tramontana (tramonto is Italian for sunset) – bring a bottle of wine for the nightly event and enjoy the light show.
Where to stay: San Domino doesn’t have a plethora of hotels – rent an apartment on airbnb.com
Sicily may have no shortage of jaw dropping beaches but the island of Lampedusa, which lies 70 miles from Tunisia and North Africa, has many of the very best on her shores. Spiaggia dei Conigli (the beach of rabbits) has to be one of the most beautiful in the whole of Italy with its powder white sand, shallow perfect blue water with rocky outcroppings in front (Cala Pulcino is another show-stopper).
Where to stay: Hole up at the romantic La Calandra Resort.
Most travellers winging to Abruzzo concentrate on its mountainous interior rather than its unexpectedly idyllic coastline. But make a beeline to Vasto to see what the fuss is about. This Roman fishing village perched over the Adriatic, and the nearby Pineta of Teramo beach, make up part of Italy’s “blue flag” network which designates the country’s most pristine water. (We love the series of trabocchi, former fishing rigs, that have been converted into romantic restaurants on the sea.)
Where to stay: Villa Vignola has access to the sea and a dreamy feel of decades past.
Ondine Cohane is the co-author of Frances Mayes Always Italy, as well as being a Tuscany expert for The Daily Telegraph.