This Underrated Italian Riviera Town is, Literally, a Piece of Paradise
By Linda Funay McCarley
During our 6-week stay in Barga, Tuscany, my husband and I decided to spend a few days on the Italian Riviera. But – we didn’t want to spend those days in an over-touristed area, that’s not how we travel.
We were looking for a sparkling jewel on the coast with a more local and relaxed vibe, where we could really soak in the charms of the place and wander with the car if we chose. Well, our wish was granted when we found the gorgeous little town of Camogli.
Golfo di Paradiso
Aptly named, this area is called the Gulf of Paradise and stretches about 10 miles along the Italian Riviera, with its alluring seaside towns dotting the Mediterranean shores like a beautiful string of pearls.
The captivating town of Camogli (KA-MOHL-YEE) sits among these pearls near the town of Portofino, its famous and more glamorous cousin.
Set 25km east of Genoa, Camogli is one of the most romantic and impressively picturesque towns on the Italian Riviera, yet it has somehow managed to stay under the international tourist radar.
While Americans flock to the neighboring tourist mecca of Cinque Terre or the Jet Set-attracting town of Portofino, Camogli is where many northern Italians have their summer homes.
Staying in Camogli made us feel as though we had discovered a delightful secret along this beautiful Italian coastline.
This postcard-perfect town is most characterized by its vibrantly painted houses and pedestrian promenade facing its pebbly beach, with Liguria’s ocean-hugging cliffs and green hills as its backdrop.
Camogli inspires romance and relaxation and offers a friendly local culture, fabulous food, and easy access to explore nearby villages and sites.
Gracious Hotel on the Beach
We checked into Hotel Cenobio dei Dogi, one of the most gracious and impressive hotels along this stretch of the Italian Riviera.
This elegant hotel offers top-notch service and stunning oceanfront views and is steps from Camogli’s main promenade and harbor. The hotel has a saltwater pool and its own private beach.
Arriving to the Cenobio by car was easy – we drove right up to the front entrance, the friendly valet waiting to whisk our car off while the porter handled the luggage.
Check-in was a breeze and our porter escorted us to our room, then familiarized us with the hotel’s extensive amenities and services.
It was difficult to tear myself away from the jaw-dropping views from our private terrace, but we freshened up and wandered down to Camogli’s Via Giuseppe Garibaldi to spend the afternoon exploring this gorgeous little town.
We were struck by the unique trompe l’oeil technique on the town’s colorful buildings, with stonework details and even some windows painted on.
Tall and narrow, seven-to-eight-story buildings rim the beach promenade, seeming to hug one another. Their brilliant hues of apricot, cinnamon, amber, and cream proudly look out to sea, housing the many boutiques, restaurants, bakeries and gelato shops that line the cobbled street.
We heard several explanations for the use of trompe l’oeil on the buildings, the most common one being that the residents used the ingenious technique to minimize their taxes since they were charged by the number of windows.
Another, more romantic legend is that the buildings were designed to be flat in order to deter rampaging pirates from climbing their walls.
Regardless of which legend you prefer to believe, it really defines the village’s character and adds to the romance. Some of the trompe l’oeil artisans were proud enough to even autograph their masterpieces.
What’s in a Name
Camogli. Said to originate from Ca’ Moglie, for the wives (moglie) who took care of the family home (casa) while waiting for their husbands to return from their long voyages at sea.
I imagine that also explains the bright and varying house colors – so that the seafaring husbands could easily identify their family home as they returned from their journeys.
Throughout history, Camogli has been known as a thriving seaport. In the Middle Ages, its hundreds of Tall Ships were anchored here, thus earning Camogli the nickname “City of a Thousand White Sails.”
In the late 18th century Napoleon used Camogli as a base for part of his fleet, which was later defeated during the Battle of the Nile.
A Cozy Harbor Too
Today the town’s cozy harbor holds ferry boats offering easy transport to the nearby coastal villages, and tourist boats offering private and group excursions such as whale watching.
Red and blue fishing boats bobbing in the marina serve to remind us that fishing is still a thriving livelihood in Camogli.
The colorful harbor front is a great place to relax at one of the caffé patios and contemplate the surrounding beauty and lively vibe, indulge in a cappuccino and do some serious people-watching.
Smartly dressed Italians strolled the town on a Sunday we were there, and we sat in awe of their innate suaveness in making even the most casual clothes look so tailored and put-together, yet somehow unpretentious.
Dividing the marina and the beach, Camogli’s 12th-century Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta sits on a promontory overlooking the sea. This Baroque structure houses important works of art and frescoes from the 15th century, as well as several crystal chandeliers.
After viewing the church, we ambled up a flight of steps and crossed a picturesque black-and-white pebbled courtyard to reach the ruins of the medieval Castel Dragone, sitting atop a cliff like a town’s sentinel that it once was.
Our climb was rewarded with stunning panoramic views of the village, the rugged coastline and the green hills beyond, with the port of Genoa in the distance.
Fisherman on a Rock
While enjoying the views, my eyes spotted a young fisherman out in the midst of the churning water down below us, deftly balancing atop a huge rock while casting his fishing rod. Intermittently the crashing waves subsided, leaving the water so clear I could see large groups of rocks all around him, just underneath the surface. I’m still mystified at how he got himself out onto that rock.
Museo Marinaro in Camogli
The Museo Marinaro celebrates Camogli’s rich maritime history, housing an interesting collection of nautical objects from the Napoleon period to the First World War, including original manuscripts, models of sailing ships, nautical instruments, and letters and objects belonging to Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Additionally, there are well over a hundred paintings commissioned by proud ship owners.
Excellent Local Fare of Liguria
Liguria is known as the birthplace of pesto and focaccia, as well as for its amazing seafood. Camogli delivers on all of these, with a varied selection of restaurants along the promenade.
We strolled past several seafood restaurants, then chose Osteria delle 7 Pance for its prime location on the beach and its terrace almost jutting into the water, perfectly positioned for viewing Camogli’s sublime sunsets.
Since our visit was in November, we shared the restaurant with only one other couple and had our pick of the ocean-view tables on the terrace. Our romantic dinner music was the lulling sound of the waves lapping the shore.
Friendly service from the owner himself, amazing mussels and spaghetti with clams, and a crisp Ligurian white, all made for a perfectly relaxed evening.
And it didn’t hurt that the owner brought us a complimentary after-dinner Amaro, a local favorite liqueur or “digestivo”. Yum.
Focaccia – an Institution on the Portofino Coast
Focaccia is a staple in Liguria, and we wholeheartedly sampled the many delicious varieties of this light and airy bread as part of our hotel’s bountiful breakfast each morning. The toppings included caramelized onions (my favorite) and fresh tomatoes, oregano, and basil.
In addition to these varieties, there is a special one, Focaccia di Recco, that is an immense source of pride for this area of the Portofino Coast.
Focaccia di Recco was invented in the small town of Recco, next to Camogli. This special creation is comprised of two very thin layers of focaccia and is filled with a warm, soft cheese that oozes from the bread when it is removed from the hot oven. Locals take this recipe so seriously they even have a consortium to control the quality.
Camogli’s legendary bakery, Focacceria Revello is THE place to get your focaccia fix, as well as other to-die-for sweet and savory specialties.
You won’t need Google maps to find it; as you stroll down the promenade, the tantalizing aroma of fresh bread wafting from this bakery will guide you right to their door. Pro Tip: Go early, there will be long lines as the day goes on.
Famous Fish Festival of Camogli
Join the locals at Camogli’s most celebrated event of the year, the Festival of Fish, or La Sagra del Pesce. This lively festival takes place on the second Sunday in May and celebrates Camogli’s fishing heritage and the patron Saint of fishermen, San Fortunato.
This is no ordinary fish fry. While stalls line the harbor and seafront offering traditional Ligurian specialties, the main event is in the marina’s Piazza Cristoforo Colombo, with what must be one of the largest frying pans known to man. At four meters in diameter, this giant pan is used to cook fish for hundreds of hungry locals and visitors from all over Italy.
Nearby Towns and Activities
After picnicking on the beach with fresh focaccia, sipping spritzes on the promenade, checking out local artisan shops and sampling some amazing seafood, we set off to explore some of Camogli’s nearby neighbors along the Gulf of Paradise. Whether you hike the trails, take a boat or drive, you will be met with breathtaking scenery all along the way.
San Fruttuoso, a Hidden Gem
The Abbey of San Fruttuoso is a beautiful monastery in a picturesque setting, right on the beach. This hidden gem is only accessible on foot or by boat. Dating back to 984 the abbey was run by the Benettini monks, and is now a museum.
Hikers can walk to the Abbey through the trails of beautiful Portofino Natural Park, a protected natural area of over 1500 hectares. The trailhead is near Camogli’s train station, and the walk takes about three hours. From the Bay of San Fruttuoso, a boat will take you back to Camogli or further along the coast to Portofino and Santa Margherita Ligure.
Art Under Water
Well-known to divers, a unique underwater attraction near the Bay of San Fruttuoso is the Christ of the Abyss. Italian artist Guido Galletti created this 2.5-meter-tall bronze statue of Jesus Christ. The statue was installed 15 meters below the water’s surface in 1954 in memory of Italian diver Dario Gonzatti, who died during a descent near this spot in 1947. On calm days it is visible using snorkel and mask.
A vibrant seaside town with a quaint historic center next to a long, palm-fringed promenade, Rapallo is a contradiction of bustling activity and laid-back seaside charm.
Metered parking at the seafront makes it easy to park the car and stroll down the wide promenade to the 15th-century Rapallo castle.
We delighted in the number of families out enjoying their passegiatta, and we loved slowing down to savor the local rhythm – and gelato.
Stop and admire the domed pavilion near the promenade, with its stunning Art Nouveau frescoes.
Poets and writers have been drawn to Rapallo’s nostalgic ambiance for the past couple of centuries, among them Ernest Hemingway, WB Yeats, Ezra Pound, and Max Beerbohm.
The highlight for me was risking my life standing in the town’s busy roundabout while trying to get a good shot of the Hotel Riviera, where Ernest Hemingway stayed in 1923 while he penned “Cat in the Rain” and visited his good friend Ezra Pound.
Rapallo’s funicular, Liguria’s only cable car, provides stunning views of the surrounding mountains during its 600-meter ascent to the iconic Sanctuary of Nostra Signora di Montallegro. At the top enjoy panoramic vistas of the Gulf of Genoa’s sparkling blue waters.
Ahh, Portofino. It’s hard not to swoon when listening to Andrea Bocelli crooning “I Found My “Love in Portofino”.
This charming town has long been frequented by those with a certain means and status. In the late 1800’s Portofino became an exclusive destination
for European aristocrats and has continued to be a playground for the rich and famous, with celebrities and artists from around the world flocking to its picturesque harbor every summer.
Elizabeth Taylor brought a husband or two here during the 1950s, with Richard Burton trumping those before him by reportedly proposing to Elizabeth on the terrace of Belmond’s luxurious Hotel Splendido.
Superyachts anchored in the bay, luxury hotels and villas, expensive restaurants, designer shops and pricey beach clubs are just some of the glamorous offerings of Portofino.
We spent our afternoon visit relaxing with an aperitivo at a cozy harborside café, soaking in the ambiance. No celebrity sightings, but we did have fun watching a real fisherman playing around with his small boat near the dock, while I and a few others captured some photos.
I’m convinced he was posing just in case we were paparazzi; it took him over twenty minutes to tie his boat to the dock.
Santa Margherita Ligure
Santa Margherita Ligure is an elegant town next to Portofino, known for its sandy beach, Art Nouveau architecture, and ample selection of hotels and restaurants.
It’s a short drive or train ride from Camogli, and a beautiful scenic boat ride. Ferries generally operate from March to October/November, check the schedule.
Camogli is a great find – a bright spot on the already shining Gulf of Paradise, and a wonderful base from which to explore more fantastic villages on this magnificent stretch of the Portofino Coast.
For me, Camogli exudes that “je ne said quoi” magic that immediately made me feel at home and relaxed, and sent my thoughts to returning to this little piece of paradise.
Getting To Camogli
From Genoa (30 minutes):
Take the A12 Autostrada/E80 from Genoa towards Livorno then take the Recco exit.
From Lucca (1 hour, 30 minutes):
Take the E80 (tolls), take the Recco exit, or take the scenic route from Rapallo to Ruta di Camogli.
Serviced by the Camogli – San. Fruttuoso Train Station.
Hotel Cenobio del Dogi
- Via N. Cuneo, 34, Camogli (GE) 16032 – Liguria, Italy.
- +39 0185-72441 | +39 0185-1836330
Pasticceria Focacceria Revello
Via Giuseppe Garibaldi 183
Osteria delle 7 Pance
Via Garibaldi 133, Camogli
A lifelong traveler and world citizen, Linda Funay McCarley is a freelance travel writer with a passionate curiosity for Off the Tourist Path destinations at home and around the globe. Through her travel stories, Linda hopes to inspire others to be curious about the world, and Just Go! Follow her travels on Instagram @LindaGo. She recently moved from Austin, Texas to Williamsville, a small town outside of Buffalo, NY.