Destin-Nation Italy: Best Beaches Along the Mediterranean's Boot

It may not be tropical, but Italy is surrounded by the temperate Mediterranean, making for beautiful beaches up and down its three coasts.

It may not be tropical, but Italy is surrounded by the temperate Mediterranean, making for beautiful beaches up and down its three coasts.

Add in the shorelines of Sardinia and Sicily, the country's two largest islands, and it's easily one of the world's greatest beach destinations. (Bonus points for the readily available fresh fish and chilled white wine.)

High season is late summer, when whole cities decamp to the shore and beach chairs sell for a premium-if you're lucky enough to find one vacant. Early summer is a better time to visit, when the water has warmed up but before the crowds descend.

Thanks to a surfeit of regional airports and an excellent rail systems (the trains sometimes run on time) getting to and around Italy is also a fairly early. The Italian attitude, which is at times excruciatingly relaxed, can be frustrating, but chances are that if you get stuck you'll wind up someplace charming.

Italy's Best Beaches
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Destin-Nation Italy: Best Beaches Along the Mediterranean's Boot

Italy's most famous island, Sicily is ringed by beaches, from the wild Vendicari Nature Reserve to sandy stretches near Giardini Naxos. But for its size and scene, the Mondello Lido near Palermo could well be the top choice here. Just five miles from Palermo, the island's capital, it's an easy weekend (and weekday) escape from the city and visitors make for the wide, white-sand beach in droves.

Ample hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs await, and the beach has every imaginable water sport and plenty of space to zonk-out-on-the-sand. Framing the picture is a sort of Sicilian Diamond Head, Cape Gallo, a rocky point jutting north into the Mediterranean and Mount Pellegrino.

Where to Stay: The splendid Hotel La Torre is a short walk from the beach, with ocean-view rooms that will run you $130-210 and a lovely outdoor terrace and swimming pool. The Villa Esperia is a slightly more affordable choice three blocks from the beach with rooms from roughly $100.

Getting There: Many airlines fly to Palermo, but you'll have to connect in Europe from the U.S. Conveniently, Mondello is closer to the airport than Palermo's city center.

The "five lands," a group of five villages that hug the sea between La Spezia and Genova on the northwestern coast of Italy, certainly can't compete based on just the size of their beaches, which could be generously described as small. But dramatic, looming cliffs and the strikingly blue sea and off Cinque Terre make these beaches worth a visit. They've even earned recognition from the UN as a protected World Heritage Site.

Perhaps the best of the bunch is in Monterosso al Mare, where the sandy strand is bisected by a picturesque weathered rock outcropping. Beach chairs and parasols are available and the water is the definition of acquamarine. In Vernazza, a tiny slice of sand is bolstered by a concrete pier that juts into the sea, providing visitors with a perfect diving platform.

Where to Stay: Because day-trippers can overwhelm the small towns, staying overnight offers a better experience. In Monterosso, La Poesia is a four-room guesthouse with negotiable rates set up above the water. Vernazza's tiny Elisabetta guesthouse has incredible sea views worth the hike up Via Carratino and definitely worth the price tag of $65-$90.

Getting There: The intrepid can hike between the villages—or take a train, the easiest way to reach the area from elsewhere in Italy. The journey from Florence takes about 3.5 hours; from Genova, it's about 90 minutes.

The northern Tuscan town of Forte dei Marmi is one of the country's most bustling beach resorts come high season, with wealthy Russians, sun-withered Brits and, yes, baked-to-perfection Italians descending on the Ligurian shores each summer. (It's so popular with super-wealthy cognoscenti that the mayor has tried to stabilize home prices by reserving certain properties for locals only.) The roughly 15-mile-long stretch of sand, packed with attended beach chairs, bars, restaurants and hotels aplenty, is so desirable for sheer simplicity: clear water, blazing sun and plenty of places to play after a day on the sand.

Where to Stay: As one of the glitziest summer resorts in Italy, there are hotel options aplenty. The stately Hotel Franceschi Villa Mimosa is a 20-room luxury boutique a few blocks off the sand has romantic lodging from $350. Hotel Il Negresco overlooks the beach and also offers bicycle rentals for cruising around town. Be aware that during high season, it's common for Forte's hotels to institute minimum stays; even so, they often sell out months in advance despite the $300 or greater price tags.

Getting There: The airport in Pisa is about 30 miles south of Forte dei Marmi. A rental car is one option, or you can take a train into Pisa proper, transfer and continue on a train north up to the coast.

The spur on the boot of Italy, Gargano is a sub-region of Puglia, most of which is protected by a national park that encompassses some of the most spectacular coastline in the country. Plunging limestone cliffs and geological "stacks"—pillars poking up from the sea—dot the coastline, as do hidden sandy beaches near the towns of Vieste and Peschici. This is some of the most remote country in Italy, and visitors are rewarded with quiet privacy and a uniquely Italian crowd; this isn't the sort of international tourism carnival you'll find in Cinque Terre.

Where to Stay: The Baia dei Faraglioni Beach Resort, with its $350 rooms, sits on top of a cliff overlooking the sea off Vieste and has access to a private beach by an elevator carved into the rock. The 20-room Le Dune Hotel Suite in Peschici offers a wider beach, with umbrellas and cabanas reserved for guests. The hotel offers double rooms from $150. The Baia delle Zagare, from $230, also has a private beach, backed by stunning sheer cliffs.

Getting There: One downside to Gargano: It's difficult to reach. Flights to regional airports in Bari and Foggia are an option, but you'll still need to transfer to your hotel. In a rental car, Gargano is about four hours east of Rome.

The heel of Italy has its beaches, but so does the toe, with sandy shores on both the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas. The beaches at Tropea earn top marks for their wide swathes of sand and for the stylish scene that's earned the town comparisons to St. Tropez. Punctuated by a rocky knoll topped by a small church, Santa Maria dell'Isola, these are some of the most dramatic shores in Southern Italy.

Where to Stay: The Hotel Tirreno has both standard rooms  and apartment-style "residences" from $200 for longer stays, as well as a private bit of beach for guests that is well stocked with umbrellas, beach chairs. Shuttle service the hotel, which perches on an ocean cliff. The Villa Vittoria is in the heart of town, a quarter mile from the beach, has simple, bright double rooms from roughly $100.

Getting There: The beach is a short drive from the airport in Lamezia Terme, which has service from other Italian and European cities. It's also possible to get to Tropea by train from Rome and Naples.

Were they anywhere else, the beaches of the Amalfi Coast wouldn't rate as jaw-dropping. But combined with the sheer cliffs, electric blue waters, hidden coves and overwhelming charms of the Gulf of Naples, the oft-pebbly beaches here merit a visit for their all-around appeal. (That everyone from Roman emperor Tiberius to Jackie O have vacationed in the area is an added endorsement.)

The best beaches on the mainland are away from the densest tourist scrums that hustle into the towns of Minori and Maiori, which has a parasol-packed strand looking south over the Tyrrhenian Sea. For more relaxed beach-going, hop a ferry to the island of Ischia, a less-traveled alternative to the seasonally swarmed Capri—the famed isle doesn't really have beaches anyway. In addition to its omnipresent beach clubs fronting sandy crescents, volcanic Ischia is well-known for thermal baths, where visitors can combine a soak with a stretch by the sea.

Where to Stay: The Hotel Parco Smeraldo ($170 for a basic room) is situated right on Maronti Beach, Ischia's largest, and has an extensive spa and private section of the beach for guests. On the mainland, the Hotel Botanico San Lazzaro, from $370, is perched on the cliffs above Maiori—but offers tuk-tuk style shuttles to and from the beach.

Getting There: Nearby Naples has an airport, but it's easiest to get here by flying to Rome and hopping the train south.

Not far from Venice, these twin resort towns are popular not only with Italians looking for the sand, sun and minimal surf, but also Germans and Austrians who migrate across the Alps every summer to the shores of the Adriatic. (Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria started the trend in the 19th century when he made Grado his preferred summer getaway.) As on Ischia off the Amalfi Coast, there's an added draw to the fine sand and crystal clear water: Grado offers one of the country's best-known spas, with an almost innumerable list of treatments.

The island has more than 12 miles of beaches and swells with tourists during the summer high season, when bars and outdoor discos pop up to accommodate the crush. A generally younger crowd stays on the mainland in Lignano, a sort of mirror image of Grado 12 miles west, across a small lagoon.

Where to Stay: Accommodations abound, and the Hotel Diana is one of the best values in Grado, just three blocks from the beach at a fantastic price ($80) for its four stars. The Grand Hotel Astoria is another affordable option with rooms from $70 and a rooftop pool deck offering views over the town and its surrounding lagoon. In Lignano, the beachside Hotel Italia Palace offers sweeping views from its rooms for $170.

Getting There: The closest airport is in Venice, and though you can take various combinations of taxi, bus and train services to reach these towns, it's much simpler to just rent a car and drive east for 90 minutes.

South of sizzling Forte dei Marmi, La Maremma is Tuscany's more low-key beach escape: Think of it as the region's Montauk or Santa Monica to Forte's more Malibu or Hamptons. The beaches extend, off and on, roughly 100 miles between Livorno and Monte Argentario through a government-protected "natural park" complete with pine forests, wetlands, wildlife and bird watching. Also hugging the coast? Cattle farms tended by Italian cowboys.

While not spectacular for their sheer size, the intimacy and rusticity of the beaches here are the draw—and the area's relatively undiscovered status means crowds are thinner and prices are lower compared to elsewhere in Italy. No wonder so many Tuscans and Romans flock here for summer weekends.

Where to Stay: The most posh hotel in the region is L'Andana, a former duke's residence turned luxury, $500-a night hotel by chef Alain Ducasse, a few miles from the beaches and the natural park. In the seaside town of Porto San Stefano, on Monte Argentario, the Pensione Week End is a very affordable option ($85) within walking distance of a few beaches.

Getting There: The easiest way to navigate the region is by car, as public transportation in the area is limited. Pick up a rental at the international airport in Rome or Pisa.

The booming-est beach in all of Italy, Rimini is the Miami of the peninsula: The number of summertime visitors is only surpassed by the quantity of nightclubs catering to them. (Or at least so it seems.) While the scene is a big part of the draw, the 10-mile beach holds its own as a sun-soaked idyll. 

Where to Stay: As in Grado, where there's an Italian beach resort, there's a spa, and Rimini's first was established in 1873. You'll also find excellent hotels, some of which provide beach services to guests. The Grand Hotel Rimini is queen of the bunch, a turn-of-the-century grande dame that had a role in hometown hero Federico Fellini's Amarcord. Well appointed rooms run from $180 but look priceless. On the opposite end of the historical spectrum, the i-Suite Hotel offers space-age design for $320 a night and high-end service right on the beach.

Getting There: Rimini is easily reached by trains from Bologna, itself easily accessible from Florence, Milan or Venice.

Though the name of this geologically active Aeolian island is the source of the word "volcano," the last eruption was more than 110 years ago and the verdant speck is now best known for Black Sands Beach on the western side of the island near Porto Ponente. Nearby, Acque Calde beach fronts a crescent-shaped bay of waters heated by underwater thermal vents. Another black-sand beach on the southern part of the island, Dell'Asino, is best reached by boat.

Where to Stay: Right on Black Sands, Hotel Les Sables Noirs ($140) is an excellent option on the bay in Porto Ponente. And the Hotel Eros is a 28-room property fronting the beach in Porto Levante with pleasant, if not totally romantic rooms from $190.

Getting There: It's admittedly not easy to get to the Aeolian Islands from the Ustica Hydrofoil service leaves from Milazzo, a town on the northern coast of Sicily a three-hour train ride from Palermo. Vulcano is about 90 minutes offshore. You can also catch an overnight ferry from Naples.

Urban beaches often aren't the best, but this six-mile-long strand only a short ferry ride from the heart of Venice is a major exception. It's perhaps most famous as the setting for Thomas Mann's dark tale Death in Venice, but the island has been a beach resort for centuries and today plays host to the Venice Film Festival.

Where to Stay: The beach scene is as much a draw as the swimming, with most of the waterfront parceled out into bathing clubs that have agreements with the various, high-end hotels here. The Hotel des Bains is perhaps the most famous—it featured in Mann's story—but it's been closed and is being converted into private apartments. The Excelsior ($360) is now the five-star property of choice, overlooking a private slice of beach and the Adriatic. The Hotel Villa Laguna offers views of the city of Venice, including the bell tower and the domes of St. Mark's Basilica, worth the $250 while still being just a few minutes from the beach.

Getting There: Venice has its own airport, with direct and connecting flights from the U.S. From the airport expensive private boats can ferry you to the city, but the best bet is to ride the shared Alilaguna ferries that ply the lagoon before pulling up at the Lido.

With almost one quarter of Italy's total coastline, Sardinia has beaches aplenty. The best of the bunch is Chia, on the southwest shore, not far from Cagliari. Around the village, a collection of gently curving crescents of powdery white sand curl along the shore, backed by dunes crowded with pink flamingos. North Africa is little more than 100 miles south.

Where to Stay: While quiet beach relaxation is the main draw, there are also enough surf breaks that surfers bring their boards. The place to stay is the Chia Laguna Resort, a four-hotel-and-villas complex that sprawls along the coast, fronting the beaches. While the resort's Baia hotel is the simplest of the four, the private bungalow feel and excellent views of the sea make it one of the most appealing.

Getting There: The island is reachable by air, with flights connecting in Europe arriving at Cagliari's airport, a 36-mile drive away.


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