From Lazaret at the Slovenian border to Punta Pesce Spada on the island of Lampedusa near Africa, Italy’s coastline is as diverse as it is divine.
The Italian peninsula has a staggering 4,500 miles of coastline set alongside four seas: the Tyrrhenian and Ligurian to the west and the Adriatic and Ionian to the east and south. These waters may all be part of the Mediterranean, but their shores and marine environments are more diverse than anywhere else in Europe. And then there are Italy’s 800 or so islands—only 80 of which are inhabited—where still more unspoiled coastline and fathoms of ocean are ripe for relaxation and adventure.
Cala del Gesso
Gorgeous Cala del Gesso is nestled in a relatively sheltered nook on southern Tuscany’s Monte Argentario peninsula. On one end, it has a Spanish Tower; just offshore, it has an islet around which boats drop anchor. Stake out a spot early in high season: the beach’s shiny limestone pebbles and crystal-clear turquoise waters draw sun-worshippers and snorkelers aplenty. As there are no services or amenities on or near this free beach, bring plenty of refreshments and anything else you may need for an enjoyable day in the sun.
INSIDER TIPTo avoid a precarious walk along chalky cliffs to and from the parking lot, opt for water-taxi service out of Porto Ercole.
A natural stone arch beckons you to Sardinia’s isolated Cala Goloritzé on the protected Golfo di Orosei. The beach’s gleaming-white limestone pebbles, limpid waters, and dramatic geological formations make it a paradisiacal summer playground. The pinnacle towering over the cove is often dotted with climbers; dozens of nearby marine caves have wonderful natural light effects; and the surrounding mountainous national park is laced with challenging trails.
INSIDER TIPFor a truly special adventure, hire a gommone (rubber speedboat) in Arbatax or Santa Maria Navarrese harbor, and head out to explore the coast.
Spiaggia della Marinella
Near the town of Palinuro on Campania’s oft-overlooked Cilento Coast, stunning mixes pebbles and volcanic sand against a backdrop of otherworldly rock formations. Although it’s a bit outside the town center, it does have some facilities, including parking (no fee), changing rooms, and pedalo and canoe rentals. Nearby attractions include a hiking trail that passes a tower built to ward off Saracen invasions, the secluded and dreamy Baia di Buondormire, and a natural arch in the cliffs.
A big draw at Roca Vecchia is the Grotta della Poesia (Cave of Poetry)—a natural ovoid sinkhole-pool set into limestone along the stunning Salento Coast. Swimmers like to dive in (a 16-foot drop), and scuba divers like to swim in (via an underwater sea cave). How did the grotto get its evocative name? Some cite a fairy tale involving a principessa who bathed here and whose beauty inspired the poetry of onlookers; more likely, though, the moniker is derived from the Greek word posia (water source).
INSIDER TIPThe surface here is rough, so you really need water (or regular) shoes to walk around.
Tonnara di Scopello
Rustic houses, a church, medieval towers on craggy cliffs, and sea-stack rock formations make Tonnara di Scopello on the Golfo del Castellammare one of Sicily’s most picturesque beaches. A trip to this intimate, historic maritime setting lets you combine a day of sunbathing and swimming with a visit to a museum highlighting the area’s centuries-old tuna-fishing tradition.
INSIDER TIPIf you fancy a walk up to this gorgeous scene, consider renting one of Tonnara di Scopello’s old seaside dwellings.
The area around the lovely town of Tropea has some of Calabria’s most recognizable seascapes, including those on Marasusa, where the water is a remarkable greenish-blue, the sand light-hued, and ultra-fine, and buildings seem to grow from the rock atop sheer cliffs. Adding to the drama are the gleaming sanctuary of Santa Maria dell’Isola, on an island promontory at one end of this fairy-tale setting, and the smoking cone of Stromboli on the western horizon.
Off Sicily’s northeast coast, the stunning Pollara beach is on the Aeolian Island of Salina, a highly coveted getaway that, thankfully, retains more of a rough-hewn charm than its glitzy party-island neighbor, Panarea. Scenes from the Oscar-winning 1994 film Il Postino were filmed in and around Pollara’s volcanic rock cliffs, which are dotted with cute, higgledy-piggledy stone fishermen’s huts as well as steps leading down to the sand and the sea.
INSIDER TIPThe film, Il Postino, starring Neapolitan actor Massimo Troisi, really does give you a glimpse of the area’s beauty, not only on Salina but also on the island of Procida
Baia del Silenzio
Line a curvy bay with a sandy beach and warm-hued buildings, and you have Baia del Silenzio, one of Liguria’s most captivating seaside amphitheaters. This very popular spot in the resort town of Sestri Levante is a fabulous place to people-watch (it almost serves as the town’s living room) and to take truly remarkable photographs. Late in the day, as the sun slowly sets, the brightly colored, southwest-facing town—with its elevated borgo storico (historic village)—blushes to a lovely rose-gold.
INSIDER TIPHike along the verdant, nearby Punta Manara for scenic views of back-to-back Silenzio and Favole bays.
Spiaggia del Bosco Pantano
Located in the arch of Italy’s boot, the town of Policoro has gorgeous beaches, including the popular Lido di Policoro, but the Spiaggia del Bosco Pantano is truly special. It’s a famous and important nature reserve, due largely to the loggerhead sea turtles that nest in its sands. It also has a 1,360-acre broadleaf forest, a rare surviving example of the woodland landscape that once blanketed the coastline of Basilicata.
Spiaggia di Fegina
Hikers tackling the famous Cinque Terre often take a breather on the beautiful, pebbly Spiaggia di Fegina, but you don’t need to exert yourself to get here (thanks to the handy train station in the town of Monterosso al Mare). Nevertheless, if you’re feeling sprightly, clamber over faraglioni (sea stacks) amid the waves or trek down to one end of the beach to see the 46-foot Statua del Gigante (Giant Statue) hewn into the rock.
INSIDER TIPThis is a great place to experience the Sentiero Azzurro along its most famous 2-mile stretch, from Vernazza to Monterosso. To enter the path, you need to purchase a Cinque Terre card (€7.50, or €16 with the train included).
The color palate at Torre Guaceto is classic and calming: blue waters lapping chalky sands near the so-called Città Bianca (White City) of Ostuni. The beach is part of a marine reserve that extends 12 miles along the coast and 4 miles inland, where wetlands form a haven for wildlife. The shore along one particularly spectacular expanse, the Spiaggia delle Conchiglie, consists of tiny white shells.
INSIDER TIPNote that Spiaggia delle Conchiglie is protected, so although it’s worth seeking out for its pure beauty, it’s not a place for swimming.
On the uninhabited island of Budelli, amid the wondrous and wild Maddalena archipelago, the Spiaggia Rosa will take your breath away with its pink sands and turquoise waters. The cause of the shoreline’s coloration is equally compelling: microorganisms within shell and coral fragments here create the eye-popping rosy blush.
INSIDER TIPAlthough it’s not a vacation-themed flick, Michelangelo Antonioni’s bleak 1964 film Il deserto rosso (The Red Desert) has a scene in which Monica Vitti wanders along this beach.
Spiaggia Punta Penna
At first glance, the town of Vasto on the Adriatic Coast seems rather industrial, but it’s actually home to a truly unspoiled beach: Spiaggia Punta, set amid the nature reserve of Punta Aderci. It’s easy to idle away a few hours on its fine sand, dunes, and rocks, and—what’s more—its pristine, turquoise, swimmable waters are home to turtles and dolphins.
INSIDER TIPNot only is the reserve a great place for bird-watching, but you can also mountain bike on a trail that runs along nearby railway tracks.
Romans have long sought relief from urban chaos and heat on sweeping Spiaggia dell’Angolo. Indeed, the infamous emperor Tiberius built his summer villa here. The crystal-clear waters (beloved by both swimmers and divers) and off-white sands are backed by verdant hills, imposing limestone cliffs, and the beguiling town of Sperlonga. Natural wonders include the Ciannito promontory and the Grotta del Tiberio, where, according to legend, the hedonistic emperor got up to untold antics. Man-made attractions include the emperor’s villa, which is open for tours, and the fantastic shops and restaurants of medieval Sperlonga.
Set against the rocky coast of Gargano National Park, the whitewashed town of Rodi Garganico offers a choice of captivating beaches. To the west, Spiaggia del Ponente’s Baia di Santa Barbara and Lido del Sole have good facilities and are favored by families. At Spiaggia del Levante, the winds of the whip up the waters, attracting surfers of all types. In the surrounding Foresta Umbra, lush macchia mediterranea (maquis scrub) produces such an abundance of springtime blossoms that it can bring tears to the eyes.
INSIDER TIPIf you’re prone to allergies and are visiting in spring, be sure to pack antihistamines.
Spiaggia di Mezzavalle
WHERE: Le Marche
After some huffing and puffing along a steep path, you’ll reach Spiaggia di Mezzavalle, a wild, wide white-pebbled stretch backed by lush cliffs on the Riviera di Conero. It’s a free beach, with no facilities except for a small bar-trattoria, so pack accordingly. Its north side has mounds of clay that locals swear softens the skin—don’t be surprised to see people plastering themselves with mud, allowing it to harden in the sun, then washing it off in the sea while exclaiming, “Pelle come velluto!” (Skin like velvet!).
INSIDER TIPBring decent walking shoes for the 10- to 15-minute trek to and from the parking lot and water shoes for wandering the shore.
Summer sees the Amalfi Coast’s winding roads and cute coves swamped with Instagram-obsessed tourists and Neapolitan day-trippers, but the town of Cetara maintains a calmer, more rustic authenticity. Its intimate, pebbly beach is strewn with fishing boats and backed by pastel-color buildings, a majolica-tiled church, a stone citadel, and verdant limestone mountains. This working harbor is famed for its production of the piquant colatura di alici, a salted anchovy sauce based on the garum that ancient Romans used on everything.
INSIDER TIPSample Cetara’s venerable fish sauce and other seafood specialties at Ristorante Al Convento, housed in a former convent.
Spiaggia Nera–Cala Jannita
Whisper it: Maratea is one of the Tyrrhenian coast’s most alluring towns, where the fabulous Spiaggia Nera (Black Beach) has limpid waters and dramatic scenery. Spread your towel out on the dark volcanic gravel, and float amid igneous boulders while gazing up at soaring peaks. Looking down with outstretched arms from Monte San Biagio is a 70-foot-high Carrara-marble statue of Cristo Redentore (Christ the Redeemer).
Of the white-pebbled beauties on the northern coast of the island of Elba, Spiaggia Sansone tops many a list. The name derives from the Italian sassone (large rock), a reference to the rocky headland—off of which, transparent waters teem with colorful fish, ready-made for snorkeling and kayaking adventures. In summer, one part of the beach is free, and another section has umbrellas and lounge chairs for rent.
INSIDER TIPCombine a trip to this beach with a visit to one of the nearby villas where Napoleón lived while exiled on Elba in 1814–15.
On the island of Favignana, the photogenic Cala Rossa (Red Cove) is enclosed by a moonlike terrain of stacked rocks and cliffs. Dotting its azure waters, sea caves with evocative names (Grotta dei Sospiri, Grotta Azzurra, Grotta degli Innamorati) attract divers, snorkelers, and kayakers. The place is awash in history as well as natural beauty. The cove was given its name after a bloody ancient battle that took place here, and looming over it all is Monte Caterina, where a summit fortress built by the Saracens was later enlarged by both the Normans and the Bourbons.