Dramatic coastal settings, richly colored houses perched with stage-set perfection by snug harbors, rustic seaside cuisine and a seductive dolce far niente ambiance are just some of the reasons spots like Portofino and Cinque Terre have long been among the most sought-after destinations in the world. (And sought after they are; pre-Covid some 2.5 million tourists reportedly descended on Cinque Terre each year.) While these seaside havens are not to be missed, keep in mind there are other glorious resorts along Liguria’s fabled Riviera coastline that offer magical settings, minus some of the throngs.
Sestri Levante, roughly midway between Portofino and Cinque Terre on the Gulf of Tigullio, is one of these places, even though it’s been a popular vacation getaway for decades. Many Italians come here (a noteworthy seal of approval in a country with plenty of gorgeous options for a holiday), and Europeans do too. Americans have been discovering it as well, and for good reason. There’s beautiful scenery, sandy beaches with Bandiera Blu ratings (for meeting environment and cleanliness standards), sights to see, a festive evening atmosphere, vibrant dining scene, Ligurian cuisine that reaches beyond pesto and focaccia, and a location that’s ideal for exploring the many offerings of the eastern Riviera. (While Sestri does get busy in peak season—recent tourism reports had the weekend occupancy rate at nearly 100% in the early part of the summer—I didn’t feel overwhelmed when I was there in June and July. Despite the many restaurants, you should make reservations on weekends.)
“Sestri Levante is not well known, and we like it this way,” says Nicolò Mori, president of the Sestri Levante In, a consortium of local businesses that works to promote tourism in Sestri and the nearby region. Even with the addition of high-profile international events, like the Riviera Film Festival held each spring for under-35-year-old filmmakers, maintaining the town’s identity is a top priority, according to some officials who describe Sestri’s authenticity among its prime attractions.
“We wouldn’t want to become a Cinque Terre because it would destroy the genuinity of the town,” says Mori. He adds that a more immediate goal is to highlight the Portofino Coast, a part of the Riviera seaside where Sestri is located that stretches from Portofino to Moneglia, as a collective destination in order to prevent over-tourism in any one place.
What to see and do in Sestri
Sun worshippers get a bonus in Sestri—two seafronts, one along the Baia delle Favole (Bay of Fables), where you’ll find most of the beach clubs, and the Baia del Silenzio (Bay of Silence), a scenic crescent with smaller beaches and delectable dine-at-water’s-edge restaurants. You can swim in one bay in the morning, the other in the afternoon, or at sunset, depending on the scenic view you prefer.
The reason for the ample coastline was that a part of Sestri was once a tidal island, somewhat like Mont-Saint-Michele, says Marzia Dentone, curator of MuSel, the city’s archaeological museum. On a tour of Sestri, Dentone explains that the former island, where you’ll find such landmarks as the appropriately named San Nicolò dell’Isola Church and the Torre Marconi, on the grounds of the Grand Hotel dei Castelli and named for Guglielmo Marconi, the Nobel Prize winner who conducted some of his groundbreaking experiments with radio signals here, likely connected to the mainland in the 18th century.
Sestri’s history, as with many places in Italy, unspools over millennia. Dentone’s museum, housed in the fanciful Palazzo Fascie, a relative newcomer to the town built at the behest of a local philanthropist in the early 1900s, displays regional artifacts and items from the Stone Age through the 20th century. Because of its prime coastal location, Sestri, first settled by the ancient Tigulli tribe, thrived during the Roman Empire, and in later centuries was a sought-after prize, compelling the Visconti of Milan and the Venetian Republic to try (unsuccessfully) to conquer it.
Each morning during a recent stay in Sestri I looked out from my hotel window to see a flag representing another long-ago maritime power, the Republic of Genoa, flying above the roof, a poignant reminder of the town’s centuries-spanning association with La Superba, running from the 12th century until the late 1700s, when Napoleon took control of the government. Over the years Genoa’s rich and powerful families, like the Dorias, Brignoles, and Durazzos, built palazzi in Sestri, escaping to cooler summer temperatures and mesmerizing sea views.
You can visit some of the palazzi, like the rose-tinged Palazzo Durazzo-Pallavicini, now the town hall, where the ground floor hosts art exhibits, and even stay in one— the stately Villa Balbi, first built for the prominent Brignole family and later inherited by Balbi descendants, who played host to the movers and shakers of their day, including the Queen of Spain, Elizabeth Farnese, a visitor in 1714.
This elegant 105-room four-star hotel on the Viale Rimembranza opposite the sea, has retained many period details, including elaborate frescoed ceilings, arched colonnades, and a dramatic mantelpiece in the lobby by Gino Coppedè, famous for his elaborately designed buildings in Rome. Apartment 818 in the villa was Cardinal Brignole’s boudoir, complete with adjacent Throne Room. The hotel’s guest rooms are located in both the villa and connected modern annexes; there’s also a luscious garden with vintage trees and swimming pool, and a spacious beach club across the street from the hotel entrance.
Another noteworthy residence in Sestri is the Palazzo Rizzi, home to the Galleria Rizzi, a museum where you can take in a rich collection of paintings dating from the late Middle Ages to the 1700s and an assortment of fine decorative objects.
Via XXV Aprile runs through Sestri’s centro storico, a street lined with chromatic buildings, many with trompe l’oeil effects, including faux windows (the designs were added to save on taxes that came with the installation of a glass finestra). It’s a thoroughfare packed with restaurants and shops, refreshingly not given oven to tourist souvenirs. Among the historic stores to visit are Pasticceria Rossignotti, in Sestri since 1840, which provided pastries to the Pope; the Caffè Centrale (on adjacent Corso Colombo), an essential Sestri gathering spot dating from 1920 with original interior details; and nearby the Casalinghi Cadeea, a fifth-generation family and women-led housewares (since 1875) store. Some of the bathing establishments (bagni) classify as historic locales too. They were established from the early to mid-1900s, a testimony to the enduring Italian fondness for the sea.
Views from on high
As elsewhere in Italy, Sestri’s churches are repositories of many artistic riches, and some come with extraordinary views, like the 17th-century Capuchin Church of the Immaculate Conception, on a hill overlooking the Bay of Silence. The medieval San Nicolò dell’Isola church on the opposite side of this bay also provides memorable panoramas. (Back in the heart of town, don’t miss the ornate Santa Maria de Nazareth, whose main construction began in the 1700s.)
For some of the most spectacular vistas on the Italian Riviera head to the Hotel Vis à Vis, a gracious 42-room property owned by Nicolò Mori, the Sestri Levante In consorzio president. Perched on a hill overlooking the Bay of Silence, you can see the full sweep of the Ligurian Coast, and on a clear day, says Mori, straight to Menton on the French-Italian border. The hotel’s Sky Bar Deck Zeus, taking in those amazing views, is an in-demand spot for lunch, cocktails and apericena. The Olimpo restaurant, also with great panoramas, offers sophisticated tasting menus and à la carte choices. Roughly half the rooms and suites have coastal views, as does the heated outdoor pool that overlooks the bay.
A vibrant restaurant scene
Stroll along Via XXV Aprile most any evening in summer and you’ll feel as if you walked into the middle of a party, one where you feel most welcome even if you’ve just arrived in town and don’t know a soul. It’s Sestri’s answer to Portofino’s and Capri’s famous piazzettas and great for people watching. Numerous restaurants, bars and cocktail lounges, their day’s offerings written on chalkboard menus, front the street with ample outdoor seating; they fill up from early to late evening, and the party continues at the bars/cocktail spots for a post-dinner drink, or with window or actual shopping, as many boutiques and stores stay open.
When in Sestri, you’ll want to try some of the restaurants (there are five) masterminded by Andrea Ballerini, a foodie visionary and the local culinary guru, who with his brother, Daniele, and wife, Simona, oversee the restaurants, their wine business, tastings, and cooking classes. Andrea and Daniele refer to themselves as “vinaccieri,” an old term for local wine makers who traded their bounty in nearby seas on sailboats called leudi.
The menu at La Sciamadda dei Vinaccieri Ballerini on XXV Aprile reflects a lesser-known aspect of Liguria’s food culture, one that originated on Tabarka island, off the coast of Tunisia. (Centuries ago this island was inhabited by Ligurian families who subsequently settled on another island off the coast of Sardinia. The cooking that evolved absorbed influences from these locales and blended with long-standing Ligurian food traditions.) For example, lasagna here is made with tuna or bonito, pesto and tomato sauce; there’s Cascà, a Tabarchine-inspired couscous made with shrimp, mussels and vegetables. In addition to the Tabarchine dishes there are such Ligurian classics as trofie al pesto, the daily seafood fritto misto, and frittura di calamari.
Other Ballerini restaurants include La Casa delle Compere, near La Sciammada and with a similar menu; Aragosta D’Oro, good for sampling authentic Ligurian street food at reasonable prices, and Mille Lire, a tavern with nautical decor that’s popular with young locals in the evening. Don Luigi on the Viale Rimembranza, another lively street for restaurants, bars and cocktail lounges that runs parallel to the Lungomare, serves classic Ligurian dishes along with a range of focaccias made from family recipes. (Don Luigi offers beach dining too).
Dining and staying on the beach
Sestri provides a number of opportunities to dine right by the sea. At the Hotel Miramare & Spa with a prime position on the Bay of Silence, you can have the water practically at arm’s reach while enjoying a modernized Ligurian menu at its restaurant, Baia del Silenzio. Entrees include pasta with amatriciana sauce, tuna and licorice; or sea bass with pea cream, cocoa beans, strawberries and ginger beer. Miramare has a well-groomed private beach, where you can have the best of both worlds—enjoy the sea and the hotel’s indoor swimming pool and luxe spa center, which you can access conveniently directly from the beach. The hotel recently added a new property, Miramare Suites with 12 suites and guest rooms, and restaurant, the Locanda Carmagnini, on the Baia delle Favole.
Also on the Bay of Silence is the Bistromare restaurant, run by the husband-and-wife team of Angelo and Angela Ciotoli. Angelo is a dedicated fisherman, who sustainably harvests the surrounding waters for anchovies, bonito, totano (a type of squid), lobster, gamberi rossi and snapper. (The sea determines not only the daily menu, says Angelo; its tides impact how large the dining area on the beach will be and how many tables will be available for lunch or dinner.) “It’s 0-km fishing,” he says. “I can point out where in the bay the fish came from.” While there’s a fixed menu of fresh catch, it’s enhanced by what Angelo and other Sestri fishermen find in the waters between Sestri and Moneglia on a given day. In order to maximize freshness and flavor, only olive oil is used when cooking the fish, which is baked and served on copper plates.