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DISCOVER ITALY

OPINION: Is Italy’s west or east coast the best place for a holiday?

Choosing which coast to visit in Italy can be a tough call, particularly if you’re planning to spend most of the time sunbathing and swimming. Reporter Silvia Marchetti shares her insights on the pros and cons of both.

OPINION: Is Italy’s west or east coast the best place for a holiday?
Which Italian coast should you choose when booking your holiday? Here are the pros and cons of both. Photo by Azat Satlykov on Unsplash

The Tyrrhenian west coast and the Adriatic east one are very different, and each come with their pros and cons.

In my view the Tyrrhenian side of the boot wins, because even though it tends to be more crowded due to the many art cities located along it, its beaches have fewer facilities for families and the shores are more ragged, with rocks and cliffs ideal for solo and adventurous young people. 

The Amalfi coast’s picturesque fishermen villages, or Liguria’s Cinque Terre, feature tiny pebble stone bays cut between high cliffs with little space for sun umbrellas and beds.

The Adriatic, on the other hand, is a mass destination for foreign sunbathers, very popular especially among German and Russian tourists. The east coast has Italy’s widest and flattest sandy beaches, which make it an ideal spot for families – but also very crowded. 

READ ALSO: Private lidos take up more than 40 percent of Italian beaches: report

The Adriatic shore is one long line of adjacent beach facilities that run for kilometres from the northern Friuli-Venezia Giulia region down south to Puglia. 

Beaches in the seaside towns of Rimini and Riccione, located along the chaotic Riviera Romagnola renowned also for its wild nightlife, feature up to 50 rows of sun beds and umbrellas in summer.

More sunbeds than sand… Some parts of Italy are heavily built-up with an abundance of services. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP)

Beach facilities there resemble open-air condominiums where there are children’s playgrounds, restaurants, sleeping areas, dance floors and changing rooms for clients.

One good thing, though, is the constant presence of bay watchers and lifeguards at each facility, who are present throughout all eastern coastal regions and very helpful if you don’t constantly want to look after the kids. Beach resorts often come with big seaside multi-floor hotel buildings that look like city offices. 

To escape the crowds on the Adriatic coast you need to pick niche, rocky spots with very few beaches such as the Conero Hill in the Marche region and the Gargano promontory in Puglia.

While the Adriatic coast’s wide and easily accessible beaches are great for children and older people, the sea is not always clear and there are just a few top scuba diving and snorkelling spots, such as the beautiful Tremiti islands.

The Tyrrhenian sea, which is deeper than the Adriatic, is packed with diving sites: Ustica island in Sicily and Ventotene isle in Latium are Italy’s top diving meccas brimming with barracudas and giant groupers.

Tyrrhenian waters are cleaner too: in 2021, its shores won more bandiera blu (Blue flag) awards for high water quality standards than Adriatic beaches.

READ ALSO: Where to find even more of Italy’s best beaches

There are also more protected marine reserves along the west coast, which guarantees a pristine environment, and more free beaches without facilities and lifeguards. While this ‘wild’ aspect may be attractive to many, it could make some beaches not suitable for families with small kids. 

Family friendly beaches tend to draw in more crowds. (Photo by ludovic MARIN / AFP)

On the other hand, given its relatively shallow waters, the Adriatic is blessed with reasonable stocks of fish, so if you long for fishing expeditions it’s the perfect destination. 

However the real plus point of the east coast is its strategic location facing other Mediterranean countries and allowing tourists, particularly from the US, to expand their holidays and exploit Italy as the door to the ‘Old Continent’. From the ports of Bari and Ancona, ferry boats depart to Greece, Slovenia, Croatia and Albania.

The winning asset of the Tyrrhenian, other than its translucent waters and baby powder beaches, is the huge artistic heritage it offers visitors. The west coast boasts the top must-see Italian cities usually picked by global tourists (Rome, Naples, Florence) which all lie, or are close to the sea – except for Venice (the gem of the Adriatic).

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The cultural appeal of the west side makes the central national highway, the A1 – otherwise known as Autostrada del Sole – a very trafficky infrastructure. 

There are also mesmerising fishermen villages with a mythological vibe along the Tyrrhenian coast, such as Gaeta and Sperlonga, where it is said Odysseus, the legendary Greek king, landed during his wanderings.

Plus, most of Italy’s UNESCO heritage-listed sites are located along or near the west shore. For instance, the archaeological excavations of Pompeii are among the top tourist hotspots in Italy.

READ ALSO: Life in Italy in 2022: 10 things to add to your bucket list

Generally speaking, the appeal of popular places along the west coast inevitably translates into more expensive hotels and travelling costs but it depends on the specific location. 

A photo shows a general view of the archaeological site of Pompeii, near Naples. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

The major west coast lure for sea dogs, sailing amateurs and fans of the tan is that nearly all Italian islands are located in the Tyrrhenian sea and reachable from the mainland.

The two island regions of Sardinia and Sicily are accessible by ferry boat from Naples and Civitavecchia, while the Tuscan archipelago, the Pontine islands and Sicily’s dozens of ‘satellites’ such as the Aeolian, Egadi and Pelagie isles are tropical paradises just a stone’s throw from the cultural highlights.

READ ALSO: Ten percent of the world’s best beaches are in Italy

Even though both coasts are stunning and are worth exploring, personally, I’d chose the Tyrrhenian over the Adriatic any day, and not just because I’m a Roman who lives in Rome. 

It has a diversified offer of artistic sites and beaches, inlets and cliffs that allow you to savour the most of Italy in just a few days. 

The last time I rented my beach home south of Rome to a French couple, I thought they’d laze all day under the sultry sun. Instead they drove across half of Italy in 14 day trips, visiting Florence, Naples, Sorrento and Calabria. 

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TOURISM

Trulli to treehouses: Why Italy’s tourists can’t get enough of ‘back to basics’ travel

Italy's mountain huts, treehouses and even caves are being given luxury makeovers and rented to tourists, often for eyewatering prices - and people are happy to pay. Reporter Silvia Marchetti looks at what's behind the growing trend.

Trulli to treehouses: Why Italy’s tourists can’t get enough of ‘back to basics’ travel

I believe there’s nothing more luxurious than simplicity, especially when it comes down to accommodation and travel. 

And it seems that tourists visiting Italy agree. Several accommodation business owners have recently told me there’s a high demand for chic but simple experiences, both in terms of holiday homes to rent and hotels, as well as restaurants. 

Unexpectedly, these places are more expensive to buy or rent than modern rentals and hotels. 

There’s a sort of ‘expensive poverty’ glamour that lures travelers. That’s why there’s been such a revival of ancient dwellings across Italy, well beyond the famous luxury spa-type hotels set in old cave houses like the ones in Matera, Grottole and other southern areas.

It’s an emerging trend that feeds the primeval nature of man. Travellers want to reconnect with mankind’s ancient heritage – but with money and a few modern comforts.

READ ALSO: Is Italy’s west or east coast the best place for a holiday?

Take the simple treehouses that are springing up recently in Puglia, near Foggia, within lush forests where visitors are surrounded by nature – but at the same time inside a cozy room. The experience may recall our prehistoric roots in some way.

Or reverting to sleeping in sea grottos originally inhabited by primitive men, then turned into cozy white-washed fishermen shelters where entire crews would take shelter during storms.

A renovated fisherman’s hut on Italy’s Ponza island. Photo: Touristcasa

The tiny atoll of Palmarola off Rome’s coast is dotted with fishermen grottos turned into élite summer retreats, rented with private dinghies starting from 500 euros per person per night. One such grotto home has a double entrance that cuts right through the rock, so you have panoramic sea views on both sides – great for solo morning swims. 

On the nearby island of Ponza, where caveman used to go looking for the precious obsidian black stone, clifftop seafront villas cut into hillsides are the most in-demand accommodation.

I once met a young couple who was staying in one of these for two weeks and it was funny how they enjoyed such an isolated place with no easy access (only by boat). At night they would climb down to their little dock along a steep dark path without any lights lined with prickly pear shrubs to get to a little dinghy (that comes with the villa) that would take them each time to the main village to shop, eat and so on. It was like their scooter.

I fell, scratched my legs and nearly broke my neck visiting, and it was daylight. They enjoyed going around with flashlights at night because it was cool, they said. Oh, and their kingsize shower also had a limited water supply, because it used rainwater as a source like in the good old days. 

The view from a fisherman’s hut on Italy’s Ponza island. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

This is all part of a new  trend that’s unique to Italy, given the country’s rich, ancient architectural heritage. 

The cone-shaped trulli of Puglia are an iconic type of accommodation, found not only in Alberobello, the most touristy place of all, but scattered all over the area, where families that own one in their backyard can rent it at high prices – as referenced in the funny Italian movie titled ‘Mi rifaccio il trullo’ (I’ll give my trullo a makeover).

READ ALSO: Why visitors to Italy are ditching hotels – and where they’re staying instead

Last time I visited the Alto Adige region I was surprised at seeing so many old ‘masi’, which are Alpine dairy lodges and farms built by ancient shepherd tribes with thick stone walls and slanted roofs, lavishly restyled and transformed into country houses offering ‘nature stays’. The ‘spa’ at the one I stayed at was the actual freezing stream outside with currents, so I just had to take a dip and have my legs massaged by the running water, and the spring water served at dinner came also from that same stream. 

The owners are a very rich couple who hate cars, so they would travel from their house to the lodge on horseback. Obviously all the teas and herbs I drank came from the maso’s garden.

Part of an Alpine maso in Alto Adige. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

In Sicily I found interesting salt pan mills turned into panoramic bars, while near my house medieval olive oil millis, or frantoi, are now busy pizzerias and B&Bs with stone rooms featuring the original grindstones.

In the region of Abruzzo, the entire coast is dotted with old wooden sea huts dubbed Trabocchi suspended above water with fishnets, abandoned by fishermen families after the second world war and now turned into restaurants with a cute, romantic vibe.

All these ancient dwellings which are being restored for tourist use are in demand because they offer a chapter of history and an ‘immaterial cultural experience’. That is why people are prepared to pay whatever the price. 

It’s a bit like renting a tribal tent in an African luxury resort: you’d be paying more for the ‘emotions’ it triggers than the tent itself.

With savvy travelers always looking for that special, out-of-the-ordinary experience, this ‘luxury poverty’ accommodation trend will only keep growing in popularity.

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