From the glimmering pebbles of the Adriatic shore to the chic celeb stomping grounds of the Ligurian coast, the isles of Sardinia and Sicily, all the way to the bumping resorts of Emilia-Romagna, the best beach towns in Italy are located all over the fabled boot of southern Italy.
This guide will aim to pinpoint the finest seven out there. It scours UNESCO coastlines in Amalfi and reveals mystical ports with ancient stories in Puglia, offering spots that are fantastic for family beach seekers and yacht-hungry adventure lovers alike.
Bear in mind that the best beach towns in Italy are famous for a reason! It’s not likely that you’ll get these spots to yourself in the high summer months. That’s why we’d say to try to always get there early, or even plan a trip for the shoulder seasons of late spring and early fall, when the weather still tends to be warm but there are far fewer people jostling for space on the sands.
Rimini is the vintage resort town of the Adriatic. It’s been a place for people to come and put their feet up on the side of the sloshing waters since the age of the Etruscans (that’s before the Romans, don’t you know?). By the mid-1800s it was firmly established as a grand bathing retreat for well-heeled nobles who built majestic villas all along the beachfront. Later again, it was thrown into the spotlight by the thoughtful sepia reels of one Federico Fellini, who hailed from these parts.
Today, Rimini is all about the seven-mile stretch of wide sand that runs south from its bustling marina area. Come the warmer summer months, the whole thing is a sea of sunbeds and baking bodies, backed by a seemingly never-ending run of cocktail bars and sunset aperitivo stops.
What we also love about Rimini is that it’s a top base for exploring further inland into the east coast regions of Emilia-Romagna and Marche. Together, they combine to give famous foodie towns like Bologna and striking mountain ranges like the Gran Sasso within only a few hours’ drive.
There’s hardly a more postcard-worthy place on our list of the best beach towns in Italy than impossibly lovely Positano. This one’s been entertaining the honeymooners of the legendary Amalfi Coast for decades, offering a taste of the true La Dolce Vita on the edge of the glimmering Tyrrhenian Sea.
Prepare to gasp in awe as you swing around the bend in the headland and lay eyes on Positano for the very first time. The town rolls like a waterfall of oranges and yellows from the serrated tips of the Lattari Mountains. At its base, a dash of pebbly sand runs between two glimmering limestone rocks. Within, the tops of medieval churches hide a web of shaded cobbled alleys that brim with designer fashion stores and chic cafeterias.
Truth is, Positano is but one of a whole string of other destinations that could just as easily have a place among the best beach towns in Italy. Go west a little and you’ll come to quieter Marina del Cantone and its inviting snorkeling spots. Go east and there’s the region’s namesake town of Amalfi, a land of sweet limoncello and soaring duomo domes.
Strung along a sliver of land beneath the table-top peaks of northern Sicily, Cefalu opens to its own sandy bay of pure turquoise waters. Morning swims there will see you paddling out between the bobbing fishing skiffs to gaze back on a settlement of honey-hued stone, the green and lush peaks of the delle Madonie park rising just behind.
Cefalu is an intriguing place with raw, Sicilian character. You can wander the historic core of the town and make your way to the mysterious rises of Cefalu Cathedral. The building actually showcases Norman and Byzantine architectural features that date back to the Middle Ages, a far cry from the elaborate Baroque and Rococo styles you see in Florence and Pisa.
Again, one of the great things about Cefalu is that it can be just the start of a coastal adventure if you want it to be. The whole island of Sicily is your oyster, and so are the idyllic Aeolian Islands, a speckling of seven rocks to the north that look more Lanzarote than south Italy.
No list of the best beach towns in Italy could possibly skip out on the uber-iconic region of the Cinque Terre. It encompasses five villages on the lovely Ligurian coast of north-western Italy. Of the lot, we’d say it’s bijou Manarola that steals the show…
Wedged into a sheer-cut gorge on the edge of the Ligurian Sea, this one meets the water with a high stack of rock that’s capped off with ice-cream-colored homes of all shapes and sizes. It’s somewhere that would look right at home in Game of Thrones, what with those high encircling harbor walls and jetties that look almost organically carved out from the rocks.
Unquestionably the best way to see this part of Italy is to hike the famous Cinque Terre trails. They can help you reach other iconic pitstops like Riomaggiore just to the south. To see the other five villages – Vernazza, Corniglia, Monterosso al Mare – you might need to make use of the efficient summertime ferry links that go from one to the other all throughout the day.
The jewel of the Italian Riviera and a playground for jet setters and A-listers fresh off their charter yachts in Monaco et al, Portofino is the place to go if you want to rub shoulders with high society while hitting the beaches. It oozes all the charms of a real celeb haunt, touting vintage villas by the water’s edge and more bubbly bars than you can shake a plate of frutto di mare at.
Granted, this one might require a bit of a heftier budget than some of the other beach escapes on this list, but it’s got some seriously nice sands. Or, we should say swimming spots. See, the coast here is marked by rugged rocks that drop straight into the see-through seas, at Baia Cannone and lovely Bagni Bosetti.
Cruising west from Portofino will bring you through the sailing mecca of Genoa and into the very heart of the Italian Riviera. There, the mountains rise high above the water and days become about sipping champagne with your feet dipped in the Med.
Polignano a Mare
Polignano a Mare channels the unique vibes of Italy’s southeastern Puglia region with its stoic, stone-faced homes that cluster around rugged headlands above azure seas. It’s small but very popular, which means we’d probably recommend dipping in sometime in the week to avoid the booming crowds of weekenders that come from Brindisi and Bari.
The main draw is the large cove that cuts through into the town center. It’s 20-30 meters deep at some points but it seems much more than that on account of the towering buildings and their overhanging balconies, some of which jut several meters out over the Adriatic.
Polignano a Mare is also known for its crisp white wines (yum), it’s excellent seafood (double yum), and its morning pastries (triple yum) – you know, just in case one of the most startling urban swimming spots in Italy wasn’t enough of a reason to visit!
Picture the scene: A muscular castle built by Genovese nobles in the 1300s rises on a bluff over the gleaming Asinara Gulf; flat-topped coast cottages painted bold orange and ochre huddle all around it; the scrubby hills of northern Sardinia rise and fall in an undulating patchwork of green and brown in the distance. Welcome to Castelsardo, arguably the prettiest coast town on the Italian islands.
The beaches to be found here are all within easy walking distance of the main historical sights up in the old town and the castle district. There’s Spiaggia La Vignaccia, a small, rocky inlet just below the old citadel. There’s Pedraladda, a section of rock pools with broadside views of the town from the east. There’s Marina di Castelsardo beach, where you can sit and watch the boats drifting in and out of the harbor all day long.
If you’re willing to do some driving, then there are even more striking parts of the Sardinian coast to get stuck into. Take the wonderful Asinara National Park to the north, which unfolds with sugar-white beaches and inlets of sky-blue water. Or there’s the fabled Costa Smerelda to the west, where the jet-setters go to chase shores that look more Maldives than Med.
The best beach towns in Italy – our conclusion
There are plenty of options on the table if you’re on the hunt for the best beach towns in Italy. On the eastern side of the boot, we’d pick out vintage Rimini, a popular family and party resort, but also the small villages of the Puglia region further south. In the west, you get Sicily but also the Amalfi Coast, which has countless options. Then the shoreline runs up into the Cinque Terre and the Italian Riviera, a land of stylish villa towns that magnetize jet setters.