Elegantly arranged on a graceful sweep of Italian coast, Rapallo offers ancient and literary history and stellar seafood, as well as the chance to immerse yourself in the loveliness of summertime Liguria without feeling overcrowded.
Today, this vintage resort town isn’t as loudly feted as perfetto Portofino or the bucket list Cinque Terre. But for 19th-century travelers, classy Rapallo, its forested hills studded with broad-chested villas, was rightly considered a significant destination on the Italian Riviera.
Literary luminaries such as W.B. Yeats and Ernest Hemingway lingered among the waterfront bars (Hemingway even based a short story on the town). The poet Ezra Pound had a public garden named for him after making Rapallo his home for over 20 years. He lived on Via Marsala, mere feet from the sun-baked promenade.
Why Visit Rapallo, Italy
With its compelling mix of literati-tinted history, easy-on-the-eye coastal positioning, and prolific sea-view bar seating, Rapallo is a slice of the classic Italian Riviera experience.
The city offers an intriguing historic center garbed in traditional Ligurian pastels. Discover the vibrant Piazza Cavour, step inside the sacred silence of the Basilica of St. Gervasius and Protasius, and don your finery for an evening passeggiata along the red-paved promenade.
Additionally, Rapallo’s positioning, near Portofino and under an hour’s train ride away from the Cinque Terre, makes it a fantastic base for discovering the highlights of Liguria.
Or lace up your hiking boots and strike out into the sage and pine-scented trails, before a refreshing dip in the clear, turquoise waters of the Gulf of Tigulio.
History & Culture
With a history shared by many waterfront towns in the Ligurian crescent, Rapallo, Italy, has pre-Roman origins, although its name doesn’t appear in recorded history until 964 AD.
With its strategic position looking out into the richly biodiverse Gulf of Tigullio, Rapallo has long been a sought-after trade port. It became a part of the Genoese Republic when its larger western neighbor evolved into a medieval Mediterranean power.
This status quo persisted until Napoleon swept in and seized the region for France at the start of the 19th century, although being sacked and seized was nothing new for Rapallo.
Thanks to its northerly position just below the Alps that separate the Italian peninsula from northern Europe, invasions have been a regular feature of Ligurian history. Previous aggressors included the Normans, the Lombards, and the not-so-neutral Swiss.
Officially recognized as a city in 1956, Rapallo also comes with serious diplomatic credentials.
Perhaps it’s the way the palms sway or how the afternoon light falls on the hills, but Rapallo really seems to have a knack for bringing people together, whether it’s the Allied Conference of Rapallo or the 1922 treaty signed between the Soviet Union and Germany.
Wildlife & Nature
Rapallo is a city surrounded by nature in its most alluring Mediterranean garb. Hiking trails meander through pine and oak-shaded hills, while the clean beaches provide easy access to snorkeling and diving adventures through the clear, turquoise-tinted seas.
Travel south to Portofino, and you’ll arrive at this legendary fishing village’s Protected Marine Area.
With its outstanding water quality and swaying seagrass meadows, this offshore haven is home to rare species and crystal-clear snorkeling adventures. Its beaches, such as the renowned Paraggi Bay, have also attained Blue Flag status.
The waves washing up against the picture-perfect harbors of the Cinque Terre are also contained within a Marine Park. But it isn’t necessary to abandon the genteel surrounds of Rapallo for remarkable marine sightings.
The Ligurian Sea in general is rich in dolphin life and a home to fin whales, among other varieties of cetaceans. Pull up a chair, order an Aperol Spritz and some snacking focaccia, and scan the blue stretches between the yachts for whale flukes.
Tips for Visiting Rapallo
It’s very easy to get orientated when arriving in Rapallo, Italy. The historic center backs onto the waterfront, and you’ll be drawn into its boutique and focacceria-dotted backstreets, the buildings in hues of ochre and frosting pink.
Piazza Cavour is one of its central areas, with the Basilica of Saints Gervasio and Protasio a hulking landmark.
As you wander around, look out for the signature details of Ligurian architecture such as the trompe l’oeil detailing and the repeating motif of the forest green shutters.
Visit on a Thursday and you’ll encounter the stalls and umbrellas of the Mercato del Giovedi clustered beneath the palms of the Vittorio Veneto promenade. The market is a browsing bonanza, offering everything from bolts of velvet to polarized sunglasses.
After you’ve seen the sights, catch a train to the Cinque Terre or a boat to Portofino and the tranquil San Fruttuoso Bay.
Things to Do & Attractions in Rapallo
Walk the Promenade
Rapallo’s cafe tables are angled towards the brilliant blue of the Gulf of Tigullio—a biodiverse swathe of the Ligurian Sea famous for its yacht races, juicy red shrimp, and classic Italian resort towns.
Commune with both city and sea by walking the promenade, recently restored to its full glory after storm damage.
Along the way, you’ll take in the Liberty-style architecture of the waterfront, see the bandstand where, in the summer months, classical and pop music is carried on the breeze, and, eventually, reach the Porta delle Saline.
The Porta delle Saline is a medieval gateway, the last of five that used to be installed in a protective city wall.
Today, it acts as one of the main entrances into Rapallo’s historic center. It’s far more ornate on its interior side, the result of an 18th-century baroque makeover. Within is a reproduction of a painting you’ll find in the Montallegro Sanctuary.
Stay on the waterfront, and, a bit further south, you’ll come to the waterside statue of Christopher Columbus.
While you’ll find numerous monuments to one of the more famous sons of this Italian region in piazzas and promenades throughout, Rapallo’s is one of the more commanding examples.
Explore Rapallo Castle
Constructed in the mid-16th century, Rapallo Castle is an endearingly dumpy fortification located on the water (hence its Italian name “Castello sul Mare”).
One of the city’s most instantly recognizable monuments, this plucky castle was part of a defensive system intended to protect the Gulf of Tigullio from seaborne attacks.
Today, the Italian castle, after numerous renovations, is now a particularly historic venue for art exhibitions and events. It’s free to enter (although usually only open on the weekend and public holidays).
You’ll find it a short walk from the main railway station, its diminutive tower marking about the halfway point along the seafront promenade. Take your swimming gear for a post-historic-immersion dip on the pebble beach beside the castle.
Ride the Rapallo Montallegro Cable Car
From Rapallo’s Piazza Solari, a century-old cable car transports visitors every half hour (with a break for lunch) up nearly 2,000 feet to the Sanctuary of Montallegro, nestled in the oak-shaded hills.
Only seven minutes long, the journey is arguably as momentous as the destination. Rising above the terracotta rooftops of Rapallo’s tower houses, you’re provided with a wonderful perspective over the Gulf of Tigullio.
The blue waters of the gulf are dotted with shining white ships which echo the weathered gleam of the sanctuary’s ornate white marble facade.
This 16th-century sanctuary was created on the spot where a peasant reportedly had a visitation from the Virgin Mary. Inside, you’ll see a Byzantine-era icon, a Carlone masterpiece, and a white marble crucifix crafted by Schiaffino.
Once you’ve wandered amid the serene, mostly gilt interior, take time to explore some of the walks that snake off into the landscape. Hungry? Stop into Villa Domini near the sanctuary for some miraculous seafood.
Admire Hannibal Bridge
The Hannibal Bridge (or “Ponte di Annibale”) is found near the Rapallo waterfront. Just walk across the footbridge opposite the Christopher Columbus statue and head a little inland.
Dating back to 218 BC, this ancient structure that, draped in greenery, looks its age. One of the theories behind the existence of this grass-carpeted stone structure is that it was employed by the famous Carthaginian commander, Hannibal, to unload supplies for his campaign against the Roman Empire.
While you can’t walk over it today, it’s nevertheless an impressive sight and a striking contrast in the midst of Rapallo’s seaside gaiety.
Visit the Beaches
As you’d expect of a famous resort on the Italian Riviera, Rapallo has a variety of beach options offering graceful access to the warm, translucent sea.
You’ll find a popular public beach centrally located beside the city’s red-toned promenade, just next to that fortified carbuncle, Rapallo Castle.
Many, however, would prefer to travel a mile or so southeast to San Michele di Pagana and stretch out on the rather lovely beach available there.
Enclosed in a protected bay, the hills sprouting cypress trees and square towers that look out into the azure Gulf of Tigullio, San Michele is a special little slice of the Riviera.
As such, its sands are patterned with beach clubs, so be prepared to rent a lounger and parasol for the day (and book ahead for a table at the restaurants on the promenade).
Learn About Lace at Villa Tigullio
Built by the influential Spinola family, the 800-year-old Villa Tigullio is a beautifully sited mansion on the Rapallo waterfront.
Near the northern entrance to the harbor, the villa no longer belongs to that family of medieval Genoese power brokers, but is instead a public building. Enter its ornate interiors, and explore the artistry of the local lace tradition at the free-to-enter Lace Museum within.
Once you’ve explored the museum—and the library found on the upper levels—head outside into the Parco Casale that surrounds the villa. Peer at the unusual leaves of the botanical curiosities planted here or have a round of mini-golf amid the sea breezes.
See Parrocchia di Sant’Anna
And now for something completely different. It’s not often that you travel to Italy in search of the modern, but the Parrocchia di Sant’Anna is exactly that—an elegant, contemporary church that was only consecrated in 2016.
You’ll find this modern gem about ten minutes’ walk inland from the waterfront. The first thing that will catch your eye is the elegant bell tower, curled up like a sheaf of twisted paper.
Tour its light-flooded interior with its Balàzs Berzsenyi sculptural details and modern stained-glass windows. The church is an aesthetically pleasing reminder that Italy does have buildings worth exploring that aren’t over 200 years old.
And beneath its hallowed floors, unlike most of the older churches you’ll visit in Italy, you’ll find garages rather than catacombs. These practical solutions were sold off in order to finance the construction of this ecclesiastical newcomer.
Food & Drink
With Genoa a short drive west, you’ll find the cuisine of that city well-represented in the restaurants of Rapallo, Italy.
Look for dishes that Italy is known for, such as pesto pasta featuring the Genovese “trofie” pasta, acciughe al verde (anchovies in green sauce), and, of course, the focaccia. Stop in Panificio Tossini for the best Ligurian-style focaccia in the city.
With its coastal setting, seafood is another dominant theme in local menus. Beyond always fabulous spaghetti alla vongole and seafood ravioli, keep an eye out for any Italian dishes offering the local red shrimp.
Usually sourced from Santa Margherita to the south, these outsized crustaceans are famous throughout Italy for their size and flavor.
Any way you have them—raw, entangled in pasta, or barbecued to perfection—they’ll vie with the focaccia and vivid pesto as your enduring culinary memory of Rapallo.
One stand-out place to try these impressively pumped-up specimens is at the Gran Caffe Rapallo. At this local institution, you’ll enjoy the same sea views as Hemingway did while dining at this historic café-turned-restaurant (although the renowned novelist missed out on the robot waiters).
Weather & Climate
Writer Max Beerbohm and philosopher Nietzche didn’t depart the UK and Germany respectively to vacation in a destination with patchy weather.
Rapallo and the rest of the Italian Riviera’s cities enjoy the sheltering protection of the maritime Alps and the famously balmy Mediterranean climate.
Its southern aspect and auspicious latitude add up to mild winters and close to 300 days of sunshine per annum. Expect daytime temperatures in May to reach 68°F, with late summer seeing pleasant 80°F highs.
June and July are, on average, the months that see little to no rainfall, although an unexpected summer shower dimpling the glassy 73.4°F sea off of San Michele would surely have sent Yeats into raptures.
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