Sailing in Italy: the 15 most beautiful places to sail

Sailing in Italy: the 15 most beautiful places to sail

Elba, Amalfi, Positano, Capri, Naples — Italy is a sailor's paradise. So, where should you head, what sights should you see, where can you anchor and what delicacies are there to sample?

Discover diverse coastlines with gorgeous bays, sandy beaches, deserted islands and unspoilt reefs, dotted with picturesque villages providing stunning harbours, numerous sights to see, superb cuisine and excellent wine. Whether you go to Liguria, Tuscany or the Amalfi Coast, Italy is the promised land for sailing enthusiasts. So, which places are a must on your voyage in Italy?

1. Tuscan Islands: Elba

According to legend, the islands that make up the Tuscan archipelago were once gems in the necklace of the goddess Venus that fell into the Tyrrhenian Sea, forming a chain of seven islands and several islets. Elba, the most well-known of these, is the beautiful island where Napoleon was famously exiled and the third-largest in the Mediterranean. Along the rugged coastline there are numerous quiet anchorages and harbours to discover, and be sure to visit the winding streets and monuments of Portoferraio. If you're sailing west, stop off at one of the numerous beaches (the most famous being Samson). And if you berth at the port of Marciana, take the cable car to the top of Elba's highest mountain, Monte Capanne, to enjoy panoramic views over Elba and of the islands of Montecristo, Pianosa, Capraia, Palmaiola and Corsica. Even the ride up is quite an experience, as the cable car is essentially just a metal basket suspended on a rope.

An aerial view of the port of Portoferraio on the island of Elba.

The port of Portoferraio on the island of Elba

2. Pianosa, Giglio and Montecristo

While sailing along the Tuscan islands, make a stop at Pianosa or Giglio — a charming islet with a castle that was once a haven for pirates (the Costa Concordia sank nearby). Montecristo, however, can only be admired from the deck of a boat, as it's a nature reserve that prohibits landing and anchoring. Gorgona, an islet 40 miles north of Elba, is a penal colony and closed to the public, although guided tours are possible under special circumstances (see for more information). As you cruise around the islands, you'll be surprised at how diverse each one is, particularly given how small they are — Elba is rugged, Pianosa is flat and Montecristo is shaped like a rocky cone. Along the coast, cliffs and caves alternate with small beaches protected by headlands.

View of the bay and coastline of Pianosa Island, Italy.


3. Amalfi

From the deck of a boat, the Amalfi Coast is truly breathtaking at first sight — the sun's rays rising over the towering cliffs or the vibrant coloured houses in the early evening glow. Unfortunately, the village of Amalfi itself is now paying the price for its beauty and is getting overrun with tourists. Don't miss the limoncello made from the outstanding local lemons — you won't find better (lemons or limoncello) in all of Italy. As well as charming restaurants and cafes, Amalfi's is best known for its long tradition of handmade paper making and you can even try it for yourself while you're there. If you're sailing to Amalfi, you'll need to book a place in the small harbour (it's more like a pier for 20–⁠30 boats) well in advance. And as you might imagine, it isn't cheap.

The breathtaking Amalfi Coast with its turquoise bay and colourful houses.

The breathtaking Amalfi Coast

4. Positano

Positano is the second most popular spot on the Amalfi coast. Wandering along the steep streets here, you'll be surprised how many steps you'll have to climb. But Positano is full of fantastic seaside restaurants where you can savour fresh seafood and enjoy superb sea views.

A cafe in a corner in a historic alley, Positano, Italy.

Enjoy a coffee in the historic alleys of Positano

5. Sorrento

Sorrento, located 48 km from Naples, offers spectacular views of the Bay of Naples. It's a truly enchanting location with crystal-clear waters, citrus-scented gardens and countless sights, such as the 11th-century cathedral (Cattedrale del Santi Filippo e Giacomo) or the Basilica of San Antonio with its magnificent 11th-century gate. The town itself is perched on the cliffs but there are two marinas, Marina Grande and Marina Piccola, as well as good anchorages along the coast.

 Marina Grande, Sorrento, Italy.

Marina Grande in Sorrento

6. Naples

In 1995, the historic centre of Naples was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List for its unique Mediterranean architecture and culture. When you enter it, however, you will be more struck by how vibrant a city it is. As Italy's most densely populated city, Naples can be a little noisy and polluted, but this takes nothing away from how truly captivating it is. Aptly nicknamed "The City of Five Hundred Domes", it has the largest number of religious buildings in the world, including churches, chapels and monasteries. Sampling the local pizza, which has become infamous all over the world, is a definite must.

View of Naples from the pizzeria's terrace.

You can't leave Naples without sampling the local Neapolitan pizza

7. Capri

Capri, located in the Gulf of Naples, offers a unique atmosphere that has attracted Roman generals, Italian revolutionaries, writers, and artists alike. There are just two towns on the island, Capri and Anacapri, and Marina Piccola and Marina Grande are the only two ports. But visitors mainly come for the weather and the stunning views. There are three places in particular that should not be missed: The Blue Grotto (Grotta Azzurra) with its narrow entrance and incredible sea colour; Monte Solaro, whose 589-metre-high summit offers the most spectacular view of the Bay of Naples; and the Phoenician Steps (La Scala Fenicia), whose 900 steps connect Capri and Anacapri.

The blue cave of Grotta Azzurra on the island of Capri with boats.

The Blue Grotto (Grotta Azzurra) is a breathtaking experience

8. Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre, or "Five Lands", is the name given to five villages on the Italian Riviera's eastern coast. For centuries, the only way to get to them was over narrow mountain paths or by sea. Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso are renowned for their beauty, with vibrant-coloured terraced houses ascending the cliffs which undoubtedly look best from the deck of a boat. Unfortunately, all tourists of the world seem to know of their beauty, but a visit to Cinque Terre is still well worth it. The villages also provide the perfect starting point for hiking in the local hills, with several well-marked trails.

Riomaggiore is one of the five famous colourful villages of the Cinque Terre in Italy.

Riomaggiore is one of the five famous colourful villages of the Cinque Terre in Italy

Where else can you sail?

9. Portovenere

Along with Cinque Terre, Portovenere was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1990s for its monuments and surrounding landscape. Several sights can be found here, including the 11th–⁠12th century Romanesque church of San Lorenzo, the Gothic church of San Pietro and the castle. If you arrive by boat, visit the Grotta di Byron (Byron's Grotto), named after the poet who frequented the area. In the 19th century, the Ligurian coast was a favoured spot for many romantic poets and Lord Byron himself chose Portovenere. The rocky cove with its cave is said to have inspired him to write many of his works. Byron was not only a great poet but also a great swimmer. As well as swimming the Dardanelles and the Venetian lagoon, he was famous for swimming from Portovenere to Lerici (across "The Gulf of Poets") to visit his fellow English muse Shelley. To commemorate this, the 7.5-kilometre Byron Cup swimming race is held in August every year. Even if you don't take part, the swimming is great around the Grotta di Byron, as are the impressive views of the imposing cliffs.

A rocky cove made famous by the poet Byron in Portovenere, Italy.

The rocky bay of Grotta di Byron made famous by the poet Byron.

10. Lerici

While Portovenere was made famous by Byron, nearby Lerici is associated with the poet Percy Shelley and his wife Mary, the author of Frankenstein. Unfortunately, it was also the site of the poet's untimely death — whilst returning from a meeting with Byron at night, he was caught in a storm on his boat and drowned. Lerici, the second most popular resort on the Gulf of La Spezia in Liguria next to Portovenere, is still worth a visit for its charm — the castle towering above the harbour, the picturesque old town with its narrow streets, the sandy beach and the marina where you can get some superb ice cream. What more could you ask for?

The dock in Lerica full of boats with the castle in the background.

11. Follonica

With its beautiful sandy beaches and crystal-clear waters, Follonica is one of Tuscany's most important seaside destinations, and is also a popular spot for Italians in summer. Favourite local pastimes include water sports and hiking through the surrounding Mediterranean landscape. The long trek to Cala Violina beach, regarded as one of the most beautiful in Italy, is definitely worth it. Follonica is also renowned for its fine restaurants and wine — the Monteregio di Massa Marittima wine trail runs through the area.

Large sandy beach in Follonica.

Popular sandy beach in Follonica

12. Carrara 

Carrara is inextricably tied to the work of numerous Italian sculptors and builders — here you'll find the world-famous quarries used to extract the snow-white (Luna) marble carved by Michelangelo and others, and made into monumental sculptures and buildings across the globe. The quarries are open to visitors — a local tour company can take you up into the mountains with off-road vehicles. James Bond fans will also find the route especially interesting as it was where the opening Aston Martin car chase was filmed in Quantum Solace. Most of all, you'll marvel at the incredibly arduous work that has been passed down from generation to generation for centuries, and which cost so many people their lives.

Marble quarries in Carrara, Italy.

13. Sardinia

Although Sardinia (and Sicily) deserve articles of their own, neither can be left out of our list of places to visit. The Costa Rei area in the southeast of the island and the shoreline west of Cagliari, Sardinia's capital city, are two of the most beautiful spots on the island. The Molentargius lagoon, home to hundreds of species of birds, including pink flamingos, is also worth a visit. The most luxurious tourist area of the island is the Costa Smeralda, the Emerald Coast, with pristine white sandy beaches. In total, Sardinia's coastline stretches 1,848 km and includes countless small islands, rocky shores and white sandy beaches, making it a long-time favourite destination for sailors. Be advised, however, that sailing in Sardinian waters requires experience and good navigation skills.

View of the limestone massif of Capo Caccia, Sardinia.

View of the limestone massif of Capo Caccia, Sardinia

14. Maddalena Archipelago

Sailing around the Maddalena Archipelago between Corsica and Sardinia, it's difficult not to feel like you're in the Caribbean. Renowned for their expansive white sandy beaches, the sea around the seven islands and smaller islets provide perfect wind conditions for sailing. There are also dozens of coves and bays where you can swim on the leeward side.

Cala Corsara, Maddalena archipelago on the island of Sardinia, Italy.

15. Sicily and the Aeolian Islands

Despite being largely mountainous, the enchanting island of Sicily is abundant in citrus groves, vineyards and olive trees. Its most famous landmark, of course, is Mount Etna, Europe's most active volcano. The capital, Palermo, is a city of contrasts, with historic buildings juxtaposed beside more rundown areas. In addition to Palermo, head to Cefalù to meander through its Medieval streets, but, be warned, it is one of the most popular destinations and resorts in Sicily. The old town is located below La Rocca mountain and the main tourist sight is the Norman cathedral (Cathedral of the Transfiguration) built in 1131. There are also a number of other churches and palaces in the centre, and the remains of the 9th-century BC Temple of Diana on La Rocca mountain. If you're sailing around Sicily, the Aeolian Islands are also worth a look. The magnificent Stromboli volcano is located here, and you can stop at the ports of Porto Rosa and Milazzo. Be aware that sailing through the Strait of Messina, which separates Sicily from Italy, is a regulated entry and passage zone. For this reason, you must contact the coastguard before entering or risk a fine.  

The ruins of an ancient Greek theatre in Taormina, Sicily, with the smouldering volcano Etna in the background.

Visit the ruins of an ancient Greek theatre in Taormina, on the Sicilian coast.

Boats available in Italy:

FAQ About sailing in Italy