Rapallo was originally a traditional harbour town in the Liguria region, and is now the largest and most important seaside resort on the Mediterranean coast in north-west Italy. It is situated on the Gulf of Tigullio to the north-east of the Portofino peninsula
The town's origins as a resort date from the 1920s when Rapallo became an important centre for writers, including Ezra Pound and D.H. Lawrence among others.
We were warned before visiting that parking in Rapallo was very difficult - but actually found a seafront parking place immediately both times we visited, so while it may sometimes be a challenge parking here is not always the impossible feat you might expect!
Most of the town has developed around a large natural bay where you will find small beaches, a pier for boats to other resorts along the coast, a port area where you can leave your luxury yacht and a small fortress. The views across the harbour are very attractive, with villas spread up the steep hillsides around the bay.
Start your visit with a stroll along the seafront, lined in part with a pleasant palm-tree-lined promenade, to the marina. Along the seafront there is a wide selection of upmarket restaurants, many offering quality seafood, and hotels taking advantage of the views south across the sea.
Also on a small headland on the seafront, with a small bridge connecting it to the town, you can see the small but imposing 16th century castle. This was originally built in 1549 to defend Rapallo against pirates - at that time the town had just been sacked by a Turkish pirate called Dragut - and is now used as an exhibition center.
Although Rapallo doesn't have a 'real' beach there are several lidos where you can access the sea and a tiny area of beach next to the fortress.
The town centre
Behind the bustling seafront Rapallo has a small historical center which is a pleasant place to visit with a web of narrow pedestrianised cobbled streets and lots of shops to explore. The houses are tall and painted in attractive colours with many of them now shops and restaurants at ground level.
Frescoes and the Genoa window tax
One interesting feature that is common in this part of Liguria is the number of houses that have decorative frescoes on their facades. Sometimes these frescoes are simple patterns, but some are realistic paintings of windows and shutters: a trend started in the 18th century when Genoa started imposing taxes based on the number of windows in a property.
The principal religious monuments in the centre of Rapallo include:
- the 17th century Basilica of Saints Gervasio and Protasio, notable for its dome and 17th century belltower. The cathedral has origins in the 4th century but has been transformed numerous times over the centuries and now has a neoclassical facade with bronze doors added in 1957. There are various artworks of interest inside the cathedral
- the Church of Santo Stefano. Although the current 17th century facade has replaced the original this is the oldest church in Rapallo and the church tower is the most ancient monument in the town, dating from 1473;
- the 16th century Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, in the piazza of the same name and featuring a decorative altar and paintings on the ceiling.
There are several other monuments of interest to discover, including the Porta delle Saline, the only remaining gateway of the five that originally protected the town and now divides the sea front promenade from the historic centre, and a tall 15th century watchtower that became the belltower for the Church of Santo Stefano.
The town music kiosk (early 20th century) is itself unimposing but take a moment to enter and look at the highly decorated dome, painted by artists of the time.
You will also see a stone bridge dating from medieval times and called 'Hannibals Bridge'. There is almost certainly no connection with Hannibal, and the river that once flowed here has now been diverted and replaced by a road, but it is still an interesting artefact from the past of Rapallo.
Thursday is market day in Piazza Cile in Rapallo and is the most lively day to visit the town.
Italy This Way comment: After exploring the centre of Rapallo we recommend you stroll a short distance out of the town to the west of the marina to see the very lovely little hamlet of San Michele clustered along the seafront. You will also find beaches here as well as a 12th century church with a painting by Van Dyck.
Among the museums in Rapallo, the most interesting are those dedicated to lace (containing more than 1000 lace items from the last 500 years, in Villa Tigullio); the mixed collection of art objects in the Museum of Attilio and Cleofe Gaffoglio; and the museum dedicated to rural life in the region (near the village of San Maurizio Monti).
In Rapallo (from Via Castegneto) you can take a very impressive ride in a cable car that climbs two and a half kilometres up the mountain behind the town to reach the 16th century Montallegro Sanctuary, 600 metres above sea level and best known for its icon that is claimed to have the power to carry out miracles. Note that the white marble facade is a 19th century addition.
The trip is recommended because of the views across Rapallo and the sea from the sanctuary. If you want to avoid the cost of the cable car, about 10 euros, there is also a footpath that leads to the sanctuary but on a hot day I am guessing your children will vote to take the cable car!
A short distance west of the fortress in the town centre is the pier where you can catch taxi boats to the neighbouring village of Portofino and the resort of Santa Margherita Ligure. These boats are a much easier and more pleasant way to visit these destinations than driving to, and not too expensive since you will save on parking costs (which are very expensive in Portofino).
To the west of the Portofino peninsula the seafront area of Camogli is especially lovely, and a little further along the coast to the south-east of Rapallo a tour of the villages of the cinque terre is highly recommended. In the summer it is possible to reach these villages by boat from Rapallo.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Liguria guide.