An Elegant, Leisurely Italian Beach Club Vacation That Caters To Kids
We’d been pushing the stroller along the promenade of the popular beach town of Finale Ligure for what felt like miles under a blazing Italian sun. The cool blue relief of the Ligurian Sea sparkled a mere 50 yards away, but we couldn’t reach it. The entire beach seemed to be locked up under privately maintained “beach clubs” — or bagni — whose bright umbrellas stretched as far as the eye could see and whose rules we couldn’t divine.
Finally, we paused before the entrance to one of the last clubs on the promenade: A pair of sky-high white curtains framed a few wispy clouds combed like Italian wool across the bright blue sky — an entrance to the heavens, styled by Fellini. I peaked over the edge of the high cornice and down the steep stairs into the club: The outdoor tables were set for lunch, with pristine white tablecloths and whole constellations of silverware glimmering in the dappled light of a giant flaxen sunshade; immaculate rows of beach chairs were neatly arrayed on a beach that had literally been combed smooth all the way down to the sea. I heard the unmistakable ice-ax crunch of a bottle of wine going into a bucket of ice, as a waiter ducked beneath one of the giant umbrellas to deliver bright red spritzes to a pair of women quietly reading their books. None of this is meant for us, I decided, two rumpled American tourists with a toddler in tow. Surely we could find a quietly inconvenient, scrappy way to get ourselves into the Ligurian Sea without shattering the local tranquillo.
But my wife was already halfway down the stairs. She returned a few minutes later with a key. For 15 Euros, she had unlocked a magical realm: Our own pair of incredibly comfortable beach chairs under a crisp yellow-and-white umbrella the size of a sail. The key was to our own little cabana, where we could change and lock up our things. Soon we were settled at one of those beautifully laid tables, eating an incredible feast of Ligurian delicacies — a whole fish piled under fresh herbs and hand-rolled trofie pasta with Genovese pesto — before retiring to our little island of shade for an afternoon of swimming, napping, and beachcombing, punctuated by occasional cold drinks and bowls of fresh fruit.
After that, the bagni became the organizing principle of our entire trip. We’d spend the mornings exploring — a short hike in the Maritime Alps; a toddler-paced meander through the walled Old City of Genova; a short ferry ride to an isolated 10th-century abbey — and then we’d find the nearest beach club for the afternoon. Time lost its meaning then until we were ready to shower, get dressed, and join other families at the nearest gelato shop for a late-afternoon treat.
So much of family life in the United States can feel like running interference between what’s officially kid-friendly and what’s meant for everyone else (like long, leisurely lunches in beautiful places). I’d been all wrong — the Riviera’s beach clubs are made for families. And, at least in our experience, everything else along the Ligurian Coast was too. At the end of a long day of touristing, my wife and I could sit back on the periphery with all the other parents and enjoy a cold beer from the local brewery while our daughter ran around the piazza with other kids.
On our last day, with a few hours to kill between checkout and the drive north toward Milan’s Malpensa International Airport, we found a low-key beach club on the way and spent the morning soaking up every last bit of warmth, hospitality, fun, and family-friendly Italian splendor we could, and started the long journey home well-fed, showered, and tranquil — fundamentally different people than the ones who’d arrived a week earlier. That’s what a family vacation should do, and here… it was effortless.
There is a big selection of beach clubs, from mom-and-pop operations to more luxurious operations attached to hotels. The amenities might range from towels, lockers, and umbrellas to perfectly fluffed robes and table service. For us, part of the fun was trying a different bagni every day, and while some felt more luxe than others, they were all affordable, friendly, and fun.
When we visited — in early June — we had no trouble securing a spot on the beach without a reservation, but closer to and in high season, it’s always a good idea to call ahead and make a reservation for the day. At most, you can choose to pay for a half or full day, for anywhere between 15 to 50 Euros for the day.
While there were small public beaches (spiaggia libera) in all of the towns we visited — and we’re seasoned at hauling a toddler and a lot of gear to our own local beach, at Far Rockaway — it was well worth it to skip all of those logistics for a few Euros a day.
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THE QUIET HALF OF THE RIVIERA
We focused on the Riviera di Ponente, which stretches west from the capital Genova to the French border and might be considered the “quiet half.” With a reputation for being less popular with tourists and more popular with vacationing Italian families, it’s a mellower stretch of the Ligurian Sea that’s just as beautiful and definitely feels more low-key.
The best way to hop around the Riviera is by train and ferry, unless you enjoy navigating the hazardously narrow roads of crowded medieval villages in your rental car. (Though bigger towns like Finale Ligure seemed to have plenty of affordable parking, smaller villages might have close to none.)
Take the ferry from Santa Margherita Ligure to the incredible, 10th-century Abbey of San Fruttuoso, accessible only by boat or by a moderate 3-mile hike over the hills from the colorful port of Portofino, a fishing village turned high-end resort town that feels almost otherworldly in its glamor.
— Julia Holmes
In Bogliasco, a historic fishing village just outside of Genova, the long promenade overlooking cliffs is overhung with wildflowers that spill down to crystal-clear swimming coves. And we found the best gelato anywhere: Nughenè Gelato.
Alassio is especially popular with families for its nice big sandy beaches (much of the coast is rocky) — the beach slopes out so gradually that you can walk a nice distance out into the water without going above your knees, ideal for swimming with a toddler.
We returned to Finale Ligure more than once — for its beautiful beaches, old-town but bustling vibe, and great food. Delicious focaccia (a specialty of Liguria) was everywhere, and at Ciravegna Giuseppe on the Via Alonzo, we found the most incredible array of beautiful fresh pasta — in shapes and flavors I’d never encountered anywhere — and delicious homemade pestos and sauces.
Just a couple of kilometers up the hill from Finale Ligure is Finalborgo, a walled medieval village that’s now an international destination for outdoor recreation, especially climbing and mountain biking, with 180 trails between the Ligurian Sea and the mountains and major endurance races every summer.
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A lovely hour-long coastal hour drive from Finalborgo lays Genoa, where you can spend many happy hours getting lost in the walled Old City. You’ll encounter historic cathedrals, squares, and culinary institutions around every mysterious corner, including the centuries-old confectionary Pietro Romanengo fu Stefano and the bakery Antica Sciamadda, on Via S. Giorgio, where you can pick up traditional farinata, savory pies, and other regional treats baked throughout the day in wood-fired ovens.
ITALY IS FOR CHILDREN
No matter where you travel in the country, the bottom line is that a relaxed attitude comes full circle and rewards you with… a relaxed attitude, in which it’s easy to enjoy yourself. Look for beach clubs that appeal to you, and look for good food, but don’t get hung up on the “best” of anything according to the internet. It all works out for the whole family, it’s all delicious — and the last thing you want to do is stress about Italy, which, at least for visitors, is actually a fairly stress-free place.