Alghero, Sardinia

The top 20 best beaches in Italy

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Once you’ve finished shopping in busy Milan or scaling volcanoes at Mt Vesuvius, Italian beaches are often a glorious escape, but with an increasing number of hotels charging for access to the sands, it’s hard to know where to spend your money. Here’s our breakdown of some of the best beaches in Italy that are bound to be a sound investment – whether you’re after secluded coves or lively seafronts.

Forno, Elba, Tuscany

The main five beaches on Elba can get suffocatingly packed in high season – including the popular resort of Biodola. However, Forno, set in the bay of Biodola, is far less busy and the main beach is set in a lovely cove, surrounded by villas and dense vegetation.

Levanto, Liguria

Anchoring the westernmost point of the Cinque Terre, the unpretentious small resort of Levanto feels quite cut off by Ligurian standards, but it has a nice sandy beach, which, despite the number of parasols, has a great surfy vibe.

Cefalù, Sicily

Despite being one of Sicily’s busiest international beach resorts, Cefalù has a parallel life as a small-scale fishing port. Naturally, the long, fine curving sands are the major attraction, but Cefalù is a pleasant town and nothing like as developed as Sicily’s other major package resort, Taormina.

Cefalu beach, Sicily, Italy

Acquavivetta, Elba, Tuscany

For the best swimming on Italy’s third largest island, head to Acquavivetta. Not far from Sansone, this shingle beach is backed by high rocks and the gently sloping seashore makes it a good spot for swimming – especially if you have kids in tow.

Spiaggia del Fornillo, Positano, Amalfi Coast

While the upmarket Positano is expensive, the beaches are nice and don’t get too crowded. Despite all the parasols, this large stretch of beach is lovely as it’s backed by beautiful cliffs with sporadic green patches. The bar-terrace of the Pupetto hotel, which runs along much of its length, is one of the cheapest places to eat and drink in Positano.

Explore more of the Amalfi Coast >

Sant’Andrea, Elba, Tuscany

This lovely, fine-sand beach, well set up with sun loungers and bars, is a good alternative to the busy main beaches of Elba for some sea-based activities. A natural rocky barrier keeps the water shallow and you can rent boats, windsurf and dive here too.

Discover Elba’s other top beaches >

Tonnara di Scopello, Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro, Italy

La Guardia, Elba, Tuscany

There are over 150 beaches dotting Elba’s coastline, so there’s no trouble finding a nice quiet spot to lay your towel. Also known as La Polveraia, this sheltered, shingle beach on the island’s western coast is always fairly quiet, even in high season. The dark rocks here plunge straight down to the transparent water below.

San Domino, Tremeti Islands

San Domino is the greener of the three Tremeti Islands, its pines offering welcome shade from the heat. Although there’s a sandy beach – Calla delle Arene – right where the ferry lands, it gets packed in the summer. Instead, follow signs for the Villagio TCI and head for the Calla dello Spido – one of many of the quieter coves in the west of the island.

Tonnara di Scopello, Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro

Set in its own tiny cove, this old tuna fishery was once home to writer Gavin Maxwell in the 1950s, where he wrote the The Ten Pains of Death – based on his experiences here. It’s almost too picturesque to be true –not least the row of abandoned buildings on the quayside and the ruined old watchtowers tottering on jagged pinnacles of rock above the sea.

Torre Guaceto, Puglia, Italy

Torre Guaceto, Puglia

This beautiful nature reserve and protected marine area gives beachgoers much more freedom, compared with the strict organization of many other Italian beaches. It’s a lovely spot for scuba diving over small reefs of coral and sea grass or just chilling out on the sandy beach. To visit, book at the Serranova visitor centre.

Rinella, Salina, Aeolian Islands

Higgledy-piggledly, fishermen’s houses cluster above this black-sand beach on Rinella, which has something of a Greek island feel to it. A couple of good bars also make this a tempting destination for an aperitif watching the sunset over Filicudi.

See more of the Aeolian Islands >

Maratea, Basilicata

This brief stretch of Basilicata’s Tyrrhenian coast is the most visually ravishing part of the entire region, with its tall, sheer cliffs rising dramatically above rocky coves and some first-rate beaches. These do get overcrowded in summer, but the encircling mountains mean that there has been minimal development by the holiday industry. Most beaches are well signposted, but don’t hesitate to explore the less obvious ones – the coast is home to 50 or so grottoes, most accessible only by boat (enquire at the tourist office for boat rentals).

Hover over the interactive map to see where our top beaches are geographically:

Mazarró, Sicily

This is the closest beach to the town of Taormina, and far lovelier than the huge resort of Giardini-Naxos. With a much-photographed offshore islet, several fish trattorias (informal restaurants) and a cable car that runs every 15 minutes from Via Pirandello (the road that encircles Taormina), it’s the ideal place to relax after sightseeing or shopping.

Reserva Naturale di Vendicari, Sicily

This coast has several sweeps of pristine sands along the south of Sicily. This lovely coastal nature reserve is 10km south of Noto, where little paths lead to unspoilt beaches of white-gold sand and salt lakes, that, between October and March, attract flamingos, herons, cranes, black stalks and pelicans.

Cala Gonone, Sardinia

Rapid development of this settlement has not spoiled the sense of isolation on this part of the coast, with its various secluded coves and grottoes. Until recently, this small resort was only accessible by boat, but now a tunnel through the 900m-high rock wall off the SS125 provides a zigzagging road down to the bay.

Alghero, Sardinia

This is one of Sardinia’s most charming towns and the lovely beaches here begin further north, although are sadly backed by hotels. However, you’ll find more tranquility on the white sands and blue shores of Le Bombarde and Lazaretto, two beaches 8km south.

Cala Gonone, Sardinia, Italy

Anzio, Lazio

A short distance from Rome (only 40km), and fairly free of the pull of the capital, Anzio is worth visiting both for its beaches and its history – much of the town was damaged during an Allied landing here in 1944 and the town was also a favoured spot of the Roman emperor Nero, whose ruined villa is spread along the cliffs and down onto the sandy beach which stretches north from the town centre.

The Lido towns, Emilia-Romagna

Nine “Lido” towns (small coastal resorts) line the 35km of coast here, providing good nightlife and some summer excitement for those visiting the not-so-lively Ravenna. Marina di Ravenna and Punta Marina are both crowded spots, but when you head north there are quieter, golden-sand beaches at Porto Corsini, Casalborsetti and Marina Romea.

Discover more in the Emilia-Romagna region >

Marina di Vasto, Abruzzo

The fine old city of Vasto is all about the beach and this broad sandy stretch is palm-lined and beach-hutted in the centre, while growing wilder and rockier to the north. In the free central area, devices known as trabocchi are installed every so often – these are Heath Robinson-ish crane-like contraptions of wooden beams and nets, with a complex system of weights, designed for scooping up fish.

La Pelosa, Sardinia

One of Sardinia’s most deluxe beaches, La Pelosa has fine sand, turquoise water and views out to the Isles of Piana and Asinara. While it can get crowded in tourist season, nothing can spoil its stunning setting.

These top 20 Italian beaches are taken from the latest edition of the Rough Guide to Italy.