Continuing south-east along the Ligurian coastline, only four miles down from Zoagli and about five miles north-west of Sestri Levante you reach the town of Chiavari. This is a real Italian town, even more so than Rapallo, because the seafront here is not its best feature nor in fact the reason for visiting.
Chiavari is bigger than most of the other Riviera di Levante coastal towns we’ve written about with a population of 27,000, similar to that of Rapallo. There’s only the river Entella separating it from the next door town of Lavagna but it’s Chiavari that’s the more interesting of the two.
You rarely hear mention of Chiavari, especially in the context of tourism, and yet there is far more to see here than in most Ligurian towns. It doesn’t have the prettiest seafront with a mainly grey gravel beach, but though very modern and functional it’s certainly not ugly.
However, away from the shoreline Chiavari is a bustling and vibrant city that has a prosperous feel about it and in fact is not overly dependent on tourism or its seafront.
It looks less typically Ligurian than most and has a mix of architectural styles and well preserved buildings that could belong to a city well away from the sea in Piedmont or Emilia Romagna. In fact if you’re on a tour of the Ligurian coastline, Chiavari provides a welcome change of style and even more so than Rapallo, here you will find yourself among Italians going about their daily lives rather than focused on catering to tourists.
Furthermore, in the center of town there is no real sign that tourism is on anyone’s mind at all. Don't underestimate what a refreshing change that can be at times, because you'll never find places like Chiavari through your travel agent.
A good place to start your walking tour of Chiavari and to get a feel for the town would be Viale Enrico Millo where you can see some excellent examples of very well preserved late 19th century and early 20th century Liberty style buildings (second photo from top). These are wide palm filled streets, not quite boulevards, but perfect for walking and never crowded.
We picked the Sunday antiques and art market day to come to Chiavari and if you can work this into your itinerary then it’s certainly worthwhile because there’s a fabulous atmosphere here on market day and it is very well attended. It’s usually held on the second weekend in the month. If you like to people-watch, especially all those hand signals and exaggerated mannerisms that Italians are famous for, then this is the time and place to do it.
This is not your typical flea market (Mercato delle Pulci) but a proper antique and art market (Mercato dell'Antiquariato) and much better than the equivalent market in Lucca for example. There are also lots of interesting and well-crafted bric-a-brac and you should be able to find something small enough to take home.
The market day stalls start just off Enrico Millo as you turn onto Via Martiri della Liberazione and even if it's not market day this should be the next street on your tour. The sidewalks here quickly become a long series of medieval porticoes on either side of the road much like you would see in Bologna or several other Italian towns.
They attest to the rise of the new merchant class in the second half of the 14th century and reflect the growth and importance of Chiavari at that time. The Chiavari porticoes are not as grand as those in Bologna and have plain arches rather than sculpted columns, but contained within them are lots of well preserved etched glass shop fronts dating back to the Liberty period or even before.
Chiavari doesn’t seem to be unduly suffering economically because just about every space beneath the porticoes is occupied by stylish boutiques, shops, gelaterie and pasticcerie, many of which have retained those lovely old interiors that contribute to the sense of tradition.
There always seems to be a correlation in Italy between the interior decor of a cafe and the quality of its coffee and pastries and when you walk into one of these coffee shops from the late 19th century, often with highly ornate mirrors and marble fixtures, there’s an additional pleasant aspect to the morning coffee ritual, emanating from a sense of history and tradition perhaps.
Places like Chiavari also bear witness to the fact that Italians have not yet adopted the internet shopping habits of many other countries, Covid notwithstanding. Or perhaps the energy and bustle around the shops has more to do with the fact that Italians prefer to linger and socialize with their morning coffee at weekends. A good place to stop for your coffee is the Liberty style Pasticceria Copello founded in 1826, located in the portico at number 164 Via Martiri.
Continuing along Via Martiri you eventually arrive at Piazza Mazzini (third photo from top) and if you read our article on Cararra, Chiavari coincidentally is where both Mazzini’s father and Garibaldi’s father were born. The Palazzo di Giustizia behind Mazzini’s statue is in the medieval style but in fact was constructed in 1886. This is a nice piazza with a sizable outdoor fruit, vegetable and cheese market held every day from early morning until lunchtime.
Further along, Via Martiri empties into Piazza Giacomo Matteotti (above photo), a much larger piazza than typically found on this coastline because here there is more flat land before the mountains rise up. And standing proudly in the center of the piazza looking down Corso Garibaldi to the equally impressive statue of Cristopher Columbus and the sea beyond is the great man himself.
Throughout this whole series of articles on the Riviera di Levante you'll notice that there's a tropical aspect to all of the photographs with palm trees everywhere, and nowhere more so than Chiavari, which has it's own public gardens, the Parco Botanico di Palazzo Rocca.
The microclimate along this shoreline is exceptional because all the cold winds blow in from the north-east and are completely blocked by the mountains.
You'll quickly notice here how warm it can get on sunny days in late winter and early spring and that has always been one of the main attractions of the Riviera di Levante, especially when compared to the much colder Adriatic coastline on the same latitude where all the way down to Ancona the climate is often too cold even for olive trees, never mind palms.
Chiavari has one other attraction for those in search of a memorable meal to cap off their Ligurian sojourn. It's the Trattoria La Brinca and it can be found in Ne, which is up in the hills 6 miles away. La Brinca is consistently excellent and we've never been disappointed. Despite it's remote location we've met people having lunch there from as far away as Milan, it's that good. And as we mentioned here, their pesto genovese alone is worth the trip.