I Visited This Italian Hidden Gem Right Next to the French Riviera — and Found Great Prices, Clear-water Beaches, and No American Tourists

How to plan a trip to San Remo, Italy, on the Ligurian coast.

<p>Courtesy of The Mall Luxury Outlets</p>

Courtesy of The Mall Luxury Outlets

After landing in Nice, France, the gateway to the famous towns of the French Riviera — St. Tropez, Cannes, and Antibes, to name a few — it’s easy to forget this stretch of coastline is bordered by Italy. Yet it’s well-worth remembering: specifically for San Remo, Italy, where I could count on one hand the number of English speakers I heard during my five days visiting this hidden gem.

While often overshadowed by its glitzier French neighbors, San Remo is on the Ligurian coast less than a 30-minute drive from France. This isn’t, however, where you’ll find €200 chairs at overcrowded beach clubs or any type of scene that has an Instagram hashtag. In San Remo and its surrounding areas, you’ll find small fishing villages, stunning botanical gardens that aren’t mobbed, and incredible local Ligurian cuisine. Luxe hotel options include the elegant and historic Royal Grand Hotel San Remo and the Grand Hotel Del Mare in nearby Bordighera, with the latter boasting lush gardens and a private beach. Welcome to the other riviera.

San Remo, Italy

Hotels: The Royal Grand Hotel San Remo, with rates that start from €600 in the high season.

Beaches: Le Calandre, a local's-only spot with no beach club, just clear, turquoise water.

Shopping: The Mall San Remo, in an open-air structure overlooking the water, with luxury Italian brands (at a good discount).

Restaurants: The buzzy new restaurant Baccara Bistro Bello.

Events: The San Remo Music Festival, held in February, and the Carnival of Flowers, every March.

San Remo is known for the San Remo Music Festival and the Corso Fiorito, Carnival of Flowers, held every March. The town, though, is expanding its footprint and profile. A few years ago, in 2019, The Mall Luxury Outlets in Florence opened its second outpost, The Mall San Remo, in an open-air structure that overlooks the sea and the region’s celebrated flower market. While this is a technically a mall, boutiques include highly curated and discounted wares from brands such as Bottega Venetta, Etro, Loro Piana, Gucci, and Dolce & Gabbana. Even my husband, who is not a retail person, was happy to spend four hours in what is essentially a leisure complex. (The free concierge service at The Mall San Remo will arrange boat trips, olive oil tastings, and golf outings — anything, really — as part of the Mall’s mission to highlight the destination as much as the shopping.)

<p>Courtesy of The Mall Luxury Outlets</p>

Courtesy of The Mall Luxury Outlets

<p>Serena Rinaldi - Studio SAB/Courtesy of The Mall Luxury Outlets</p>

Serena Rinaldi - Studio SAB/Courtesy of The Mall Luxury Outlets

But in a short 10 minutes you can be whisked from a luxury bubble at The Mall San Remo to Bussana Vecchia, a seasonal artist commune founded in Roman times. And farther west in Ventimiglia are stunning botanical gardens open to the public. With crowds descending on Europe in record numbers this past summer, we were stunned to visit the Villa Hanbury, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in peak season and have it almost entirely to ourselves. This is just one of the many small joys and pleasures of the Italian riviera — no waiting in lines, no elbowing other people, fewer selfie sticks, and a generally more low-key vibe.

<p>Courtesy of The Mall Luxury Outlets</p>

Courtesy of The Mall Luxury Outlets

Even on the quieter side of the Riviera, there are no shortage of beach clubs, but for a truly local's-only experience, we went to Le Calandre beach, in Ventimiglia, where the whole town seems to gather after work for its shallow, warm turquoise waters and sandy beach. There are no beach club services here, so this tucked-away stretch of coastline is free to visit.

<p>Courtesy of The Mall Luxury Outlets</p>

Courtesy of The Mall Luxury Outlets

My favorite beach, however, was one that belonged to a club called Il Garroccio overlooking the gulf of Bordighera, a lovely town next door to San Remo, that is just chic as any of the beach clubs on the French side, but a fraction of the price. The sea is some of the most pristine I found on the coast. And the best part is the signature Italian hospitality: laid-back and friendly, with delicious, fresh seafood pasta available at a moment’s notice.

The beauty of this region is the element of ying and yang, a duality, between the Italian and French side and toggling between the two countries. When you want a different experience, hop on the train in Ventimiglia, as we did one evening, and less than half an hour later you’ll be in Menton, the first town on the French side, to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime meals at Le Mirazur.

<p>Matteo Carassale/Courtesy of Mirazur</p>

Matteo Carassale/Courtesy of Mirazur

But to eat well, you never need to leave San Remo. It’s a worth a trip to San Remo just to try the trofie pasta with Ligurian pesto at Il Giardino, the garden restaurant at the Royal Hotel San Remo.  The new place in town is Baccara Bistro Bello. Baccara puts a modern twist on the region’s cuisine with dishes like eggplant carpaccio in a restored location that feels like a boutique hotel, with distinctive, stunning floral wallpapers and a secret rooftop that beckons during aperitivo. The San Remo institution La Pignese has been run by the same family for almost a century and is located in the ancient fisherman’s square very close to San Remo’s old port. The cuisine is traditional Ligurian fare — with dishes like spaghetti with crab, rabbit ravioli, and an extensive fresh seafood menu. 

Another delight on the Riviera is boating. While the yacht quotient is more modest on the Italian side of the border, we discovered there’s a good chance of getting a savvy, blunt, and hilarious boat captain if you book an outing from San Remo harbor. San Remo and the brand-new marina in Ventimiglia (reportedly the project of Monte Carlo investors to provide “overflow parking” for seaborne traffic to Monaco) are also the perfect embarkation points for tucked-away swimming spots on the less-discovered Italian side of the border.

Can you believe there are no Americans here, my husband and I kept saying to each other, baffled. My advice? Go before there are.

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