When a country is almost entirely surrounded by water, as is the case with Italy, it stands to reason that beaches are a big deal. There are beaches of varying degrees of wonderful up and down both sides of The Boot, and the vast majority of Italians grow up with the understanding that part of every summer involves time spent at the shore.
It sounds idyllic, no?
Traveling to Italy in summer is the perfect time to get in on this Italian beach culture, not least because it can be agonizingly hot and humid in the cities. Spontaneity when planning a summer trip to an Italian beach isn’t usually a good thing, however. Those who plan ahead in this department are the ones who reap the rewards.
Which is why you’re here, you clever planner, you.
So, here’s what you need to know about the beaches in Italy, before you don your suit and head for the sand.
I’ve spent most of my life in Oregon, where all beaches are public by law. For me, then, this is one of the aspects of Italian beach culture that surprised me most.
While, technically, the beaches themselves are “public” (and the strip of land right at the water’s edge is certainly that), there are concessions (called “stabilimenti” or “bagni”) at nearly every stretch of sand that have bought permits from local authorities to set up rows and rows of beach chairs (“lettini,” or beds) and umbrellas (“ombrelle”) that they then rent out. Again, technically, while anyone should be able to walk to the water from further up on the beach, the bagni are usually set up so close together – one group of colored umbrellas abutting the next – that passing between them is impossible. And walking through one of them without paying isn’t permitted by the folks running that particular concession.
You may hear about protestors fighting this, demanding more access to beaches, but it doesn’t seem to change the status quo.
So, if you choose to pay for the privilege of hanging out on an Italian beach, what do you get for your money? Quite a bit, actually. Not only do you have a comfy lounge chair and shade-providing umbrella set up for you (without the need to lug one around yourself), you are also granted access to the facilities at the stabilimento – usually including changing rooms, showers, toilets, places to store your clothes, and places to get food and beverages. There are also typically lifeguards on duty.
You can choose just a chair, or a chair with an umbrella, for different fees – and if you’ll be in town for awhile, you can also buy a pass good for a longer period of time. Many Italians have annual rentals at the same bagni, where they get a monthly pass – and therefore the best spots. And yes, when you pay for access to the private beach you’ll be directed toward a chair – you don’t get to choose.
The rest of the beaches in Italy are entirely public, and therefore free. These are, perhaps unsurprisingly, not always as nice, clean, or well-maintained as the “private” beaches. You can look for signs indicating which beaches or parts of the beach are free (look for the words “spiaggia libera”), but it’s a good bet that the areas without orderly rows of umbrellas and loungers are public beaches.
There’s a huge variance among public beaches in terms of what amenities are available. Some of them have public toilets and showers. There are often beachside restaurants or kiosks nearby, even if they’re just temporary affairs set up for the summer months. Sometimes, however, there is simply a stretch of sand (or pebbles) and that’s it. In many cases, access to the public beach is via a long staircase from a parking area up above, so be prepared for something of a hike. If you’re unfamiliar with the area, it’s a good idea to inquire about the facilities before you head out, lest you arrive for a day at the beach without necessary provisions.
It’s also a good idea to keep a close eye on your belongings, especially on busy public beaches. These are not monitored by anyone, so would-be pickpockets and petty thieves sometimes meander through looking for easy targets. Make sure it’s not you.
≈ Read more about travel safety in Italy
Perhaps you’re familiar with the often-comically-portrayed stereotype of old Italian men at the beach in Speedos, letting a lifetime’s worth of pasta gut all hang out. Stereotypes usually have at least some basis in fact, and – yes – those guys exist. In fact, the Speedo-type suit is still de rigeur for many older Italian (and European) men. More common these days, however, especially for younger men, are swim trunks.
For women of all ages, a bikini or two-piece is the way to go. One-piece suits are something of a rarity on Italian beaches, no matter one’s age or body type. (Italian women think “bikini body” means “any body on which you put a bikini,” which is a million kinds of wonderful, if you ask me.)
In some parts of Italy, topless sunbathing is common and not restricted to certain beaches or areas – bare breasts not being seen as the taboo that they seem to be in the United States. Nude sunbathing, however, is usually restricted to certain areas that may or may not be specially-designated as nude beaches (they may be unofficially categorized as such, in that locals all know where the invisible boundary is). If you’re looking for (or trying to avoid) a nude beach, ask around. And before you take off your top on any beach, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re not the only one doing so – just in case you’re in a part of the country where that’s not such an accepted norm. As in many other situations, best practice is to follow the lead of the locals.
Italy is nothing if not fashionable, and that extends to beach vacations. Even in beach towns, you won’t see people walking into restaurants or shops wearing flip-flops or bikini tops. Beach attire is for the beach, and that’s that. Men, top off your stylish (and dry) swim trunks with an equally-stylish tee shirt. Women, put on a pretty sundress or beach cover-up dress over your swimsuit. And everyone, swap the plastic beach sandals for something a bit nicer.
≈ Read more about what to pack for an Italy trip
Many Italians and other Europeans get about a month of vacation time each summer, often in August. And if you’ve ever seen an Italian beach in August, you might think every single last one of them spends that vacation on a beach in Italy.
Yeah, beaches in Italy in August are crowded.
Remember earlier when I said that as fun as a spontaneous day trip to that pretty Italian beach in August sounds, it isn’t necessarily a good idea? This is why. Because so many people spend a few weeks at the seaside every single summer, you bet they’ve booked well in advance – everything from their hotel or apartment to their beach chairs.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t go to the beach in the summer if you’re in Italy – far from it. It just means that you’ll be far happier doing so if you can plan ahead a bit. Book lodging in advance, and – if you can – arrange for spots at a stabilimento. Make your time at the beach as relaxing as it ought to be with a little advance legwork.
The Blue Flag program is a global environmental effort that gives out its Blue Flag awards to beaches and marinas that meet its list of more than 30 criteria (including water quality, services available, and overall safety). There are so-called Blue Flag beaches all over the world, including many in Italy.
The list of Blue Flag beaches in Italy changes periodically, as the sites are regularly evaluated by the organization, with existing beaches removed and new ones added. To find out which beaches meet the Blue Flag standards when you’re visiting Italy, you’ll need to consult the map on this page of the official site. Scroll down to the map, zoom in on the parts of Italy where you’ll be going, and click on the blue dots in that area.
Note that not all of those dots are on the coast – lakeside beaches get scrutinized by Blue Flag, too.