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Livorno

A Medici fort, Italian Impressionists and one of Italy’s great seafood dishes

By: Donald Strachan Writer & Journalist | Specialist in Italy & European travel

Livorno travel guide

Any seafood lover should consider a day-trip — perhaps “pilgrimage” is a better word — to the city of Livorno, and especially its restaurants. This is Tuscany’s largest port and its second-largest city, after Florence.

The city’s signature dish is cacciucco, a spicy soup-stew made with pretty much anything plucked from the sea that morning — a little like Marseille’s bouillabaisse.

In the Beginning...

Livorno’s glory years began in 1571, when Florence’s Medici rulers poured funds into its redevelopment and decreed it should be a “free port”. Outcasts from all over Europe made their way to live and trade as equals (vaguely) here, from exiled English Catholics and Greeks fleeing the Ottoman Turks, to persecuted Jews and Muslims expelled from Iberia.

In the early 1600s the port was re-engineered by “Roberto” Dudley, son of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, a favourite of Elizabeth I. A wall plaque beside Pietro Tacca’s bronze Monumento dei 4 Mori commemorates Dudley’s time in Livorno. The Fosso Reale defences, and the merchants houses and pretty canals of the Venezia Nuova quarter, also date from Livorno’s heyday. Later, famous expatriate — especially British — travellers in Tuscany funnelled through the port. Novelist Tobias Smollett lived and died (1771) in Livorno.

Charles Dickens wrote about it in “Pictures of Italy”. Romantic poet Lord Byron lingered in Livorno. His friend, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley lived here with his wife (Mary, author of “Frankenstein”), and sailed to his death from Livorno: Shelley drowned in the Bay of La Spezia in July 1822.

The best local menus ebb and flow to the rhythms of the daily catch

Visit This

Livorno was badly damaged during World War II and classic “Tuscan sights” are thin on the ground. However, the city was home base for the 19th-century art movement known as the Macchiaioli, whose works mixed realism, impressionistic painting techniques and a kind of romantic idealism about rural life.

The movement’s leading painter was Giovanni Fattori, after whom Livorno’s Museo Civico is named. Inside a handsome Liberty building just south of the centre, it has Italy’s best collection of Macchiaioli works.

The prettiest spot for a sunset stroll is the checkerboard Terrazza Mascagni. Built in a neoclassical style in the 1920s, its location on a little promontory looks out to the Tyrrhenian Sea. It’s named after Pietro Mascagni (1863–1945), a native of the city and composer of opera Cavalleria Rusticana.

Eat This

Seafood is a staple, of course, and the best menus ebb and flow to the rhythms of the daily catch. As well as the iconic cacciucco, you will find ingredients like seppie (cuttlefish, whose ink is the key ingredient in riso nero, black risotto); totani (baby squid) and bottarga (tuna roe); and riccio (sea anemone, great with linguine). Seemingly evergreen local restaurants worth finding include Osteria del Mare, La Barrocciaia and Cantina Senese.

Cacciucco’s fame has even earned it its own food trail: see the city tourism website (details below) for details and a map.

Out of Town: The Etruscan Coast

Beaches are strung along the coast south of Livorno, nicknamed the Costa degli Etruschi (Etruscan Coast). Close to Livorno, Castiglioncello is a popular resort.

North of the city, former ducal lands were once organized into estates or tenute. Now combined and protected as the Parco Regionale Migliarino San Rossore Massaciuccoli, they are criss-crossed with cycling, horse riding and walking trails. Some are open weekends only or only visitable with a guide — they take the conservation of one of coastal Italy’s last untouched stretches very seriously.

Three Excursions from Livorno

  • Volterra: a once-powerful Etruscan city is now an atmospheric medieval town, with an important archaeology museum and a Mannerist masterpiece
  • Populonia: the only Etruscan burial ground yet discovered by the sea, incorporating the Necropolis of San Cerbone, with tumuli and intact tombs dating to the 7th century BC
  • Pisa: the world’s most famous piece of botched architecture, the Leaning Tower, is just one of Pisa’s Romanesque architectural masterpieces

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