Travel Italy - A Guide to the Island of Elba

Elba, the biggest island in the Tuscan archipelago has the shape of a fish and is roughly 220 kilometres to the south (-west) from Florence. There are mountains, the water is clear and of a lovely blue colour; towns are cute with many pastel-coloured houses. The island is inhabited by only 30,000 residents, of who most live in the capital. The capital is Portoferraio, and it is the place you see first when arriving by ferry from the mainland. The season starts in early spring and one can still swim in the Tyrrhenian Sea and drink Prosecco on alfresco terraces well into October. Autumn in this part of Italy can still feel like summer compared to other parts of Europe.

Travel Italy - A guide to the island of Elba

The history of the island can get traced back to the Etruscans and Romans and, one of its famous guests was Napoleon Bonaparte, who stayed on the island for nine months. There are hardly any large hotels on this green island, and a lady at a cafe tells me that there are so many secluded beaches that one can’t give a particular number on how many there are of them. It is believed that Elba has got as many as 140 different beaches in total. The island is small in size when you imagine that the capital Rome is nearly six times as big.

Many visitors come to Elba just for a day trip, to walk in the footsteps of Napoleon, in the museum of the Villa the Mulini, in the historic centre of Portoferraio, and a bit further from town, in the Villa San Martino. It is an ideal place to spend one or two weeks. 

A stone sculpture of angels in front of a yellow house facade green shutters and a clothesline with washing.

Portoferraio – Pastel Coloured Houses and a Picturesque Harbour

As a base book yourself a room in Portoferraio from where you can easily go on excursions on the island. This is a small village and I stay at B&B Porta del Mare on the fourth floor of a period residential building that opened its doors in 2010 opposite the Porta Del Mare. In fact, it was the first B&B in the capital of Elba. The three rooms are decorated with love and immaculately well-kept by owner couple Rossella and Bruno who also live in the apartment. This is really the perfect spot to stay if you are after an authentic experience and Italian hospitality. Who doesn't want to stay right in the middle of an Italian village and get the best tips for restaurants and on architecture by fun locals? From my room and the cast-iron four-poster bed, I have a view over the harbour and a town square that is named after the first Italian Prime Minister. Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour fought for Italian unification and became Prime Minister after the declaration of a United Kingdom of Italy in 1861. 

Alfresco cafe under white umbrellas with a harbour, the sea and mountain ranges in the distance.

Alfresco cafe under white umbrellas with a harbour, the sea and mountain ranges in the distance.

Orient yourself at the three strategically located fortifications that were built in the 16th century by the Medicis as a defence against pirates. Fortezza Linguella is the one right at the harbour and houses the Archaeological Museum. Forte Stella is close to the lighthouse in the upper part of town and Forte del Falcone sits today right between the old and the new town (the view from up here is a magnificent one). Stroll along the harbour promenade, climb up winding streets, eat gelato on busy town squares, sip Espresso in cafes and eat Pasta at restaurants. It is such a cute little town and after a few days, people at cafés start to recognize you.

Info: B&B Porta del Mare. Piazza Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour 34. Isola d'Elba, 57037 Portoferraio LI, Italy. Prices/night from EUR 70 to 140 (extra bed EUR 20 to 30).

Pastel coloured houses tower of a harbour with white and blue yachts.

A steep and long cobbled stone staircase between two rows of pastel-coloured houses.

A village with pastel coloured-houses with read rooftops by the sea.

Look at Yachts and Boats - Porto de Portoferraio

The port is sheltered from the wind. If you go for a walk along the pier, you will have the blue of the Mediterranean on one side and pastel-coloured houses on the other. It feels a bit like walking through a postcard. It happened that the Royal Clipper was there during my visit, the only five-masted full-rigged sailing ship of her kind since the famous Preussen (a German tall ship). Here is a bit of fascinating background info: Designed by a Polish naval architect. Built at a wharf in Gdansk, Poland. Registered in Malta. The face behind the Star Clipper brand is a Swedish entrepreneur. The company was launched in Ghent, Belgium, and is now registered out of Luxembourg. There is always something pretty to look at in this part of town.

Yachts and boats in small harbour lined by pastel-coloured houses.

A tall ship next to a cruise ship under a bright blue sky.

A tiny fishing boat in the sea with a mountain range in the distance.

A small sailing boat towing a dinghy.

A small fishing boat chugging through the sea in the twilight.

Breakfast at Café Mordisco

Here the name speaks for itself. Mordisco can be translated as “nibble” or “bite to eat.” Order a croissant with sweet orange jam (brioche marmellata di arance) and a cappuccino. The marmalade has a slightly bitter taste but is, unlike its British sister and traditionally for the Italian product, genuinely sweet. The view over the harbour in the morning is just as sweet as that choice for breakfast.

Empty chairs and tables in a cafe opposite a yacht harbour waiting for guests to arrive.
Info: Mordisco. Calata Mazzini 10. 57037 Portoferraio LI, Italy. Hours: from 8am.

Lunch at Osteria Libertaria

Try the Gnocchi with Gorgonzola and Radicchio. The bitter taste of the chicory goes exceptionally well with the nutty taste of the blue cheese from Lombardy. From a table at this restaurant in the harbour, you will have a view over colourful fishing boats, sailing boats and luxury yachts, all lined up as orderly as a pearl necklace.

A plate of gnocchi with Radicchio and blue cheese sauce next to a glass of water and a basket with slices of white bread.

An empty water glass next to the rest of red wine in a glass and a blue water bottle with yachts and house facades in the background.

Pastel coloured houses lining a harbour with colourful boats and yachts..

Info: Osteria Libertaria. Calata Giacomo Matteotti, 12, 57037 Portoferraio LI, Italy. Hours: Monday to Sunday: Lunch 12pm to 2.30pm, Dinner 7pm to 10.30pm.

Aperitivo - Apéritif at La Tonnina

I love this Italian tradition of having a drink and delicious snacks pre-dinner. Having drinks right in the harbour for the blue hour… one of the best things ever. The fun and welcoming hosts serve Prosecco at the right temperature and look after you with serving delicious nibbles, as tomato bruschetta and olives.

Tomato bruschetta decorated with parsley served on a white and gold porcelain plate.

A sunny terrace with small gold rimmed tables and green chairs in front of a cafe that also sells clothes.

Biscuits and fruit on a counter decorated with a lifebuoy.

Tomato bruschetta, Aperol spritz, a glass with peanuts, a glass of Prosecco with a strawberry and a rose next to a white candle on a small table at a cafe.

Info: La Tonnina. Calata Mazzini 10. 57037 Portoferraio LI, Italy. Hours: from 7am to 12am.

Dinner at Osteria Pepenero

At Osteria Pepenero you can taste all the flavours the Island of Elba has to offer. They cook what is in season and the menu changes accordingly. The wine comes from local wineries. Ask for vegetarian options. All waiters are as welcoming as they are knowledgeable, and tell you everything you would love to know about the food and wine. Drink Sangioveto red wine, the Elban version of Sangiovese vine. The address is the cutest: Via dell’ Amore.

A white classic Fiat 500 parked on a narrow lane lined by pastel-coloured houses.

Info: Osteria Pepenero. Via dell’ Amore 48. 57037 Portoferraio LI, Italy. Hours: from 6pm to 2am. Best to book in advance and to ask for exact opening hours at the time of your visit.

Acqua dell’ Elba

Do you know that when you smell something and it reminds you of a certain moment in time? Acqua dell’ Elba smells of the sea and wildflowers and is produced in Marciana Marina. You obviously can't take the island home with you. However, you can take a small piece of it, the scent. There are several pretty shops in the bigger villages on the island that sell it in a bottle. Visit Acqua dell' Elba for more info.

A pink house facade with green shutters and a boutique selling perfume on the ground floor.

Round large pebbles next to the clear green-blue coloured sea.

Swimming in the Gulf of Biodola

It is only a ten-minute drive from the centre of Portoferraio. There is paid public parking but also space on the roadside. The water is a stunning colour and it is so clear. Once in the water one can’t get enough, it simply is too good. In case you get hungry there is also a bar... or two.

A saiing yacht in the clear green-blue water of the sea with a moutain range in the distance.

Road Trip Around Elba

You will have some of the best photo opportunities when you drive from Portoferraio to San Martino to Marina di Campo to Fetovaia to Capo Sant Andrea to Marciana to Procchio and back to Portoferraio. Calculate a full day. It is a rather short drive of only 73 kilometres, and it is wonderful to spend the full day. Have your camera ready to take photos of some of the best coastal views on this scenic drive. 

Cactus in bloom with the glistening sea in background.

A vineyard under a big blue sky with white fluffy clouds and a mountain range by the sea in the distance.

A man in a yellow t-shirt on a red Vespa, driving down a gravel lane, stopping at an intersection next to a tobacco shop, green hills in the background.

A serpentine road high above the blue sea.

A village with pastel-coloured houses on the feet of a mountain range by the sea.

A serpentine road that leads to a village with pastel-coloured houses on the feet of a mountain range by the sea.

A village with pastel-coloured houses in the mountains.

Coppedè Villa in San Martino

Right next door to the Napoleon museum is another jewel, the Park Hotel Napoleone. It is a picture-perfect Art Nouveau style villa, built in the 19th century by Florentine architect Gino Coppedè. He is the architect behind the Coppedè Quarter in Rome. The villa, built as a residence for an aristocratic Roman family, with outdoor staircases, turrets and all kinds of ornaments is a great example of the architect's work. It became the headquarters of the German army during World War II, and today it is a hotel. Right next door you find the Villa Napoleoneca

Art Nouveau style villa with outdoor staircases, turrets and ornaments under a bright blue sky.

Decoration on an Art Nouveau style facade.

Pillard entrance of a museum decorated with eagles.

Marina di Campo

This town has the largest beach on the island of Elba. I can imagine it is a rather busy place during the high season but in September and October, you will certainly have this long stretch of beach with its clear blue water almost to yourself. There are several cafes and ice cream parlours near the beach. 

A yellow boat amongst several white boats in a marina by the sea with a white sandy beach and a mountain range in the distance.

Potted palm tree next to the door of a shop with a sunshade in rainbow colours above the entrance.

A large cactus and a green mailbox next to the green entrance door of a house with a yellow facade. House number 30.

A cobblestone lane lined by pastel-coloured houses decorated with pink and red blooms and green plants, that leads to the sea with a white sandy beach and a mountain range in the background.

Potted cactus and green plants on a cobblestone lane in the sunshine.

A narrow staircase and a potted green plant next to a green entrance door of a house with a beige facade.

A robin showing its red breast prominently, sitting on the branch of a palm tree.

Street Art Elba

Try to find street art in Marina di Campo, there is a lot of it around, the street signs will put a smile on your face. 

A bent arrow on sticked to a regular street sign.

A sticker of a guitar player smashing his guitar on the ground stuck on a regular No entry-street sign.

A sticker with three people lying in bed like sardines put on a regular No entry-street sign.

A sticker with one person jumping out of sea put on a regular No entry-street sign.

Aperitivo at Summer Bar in Sant’ Andrea

Drive down all the way to the beach to Capo Sant' Andrea. The Summer Bar is the perfect place for Prosecco and freshly made bite-sized focaccia sprinkled with just a tiny bit of salt and Rosmarin. Heaven. 

Boulders on a sandy beach beneath a cafe in a white wooden house with people on its terrace.

Boulders on a sandy beach on the foot of a mountain range in the soft evening light of the blue hour..

Focaccia served on a white plate and a table cloth with red and pink letters.

Info: Summer Bar. Piazza Capo Sant' Andrea 10, Sant'Andrea, Marciana, Elba Island, Italy

Look at the sunset - Marciana Marina

Marciana is built on the slopes of Mount Capanna, and the view over the marina of Marciana at sunset is best described as magical. It is so peaceful, and the faint noise of fishermen's voices adds its bit to the unique atmosphere.

Yachts in a marina bathed in the golden-orange light of sunset.

Porto Azzuro

The first thing you'll see of the town is the San Giacomo Fort, built in the early 17th Century by the Spanish. The central square Piazza Matteotti overlooks the marina, with its yachts and fishing boats. Browse the narrow streets to see how life in an Italian village is.

A steep cobblestone lane between two rows of pastel-coloured facades of houses with pots of green plants and clothing lines full of washing.

Buy honey from Elba as a souvenir

Life can be tough sometimes. Make your choice between Acacia-, rosemary-, Erica-, chestnut-, eucalyptus-, forest-, orange-, thistle-, sunflower-, or lavender-honey. All honey is locally produced. A jar of goodness will cost roughly EUR 13.

Elba- Good to know before you travel there

Getting there: Please consider that you will have to drive on toll roads if you plan to drive to Tuscany by car: a fee for a toll sticker (vignette) in Austria, a fee for the usage of the Brenner Motorway, and the fee for the highway in Italy. Return fees add up to roughly EUR 95 and can be paid at toll stations in either cash or with a credit card. The toll sticker for Austria can be bought at news agents and petrol stations. 

Passenger ferry decorated with comic characters.

Elba is 9 kilometres from Tuscany (mainland); you will have to take the ferry from the harbour in the town of Piombino. The ferries run frequently during high season, but less frequent from October till April. A return ticket with car costs around EUR 120, depending on the size of your car. Tickets can be bought at the harbour; I recommend you buy them online in advance.

You can reach Elba by plane from London, Stockholm, Vienna, Copenhagen, Monaco, Paris, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Berlin with a stopover in Florence and Pisa. The charm of the island has probably been preserved based on the fact that there is no large airport, meaning it takes a little bit of effort to get here. Check which destination is most suitable for your journey on the website of Teseo Tesei Airport (Marina di Campo Airport).

Grocery shopping: In case you plan to rent an apartment, there are supermarkets in all towns and delicatessen where you can get all these delicious Italian food staples.

Best time to travel to Elba

Main times are from April to September, whereas peak season is in July and August. Elba is a quiet paradise in autumn. You can still go swimming in October; please keep in mind that some restaurants and cafes start to close down at the beginning of October and stay closed till early spring.

In case you would love to visit Elba’s neighbour Corsica in France, read: Now is a great time to visit Corsica - here is why on The Touristin.

You might also want to read The Thousand Lights Hotel by Emylia Hall to get in the right mood for your Elba adventure. The author visited the island and that inspired her to write that novel.

From Berlin with love