Castles in Liguria: itinerary along the Riviera Spezzina

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The Ligurian Riviera along the Bay of La Spezia (or Riviera Spezzina) features fascinating castles and fortresses: once defensive buildings and a symbol of power, today they are sentinels of history and culture.

In fact, the majestic building are located in an important historical area, the Lunigiana, which had relevant communication routes since ancient Roman times. The Republic of Genoa turned this corner of Liguria into a strong defensive system, primarily against its rival, Pisa. Nowadays, the castles host museums and collections, promoting cultural activities and arts.

Let’s have a look at some of the most beautiful castles in Liguria’s eastern coast.


Castello Doria, Portovenere

Castles in Liguria: Castello di Portovenere
The castle on one side of the Bocche Channel, and Palmara Island on the other. Photo by Andrea Franchi

The construction date of the first fortified building where Castello Doria (or Castello di Portovenere) stands today, is still unknown. What we do know is that in 1161, the Republic of Genoa started restructuring the pre-existing castle, located in one of the most panoramic spots on the Bay of Poets. After losing Portovenere to Pisa and to Nicolò Fieschi for some time, the Genoese returned to power and destroyed the building in 1453, to then start constructing today’s castle as part of its defense modernization program.

The pentagonal-shaped Doria Castle was used as headquarters of the Podestà in the XVII and XVIII centuries and as a jail during the Napoleonic age. Today it hosts cultural and theatrical events as well as art exhibitions. It is a wedding venue too.

Fortezza sul Mare, Palmaria Island

Castles in Liguria: Fortezza sul Mare (Batteria Umberto I) on Palmaria Island
Interesting architecture on Palmaria Island. Photo by John von Rosenberg

The name says it all… the “Fortress on the Sea” is a beautiful fortress that proudly stands on Palmaria Island. Officially called Batteria Umberto I, it was built at the end of the XIX century by the Marine Military to improve the defense system of the Bay of Poets. Among its special features were two Krupp cannons on its iron cast dome, which contrasted with the elegant walls made with black limestone from local quarries.

The complete restructuration works in recent times maintained the primitive architectonic quality while reducing the military aspect. It now hosts the Laboratory of Marine Ecology, the Research Center for Underwater Archaeology, different cultural and artistic activities, and is even a wedding venue.

Castello San Giorgio, La Spezia

San Giorgio Castle, La Spezia, Liguria
Romantic La Spezia at night. Photo from

In 1262, Nicolò Fieschi – a Guelph who had abandoned the Genoa Republic – started building the castle on the Poggio Hill overlooking La Spezia. In 1273, Oberto Doria reconquered and destroyed both the castle and the village. After a series of ruling power changes, the castle was rebuilt in the XIV century, enriched with five towers and five gates. In 1443, the layout of the defensive walls was changed in order to include and protect the local cathedral; while the upper-part of Castello San Giorgio was built in 1607.

The castle is today home to the Civic Archaeologic Museum “Ubaldo Formentini”. It treasures some beautiful Stele Statues of the Lunigiana (carved standing stones created during the European Neolithic), anthropomorphic sculptures from the Copper and Iron Ages, mosaics, and portraits.

Fortezza Firmafede, Sarzana

Fortezza Firmafede in Sarzana, Liguria
The Citadel. Photo by Emil Aleksandrov Yanev / Panoramio.

Also known as Cittadella, Fortezza Firmafede – initially built by Pisa in the XIII century and restructured by Castruccio Castracani in 1324 – was completely destroyed and rebuilt by Lorenzo il Magnifico between 1487 and 1494. Following the rule of Florence, the Republic of Genoa took over and completed the construction works. During the XX century, it was used as a police building and as a jail until the 1970s.

Restructuration works took place between 1985 and 2003, and Fortezza Firmafede reopened in all its glory as a venue for cultural activities in Sarzana, including the National Antiques’ Exhibition.

Fortezza di Sarzanello, Sarzana

Fortezza di Sarzanello, Liguria
Hilltop location! Image from

This imposing stronghold dates back to the early 1500s, although – thanks to its strategic importance – Sarzana had seen fortifications rise and fall since more ancient times. Famous condottiero Castruccio Castracani was the mastermind behind the foundation of the Fortezza, while the final layout that we still admire today was determined by the Genoese.

The Fortezza di Sarzanello has a simple yet grand aspect. Built in first half of the 1400s, its square fortified tower features a medieval form; while the triangular citadel and the massive walls reflect the needs brought at a later stage with the appearance of firearms on the battlefield.
The castle has become a venue for all sorts of cultural events and didactic laboratories for children.

Castello di Lerici, Lerici

Lerici Castle, Bay of Poets, Liguria
The colors of Lerici. Image by Francesco Cinque

The first, original nucleus of the castle probably dates back to the early 1100s, when local lords sold Lerici to Genoa and mentioned a watchtower in the sales document. By the mid-1200s, the building was enlarged with a main tower, a bastion and the completion of the ancient chapel of S. Anastasia, which had been started by the Pisans during a short takeover: today it is considered one of the first examples of Ligurian gothic architecture.

In 1555, construction works enlarged Lerici’s Castle and gave it its present look, characterized by a massive exterior fortification (some walls are 6-meters thick) and a pentagonal tower. Today, the castle also extends your journey back in time to the Jurassic era by hosting the Geopaleontology Museum.

Have you visited other castles in Liguria? What was your experience like? Share below!


Useful sources:

Trame di Lunigiana

Cultura in Liguria

Featured header image: Fortezza Firmafede by

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