Last updated March 30, 2023
Set off the coast of Tuscany, Isola d’Elba (Elba Island) might not cross the radar of many visitors to Italy.
Long associated with Napoleonic history, Elba Island is well-known among Italians as a pristine beach retreat. Elba Island has emerged as a destination for adventure-seekers who desire to beat the crowds. Here tourists can immerse themselves in the outdoors and the deep blue sea.
Besides the island-appeal and Italian coastline, is Elba Island worth discovering? Yes, reader. Most definitely yes.
Here’s how to make the most of a visit to this rugged jewel of an Italian island. Next stop: Elba Island!
Another side of Italy
Many tourists’ agenda consists of visiting rolling hills of the Italian countryside, braving the crowds at the Vatican Museums and enjoying the culinary delights that Italy is famous for. Yet one of the best ways to finish your vacation is by getting your daily steps in on the hiking trails of Elba. 10,000 steps is a given on this island’s hiking trails.
It is important to know that Elba Island isn’t about five-star hotels and luxury. You can find that anywhere. Instead, Elba Island is all about a natural and authentic Italian-island experience.
Arrive by ferry from the mainland to the port of Portoferraio, Elba’s largest town, which was founded by the Medicis and features an imposing fortress.
Arrive by ferry from the mainland to the port of Portoferraio (Elba Island’s largest town) which was founded by the Medicis and features an imposing fortress. The fortress is truly a sight to behold. Not to mention the beautiful coastline!
Step off the ferry here and walk in the footsteps of Napoleon Bonaparte. A fun fact of history: Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to Elba island in 1814. You can visit his residence in Portoferraio, Villa dei Mulini. It is now a national museum and hotspot for tourists.
There’s plenty of history and culture to explore in Portoferraio. If you’re here for the scenery, there are prettier places to stay. Including but not limited to Marciano Marina, Marina di Campo, Cavo and Porto Azzurro.
Wherever you base, a network of hiking and biking trails await. Plus the dizzyingly blue, clear waters that are ideal for kayaking, swimming and snorkeling. You can do pretty much anything on Elba Island. From lazy sun-bathing to heart-pumping biking, Elba Island offers it all.
Putting nature trails on the map
Elba Island puts nature on the map- literally. It’s the first and (currently) the only place in the world where every hiking and biking trail is recorded on Google Maps. This makes it easy for intrepid visitors to navigate the island with only their smartphones. It’s stressful enough being in an unfamiliar place. Relax. The maps are updated!
Google Street View photographer Federico Debetto undertook a Herculean task when, in cooperation with Visit Elba, he set out to bring Elba Island’s hundreds of miles of trails and beaches into the digital age. It was no easy feat.
The project has mapped over 200 beaches and nearly 250 miles of trails using an Insta360 camera and drones. The hiking and biking trails themselves had to be mapped without the help of flying drones. It was done- thanks to Debetto’s willingness to trek across the island with the panoramic camera strapped to his back.
The result is Elba Smart Exploring. Elba Smart Exploring has made it easier than ever for guests to navigate the abundant island. Even without speaking Italian. The project puts adventure tourism on Elba Island within the reach of anyone with a smartphone.
Research hiking trails, bike routes and secret beaches on the Elba Smart Exploring website. Once you’ve chosen your trail, send coordinates from the site to your phone. Then sit back and let the trail guide accompany you on your trek. Just don’t be alarmed when that Google Maps voice says, “in one-third of a mile, take a slight left.”
Elba by land
You’ll find no shortage of challenging hiking trails, as Elba has plenty of elevation change.
If you’re feeling ambitious, one of the most rewarding is Monte Capanne. It’s the highest mountain of the island, with the summit offering panoramic views of the Tuscan Archipelago and the French island of Corsica.
You can also cheat a little and take the birdcage-like Cabinovia (cable car) of Monte Capanne, which lets you ride to the top and hike down—or vice-versa.
It’s easy to fill a few days with only hiking, with other island favorites including the multi-day Grande Traversata Elbana, or GTE, which takes you across all of Elba, from the northeast to the western coast and takes around 31-34 miles, depending on your route.
For a shorter day hike, try out the eight-mile Marciana Marina-Sant’Andrea trek, taking in amazing sea views as you pass stone cottages, wildflowers and cliffs.
Shorter, family-friendly hikes are available as well, including the eight-mile track from Biodola to Procchio and the Carmignani Walk in Porto Azzurro, an easy half-mile.
Elba by sea
After getting a good workout on land, it’s time to cool off in the transparent waters around the island.
With over 80 named beaches, bays and inlets, there’s more than enough beach for everyone. Some of the best beaches for swimming include Sansone, Fetovaia and Capo Sant’Andrea, all with unbelievably crystal-clear water.
You can also rent snorkels and fins, or join on a trip with the local dive center to see Elba from underwater—there are several popular scuba diving sites around the island offering gorgeous seabeds, interesting marine life and even shipwrecks.
Or, if you’re keen to try kayaking, there are plenty of places to either rent your own or join in on a guided tour. It’s an invigorating way to explore hard-to-reach beaches and see the island from another angle.
And if you get too warm, jump in for a swim!
Before setting off on any long hike, bike, swim or kayak around Elba, it helps to let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back, plus make sure you have plenty of water, sunscreen and a hat, as the Italian sun can be intense, especially when reflected off the water.
Elba is a true delight for adventure, no matter your level of fitness. It’s most popular with tourists in the peak summer months, but here’s a little secret: visit in September and even into early October, and you’ll find seawater warm enough for a swim, and you’ll have the hiking trails nearly to yourself.
Four or five days are enough to explore the island’s highlights, but you’ll probably leave with a return trip in mind.
Because on Elba, there’s always another hiking trail to explore and another hidden beach to discover.
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