Whether it’s my sailing background or simply my penchant for a watery setting, I love marinas and small harbors for the steady clink of rigging and the low sound of waves slapping against a hull. Give me an environment filled with boats, preferably sailboats, preparing to leave their mooring and head out to sea, and I could hardly be happier. Oh, actually, I could be: Give me a good restaurant, a bar, or a café terrace looking out over a decent marina containing all of the above, and that is pretty much perfection for me. Wherever I travel, the waterfront calls me, and I am sure to find a marina.
There are so many marinas in the world, and, having sailed in various seas, I have moored in many. But there are some I return to over and over again, or which simply stick in my mind for their atmosphere, for their setting, or for their feeling of adventures yet to be had. Here I list, in no particular order, some of my personal favorites across Europe.
1. La Rochelle, France
La Rochelle, capital of the western Charente-Maritime department of France, is a picture-perfect old port-cum-marina. Dating to the 14th century, the marina is nestled behind two sturdy fortified towers, both built in 1384. Around the harbor, which is tidal, leaving the little fishing and sailboats moored toward the outer edges of the basin lying on mudflats at low tide, lie countless restaurants and cafés. There are markets and food stalls, and you can walk along it and past the towers toward the entrance to the Atlantic Ocean.
I first visited La Rochelle on summer vacation with my dad when I was about 10 years old and have been back regularly since. The old, medieval center of La Rochelle is lovely, but it is the harbor that calls me back time and time again.
Pro Tip: Having studied marine biology at university, I am forever drawn to a good aquarium, and La Rochelle’s Aquarium is truly amazing.
2. Saint-Martin-De-Re, France
Not far from La Rochelle, across a bridge, lies the Ile de Re, one of France’s most popular weekend and summer islands. Saint-Martin-de-Re is the most popular town on the island, and it has a simply gorgeous little marina right in the heart of the town. Saint-Martin is a fortified town, with some great shopping along the narrow lanes, a haven for those who love any maritime-inspired home décor and chic French seaside clothing. Seriously, I shop like crazy every time I visit, and have lovely scarves and sofa cushions from there.
The island itself is perfect for cycling, walking, and lolling around the beaches, and is also home to some gorgeous shaggy donkeys. But back to the marina: Alongside it, you can find some of the best seafood restaurants near and far, it simply doesn’t come any fresher than here, and the atmosphere, come rain or shine, and especially at sunset, is pure vacation vibe.
Pro Tip: Head down the road to La Flotte, another cutesy town with a lovely, tiny marina.
3. Marseille, France
One last French marina, even though there are so many more I’d like to include: Marseille. This city gets a bad rap in some circles on account of its historic troubles and relatively large North African population, but seriously, it is a great city, well worth visiting. And the marina in the center is so scenic, filled with sailboats and colorful little fishing boats, that it will be difficult to tear yourself away. Not unlike La Rochelle, the old harbor is watched over by two forts on either side of the entrance, which, incidentally, used to be closed every night with a thick chain. But that was centuries ago.
Today the Vieux Port is a haven for sailboats, tourist boats, and ferries, and as it is one of the largest marinas in France, you can even cross it by ferry, saving you the long walk around.
Known for its seafood, the restaurants around the basin serve up a mean bouillabaisse and great fresh fish, while there are also the fantastic Mucem museum, which merges modern architecture with the old historic forts, and the quarter of Panier, a lovely higgledy-piggledy neighborhood full of lovely buildings, cafés, and galleries.
Pro Tip: If you love street art, head to Cours Julien for some color. Here you also find a vibrant café culture and great restaurants such as La Cantinetta, with a great little courtyard.
4. Belem, Portugal
When in Lisbon, you will certainly head out to Belem for its gorgeous little Belem Tower, and the probably even more important Pastel de Nata, the yummy custard tart that was invented here. But walk down toward the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) and the Ponte de 25 Abril Bridge, which is the twin of the Gold Gate Bridge, and you’ll see the Doca de Belem marina right behind the monument.
Nothing special, I grant you, but for some reason, the location and the fact that this is where so many voyages of discovery started, coupled with plenty of sailboats with their rigging clinking, ready for adventure, makes me love this spot along the Tagus River.
Pro Tip: This is also the place where you can embark on your very own sailing adventure, with many tours heading off from here.
5. Bristol, England
Barely a marina, more a tiny little basin within the Bristol Harbour, just about large enough to fit five canal boats, this is still a lovely spot to sit and watch the boats and the life in and around the harbor. I used to live literally on this spot, with the local ducks waking me up in the morning, and views from my balcony simply not getting any better. The so-called Harbour Inlet lies on the opposite side of the SS Great Britain and is connected by a tiny little harbor ferry. Around it are a few restaurants, such as Spoke & Stringer, that make great coffee and sandwiches.
You can use this as the starting point of your 3-mile Harbourside Walk, which will take you once around in a loop past old shipyards, locks, views up to the Bristol Suspension Bridge, the hopping neighborhood of Wapping Wharf (positively crammed full of little eateries), past the great M Shed museum, and back around.
Pro Tip: Along the way, pop into the Arnolfini Arts Centre, which offers art, a great café, and a good museum shop.
6. Portofino, Italy
Though a drive down Cinque Terre or the Amalfi Coast proves every single little harbor is perfection personified, Portofino absolutely had to be on my list. Just like all the little harbor villages along Italy’s coast, it is simply gorgeous, cliché picture postcard pretty, and perfect. Nestled in a natural cove with the town clinging onto the steep cliff-like hills, all colorful and lovely, the tiny marina-cum-harbor is not big enough for large fancy yachts and is instead filled with little boats.
I love that here you have the juxtaposition of sea, village, and forest-topped hills, allowing you to “have it all.” The small cafés around the harbor just scream out for you to stay all day and soak up the atmosphere while watching the — mostly elderly — locals stop and chat with each other and go about their business.
Pro Tip: Head up the steep hill to the historic Hotel Splendido, one of the grand old hotels that has weathered time, and is just as gorgeous now as it was when Richard Burton proposed to Elizabeth Taylor here — although I am not sure if it was the first or second proposal!
7. Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark
I first arrived in Copenhagen’s loveliest little quayside, Nyhavn, on a sailing vacation with my parents a long time ago. We had sailed over from Germany and landed in this little city harbor marina, just around the corner from the iconic Copenhagen landmark, the Little Mermaid sitting on the shore in front of the Kastellet fortress.
For me, it was love at first sight: the colorful houses on either side, the mix of sailboats, traditional barges with old-fashioned leeboards on both sides, and fishing boats. And you could step straight into the city bustle. Part of Copenhagen’s many canals and harborside, 17th-century Nyhavn is probably the best-known, and certainly most photographed. And within walkable distance, you have Tivoli Gardens, the world’s second oldest amusement park, still as magical as when it was built in 1843 and a wonderful place to visit in summer.
Pro Tip: The fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen, father of the Little Mermaid, lived at three addresses up and down Nyhavn, writing his magical stories. Look out for numbers 18, 20, and 67, his former homes. And don’t miss number 9, the oldest residential address in Nyhavn, dating to 1681.