Friuli-Venezia Giulia. After Puglia, Lazio, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna and Le Marche, I can add yet another Italian region to my list of visits. There are 20 regions in total, so I have a little bit to go, but we have to start small, right?
Actually, small is what you’ve been asking for. In our recent reader survey, quite a few of you have requested that we write more about Europe -the less familiar places in specific. And we agree! There are so many travel blogs out there covering all the highlights in the bigger, popular tourist cities, butit comes to those small towns, it can be hard sometimes to find any information written by an independent traveller.
At The Travel Tester, we love to not only share those lesser-known places with you, but we like to do it in as much detail as we can (see our Tokyo travel guide extravaganza that we’ve been publishing all throughout September). For Italy specifically, we already wrote about Senigallia, Corinaldo, Cesenatico, Cesena, Bologna and the Puglia region.
Today, we’re adding two more small towns on the Italian coast to the list for you: Grado and Aguilera. Join us as we show you a piece of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region:
I land in the region’s capital Trieste after 2 hours of being cramped-up from London and quickly unfold into a GoOpti airport transfer van that takes me to the start of the road that goes straight through the Lagune where Grado lies in.
The Friuli region in Italy borders Austria in the mountainous North and Slovenia to the East. To the South, it faces the Adriatic Sea and to the West its internal border is with the Veneto region (where Venice actually lies in, so not in Friuli!).
History of the modern times of this region dates back to the Roman times and traces of that can still be found all over the place, which I’ll show you all later in more detail. Friuli became Venetian territory in 1420, but after a peace treaty in 1797, Venetian domination came to an end and Friuli was ceded to Austria. The 18th and 19th centuries saw an extraordinary economic flourishing, making Trieste the empire’s main port, but the outcome of the Second Italian War of Independence brought Friuli alone into the Kingdom of Italy.
Now I have the chance to visit the towns of Grado and Aguilera and show you the highlights of the region: a bit of history, a bit of nature… and a whole lot of good food, that is.
All Ryan Air Flights are worth it when you know that at the end of all your hardship lies a visit to Italy.
The Charm of Grado
When I first walk around the streets of Grado, I’m surprised at how much German I hear around me. Christina from the Grado tourism board explains that because of the close proximity to Austria and Germany, this is the main group of tourists you will find in the area. Most people in Grado speak German (even better than English) and often menu’s come directly to you in Italian & German (there are also English menus, no worries).
With the strong link to Austria in the past, you can find many Austrians that still have a home in the area these days. In the old center, this is considered prime real estate. Some of the yachts in the harbour tell me you don’t just ‘decide’ to buy property here one day. But Grado isn’t as posh as it used to be, I soon find out.
This area used to be very appealing to glamorous types looking for the best wellness and shopping experience about twenty years ago, but according to Christina, the tourism industry in Grado wasn’t too forward thinking and assumed people would just keep on coming when they only worked during the Summer. The other seasons were simply ‘forgotten’ – even though Grado is perfect to visit all year round.
Most of the luxurious brands started disappearing together with their clientèle. This is also the reason that you don’t really see any Asian or American travellers in this area, as they rather opt for the convenience of the much-loved Venice instead. But if you don’t like the crowds, the cruise ships or the carnaval… Grado is probably what you’ve been looking for.
Perhaps surprisingly, Grado really does have the same look and feel as Venice (minus the canals then). In fact, the cities are very similar in types of houses, narrow streets and the fact that the towns regularly floods with water. It’s just more affordable and definitely just after high season (around September) a lot –lot– more peaceful.
Nowadays, Grado is very appealing to families and cycle-enthusiasts, especially from Germany, Austria and (how can it not be) The Netherlands. Being a cycle-loving Dutchie myself, of course I also happily hopped on a bike to explore.
Meet Grado: The Sunny Isle
Being an island with only about 8500 inhabitants, you can already imaging that Grado isn’t a particular large place to cover. When you narrow it down to just the historic city center, you can even walk around it in under 15 minutes, if you want to.
But that is not what Grado is about. You come here to relax, breathe in the healthy fresh air and enjoy life as much as you can, before it’s back to the office.
There is much more to do in Grado than just a quick walk around and the town is surrounded by many other interesting villages you’d probably want to include in your (road)trip of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region.
Many places in Grado have these vintage photo signs, so you can see what it looked like many years ago ❤
Things to See in Grado
While I was only in Grado for 4 days and definitely didn’t see everything, here are my top suggestions for sights, activities, restaurants, (day) trips and other interesting places to explore while you are here:
A Visit to the Beach
With an island facing its full length to the Adriatic Sea, going to the beach is probably the first activity you want to do when in Grado.
You’ve got several options: a free beach on the west-tip of the island called “Jolly Costa Azzurra” or the paid beaches “Stabilimento Tivoli”, “Stabilimento Piper” and “Stabilimento Key West” (you always pay for the rental of chairs and water entertainment like kayaks, etc.), the dog-friendly “Spiaggia Airone” Beach or the 3KM long main beach “Spiaggia Principale” (spiaggia is ‘beach’ in Italian) experience at Grado G.I.T. Here you pay an entrance fee and on top of that for all the facilitates that they offer.
I am not such a beach person myself and only managed to stay put in one place for about an hour-and-a-half, but during my tour of the beach by owner Leonardo Tognon, I learned that this beach has been getting the “Blue Flag” each year since 1989, showing the guarantee of the purity of the water and high quality services. There isn’t really anything they don’t have here, from children’s playgrounds to thermal baths.
If the Hapsburg aristocracy have been coming to Grado since the early 19th century for entertainment and health benefits, there must be something good about it, surely!
But, if you’re like me and just don’t want to lie down all day, but be a bit more active, there are plenty of activities you can engage in around the beach: beach volley, basketball, windsurfing, sailing, water-skiing and canoeing, just to name a few things. And if you’re a golfer, then you’ll be very happy in this region as well!
Entrance to the paid beach
The view from the indoor swimming pool out onto the ocean is amazing. In winter there is nothing on the beach, so perfect view!
Leonardo showing me around all the facilities
Walking along the promenade, you get to the free beach
Admire the Houses in Old Town
With a town center so charming as that of Grado, it’s hard not to be impressed, no matter how many times you navigate the winding little alleyways. Whether you’re visiting during the day or at night, there is always a great atmosphere.
Just have a look at some of the photos I snapped while I was here to get an impression:
The oldest house in Grado, now used as a cultural center
Remains of an Basilica from the 4-6th century at Piazza Biagio Marin – How amazing are those mosaics?!
The Basilica of Sant’Eufemia
So many amazing details in the basilica!
Don’t miss peaking in this hole in the ground. Shine a light and find a hidden mosaic
Behind the basilica, you can find the Lapidarium, where there are many sculpture fragments on display
Also next door: The Basilica of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Early Christian architecture!
After each corner, there is something beautiful hiding
Walk along the water of the old marina, still in use today!
Travel Back to Roman Times in Neighboring Aquileia
Aquileia was founded as a colony of the Roman Empire and it features wonderful art treasures. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Italy’s main archaeological sites.
Please refer to our Aquileia Town Guide for more information!
Go Birdwatching at National Park “Riserva Naturale di Vale Cavanata”
A great (half) day trip from Grado is to visit the nature in and around the national park. It’s a birdwatcher’s paradise!
Hire a bike and pick one of many cycle trails to check out the lagoon and nature reserve, which is a major stopover zone for migrating birds… even flamingo’s hang out here since 3 years now!
Stunning views on the Lagoon
There is a small visitor center in the park, where you can learn all about the local nature & wildlife
You can borrow binoculars at the center, for some bird spotting!
Along the way, there are also some huts where you can use the telescopes
Places to Eat in Grado
According to Christina, there are only good restaurants in Grado, so when it comes to picking where to eat, it seems you can’t really go wrong. But let me tell you where I had my meals during the days I was here, and why I recommend these local restaurants:
This ‘0 km’ restaurant serves exactly what you think it would: food that travelled 0 km (at least not with a truck or anything) to end up on your plate. All fish is coming straight from the boats that lie in front of the restaurant in the little harbour.
Gelateria Artigianale Elena
While you can’t really go wrong with gelato in Grado, Christina was very clear on which gelateria she wanted to take me. Unfortunately, her first choice was closed, but the second time we were in luck an walked away with an ice-cream cone that can only taste this good in Italy.
Hidden behind Grado’s Basilica, you wouldn’t expect an outstanding restaurant, but perhaps that is the whole point: keep the (quite possibly) best food in town a bit secret :D
This family-run seafood restaurant is located in Piazza Duca D’ Aosta, in the historic center of Grado. With a great outdoor terrace, this is the perfect place to sit down for lunch, just like I did! They serve all the classic dishes of the region, with their own stylish twist added.
Our review of this restaurant soon in a separate post!
Shopping at the Fresh Market
Looking for a unique Italian souvenirs, or simply want some good fruit, cheese or meat to snack on during your breaks in the hotel, your apartment or camp site? Then make sure you visit the market hall on the Piazza Dunca D’Aosta, where you can buy fresh produce from cheese and sausage to local pasta, polenta and olive oils.
I hope you enjoyed learning about Grado and that this guide was helpful for you. Any questions, let me know!
Places to Stay in Grado
During my time in Grado, I stayed at the Hungaria Aparthotel. This is a brand new concept of exclusive apartments in the heart of the action, just a couple of hundred meters from the beach and the historic alleyways of the old town center.
The building was designed by architects studioMas of Padova and on 6 stories, you can find 30 apartments to either buy or rent. My ‘home’ for these three nights included a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and spacious living room with a television, couch and huge balcony attached. There was plenty of space to store clothing and in the bathroom you could even find a washing machine!
I was welcomed with a basket of toast & jams, a bottle of wine and water in the fridge. Not sure if that is standard, but it was definitely a nice surprise! And to top things off, I could spot a small supermarket literally at the base of the building, so breakfast was sorted right away. I felt at home as soon as I walked in!
Great view from the balcony!
Tourist Information Website: www.grado.info
All Grado Beaches: www.grado-tourism.com
Prizes Main Beach: www.gradoit.it
Grado Beach and Sea Spa: www.gradoit.it
Restaurant Tavernetta All’Androna: www.androna.it
Restaurant Zero Miglia: www.zeromiglia.it
Restaurant Trattoria l’Osteria: www.trattorialosteriagrado.com
Hungaria Aparthotel: www.hungariagrado.it
Flights to Grado
I flew from London Stansted to Trieste airport, from where I got a transfer to Grado (organised by the tourism board). Trieste is about 18 km from Grado. You can also land at Venezia airport (about 130 km). Trieste is a very small airport though, so not many flights will go there.
If you arrive by car, you follow the A4 Venezia – Trieste / A23 Tarvisio – Urdine and take the exit (uscita) Palmanova. From Venice, it’s about 1h 30 minutes. From Triëst, it’s about 50 minutes.
Public Transport from Venice
Take a regional train from Venezia Santa Lucia line to Cervignano-Aquileia-Grado (1h 30 min) and switch to a E26/E59 bus from Cervignano del Friuli – Stazione Ferroviaria to Grado – Piazza Carpaccio Autostazione (28 minutes)
Public Transport from Triëst (Trieste)
Take a Eurostar Italia Intercity from Trieste Centrale to Cervignano del Friuli (35 minutes) and switch to a E26/E59 bus from Cervignano del Friuli – Stazione Ferroviaria to Grado – Piazza Carpaccio Autostazione (28 minutes)
PS. I just found this website that seemed very helpful: www.rome2rio.com, haven’t tried using it to plan a trip myself, but seemed very clear and on-point, so might be helpful to you!
Read more about Grado & Surroundings from these awesome travel bloggers:
Food And Fun Things To Do In Charming Little Grado, Friuli [Wonderful Wanderings]
Grado, een schatkist vol verrassingen [Ciao Tutti] – in Dutch
De lekkerste adresjes van Grado [Ciao Tutti] – in Dutch
Leuk om te doen in Grado [Ciao Tutti] – in Dutch
Logeren in de lagune van Grado [Ciao Tutti] – in Dutch
14 Reasons to Go to Friuli Venezia Giulia Right Now [Luxe Adventure Traveller]
Grado: Eine Reise In Die Vergangenheit [Blog Boheme] – in German
The Archaeological Area Of Aquileia [Life in Italy]
Aquileia Travel Guide And Tourism [Italy This Way]