Isola d’Elba – Elba Island

isola d’elba patresi lighthouse at punta polveraia
isola d’elba patresi lighthouse at punta polveraia

An enchanting isle with a world of culture and history

Natural beauty, historical events, food & wine. When one examines any corner of Italy, it’s a mix of these elements which determines the location’s ability to attract tourists. Nevertheless, some places have a greater concentration of these attractions, offering travelers an endless series of temptations. This is the case of Elba island

Stretching out off the coast of Tuscany, throughout its long history it has always been seen as a place of extraordinary importance. Just think that when the city of Rome had yet to be founded, Elba Island was already the heart of numerous commercial trades among the people who inhabited the shores of the Mediterranean. Mining and ironworks were a particularly flourishing trade, as the island’s subsoil was rich in ferrous minerals.


This early industrial foundry was established by the Etruscans. As early as the 8th Century BC, they were producing handmade items that were exported to what they then considered to be the edges of the earth (that is, throughout the Mediterranean area). Just to give you an idea of how widespread the iron trade was on the island, Aristotle tells us that the Greek sailors traveling through that area of the sea nicknamed it ethalia (meaning “spark”) because of the sparks and flames that leapt out of the furnaces used to smelt the precious metal, furnaces that were lit day and night along the steep shores.

The Romans, instead, introduced winegrowing and Isola d’Elba – the iron capital – then became “the island of fine wine”, with a constant flow of ships loaded with amphorae sailing back and forth between the island and the mainland. After the Middle Ages and the dominion of the Republic of Pisa, Elba went under the control of the Medici family of Florence. Cosimo I ordered the fortified city of Portoferraio to be built following strict principles of military architecture yet with the aim of harmonizing the constructions with the natural surroundings, particularly the sea. The new citadel was renamed Cosmopoli to emphasize how the architects wished to create the cradle of civilization and a fine example of balance.

Naturally, moving on in our brief look back at the history of Elba, we must name the most famous person to have resided there: French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. In ten months’ time, Napoleon made a series of reforms on the island by ordering the construction of architectural works such as roads, reorganizing mining activities and increasing wine production. When he returned to France to meet his fate, Napoleon left behind two homes on the island, which are now museums.

However, its long history is only one of the many captivating aspects of Elba island. Alongside this are its natural beauties, its breathtaking seaside and its highly suggestive mountainous terrain. As is true on any island, looking beyond canonical itineraries, what can be clearly seen on Elba is the struggle and effort that have been made to find sustenance in the land and sea while resisting isolation and adversity.

As could easily be expected, when it comes to the local cuisine, seafood reigns supreme. This is a style of cooking made with a few, simple ingredients, such as stoccafisso alla riese, a traditional dish made with salted anchovies, onions, tomato, basil, parsley, green bell pepper, black olives, pine nuts and capers, and dressed in oil, hot pepper and salt. A triumph of Mediterranean cooking, one might say.

Elba’s positioning off the coast of Tuscany has naturally established a connection between the cultural traditions of that area of the mainland and the island. Cacciucco is a fish soup which finds a home on both shores, as do other great classics of marinara cooking, such as boiled octopus and stuffed sardines.

As for wine, today we’re far from the days of Napoleonic glory, and many of the former vineyards are now urban areas, as the island is at times rather crowded. Nevertheless, Elba has maintained its tradition of enological quality, as can be seen in its DOC wines Elba Bianco, Elba Rosso, Rosato, Ansonica, Moscato and Aleatico.


How to get there

Go by ferry — taking your car, as it a must to explore the entire island. The ships start from Piombino. Bring a rental car with you on the Ferry if you are coming via air, as the island is fairly large and mass transit (don’t think I saw any???) won’t get you to all the old hilltop towns or up the winding roads.

To see and to do…

Napoleon was banished to the island and both of his homes (summer & winter) are available to tour. You can hike, bicycle, swim or walk around the plaza at night with the locals. Incredible beauty – many, many small towns set on hilltops. Many castles. Flowers galore and the interior is full of old, little viewed churches.

Napoleon’s homes, bike, go to any one of 10 -12 beaches, drink some local wine, hike, visit as many old castles, churches as you can. Takes about 3 days to see the island and that still leaves many areas untouched. In the summer Elba becomes a day-tripper’s nightmare with people from the mainland. Visit in late May – June – even if it is slightly cooler at night.

Pictures courtesy of Agenzia per il Turismo dell’Arcipelago Tocano and © Silvia Fabbri

Where to stay in Elba Island

There are numerous high quality hotels, villas, apartments and agriturismi (Farm stays) available, check them out and make a reservation here.

Author: Davide Bernieri
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