What is there to see in Ajaccio in Corsica? It’ll take you by surprise. Because the town is packed with history on every street corner and most of it linked to Napoleon Bonaparte. But there’s much more than museums and historical sites to see, however attractive and worthy of a visit these are. There’s also the unbridled beauty of the natural world. Greenery also breaks through into the town, between the streets, and is there all around it.
One one side the sea, on the other the mountains. And outside the town the landscapes are fantastic, changing colour every hour of the day and suffused with intense aromas as well as unique panoramas. Its worth keeping your eyes open on the footpaths here so that you don’t miss out on any of this magic including Ajaccio’s beaches, the wonderful approach to and framework for all this beauty. Discover what to see in the town of Napoleon, Emperor of France and King of Italy.
- Cours Napoléon to Casone
- Sanguinaires islands
- Ruins of the lazarette
- Genoese tower
- Parata point
- Place de Gaulle
- Cours Grandval and Place d'Austerlitz
- Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption
- Napoleon Bonaparte’s house of birth
- Fesch Palace and Museum
- Imperial Chapel
- Place Foch
- Quartier des Étrangers
- Ajaccio’s Petit train
- Ajaccio’s market
- Porticcio: Ajaccio seaside town
- Around Ajaccio: Cupulatta, turtle town
- Villages around Ajaccio
- Around Ajaccio: Tolla Lake
Cours Napoléon to Casone
Arriving by ferry and leaving the port in the centre of the gulf behind you, the first thing you come across is Ajaccio’s main street which runs along the gulf and inevitably brings you face to face with the legacy of the island’s historically most important figure. This street named after Napoleon (born here in 1769 and Emperor of France from 1804 to 1815) was an inevitable tribute to him and it is not the only one. Quite the contrary, it is precisely from the starting point of this street, named after Ajaccio’s most famous man, that gives us an insight into the extent to which the town has taken shape over the years as ‘Napoleon’s town’, including by overcoming some now residual local resistance linked to the movement promoting independence from France. It all goes back to the Emperor that was. And other members of his family, too.
There’s the house he was born in and right away a statue celebrating him built very near to the grotto which it is said he hid in as a very young boy to study, meditate and play away on his own. The grotto and statue are in Casone quarter, at the far end of Cours Napoléon, where a walk takes you to the various places worthy of a visit, like the Fesch Fne Arts Museum and Place Foch.
But the street also leads to other destinations which cannot be left out, starting right at the house of his birth and passing the Imperial Chapel where the members of the Bonaparte family are buried. There are a further three monuments in his honour. At the end of this first tour, to remain on the subject, you can also stop for a culinary break at Café Napoléon restaurant, a town institution.
Turning our gaze seawards in the direction of the Ajaccio gulf, the small Sanguinaires archipelago is visible. It’s because of the characteristic red granite colours of these little islands which the sunset turn even more intense and evocative, from orange to deep red: the brightness of the sun sets the colours on fire! Certain legends narrate that many shipwrecks in antiquity were triggered by the cliffs hidden on days of bad weather and that the name of the islands in this case echo the blood lost at sea.
The beauty of the scene makes it worth getting on one of the ferries and boats leaving and arriving from Ajaccio to this destination. And arriving by sea it is impossible not to notice the Genoese tower at Parata point, built in 1608. As an alternative to the ferry, you can also get here on a coast road which takes you to an ideal observation post without leaving the mainland.
Ruins of the lazarette
The ruins of a Genoese tower on Parata point are just one of the main traces of the rule of the Genoese Republic. It was built by Giacomo Lombardo in 1550 and is 12 metres high. It contains two vaulted rooms and the view of the Sanguinaires from here is extraordinary, especially at sunset.
The towers built on the coast around Ajaccio are across Corsica served to safeguard it from pirate attacks. These towers were almost always built on three floors: the first was a water, food and ammunition store room. The second acted as living quarters and the top floor for observation and as a guard room. The Capitello tower, for example, is famous for having taken in Napoleon and his family when they fled the Paoli revolt and before they set sail for France.
Place de Gaulle
Cours Grandval and Place d'Austerlitz
The old town’s other major road crosses a majestic residential district, just a stone’s throw from the town centre. A road which was once imperial, a route to a further two Napoleon statues. One was built in Place Foch and a little further on is a large one on Place d’Austerlitz. For some of the town’s residents this is one of its most exclusive areas although there is a little litter around and a few abandoned buildings. But the elegance of the buildings is undoubted. The street is named after Joseph Grandval, Letizia Bonaparte’s godson and the town’s benefactor, a sugar manufacturer.
This follows onto Place d’Austerlitz , once Place du Casone. A monumental staircase in the shape of a pyramid leads up to yet another bronze Napoleon statue, inaugurated in August 1938.
Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption
21st July 1771 is a date to remember. It is the date on which little Napoleon was baptised together with his sister Maria-Anna. The cathedral records contain an entry for the ceremony and the baptismal font is on the right after the entrance. A plaque with a capital N crowned with laurel leaves recalls the wishes of the former emperor in exile. If his burial in Paris had been blocked he would have liked to have been buried in Ajaccio in the cathedral, near his ancestors.
The chapel named after Nostra Signora del pianto contain wall paintings attributed to Domenico del Tintoretto and a painting of the Virgin of the Sacred Heart by Delacroix. The church is Baroque and was designed by Italian architect Giacomo della Porta and consecrated in 1593. Its façade is ochre coloured and the building in Counter Reformation style.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s house of birth
The ochre coloured building in which Napoleon was born (15th August 1769) is in Rue Saint Charles, in the heart of the town, very close to Place Letizia devoted to the emperor’s mother, Letizia Ramolino. The unusual feature of the Bonaparte family’s small house is the many windows on its main façade. There is memorabilia related to Napoleon inside the house and the room he was born in contains period furniture.
In 1967 Maison Bonaparte was made into a museum. The most recent renovation work dates to 2004 with enlargement of the building into a neighbouring house to contain rooms on the Second Empire. The alcove used by Napoleon during his rare trips to Ajaccio (which he left at a very young age, in contrast to nationalist leader Pasquale Paoli), his study and other decorated rooms are worth a visit.
Fesch Palace and Museum
There are three art collections in the Museum of France in Fesch (SP) palace: an Italian painting collection and a Napoleon and Corsican painting collection. But as regards the Italian painting exhibition, it is second in importance only to that of the Louvre in terms of quality and prestige. Names such as Botticelli, Michelangelo and Titian – amongst others - are a guarantee.
The collection is the result of the work of its founder, Cardinal Joseph Fesch, younger brother of Letizia Ramolino, Napoleon’s mother and thus the emperor’s uncle. The Cardinal followed his nephew to Italy in 1796 and acted as French ambassador to the Vatican. This is how he came into contact with Italian art. He bought fine art work from public auctions of the goods of rich Italian families after his newphew’s military campaigns. On his death Cardinal Fesch had collected 17,000 objects of art. An important selection of Italian paintings from the 14th to the 18th centuries with paintings by Bellini, Perugino and Veronese can now be visited.
In front of the town hall and dominated by a granite fountain made by Massimiliano Laboureur in 1804 and donated to the town by Cardinal Fesch. The latter paid its maintenance expenses until his death because it would seem that Napoleon was not much interested in it.
This Napoleon statue shows this illustrious local man as First Consul sporting a Roman toga and a helm symbolising safe passage even during storms and four lions protecting the base, designed by town architect Jerome Miglioli. Before these decorations were added, the square was called after a tree, the elm, Piazza di l'Olmu, and later Place des Palmiers.
Quartier des Étrangers
The quarter’s small Baroque houses do not pass unobserved and date to the period in which Ajaccio was a favourite with the island’s first British, Swiss and German holidaymakers like on the Côte d'Azur and Hotel Continental was specially built for them (now Corsican Assembly building). Other Belle Epoque buildings went up in this period for the same reason.
Cours Grandval passes through it with its origins linked specifically to homes and luxury hotels such as the Grand Hotel, with its elegant façade and marvellous garden and Chateau Conti former surgery and now closed. And Cyrnos Palace. Confirming the legacy of this tourism, there is also an Anglican church in the district.
Ajaccio’s Petit train
An easy solution, for over 25 years now, for tourists in a hurry wanting to see the town’s main attractions in a short time from the comfort of a chair. You can choose between a longer and a more rapid Petit Train route: the first remains on the central streets while the other ventures as far as the beaches.
You can also stop off and the longer route comprises a stop just outside the town with a visit to the Sanguinaires islands from Pointe de la Parata. Its a great chance to enjoy a splendid panorama and take some photos. The trip through the history packed old Genoese quarter is also fascinating. Obviously the Napoleon statue is a must. You can move rapidly from one characteristic street to another, attempting to avoid Ajaccio’s busy traffic.
A special place, off the tourist beaten track and worth a visit. In the ultra-central Place Foch area. Here there is an open air market full of chatter and colours where everything is on sale. The range is wide and encompasses the raw materials which make Corsican food so unusual. Brocciu (local goats cheese), and other fresh local produce like olives, charcuterie and chestnut flour.
And closer to the town hall there is another market, this time covered. It is the fish market. There are no stalls but only tanks with lobsters, for the most part, an authentic speciality.
Porticcio: Ajaccio seaside town
And here we are finally on the beach. And what a beach! Porticcio’s fame is ultra well deserved and you may well have already heard of it. It is in the centre of one of the beautiful gulfs Corsica is so full of, with the imperial town as a backdrop and alongside it, views of the Sanguinaires. Its position is an ideal one, half way between the sea and the mountains. Easy to get to at just half an hour from the airport, a shuttle bus from Ajaccio town centre takes you there in around twenty minutes. There is also a tourist office giving you all the information you need. The beach encompasses a large number of restaurants and small bars where you can eat almost in the sea.
Porticcio does not have just one beach but a whole series of beach facilities. The choice is wide and can satisfy a whole range of needs. Agosta beach hosts an ultra well equipped Radisson Blu Resort, for example, with a hotel spa for use in the event of bad weather. The Isolella, Ruppione, Capitello, Viva and the wonderful Mare e Sole beaches are also ultra beautiful.. Ultra fine sand and alternative routes. Just a short distance away is the town of Grosseto Prugna, thirty kilometres into the hinterland. Another place to visit: the area was once home to those who used Porticcio as a place on which to take their cattle to pasture. The Genoese fort of Capitello, Frasso tower and Saint Cesare church are also worth visiting.
Around Ajaccio: Cupulatta, turtle town
Near Ajaccio, in the Gravona valley, there is Cupulatta, a full blown turtle town, stretching across 2.5 hectares. At the entrance a gigantic turtle in bronze welcomes visitors. Inside a walk takes you along stone footpaths where you meet the various species and habitats. Those from the Seychelles to Hermann and the water turtles. There are all sorts.
There are over three thousand turtles from 170 species of chelonia in this centre whose purpose is safeguarding and encouraging reproduction. And the streets are named after the various types of this reptile!
The walk continues along the river which crosses the park, the Gravona River. Here, at a certain point, you can see the biggest turtles, directly from the Galapagos. These are enormous and move with at a pace so slow that it makes them seem even bigger. Closed up and hidden in the aquarium there are also alligator snapping turtles, an ultra ancient and truly amazing animal.
Villages around Ajaccio
Corsica’s south coast, around the gulf of Ajaccio, features the Porticcio, Isolella and Castagna peninsulas, three truly beautiful seaside places with ultra beautiful beaches. One of the most interesting excursions is that to the Genoese tower at Capo di Muro from the village of Aqua Doria. Getting there involves a walk through Mediterranean macquis with its intense fragrances and views of the great Cacao bay and the Capu di Muro lighthouse which separates the Ajaccio gulf from Valinco.
Just a short distance away from Ajaccio is Cascade du Voile de la Mariée, a dizzying 70 metre high waterfall in the upper part of Bocognano, a destination for trips on sunny days on small footpaths through the woods. On this subject, Ajaccio organises Pays d’Ajaccio fête le printemps, spring environmental site exploration walks.
A further option is Jardin del Abeilles (bee garden) and Maison des senteurs (house of fragrances) in Ocana, in the Prunelli valley where you can visit small scale honey producers the quality of whose produce is much appreciated. There are six villages in the Prunelli valley, true oases of pristine nature: Bastelicaccia, Bastelica, Cauro, Ecci-Suarella, Ocana and Tolla. On Crineto hill you can get on a little children’s train for a relaxing trip amongst the flowers. A further five villages worth visiting are in the Gravona valley: Boccognano, Carbuccia, Tavera, Ucciani and Vero.
Around Ajaccio: Tolla Lake
At an altitude of 552 metres, this lake formed when Prunelli River was blocked, with a dam built in 1958 by the French energy company making it one of the largest lakes in inland Corsica. When it gets hot in Ajaccio in summer, a trip to the lake is very refreshing. The journey lasts forty minutes and gives excellent views over Ajaccio in the midst of chestnut groves, flowering macquis and picturesque villages such as Ocana with its essential oils to the village of Tolla (population 120) with the lake named after it.
At the nautical base you can rent a pedal boat for a trip across the lake, a touch of peace and quiet. A first destination might be the Prunelli valley, in the midst of the rocky mountains dropping down to the sea. These mountain footpaths are worth a trip, too, on a via ferrata across the cliffs, across a Tibetan bridge above the gorge dropping vertiginously down into the sea.
Set sail for Ajaccio with Costa Cruises
All these wonders are within your reach. On an Ajaccio cruise you can visit the wonders of this town. And so off we go: let’s get on board together!