Welcome to historic Corsica

If you’re thinking of exploring somewhere different in France in 2023, one of the most beautiful places is Corsica. Steeped in history and bursting with life, read on to check out what’s on offer.

Corsica is an island in the Mediterranean, situated 105 miles to the southeast of mainland France, and directly north of the Italian island of Sardinia.

Commonly known as the Island of beauty, Corsica is a popular destination for travellers from all over the world. With its fascinating history and spectacular scenery, there’s plenty for you to see and do.

In this article, we’ll give you an in-depth guide to Corsica and what it offers the traveller so you can plan your holiday to Corsica.

How to get to Corsica

By plane

Fly directly to Corsica from a few different UK airports: London Heathrow (with British Airways), Stansted (with Air Corsica) and from Gatwick (with EasyJet). Each operator only schedules a couple of flights a week, with more added during the peak summer months. Direct flights take 2 hours 20 minutes from London.

If you can’t find flights that suit from the UK, another option is to fly from Paris (CDG) where flights are more frequent.

Getting around in Corsica

By Road

The easiest way to get around Corsica is by car. This will also give you freedom to explore, particularly if you would prefer to stay in the more remote areas where public transport is infrequent.

While there are no motorways on the island, the roads are very good, but some of the mountain roads are very narrow and winding. The major car hire businesses operate in Corsica, so there is plenty of choice.

The Cap Corse Road in the north-east of the island is worth a trip – a fantastic coastal drive with spectacular views of the sea.

By Bus

Buses in Corsica are infrequent – there are only one or two a day between the major towns and they are even less frequent in rural areas. Speak to the local tourist Office for up-to-date details, but a good website to use is www.corsicabus.org/ – just be aware that the schedules are subject to change, so it is always worth double-checking when you’re there.

By Train

The most adventurous solution! The tiny ‘U Trinighellu’ (little train) is slow, but the views are spectacular along the coast and across the mountains between Ajaccio and Bastia, via Corte. It’s probably best viewed as a sight-seeing attraction, rather than an effective way to get around the island, but it certainly is an experience! You can look at the timetables here.

How big is Corsica?

Corsica is the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean, at 3,368 square miles. The stunning coastline, which is home to over 200 beaches, is 1000km long. The island has a population of around 350,000.

Corsica is very mountainous, with Monte Cinto as the highest peak at 2,706 m (8,878 ft) – it’s the most mountainous island in the Mediterranea, often described as ‘the mountain in the sea’.

Departments

Despite being divided into two administrative departments, Haute-Corse and Corse-du-Sud, their respective regional and departmental territorial collectivities became merged on 1st January 2018 to form the single territorial collectivity of Corsica.

Towns and Cities in Corsica

Ajaccio

As the capital, and largest settlement on the island, Ajaccio is home to around a fifth of all Corsicans. Most famously, it is the birthplace of Napoléon, and his presence is still all over the city. You can visit his house, Maison Bonaparte, which is a national museum, or you could head to Napoama – a museum that has reconstructed scenes from Napoléon’s life using Playmobil!

There is so much more to Ajaccio than just Napoleon though – take a walk along the picturesque seafront promenade and you’ll soon find yourself on some stunning beaches.

Bonifacio

At the southern tip of Corsica is Bonifacio – ‘the city of white cliffs’. Established in 833, you could spend days just exploring the citadel walls and ancient houses of the old town. Take a stroll along the cliff top walk and end up in the fascinating marine cemetery – full of incredible mausoleums.

Bonifacio is well worth a visit, no matter where you are staying in Corsica – the way the buildings appear to hang over the sea where the limestone and granite cliffs juts out has to be seen to be believed. For the best views of the town itself, head out to Pertusato lighthouse, where you can also see out over the Straits towards Sardinia.

Porto Vecchio

Bordering Bonifacio to the northeast is Porto Vecchio – another citadel, this time dating back to the 16th century. You can expect more stunning views here as some of the most idyllic beaches in Europe surround the town. The ten-minute drive up the coast to Cala Rossa is worth it for the remote sandy coves.

There is plenty to see in the town itself, though. The ancient streets of the old town are full of charming cafes, restaurants and bars, while below the town you’ll find the truly unique harbour.

Put your feet up in one of the many excellent cafes and watch the world go by.

Bastia

Bastia is the second largest city in Corsica with a population of around 50,000. The old town is a great place to wander around. The architecture is fascinating – shabby chic with tall buildings overlooking the marina. It’s charming as the sun is setting.

No trip to Bastia would be complete without a visit to the Eglise Saint Jean Baptiste – one of the most beautiful churches in Corsica. 

History, culture and everything you need to know before visiting Corsica

Corsica walker

A potted history of Corsica

Corsica’s history is colourful. The first inhabitants of Corsica date back to around 3000 BC – visit standing stones from the time, carved with faces, in Filitosa (more below).

The Ancient Greeks named Corsica “Seirenoussai”, meaning ‘of the Sirens’ – referencing the sirens from Homer’s Odyssey – when they colonised it in 540 BC. They gave way to the Roman Empire when it became a province in 238 BC, but it was one of the most backward regions in the Empire. They sent people there as punishment – many martyrs and saints ended up there.

Through the middle ages, it was constantly under the threat of invasion – the Vandals, the Byzantine empire, Pisa and Genoa all fought over Corsica at various points.

During the 16th century, France and Spain fought over supremacy in Italy, and Corsica became embroiled in that. The location of the island has meant it has always held strategic significance in the Mediterranean, and a target for invasion.

Genoese supremacy was eventually reestablished, and maintained for nearly 200 years, until, under the leadership of Pasquale Paoli, they fought for independence and proclaimed the Corsican Republic in 1755. They still weren’t able to remove the Genoans from the major coastal fortresses, though, until eventually Genoa sold the island to France in 1767. The French army crushed Corsican resistance, but nationalist feelings still ran high amongst Corsican people – and they remain to this day.

If Corsicans thought they would benefit under the rule of its most famous son, Napoléon, they would be wrong. He neglected Corsica and even lost it to Britain towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars, before they handed it back to the restored French monarchy.

Corsica remained neglected by the state during the early 19th century. It was a primitive island, and the rules of vendetta – which required people to defend their family’s honour to the death (literally) – dominated it. Murder was commonplace.

In the early 20th century, war badly affected Corsica. The percentage of workers that were killed or wounded in World War One was double that of mainland France. During the Second World War, Nazi and Italian forces occupied the island before Free French Forces liberated it in 1943.

Culture (museums, historic ruins, architecture)

Fought over, neglected, used, harvested, invaded, liberated, a place of exile, occupied, won and lost. Centuries of conflict have forged the deep-seated Corsican sense of independence.

Corsica’s complex history affects the culture today – there is a strong sense of nationalism on the island, whilst having close cultural connections to both France and Italy. 

They teach Corsican in schools, although French is the official language. You’ll see many nationalist slogans on public buildings all over the island. The Moor’s Head is the emblem of Corsica, and it dates back to the 13th century when the Pope handed the island over to the Aragonese. Originally, the bandana was covering the eyes of the person, but the great Corsican patriot, Pascal Paoli, moved it to the forehead to symbolise the liberation of the island.

What might surprise you, given the troubled history of the island, is how relaxed and laid-back everyone is. It is a place where friendliness and patience are important – be prepared to wait on roads while two drivers stop for a chat in the middle of the road!

The diverse geography of the island has a heavy influence on the cuisine. Mountains, fields and sea, combined with a Mediterranean climate, are the perfect backdrop for a rich and varied diet. It’s no wonder that food and drink play such an important role in the lives of Corsicans. Wild boar, oysters, ewe’s cheese and some spectacular wines (Nielluccio in particular) – there is so much to try. We’ll go into what food you can expect later in this article.

Corsican music is unique – haunting folk music, often performed a cappella, by groups of three or four. It is a very emotive experience, and one that is now strongly linked to the nationalist cause on the island. Muvrini is a famous Corsican folk music group that sings in their native language.

Weather

Corsica sunlit courtyard

Corsica has a beautiful Mediterranean climate. You will find temperatures in the early 20s in May, building up to average highs of 28°C at the peak in August. Even as late as October, you can expect the average highs to be above 20°C.

The temperature varies throughout the island – the further south you go, the warmer it gets – but if you travel in the summer, you are going to experience ideal weather for relaxing on a beach. Just remember some sun cream!

Best time to visit

The best time to visit Corsica is between May and September if you would like to experience the best weather. It can get a little too hot for some activities, so maybe avoid August and July if you are planning on hiking or bike trips.

If you want to avoid the school holidays, May and June are great months to travel.

Why you should visit

There is something for everyone in Corsica.

There are mountains to climb and a coast to explore for those that like adventure. If you like to lie on a beach all day, Corsica has some of the most stunning beaches in Europe for you to relax on. For those that want to experience some fascinating history, Corsica has been in the middle of major conflicts for hundreds of years. For those that want to eat and drink on a Mediterranean island that is passionate about food and wine, Corsica is the perfect destination.

The question here shouldn’t be why should you visit Corsica, it should be ‘who wouldn’t want to visit Corsica?’

5 must see sites in Corsica

Filitosa

This megalithic site is one of the most beautiful and important collections of prehistoric art in Europe. These statues of hard granite, carved into human representations, date back to around 3300 BC and are in an olive grove.

Filitosa is around 1hr 20 mins away from Ajaccio, but it is well worth the trip. There is a small museum at the site, so allow around an hour and a half to get the most out of this trip.

Plage de Palombaggia

Described as the Corsican paradise, the Plage de Palombaggia is one of the most stunning beaches in the world. Turquoise water, white sand, evergreen trees – it is the image of Plage de Palombaggia that will stay in y0our head long after you have left Corsica.

With plenty of bars and restaurants nearby, you’ll have no reason, or desire, to leave.

Tour de Nonza

This Genoese tower in Nonza, north Corsica, sits at an elevation of 155m – originally a coastal defence to prevent attacks from pirates around 1600. It had a prominent role in the fight for independence in the 18th century, where a single commander held off the French army. It’s a great story.

The tower offers unrivalled views in the North of the island, as well as a somewhat tacky souvenir shop. But it is worth the trip, trust me.

Scandola Nature Reserve

On Corsica’s west coast, Scandola Nature Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Formed by volcanic eruptions and sculpted by centuries of erosion, the fantastic red rocks loom over the crystal clear sea below.

Take a boat trip through the rock formations and stop off in the village of Girolta. Aim to be there for sunset for the best views and keep an eye out for dolphins.

The Fango Valley

The Fango Valley is 40 minutes south of Calvi, in the Balagne region – the garden of Corsica. The valley comprises forests and natural pools along a blue-green river, crossed by a stone bridge.

It’s a wonderful place for a day out – you can swim in the pools, walk in the forest and take in some exceptional views.

Corsica must do’s

Visit the Perched Villages of la Balagne

This collection of small villages in the hillsides, just to the east of Calvi, is a perfect setting for you to while away the hours, or days, in Corsica. There are dozens of villages to explore here, each with their own quirks, and each offering stunning views across the region.

You probably won’t have time to visit them all, so head for Corbara, Pigna and Aregno to begin with – they are all fairly close together.

Désert des Agriates

This area in the island’s northeast is a stunning area of natural beauty, including some deserted beaches. It’s great for mountain biking, but the major attraction is its beauty. White sandy beaches, away from the crowds that you’ll find elsewhere on the island. This is a place to unwind in peace.

Restonica Gorge

This glacier-moulded gorge is situated just outside Corte and is one of the scenic highlights of the island – high praise indeed when you consider the competition.

It’s wild and beautiful, offering panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, and is easily accessible on foot. Get there early and make a day of it.

Cap Corse

On the northernmost peninsular on the island, just driving around Cap Corse is an adventure with the winding roads, rocky inlets and wild beaches. It’s rugged, and large parts of the coast are virtually untouched.

Inland, vineyards and lemon trees surround you – be sure to try some of the local produce.

Trip to Lavezzi islands

The archipelago of Lavezzi is between Sardinia and Corsica. – there are 10 small islands to explore here, each with secluded beaches, natural pools and coves. It is a paradise.

You can access these islands via boat from Bonifacio – I highly recommend you do.

Eating out in Corsica

Local markets in Corsica

L’Ile Rousse Market – open every morning, stocked with seafood, local meats, cheeses, wines, and fruit and vegetables

Place César-Campinch, Ajaccio – Arguably the best and biggest market on the island. All kinds of Corsican delicacies are here, from local fruit and veg to myrtle liqueurs.

Where to eat?

Restaurant Emporium, 32 boulevard Napoleon Saint Cyprien, 20137 Lecci, Porto-Vecchio – Seen by many as the best restaurant in Corsica. French and Mediterranean cuisine in a fine-dining setting. Everything is delicious, even down to the coffee they serve.

La Bergerie d’Acciola, Acciola, 20100, Sartene – The setting is fantastic – on a terrace overlooking hills and the sea. The food isn’t bad either – again it is French and Mediterranean cuisine, but a more relaxed form. Their calamari is incredible.

Bikers Caffè, 25 Route de Bastia Trinité, 20137, Porto-Vecchio – More simple food here – burgers, pasta, steak – but it’s done exceptionally well. 

L’Eternisula, route de Quenza, 20124, Zonza – A tapas bar and restaurant, serving local wines and beers set in the heart of Zonzo. It’s a great place for a light lunch.

Where to stay in Corsica

https://www.vrbo.com/en-gb/p1655870a?adultsCount=2&arrival=2023-05-26&departure=2023-05-28&uni_id=1830094

– A beautiful cottage in a national park. With a hot tub, and stunning views.

https://www.vrbo.com/en-gb/p1707140a?adultsCount=2&arrival=2023-05-26&departure=2023-05-28&uni_id=1882502

 – Located in the countryside, just outside Porto Vecchio, this cosy house offers everything you’ll need. Even access to a shared swimming pool for the days when you just want to relax in the sun.

https://www.vrbo.com/en-gb/p669629a?adultsCount=2&arrival=2023-05-26&departure=2023-05-28&uni_id=669629

 – Just 10 minutes outside of Ajaccio, and all of its stunning beaches, this beautiful Villa has its own pool. It is so peaceful, with panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. 

Conclusion

The beauty of a place like Corsica is that there is so much to explore – new discoveries around every corner. I hope this article has given you the base for your own exploration into this incredible island.

Alex Whybrow
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