Portofino in Liguria, at a distance of approximately a 1-hour drive from Genoa, is about the most romantic destination in that part of Italy you can think of spending a long weekend in. You’ll be surprised by the dual personality of the small fishing village. On the one hand, it’s super chic and frequented by the rich and famous, and on the other hand, there are nature parks, hidden beaches, monuments, and any number of hiking trails overlooking the Tuguillo Gulf.
What draws rich and not so rich alike are the pastel-colored houses that line the sheltered harbor with its deep blue water and the alleys and piazzas that make the town such a joy to walk in. Fishing is no longer the main source of income, tourism is, but the traditional wooden boats are still there, and you can take trips in them. Abbeys and churches, medieval castles, terraced gardens, and the underwater statue of Christ of the Abyss are just a few of the many attractions you will want to explore. Plus the famous Portofino pizza and pasta and the local white wine Nostralino. I can’t get enough of alternating between utter luxury and losing myself in the solitude of lush nature.
Being so famous means that a weekend in Portofino will cost you. Pack your glad rags, swimwear, and hiking gear, and you are prepared for every occasion.
The nearest airport is in Genoa. You reach Portofino either by car, train, bus, or even ferry.
The best time to visit is in May and June before the national and international crowds descend and it gets really full. Portofino is, after all, a small place.
Things To Do In Portofino
Explore The Village
The symbol of Portofino is the old, tall, and narrow houses lined up along the narrow strip between sea and mountains along the port. As you depart from the central Piazzetta, you’ll notice that they are all painted in pastel colors. There is a local tradition that houses should not be painted white. Use your walk to do some shopping. Again, the dual personality of the town is evident. The most luxurious designer brands and their boutiques like Armani, Hermes or Vuitton, rub shoulders with quaint craft shops selling the local products like shoes, embroidery, or lace.
Stop at one of the many cafes to watch the world go by, enjoying an espresso or a glass of the local Nostralino white wine. Or the famous mixed ice cream called paciugo which was invented here.
Enjoy Portofino Marina
Often dubbed the most famous port in the world, Portofino Bay is an inlet of the Tigullio Gulf and home of the Portofino Marina. Watch the yachts anchored at the berths, all close to the Piazzetta because the village is so small. Have a look at the Marina Club and feel like a celebrity and enjoy the view over the water as well as the deep green woods and hills that rise steeply above the port.
Climb Up To Brown’s Castle
A pathway leads from the marina to Brown’s Castle on top of a promontory. Although uphill, it’s an easy walk because it’s dotted with plenty of benches for a rest and it takes you under pergolas and through rose gardens and lawns. The 15th-century castle has an interesting history. Originally built to defend against pirates and -- successfully -- the Venetians, it was purchased in 1867 by English consul Montague Yeats Brown. Hence the name. He transformed it into a magnificent private villa. In 1949, another English couple became the caretakers of the castle and carried out important restoration work and sold it back to the city of Portofino some 30 years later. Enjoy the views over town and sea, the carefully tended and partly terraced gardens, and the original furniture in the rooms. It’s often the romantic setting for weddings.
Admire San Martino Church
Located in the center of town you find Portofino’s oldest and biggest church: San Martino. It dates back to the 10th century and has undergone many changes in style over the centuries. From the outside it’s rather stern, striped in yellow and gray sandstone and dominated by a square bell tower topped with a tiled cupola under which sits the clock. The interior, however, will make you stare. Marble columns, connected with arches, gold ornaments, and colorful, valuable paintings decorate every inch. In an alcove stands the most famous one: Madonna del Rosario. Take your time to admire them all.
Meet A Lighthouse Keeper
Whether you walk up from the center of town or from the marina, it’s an easy climb up to the promontory where the Portofino lighthouse stands 12 feet high. It’s a fully operating lighthouse built in 1917. Today it’s fully automated but the keeper’s house is at the base and he still lives there. So grab the rare opportunity to talk with a real-life lighthouse keeper.
For Lovers Of Modern Art -- Open Air Museum
At the marina, you find a museum of a special kind: The Park Museum. It’s an open-air museum located in gardens full of natural vegetation and interspersed with modern art sculptures by renowned Italian artists. It combines great views, Mediterranean scrubs, and plants with impressive metal sculptures. Don’t miss it even if you aren’t a great fan of modern art.
Dive To See Christ Of The Abyss
Christ of the Abyss is another art experience. At a depth of 56 feet stands the 8-feet bronze statue of Christ with his face up and his arms spread. Created by Guido Galetti, it was placed there on April 17th, 1950, in memory of Italy’s first scuba diver, Dario Gonzetti, who died there in 1950. For this and other diving adventures in Portofino, you can hire boats and instructors here.
Non-divers can see a copy of the statue in the nearby San Fruttuosos Abbey.
Visit San Fruttuoso Abbey
In a small bay at the foot of a steep wooded hill sits the San Fruttuoso Abbey with its colorful history. Due to its secluded location, it can only be reached by boat or hiking trail through the Portofino National Park. Founded by the Order of Saint Benedict between the 10th and 11th century, it was a monastery, a defense building, a pirate’s den, and a Doria princess’s home. Behind the Abbey looms the Doria tower which guarded against pirates. The noble Genoese family of the Doria plays a great part in the history of the abbey, and several Doria graves can be seen inside.
This is also the point for your dive to the Christ of the Abyss. A narrow pebbly beach is in front of the abbey and, if you like, you can even spend a night there in a small guest house.
Relax At Paraggi Beach
Between Santa Margherita Ligure and Portofino, you find Paraggi Beach, the only sandy beach in the area. Famous for its crystal-clear blue waters, it’s also a snorkeler’s dream because of the sea bottom’s red coral. The beach is public and therefore free, but if you want some comfort, head for the beach club where you can rent sunbeds and umbrellas and enjoy showers, bars, and restaurants.
Hike The Portofino Nature Park
The Mount Portofino Natural Regional Park extends on both sides of the promontory of Portofino, thus combining views of the sea with woods, wildlife, a great variety of local plants, and some historical buildings like the Fruttuoso Abbey and old watchtowers.
There are several hiking paths at different levels and lengths. You don’t need great hiking skills, but good boots, and it’s not suitable for pushchairs and wheelchair users.
Best Restaurants In Portofino
Liguria is considered the birthplace of pesto, so naturally, you’ll find every kind of pasta with pesto sauce. Being a seaport, fish features heavily on the menu. The best local fish is called besugo and it’s prepared and baked in a thick crust of salt to keep it juicy. The in-between snack is the flatbread called focaccia, sprinkled with herbs, cheese, or salami.
The best places to eat are along the waterfront. The most popular of those is Da Puny, where every guest is treated as a VIP because many are. Specialty: besugo in a salt crust. Pricy though and a 3 euro service charge.
A somewhat cheaper but no less delicious option is Taverna del Marinaio in Sanat Margherita, only a few minutes from Portofino. Indoor and outdoor seating there and the pesto pasta is to die for.
If you want real home cooking, and, for a change, rabbit dishes among all the other things, head a bit further away to San Rocco and La Cucina di Nonna Nina
Best Hotels In Portofino
At the top end is the Hotel Belmont Splendido Mare, located in the Piazetta. Another Belmont Splendido hotel is located on a hillside. Another slightly smaller luxury hotel is the Eight Portofino. Somewhat less pricey is Hotel Nazionale, but as we said before, nothing in Portofino is cheap and these hotels are no exception.
If you plan a long weekend and your budget is an issue, you may be better off making day trips to Portofino from Genoa or nearer Rapallo where you can find more economic accommodation.