Largest of the Italian islands save for Sardinia and Sicily, Elba is a rich tapestry made up of all the cultures and civilizations which have controlled it over thousands of years. Inhabited since the ancient days of man, the island was once in the hands of the Romans as well as that of the Etruscans and Saracens. However, Elba is most famous for a man who lived here for just nine short months in an enforced exile during the 19th century – Napoleon Bonaparte.
Each of the cultures which once controlled Elba has left their mark. From sprawling Roman villa ruins to a summer house fit for an emperor and medieval fortresses built to protect the island from pirates to mountain-perched castles – Elba is liberally sprinkled with ancient treasures. Additionally it is home to incredibly beautiful beaches, enchanting fishing villages where time seems to have stood still and a food scene sure to satisfy even the most discerning gourmet.
Serving as the island’s principal port and most sizeable town is the highly picturesque Portoferraio. The lush hills of the surrounding landscape rise up dramatically from the harbor here, cut into with stone staircase, centuries-old, which take you to the old town area full of medieval forts, old churches, a villa which once belonged to Napoleon and a plentiful supply of quaint and atmospheric bars, cafes and restaurants as well as a Friday market.
Portoferraio has enough things to see and do to keep you busy for some time but as the rest of this gorgeous island is so easily accessible it is worth scheduling at least something of that into your itinerary.
A Morning in Portoferraio
The vast majority of Portoferraio’s principal treasures are found within the fortified walls of its ancient old town. Exploring medieval forts, churches, museums and one of Napoleon’s villas is all on the morning’s menu of possibilities and all are within walk-able distance of each other.
Quite how you do things is up to you. The itinerary here collects the forts together and then continues with Napoleon’s Windmill Villa after coffee. However, you may choose to do things in a different order and slot in the coffee break whenever you happen to come across that perfect little place for a pause.
The Old Town
Totally enclosed behind fortified walls, the ancient streets of the old town of Portoferraio make it possible to step through a doorway and feel as if you are emerging into an era long gone. As is true of many Tuscan towns, history is not just on display here but an integral element of its pastel-colored living whole. Very little imagination is required to find yourself transported to medieval times amid its alleys and walkways full of stone staircases so old they have been worn in their centers by the thousands upon thousands of feet which have trod them. The historical treasures within include formidable feudal fortresses, sprawling Roman villas, picturesque churches and a home which once belonged to Napoleon.
The Medici Forts
The fact that you still have to pass through a gate – the marina-located salmon-pink Porta a Mare – to enter the old town immediately impresses something of its original impregnability on you. Once inside you can set about exploring the linked medieval forts which dominate the area and together form the nucleus of this ancient stronghold. Representing military architecture which was for its time cutting-edge and intended to defend the town from both landward and seaward attacks, construction of the forts in 1548 was completed on the orders of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Head of the Medici family – Florence’s most politically powerful and wealthy dynasty of the time – the Grand Duke’s Elba prize was granted by no less than Charles V who was both Holy Roman Emperor and king of not just the empire but also Spain and Germany (also known as Charles I of Spain).
Fort Stella was one of the two principal forts, so named because of its layout which takes the form of a star or ‘stella’ in Italian. The 16th century salmon-colored Fort Stella and its larger and higher elevated counterpart of the same time period, Fort Falcone, both perch atop the promontory’s two highest points. Separated by a distance of about 400m as the crow flies, not surprisingly the views from these vantage points are worth the climbs alone. From Fort Stella your 360 degree sweeping vistas include Napoleon’s Windmill Villa, the port, the historical old town and the sun-drenched waters of the Mediterranean. The picturesque lighthouse tower which you will see at Fort Stella dates from the 1700s.
While the building which perches atop the town’s highest point is often thought of as Fort Falcone the whole stronghold in fact encompasses various levels of the entire hill including some underground sections and defensive tunnels. As you ascend you are in effect entering a collection of keeps, each located inside the fortifications of the lower one. Each of these would have at one time been filled with the sounds of camping soldiers and horses transporting cartloads of supplies while outward facing cannons primed and ready ringed the ramparts with a plentiful supply of cannonballs dotted about in piles. Today the whole is highly atmospheric; among the nooks and crannies you may suddenly find yourself in a central flattened out area which nature is trying to reclaim with wild flowers and trees sprouting through the old foundations.
The third of Portoferraio’s Medici fortresses is the 16th century Linguella Tower. Also known as the Martello Tower, this distinctive hexagonal-shaped watchtower which sits at the promontory’s tip is un-missable when approaching the port from the sea. Restored after damage sustained during World War II, the Linguella Tower, besides its original military purpose for port defense, has also been used as a salt and fish storage as well as a prison in the 1700s. Today it is home to the town’s archeology museum.
Elba’s Other Forts
While the so called inter-connected Medici forts of the old town tend to get all the limelight they are far from being the island’s only forts. The pages of Elba’s story through the long centuries are also filled with episodes in which Romans, Etruscans, Saracens and, more recently, the English came and went.
The imposing English Fort was originally Medici-built in the 1700s but later seized by the English under the control of Lord Nelson and can be found with a 20 minute walk from Portoferraio. At the western end of the island can be found the ancient Fortezza Pisana which dates from the 12th century while the Etruscan hill fort known as Monte Castello is located near Proccio. Each of these is worth a visit if you have the time along with many other castles, defensive towers and forts dotted around the island.
Morning Coffee in Portoferraio
The old town of Portoferraio which takes up all of your morning’s adventures is a wonderful mix of ancient history along with a great collection of charming bars, cafes and restaurants. At any moment in your morning when you feel it is time for a refueling pause you are never going to be far from choices of where to rest your legs and grab a coffee.
The options here are ever changing but one long established treasure which has still somehow managed to remain a hidden gem is Bagni Napoleone. This is probably in no small part due to the fact that it really is hidden down a tunnel which on first sight appears to lead nowhere and is therefore often passed by without a second glance. However, if you do venture this way you will come out at a stunning little terrace which overlooks the sea. Open from morning until night, the lovely Bagni Napoleone is one of those places which wears several hats including bar and restaurant as well as a hideaway to sip your morning coffee.
The elegant wood and stone-featured Mordisco is another coffee break choice which, located on the harbor front, offers great views. Besides being a cafe with both inside and outside seating it is also a gelato shop and so offers the perfect opportunity to indulge with an ice-cream before continuing your old town meander.
The Villa dei Mulini – Napoleon’s Villa
Although he was only here on Elba for less than a year, the island has no other more famous resident throughout its long and chequered history than Napoleon Bonaparte. Despite such a brief sojourn the physical traces of his months here still remain in many forms and make up an essential part of any visit here. The most significant of these traces are his two villas – the Villa dei Mulini, or Windmill Villa and gardens in the old town and the Villa San Martino outside of town. Together they make up the National Museum of Napoleonic Residences.
A cliff top, located between Portoferraio’s two principle forts of Stella and Falcone, was where Napoleon decided to make the Windmill Villa his principal home, converting a farmhouse with fantastic views into his mini palace.
Forced into abdication and exile following military defeat, Napoleon arrived on Elba in May 1814 under guarded English escort. He immediately set about making changes in his new ‘kingdom’, some of which involved transforming residences into the palatial surroundings to which he was accustomed. Sometimes referred to as the Windmill Palace, this villa never was to achieve the grand opulence he had known in his most powerful years, not surprising given the reduced circumstances he had found himself in.
Today the villa is a museum open to visitors who can tour the rooms of period furniture, antiques and architectural ornamentation. Part of the museum’s collection includes a portion of the emperor’s valuable library which he later donated to the town. Thanks to a restriction which limits the number of people admitted at any one time wandering the famous figure’s former house is an exceptionally tranquil experience.
Visitors can also tour the gardens, little changed since Napoleon’s months on Elba long ago. Reaching right to the cliff edge, these gardens have beautiful sea views along with a statue which was commissioned by Napoleon, modeled on his sister Paolina who lived with him here for some of his exile.
Other Portoferraio Museums
The Windmill Villa is not the town’s only museum, nor is it in fact the only Napoleon-themed museum. As both of the following choices are small and along the old town route you will have followed you might want to include them in your morning itinerary.
The small Museum of Napoleonic Relics or the Misericordia Museum is connected to the Church of Mercy (Chiesa della Misericordia) in Portoferraio’s old town. The museum has just three rooms in which you can find various artifacts collected from Napoleon’s months on the island as well as objects generally related to the famous emperor.
Museo Civico Archeologico della Linguella
Archaeology fans may be interested to visit the Museo Civico Archeologico della Linguella located at the third of the town’s fortresses – the Linguella Tower. Elba is almost literally layer upon layer of history, woven from a variety of cultures including Roman, Etruscan and Pisan. This museum was opened in the 1960s to give a home to the many archaeological finds unearthed during a series of excavations. The collections include weapons, amphorae (stone wine carriers) dating from 2,000 years ago and tomb ornaments taken both from land-based digs and recovered from shipwrecks. The most ancient pieces date back to 8 BC.
Right next door to the museum are the open-air Linguella Roman villa ruins which you can also visit.
The Old Town’s Churches
While the Medici forts and Napoleon’s Windmill Villa tend to top the bill of must-see sights in the old town there are others. This small area has no less than three ancient churches – all of which are worth a visit and all of them easily included in your morning without making any detours.
The Romanesque Nativita Church, very close to Napoleon’s villa, is the island’s most important religious building. Pale pink and white from the outside, the church’s original sections date back to the 16th century. The treasures inside include its 18th century altar, a 16th century crucifix and paintings which are known to be at least 350 years old.
Piazza della Repubblica
Arguably the prettiest of the old town’s churches, the small Misericordia Church which has an easily missed entrance has a highly ornate interior with an especially lovely balcony gallery on the back wall and detailed ceiling decorations. Attached to the Museum of Napoleonic Relics, this 16th century building is home to a valuable 18th century organ, an altarpiece of the same period, antique wood carvings, various sculptures and a substantial collection of religious furnishing such as vases, vestments and crucifixes. The relics of this particular church are those of the island’s patron saint – San Cristino.
The third of the old town’s churches is Santissimo Sacramento whose simple exterior belies the adornments, artwork, grand columns, frescoes and richness that lies within. Like its two neighbors it also dates from the 16th century.
Piazza Augusto Duchoque
Lunch in Portoferraio
For a relatively small island Elba has an astonishingly large collection of restaurants with every town having their own version of local specialties. Being an island, seafood of the succulent and absolute freshest kind is plentiful on Elba and unsurprisingly features over and again at many dining establishments. Additionally, the island’s diversity of soil types gives rise to all kinds of fresh produce which can be incorporated into culinary creations in many ways.
Much of what you eat and drink will have been made or grown right on the island including the honey, olive oil and a variety of internationally recognized wines. Other ingredients have been gathered from the wild such as capers, catnip mint, juniper berries and mushrooms and many have distinct flavors influenced by the proximity to the sea. Of course as an Italian island pasta and pizza also feature regularly on the menus around Elba but some of the influences here may surprise you. For long centuries Elba has been woven from a diverse mix of Mediterranean cultures, all of which have left some mark on the culinary tradition front.
When it comes to ambiance and price range Elba’s choices also pretty much offer something for everyone – from the quaint and traditional establishments of the old town to waterfront fine dining at beaches and the port.
Many of the restaurants in the old town have no internet presence and appear in no tourist literature so the only way to discover them is by word of mouth or stumbling across them. The harbor area’s restaurants tend to be a little better known such as the cozy L’Angelo which sits right at the gate to the old town in the Piazza della Repubblica. Principally serving as a bar, L’Angelo with its outdoor seating is a great option for lighter lunches of sandwiches and antipasto type snacks.
Via Vittorio Veneto 7
For those who have worked up a larger appetite after pounding the ancient streets of the old town and want to sample some of the island’s fresh-as seafood head to Bitta 20. While you peruse the menu of pasta and seafood choices – principally dictated by the catch of the day – you can watch the yachts bobbing in the harbor. The long terrace here is a delight while the restaurant’s ambiance and food quality make it an elegant option.
For something a little more Portoferraio traditional and quaint try the Osteria Libertaria. From its outdoor patio you have views of harbor, sea and hills while its menu allows you to sample some of the island’s specialties such as its octopus dishes and cuttlefish risottos.
Calata Giacomo Matteotti 12
An Afternoon in Elba
While Portoferraio itself is an essential inclusion in your Elba day the rest of the island is also packed with incredible things to see and do and all of it is within easy reach. Once you decide it is time to leave your lunch table and continue with your day you have a choice of how to spend your afternoon hours, exploring some of Elba’s delights outside of the port.
Roman Villa delle Grotte
Some time around 480 BC Romans arrived on the island of Elba and during their years of control here mined the rich iron resources and oversaw a flourishing sea trade. The powerful figures of the mighty Roman Empire were known for building magnificently opulent villas wherever they went and this is exactly what they did here.
One of these is the Linguella Villa which you may already have visited this morning while exploring the Linguella Tower fortress and Archaeological Museum to which it is next door. Another, five kilometers from town, is the first century BC-constructed Villa delle Grotte, today a sprawling mass of ruins which with a little imagination will transport you back to the glory and wealth of imperial Rome. Its setting – a lovely Mediterranean backdrop with spectacular views across the bay to the old town of Portoferraio – makes the short journey from town worth the effort alone.
Properly excavated and cleared in the 1960s, it is now possible to see the entire layout of the villa with clearly marked areas. These include terraces, thermal baths, multi-level enclosed gardens with frescoed walls and a water tank. The remaining walls clearly show the diamond-patterned Roman-style brickwork known as opus reticulatum and there are some surviving mosaics too. At sea level can be found a granite jetty which was also part of the villa.
The Italo Bolano
If you are either a modern-art fan or nature lover the Italo Bolano in the San Martino valley is worth a visit and if you are both it is an essential inclusion. This open-air park was created in the 1960s by Portoferraio-born artist Italo Bolano who still spends his summer months on the island of his birth.
Here you will find 10,000 square meters of Mediterranean park amid which are installed many of Bolano’s ceramic creations and paintings.
The park which also has an open-air theater also functions as a cultural center with some art gallery spaces you can visit along with the workshop belonging to Italo Bolano himself.
As the Italo Bolano open-air art museum is located very close to Napoleon’s second villa it is easy to combine these two visits together.
Villa di San Martino
Intended as Napoleon’s summer house, the Villa di San Martino never actually played host to its famous owner but nevertheless remains as one of the island’s must-see sights along with his Portoferraio villa and the Medici fortresses.
The frontage of this villa has a grander appearance than the somewhat unadorned villa in town, featuring fluted columns around an ornate portico entrance. Inside the museum’s frescoed rooms is a collection of antiques, art works, etchings and furnishing which date from the Napoleonic era. Some of what you will see was originally part of a private collection amassed by an admirer of the famous emperor who bought the house in the mid 1800s – a Russian nobleman by the name of Anatolius Demidoff.
An interesting part of the museum which is popular with visitors is the collection of antique cartoons created during Napoleon’s years of power. As a large proportion of them are taken from English newspapers of the time their angle is rather less than flattering depicting, for example, Napoleon as a marooned Robinson Crusoe, barking commands at toy soldiers and with a rod and line reeling in sardines to transform into an army.
Known locally as Castello del Volterraio, this evocatively ruined castle sits majestically perched atop a mountain and is one of the un-missable landmark sights which greats all visitors who arrive at Portoferraio by sea. Once surrounded entirely by defensive walls, this 11th century Pisan fortress pre-dates the Medici ones by some 500 years, making it the oldest on the entire island.
As you can probably imagine the views from this elevated vantage point are especially magnificent, especially if you can time your visit with sunset.
Elba is liberally scattered with beaches of the stunning kind. Sweeping sandy bays, tiny tucked away coves and pebble strips backed by dramatic cliffs – the island’s coastal gems come in every form and variety. If you are happy to be self-sufficient and are looking for beaches without a single trace of human presence there are many possibilities on Elba. Transversely if your idea of idyllic beach hours includes places which offer beach chairs and shades, water activities and food and drink options there are choices for that too. In both cases the crystal clear turquoise waters tend to come as standard.
The south of the island is where the greatest number of sandy beaches are located but you really don’t have to venture far from Portoferraio to encounter some postcard-perfect beauties. These include the white sand and stone beach of Ghiaie with its idyllic swimming and snorkeling, the breath-takingly lovely Capo Bianco sheltered by its dramatic cliffs and Padulella which is separated from Ghiaie by more of the area’s landmark cliffs. These bleached white backdrops in combination with Padullela’s small pebbles of the same color form a stunning contrast with the turquoise waters which gently lap the shore making it highly photogenic. As one of the most popular choices around, this beach offers a full range of facilities which include restaurants, bars, sun-loungers and pedalo rental.
Pre-dinner Drinks and Dinner in Portoferraio
Pre-dinner drinks in Elba tend to be memorable. Position yourself in the right spot and you’ll be able to take in the rose, lilacs and golds of sunset reflected in the sea at the same time as enjoying your sundowner. Once your body starts to tell you it is time to eat your choices here are also something quite special.
Pulling from a rich resource of locally grown and sourced fresh produce including olives, honey and plentiful seafood, chefs on Elba also incorporate a wide variety of wild-grown ingredients such as chestnuts, mushrooms, berries and herbs. Such a combination tends to make dining experiences here unforgettable and a highlight of any visit.
There are a huge variety of bars and restaurants on Elba ranging from simple, tiny and traditional places to highly sophisticated fine-dining venues.
Arguably the most popular choice for pre-dinner drinking spots revolves around the harbor and little wonder. The views here of sparkling blue and bobbing boats make sundowners especially scenic while the plentiful supply of bars and restaurants here mean the town’s buzz is at its most vibrant.
If sunset for you means cocktails head to Sail Port which has something of a reputation for serving up some of the best mixes in town along with an otherwise broad choice of wine, beers and spirits and pre-dinner tapas-type snacks. Charmingly rustic inside with its exposed stone walls, Sail Port also offers a small outside patio too.
If you choose to stay close to the port then Portoferraio offers the widest choice of places to eat and drink and has something for every taste and budget. However, it is far from being your only option.
You may decide to stop for sundowners followed by dinner in the perfect spot you discovered while exploring further afield among charming inland or fishing villages in your afternoon. Or perhaps a beach spot with a restaurant right on the sand fits closer to your idea of the idyllic.
There are even options for having the best of both worlds such as the exceptionally magical Le Viste Ristorante. Described by many as the entire island’s most romantic restaurant, this hidden candlelit stunner can be found after a ten minute walk down a path from Portoferraio’s old town. Set right on the beach of this enchanting hidden cove, Le Viste’s open-sided deck is a vision of shabby-chic sophistication with bleached wood furniture, spotless table linen and twinkling lanterns.
Its cuisine is simple but extremely high quality traditional Elba fare and its menu ever-changing to incorporate the freshest seasonal ingredients. Even if you aren’t ready to dine head here for drinks to time your visit with the sunset for some views and photographs of the exceptional kind.
If you have a special occasion to celebrate or otherwise feel like pushing the boat out in an exceptional location head to La Biodala beach, a few minutes’ taxi ride from the center of Portoferraio. This stunning natural amphitheater of tree-covered hills which don’t stop until they meet golden sands is considered one of Elba’s most enchanting spots. Here you will find B.Bistrot restaurant inside the elegant Baia Bianca Suites hotel. The exceptionally lovely candlelit terrace here offers the kind of views which turn dining in a gourmet restaurant from special to sublime.
As is true in Italy generally wine accompaniments with the meal are high quality and diverse and Elba has its very own offerings. The most famous of these is the red Aleatico with a history so ancient it dates back to the period when Romans controlled the island. You will find this option just about everywhere you eat on Elba.
Also part of the typical dining experience here is the after-dinner digestif which comes in the form of a liqueur with a variety of flavorings from the island which include blueberry, myrtle and lemon.
An Evening in Portoferraio
Italy, along with many of the other Mediterranean nations, has a tradition of dining late which means for most an evening is comprised of gathering together for some pre-dinner drinks or aperitivos followed by the main event itself which tends to be a relaxed and drawn-out affair. Families, couples and friends will linger over after-dinner drinks too which tends to round up the evening. Many who visit here end up spending their after-dark hours doing exactly the same as the locals, making the most of their lovely surroundings, atmosphere and views.
If you haven’t had time to fit one of Elba’s lovely beaches in your itinerary your after-dinner hours are a good time to rectify that. There are many options within a very short taxi ride from the port and many have a range of bars and atmospheric open-air terraces to make the most of the Mediterranean night.
Music, Concerts, and Festivals
Those in search of live music have plenty of choice on Elba with both home-grown acts from the island itself and visiting international musicians. Portoferraio’s bars are often alive with the sounds of music of all genre types and the best thing to do is just follow your ears until you find something which suits your taste. One choice here is La Gran Guardia on the harbor but check before you plan your night around it as sometimes the music here is DJ rather than musician-led. Campo, Porto Azzurro and Capoliveri – all in different parts of the island – are also well known for their live music scene and, as Elba is such a relatively small island, are all easily accessible by car or taxi.
Besides the regular relaxed music nights of the bars and pubs, in the summer months many towns and villages stage special events in their main squares which may be one international act on tour or an evening made up of many different musicians, bands, singers and performers or an orchestral concert.
Italy is also a country well known for its festivals and again, during the summer months, these seem to be something of a weekly occurrence. During such events you may find anything from street performers to parades and theater to historical reenactments. To see what is on while you are in port head to https://www.elbaworld.com/en/info/p-438-events.html for an upcoming calendar of events.
If you’re ready to experience the beauty of Portoferraio in person, contact one of our vacation planners today!