One of the Italian Riviera’s jewels, pint-sized Portofino has that quintessential Mediterranean beauty and enchantment which exactly matches many people’s imaginings of the postcard idyllic. Its main (indeed only) square backs the port – a perfect image of bobbing boats and pastel-colored buildings where people linger over coffee or wine at a range of sun-drenched alfresco terraces. From here the town climbs the tree-cloaked hillside and hidden pathways wander off to sculpture gardens, churches, medieval castles and a lighthouse.
Compact it may be but Portofino nevertheless has a long history of having played host to some of the world’s richest and most famous folk. From the opulent heyday of the 50s and 60s, these stars would turn up periodically in their super yachts and hide away in private villas – an element which still survives today with international celebrities still drawn by Portofino’s charms.
Quite how you enjoy this beautiful place is up to you with a menu of possibilities which includes history discovery to fine dining and national park walking to boat trips. One theme which will feature throughout your whole experience however, no matter how you decide to fill your time here, is breathtakingly beautiful views thanks to Portofino’s sea-surrounded promontory location. Never far away are the sunshine-saturated blues of the Mediterranean, dramatic coastal panoramas and greenery-cloaked hills.
A Morning in Portofino
Your Portofino morning begins with a visit to a beautiful church which hides its charms well from the outside. Afterward you can wander around the meandering pathways of a sculpture garden which the vast majority of Portofino visitors overlook. After a pause for coffee you can then head uphill to another of the churches followed by a cliff-perched castle surrounded by sensational gardens before bringing your morning to a close at the lighthouse.
The Port and San Martino Church
While Portofino is not typically known as a cheap destination there are nevertheless things which you can do for absolutely nothing. The best of these is to enjoy the scenery which is of the spectacular kind.
Your morning explorations start at the picturesque harbor and its Piazza Martiri dell’Olivetta. The charming port itself takes up three sides of a rough square and is a photographer’s delight. With heavily-wooded green hills rising up directly from the town, the quayside is lined with tall mismatched houses painted in brick-reds, terracotta, sand yellow and lemon. The scene here is decidedly old-Italian idyllic and the overall feel that of timeless fishing village where small cheerfully painted craft still bob in the harbor waters.
An easy and short walk just around from the harbor will bring you to the church of San Martino which sits on a hill as if standing sentinel over the town. Dating back to the 11th century, this gorgeous church appears striped, due to its layered brick work, reminiscent of the designs in Florence.
Although pretty, San Martino is not especially impressive from the outside although it does have a lovely bell-tower which rings out the hour, an almost constant inclusion for even the tiniest of churches throughout Italy. One lovely feature is the large black and white pavement mosaic you will encounter just before climbing the church’s steps which uses stones gathered from the area’s coast.
San Martino’s relatively modest exterior really gives no indication of the opulence and decorative architecture you will find on entering the church; another somewhat recurring theme in many other small churches in the country. The whole interior is a stylish palette of white and gold with ornate pillars and a grand altar. There are many wall paintings while the entire ceiling is covered in some stunning frescoes and hung with chandeliers whose crystals bounce light around the church.
As the patron saint of the town, St. George references can be found everywhere you go and nowhere is that truer than here even though the town does have another church actually dedicated to St. George. The interior of the church has several St. George statues while the artwork of the magnificent modern bronze doors depict how St. George’s saved the Portofino folk from a pirate raid by unleashing a storm.
The church has known various modifications and restorations over the centuries including those which took place after it suffered bomb damage during World War II. Its most significant treasures include an 18th century wooden sculpture and its 17th century organ. Along with many Roman Catholic churches, the storing of sacred relics – typically bones or other body parts – is an essential feature. Here, it is said, are kept some ashes of John the Baptist, brought back to the town in the 11th century from the religious crusades.
Even if you are not interested in visiting inside this church its elevated perch offers some truly lovely views of both the town and the sea.
Museum of the Park Sculpture Garden
Although nothing in pint-sized Portofino is hard to find the Museum of the Park is especially obvious. Outside its gates is hung an oversize rhinoceros, a somewhat incongruous symbol amid the general Portofino theme. Apparently this sculpture commemorates the first successful sea delivery of a rhinoceros to the area’s zoo in Genoa some kilometers away.
Founded in the 1980s, these gardens are sited on what was once part of the town’s castle complex which sits above it along with the church of St. George. Originally created on the orders of Baron Mumm, the small park is a wonderful mix of botanical garden and open-air sculpture gallery. In the early 1900s the baron bought the castle as a private residence and, as a keen botanist, collected many specimens on his world wanderings which he brought back and incorporated into the garden. The most notable of these are some ferns and Japanese pittosporum (an exotic flowering plant species) while the gardens are also remarkable for their oleanders and varieties of showy camellias which have exceptionally large blooms. The sculptures which now adorn the park came later.
The 120 sculptures here – which include art pieces cast from bronze and steel or created from marble and glass – transform the park from simple gardens into a cultural space. Together they make up the country’s largest collection of its kind, featuring some of the greatest sculptors of the age such as Alberto Buri, Conagra and Arman with many of the pieces designed specifically to harmonize with their exact site. There is no doubt that the setting with its Mediterranean blue backdrop considerably enhances the overall visual effects.
While many of the artworks are a little closer to what you might expect there is a portion of them which would fall into the whimsical and quirky category too. Perhaps most notable of this latter are the collection of lurid pink meerkats which sit atop their series of plinths. Every year the collection of sculptures is added to which means the park is a constantly evolving space.
You can wander this multi-level three-hectare space freely and often in almost complete solitude as the majority of Portofino visitors bypass this lovely place for other attractions. If you are especially interested in the stories behind the individual pieces and the botanical garden aspect it is possible to take a guided tour. Otherwise, and even if you are not an art fan, this tranquil corner offers some lovely views over the marina, town and sparkling Mediterranean.
Morning Coffee Break in Portofino
Like many of the Mediterranean small town destinations places to eat and drink often wear many hats. They will serve combinations of breakfast, lunch and dinner (and sometimes all three), morph into bars in the evening and are also happy to play the role of cafe too, simply serving drinks to their customers.
Caffe Restaurant Excelsior
One such is the harbor-located Caffe Restaurant Excelsior which is restaurant, bar and cafe all in one. Part of the Portofino scene for almost a century, the Excelsior has for decades been the darling of the rich, famous or otherwise glamorous yacht-cruising set. During the town’s glitzy heyday, the Excelsior played hosts to the likes of Clark Gable, Frank Sinatra, Winston Churchill and Greta Garbo who would breakfast or sip their Pimms on the iconic terrace. Today you can take a pause in your day and lounge in one of the open-air terrace’s white sofas with the perfect view of the plaza, the port and its pastel-colored buildings.
Another of Portofino’s see-and-be-seen places is the wooden pontoon deck of La Gritta. Reflecting the town’s typical higher prices, your morning espresso here won’t be cheap but the spot is complete harbor-side and the venue iconic.
There are several other choices dotted around the harbor and main square all of which tend to come with great views but also, it has to be said, with the well-known Portofino prices attached. Wander away from the harbor a little to find Portofino’s other options. Don’t worry whether something offers coffee or not – if is open then it almost certainly does.
San Giorgio Church, Castle Brown and the Lighthouse
Once espresso-refreshed you can continue you morning’s explorations which are going to be filled with ancient history and spectacular views. The first stop is the church of St. George which originally dates from the 12th century, itself raised on the spot of an even earlier Roman religious site dedicated to Mithras who amongst other things was a cattle-guardian and water deity.
This simple church can be found by taking a ten minute scenic walk winding uphill from the port. Considerably more modest inside than its sister church of St Martin located across the other side of Portofino’s bay, the majority of what you see here dates from the 1950s. The church was almost completely rebuilt during this time following its severe bomb damage in World War II.
Cliff-perched and so offering some more of those gorgeous Portofino views, San Giorgio is said to attract romance to all those who take the time to pray inside.
The relics contained within this all-white interior church are supposedly those of St. George himself.
A further few minutes’ walk along the scenic path from the church will bring you to Castle Brown. Constructed in its present guise in the 1500s, the castle was built around a former more basic fortified structure to protect against pirate raids and this itself had been raised on the foundations of an ancient Roman fort. As a defense measure the castle proved to be formidable, seeing off various attempts to seize it over the centuries. Castle Brown withstood Venetians, the French Savoyards, the Sardinians and Austrians. Since the early 1800s the castle no longer played a defensive role but became a private villa for a series of owners including Baron Mumm who created the town’s park which is now the sculpture garden.
The castle is surrounded by the kind of gardens which typically live inside the pages of fairytale books. A series of terraces, steps and secret corners, vibrant Mediterranean blooms full of scent tumble down from pergolas while pathways meander amid lush greenery pushing in from every side. The side terraces each offer spectacular views from this elevated vantage point. The entire Gulf of Tigullio is laid before you along with a bird’s eye view of Portofino and its picturesque port surrounded by its green-cloaked hill.
The museum inside is small, representing the castle’s time as a villa rather than a fortress but some of the architecture and furniture is interesting. The interior highlight is the exceptionally lovely glazed-tile staircase which leads to the second floor – a feature much-used in Ligurian buildings. While ascending you can also pause to admire the wooden roof here which dates from medieval times.
If you have enough energy to continue your coastal-view walk you can keep going from the castle for another 400m or so, passing through pine forests on route. This brings you to the furthest tip of the area where you will discover Portofino’s lighthouse. Not surprisingly the views from this cliff-perched point are breathtaking and if you keep your eyes peeled you may spot pods of dolphins cruising by. If you feel in need of a pause and refreshment before you head back down to town the lighthouse has a small bar and cafe – the Al Faro Portofino Lounge Bar. With its magnificent little outdoor terrace you can keep drinking in those incredible Mediterranean blues as you sip your well-earned beer or freshly squeezed orange juice.
Lunch in Portofino
With its glamorous reputation, eating in Portofino can sometimes appear a little expensive but there are more reasonable alternatives if you know where to find them. Being so small, the dining choices are limited to some degree but whether you opt for a simpler taverna or one of the town’s more prestigious venues the lovely views tend to come as standard, as does the option for dining alfresco.
If you are accustomed to lighter lunches you really could not beat the very spot where your morning’s explorations ended – at the lighthouse. The Al Faro Portofino Lounge Bar‘s open-air terrace perched on the cliffs here offers sensational views. Principally serving as a bar and cafe this rather idyllic option doesn’t offer full meals but rather a small range of light bites and nibbles of the antipasti/aperitivo variety designed to accompany your glass of wine.
For those who need something more substantial La Taverna del Marinaio offers both simplicity and elegance and the chance to watch the main comings and goings at its tables set by the dockside in town. Seafood is the focus here and should you prefer to lunch inside the interior is cozy and quintessentially Italian.
For a harbor-front spot which won’t stretch the finances to such an extent try Da I Gemelli which offers seafood and Mediterranean Italian fare.
One of the most reasonably-priced Portofino options overall is the casual family-run Pizzeria El Portico which sits on a cobble-stoned street just back from the port. Its wooden chairs and red and white checked tablecloths give it a rustic Mediterranean quaintness while the dishes on offer here are made according to traditional recipes handed down through the generations. Fried pizza is the specialty but there are also other possibilities such as octopus salad, fish plates and pasta and be sure to try the wonderful local pesto.
An Afternoon in Portofino
Being so small you will have been able to see all of the Portofino highlights in one morning. However, that doesn’t mean your afternoon will be empty as there are endless things to see and do within easy access to the town.
One of these is the exquisite historic abbey of San Fruttuoso which is hidden away in an idyllic and isolated cove which can only be reached by boat or walking in on foot. Regular boats depart from Portofino for the 30 minute journey or you can take on the challenge of the hike if you have the time and energy. Traversing national park land or following a beautiful coastal trail the overland ways in are rewarding and take about 90 minutes.
The San Fruttuoso Abbey
If you arrive by boat your first sight of the tiny fishing village’s cove is dominated by the abbey’s grand facade. Topped by an ornate cupola, the medieval abbey appears to be squeezed in between cliffs and looms majestically over the beach below.
Ancient in origin, the former monastery’s story began in the 8th century when Bishop Prospero brought the ashes of a third century martyred bishop to rest here. The ensuing centuries have painted a rich and varied history onto the abbey’s canvas, including chapters of pirate activities and patronage by a noble Genoese family. Restoration and ruin have followed in almost continuous cycles and for extended periods the abbey was used as nothing more than a fisherman’s storage and shelter and also a sheep hold.
Eventually the Fund for the Italian Environment took charge in the 1980s, dedicating significant resources to a complete and highly sensitive restoration to enable visitors to enjoy this amazing historical treasure. This project was so extensive it was only completed in 2017.
Exploring the ancient abbey today is an atmospheric and sometimes moving experience. As you wander the pillared cloisters, gardens and tiny hidden courtyards most of what you see dates from the 10th century. The cloisters are a couple of centuries newer and were restored in the 16th century. The abbey is also home to various tombs of the Doria nobles of Genoa – the most ancient of which are over 700 years old – along with an even more ancient Roman sarcophagus.
The abbey’s 16th century watchtower – a defense measure against pirates – is located a little further up the hill and is included within your entry price.
Fruttuoso’s bay is also home to a large submerged statue of Christ which rests 17m below the waters which, thanks to the pristine clarity, can actually be seen from the surface with a boat tour. For better views you can snorkel or, for the best views of all, dive right down to the statue.
Pre-dinner Drinks and Dinner in Portofino
After a day filled with bloom-filled gardens, ancient castles and abbeys, boat trips and a few uphill climbs you will have truly earned the chance to sit down and relax with a drink before dinner. The main action centers around Portofino’s harbor with a range of bars and restaurants but there are other choices too.
Like the rest of Italy, the wonderful evening pre-dinner tradition known as aperitivo is alive and well here in Portofino. This ages old custom of sharing tasty small plates or snacks is often likened to a happy hour however, even though it does indeed typically offer a cheaper way of enjoying drinks, it is in reality rather more than that. No matter where you pick for your sundowners you are likely to come across it but one refined option is the Hotel Splendido.
Topping not just Portofino’s finest list but regularly featuring in ‘best in the world’ lists, the Hotel Splendido has for decades been the glamorous and decadent go-to place for the town’s most prestigious and famous visitors. If your budget won’t quite run to dinner here you can always grab an aperitivo to get your taste of the high life. Splendido’s setting is sensational, perched higher up the hill from the town the views here of clear-blue-sky meets-sparkling-blue-sea are gorgeous and just as you might expect, the cocktail bar here is the epitome of elegance and sophistication.
Offering an aperitivo option more within the price range of those with less noughts on their bank balance is the lovely Winterose Wine Bar. Definitely one for the wine-passionate, this establishment takes its subject very seriously and serves nothing except wine and champagne by the glass, ½ bottle or bottle along with a wonderful selection of aperitivo bites such as connoisseur cheeses, exquisite hams, Italian caviar and much more. Located away from the plaza but still on the waterfront, Winterose has only a handful of tables and offers a tranquil and especially lovely pre-dinner drinks experience.
From traditional granny’s Italian kitchen fare to modern and cosmopolitan creations from the highest echelons of fine dining, Portofino’s restaurant choices cover a wide range of taste preferences. A romantic atmosphere tends to come as standard in Portofino where most places offer a choice of open-air terraces or intimate interiors so if you are dining with that special someone you will have no shortage of venues.
Dining in Portofino is typically more expensive than the average in Italy with the port-located restaurants usually having the highest prices of all. The harbor’s most sought after restaurants include the Ristorante Puny and the fashionable Caffe Excelsior, both of which have regularly played host to some of the silver screen’s biggest stars of all time such as Sinatra, Garbo and Sophia Loren.
If you have your heart set on a waterfront location La Stella is one of the port restaurants which won’t break the bank. Family-run and passed from generation to generation for more than 160 years, there are plenty who would tell you the traditional Ligurian cuisine here is as good as anywhere in town while the view and service are sublime despite the fact the prices are achievable for most visitors.
For an even lower priced choice which still doesn’t involve compromising on the food quality head to Trattoria Concordia just a few hundred meters from the port. With its cozy and traditional interior and a handful of tables available on a greenery-surrounded balcony terrace, welcomes tend to come in the warm variety here and customers typically leave impressed that such quality comes in such a reasonable price range.
Via del Fondaco 5
For a totally different selection of restaurants which are more reasonably priced than the majority of the Portofino options jump in a taxi and head to the next village of Santa Margherita Ligure. Another of those lovely port towns of the area, Santa Margherita Ligure has its own beach and actually a larger choice of restaurants than its neighbor. Its sleepy feel transforms into a wonderful little buzz later in the evening when local Italians congregate here for aperitivos.
One of the choices here is the L’Altro Eden which is seafood-focused and has either a port-side open-air terrace or inside tables which have an intimate air and interesting décor a little different from the majority of restaurant choices around.
While all of your restaurant choices include dessert courses don’t forget this is Italy. Portofino has several gelaterias which, as is usual in this country, will forever spoil you for any ice-cream you have afterward. Along with fixed places, the harbor usually has a few stalls too so you can head here after dinner to finish everything off with an ice-cream desert of the gourmet kind.
An Evening in Portofino
The chances are you will want to do very little except relax with a drink to hand after such an action-packed day and that’s just as well. Very little happens in Portofino in the evening besides enjoying some downtime with friends or family at a bar or lounge. It is worth noting that along with many other western European nations the dining hour for most Italians is late, 8 pm at the earliest. That means that lingering over a relaxed meal – a favored pastime in these parts – takes you will into the night anyway.
While laid on entertainment as such doesn’t really exist that doesn’t mean Portofino is sleepy in the evening. Many of the spots keep the drinks flowing late into the night if you want to stretch out your hours here and because of the dining late tradition many places are still serving food after midnight.
One exception on the entertainment front is the Splendido’s bar which has a resident pianist and often dancing but drink prices at this exclusive hotel are as high as anywhere in town so expect to pay handsomely for you evening of music.
Otherwise, Portofino evenings make life easy. All you really have to worry about decision-wise is choosing a view and an atmosphere for where to sit down and relax.
If you’re ready to experience the beauty of Portofino in person, contact one of our vacation planners today!