The Best Of Portofino:
Italy’s Paradise By The Sea
Defined by many as the world’s most beautiful seaside town, picturesque Portofino intoxicates those who visit the northwestern coast of Liguria. This coastline is part of the Italian Riviera, which extends upwards from the luscious region of Tuscany to the Italian-French border and includes the enthralling rocky stretch, Cinque Terre. Centuries ago, Portofino was a traditional, small, secluded fishing village. Now, with only about 500 permanent residents, Portofino is pocket-sized and barely qualifies as a town. However, its streets and surrounding wilderness come alive in the warm summer months.
From June to September, visitors who want to sunbathe and relax in one of Italy’s most charming places flock to Portofino. The tranquil harbor is filled with gleaming sailboats and larger luxury vessels. The shore is lined with rows of quaint fisherman houses that vary in cheerful pastel colors and stylish bars and cafes. Sailing, diving, hiking, and exploring the coastline, which is filled with exquisite beaches and enchanting villages, are favorite pastimes. Hikers and birdwatchers delight in the immense natural diversity found in the area’s nature reserve, ‘Parco Naturale Regionale di Portofino.’ The vibrantly green and protected Regional Natural Park of Portofino is full of indigenous trees, plants, and animals, hiking trails, and incredible views of the gorgeous gulf and blue sea below.
The Ideal Italian Seaside Escape: Portofino
The ancient Romans established Portofino as a fishing village during the glory of the Roman Empire. They named it ‘Portus Delphini,’ most likely because of the copious amount of dolphins found offshore. Then, in 1129, the area became the property of the Republic of Genoa and later passed through the hands of the Republic of Florence and Kingdom of Sardinia, before becoming a part of Italy after Italy’s unification in 1861. At the end of the nineteenth century, Portofino began steadily attracting visitors and evolved into an outsider’s idyllic seaside escape.
By 1950, Portofino was a desired destination for the fashionable and elite. Often wealthy and famous, these travelers had found the perfect getaway by the sea. Celebrity sightings were and are still common; American singer and performer, Frank Sinatra, and the Duke of Windsor and former King of the United Kingdom and the British Empire, Edward VIII, were two celebrities who frequented Portofino. Other famous visitors and residents included admired artists, painters, architects, writers, actors, and singers of the twentieth century. Portofino still connotes a high standard of quality; in 2017, Ferrari launched its new convertible sports car named the Portofino.
Portofino’s little streets exhibit authentic cafes and restaurants and independent shops, art galleries, and boutiques. Some of which are high-end, designer shops, while others are more affordable. Wander the streets and stop for a coffee or refreshing drink in the well-loved ‘piazzetta’ or little square by the harbor. It has a row of eateries with a blissful view of the sailboats bobbing in the glistening sea.
From the harbor, hike up to ‘Castello Brown’ or Brown Castle, which was built in the tenth century and overlooks the whole bay. It used to be the coastline’s military defense, until it was transformed into a residence in 1867 and then a museum and exhibition space in 1961. Ancient ruins found nearby suggest that this spot also had an ancient Roman sighting tower, which was possibly built as far back as the second century AD. The castle boasts astonishing views of the harbor below and the sea outstretched to the horizon.
Along the way to the castle, stop by the cheerfully striped, twelfth century ‘Chiesa Divo Martino,’ or Saint Martin’s Church, near the harbor. Another lovely, nearby church from the twelfth century, which sits majestically on the cliff edge is ‘Chiesa di San Giorgio’ or Saint George’s Church. It has been destroyed and restored at least four times over the centuries, because of wars. One instance was after some particularly devastating World War II bombings. Despite its constant reconstruction, many of the church’s paintings have been preserved and are still displayed inside.
Another beautiful walk from the piazzetta is along the clifftops and through the pine trees to Portofino’s illuminatingly white lighthouse, the ‘Faro di Portofino,’ which is at the top of ‘Monte di Portofino,’ or Portofino Mountain. The lighthouse is only about fifteen minutes away from the harbor on foot. In recent years, it has been reclaimed and turned into La Portofinese Cocktail Bar by a local collective that aims to use historical places to showcase them and sell locally made drinks and products.
Portofino’s small harbor allows for boating enthusiasts to get out on the water. Those who do not have sea legs, can simply admire the whimsical view of the sailboats from the steady ground of the harbor. Book a boat ride or personalized boat tour, or look into taking some sailing or diving lessons. The sea surrounding Portofino is marine protected, meaning that the whole area is treated with care and respect, so that the rare varieties of sea corals, sponges, grasses, and marine animals can flourish. Despite the bountiful sea life and sailboats, Portofino does not have an actual beach, but there are several pristine beaches nearby. Paraggi beach, for example, is only a few minutes away by car.
Portofino is also a good starting point to reach other mesmerizing places along the Italian Riviera. The famously breathtaking coastline of Cinque Terre is only about an hour and a half drive south from Portofino. To find out what to see and do and how to get there, read Making the Most of Cinque Terre. For a taste of city life, head to the Ligurian metropolis; Genoa, which is only a thirty minute drive away. Read Italy’s Three Best Road Tripsfor some tips about renting a car and driving in Italy.
The Nearest Beach with Sand: Paraggi
The ‘Baia di Paraggi’ is the bay between Portofino and Santa Margherita Ligure. Paraggi beach has sparklingly clear blue water and clean white sand, unlike the nearby typical rocky beaches of the area. The beach is both public and private, with some ‘stabilimenti’ or private beach clubs, as well as free, open space. Swim, sunbathe, and admire the sea lapping at the immense villas of wealthy Italians that are on the shore. The luxury Italian fashion brand, Dolce & Gabbana, have an ornate villa on Paraggi beach. There are also hotels and restaurants nearby offering shade and refreshments.
The Most Mysterious Paradise: San Fruttuoso
‘San Fruttuoso di Camogli’ is only accessible by foot or boat, which makes it all the more exciting to reach. To walk, follow the signposts from Portofino Vetta, which has the nearest sanctioned parking area, to where the path diverges at Pietre Strette and goes down the cliff to the beach. The walk takes about an hour and a half and is relatively easy and flat until the cliff portion. During the summer, there are frequent, daily boat trips from Portofino or Santa Margherita to San Fruttuoso. Look out for advertised boat services or ask at any hotel.
Once on the shore, San Fruttuoso’s difficult to access, intriguing beach reveals its charm and beauty. Between the beach umbrellas, bright turquoise water, and nearby resort walls, San Fruttuoso is bursting with color. There are hotels and restaurants literally hanging over the beach, so visitors can have a meal or a cocktail on a terrace overlooking the sea.
Besides the sea and the beach, San Fruttuoso has a celebrated abbey dating back to the tenth century, called ‘Abbazia di San Fruttuoso.’ It is ethereal, with a tower, which was updated in the sixteenth century, a small dome, and elegant arches overhanging the sea. The abbey’s glowing white is further emphasized by the looming, green trees behind and the bright blue sea in the front. Before visiting, check the opening times in town; sometimes the monastery and watch tower are closed.
Outside of the abbey, seventeen meters (fifty-eight feet) below sea level is the Christ of the Abyss Statue, known as ‘Cristo degli Abissi.’ Made by artist Guido Galletti, this life-size bronze statue of Jesus Christ was placed underwater in 1954 to commemorate the drowning of a legendary Italian diver. Now, people go there to pay their respects. It has also become a popular site for divers to explore. Visitors can take glass-bottomed boats from San Fruttuoso to see Jesus’s upturned face. His arms are grasping for the light above. There is a replica of the statue outside the abbey for those who cannot make the trip.
The Rockiest Point: Punta Chiappa
Punta Chiappa is a long, rocky stretch of land that juts out into the dazzling, blue sea. To reach the point, visitors must either take a boat or walk. Boats can be taken from Camogli, but with panoramic views of the entire gulf, the walk is spectacular. About forty minutes from San Rocco, there is a path that descends through trees and down many steps to the point. On the way, walk through a small square with the humble ‘San Nicolò di Campodimonte’ Church. Once the decent is complete, jump in the crystal clear water. The sea is sheltered, so its calm and perfect for swimming and snorkeling. Schools of tiny, brightly colored fish can be seen darting among the rocks. There are also rock pools teaming with life on the point.
The Wild Natural Park: Il Parco Naturale Regionale di Portofino
The ‘Parco Naturale Regionale di Portofino’ was created in 1935 to protect the natural habitat and encourage the longevity of the native plants and animals in Liguria. It includes the areas of Portofino, Camogli, and Santa Margherita Ligure. The park has more than 80 kilometers (fifty miles) of hiking trails that have incredible views of the gulf.
The difference in altitude from the top of Mount Portofino to the shoreline allow for a wide range of flora and fauna. As hikers descend, tall pine forests become groves of chestnut trees, which then thin out closer to the sea. The park has an amazing range of birds, butterflies, and small mammals. It also aims to protect any historical and architectural sites in the area, like the San Fruttuoso Abbey.
From all of us at Roman Candle Tours enjoy the heavenly Italian Riviera and explore the best of what delightful Portofino has to offer.
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