It’s hard to believe that just a hundred years ago the luxurious town of Portofino was nothing more than a simple fishing village. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine Italy without it and its not-so-distant neighbors, the famous seaside villages of Cinque Terre. Let’s find out what to see when you visit this little Ligurian paradise.
The Promontory of Portofino
Many people don’t realize that Portofino is just 30 kilometers away from the major city of Genoa and its fabulous aquarium, a city that many overlook but that absolutely merits a visit. Portofino is on a promontory that actually juts out into the Ligurian Sea (Tyrhennian) along with Camogli and the one-thousand-year-old Benedictine Abbey of San Fruttuoso. Also on the promontory is the ancient village of Santa Margherita Ligure where women still practice the traditional art of lacemaking and continue to make fishing nets as their predecessors have for centuries.
Like Cinque Terre, Portofino is actually encompassed within its own regional park, il Parco Regionale di Portofino. The little town is only a small part of what you can see when you visit, but for all intents and purposes, we’ll start there.
Portofino, the Village
This picturesque borgo is beyond charming with its colored houses in their varying hues of pink and orange to deep blue resembling the Ligurian Sea and its sunsets. There really isn’t anything better to do here than stroll around casually enjoying a gelato and window-shopping. The Church of San Martino is a must-see as it likely dates to the 12th century and is in perfect Lombard Romanesque style.
Castello Brown dates to the 16th century and has one of the most stunning views you will likely ever experience in your lifetime. From the Piazzetta in the center of town, you can follow the trail to the castle which will also take you by amazing villas and the Church of San Giorgio.
Portofino’s lighthouse was built in the early 1900s and is still used today. It’s also a haven for dolphins and sometimes whales. You can walk here from Castello Brown or from the tiny Olivetta beach.
You might be surprised to find out that there are only a few tiny beaches in Portofino. We’ll cover those in the area known as Litorale Levante which basically goes from Santa Margherita Ligure to Olivetta.
The Spiaggetta dell’Olivetta is located near the trail for Castello Brown and can be reached on foot by descending about 500 meters on a staircase. This is a “free beach” (spiaggia libera) meaning you won’t find any bathing establishments and you are free to set up your own towel and umbrella. The sand is made of tiny pebbles but you’ll definitely need to come prepared with your water shoes. Teeming with sea life from large fish to coral and sponges, this little beach is a snorkeler’s paradise.
Del Cannone beach follows which is also libera with pebbly sand and crystal clear water filled with marine life. It is also reached on foot by a staircase.
If you are not quite as adventurous or are traveling with kids, the Niasca beach is ideal- just as beautiful, but with sandy shores.
Lastly, on our quick tour, we have the beaches of Paraggi and Castello. Paraggi is probably the most exclusive and convenient of all the beaches discussed here because there are bathing establishments where you can rent an umbrella and chaise lounge with the added benefit of a nearby restaurant and bar. Castello, on the other hand, is perfect for snorkeling and even scuba diving.
A fantastic option to see the entire coastline from the best perspective (the water) is by either kayak or SUP (stand up paddle) with or without a guide depending on your experience level. The entire coastline is dotted with grottos that can only be seen via the sea.
To many visitors’ surprise, Portofino is much more than just the sea! The park also encompasses hundreds of acres of woodlands, streams, and even waterfalls. To think that less than 100 years ago, there were a total of 36 watermills operating in the Valley of the Acqua Viva.
For the hikers among you, there are trails that zig-zag across the entire promontory for every ability and interest. Click here for a trail map. For example, you could choose the Sentiero dei Monaci route, a fascinating exploration that connects the San Fruttuoso Abbey to other churches and monasteries on the promontory. There is also an app you can download to help you along the way! (see link above)
For more information
It would be nearly impossible to cover all the options one has when visiting Portofino. The best resource we found for researching before your trip is the official park website.