Last updated on November 15th, 2021
The charming town of Portovenere, Italy, is often overshadowed by the nearby Cinque Terre and its five picturesque villages. However, there are many things to do in Portovenere, and you’ll fall in love with this hidden gem in Italy.
Pink, yellow, light blue, red, orange. Portovenere, one of the most beautiful towns of the western Ligurian coast, appeared from the boat with its colorful houses reflecting in the sea.
I hadn’t set foot on the ground yet, and I felt already that many lovely corners were waiting for my eyes to meet and admire them. Only a couple of minutes and I fulfilled my sense of anticipation.
Albeit touristy, there’s an air of local life in Portovenere
Everything is charming in Portovenere, without being too artificially embellished to please the tourists. For example, much as I liked Alberobello, the famous town in Apulia, I thought it was almost too perfect to be real. Luckily, Portovenere has been well preserved, the original architecture lovingly restored, keeping as much as possible of the original building materials.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site with the villages of the Cinque Terre, Portovenere can frequently become packed with locals, especially during the summer weekends. But if you visit off-season, you’ll soon find out how delightful the town is. Portovenere is well worth visiting, and it’s a perfect combination if you’re hiking the Cinque Terre or simply enjoying one of Italy’s most famous spots.
Portovenere – Image by Corine Veen from Pixabay
Actually, the entire east coast of Liguria (called Levante) is beautiful. Many other charming towns on the Ligurian coast are worth visiting. One of them is Portofino, the picturesque village where celebrities love to pop in during summer with their large yachts. Furthermore, Portofino Regional Park is a fantastic spot for hikes with superb views.
Portovenere and the Bay of Poets
At the extremity of Liguria bordering Tuscany, the Gulf of La Spezia is also known and the Bay of Poets. The reason is that this breathtaking stretch of coastline bewitched many writers and poets, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries.
English writers Mary Shelley and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron spent many years in the Bay of Poets. The idyllic setting of the Gulf of La Spezia also attracted David Herbert Lawrence, Henry Miller, Virginia Woolf, and George Sand, among others.
Things to do in Portovenere
There are many attractions in Portovenere, enough to fill a full day. The town is relatively small, and everything is within walking reach.
Visit the colorful harbor
If you’re getting to Portovenere by boat, as I did, your first sight while you approach the town will be the stunning, colorful skyline. I suggest you start exploring the lovely harbor, with its narrow houses that make a beautiful pastel-colored backdrop.
Tip: To get beautiful harbor shots, go to the Aldo Moro promenade and turn right almost immediately, ending up on the pier. That is the perfect vantage point!
Porta del Borgo and the historical center
To enter Portovenere’s historic center, walk across Porta del Borgo, the ancient entrance that has remained intact since the 12th century. From the arch’s opening, you’ll see Via Giovanni Capellini, the central axis of the town.
Like the villages of the Cinque Terre, the streets of Portovenere wind up the steep rocky hill to the Doria Castle and the Church of San Lorenzo, offering scenic views over the Gulf of Poets. The main street is lined in pastel-colored houses leaning against each other, with souvenir and artisan shops, bakeries, bars, restaurants. All of them are super cozy, albeit often touristy.
The crowd didn’t alter my pleasure as I strolled along the alleys bordered by the multi-colored facades. You’ll soon find out how Portovenere’s beauty is in the small things. The shops and restaurants are tastefully decorated with plants. Or the old green letterboxes and the ceramic signs which displaying the numbers of the houses. I don’t know about you, but I have a passion for doors, above all the old and worn ones. During my wanderings in Portovenere historical center, I stumbled into a few ones that I found fantastic.
St. Peter’s Church and the scenic loggia
That’s one spot in Portovenere not to miss, no matter if you like religious buildings or not. St. Peter’s church is perched on a spur of rocks overlooking the sea and is a beautiful spot.
Both the exterior and interior of the church are decorated in black and white horizontal stripes, typical of the Genoese architecture of the 13th century. With its four arches framing the blue sea, the adjacent Romanesque loggia is one of the most romantic sites you can imagine. Take a few moments to enjoy the magnificent view. Through St Peter’s loggia arcades, the sight of the rugged coastline, with the waves crashing on the rocks, is just beautiful. A walk to St. Peter’s Church is undoubtedly one of the best things you can do in Portovenere.
A path starting from St. Peter’s church leads to Grotta Arpaia, also known as Byron’s cave. Lord Byron, one of the greatest British poets and a key figure of the Romantic period, used to find inspiration in such a wonderful place.
You don’t have to be a poet, though, to experience the beauty of the crystal-clear water, with its turquoise and blue shades and the cliff diving into the water. So if you get the chance, take a boat trip to admire Byron’s cave from a different perspective.
The Doria castle
It will take you some effort to walk uphill on the steep road to reach the Doria castle, built around the XII-XIV centuries. Actually, since Portovenere castle was primarily a fortress, being perched above the town is no surprise. From its privileged location, overlooking the coast, it served defensive purposes perfectly.
The visit to the Castle itself might not be the most interesting, but it’s certainly worth having the hike since you’ll be rewarded with a magnificent view.
Church of S. Lorenzo
While you stroll in Portovenere old town, just before climbing towards the Castle, you’ll pass the church of San Lorenzo. The building originally dates back to 1130 but has undergone several restorations and refurbishments throughout its history. First, however, it’s worth taking a break by the church, from where there’s a lovely view over the Gulf of Poets.
The overview of the things to do in Portovenere wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Palmaria island. If you get to Portovenere by boat, it’s the large island you see as soon as you approach the town. It extends along the entire length of the harbor skyline and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, including the Cinque Terre, Portovenere, and the three islands.
Palmaria island is covered with thick green vegetation, and its coasts are quite varied. The side facing Portovenere descends gently towards the sea. There, you can see a few private homes and small beaches. On the other hand, the coast towards the Ligurian Sea is wilder and characterized by high cliffs and numerous caves.
Hiking lovers can choose between several trails, including a loop circuit, which takes about four hours.
There are well enough things to do in Portovenere to spend one day, even two. Portovenere is undoubtedly worth a visit, and you’ll fall in love with this delightful town.
How to get to Portovenere:
You can reach Portovenere by car, bus, boat, or on foot but not by train.
By bus: it takes only 30 minutes to get from La Spezia to Portovenere. Buses leave from the railway station and run every 10-30 minutes (peak/off-peak), and the ticket costs euro 2,50.
By boat: a ferry-boat service connects Portovenere to Monterosso, stopping in the five towns of the Cinque Terre. There are several ticket options, and it’s somewhat more expensive than the bus. However, but on a good day, the view on the coastline from the sea is beautiful. A cheaper option is the boat from La Spezia to Porto Venere.
On foot: although I had a few hikes in the Cinque Terre, I haven’t yet walked the trail connecting Riomaggiore to Portovenere. It is said to have amazing views (which is not hard to believe) and should take 5 to 6 hours.
Best time to visit Portovenere:
You can go and visit Portovenere at any time of the year, but keep in mind that it will be bustling and likely hot from late June to early September. Spring and autumn are the best periods, with pleasant temperatures, and it will be less crowded. Winter has a unique charm, but beware that some hotels and restaurants are seasonal and might be closed.
Where to stay in Portovenere:
The 5 stars Grand Hotel Portovenere is set in a monastery dating back to the 17th century. Only a few minutes walk from the center, it has a fantastic terrace overlooking the waterfront and can also arrange private boat tours to admire the beautiful coast from the sea.
At Relais Santa Caterina, you’ll enjoy the garden and the lovely views of the by and the medieval town. The rooms are simple but very tastefully decorated, and the Relais is full of charm.
If you prefer small B&Bs, you may want to check L’Ancora. The inn has only three rooms, modern and recently refurbished, some of them with sea views.
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