If any port encapsulates the heart and soul of Italy, it’s the lively and picturesque fishing village of Portofino. Like an Italian Renaissance painting springing to life before your very eyes, this posh little piece of surreal seaside life washes the Ligurian coastline with color and vivacity. Framed by lush rolling hills with fragrant hints of citrus drifting to the sea, Portofino digs deep from more than 2,000 years of living history and culture. Those on a cruise to Portofino are in for a real treat!
Hundreds of pretty pastel cottages ring the harbor while tiny trattorias dish out local cuisine – but make no mistake: this living postcard of the Italian Riviera is a subtle “safe harbor” for the world’s most rich-and-famous travelers. Extravagant super-yachts routinely slide past bobbing fishing boats in the emerald-green bay. When meandering cobblestones streets and slipping into a cozy café, you could easily be rubbing elbows with celebrities, sports stars, power brokers and the European elite. (It’s no coincidence that Italian automaker Ferrari named its V8 sports car after Portofino, entering the market with an entry-level price of more than $200,000 US dollars.)
Getting Your Bearings
Transitioning from floating-boat to boots-on-the-ground is relatively easy in Portofino. Since cruise ships are unable to dock in the shallow harbor, a convenient tender boat transports you to shore and drops you directly in the heart of the harbor. From there, it’s a short walk of about 1/3 mile to the main village square, known as the Piazza Martiri Dell’Olivetta (or simply “the Piazzetta”).
Depending on your choice of activities for the day, getting around in Portofino can involve lots of walking. With notoriously narrow cobbled paths, walking is much easier than driving. However, taxis and small buses are still available when needed. Moped rentals are a fun alternative for land-based exploration, or you can take an affordable local ferry to visit other small villages along the coastline. Private boat rentals or owner-operator boat captains are another option for getting to beaches and coastal attractions.
Organized Shore Excursions Versus Solo Exploring
The compact size and close-knit quarters of Portofino definitely enable independent-minded travelers to traverse the terrain on their own. Portofino’s village, seaside and cultural icons are readily accessible if you have plenty of time to wander. But if you want to experience the whole shebang or dive deeper into local culture, plenty of knowledgeable and interesting Portofino guides will enthusiastically whisk you away on action-packed shore excursions.
Most cruise ships offer pre-booked excursions, but you can save a lot of money by booking them yourself through independent tour specialists such as Viator. There are also small local tour operators in Portofino who let you fully customize your experience and make impromptu changes along the way. Just keep in mind that excursions booked directly with your cruise ship have guarantees that can be invaluable, such as the ship waiting for you when there is a delay in getting back to port.
Top Things to Do in Portofino
Whether striking out on your own or hooking up with like-minded travelers on a group tour, there are some must-see attractions and things to do in Portofino. Most cultural sights are within walking distance of the harbor, though some require hiking to cultural icons towering above the village. A plethora of water-based activities can keep you immersed for hours, and dining is an excursion in its own right.
Culture and History
- The Brown Castle is a crenellated fortress built in the 15th century to protect villagers from Turkish invasions. It perches on a hilltop that’s accessible via a steep stairway, which is well worth the climb. It’s packed with artifacts and architectural anomalies, and you’ll enjoy seeing a photo collection of renowned heads of state and celebrities who have tread the path before you.
- The spectacular Benedictine Abbey officially known as Abbazia di San Fruttuoso di Camogli hails from the 10th century and hides within a hidden cleft in a towering cliff. If you feel like a two-hour trek from Portofino, you can enjoy cutting through a national park. But most visitors take a round-trip boat from the Portofino harbor to the trailhead. You can book this on your own through an independent boat company or choose an onshore group tour that includes this attraction. Note that the Abbey is only open from May through September.
- For a rare chance to see private works by well-known Italian artists, add the Museo del Parco to your “don’t miss” list. It’s a simple outdoor sculpture garden with astounding views of the sea, providing a chance to rest and take in the beauty of the Italian Riviera. Criss-crossing paths lead upward, so make sure to wear comfortable shoes.
Portofino’s Food and Wine
Charming trattorias, cucinas, ristorantes, osterias, enotecas and gelatorias in Portofino tempt you to sip, swirl and sample your way from morning to midnight. And why not? The region is well known for its Pinot Grigio wines and locally made Limoncello cordials, and a string of waterfront stalls scoop up delicious Italian gelati treats such as handmade “nocciola” with chocolate and hazelnut cream.
Some of the best restaurants and casual cafes nestle with the Piazzetta. Facing the yacht harbor in the main square sits the cozy Il Pitosforo ristorante, which dishes out classic Mediterranean fare with a regional twist by owner/chef Marco Vineeli. The nearby Ristorante Puny also gives open peeks at yacht activity while fostering connections with genuine locals who gather for lunch and dinner. Like many eateries in Portofino, the seafood is excellent as is the handmade pasta dishes and veal platters. Bring plenty of cash because Puny shuns credit cards. Both of these eateries are closed on Monday and Tuesday.
If you feel like dropping some serious coin at one of the most exclusive (and expensive) lunch spots in Portofino, snag a table at La Terrazza inside Hotel Splendido. To say it has “water views” is a vast understatement; it literally clings to the craggy cliffside with magnificent sweeping views of the harbor and village. In a smashing clash of nature and culinary culture, an elegant six-course feast by Chef Corrado Corti subtly appears while waves crash into the Italian coastline below.
Tip: You can indulge in Chef Corti’s insanely decadent creations for half the price by ordering the restaurant’s “light lunch” at a poolside table. Some tour guides also offer olive-oil tastings and a Ligurian-style lunch at the hotel.
Water-based Shore Excursions in Portofino
In a water-centric destination like Portofino, it’s no surprise that “water, water everywhere” could be an official moniker. Dozens of onshore excursions include kayaking, paddleboarding, canoeing, snorkeling, boating and SCUBA diving. You can book private or group tours ahead of time, or just show up at a harbor kiosk to rent gear or arrange lessons directly from local providers.
- Sometimes getting on the water with a trained professional can immeasurably enhance the experience. A Portofino Kayaking Tour booked on your own through Viator takes you gliding along the coastline of the Portofino Marine Protected Area that’s chockful of mysterious hidden creeks and caves. The guide stops for snorkeling in a secluded cove and then spreads out a picnic of regionally grown organic food and wine.
- About four miles away, the Santa Margherita Beach at the Bay of Paraggi is perfect for sunning and lounging, but it’s also a convenient launching spot for snorkeling in the crystal-clear waters of Niasca. The seabed is home to a wealth of flora and fauna, including a pristine meadow of Mediterranean Posidonia seagrass.
- SCUBA diving locations around Portofino include at least two wreck sites as well as special dives to find a rare form of red coral. You can book dive trips from your cruise activity coordinator or local providers such as Fins and Fans, No Stress Diving Center and the DWS Diving Center.
- A truly unique dive is dedicated to the memory of Dario Gonzatti, a renowned SCUBA diver of the early 1900s. The Christ of the Abyss statue rests with outstretched arms in the Bay of San Fruttuoso within the Marine Protected Area, gazing upward from the watery depths. But it’s also viewable from the surface of the water, so anyone can spot it through a “bathyscope” onboard a public boat or water taxi.
Taste of Ligurian Riviera
Frequent ferries run between Portofino and smaller sister villages such as Santa Margherita Ligure, Rapallo and Camogli. But to truly experience these unique port communities without running out of shore time, it helps to book a shore excursion such as the Taste of Ligurian Riviera. Several cruise ships offer this package, so be sure to ask for it by name.
The excursion focuses on the culture, cuisine and heritage of the two Ligurian Riviera villages of Rapallo and Sestri Levante. It’s an 8.5-hour trip that includes walking tours, artisan shopping, pockets of beach time, and a three-course meal at Ristorante Le Cisterne. You’ll also discover medieval inscriptions and hear stories of 17th-century Capuchin monks at Saint Nicoli Church, and then visit the Bay of Fairy Tales that’s named after Danish author Hans Christian Anderson.
Wrapping Up Your Day in Portofino
When it’s time to head back to the harbor at the end of your day in Portofino, it’s easy to pick up souvenirs or gifts from the many casual stalls or high-end shops along the waterfront. Small framed artwork by local artists is perfect for remembering your special day in Italy. You can splurge on some Murano glass jewelry or an exquisite Italian leather handbag or gloves. T-shirts, postcards, artisan cheeses and regional wine are all purchases to be treasured and enjoyed long after your ship sets sail.
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