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Portofino – Near but not in Cinque Terre

25 February, 2011

And another in the “near but not in Cinque Terre” series, which is a look at several towns in the same area as the famous Cinque Terre, but are likely overlooked. Portofino is a town that may be less overlooked than others in the area, due to being nearly as famous for being the playground of the rich and famous.

Marina Di Portofino

Portofino is a “small fishing village” turned resort town. It is between La Spezia and Genoa on a peninsula that juts out into the sea. There is no train station in Portofino, so to get there get out in Santa Margherita Ligure and take a bus or a boat down to town. This is exactly what my parents and I did. We had lunch in Santa Margherita and took the crowded public bus down to Portofino. The ride down is pretty neat with several hairpin turns when the bus honks without slowing down, presumably hoping any cars coming the other way will stop. But hey this is Italy, what is the change of that? The bus stops at the top end of Portofino with the town drifting downwards along one main street toward the harbor.

Boat Shows with Champagne Reception

The day we picked to go to Portofino was apparently the day of a big boat race. The harbor was full of boats from around Europe and beyond. Alongside the harbor there were stands being set up and caterers in impeccable white clothing preparing large groups of champagne classes. Not a tiny fishing village anymore.

Fancy Boats

Ice Cream Search

A reason I wanted to see Portofino was to have an ice cream (err gelato) there. One of the best places to have ice cream at home in Freiburg is Portofino Eiscafe. It is also one of the few places that stays open all winter when the other places shut down. So I have eaten many a gelato from Portofino in Germany, I wanted one from the “real” Portofino. The real Portofino however  is hellishly expensive. The single flavor portions in Portofino were nearly double the price what we had seen elsewhere in Liguria. So I bailed on that dream.

A neat looking house on the opposite promontory

Fishing Village-esque

If the Cinque Terre towns do feel even somewhat like traditional fishing villages, then Portofino feels more like Disneyland. Places are refurbished and manicured to keep the rustic feeling but still house those clothing stores with blank white walls and only a few pieces of clothing on display and not even a rack to be off of. So the town feels a bit artificial and made up: Welcome to Traditional Italy Land. In waiting for the bus to head back to Santa Margherita I saw a posh young woman carrying a hat box up the hill to deliver it to someone in a very expensive looking car and head back down the hill.

Harborside Square

Castello Brown and the Lighthouse

There are some redeeming and free things to do here. Portofino harbor is nestled in a crook of the coastline and out on a point there is a lighthouse. In just sitting down to rest our feet we saw the castle and a sign leading up to point at a set of stairs. My dad and I decided to go look at it. That walk was amazing. Steep up some stairs then an alley with views back over the harbor and up to the castello.

Castello Brown from the Harbor

Stairs up to the castello

At the top of the hill the castle stands and an echo of the riches below had a hefty entrance fee to just see a castle. We decided instead of treking out to the lighthouse to walk back through the park around the castello and back into town. A few marked trails led down the hill and gave some more views of the harbor and the sea. It led around an old World War era bunker and deposited us at the end of the harbor where we went back to join my mom who had enjoyed watching the people bring in their shiny boats.

Castello Brown from stairs up to it

Mouth of the Harbor

Worth a Visit, but not a Stay

So my take on Portofino is that it is certainly a pretty little town. The rich and famous apparently spend a fair amount to make it remain so. It feels somewhat out of step with any history that was there at some point. That said, come, take the bus down for cheap from Santa Margherita, hike to the castle and lighthouse, take your pictures and head back to your hostel. I definitely would not feel comfortable spending much money here, but it is worth seeing.

Down into town from the castello park

The other option may be somewhat more adventurous. The peninsula that Portofino sits on is not very big and has hiking trails across it. We saw in the guidebook a listing for a tiny cove that had a single isolated monastery. There were boat trips, but given far more time it would have been interesting to walk to it. Ahh maybe next time.

As always there are more pictures at the Grounded Traveler facebook fanpage.

Out into the sea

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32 Responses to Portofino – Near but not in Cinque Terre

  1. Hi,

    I visited Portofino this summer and I was very very lucky because there was Andrea Bocelli performing. I could not afford having a reservation to hear him during the night, but I had the chance to hear his magic voice during the rehearsals. I found my love in Portofino…

    There is no need to stay in Portofino itself, actually there are very few hotels there, you can stay in Santa Margherita as well, it is just 10 mins by bus.

    PA

    • Andrew says:

      Yeah, Portofino isn’t really worth staying in, unless you have your own yacht to bunk up on.

      That is pretty awesome about hearing rehearsals. Those can actually be more fun and feel more intimate.

  2. Christy says:

    Cool! I was searching for distances from Cinque Terre to Portofino and your site came up on Google. :) Good to hear you think this place is worth a visit. We are looking for day drips from Cinque Terre. I’m going to have to check out the other posts in your series. Great idea!
    Christy recently posted..Our National Geographic Cover ShotMy Profile

  3. S Lloyd says:

    Couple of questions, please:
    (1)Once I arrive at the Santa Margherita train station, is it easy to spot the the crowded public bus down to Portofino? Do you remember the bus # or is it clearly indicated Portovino on the bus front? Can I just pay the driver once I get onto the bud or should I buy the ticket in advance? How much was the bus ticket?
    (2)Most comments on the wen seem to prefer Portovono over Cinque Terre? How would u compare both? Am I wrong in thinking that Cinque Terre offer more pitturesque views?
    Thanks
    S Lloyd recently posted..3 Star Michelin Victor’s Gourmet-Restaurant Schloss Berg, Perl-Nennig: A genius, his magic, and one of the very best 3 star Michelin tablesMy Profile

    • Andrew says:

      I you arrive at SML by train, you are at the top of the hill. I don’t think there is much of a real bus station, but the main circle near the beach was where a lot of the buses stopped. I think there were buses to other places. It is a normal public transport system, nothing specific to Portofino. As for the exact details, I really don’t remember anymore. It was not expensive and I think you buy tickets at a little kiosk nearby.

  4. Pingback: A Quick Guide to Near but not In Cinque Terre » Grounded Traveler - Expat Adventures in Germany

  5. Boris says:

    I’m really enjoying your series on towns near CT that aren’t CT – great pictures too, they really give a feel for each place. I’m going to be spending 6 days in the region in May, and am trying to pick home bases . My favourite things are hiking and eating – luckily the former helps minimize the effects of the latter! ;)

    I was wondering about your take on Camogli? Not as big as SML and not as many things to do in the town proper, but from what I understand outstanding hiking opportunities, with beauty to rival CT itself. I have also read that Chiavari is outstanding for restaurants, so traveling there for a lunch or two would be pretty appealing, though I don’t know if I want to stay there.

    Levanto may also potentially be of interest – I have heard that the hike form Levanto to Monterosso is just as nice as some of the CT hikes but much less crowded. Plus Levanto is said to have a nice beach and a cool, laid back atmosphere.

    As it stands now, I am leaning towards 3 days in Camogli and 3 days in Levanto, with some daytripping from each of these home bases. I’d appreciate any thoughts or advice people might have :)

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks for the comment. I am glad you are enjoying this series. I think I have one more.

      We didn’t go to Camogli, so I don’t really know anything about it. Check out the episode for Santa Margherita Ligure and near the bottom is a link to Guilia’s site. She is a local and might be able to give you more info. That area though is cool. I saw a map with a number of hiking trails around the peninsula that Portofino is on. I didn’t go to Chiavari or Levanto either. Though if it were me I would pick Levanto at least for a few days. It has a decent train stop that gets even some of the bigger trains. I also remember many years ago drawing their church steeple in a notebook in the few minutes that the train stopped. I still see the picture every so often, but have yet to see town. So if you want to daytrip on the train, think about Levanto or at least check station schedules in Camogli. 3 and 3 does sound like a good idea. May should be nice weather and maybe before the mass hordes of tourists. Drop me a line when you get back, I am interested to see how to trip went.

  6. Pingback: Santa Margherita Ligure – Near not in Cinque Terre » Grounded Traveler

  7. Esme says:

    Cinque Terre is one of Italy’s treasures. That hike is one that I will always remember.

  8. Marion says:

    Cool blog post and pictures! Can’t wait to visit Portofino this summer!
    Marion recently posted..Marseille SkateparkMy Profile

  9. Laura says:

    Looks really gorgeous. I LOVED Cinque Terre so I’m pretty sure I would love any place with a similar look :) Though, like you, I probably wouldn’t want to stay there.

    • Andrew says:

      There are a lot of neat little places in this area. I am not suggesting that Cinque Terre are skipped, just that there are plenty of other reasons to hang around this area.

  10. Giulia says:

    Ohhh. You know what? I was born and raised in Santa Margherita Ligure! And I have been working in a hotel in Portofino for 3 years! So yes, I drove on that road every day :-) But we’re used to it. The roads of Liguria are among the most dangerous and hard to drive on in Italy I guess. But the landscape is beautiful :)
    I would advise the same as you – stay/eat in Santa Margherita Ligure (pricey, but not as much as Portofino!) then go to Portofino for a visit. You can see it all in one day… I have this feeling that who stays there just wants to show off!
    Plus, it’s super duper expensive (parking lot: when I left in 2007 it was 5€/hour, so I can’t imagine how expensive it is now)-
    Last but not least: sorry to disappoint you but there’s nothing special in Portofino’s ice cream… must be just the name of that gelato place in Germany! But afaik Portofino is not well known for the gelato.
    Anyway, it definitely is a beautiful place. I love the colors and everything, but I don’t like the *posh* side. Cinque Terre are much more *no frills* which I like more :)
    Interesting to see the opinion of a foreigner about my hometown and my area! :)
    Thanks :)
    Giulia recently posted..The sweetest spam comment I ever got! AwwwMy Profile

    • Andrew says:

      I remember you mentioning that you grew up in this area. I have pictures for Santa Margherita to put up as well. That will be some point soon.

      That road was insane but pretty. I can’t imagine driving on it every day, but I guess you would get used to it. I know there is nothing special about the gelato there. The ice dealers here just are often named for Italian cities and the one I go to a lot if Portofino. So I thought it would be cool to try it, but I am fully ok with missing out. :)

  11. Your pictures of Portofino look amazing. At least the views are free! I’m curious why you chose the bus and not the boat. It was be a lot of fun to travel that coastline via the boats they have.

    Someday I’ll visit Portofino but I’m with you – - for me there would be better places to spend the night.
    Debbie Beardsley recently posted..Who Inspires You Inspirational BlogsMy Profile

    • Andrew says:

      We did the bus first for a cost thing. The bus was less than 2 euros per person and the boat was many times that. We had done the bus to Portovenere just a few days before (see that post for more) and enjoyed it. There is something neat about taking public transport. I would like to take the boat out to the little monastery, so maybe one day.

  12. Andrea says:

    Gorgeous photos! I’ve always pictured Portofino as a very rich place and it certainly looks it.

    • Andrew says:

      Yup, rich is the word for it. Like I mention it feels like a resort. Maybe it is partly that I expect “authentic” to be shabby somehow, so when it is all in good repair it feels artificial. Yet when I see buildings that in other villages are homes built out as high end clothing shops importing stuff from Paris and Milan, it certainly doesn’t mesh with village sentiments to me. Oh well, it is a beautiful town anyway.

  13. Jeremy B says:

    Andy, Portofino is really beautiful. I am actually sorry that the town itself doesn’t live up to is beauty. I’ve been to the Cinque Terre and it really is a great place to visit. Unfortunately, it’s become too touristy. It almost sounds like this is the case with Portofino – just more ritzy. And that’s unfortunate because from the photos, I think it looks better than the Cinque Terre.
    Jeremy B recently posted..Travel Tuesday question of the week – what’s your most embarrassing travel momentMy Profile

    • Andrew says:

      What is “live up to its beauty”? It looks attractive and it is. It lives up to that aspect of things. Yeah it isn’t so touristy in Portofino in comparison to Cinque Terre in that, at least the day we were there, there are not hordes of people in matching sweaters taking pictures. It did feel upscale and not poor. It looks better because there is more money poured into it. That has the effect of better repair, but also other side effects. Oh well.

      • Jeremy B says:

        Sorry by “live up to its beauty” I meant that it is more touristy, upscale, and doesn’t retain the quaintness of the fishing village it once was. I guess that is more a sign of the times and more of a reflection of how I would like places like this to be. I guess I am a bit turned off by the upscale, expensive side but maybe that is why it is so beautiful.
        Jeremy B recently posted..Budget Travel Intentions says goodbyeMy Profile

        • Andrew says:

          It is definitely in better repair due to the money flowing around. That is certainly nice, but to be so upscale as to feel like Manhattan is a bit weird. If nothing else it is nicely secluded and keeps the rich isolated away from the rest of us for a while. Safer for all that way.

  14. Sabina says:

    I really just love the look of this town. Europe has got such a unique and ancient feel. I’m so glad it’ the first continent I traveled to. I remember in so many different places I went, I would walk down certain old streets and just feel the most intense sense of awe. We just dont’ have the same feel in the U.S. at all.

    • Andrew says:

      No, the feel is completely different in the US. Somehow the idea that there are buildings with dates on them here that predate the knowledge of the American continent is awe inspiring. My common joke is that there are buildings here that have plumbing older than the country that I come from.

  15. agree wholeheartedly…visit…and keep driving-hopefully you wont have to park in that parking lot…

    • Andrew says:

      It is certainly a neat place to see. I would never even attempt to drive there. The roads with the rich italians and their fancy cars whip around the bends as do the lumbering public buses. It was scary enough having someone else drive that did it every day. I would by n means attempt to get down there with me behind the wheel. As for parking? If gelato was that expensive, I can well imagine parking would require the servitude of children.

  16. Pingback: Italy Travel News 02/26/2011 | Italy Travel Guide

  17. Liv says:

    Nice piece on Portofino Andrew – I’ve got one on Cinque Terre in the pipeline!
    Liv recently posted..A day in Old HavanaMy Profile