You’ve no doubt heard about, seen or even been to Italy’s famous fishing towns on the Ligurian Coast – the Cinque Terre. Famed for their pastel colours, coastal views and higgelty-piggelty houses, these five towns are famous for good reason – they are simply stunning! Because of this however, during the height of summer you might find yourself wrestling through crowds of selfie-stick-cladded tourists… not ideal when you’re after that authentic Italian experience.
Fear not! Just down the coast from these popular picturesque towns, is yet another colourful gem of a town, named Portovenere. Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Site and only a stone-throw-away from the Cinque Terre, Portovenere is almost unknown internationally in comparison! And thus, much less busy/touristy.
So if you’re after a more Italian experience and a laid-back feel, with looks and charm that rival those insta-worthy counterparts up the coast, this town is just for you!
Getting to Portovenere
There is no train station in Portovenere – but do not let that put you off! There are a couple of good options…
Portovenere by Boat:
From April-November boats run daily on the hour to and from Portovenere if the weather is good. Going by boat is by far the best way to get around, it’s a great way to see the coast from another perspective.
La Spezia – Portovenere approx €8 one way, €12 return
Riomaggiore – Portovenere approx €13 one way
We found this website useful for boat ticket information.
Portovenere by Bus:
If you’re on a tight budget then a bus from La Spezia is a great option. It takes around 30 mins, and runs every half an hour at least. La Spezia sits on the same train line as the towns of the Cinque Terre (just stay on the train after Riomaggiore). You can buy bus tickets from La Tabaccheria (there’s one outside La Spezia Station) for just €3 – jump on the bus, sit with locals and enjoy the winding drive, there are endless beautiful views. More information on bussing can be found here.
Hike to Portovenere:
For the hardcore or adventurous bunnies among you, you can hike to Portovenere from Riomaggiore. It’s a 4 hour hike with plenty of stairs, but the views and landscape are beyond beautiful and rewarding. You’ll have earned that Aperol Spritz for sure!
What to do in Portovenere
Portovenere is not big, it’ll only take you a couple of hours to cover all the key spots at the max. Take your time though! Italy is best enjoyed the Italian way – leisurely… so bask in the sun, sample the gelato, have a picnic, test the regional wine.
A stroll along the harbourfront is an absolute must! Take time to gaze up at the incredible harbourfront buildings, named Palazzata. Stacked together like tall dominos, some of the Palazzata are as high as 8 stories tall! The Palazzata are painted pretty shades of pastel and from small windows strings of washing flutter in the wind, they’re perfect! Though they look like pretty seaside houses, these iconic buildings were originally built as a defense mechanism – a fortress protecting the inner town and castle. Portovenere has a long, eventful history (since the 12th century!) and has been ruled by a myriad of leaders over time. It’s been conquered, destroyed, rebuilt and sold countless times – imagine the history those pretty pastel walls have witnessed over the years!
Fishing boats bob on the nearby water and men cast their rods from the rocks. With a handful of gelateria’s and restaurants spilling on to the walkway – there are plenty of places to sit and watch the world go by.
Church of Saint Peter
At the end of the harbour you’ll find a short climb to the Church of St Peter. Perched atop rocks, this Gothic/Romanesque style Catholic Church was built in 1256. With panoramic views across the ocean, down the coast and across the harbour it’s definitely worth a quick visit.
In the same area you’ll find Byron’s Grotto – named after literary wiz Lord Byron. Legend has it that this is the spot where Lord Byron launched into a lengthy 7.5km swim across the bay to visit his muse in a neighbouring seaside town. To this day, swimming competitions are held annually in the same spot to commemorate the poet. On a calm, clear day the mediterranean sea is aqua blue and shimmery. With a great deal of rocks to perch on it’s a popular spot for a sunbathe and swim. Unfortunately while we were there however, though sunny, the wind blew a gale and the sea crashed ferociously against the rocks… not ideal for swimming/bathing!
Via Giovanni Capellini
This is the name of the main street that runs parallel to the harbour. It’s a totally pedestrianised, winding, cobblestone alley, typical of many of the Ligurian Italian towns. With colourful walls, potted plants, strings of washing and cats lazing in the sun – you’ll find something new to look at with every trip you take.
Shops spill onto the path with colourful displays of pasta and oil, pesto and wooden gifts. Unlike the Cinque Terre every shop we visited insisted we try it’s goods – pesto and oil and steaming hot foccacia to name a few. They were really friendly.
If you’re feeling curious make sure you take all of the side streets/stairs up and down from the main drag. Some may not lead to much, but there are a handful picturesque alleys and cute courtyards to be discovered if you’re interested.
What to eat in Portovenere
In my books, undoubtedly the most important hour of any day whilst in Italy is aperitivo hour. We found a spot on the harbour front named Al Gabbiano – a lovely little place to soak up the last of the sun. Their Aperol Spritz’s were generous and refreshing and their snack range pretty delicious too.
Make sure you look out for and try some of these Ligurian Specialities:
Foccacia – yes yes, it’s everywhere in the world these days, but the Ligurian coast is where it originated from so do yourself a favour and try the real deal – it’s the best. Doused in oil, rosemary with a sprinkling of sea salt is my favourite way to have it but there are tonnes of options. It’s available to buy by the slice (weighed) in deli’s/supermarkets or at focaccerias on the main street.
Farinata – a chickpea pancake. Baked in a wood oven they come out hot, buttery, nutty, salty and delicious. You can buy these hot slices of heaven from a handful of shops on Via Capellini. A great snack to keep the adventure hunger-pangs at bay!
Torta Salata/Torta di Vedura – basically a cheesy vegetable tart. We found spinach ones most commonly but often any veggies will do including courgettes, artichokes, leeks and swiss chard. It’s a delicious combo of buttery, crispy pastry with herbs, eggs, ricotta and veggies. They’re a little salty and a lot delicious. A good lunch option if you’re on the go!
Where to stay in Portovenere
If you’re on a tight budget (which we almost always are!) Ostello Porto Venere is a great place to stay! Not the quaintest or most aesthetically pleasing but our private room was spacious and clean. Perfect for a short stay. The view over the town from the hostel is unbeatable too.
You wouldn’t need longer than a day and a night in Portovenere if you wished to simply check it out. There is definitely more to do if you wish to stay longer though. Learn to sail, take a boat trip, go hiking or try a cooking class… who could get bored whist in Italy!???
Have you been to Portovenere and what did you think? Do you have any questions?
Leave a comment and let me know!