Portofino is one of the most famous and iconic vacation destinations in Italy. Popular with the jet set and yacht owners, its beautiful bay and quaint charm invite travelers from all over the world to this tiny village on the Italian Riviera. But is it just Instagram hype or is Portofino worth a visit? And what is there to see and do if you decide to put Portofino on your itinerary?
On my Med cruise with Celebrity Edge I was lucky enough to have Portofino as one of the ports. After a bit of research I decided to spend the day in town instead of venturing further.
Read on for some practical info on how to get to Portofino, a short itinerary on how to spend a great day in Portofino, as well as my best tips on what to consider or avoid (the summer heat!).
Portofino is one of the most famous Italian villages
Portofino as a port of call
If your cruise has a port stop in Portofino itself you have the option of enjoying the day in Portofino itself or going further afield. Personally, I would recommend making this an easy and relaxing day (so rare on port intensive Med cruises!) and staying in town.
However, if you have your heart set on seeing Cinque Terre instead, you are probably best off booking an excursion (either via the cruise line or independently) as logistics from Portofino might be a bit challenging.
Portofino is a tender port which means that your cruise ship will anchor a bit further out and you will have to take a smaller tender boat to get to the town of Portofino.
Tendering usually runs smoothly but does take some additional time. On most cruise lines, passengers booked on cruise line excursions get to tender first so you may not be on the first (or second) boat. Do keep that in mind if you plan on an independent excursion or have a lot planned for the day!
If you are going to spend the day in Portofino itself tendering should pose no problems as you can easily see the town and enjoy the activities in less than a full day.
Two additional considerations:
In inclement weather tendering may not be possible. In that case you will either have an additional sea day or the ship will head to a different port. The Mediterranean Sea is less prone to high seas than for example the Atlantic so this should be the exception for Portofino.
Depending on your ship, you may need to get a tender ticket or reservation ahead of time, especially if you want to get off the ship early in the morning. Make sure to check on whether this is necessary on your cruise and how to get the ticket!
The tender boats will dock right next to Portofino’s town square
Portofino on a day trip
Portofino is also a popular day trip from Genoa, Milan, or Bologna.
You have the option of either taking an organized excursion or visiting Portofino independently.
Getting to Portofino from Genoa is easy. You can take a train to the nearest train station at S. Margherita Ligure-Portofino (about 45 minutes) and then travel on by bus.
If you get a (rare) direct train from Milan to S. Margherita Ligure-Portofino the trip will take about 2 hours (plus the bus ride onwards to Portofino). A bus tour may be the easier option (or you could visit the much closer Lake Como instead).
From Bologna renting a car or going on a bus tour is the best option as there are no direct trains.
One day in Portofino – my experience (+ tips)
Originally, I had planned to walk to S. Margherita-Ligure from Portofino during my port stop so had reserved a slot for one of the first tender boats of the day.
Unfortunately, the weather during my July Med cruise was unbearably hot so I quickly gave up any plan to exert myself more than absolutely necessary. Having the early tender ticket was crucial though as I could enjoy at least a couple of hourse before the heat climbed even higher.
Castello Brown perches high above the town
Visit at Castello Brown
My first destination for the day was Castello Brown. The castle dates back to 1425 and perches on a hill over Portofino. It is easily visible from the harbor.
Getting to the Castello is not difficult. Close to the tender docks you will see a small path with a sign. The path is fairly steep but not long (about 10 minutes).
It was already hot so walking up the hill was a bit exhausting but doable for anyone in halfway decent shape.
During the walk up to the castle you have a beautiful view over the hills out to sea
Once at the castle, there was a small charge (I believe it was €5) to enter. While the castle interior isn’t spectacular, you do have great views from the windows. I definitely am glad I decided to go in.
From the window I could see my ship anchored in the bay
Apparently, the castle is a popular venue for weddings and other events so it may be closed to the public when you are in town. But the walk up is nice either way so I recommend just giving it a try (I can not find any information about opening times on their website).
In the castle garden was a small cafe/bar. Very welcome as I didn’t get breakfast before leaving the ship (early tender ticket!). So I bought a soda and a small snack.
Sitting in the castle gardens, enjoying the view, and resting a bit was definitely the right decision. Portofino is the kind of place you need to savour instead of just hustle through!
The views from Castello Brown are spectacular
Walk to lighthouse Faro di Portofino
After my stop at the castle, I decided to follow the path further to the lighthouse. It is a pleasant walk – or at least it would have been pleasant if it hadn’t been so unbearably hot. However, even in the heat the views were wonderful.
At the end of the path, I got to the lighthouse. There was a restaurant here but as I just had gotten a snack at Castello Brown I passed on this.
However, the bar Al Faro would make a great place to relax and spent some time soaking up the views. Unfortunately, there aren’t any benches along the path to the lighthouse so if you bring something to eat and drink along you will have to find a place to sit on the ground at the side of the path.
You will find the lighthouse – and a bar – at the very end of the trail
Return to Town
I would have loved just relaxing a bit longer here but it was just too hot (did I mention it was hot?). My main piece of advice: visit Portfolio in spring/fall and not in the middle of summer!
Slowly, I made my way back along the path towards town. After passing Castello Brown I stayed on the main path instead of retracing my steps down the original path.
This meant that I ended up a bit further towards the main town square but to be honest Portofino is tiny so it doesn’t make much difference which path you take.
Once back in town, I walked over the busy town square.
In summer Portofino is busy with lots of tourists
The town does get very full with tourists but luckily you can escape the crowds easily. As soon as I turned off into one of the smaller streets, it got much quieter.
Hard to believe this is only steps from the busy tourist area
Visit to Chiesa del Divo Martino
As I walked by the small church of Divo Martino I noticed that there was a service ongoing – I had forgotten that it was Sunday. I quietly went in and enjoyed the remainder of the service in the serene (and cool) church.
Definitely check out this small church dedicated to St. Martin of Tours. The striped church exterior is quite distinctive and the richly designed interior and ornate main altar are worth a visit!
Chiesa del Divo Martino is not very big but just as pretty as the rest of Portofino
I am a fan of beautiful pavements /mosaics so I was happy to see the decorated tiles in front of the church. I didn’t see as many decorated mosaics in Italy as in Portugal but Portofino’s marine-themed pavement is definitely worth a look!
The sea life inspired mosaic is a great fit for this small fishing village
Stroll along the harbor
After seeing the church I spent a little time walking along the harbor front with its many bars and restaurants. It was strange to see the collection of fancy fashion boutiques and designer stores in this tiny town that otherwise looks like a rustic fishing village.
Fancy boats and large yachts are proof of Portofino’s popularity with the rich and famous
What else to do on your day in Portofino
At that point, I gave in to the heat and returned to the ship. Portofino is indeed gorgeous and worth a visit but it was just too hot to enjoy it properly.
There was a bit of a wait for the tender boat and quite a lot of people were lining up to get back on board – clearly I wasn’t the only one defeated by the heat.
But if you are lucky enough to visit Portofino outside a heat wave (or if you are just more resilient than me), here are some additional ideas on what to do:
- Take a break in one of the many bars and restaurants along the port (or at the lighthouse) and enjoy the beautiful view with a glass of wine (or lemonade)
- Make your way down to one of the tiny rock beaches and relax at the waterside
- Walk to the nearby town of Santa Margherita Ligure. The 5 km walk should take a good hour and you can take the bus back.
With about 8.5 k residents, Santa Margherita Ligure is quite a bit bigger than Portofino but has a similar vibe. Villa and Gardens Durazzo would make a great additional highlight for your day.
Final Thoughts about my day in Portofino
Portofino is not a mega-sight nor does it offer a large number of activities. But it is indeed as pretty and charming as it looks on pictures and makes for a wonderful and relaxing day out.
The main square and harbor area get very busy with tourists but if you get an early start and leave the touristy center you can enjoy a tranquil and serene vibe.
Portofino is the kind of place to savor. Sit down, have a delicious meal or a glass of wine, watch the passersby, and enjoy the Dolce Vita Italy is known for. Just try not to visit in the July heat!
My Top Tips for Portofino
- Try to visit in spring/fall to avoid the heat and busy crowds
- If you are in town on a cruise, make sure you understand the tendering process ahead of time
- Stray outside the main plaza to experience a more relaxed vibe
- Like always: Wear sunscreen, sun hat, and take plenty of water
- Enjoy a relaxed day without rushing from sight to sight