Portovenere Travel Guide for 2024 The Top Ten Attractions.

Things to See in Portovenere on the Gulf of the Poets 

Travel tips and Tour Guide By Local Experts 

Porto Venere is one of those places you really don't want to miss.  The timeless Ligurian town on the beautiful Gulf of the Poets will be one of the highlights of your trip to Italy. Our touring guide below describes the things to do - historic churches to visit, the fortress to explore, the streets to walk, the food specialties to keep you smiling. We start along the waterfront, then retrace steps to the town gate, then walk uphill.
The Palazzata, San Lorenzo Church, Castle Doria, Capitolare Tower. Portovenere, Liguria
The Palazzata, San Lorenzo Church, Castle Doria, Capitolare Tower, and 2600 years of history. Portovenere, Liguria 
Your first view of Portovenere will seem like travel magic. The old Ligurian town will appear like a romantic oil painting with that famous facade of tall, vividly colored buildings arranged on its promontory slope. This is the timeless picturesque fishing village that you've read about and dreamed of.....oops, sorry folks, actually it was not built as a fishing village and nothing here is original. It's a fortified town and while it's really charming, every part has been rebuilt, often numerous times. Going back more than 2,600 years, Porto Venere* has been conquered, reconquered, destroyed, rebuilt, bought, sold, repurposed, and rebranded. The history will completely fascinate you.

Italians love this wondrous place, and you'll see many more Italian tourists here than in Cinque Terre. The poet that captured the essence of the town in Italian was Nobel Prize winner Eugenio Montale – a Ligurian - for whom a local piazza is named. His poem 'Portovenere' from 1925 gave imagery to the feelings that a contemplative visitor senses. Here is one of earth's special places where land and sea and sky are trying to communicate with you. As Montale wrote: "Here, you are at the origins / and deciding is foolish: / Begin again later to assume a nature."

1. The 'Palazzata' - Fortress Houses
The Palazzata - Fortress Houses, Portovenere
The Palazzata - Fortress Houses.  Portovenere.  Daniel Horacio Agostini

The symbol of Portovenere’s attraction is the iconic and famous waterfront - pretty in every weather, harmonious and Ligurian with lots of traditional reds and yellows. A perfect background for the molo (the dock) where there's always something to watch. In Italian, they are referred to as case-fortezza - fortress houses. It's because these emblematic colorful buildings were not built this way for homeowner pride or urban harmony, but for protection.

Historic photo of the Palazzata - Fortress Houses, Portovenere
The Palazzata before the molo (dock). Portovenere.
Together the buildings form a defensive wall since they are tall and narrow and contiguous, and before there was the molo, a large boat couldn't approach them. The pretty wall has resisted Saracens and Pisans - but yields willingly to nice tourists. There’s a seaside entrance to each house at ground level, but the access to the street behind - via Capellini – is from a different, higher floor. The windows are small and there are no balconies and there is no street providing uphill access through the line of buildings, just a few steep, defensible stairways.

The oldest buildings are toward the open sea and feature ogive (pointed) arches, a feature associated with Tuscany, but the wall was originated by Genova after it bought the town in 1113 A.D. Subsequently it became a model for other Genovese settlements around the Mediterranean.

Travel Tip___________________________________________________________________
Renting A Car in Italy. If you drive in urban areas at home, you can drive in Italy. Car rental prices are important, but don't rent solely on low price and stick to well known companies. We have articles to help you:  
                                 Link: Independent Car Rental Reviews for Italy 
                                 Link:Car Rental Tips for Italy - Pick It Up Right 
                                 Link: Where to Rent a Car from Cinque Terre? Also useful for Portovenere.
We advise getting your car from one of the companies with the fewest problems reported (Avis, Europcar, Hertz, Autovia, Budget) either direct or via a reputable car rental broker such as AutoEurope (NOT autoeuropa, ending in 'a'). The advantages of using AutoEurope are the added services without paying more - low price guarantee; 24/7 help before, during, and after the rental; easy changes and cancellation; as well as available less expensive zero excess (deductible) insurance.** If you find our efforts helpful, you can thank us by making your reservation through these links -using the links do not raise your price.
                           AutoEurope(US)               Auto Europe(UK)            

2. Byron's Grotto
Near the black and white San Pietro Church are the cliffs and rocks of the little bay known as Byron’s Grotto. The grotto or cave part collapsed in the 1930's, but no matter - it's a wonderful dramatic scene with impressive cliffs and a sea that always seems to seethe. It's a great place to watch people, and this locale seems to compel people to snuggle, take selfies, risk a nasty fall for no particular reason, or meditate. The Byron connection is more symbolic than biographical but certainly appropriate for the man who wrote: “There is a pleasure in the pathless woods / There is a rapture on the lonely shore / There is society where none intrudes / By the deep Sea, and music in its roar: / I love not Man the less, but Nature more...”**

The rock here is the famous Portoro Marble (a/k/a Black and Gold). This dark, veined limestone has been used in luxurious decoration since Roman times, both in buildings and objects of art. Quarries – now closed – on the nearby island of Palmaria were the original source, but there's still a working quarry on the mountain behind Portovenere. Although it looks gray when rough, it polishes to black, and has attractive white and gold veining. You’ll see this stone used in churches throughout Italy. Here it's used in columns in the Church of San Lorenzo and also as building stone - along the docks and stairs, for example.

San Pietro Church, Portovenere
San Pietro on the site of the Temple of Venus.
3. San Pietro Church
Portovenere in the Roman era was known as Portus Veneris from a Temple dedicated to Venus - the goddess of the good stuff: love, beauty, sex, fertility. An early Christian church was built exactly on the location of that Temple and, in 1256, Genova replaced it with this distinctive black and white Church of San Pietro - a holy reward for Portovenere's help in conquering the castle of Lerici.

The architectural style is called Genovese Gothic, and it has a simple beauty. Parts of the more ancient structure are visible to the right of the door on entering. Notice that even though the church is tiny, it still has three naves.

The Church provides a good vantage point for the rugged Cinque Terre coast and for Palmaria Island. The church never seems to lose its ancient dignity no matter how many schoolkids and tourists crawl over it.

4. Town Gate, Capitolare Tower, Town walls
At the other end of the waterfront from San Pietro, the protective ring around medieval Portovenere was completed by a town wall, a gate, and a tower.  Today, the ensemble makes a handsome entrance to what we consider the Old Portovenere. However, these monuments - along with The Palazzata - actually are improvements made by the Genovese to create a new town.

The gate carries an inscription 'Colonia Januensis 1113', marking the beginning of Genoa's rule. There are two official capacity measures dating from 1606 on the gate, and high on the inside is a fresco from 1494. The wall rises steeply to the Castle from the town gate and is quite formidable. The Capitolare Tower from 1161 is adjacent to the gate with a stately and pretty parapet. 

5. Via Capellini and the Carrugi
Via Capellini, Old town Portovenere
Via Capellini, Old town Portovenere.
Behind the gate is Via Capellini which runs parallel to the waterfront. Old Portovenere's main street is evocative of the middle ages and runs from the town gate almost to Byron's Grotto. Obligingly it is always full of shuffling gawking people so you can shuffle and gawk without embarrassment. There are stores with souvenirs of every level of sophistication (or lack thereof), a few restaurants and several bars to explore. There's a quiet little piazza honoring the poet Montale with his 'Portovenere' poem on a plaque. Notice the characteristic old doorways of slate common to Liguria and the occasional arched window.

This street and the side lanes that branch off are very typical of Liguria. Narrow and shaded, they are called 'carrugi'. They protect from the sun in summer and from the wind in winter, they make it easy to chat with your neighbor across the way, and to keep track of who is coming and who is going. Sounds echo easily here, and the Italian language never sounds more rhythmic and fluid than in these carrugi.

Take any lane upward to the Castle and San Lorenzo, they are all the right direction and all charming. Almost every homeowner has added a unique but understated decor item - a flower pot, an illustrated tile, a painted grate. Don't mind the cats; they are standard equipment for carrugi and they stare at local and tourist alike.

Travel Tip____________________________________________
Area Guidebooks  First, buy your Cinque Terre guidebook before you arrive as you won't easily find them in Italy.  For a guidebook dedicated to Cinque Terre and Portovenere, we think the best by far is Rick Steves Pocket Cinque Terre - also available as a Kindle version. Most of the Pocket Cinque Terre info is also included in Rick Steves Italy  which is Amazon’s best selling Italy guidebook.  The next two best sellers have smaller Cinque Terre sections, but are suitable for a short visit. They are Fodor’s Essential Italy and Lonely Planet Italy.

If you are touring Liguria there are two guidebook choices. DK Eyewitness Italian Riviera has a small Cinque Terre section, but solid coverage of Genoa and other major locations and good graphics.  Liguria: The Italian Riviera / Bradt  has a moderate section on the Cinque Terre and decent coverage of the entire Ligurian coast with a personal touch including some wonderful out-of-the-way towns.

San Lorenzo Church, Portovenere
San Lorenzo Church from 1116 A.D.
6. San Lorenzo Church
Below the Castle/Fort you’ll see the handsome Church of San Lorenzo. It was built by the Genovese probably on the site of a temple dedicated to Jupiter. It originates from 1116 and is in Romanesque style with Gothic influences. As a testament to Portovenere's importance, the church was consecrated by Pope Innocent II in 1130. There are three naves and the roof is reminiscent of a ship's hull, with the light coming from little ship-sized windows.

San Lorenzo (Saint Lawrence) is the patron saint of Genoa, and is shown above the entrance being martyred on a grill. (insert tasteless joke here.) Inside there are portoro columns, a marble altarpiece by one Mino da Fiesole, an interesting painting on wood with the crucifix, and a 16th century polyptych. The church also has (they say) a piece of the Holy Cross and one of San Lorenzo's teeth. Our favorite artworks are the numerous votives in the side chapel, many expressing gratitude for rescue from the sea.

The Church also serves as the Sanctuary of the Madonna Bianca, whose famous 13th century portrait is also in a side chapel. She is carried through the streets of Portovenere on the evening of August 17 and the whole town is decorated with light in spectacular fashion.

7. Castello Doria
Guarding the town and the Gulf from Portovenere's highest point is the Doria Castle (a/k/a Castello Superiore). The views are wonderful. It's named for the Genovese ruling family of the 12th to 16th centuries. In the 170 year war between Genova and Pisa (1119-1290) here stood the most imposing fortification of either power. Pisa never took it, despite two direct assaults. The castle is a polygon that follows the hill's contours. The upper section was constructed in 1458, on the site of a previous fortification, and reinforced in the 1500’s. The lower Castle section is older and dates from 1161 (that’s before the Magna Carta!). The complex was changed again in 1751 as military architects tried to modify the castle to utilize and defend against increasingly powerful artillery. The fortress is relatively well preserved because it became obsolete with the opening of forts on Palmaria Island. You can visit inside for a 5 Euro fee daily 10:30 to 17:30, April through October.

8. The Windmills
The two short towers toward the sea down from the fortress are the remains of windmills - mulini del vento. A mill for what, you might well ask? Before the slopes of this promontory were covered with pines, the land was used to grow grain. Since Portovenere had no consistent running water for milling, wind energy was used once the mechanical technology developed to transfer variable direction wind power to a fixed vertical rotating shaft. These buildings date from the late 16th century when Portovenere was in full flower (or flour).

Also nearby and worth visiting is the town cemetery. Located high above Byron's Grotto, it must be one of the world's most beautiful final resting places.

9. Eat Piatti Tipici
Portovenere menu
Portovenere. You'll love the anchovies!
An attraction of any Italian town are the 'piatti tipici' - dishes typical of the area. We have an article explaining snacks and foods you are likely to see in the area - A Guide to the Local Food of La Spezia.  You don't need a restaurant to see two specialties - in the channel just off Portovenere are buoys holding the ropes with 'muscoli' – mussels – which are especially tasty here. And in the stores along Via Capellini, you'll see the pasta - croxetti - we recommend as a souvenir.

There are many restaurant choices in Portovenere, and they seem to sincerely try to give honest value. Two restaurants we've tried and enjoyed:

-Antica Osteria Del Caruggio / Via Capellini 66 / 0187 790617 / website: Antica Osteria del Carugio
An authentic trattoria where 'piatti tipici' are the draw. Lively, less expensive place with lots of local specialties.

-Ristorante Elettra / Calata Doria, 42 / 0187 792215
There’s outside dining on the quay, but even better is a glassed-in second floor dining room with great views. Very nice pasta dishes and seafood, affordable with pleasant wine.

10. Excursion to the Islands
Across the channel are the islands of Palmaria, Tino, and Tinetto – constituting Liguria's sole archipelago. Palmaria is the only island that can be visited without special permission and it's worth an excursion if you have time. There's a frequent, inexpensive ferry from the molo.

The island has beaches and uncrowded hiking trails, abandoned military forts, goats, ancient quarries, a unique Mediterranean macchia landscape, stunning seaside cliffs, and it's memorable. Read our article Palmaria - Guardian of Portovenere which describes the island and a hike around it. There is also a Consortium ferry boat from Portovenere which makes a three islands tour - inquire at the quayside ticket booth near the entrance street. In summer 2014, it departed daily at noon.

More Info

Portovenere Travel & Hotel Information
Portovenere map c.1773 Matteo Vinzoni
Portovenere c.1773  Matteo Vinzoni
Getting to Portovenere - A Transportation Guide

Ferry boat schedules:
Complete Cinque Terre, Portovenere, La Spezia Boat / Ferry Schedules - Summer

Local Information
The Pro Loco has a very good website for a little town: Pro Loco English.

Porto Venere Park
Information about the park that includes the islands and the promontory behind Portovenere. There are hiking trails, and climbing walls, beaches and forests. Parco Naturale di Porto Venere.

Travel Tip____________________________________________________________________________Where to Stay      
A word to the wise: location is important in deciding on a Portovenere hotel, be sure to understand where your choice is located. Our six hotel recommendations with links are listed from the old town outward. While some 'Portovenere' hotels are a pleasant 20 minute stroll along the waterfront, others are in the hamlet of Le Grazie (della Baia, Le Grazie & Relais del Golfo, for example) which is a bus or car ride away. 

Some Ideas for Portovenere hotels.

Affittacamera La Darsena Darsena means wharf, and this B&B is right along the water in old Portovenere.

Hotel Genio is just outside the ancient wall surrounding the old part of Portovenere.

Grand Hotel Portovenere Recently renovated, the location overlooking the historic center cannot be better. Many rooms with sea views. Full service including free wifi. Parking on site is 20 Euro.

Affittacamera La Lanterna This B&B is just a few minutes outside the old area, along the waterfront.

Hotel Belvedere is well located and maybe the most popular choice.

Hotel Paradiso is not far from the old town and closer to Portovenere's limited beaches.

Hotel Royal Sporting is about a pleasant 20 minute stroll along the waterfront. This is nearer to beach facilities, and you'll need the walk after what you will eat.

_________________________________________________________________________________ To Stay in other Ligurian towns, read here:
Part 1 Liguria Hotel Guide & City Selector
Lerici, Portovenere, La Spezia. Visit Cinque Terre & enjoy the Gulf of the Poets as well.
Part 2 Liguria Hotel Guide & City Selector
Levanto, Bonassola, Moneglia, Sestri Levante, Lavagna, Chiavari. Visit both Cinque Terre & Portofino.

Some of our other Liguria Travel Articles
Castle to Castle Along the Gulf of the Poets All about Lerici across the Gulf - exploring, parking, hotels.

Getting Around La Spezia  Describes parking in La Spezia, as well as bus info and other goodies.
La Spezia Travel Guide: Top Ten Attractions as told by people who  have actually been there.
A Guide to the Local Food around La Spezia  Food of the area, as told by expert mangioni.
Getting to Portofino - Walking, Hiking, and More  Describes fabulous walking and hiking from Santa Margherita Ligure to Portofino.

The Most Beautiful Villages of Liguria Part 1 The Rock Villages A 7-part series covering 28 great little towns.

What's the Best Guidebook for Cinque Terre?
First, buy your Cinque Terre guidebook before you arrive as you won't easily find them in Italy.  For a guidebook dedicated to Cinque Terre, the best by far is Pocket Cinque Terre by Rick Steves. Most all of the Pocket Cinque Terre info is also included in Italy by Rick Steves which is Amazon’s best selling Italy guidebook.

For advice and reviews on guidebooks for Liguria, Florence, Rome, Venice & more, read our article:
All the Best Italy Guidebooks Reviewed

*The town uses the form 'Porto Venere' as its name in deference to the original Roman name. Most publications, including those of other branches of Italian government, generally use 'Portovenere'.

** Lord Byron, George Gordon, “Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" 1812-1818. Canto Four, Stanza 178.

Written by Martha