Nicknamed the “Pearl of the World”, Portofino is Absolutely Gorgeous:
Once a humble fishing village, Portofino’s picturesque harbour is the most exclusive bay and upmarket resort in Italy. In this town, built around the small harbour, there are plenty of upmarket designer boutiques, luxury yachts and magnificent villas, all indicative of the long association that Portofino has with celebrity visitors. There is enough wealth crammed in this small harbour to support one of the smaller European economies.
Port of the Dolphin
According to Pliny the Elder, Portofino got its name from the Romans who named it Portus Delphini (Port of the Dolphin) because of the large number of dolphins in the Tigullian Gulf. Over time Portus Delphini evolved into Portofino. The town’s natural harbour made it a suitable shelter for fishing boats and its idyllic setting attracted the British upper crust and Northern European aristocrats here in the late 19th century. These expatriates built expensive houses and the villas here such as Castello Brown, once the home of Montague Yeats Brown, British Consul to Genoa.
When Rex Harrison showed up in Portofino, he liked the place so much that he bought a villa here which he named San Genesio after the patron saint of actors. Through word of mouth, more Hollywood stars arrived so that by the 1950s, tourism overtook fishing as the town’s main industry.
Discreetly Wealthy Portofino
Today Portofino is a hideaway for the northern Italian elite. Nestled amongst the cypresses, palm and pine trees in the rocky promontory surrounding the harbour are the luxury villas of Italian industrialists and fashion gods like Dolce & Gabbana and Giorgio Armani. Although the boutiques and luxury boats are giveaway signs that there’s plenty of wealthy residents here, the atmosphere is more subdued and discreet than say, the overt jet-set resort of Saint-Tropez.
The centre of Portofino consists of the small piazza filled with shops, restaurants and cafés. With the onset of tourism, the one-time fishermen of Portofino evolved into café and restaurant owners as well as boutique owners. You can sit at one of the cafés and enjoy some people-watching, but be aware that a cup of coffee in Portofino will set you back by 5 Euros (probably a little more now with inflation).
As you stroll around the harbour looking into the shops, don’t forget to take a look at the façades of the buildings. The engraved stone and brickwork fool me at first, until I realize that they are painted with a trompe l’oeil effect.
Things to See in Portofino
The few Portofino sights are concentrated on the little hill facing the harbour. It is worthwhile walking up to the Chiesa San Giorgio as the 16th century Castello Brown and Oratory of Santa Maria Assunta are up on this hill as well. From the terrace in front of San Giorgio you’ll have the most magnificent view of the whole Portofino harbour. Beyond San Giorgio, a path winds to the lighthouse at the end of the promontory. From here, you’ll have a sweeping view of the whole Ligurian coastline. .
As we walk back down to the harbour, a rhinoceros suspended in the air, pink meerkats and other sculptures catch our attention. Our guide fails to mention the Museo del Parco, but it is the largest outdoor sculpture museum in Italy, with some 120 exhibits. Regrettably, as we have no prior knowledge of this interesting sculpture park, we didn’t allow time for a stop there.
It’s easy to see why the rich and famous have chosen this idyllic harbour as their retreat. I too wouldn’t mind spending some days here. Coincidentally, the biggest cruiser moored in the harbour has my name on it and I can imagine what it would be like cruising the Ligurian coast in it.
For walkers, there is a network of well-marked walking paths you can explore in the Portofino Park area. Others may choose to just relax at the nearby beaches such as Paraggi Beach, Camogli, Chiavari, Lavagna, and Sestri Levante.
Hotels in Portofino are very expensive and the 5-star Hotel Splendido is the hottest Portofino hotel where everyone stays. It is a member of the Orient-Express Hotels and a night’s stay here in summer will make a nice dent in your bank account. Even the more reasonable hotels like the Albergo Nazionale on the harbour are expensive in summer. For the complete list of Portofino hotels, see Here.
How to Get to Portofino
Portofino is easy to get to from Genoa or Rome. See here for more on How to Get to Portofino.