If you’re looking for a beautiful, quaint old town that’s nestled among iconic villages on the stunning Ligurian coast of Italy, then look no further than Porto Venere.
With centuries-old roads and lanes to explore, ancient churches that sit high above the ocean and delicious food and drink to be eaten, this town is the epitome of an Italian summer.
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Part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes the famous Cinque Terre – a string of ancient seaside villages – Porto Venere shares the same charm and sweeping Mediterranean views, but without the same hustle and hordes of tourists.
With delicate beaches, hiking galore – with its own inland national park to explore – plus an abundance of diving spots jostling between its compact archipelago of islands, and a a jaw-droppingly beautiful harbour, this town has so much to offer along its jagged, historic coastline.
I hadn’t really heard much about Porto Venere (sometimes spelt Portovenere) until I visited the Cinque Terre. We were staying at a B&B in Levanto and were chatting to our landlady about how to spend our final day in the area.
The previous two days had been spent visiting the five villages that make up the Cinque Terre and walking the trails between them. For our final day in the area I thought we might head to Portofino, the famous upmarket holiday town a bit further north.
“No! Don’t go to Portofino,” our B&B host exclaimed. “Go to Porto Venere instead.”
After telling us all the reasons why Porto Venere was a better option than Portofino, we took her advice and set off for what turned out to be a wonderful day.
To reach Porto Venere we first caught a train from Levanto to Monterosso, then boarded a ferry to Porto Venere. (Only one service per day leaves from and returns to Levanto.)
Convenient public transport makes it really easy to enjoy a day trip from Cinque Terre to Porto Venere.
Ferry from the Cinque Terre to Porto Venere
The 80-minute ferry ride was the perfect opportunity to see the Cinque Terre villages from the water and admire their colourful buildings tumbling down to the shore. There were plenty of great photo opportunities, especially when the ferry stopped at Vernazza, Manarola and Riomaggiore to pick up passengers.
As lovely as the ferry ride was, when we sailed around the point and into the Bay of Poets for our first glimpse of Porto Venere, the scene took our breath away.
Porto Venere harbour
Just like the Cinque Terre villages, pretty gelato-coloured houses line the shore but here they have the benefit of flat land at their toes and a castle watching over them. Boats bobbed in the harbour and pedestrians ambled along the cobbled streets and we instantly knew why we’d been encouraged to come to Porto Venere.
There are no shortage of things to do in Porto Venere (as I’ll explain shortly) but to us, the appeal was the relaxed, happy atmosphere. Yes, there were tourists around but only a fraction of those that we’d walked shoulder to shoulder with in the Cinque Terre villages.
Here, teenagers sunbaked and played cards on the harbour front and, to our surprise, not a mobile phone was to be seen!
Along the harbour, the buildings house shops and boutiques as well as restaurants where the speciality is, of course, freshly caught fish. Narrow, cobbled alleys, lined with houses and shops, wind their way behind the harbour-front uphill towards the castle.
History of Porto Venere
Like many other Italian towns, Porto Venere has some serious history going on. It’s thought to date back to – at least – 100 BC, when it was known under Roman control as Portus Veneris.
Since then Porto Venere became a base for the Byzantine navy, was absorbed into the city state of Genoa, became known as “Department of the Gulf of Venus” under French domination, and was annexed to Sardinia, before becoming part of Italy proper.
In 1997, Porto Venere and the nearby Cinque Terre villages were designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Church of St. Peter
Perhaps the most iconic monument at Porto Venere is this religious building, situated on a rocky promontory jutting out to sea. This was one of the first things we saw as we rounded the point into the bay on our arrival into Porto Venere.
It’s thought that prior to the church’s establishment in 1198, it was the site of a temple to the Roman goddess Venus, hence the town’s Latin name: Portus Veneris – “Port of Venus” in English.
Regardless of its origins, the church is a must-see. The black and white stone work is typical of this region and on the day we visited the church’s simple but pretty altar was decorated in bright sunflowers.
Grotta di Lord Byron
It’s not only in recent times that Porto Venere has been popular with tourists. More than a hundred years ago English poet Lord Byron came here as part of his “Grand Tour” – the 19th century version of backpacking around Europe.
Grotta di Lord Byron means “Lord Byron’s Cave” and is literally that: a cave where Lord Byron would come to meditate on his writings. Located below the Church of St Peter, it’s officially called Grotta Arpaia – unfortunately the cave is now collapsed, but there is still a plaque bearing Byron’s name.
Fun fact: The cove is known as Golfo dei Poeti – the Bay of Poets – because Byron was known to have swum across from Porto Venere to visit his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, another famous poet, who was living San Terenzo.
This castle, one of the most majestic military structures of the old city state of the Republic of Genoa, sits high above the port with a commanding view of the surrounding sea.
Though the actual date of its foundation is unknown, the earliest known mention of the Castello Doria dates back to 1139 when the Republic of Genoa managed to gain control of the village of Portovenere, gaining a significant foothold in the republic’s defense against its eastern rival, Pisa.
Many years later, after a Napoleon Bonaparte-led French takeover, the castle was used as a prison.
Today, after renovations in the 1970s, the Castello Doria is used throughout the year for events and arts. It’s worth the climb for the awesome views out over the bay.
Church of San Lorenzo
Construction began on this Romanesque church in 1116, and it was consecrated by Pope Innocent II in 1130. Fire damaged the church in 1340, after which it was rebuilt in the Gothic style, but in 1494 the Aragonese damaged it further; so in the 16th century it was again transformed.
These transitions in architectural style are evident in the structure of the church, particularly the facade which, like the Church of St. Peter, features black and white stripes. Most interesting though is what the Church of San Lorenzo hides inside.
Some of the relics housed here include a bas relief of San Lorenzo, the trunk of a Lebanese cedar tree which, according to tradition, washed up in 1204 loaded with religious artefacts – including a painting on parchment depicting the White Madonna, frescoes, tables and sculptures from the 14th and 16th centuries.
More things to do at Porto Venere
With the islands of Tino and Tinetto within sailing distance from Palmaria, numerous diving spots, and much more in terms of historical interest and hiking routes, there are even more things to do in Porto Venere than you would imagine.
A 40-minute ‘3 Islands Tour’ is a great way to soak up more of this beautiful coastal region’s scenery. There are two cruises per day at 12 noon and 3pm.
This slice of the rugged yet serene Ligurian coastline is waiting to be explored both on foot and by boat.
My advice: If you’re planning a visit to the Cinque Terre, allow time to explore Porto Venere for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.
Where is Porto Venere
Porto Venere is located on Italy’s Ligurian coastline. It is 14 kilometres south of La Spezia, 93 kilometres north of Pisa, 126 kilometres south east of Genoa, and 240 kilometres south of Milan.
How to get to Porto Venere
If you’re visiting Porto Venere from Levanto or any of the Cinque Terre villages (except Corniglia which doesn’t have a port), your best option is to catch the ferry. Boats depart once per hour between 9.45am and 5.00pm.
This is a hop on hop off service so you can disembark at other villages en route. If you plan to do this, I recommend departing on the first service of the day to allow enough time for your visits en route to Porto Venere.
A daily round trip ticket costs around EUR35 per adult. Children 6 – 11 years pay EUR18.
From La Spezia, there are two options to reach Porto Venere – a bus service which operates about every 30 minutes (journey time 28 minutes), and a ferry service. There are five ferry services per day from La Spezia to Porto Venere (first departure is 9.15am and the last is at 2.15pm), and three services in the afternoon on the return leg.
Where to stay in Porto Venere
The Grand Hotel Porto Venere
There are numerous hotels in Porto Venero but the pick of the crop is the Grand Hotel Porto Venere. Housed in a 17th century Franciscan convent, the hotel with its now pastel pink colouring that graces the charming exterior, is a bastion of class that overlooks the Ligurian coast.
Recent renovations mean this is a fantastic place to stay, with most of the rooms affording beautiful vistas over the bay and to Palmaria Island, as well as views of the town itself.
Where to eat in Portovenere
We enjoyed a delicious al fresco lunch at Restaurant Miramar on the harbour front. Our meal consisted of a fish dish each, a shared salad, sparkling water, a glass of wine each, and a coffee each and cost EUR44.
After reading this article, I hope you’ll make time to include Porto Venere in your Cinque Terre itinerary.
Top image: © mdmworks / Adobe Stock Photo
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