For my first day-trip to the Gulf of La Spezia I chose to visit Portovenere, one of the most beautiful medieval towns in Liguria.
The old fishermen’s village is famous for the fortress that dominates the peninsula, the colourful houses overlooking the sea, the ancient churches and several hiking trails that allow you to reach Cinque Terre and other places of interest across the coast around La Spezia.
That is the reason why Portovenere together with Cinque Terre were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997.
In this article I want to share with you some useful information about how to reach Portovenere without car, which are the best day-tours available from La Spezia and Tuscany as well as a recommended itinerary of the visit.
Where is Portovenere?
The town is located at the southern end of a small peninsula which forms the western tip of the Gulf of La Spezia. The city of La Spezia is just 13 Km away.
This area is also named Gulf of Poets as it welcomed many writers and poets over the centuries. Dante Alighieri, Petrarch, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and George Sand are some of the artists that came here to find the inspiration for their works.
Then, together with the three islands of Palmaria (which is partially inhabitated), Tino and Tinetto, Portovenere constitutes a Regional Natural Park. Established in 2001, its unique landscape comprises high coasts, caves, Mediterranean vegetation and a marine protected area.
How to get to Portovenere?
There is no train station there so the best way to reach it is by bus from La Spezia. The ATC bus lines 11/P leaves every 15-30’ from Viale Garibaldi (not Fridays, from 7am to 7pm) and Via di Monale (only Fridays, from 7am to 7pm).
Both bus stops are located 10-15’ by walk from La Spezia Railway Station (Centrale FS). Travel time to Portovenere is around 30 minutes. A single ticket costs 2,50€ (updated on May 2021) and must be bought at tobacconist’shops and newsstands before boarding.
During high season, generally between March-October, it is possible to explore Portovenere and the Bay of Poets by boat (traghetti). Maritime services connect La Spezia to Portovenere, Lerici, Levanto and the towns of Cinque Terre. For more details visit Navigazione Golfo dei Poeti.
Driving to Portovenere is possible but not really recommendable, especially in high season. Parking fees are expensive and only those who book a stay at Grand Hotel Portovenere can have their parking slots in the central garage. Having said that, the parking areas available are:
- P1, from Via Olivo to Arenella;
- P2, from Arenella to II° traversa Olivo;
- P3, Salita Cavo and Via Garibaldi;
- P Golfo, in Cavo locality.
If you are coming from Genoa and Pisa you must follow the motorway A12 up to Santo Stefano di Magra exit, which is valid also for those arriving from Parma along the motorway A15.
The best day-trips to Portovenere and Cinque Terre
Another chance to visit this wonderful area is to take part in excursions and guided tours leaving from La Spezia, Genoa, Milan, Florence and Pisa.
There are many options available for all needs and interests. I do recommend these activities particularly for those who only have short time and want to make the most of their stay.
You can check the day-trips full list and book your place in advance visiting this website.
What to do and see in Portovenere in one day
The medieval centre as well as the places of interest can be seen in few hours. So you have plenty of time for enjoying panoramic tours of the islands of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto with boats departing from the harbour along Calata Doria.
Portovenere is also the starting point of hiking trails to Campiglia and Riomaggiore. Besides that, the Palmaria is crossed by a scenic walk with stunning views over the Gulf of Poets.
The Aldo Moro promenade
The main road from the bus stop leads to the “Passeggiata Aldo Moro”, from where you catch the first glimpse of the beauty of Portovenere.
Through this coastal walk you get to most of the beaches of Portovenere, which consist mainly of pebbles and stones. Then, you can see the island of Palmaria and Torre Scola islet on the horizon.
Via Calata Doria and the “Palazzata a mare”
Via Calata Doria is the name of Portovenere’s waterside promenade and it runs along its pictoresque harbour as well as its cafes and restaurant where to relax while having lunch or grabbing a drink… maybe an Italian Aperitivo 😉
The seafront is “walled” by the “Palazzata a mare”, formed by narrow houses with typical pastel-coloured Ligurian facades. The maritime Republic of Genoa built them attached to each other in order to protect the inner part of the town.
The Church of St Peter
At the tip of the promenade, near Le Bocche Channel, the Church of St Peter is one of the most famous places of Portovenere and Gulf of Poets. It stands on the top of the rock and it looks like a fortified castle.
Consecrated in 1198, it was erected over a pre-existing 5th-century Palaeo-Christian church whilst the new gothic part dates back to 1256-1270 and it is easily recognizable thanks to the black and white stripes. Inside it hosts a replica of the bronze statue of St Peter located in the Basilica Vaticana.
Next to the church, the Romanesque Loggia is the only part remained of the Benedictines Abbey from the 9th century. Today it offers amazing views over the bay and beyond.
Do you know that…
The Church of St Peter is linked to the name of this town. Indeed, it was built upon an ancient Pagan temple dedicated to Venus Ericina. According to legend, she originated from sea foam after the waves crashed on the rocks located below the building.
The Byron’s Grotto
A very popular natural attraction is the Grotta dell’Arpaia, better known as Lord Byron’s Grotto. Situated close to St Peter’s Chuch, from here the English poet swam across the Gulf of La Spezia to San Terenzo in Lerici to visit Percy Shelley in 1822. Besides that, it was his favorite meditation and relaxation spot on the bay.
Today, locals and visitors love swimming and go snorkeling in this secluded place.
Windmills and Doria Castle
Now leave the doorway to Byron’s Grotto behind you and keep walking up to the steep staircase that lead you up to the hill.
Along the way you pass the remains of two cylindrical buildings. They used to be windmills and then watchtowers. Today they are a spectacular panoramic spot over the Church of St Peter and the gulf.
Behind you there is finally the majestic fortress which dominates Portovenere from above. It was built around 1161 during the Republic of Genoa in a strategic position to control the area. Doria Castle has undergone many trasformations over the time, especially between 15th and 17th centuries. During the Napoleonic period it served as a political prison as well.
Today you can admire the castle’s exterior or pay a small entrance fee (5€) to visit it inside. Otherwise – and this is the option I recommend you – why do not simply pause in the shady grassed area and enjoy the view?
Do you know that…
The famous Italian climber and explorer Walter Bonatti is buried in the cemetery of Portovenere, which is located at the foot of Doria Castle overlooking the sea.
The Church of St Lawrence
Walk down from Doria Castle and you will find yourself in front of the Church of St Lawrence (Chiesa di San Lorenzo). This temple was built in Romanesque style by the Genoese and then Pope Innocent II consecrated it in 1130.
It is also called Santuario della Madonna Bianca (Sanctuary of the White Madonna) in honor of the local patron saint which is celebrated every year on August 17.
The Portovenere’s town centre and the “Porta del Borgo”
The old town lies behind the Palazzata a Mare and the access to it is through the ancient city gate, the “Porta del Borgo”. The inscription Colonia Januensis 1113 is still visible on it as it marks the beginning of the domination of the Republic of Genoa here in Portovenere. Just adjacent to the city gate is the Capitolare Tower, which dates back to the 12th century.
Via Giovanni Capellini is the main street crossing Portovenere’s historic centre and it is a caruggio, the narrow street typical of Ligurian villages. In it you find artisanal, souvenir and food shops. Then, on its sides there are little squares, stairways and tiny passageways.
An urban landscape full of colours and charme. I am sure you will love it 😉
Where to stay in Portovenere