The earth tones of rusty browns, oranges and terracotta of the simple facades curving round the fishing port could almost be mistaken for a medieval painting were it not for the mega-yachts that bring the ultra-rich to this quiet corner of northern Italy where it's said they come to get away from it all rather than to flaunt their wealth.
Dating from Roman times, and later a modest fishing village that changed hands from the Benedictines to the Republic of Genoa and later to the Republic of Florence, Portofino is now one of the most stylish corners of the Mediterranean. Decades ago its unspoiled charm was already a draw for artists, politicians and aristocrats and, despite attempts to keep it hidden, it has become an open secret among travellers of all sorts. Now, then, the chic fishing village, where good taste overcomes ostentation, has become so popular that were it not for the natural protection offered by the landscape it would surely have lost some of its appeal.
Fortunately, though, Portofino is set on a small bay backed by a wooded hillside and it is quite simply impossible for the town to grow. In fact, since 1935 no new houses have been built here and the town has not been in the least bit spoiled: the narrow streets retain their picturesque charm, although with the additional seasoning of some of the very best boutiques and restaurants and just a few exclusive hotels, while higher up the slopes, fabulous villas are dotted among the green of the dense natural garden that offers them its protection.
The old fishing port functions almost as a main square, and luxury yachts dominate the inlet overlooked and protected by the old castle and the baroque church of San Giorgio – St George. These two monuments, along with the famous piazzetta with its constant comings and goings, are among the must-sees. But Portofino is really best thought of as the perfect base to return to each evening after exploring the gems of the surrounding area: the bewitching beaches that lie along the route to the elegant towns of Santa Margherita and Rapallo, the inaccessible coves that can only be reached by boat, the medieval village of Camogli, and the innumerable walking trails in Mount Portofino natural park.
Both British Airways and Ryanair fly from London to Genoa, which is less than an hour north along the coast from Portofino. From Genoa, travel by train to Santa Margherita Ligure and continue on by taxi, bus or boat to Portofino itself.
The convenience and independence granted by a car is probably out-weighed by the summer traffic jams and general shortage of parking. Unless your hotel will guarantee you a parking space, it is better to rely on public transport and taxis. Remember, too, that one of the biggest attractions of the area are the hiking trails in the natural park of Mount Portofino. And, of course, many of the most attractive coves and beaches are only accessible by boat.
Where to stay
The Splendido, built in the nineteenth century on the ruins of a three-hundred-year-old monastery, is the great classic and occupies a privileged position overlooking the bay. It was opened as a hotel in 1901, and through its doors have passed all the celebrities and A-listers drawn by the charm of Portofino. Another stylish alternative, just a short walk from the piazzetta, Eight Portofino, is a four-star boutique hotel that combines the elegance of the past with contemporary facilities and service.
Where to eat
Right in the piazzetta, try for a table at the popular Puny (Tel. +39 0185 269 037), and enjoy the fine sea food in a a relaxed yet elegant setting. At the Taverna del Marinaio in the piazza Martiri dell'Olivetta (Tel. +39 0185 269 103) sample the glorious local pestos, or, nearby, the Delfino (Tel. +39 0185 269 081) with its excellent regional specialties.
The walk up to Portofino lighthouse to admire the breathtaking views, and the delightful walk to the medieval abbey of San Fruttuoso. Alternatively – and equally pleasant – hire a boat and sail to the cove where the abbey is set.