Travel Guide: History and Culture of Italy’s Portofino

Portofino: a magical pastel-coloured fishing village in Liguria

Famous for it’s rainbow of pastel-coloured buildings, high-priced restaurants and elegantly dressed visitors, the stunning town of Portofino vibrates with wealth and notoriety. It is nestled in the hills in the region of Liguria, on the west coast of Italy. Reportedly, the town was originally named ‘Portus Delphini’ by the Romans, on account of the large number of dolphins that swam around the port. Other than the eclectic mix of tiny dogs (miniature poodles seem to be a favourite of the Portofinians), the town boasts a picturesque landscape and excellent seafood-heavy cuisine.

Picture of the pastel coloured buildings of Portofino and boats in the water
Portofino is centred around the harbour, which has many boats coming in and out all day.

Glitz and glamour

Since the town became popularised by directors filming some classic films in the 1950s, it has become overwhelmed by a stream of tourists from around the world. In the summers particularly, the rich and famous flock to the Portofino, which actually only has 1000 permanent residents. An article in Vogue in 2017 accurately put it, ‘It’s better to be quiet about Portofino’.

A range of actors, singers and royalty have been spotted in the postcard-perfect town. The likes of Ava Gardner and Liza Minnelli to more contemporary stars such as Robert de Niro and George Clooney have been spotted there. Portofino’s reputation for being a swanky holiday destination for the illustrious remains. On a recent visit there, I witnessed the development of the celebrity culture into the modern age, with Instagram influencers trotting around in stilettos, personal film crew in tow. Liguria has produced some stars of its own, including three nobel prize winners and Giuseppe Mazzini (champion of the Italian unification movement, Risorgimento). Christopher Columbus, Europe’s discoverer of America, was also born there.

History of Portofino

Despite the image of glitz and glamour, Portofino is essentially a marine village of great historical and archeological importance. The town has been passed between the hands of many different powerful entities throughout its history. Between 1200 and 1800, it was annexed by the Republic of Genoa, then passed to Florence. Then it went back to Genoa, then was briefly part of the French empire, before becoming part of the Kingdom of Sardinia. Finally, in 1861, it became part of the Kingdom of Italy.

Traveling around Liguria

The nearest airport is in Genoa, and is named after the famous Christopher Columbus. To get from there to Portofino is quite easy, with regular trains and buses. There are also plenty of taxi companies in Liguria, if you’re not feeling like figuring out Italian transport. We flew to Milan, which generally has cheaper flights but is a bit longer car journey. If you are able to rent a car whilst you’re there, I would. A car gives you access to many more places across Liguria. It also provides you with an interesting experience navigating the Italian countryside and dealing with slightly erratic Italian drivers. It’s definitely an experience in itself.

Once you’re there, there are many different companies that will lend you a boat for the day or take you out on a trip. This way, you see the coastal towns from a whole new perspective and become even more perplexed by their beauty, bobbing along in the vast ocean.

Portofino film and literature

The 1950s was a turning point for the little fishing port. When Joseph Mankiewicz brought Hollywood stars Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner to Portofino to film scenes for The Barefoot Contessa, the town began its association with glamour and fame. The film is focused on the life of a Hollywood movie star, Maria. It spans her life from being discovered in Madrid, until her funeral in Italy. Portofino, therefore, was a fitting place to film some of the scenes. Fast forward 60 years and Portofino returns to our screens. It can be seen in the background when Leonardo DiCaprio is crying out on a luxurious yacht in Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street. DiCaprio plays the character of Jordan Belfort, a real-life, notoriously sordid, deviant millionaire. Oozing in riches, Belfort fits right into the backdrop of the opulent Portofino.

Film still of Dicaprio in the wolf of wall street
Portofino and nearby towns set the backdrop to a yacht scene in the Wolf of Wall Street

Enchanted April, set in Portofino

Literature has also thrown Portofino into prominence. A month-long stay in the area led to the creation of one of the most widely-read novels of the 1920s. Elizabeth von Arnim set her book Enchanted April in the 15th century Castello Brown, a castle where she stayed, situated high above the harbour in Portofino. Enchanted April has been credited with making Portofino fashionable. It was turned into a film in 1991, starring Miranda Richardson, Josie Lawrence, Polly Walker and Joan Plowright. The story follows these four English women as they leave their husbands behind and find themselves transformed by rural Italian life. Initially the women muddle through tensions within the group. However, eventually they connect with each other and are revitalised by their beautiful surroundings where they rediscover love and hope.

Cinque Terre

Further down the coast of Liguria is a string of five exquisite fishing villages. The Cinque Terre is connected by an ancient system of footpaths. Inaccessible by car, the villages, Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore have been preserved through the centuries. Once distinguished by its complete isolation, the cinque terre is now host to millions of visitors a year. The colourful fishermen’s cottages were conceived of as a tourist attraction in the late 1970s. The area was recognised as a Unesco World Heritage site in 1997 and today is a national park and protected marine area.

Image of vernazza
Vernazza, one of the Cinque Terre villages, is considered one of the most beautiful in Italy. Photo:

Built into the precarious mountainside, the Cinque Terre is not without its dangers. In October 2011, a storm of torrential rain and winds caused massive floods and mudslides in the villages. Nine people lost their lives and villages were severely damaged. Many trails are still in a delicate state and some have been closed for many years. The steep rugged landscape, however, has also successfully grown olives and grapes, used to make the famous Cinque Terre wine.

Long live the Ligurians

According to an article in The Local, citizens of Liguria live longer than any other region in Europe’s inhabitants. At the start of 2018, Italy had 20 “supercentenarians” aged 110 or more, 16 of them women and four men. Why is this? Well, genetics do play a role. However, experts have attributed longevity to factors such as an outdoor-based lifestyle. Remaining active is also key; the Ligurian coasts provide a perfect landscape for hiking and swimming.

As many anthropologists have written about before, connecting with people and maintaining a strong sense of community can actually add years to your life. Finally, FOOD. The infamous Mediterranean diet is well-known to be a factor for longevity. It consists largely of fresh fish and local vegetables, olive oil, legumes and is relatively low in processed meats. Italians also tend to drink a glass of wine with dinner. Red wine, in moderation, has been shown to provide antioxidants, promote longevity, and helps protect against heart disease and inflammation.

View across the bay of Paraggi
Paraggi, a cove in the Ligurian coastline, is great for swimming and sunbathing.

Food, food, delicious food

The cuisine of Liguria brags an array of fresh seafood and is overflowing with oily focaccia. Pesto alla genoese, created in Liguria, has become a symbol of Genoa and is known all around the world.

In the nearby town of Paraggi, there is a gorgeous restaurant. It will make you question whether you knew what good food was before you went. It could very easily win the title of the best food I have ever tasted. ‘Langosteria’ opened last June (the original restaurant is in Milan). It serves a multitude of treasures, such as refreshing oysters, creamy pappa al Pomodoro (a rich tomato and bread combo, topped with mussels), tuna carpaccio with smoked aubergine or linguine with blue lobster. Then, the crème de la crème: a calamarata. The elongated rings of pasta with mixed seafood are made for two and are prepared by the chefs in front of you at the table. Positioned right on the beach, looking out across the bay, Langosteria is an idyllic spot and definitely worth the expense.

Photo of restaurant looking out over the sea
Langosteria restaurant in Paraggi looks out over the sea (photo: TripAdvisor).

Considering the types of customers that frequent Portofino, the standard of service at restaurants is generally extremely high. When a friend and I were eating out there one evening, a waitress later apologised to us for using the informal ‘ciao’ to greet us instead of the more formal ‘salve’. Even with my broken Italian, they waited patiently for me to stutter out my order slowly. They also brought us extra bread as the waiter heard my tummy grumble.

Secret-sauced scampi

Five minutes around the coast from Portofino towards Santa Margarita Ligure, is a unique restaurant called Da O Batti. The place is perched elegantly on the hilltop looking over the bay and is renowned for its incredible scampi dishes. The scampi has become legendary for the sauce that the little creatures bathe in. It is a top-secret recipe that has been in the family for 25 years. The sauce has a sweet and delicate flavour that surpasses any expectations of a sauce you may have. Not a fan of scampi? There are plenty of other fabulous, equally delicious, options on the menu. There is an intriguing pesto lasagne, a roasted octopus dish or a simple but elegant spaghetti with taggiasca olives. Finally, saving the best until last, the creme brulee. Not any old creme brulee, but a creamy pistachio creme brulee with a perfect crisp. That’s right. Heavenly.

Image is of a plate of scampi
A plate of the famous Da O Batti scampi, drenched in a secret recipe sauce. Photo: TripAdvisor

History of Portofino: World War Two

Delving back into history, in World War 2, Portofino’s charm and beauty were enough to keep the German Army from destroying it. The preservation of the town can largely be attributed to a courageous Scottish women named Jeannie von Mumm, who had been a resident of Portofino since 1920. As the allies were pushing back the Nazis, a local commander was ordered to destroy the town and harbour of Portofino. Von Mumm reportedly told him that destroying Portofino would ‘violate the laws of humanity, and that the atrocity would return like a boomerang to his own head’. Portofino was saved from destruction and has remained untouched, charming and glorious, ever since.

Photo of Portofino harbour from above
Portofino from above.

San Fruttuoso Abbey

Tucked away in the hills along the coast from Portofino is an incredible monastery. It is only accessible by foot or boat, giving the feeling of a secluded world that has been untouched for centuries. The monastery is a magical building built on the beach by Greek monks in the tenth century. It has a base of arches that let the water flow under it at high tide. The clock tower stands tall watching over the cove. Although the price to dock your boat and catch the speedboat taxi inland is steep, it is one hundred per cent worth it.

Crossing over the tiny crescent beach, there is a wonderful seafood restaurant called da Giorgio, nestled in the rocks (literally, the tables are perched on top of the rocks). We enjoyed a coffee here, being careful not to drop our things into the waves below whilst people watching the beach-goers.

Photo of San Fruttuoso Abbey, situated on the beach in the hillside
San Fruttuoso Abbey, accessible only by foot or boat

‘Cristo degli Abissi!’

On our way back to the boat we had rented for the day, there were a couple of people swimming in the sea. Dressed in snorkelling wear and swimming around in a circle, heads down, we asked what they were looking for. ‘Cristo degli Abissi!’ they cried- ‘Christ of the abyss’. Intrigued by what they could be talking about, we grabbed our own swimming stuff from the boat and dived in. On the sea bed at the side of the vast bay, we were surprised to discover a bronze statue of Jesus, placed importantly on top of a ringed platform.

After a little research later that evening, I was surprised to find Cristo degli Abissi on Google maps, marked in the sea on the exact spot. The spot was not random- it was placed there in 1954 near to where Dario Gonzatti, the first Italian to use scuba gear, died in 1947. Cristo degli Abissi is not the only statue to be put in the sea for swimmers and divers to admire. There are various other similar statues that are located in underwater locations around the world.


Portofino, Santa Margarita, Paraggi and the surrounding coastal area of Liguria remain my favourite places to visit in Italy. On my last trip there, we rented electric bikes and cycled a slightly hair-raising trip round the windy, narrow coastal roads. There is nothing quite like cycling with incredible speed and ease, with the wind flowing through your hair, the sea sparkling alongside you. The food is almost guaranteed to be a winner each and every time you eat out. Italy has an undeniable charm and is somewhere I will return again and again and will never be bored of it.

One thought on “Travel Guide: History and Culture of Italy’s Portofino

Leave a Reply