Hiking along the edge of the cliffs, I look down. There’s a whole lot of nothing between me and the rocks below – and that’s pretty scary!
Then I look back up and along the path that I’m walking on. There’s a whole lot of nothing there too – but that’s exciting!
This is the first time in days that I have had no other tourists in sight. It’s rare here in Italy’s Cinque Terre… unless you come to this special spot.
When most people think of hiking Cinque Terre, they think of the famous path that links the five small towns between Monterosso and Riomaggiore.
This beautiful stretch of the Italian Riviera is one of the most popular parts of the country. Thousands of people visit every day and, particularly in the summer months, the crowds hiking between the towns can be quite annoying.
But there’s more to Cinque Terre than just the five famous coloured coastal towns and the walking path between them.
The Cinque Terre National Park goes up into the hills above the towns and includes walking trails through the olive groves and vineyards. And it stretches further down the coast, past dramatic uninhabitable cliffs, until it reaches Portovenere.
The small town of Portovenere is just as beautiful as any of the others along the Cinque Terre coast, although in a different way. But for an even more special experience, there’s Palmaria Island.
Just across the water – only a few minutes away by boat – it offers a secluded escape where you’ll have the hiking trail and the stunning views all to yourself!
I would recommend visiting Portovenere from Cinque Terre and going across to Palmaria Island as well. To help you with your planning, I’ve put together some tips.
Portovenere (Porto Venere)
The town of Portovenere (also known as Porto Venere) has a population of less than 4000 people. I would say it has the atmosphere of a small fishing village, but I’m not sure many people here bother fishing anymore. The steady flow of tourists probably offers a better catch of the day.
Go back a couple of thousand years, and the location of Portovenere meant that it was used by both the Roman and then the Byzantine Empire as a maritime base – for commercial and then military purposes.
But it was around the 11th and 12th centuries that it started to grow into the town that you still see today, with its medieval layout and architecture.
First it was just a single local family that ruled Portovenere, but then it passed into the control of the powerful Genoese, who expanded it and built fortifications to protect it from attack.
Portovenere: Things to do
Although it’s not very big, there’s a fair bit packed into such a small are, meaning there are lots of things to do in Portovenere, Italy.
Church of St Peter
I would suggest starting at the striking Church of St Peter (Chiesa di San Pietro) which is built on a natural rocky rise at the end of the marina. It was consecrated in 1198, although the section with the black and white strips is from the 13th century.
From the church, you can walk along the coastline until you reach a viewpoint called Byron’s Grotto, named after the English poet Lord Byron who swam from here.
Rising up above, you’ll see the strong fortifications of Doria Castle (Castello Doria). This military stronghold was built by the Genoese in 1161, although it’s been changed over the centuries to suit new uses. You can go inside to see what remains and get excellent views.
From this Portovenere castle, I would suggest heading back down the hill through the old medieval streets, where you’ll find some interesting architecture and a few handicraft shops.
Church of St Lawrence
It is also worth popping in and having a look at the Church of St Lawrence (Chiesa di San Lorenzo), which was built in the 11th century by the Genoese. You’ll find it in the centre of the old town.
And then you can wander back to the waterfront, where the colourful painted buildings glitter in the sunshine.
There are a lot of restaurants and cafes in the harbour and, perhaps surprisingly, some of them are quite good value!
Across the water, you can see Palmaria Island. With the same green hues as the rest of the Cinque Terre coast, it seems to be inviting you over to walk amongst the trees.
It’s easy to get from Portovenere to Palmaria Island. There are regular shuttle boats from the harbour at Portovenere that take you across to Palmaria for €5.
You will get dropped around the corner from the bit of the island you can see directly across the water. The area where you’ll get off has a bit of development, with some places to eat and rest, if you need.
But from here you can start your hike around Palmaria. The path is well-marked and you won’t need a map. Even if you do deviate from the main path slightly, it doesn’t matter because you can’t go too far.
My suggestion would be to head in either direction and just stay as close to the coast as possible. You should be able to do the whole loop in about two hours and none of it is particularly difficult.
Sometimes you’ll find yourself high on the cliffs, looking down to the crashing water beneath. Other times you’ll be able to get right down to the shore (and even have a swim at a few spots if it’s a hot day!).
There are some remnants of military outposts that you’ll see along the way, especially high up on the far side of the island facing towards the sea. You’ll also notice some other islands. Palmaria is the main island here but the other two nearby are called Tino and Tinetto.
The walk on Palmaria feels quite different to the main hike along the Cinque Terre coast. Because there you are not heading to a destination, as such, it is more relaxing. Even the nature around you feels more laid back, not as tightly controlled.
But of course the biggest difference is that there will be fewer people. I saw nobody else when I walked around Palmaria – quite a change from the rest of the coast. It makes this little expedition quite special.
How to get to Portovenere?
It is quite easy to get to Portovenere but it is not as well connected as the other Cinque Terre towns, which have direct train access. If you’re using public transport, you’ll need to travel to Portovenere by either bus or boat.
La Spezia to Portovenere
If you’re want to get to Portovenere from La Spezia, the cheapest way is to catch the bus. The 11/P goes regularly from the centre of La Spezia and costs just €3. The trip should take around 30 mins.
The other good option is to take a boat. There are about half a dozen departures each day from La Spezia to Portovenere and it costs €8 one way (or €13 return). The trip takes about 45 minutes.
Cinque Terre to Portovenere
If you want to go from one of the main Cinque Terre towns to Portovenere, the best option is to get a boat. (Otherwise you need to get the train into La Spezia and then the bus from there.)
It is the same boat that goes to and from La Spezia and stops at Portovenere. It takes about 1:15 from Monterosso and about 35 minutes from Riomaggiore. (The boat also stops at Manarola and Vernazza, but not Corniglia).
The boat trip to Portovenere costs €18 from Monterosso (€35 return) and €14 from Riomaggiore (€35 return, oddly).
It is also possible to hike to Portovenere from Cinque Terre, which can be quite a nice way to arrive if you’re feeling active. The walk from the closest town with train access, Riomaggiore, is about four hours.
You could also visit Portovenere as part of a boat trip along the coast. There are some wonderful options available. Have a look at one of these, if you’re interested:
Hotels in Portovenere
There are a few lovely hotels in Portovenere that you can stay in but the prices tend to be higher than other parts of the Cinque Terre.
For a wider selection of accomodation at more reasonable rates, you could stay in nearby La Spezia. It is easy to do a day trip to Portovenere from La Spezia, from where you can also easily access the main Cinque Terre towns.
For an affordable but comfortable option, check out HH Il Gabbiano or Casa Macaia.
A couple of really nice places are Hotel Crismar and Albergo delle Spezie.
And you can also try Hotel Genova, which is one of the most popular places in La Spezia.