Like the family jewels that bedeck its habitual visitors, the Italian Riviera is glamorous, but in an old-fashioned way. The rustic and elegant, the provincial and chic, the cosmopolitan and the small-town are blended together here in a sun-drenched pastiche that defines the Italian side of the Riviera. Although the region bearing the name Liguria extends inland, its greatest charms are found on the coast, which has inspired poets and artists for centuries. One of the most photographed villages along the Ligurian coast, with a decidedly romantic and affluent aura, Portofino has long been a popular destination for foreigners. Once an ancient Roman colony and taken by the Republic of Genoa in 1229, it has also been ruled by the French, English, Spanish, and Austrians, as well as by marauding bands of 16th-century pirates. Elite British tourists first flocked to the lush harbor in the mid-1800s, and today some of Europe's wealthiest lay anchor in Portofino in summer.
Abbazia di San Fruttuoso (Abbey of San Fruttuoso). On the sea at the foot of Monte Portofino, the medieval Abbazia di San Fruttuoso, built by the Benedictines of Monte Cassino, protects a minuscule fishing village that can be reached only on foot or by water-a 20-minute boat ride from Portofino and also reachable from Camogli, Santa Margherita Ligure, and Rapallo. The restored abbey is now the property of a national conservation fund (FAI) and occasionally hosts temporary exhibitions. The church contains the tombs of some illustrious members of the Doria family. The old abbey and its grounds are delightful places to spend a few hours, perhaps lunching at one of the modest beachfront trattorias nearby (open only in summer). Boatloads of visitors can make it very crowded very fast; you might appreciate it most off-season. 15-min boat ride or 2-hr walk northwest of Portofino. Admission charged.
Castello Brown. From the harbor, follow the signs for the climb to Castello Brown-the most worthwhile sight in Portofino-with its medieval relics, impeccable gardens, and sweeping views. The castle was founded in the Middle Ages but restored in the 16th through 18th centuries. In true Portofino form, it was owned by Genoa's English consul from 1870 until it opened to the public in 1961. Above harbor. Admission charged.
Paraggi. The only sand beach near Portofino is at Paraggi, a cove on the road between Santa Margherita and Portofino. The bus will stop here on request.
Punta Portofino. Pristine views can be had from the deteriorating faro (lighthouse) at Punta Portofino, a 15-minute walk along the point that begins at the southern end of the port. Along the seaside path you can see numerous impressive, sprawling private residences behind high iron gates.
San Giorgio. The small church San Giorgio, sitting on a ridge, was rebuilt four times during World War II. It is said to contain the relics of its namesake, brought back from the Holy Land by the Crusaders. Portofino enthusiastically celebrates Saint George's Day every April 23. Above harbor.
Santa Margherita Ligure
A beautiful old resort town favored by well-to-do Italians, Santa Margherita Ligure has everything a Riviera playground should have-plenty of palm trees and attractive hotels, cafés, and a marina packed with yachts. Some of the older buildings here are still decorated on the outside with the trompe-l'oeil frescoes typical of this part of the Riviera. This is a pleasant, convenient base, which for many represents a perfect balance on the Italian Riviera: bigger and less Americanized than the Cinque Terre; less glitzy than San Remo; more relaxing than Genoa and environs; and ideally situated for day trips, such as an excursion to Portofino.
Camogli, at the edge of the large promontory and nature reserve known as the Portofino Peninsula, has always been a town of sailors. By the 19th century it was leasing its ships throughout the continent. Today multicolor houses, remarkably deceptive trompe-l'oeil frescoes, and a massive 17th-century seawall mark this appealing harbor community, perhaps as beautiful as Portofino but without the glamour. When exploring on foot, don't miss the boat-filled second harbor, which is reached by ducking under a narrow archway at the northern end of the first one.
Acquario (Aquarium). The Castello Dragone, built onto the sheer rock face near the harbor, is home to the Acquario, which has tanks filled with local marine life built into the ramparts. Via Isola. Admission charged.
Rapallo was once one of Europe's most fashionable resorts, but it passed its heyday before World War II and has suffered from the building boom brought on by tourism. Ezra Pound and D. H. Lawrence lived here, and many other writers, poets, and artists have been drawn to it. Today the town's harbor is filled with yachts. A single-span bridge on the eastern side of the bay is named after Hannibal, who is said to have passed through the area after crossing the Alps.
In addition to the fine leather and haute couture for which Italy is known, Liguria is famous for its fine laces, silver-and-gold filigree work, and ceramics. Look for bargains in velvet, macramé, olive wood, and marble. Don't forget the excellent wines, cheeses, dried meats, and olive oils.
Portofino is awash with small boutiques selling fashion and gift items, but it's also one of the most expensive places to shop along the coast, catering to the wealthy yacht owners who call in during the summer. However, all the coastal villages have pretty shops to explore.
The attractive coastal village of Zoagli on the S1, 4 km (2½ miles) east of Rapallo, has been famous for silk, velvet, and damask since the Middle Ages.
If you have the stamina, you can hike to the Abbazia di San Fruttuoso from Portofino. It's a steep climb at first, and the walk takes about 2½ hours one way. Much more modest hikes from Portofino include a 1-hour uphill walk to Cappella delle Gave, a bit inland in the hills, from where you can continue downhill to Santa Margherita Ligure (another 1½ hours) and a gently undulating paved trail leading to the beach at Paraggi (½ hour). Finally, there's a 2½-hour hike from Portofino that heads farther inland to Ruta, through Olmi and Pietre Strette. The trails are well marked, and maps are available at the tourist information offices in Rapallo, Santa Margherita, Portofino, and Camogli.
The Ligurian coast is known for its rocky vistas, but the Portofino promontory has one sandy beach, on the east side, at Paraggi.