The colorful facades and pedestrians-only calata (promenade) make Portovenere the quintessential Ligurian seaside village. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its harbor is lined with tall, thin "terratetto" houses that date from as far back as the 11th century and are connected in a wall-like formation to protect against attacks by the Pisans and local pirates. Its tiny, carruggi (alley-like passageways) lead to an array of charming shops, homes, and gardens and eventually to the village's impressive Castle Doria high on the olive tree covered hill. To the west standing guard over the Mediterranean is the picturesque medieval Chiesa di San Pietro, once the site of a temple to Venus (Venere in Italian), from which Portovenere gets its name. Nearby, in a rocky area leading to the sea, is Byron's Cave, a favorite spot that the poet loved to swim out into the sea from.
Across the small bay of Portovenere lies the rugged island of Palmaria. There is only one restaurant on the island, and here Iseo (aka Giuseppe), an accomplished chef, does the cooking. Fresh pasta and local fish such as branzino (sea bass) are headliners at this fun dining spot with lovely views looking back toward Portovenere. To get here, take the restaurant's free speedboat from the Portovenere jetty.
Tucked away on Portovenere's main caruggio, this enoteca (wine bar) and antipasto bar is popular with locals and slowly being discovered by tourists looking for good, local dishes. The owner whips up some wonderful finger food—including crostini (grilled bread) with fresh anchovies and smoked herring with spicy orange salsa—and offers a robust list of local wines. He also designed the entire place, right down to the tables and chairs made from anchors and pieces of old boats.
At the end of the Portovenere promontory in the shadow of San Pietro, this is the village's most exclusive and possibly most delicious restaurant. The menu consists of only the freshest in-season fish, prepared with a creative touch, such as marinated tuna encrusted with pistachios. The setting is romantic and unique, as you feel almost immersed in the Mediterranean. The dinner menu is quite expensive (as is the lengthy wine list), but you can get a real deal at lunch with a limited but equally good menu at lower prices.
This 13th-century Gothic church is built on the site of an ancient pagan shrine, on a formidable solid mass of rock above the Grotto Arpaia. With its black-and-white-striped exterior, it is a landmark recognizable from far out at sea. There's a spectacular view of the Cinque Terre coastline from the front porch of the church.
Lord Byron (1788–1824) is said to have written Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in Portovenere. Near the entrance to the huge, strange Grotto Arpaia, at the base of the sea-swept cliff, is a plaque recounting the poet's strength and courage as he swam across the gulf to the village of San Terenzo, near Lerici, to visit his friend Shelley (1792–1822).