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Once a tiny fishing village, Portofino has been an international symbol of la dolce vita since the 1950s and 60s, when movie stars and other VIPs like Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Frank Sinatra and Brigitte Bardot vacationed there.
Today, the marina is dotted with yachts instead of fishing boats, as the rich and famous still flock to this idyllic part of the Italian Riviera. Some, like Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, even own a villa there. Of course, they’re far from the first – and certainly won’t be the last – travelers to fall in love with this picturesque part of Italy.
Located on the tip of a promontory on the Riviera di Levante in Liguria, Portofino was once a colony of the Roman Empire, becoming part of the Republic of Genoa in 1229. Over the centuries, it has been ruled by the French, English, Spanish and Austrians, and wealthy Brits stopped by in the era of the Grand Tour.
Whether you’re embarking on your own grand tour of Italy or just planning a quick jaunt to this Mediterranean paradise, here’s how to spend a perfect day in Portofino.
Start the day with a cappuccino and a piece of focaccia Genovese as the locals do. Though you can find focaccia all over Italy, the version made in this part of Liguria is famously delicious. It’s thick and soft, and locals even dunk pieces of the oily bread in their cappuccino.
The best bakery to find it is Panificio Pasticceria Tossini, which has locations in the nearby towns of Rapallo, Recco, Sori and Chiavari. They also make the typical focaccia di Recco, which features melted stracchino cheese between two thin layers of focaccia, as well as farinata, a flatbread made with chickpea flour.
There’s not much to do per se in the town, so there’s no need to rush. Here it’s all about il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing. Life in Portofino revolves around the picturesque cobblestone piazzetta, as the Piazza Martiri dell’Olivetta is known.
Surrounded on three sides by historic buildings painted in various shades of pink, orange and yellow, the piazzetta is the center of the action, and the streets branching off from it are lined with designer shops by the likes of Dolce & Gabbana, Armani and Loro Piana, as well as smaller, independent boutiques selling chic linen clothes, shoes and souvenirs.
The remaining side opens onto the marina. Follow the curve of the marina toward the Yacht Club and you’ll find the Museo del Parco, an open-air sculpture garden with pieces by artists including Man Ray, Gino Severini and Arnaldo Pomodoro.
If you’re feeling ambitious, you could hike to the lighthouse, stopping at Castello Brown, which dates back to the Middle Ages but was later restored. It was actually owned by Genoa’s English consul from 1870 until 1961, when it opened to the public.
For a leisurely lunch, book a table at the very old-school Ristorante Puny right on the piazzetta. It opened in 1853, and you’ll have a front-row seat to observe all the action.
The menu is simple and traditional, with appetizers like prosciutto with melon or seafood salad. After one of those, go for the trofie pasta with pesto, green beans, and potatoes. The basil that grows in this part of Liguria is legendary, and the basil pesto made with it is the best you’ll find anywhere.
In the afternoon, you could hire a boat to take you around the coast or drive over to Paraggi in the nearby town of Santa Margherita Ligure, which is the only sandy beach in the area.
There are a few lovely little towns nearby, like Recco, where you can taste the aforementioned focaccia di Recco made with melted cheese, and Camogli, which has a scenic pebble beach and plenty of lovely little shops, bars and restaurants overlooking it.
If you want to spend a night or two in the area, check into the Grand Hotel Bristol in Rapallo, a 20-minute drive from Portofino. Built in 1904 in the elegant Liberty style, it has an outdoor pool overlooking the coast and a pampering spa.
Relax with a massage and then head up to Le Cupole on the top floor, which serves elevated versions of regional specialities, such as basil pesto served over potato gnocchi with green beans.
The hotel’s friendly concierge can also suggest the best towns to visit, tell you where to enjoy an Aperol Spritz, and help make reservations.