Located just south of Genoa and north of the Italy’s major attraction of Cinque Terre, Portofino is one of the most popular towns along the Italian Riviera.
With a population of just 500 permanent residents, the small port fills up during the warmer months when an influx of tourists wander the tiny streets and yachters leave their boats bobbing in the harbour. The reds and oranges of the houses are beautifully accentuated by the greenery of the hills and the blue of the water – but is this tiny town really as perfect as people make it out to be?
As a budget traveller and someone who fell head over heels for Italy and all things Italian when I lived there, I was apprehensive about visiting a town that I knew was going to be popular with tourists. Generally, places that are popular with tourists don’t offer a particularly authentic representation of day-to-day life in that country, nor are they particularly kind to your bank balance.
However, since we were staying only an hour’s drive away in Genoa, I figured we might as well make the trip. Here’s what I didn’t like about Portofino.
As with any town or city across the globe, parking in the centre will be expensive. This is something that’s a little annoying when you decide to go on a road trip, but something you learn to accept as one of your unavoidable daily expenses. You come to expect increased prices in the city centre and are pleasantly surprised if it turns out cheaper than you imagined!
The main road that leads down the coast from Rapallo to Santa Margherita Ligure and finishing in Portofino is a narrow, winding road that doesn’t offer much in the way of rest-stops where you can take photos of the view. It leads directly into the small town, and directly into an underground car park. The only other way to turn is left, into another car park. You can’t drive around the town, and you can’t park on the outskirts – there are no other roads.
Parking in Portofino was the most expensive we had seen on our 7 day road trip along the French and Italian Riviera, at 5.50€ per hour. So, we only stayed for an hour. When you’re travelling on a minuscule budget, that’s really expensive!
Always expected when visiting a popular place, but I hoped that because we weren’t visiting in the high season, perhaps there might not be as many tourists as in the summer months. Wrong!
It was quite a shock to find that almost every person we saw in Portofino was a tourist. The only local people seemed to be those working in the cafes, restaurants and boutiques, or the people offering their services as tour guides around the town. It seemed the grey clouds hadn’t put other tourists off visiting, either. I can’t imagine what it’s like in the height of summer!
There’s nothing better than sitting in a cafe and watching local life pass by as you enjoy your coffee.
However, in Portofino, there doesn’t seem to be any “local life”. It seemed to be operating purely for tourists’ benefit.
Because of this, I’m sad to say that I personally found Portofino to be surprisingly under-whelming; it didn’t have the quaint, Italian charm that I was expecting. It wasn’t real Italy.
I found out about Portofino on Pinterest, the same way I do for most of my travel inspiration. Perhaps I set myself up for a little disappointment – because real life never lives up to your expectations once you’ve seen those carefully edited, over-saturated and too-good-to-be-true photographs, right?
As I mentioned earlier, the weather wasn’t the best on the day we went to Portofino. The sky was grey, the clouds hung low. The water would have been more blue, the waves sparkling in the light, if the sun had been shining. Annoying, but just one of those things you have to deal with.
The paint on the buildings has faded, and some houses and hotels were looking a little run down. If you are wondering, yes, I have edited every photo in this post to make the colours stand out more.
It was pretty, particularly with the boats bobbing along in the foreground, but it just wasn’t as beautiful to the naked eye as I had hoped.
Besides taking photos of the town and port, there isn’t actually much to do in Portofino. Once we had taken some photos of the port and the Church – and had walked all the way up to the Castello Brown to see if you could get a nice view from up there without having to pay to go inside (note: you can’t) – we were ready to leave. An hour was enough in Portofino for us budget travellers!
On a serious note, things to do in Portofino are quite limited.
It’s simply to relax and to enjoy yourself.
We stopped to look at a menu in one of the restaurants, giggling to ourselves that it was more expensive than we would ever pay for. I realised that the reason people love Portofino is probably the reason I disliked it: because you end up spending lots of money, either in the boutique shops, in the restaurants, or by staying in the hotels (some of which are considered the “best in the world”, I should add).
As aforementioned, my sister and I stayed in Genoa and drove to Portofino in the morning. It might be worth searching for accommodations in the surrounding towns of Santa Margherita Ligure and Rapello to see if it’s cheaper to stay there. You can browse properties in Portofino using the booking form below.
If you are renting a vehicle during your stay, Portofino is easily reachable by road; just follow the SS1 south from Genoa and take the SS39 towards Santa Margherita Ligure; turn right onto the Strada Provinciale 227 di Portofino which follows the coast and will take you directly to the town and into one of the two car parks.
If you’re on foot, buses run regularly from Genoa and the nearby towns of Santa Margherita Ligure etc. Rome 2 Rio has some useful info on which buses to take an what times they arrive. A taxi will set you back around 60€ from Genoa.
As always, I’ll never tell you to not visit any given place – but be prepared that Portofino might be a little different to the idyll that you imagine.
What I didn’t like about Portofino was that I didn’t fit into its world, I couldn’t relate to it, and I didn’t get the butterflies or the warmth lining my belly feeling of falling in love with it.
Portofino isn’t for people like me. It’s a place for the rich. People come here to shop in the expensive boutiques, to eat in the expensive restaurants, to sleep in the expensive hotels. They come here to experience this little slice of Italian bourgeoisie.
And if you can afford it, why not? Perhaps if I had the lavish lifestyle of most people who frequent the town, I would feel differently… but then I wouldn’t be writing a budget travel blog, would I?
Thanks for reading and happy travels!
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