Porto Venere is an Italian Riviera town known for its picturesque harbor lined with brightly colored houses and for San Pietro Church, perched at the edge of the rocky promontory. Narrow medieval streets lead up the hill to a castle. The main street, entered through the ancient city gate, is lined with shops. Nearby is Byron's Cave, in a rocky area leading to the sea where the poet Byron used to swim.
Porto Venere Location
Porto Venere (you'll sometimes see it written as Portovenere) sits on a rocky peninsula in the Gulf of Poets, an area in the Gulf of La Spezia once popular with writers such as Byron, Shelley, and DH Lawrence. It's across the bay from Lerici and southeast of the Cinque Terre in the region of Liguria. See Porto Venere and nearby villages on our Italian Riviera Map and Guide.
History and Background
The area has been occupied since before the Roman era. San Pietro Church sits on a site that is believed to have been a temple to Venus, Venere in Italian, from which Porto Venere (or Portovenere) gets its name. The town was a stronghold of the Genoese during medieval times and was fortified as a defense against Pisa. A battle with the Aragonese in 1494 marked the end of Porto Venere's importance.
In the early 19th century, it was a popular destination for the English Romantic poets. In fact, in 1822, Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned after his boat was caught in a sudden storm in the nearby Gulf of Spezia.
What to See
San Pietro Church: Perched on a rocky outcrop, San Pietro Church originated in the 6th century.
In the 13th century, a bell tower and Gothic style extension with bands of black and white stone were added. The Romanesque loggetta has arches framing the coastline and the church is surrounded by fortifications. From the path leading to the castle, there are good views of the church.
San Lorenzo Church: The Church of San Lorenzo was built in the 12th century and has a Romanesque facade. Damage from cannon fire, the worst in 1494, caused the church and bell tower to be rebuilt several times. The 15th-century marble altarpiece holds a small painting of the White Madonna. According to legend, the image was brought here in 1204 from the sea and was miraculously transformed into its present form on August 17, 1399. The miracle is celebrated each August 17 with a torchlight procession.
Porto Venere's Fortress - Doria Castle: Built by the Genoese between the 12th and 17th centuries, Doria Castle dominates the town. There are several surviving towers on the hill as well. It's a beautiful walk up to the castle and the hill offers great views of San Pietro Church and the sea.
Porto Venere's Medieval Center: One enters the medieval village through its old city gate with a Latin inscription from 1113 above it.
To the left of the gate are Genoese measures of capacity dating from 1606. Via Capellini, the narrow main street, is lined with shops and restaurants. Vaulted walkways, called capitoli, and stairs lead up the hill. Cars and trucks are unable to drive here.
Porto Venere's Harbor: The promenade along the harbor is a pedestrian-only zone. The promenade is lined with tall colorful houses, seafood restaurants, and bars. Fishing boats, excursion boats, and private boats dot the water. On the other side of the point is Byron's Cave, a rocky area where Byron used to come to swim. There are several rocky places where it's possible to swim but no sandy beaches. For swimming and sunbathing, most people head to the island of Palmaria.
Islands: There are three interesting islands just across the strait.
The islands were once colonized by Benedictine monks and are now part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Excursion boats from Porto Venere take trips around the islands.
- Palmaria is the largest island and has nice beaches. It is accessible by ferry or boat taxi from Portovenere and the ferry from La Spezia stops here, too. The highlight of the island is the Blue Grotto, accessible only from the sea. Another interesting cave, Grotta dei Colombi, can be reached by a difficult hiking path. Finds from the Mesolithic period were made here.
- Tino is now a military zone is open to visitors on September 13 for the feast day of Saint Venerio. Tino holds the remains of the 11th-century abbey of San Venerio.
- Tinetto is little more than a rock and is also a military zone. It holds a 6th-century monastery.
Getting to Porto Venere
There is no train service to Porto Venere so the easiest way to get there is by ferry from the Cinque Terre, Lerici, or La Spezia (a city on the main rail line that runs along Italy's coast). Ferries run frequently from April 1. There is a narrow, winding road from the A12 autostrada, but parking is difficult in summer. There's also bus service from La Spezia.
Where to Stay
- Grand Hotel Portovenere is a 5-star hotel in a former 17th-century convent on the seafront in the center of town.
- Royal Sporting Hotel, is a 4-star property on the waterfront just outside town and has a swimming pool and restaurant.
- An inexpensive option in town is the hostel, Ostello Porto Venere.
Check out Where to Stay in Cinque Terre for nearby hotel options.