If Riomaggiore is the first village of the Cinque Terre, Portovenere could be village "zero". Although it is officially not part of the Cinque Terre, it is well worth a visit.
Portovenere sits on a rocky peninsula in the Gulf of Poets. It was once popular with poets and writers such as Byron, Shelley and Lawrence. With its small harbour lined with colourful houses, its narrow streets leading up to the castle and the church standing on top of the rock, Portovenere is one of my favourite places to visit.
Portovenere was first mentioned in 161 A.D. as "Portus Veneris"; the Romans used it as a naval station. After 1113, Portovenere belonged to the Republic of Genoa and became an important marine base. In 1160 the construction of the city wall and the castle started. The promontory is dominated by the 13th century Church of San Pietro.
There are several ways to get to Portovenere from the villages of the Cinque Terre:
Portovenere can be reached by boat which runs during the day between Portovenere, La Spezia and the Cinque Terre villages. When you arrive from the sea, you will first see the church of San Pietro sitting on top of the rock, which is quite an incredible view. I think this is the best way to travel here, unless you want to hike.
You can reach Portovenere by car but of course you cannot enter the historical center. You can park close to the harbour but during the main season it can be hard to find a parking space.
You can take a train to La Spezia, then take a bus to Portovenere. Unfortunately the bus does not leave from the railway station, you have to walk about 15 minutes to the bus stop. As you leave the building of the railway station, you have to start walking to the left until Piazza Garibaldi. Turn right there, walk straight down Viale Garibaldi. The bus stop can be found next to the Arsenale.
You can hike from Riomaggiore on trail 3 or 3a until the Telegrafo, then on trail 1 until Portovenere. It is not an easy hike but there will be no crowds and the views are simply breathtaking!
When you arrive to Portovenere, you will enter the historical center through the city gate. On the right side, you will see the remains of the city wall, which run up to the castle. As you walk down the main street (Via G. Capellini), you can admire medieval houses and turn into small shops. At the end of this carruggio, you will find the Church of San Pietro. From here you can enjoy an amazing view of the sea and the rocky coastline. Byron's Cave can be found here as well; this is where the famous poet used to swim. On your way back, start walking up the steps and you will reach the Church of San Lorenzo. From here you can climb up to the castle. After you have visited the village, enjoy a nice meal in one of the restaurants of the harbour.
There are 3 small islands close to Portovenere - Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto - which together with Portovenere are a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are excursion boats leaving from the harbour that go around the islands.
Palmaria is the biggest island with beautiful beaches. It is accessible by ferry or water taxi. The highlight of the island is the Blue Grotto which you can reach only from the sea. There is also a nice hiking trail around the island, offering fantastic views of Portovenere.
Tino is currently a military zone, it is open to the public only on September 13, the day of San Venerio. The ruins of the 11th century San Venerio abbey can be found here.
Tinetto is just a bigger rock and is also a military zone. It holds the ruins of a 6th century monastery.
If you can, come to Portovenere on August 17th. It is the day of the Festa della Madonna Bianca, my favourite festival in the area.
This church was constructed in 1277 over the ruins of another church dedicated to Venus. Venus is Venere in Italian, while Porto means harbour, so that's where the name of the town comes from. The Genoan-Gothic building is beautiful with its black and white stripes, perched on top of a rock in the sea. Next to the church, don't miss the Romanesque style arcades with amazing view towards the Cinque Terre.
The Romanesque style church was built in the 12th century. Unfortunately, it was badly damaged during the centuries and had to be rebuilt several times.
The castle, which took the Genoan centuries (12-17.) to build, dominates the town of Portovenere. Several towers of the local defence system are still in good condition. From the castle, you can enjoy a fantastic view over the St. Peter church and the sea.
Several excursion and fishing boats are anchored in the harbour, and you will find several bars and restaurants around there. The tall colourful houses (palazzata) used to be part of the medieval defense system.