Portovenere and Lerici are two picturesque Italian Riviera towns very near the Cinque Terre in the Gulf of Poets, an area that once attracted famous writers and poets. Lord Byron used to swim at Portovenere and there’s a grotto in a rocky cove dedicated to him. Shelley lived in the village of San Terenzo and died when his boat hit a storm. Both towns see fewer tourists than the crowded Cinque Terre but offer plenty of charm to the visitor.
Portovenere is a colorful town sitting on a rocky peninsula that, along with the Cinque Terre, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Although it can’t be reached by train, you can take a bus from La Spezia (easily reached by train) and ferries normally run from La Spezia, Lerici, and some Cinque Terre villages from April through September.
Arriving by ferry you’ll have a beautiful view of Portovenere. The promenade along the harbor, the perfect place for a stroll, is lined with colorful buildings and seafood restaurants.
Walk through the ancient town gate to enter the medieval town. To the left of the gate, look for the Genoese measures of capacity, dating from 1606. The main street, lined with shops and restaurants, is pedestrian only.
Continue farther up the hill on the narrow medieval streets and stairs to the remains of the Doria castle at the top. You’ll be rewarded with good views of the town, San Pietro Church on the promontory, and the gulf beyond.
Come back down the hill and walk out to the promontory to visit San Pietro Church, set on a site believed to have been an ancient temple to Venus (Venere) from where the town gets its name. On the way to the church you’ll see Byron’s Grotto.
If you want to swim, there are a few rocky places in Portovenere where you can enter the sea. For better beaches, take the ferry across to the island of Palmaria where there’s a long beach. For a special experience, take Portovenere by private sailboat, a full-day sea excursion where you’ll pass by the Cinque Terre and have a walking tour of Portovenere.
Across the bay from Portovenere is Lerici, the biggest town on the Gulf of Poets. If you arrive by ferry you’ll be right in the center of town. Lerici has a castle with a museum inside, a big harbor with lots of seafood restaurants, churches, and colorful houses rising up a hill near the castle.
From the harbor, walk through the tunnel under the castle for a good seafood lunch at a hidden restaurant. When you come out of the tunnel, turn right and you’ll find Ciccillo a Mare with a terrace overlooking the sea. There’s also a small beach here.
From Lerici, walk along the seaside promenade to the village of San Terenzo, with a tiny castle and a few shops and restaurants. This is an easy but very pretty walk of about 2 miles. Along the walk you’ll pass several beaches where you can swim in the sea. Most of the nicest sandy beaches are private beaches where you can pay to use the facilities for the day but there are some places where you can sunbath or swim for free.
For more strenuous hiking options, take one of the trails to small villages to the southeast including Fiascherino, Tellaro, and Montemarcello. You can also take a ferry to the village of Tellaro during late spring and summer.
Lerici can be reached by ferry from La Spezia, Portovenere, and Cinque Terre from April through September. If you arrive by car, there’s a large pay parking lot between Lerici and San Terenzo with a shuttle bus that goes into town. You can walk to either village from the parking area as you’ll be in the middle of the promenade when you walk down to the sea. You are not allowed to drive into either town. There’s a tourist information kiosk by the parking lot.
If you have a car, take the scenic drive around the peninsula to see the other small villages scattered around the gulf.