Cinque Terre or Portofino? That’s not a bad decision to have to make. You’re weighing up two of the most elegant destinations on the whole of the Ligurian Sea here, folks. Both come with salt-washed pebble coves and pastel-painted villages, stylish hotels and wineries that burst with local goodies.
However, there are some key differences between the two places. The most glaring one is that Cinque Terre isn’t a single town but rather a group of them. Plus, Portofino is known to be pretty darn upscale, drawing resident crowds of A-listers with its mix of yacht moorings and villa hotels.
The best thing you can do is to visit both. They are only an hour or so’s drive away from each other. If that’s not possible, then read on – this guide has the lowdown on which is best for you and your travel crew this year…
Cinque Terre or Portofino for general vibe?
Before we really get stuck into weighing up the various pros and cons of these two destinations, it’s worth taking a moment to outline what they’re all about. The main difference is that Cinque Terre refers to a whole region that includes five villages (the name literally means “five lands” in English), while Portofino is just a solitary resort on its own.
Cinque Terre includes a quintet of lovely little spots: Vernazza, Monterosso al Mare, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. They run westwards along a hook in the coast from La Spezia, a fun but gritty port city. Meanwhile, Portofino is but a single small harbor on the south side of a headland south of the major port city of Genoa.
The atmosphere in each individual town of Cinque Terre isn’t likely to be all that different to what you find in Portofino, mind you. Every spot mentioned here is a bit of a jet-setter escape, drawing monied travelers with their yachts and five-star hotel bookings in tow. We’d say that the Cinque Terre get the busier of the two in the summer, while Portofino is probably the more exclusive.
Winner: Draw. This is really down to personal preference.
Cinque Terre or Portofino for ease of travel?
Both these places are now among the most coveted R&R hotspots on the Ligurian Sea of north-western Italy. So, you shouldn’t find it hard to get to either. The best way into the string of villages that is Cinque Terre is by flying to the large Tuscan airport town of Pisa. It’s got oodles of incoming options, from all over Europe and even short-haul links from within Italy. The drive from there is just a smidgen over an hour in normal traffic. Trenitalia also runs services to Cinque Terre from Genoa, and railways connect all the major POIs of the national park and the coastline.
The Christopher Columbus Airport in Genoa is the top gateway to Portofino from the air. Again, the trip from the arrivals terminal will take you around an hour. And again, there are a number of incoming flight options on low-cost carriers like Ryanair and easyJet. You could also fly into Milan (which has three airports) or Nice, over the border in France. The one thing that stands out here is that there’s a ferry connection to Portofino from Genoa port – talk about arriving in style!
Winner: Draw. Both towns are relatively easy to reach with a flight and an hour’s drive.
Cinque Terre or Portofino for things to see and do?
We have to say, we think the five villages of the Cinque Terre are likely to be far and away the more active and action-packed of the trips here. Visitors to this wonderful corner of the Italian coast typically spend their time hiking or training between the various towns gazing at the gorgeous scenery. The walking paths – especially the amazing Blue Route (number 2) – are ones to take the breath away. What’s more, each village has its own attractions, like the Christmas nativity show in Manarola, or the church of Parrocchia di S. Giovanni Battista in Monterosso al Mare.
Ask anyone who’s been and they’ll be quick to tell you that the main draw of Portofino is really in tasting La Dolce Vita. There are some attractions, in the form of medieval churches and photogenic marinas, which you should check off the list before you retreat to the deck of your yacht charter to channel your inner Mr. Ripley. Don’t miss the Museo del Parco, which has a fantastic collection of sculptures from artists from all over the world, or the Castello Brown, the old 13th-century citadel of the town with views like nowhere else.
Winner: Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre or Portofino for nature?
Nature lovers will find that a trip to Cinque Terre artfully fuses the wild world and the urban world. That’s really what this is all about. In fact, all five villages in the region are contained within their own UNESCO-tagged national park, the Cinque Terre National Park, which spans a long run of spectacular shoreline that’s all sheer-cut cliffs and forests of stone pines. As we’ve already mentioned, hiking the marked trails through that from village to village is the main draw. There’s also snorkeling in the coves to be done, and small beaches to get through.
Portofino is also backed by a sylvan headland that juts out into the Ligurian Sea. However, this one’s part of the coast isn’t protected by a national park so it’s not quite as rich in natural habitats. There is the Pietre Strette, a designated hiking area to the north. Plus, you can reach all manner of gorgeous coves along the coast to the west by boat (preferably your own boat!). The only real upside to Portofino for nature buffs is the proximity to the Alps and the mountainous riviera, which begins about an hour’s drive away at the Capanne di Marcarolo natural park.
Winner: Cinque Terre – the whole place is inside a national park!
Cinque Terre or Portofino for luxury and romance?
Portofino has been a well-known jet setter escape since the 1800s. The vibe is still very much the same. This is a stomping ground for the world’s rich and famous. Don’t be surprised to spot celebs cruising on yachts between the bays or famous faces flitting in and out of the Gucci and Prada stores in the center. All that means there’s generally a high level of luxury about the place, so expect to fork out a touch more than you would elsewhere in Italy. The payoff? Hotels that hit five stars, offer chic spas, and come with 180-degree views of the saltwater.
Cinque Terre certainly isn’t without its luxury side. The town does lie at the southern end of the Italian Riviera, after all. It’s got its own five-star hotels and elegant wineries. However, it’s also become a more diverse spot in the last 50 years, drawing budget hikers with its amazing trails and beach lovers with its endless array of pebble coves to boot.
Winner: Portofino is the option for the honeymooners on the hunt for luxury.
Cinque Terre or Portofino for price?
Here’s the hard truth: Nowhere in this salt-washed and stunning part of Italy is likely to be cheap! However, of all the glamourous riviera escapes, Portofino has a rep for being among the most expensive. Basically, you’re going to need some cash to splash if you want to holiday here. Price collator Budget Your Trip estimates an average daily spend of a whopping $259 per person! That’s more than they estimate for Paris or Milan! Most will go on those aforementioned high-class hotels, but food in the elegant trattoria by the shoreline won’t be easy on the wallet, either.
Cinque Terre is cheaper but not cheap. Budget Your Trip still estimates that the average traveler will need around $110 per day to get by here. What’s more, you can see HUGE spikes in the cost of hotels in the peak summer months. In fact, there have been such booms in demand for rooms that the local authorities even moved to limit the number of people being able to visit Cinque Terre some years back. Our advice if you’re on a budget? Choose Cinque Terre but come in spring or autumn.
Winner: Cinque Terre.
Cinque Terre or Portofino for day trips?
A jaunt to Cinque Terre will take you to a seriously enthralling part of the boot. And, while you’re likely to spend the bulk of your time hopping between the various towns and villages on the amazing hiking trails, there are a few nearby places to explore. One of our favorites is the Apuan Alps, an amazing corner of the Apennine chain that has marble quarries and rifugios (mountain huts) on high. You could also spend a day in Pisa seeing a certain leaning tower, or even up in Portofino itself (it’s about 1.2 hours’ drive away).
The obvious day-trip choice from Portofino is the city of Genoa. It’s actually one of the grandest cities in northern Italy. Don’t miss the exquisite Palazzi dei Rolli or the Baroque majesty of the fountain-bursting Piazza De Ferrari – both are awesome. There’s also one of the top aquariums in Europe on the shoreline. Keep going west from Portofino and you’ll come to the heart of the Italian Riviera, which eventually crosses into France, opening up towns like Nice and Cannes.
Winner: Cinque Terre for day trips within Italy, but Portofino if you want to travel on to France.
Cinque Terre or Portofino – our conclusion
From glorious beaches to idyllic coastal landscapes, there are plenty of reasons to visit both Cinque Terre and Portofino, there’s no doubt about that. However, they are also quite different places. The first is made up of five villages strung together by hiking paths through a national park. It’s the option to go for if you want adventure and natural landscapes. The latter is more of a jet-setter resort. It’s pricy but chic, a place to see and be seen, and to crank up your R&R.