Submitted by HedonisticHiking on 13 Sep 2023

Explore Portoferraio - Elba's Capital City

About Portoferraio

Portoferraio is the capital city of the island of Elba, in the Tuscan archipelago.  Elba is the third largest Italian island after Sicily and Sardinia.  It has rich mineral deposits and has been mined for hundreds of years for its iron ore - hence the name Portoferraio - meaning Iron Port.  We visit this attractive city on our Lucca, Volterra and Elba hiking holiday.


Where is Portoferraio?

Portoferraio sits on the north side of the island of Elba which is more or less shaped like a fish, and the town is tucked into a natural harbour known as the Gulf of Portoferraio.  As well as being the capital city, it is the ferry terminal between the island and Piombino on the Italian mainland, so the pretty harbour is the first view most people see when arriving into Elba.

History of Portoferraio

Elba has a tumultuous history, due largely to its strategic position in the Mediterranean and its natural resources.  It has been inhabited since the Paleolithic Age, and the Etruscans and Romans both came to exploit it's extraordinary mineral wealth. During the Middle Ages the Maritime Republic of Pisa conquered the island and developed the granite quarries, and in the 16th Century Cosimo de Medici took control and began a programme to fortify the port town, wanting to give it the new name of Cosmopolis. Many remnants of these imposing city walls can still be seen in Portoferraio today, and they saved the island from many pirate raids over the centuries.  With the decline of the Medici, the island was annexed to the Kingdom of France.  Without doubt, Elba's most famous resident was Napoleon Bonaparte, but his brief spell of exile on the island lasted only ten months, from May 3, 1814 to February 26, 1815.  In the Second World War Elba was occupied by Reich troops and suffered heavy allied attacks in attempts to destroy its iron ore production. Today, happily, most people invade Elba in the summer months for its 150 kilometres of pristine coastline, with crystal clear waters and fabulous beaches. 


Things to do in Portoferraio

The Medici Forts 

The Stella Fort and Falcone Fort dominate the highest points of the city, with views over the town down to the water.  Enter the old town from the harbour through Porta a Mare and take the Via Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi to follow the fortifications around the edge of town.

Villa dei Mulini

The home of Napoleon during his exile, the yellow Villa still holds his furnishings, books and personal items, including the flag with the 3 golden bees that he gave to the Elbans.  For real Napoleon enthusiasts his country retreat called San Martino, 6 km inland, can also be visited and houses a little art gallery.

Chiesa della Misericordia

On Salita Napoleone, this 18th-century church contains the relics of San Cristino, the patron saint of Portoferraio. Every year on May 5th, a mass is held in Napoleon’s honour.

Museo Civico Archeologico

Head for the octagonal Linguella Tower on the furthest edge of the harbour to see Etruscan and Roman finds and remains of a Roman villa. 


Acqua dell’Elba 

Spend some time shopping at Elba's perfumer.  They have many shops around the island and create fragrances based on Elba’s scents and colours, from deep blue to turquoise. The business does a lot to sponsor the arts and the environment in Elba.

What to eat and drink in Portoferraio

The horse-shoe shaped harbour is lined with cafes, bars and restaurants and there are many to choose from inside the Porta a Mare too.  Elba's dishes are largely based on fish and seafood, and pasta is often served with palamita - a local blue fish which is related to the tuna family.  Gurguglione is a mixture of stewed peppers and aubergines and other vegetables, which was a popular dish in the past for miners and farmers. The forested interior of the island provides excellent chestnuts and mushrooms in autumn months and there are wonderful local honeys reflecting the flavours of eucalyptus, chestnut and rosemary to name a few.  A local bread known as Schiaccia Briaca (drunken bread) is a kind of sweet flat bread made with red wine in the dough and topped with pine nuts, raisins and dried fruit.

Perhaps Elba's best-known red grape is Aleatico, which is often used to make velvety dessert wines, and white grapes widely grown are Ansonica, Vermentino and Trebbiano Toscano.


Getting to Portoferraio

Ferries cross back and forth all day between Portoferraio and Piombino on the Tuscan coast. The crossing time takes around an hour. There is a small airline called Silver Air which flies between Elba and Pisa or Florence, but the airport is on the south side of the island, nearer to Marina di Campo.