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Guide to visiting Portoferraio

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Portoferraio, the capital of the Island of Elba

Capital of the Island of Elba, Portoferraio is located on a promontory located along the northern coast of the island. With its nearly 12,000 inhabitants, Portoferraio is the most populous municipality on the Island of Elba, of which it is also the main port; in fact, it is probable that this center and its gulf are the first thing you see when you arrive on the island.


Portoferraio has a very ancient history that sinks into the classical myth. In the nearby beach of Ghiaie, Porto Argus has been identified which, according to the ancient Greek writer Apollo Rodio, is the place where the Argonauts would have landed in search of Circe.

According to tradition, however not confirmed by documents, in Roman times the center took the name of Fabricia. Some artifacts found in the historic center date back to that period, as well as the remains of two seaside villas and two necropolises.

The toponym Frabricia would refer to the iron and steel activities of the area as well as the name Ferraia with which Portoferraio was called starting from 1278. A center of considerable importance for the control of the sea, Ferraia was equipped with fortifications which, however, were not sufficient to stem the fleet of the pirate Khayr al-Din Barbarossa who struck hard in 1544 causing extensive damage.

A few years later, in 1548, Portoferraio was refounded by the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo I. Called Cosmopoli (the “City of Cosimo”), this new city was equipped with towers and fortifications thanks to which it was able to resist the incursions of the terrible Turkish admiral Dragut, who raged in these waters between 1553 and 1555.

Year 1814: Napoleon Bonaparte, exiled on the Island of Elba, settled in Portoferraio where he stayed for a year. This was a period in which the city and the whole island experienced a significant development linked above all to the activities of the iron mines of Rio Marina. Since its port was used for the transport of iron from the island to the continent, the city took its present name of Portoferraio.

Mining activities continued until the early 1980s, since then Portoferraio, like all of Elba Island, has based its economy above all on tourism.


What to see in Portoferraio

Portoferraio is a town full of beautiful things to see and interesting places to visit. You can start your tour with the fortresses and towers of Portoferraio and then continue with a visit to Napoleon’s villas. In Portoferraio there are also some very interesting museums such as the Archaeological Museum and the Pinacoteca Foresiana.

Fortresses of Portoferraio

One of the first things you notice arriving in Portoferraio are its fortresses. Built in the Medici era, the defensive complex of the city is made up of 3 forts which are connected to each other through solid walls and walkways. To the three fortresses, Falcone, Stella and Volterraio (the latter is located outside the city, on the other side of the gulf) there are also two coastal towers, the Torre del Gallo and the Torre della Linguella.

The project to make the citadel of Portoferraio impregnable began in 1548 with the construction of the Torre della Linguella and the Forte Stella, while the construction works on the Forte Falcone began the following year. Some great Renaissance architects such as Giovanni Camerini, Giovan Battista Belluzzi and Bernardo Buontalenti were summoned for the undertaking.

Napoleon’s villas

Napoleon Bonaparte had two villas in Portoferraio (…it is evident that one was not enough!). In the heart of the city is the Palazzina dei Mulini, while a little outside, practically in the center of the Island of Elba, is the Villa San Martino. Both villas can be visited, allowing access to numerous rooms in which many refined period furnishings and many valuable works of art are kept.

What to see on the Island of Elba: Villa San Martino
Villa San Martino

Linguella Archaeological Museum

Next to the Linguella Tower we also find the remains of the homonymous Roman Villa of Linguella and the Archaeological Museum of Portoferraio. This museum is housed in what were once salt warehouses. Here the archaeological finds discovered in the nearby Roman villa and throughout the territory of the Island of Elba and the other islands of the Tuscan Archipelago are exhibited. Exactly on the opposite side of the Gulf of Portoferraio there is a second Roman villa: Villa delle Grotte.

Beaches and sea of Portoferraio

Let’s start with the Gulf of Portoferraio. Here we find the Bagnaia beach which is located in a bay between Punta degli Scarpellini and Punta Pina in the easternmost part of the gulf. It is a sand and pebble beach, equipped with bathrooms and landing places for small boats. A little further south are Spiaggia Ottonella and Spiaggia dell’Ottone, two long, narrow beaches with sand. Not far from these is the Magazzini beach with its small tourist port. In the central part of the gulf there is the Schiopparello beach which is free to access, without bathing establishments.

In the stretch of coast to the north, the one that goes from Punta della Madonnina to Capo d’Enfola we find the famous white sand beaches of Elba. It is a wonderful stretch of coast with cliffs alternating with small but enchanting beaches, mostly of white pebbles, with glimpses of the sea in wonderful colors. We start with Spiaggia Le Viste which is located at the foot of Forte Falcone. The second is Spiaggia delle Ghiaie, with its white pebbles, a beach much appreciated by diving and snorkelling enthusiasts. Even the beach of Cala dei Frati, accessible only from the sea, is made of white pebbles. We continue with the Padulella beach and the Capo Bianco beach which are divided by Punta Capo Bianco. Continuing west you reach the beautiful beach of Sottobomba and that of Seccione. The last beaches before arriving at Capo d’Enfola are the Acquaviva beach, the Sorgente beach and the Sansone beach. Along the promontory of Capo d’Enfola there are small coves, usually accessible only by sea, and in the area that connects the promontory to the rest of the island, there is a small pebble beach.

After Capo d’Enfola, where I point out the Blue Grotto, reachable only by sea, you reach the Gulf of Viticcio. Here there are some coves with pebbles that open between the rocks and some sandy beaches. The main ones are Cala Pineta, Viticcio beach and Cala Ciottolaia.

We close the tour of the beaches of Portoferraio with the Gulf of Biodola which is located just south of that of Viticcio. Here we find three beaches: the Forno beach, the Scaglieri beach and the Biodola beach. All three are sandy beaches; the first is smaller and less served but probably quieter while the others are larger and equipped with more services.

How to get to Portoferraio

Portoferraio, the main landing point for those arriving on Elba, because here is the most important port of the island. In fact, it is here that most of the ferries arrive, connecting Elba to the Tuscan coast (usually Piombino) and Corsica. The navigation time between Piombino and Portoferraio is generally between 40 and 60 minutes. The connection service is managed by various shipping companies: Toremar, Moby Lines and BluNavy between Piombino and Portoferraio, Corsica Ferries between Corsica and Portoferraio.

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