Porto Ercole literally means ‘Port Hercules’. It is a seaside Tuscan town that sits on the region’s Eastern coast, approximately 40 km south of Grosseto and we think it’s one of Italy’s hidden gems. The second largest town on the Monte Argentario peninsula after Porto Santo Stefano, it’s also one of the borgi piu belli d’Italia. The Argentario promontory itself is a stunning landscape of green hills, rugged vegetation (characterised by citrus trees, wild juniper and lavender along with a plethora of wild flowers which burst with colour each Spring), hidden coves and harbours, connected to the Italian mainland by three isthmuses. Porto Ercole sits in one of these natural bays and boasts a beautiful harbour below whilst the old town sits on the hill above.
The History of Porto Ercole
The history of Porto Ercole stretches back as far as the Phoenicians, the Etruscans and the Romans (as evidenced by numerous artefacts uncovered here) but, to be honest, little is certain about the history of Porto Ercole before the 1500s. But we do know that it was occupied by the Spanish in the 16th century, ceded to them after their support for the Florentines in defeating Siena and subsequently becoming a garrison state ruled by the Spanish army and navy.
It’s also the resting place of Caravaggio (whose real name was Michelango Merisi) who sadly died of an unknown fever in Porto Ercole in 1610 (most likely to be malaria) on his way to receive a pardon for murder after being on the run for 4 years following a murder charge in Rome. Caravaggio was subsequently buried here in an unmarked grave. Look out for the commemorative marker on the clock tower.
These days, it’s a popular tourist destination for Italians, whose boats pack into the little harbour in the Summer. In fact, so popular is it that a brand new purpose-built marina was constructed less than a mile away at Cala Galera to accommodate them all.
What to do in Porto Ercole
Start your visit at the Porta Pisana, the gate to the entrance to the pedestrianised historic centre (centro storico) which is absolutely delightful. Once inside, you’ll find a maze of narrow streets, stairways and piazzas which are a delight to explore. The elevated setting is also a good place to enjoy some wonderful views over the harbour below.
Another great viewpoint is the strada panoramica, a scenic drive up the mountainside where you will be rewarded with views of the Tyrrhenian sea, Isola Giglio and the Seathe islands. This landscape is paradise for hikers too, with numerous trails that lead to the stunning beaches or head to the other villages on the promontory or even take you to the very peak of Mount Argentario.
No visit would be complete without a visit to the harbour at Porto Ercole. The town’s fishing tradition remains strong today and you’re likely to find fishermen repairing their nets on the shore here or working in their brightly coloured fishing boats. Sitting alongside these vessels are luxurious yachts, owned by wealthy Italians who holiday in the area. Take a gentle stroll along the lungomare promenade, stopping at one of the many restaurants and cafes that line the walkway or picking up a souvenir at one of the many artisan workshops that are found in the converted fisherman’s huts here. For those keen to get out on the water, it’s possible to take a boat trip or enjoy snorkelling and diving trips from Porto Ercole.
There are also three well preserved castles to visit in Porto Ercole, all constructed by the Spanish during their reign and which give visitors a glimpse into the town’s past. These include the Forte Filippo where you will see the typical triangular bastions that are such a common feature of Spanish fortresses of that time. Also worthy of a visit is the star-shaped Forte Stella, worth a visit to enjoy the sea views alone, and the Rocca Spagnola. The latter occupies the most prominent position on the hillside above the town. In fact, if you want to explore further afield, there are around 20 forts and lookout towers in total spread across the promontory.
Other buildings of note worthy of a visit include the Chiesa di Sant’Erasmo (Erasmo is the patron saint of sailors and the town’s patron saint) which can be found almost at the top of the promontory and which dates as far back as the 4th century (although it has had many later additions). Head up the hill using the staircase to the rear of the church to discover the ruins of the 15th century Confraternity of Santa Croce, home to the sanatorium where some believe that Caravaggio was hospitalised before his death.
And don’t miss the Palazzo dei Governanti (Governor’s Palace) built by the Spanish. Whilst the palace sustained damage in WWII, it retains a beautifully elegant and intricate facade and is well worth a visit.
Finally, in the hills, just outside Porto Ercole, is the convent of Padre Passionisti, founded in the early 18th century by Paolo Danei della Croce when he stopped at Porto Ercole and was so inspired by the sheer beauty of the area that he set up a hermitage there.
Events in Porto Ercole
Head to Porto Ercole in May and you may be in for a bit of a surprise! For 3 nights each year, the village is filled with pirates! La Notte dei Pirati is a 3 day event during which you will find colourfully decorated streets filled with people dressed up as pirates. The event does have its roots in history – in the past, these coastal towns were often attacked and looted by Mediterranean pirates – but these days, the pirates are much more friendly and welcoming!
On the Saturday, there is a parade through the village with thousands of costumed figures making their way to the port where they board their boats and take off to launch a mock assault on the nearby beaches with cannon fire, smoke and a lot of noise! Named the Conquest of Porto Ercole, it’s a re-enactment of the 1544 landing of Corsair Barbarossa when around 200 Porto Ercole residents were taken prisoner. A treasure hunt follows with the boat crews challenged to find the treasure of Porto Ercole (10 silver and gold coins).
The following day, there is the Corsairs Regatta. 6 sailing boats with a crew of pirates on board compete, with teams from all over Italy coming to take part. For the best views, head to the harbour at Porto Ercole or, for a more elevated perspective, to the coast road that runs all along the Argentario promontory. There is also plenty to keep the younger family members entertained including treasure hunts for the children along with parades and fireworks. Prizes are awarded on the third and final day of festivities with awards for everything from best dressed crew to the best pirate cove.
June sees much calmer celebrations taking place in the village. Porto Ercole’s patron saint is Sant’ Erasmo (also referred to as Sant’ Elmo). So the story goes, this bishop performed an incredible miracle in the village, calming a fierce storm to protect the local fishermen were out on the sea. This miracle is celebrated annually on 2 June with a sea procession that follows a fishing vessel containing the relics and statue of the saint.
No annual calendar would be complete in Italy without a focus on food and, in this respect, Porto Ercole does not disappoint! In August, it hosts the Sagra della Ficamaschia Dorata, a typical fish festival. The event celebrates the wonderful seafood that the waters off Porto Ercole are home to. Stalls will give visitors the chance to buy and taste a plethora of traditional dishes including fried anchovies, risotto alla pescatora, cuttelfish alla luciana and many more.
Finally, the calendar draws to a close in December when, like many of Italy’s towns and villages, Porto Ercole creates a living nativity scene.
Where to eat in Porto Ercole
Hosteria Alicina – Always busy, this is a busy bustling restaurant run by a passionate chef who is proud of his ‘zero miles’ philosophy on food, making the most of the wonderful seafood that is caught on his doorstep!
Gambero Rosso – Situated in the harbour, this restaurant again specialises in fish and seafood but also creates excellent meat and vegetarian dishes to suit all tastes. It boasts a stunning panoramic terrace overlooking the harbour and serves up contemporary Italian cuisine.
Osteria Plasir du Vin – Great place to enjoy an aperitivo since it boasts an excellent cellar
Cafe del Porto – Highly recommended cafe to enjoy a freshly made cornetti and coffee for breakfast.
Pelligrill – A restaurant at a luxury boutique hotel – Il Pellicano – which sits atop the cliff in Porto Ercole, this 1 Michelin star restaurant is expensive but special.
Dama Dama restaurant and the Club House restaurant – Both restaurants can be found at the exclusive Argentario Golf Club and both come highly recommended. The Club House is more relaxed and informal whereas Dama Dama serves more formal cuisine and offers the option of a tasting menu. Enjoy drinks or dinner with incredible views. Insider tip: Take mosquito repellent with you.
Where to stay in Porto Ercole
Villa Benedetta is a stunning villa in Porto Ecole. With 4 bedrooms, it can comfortably sleep up to 8 guests and is within a 5 minute walk of the town centre. It’s also just a 7 minute walk from the first of our restaurant recommendations in Porto Ercole too! Outside, it boasts a private pool set in beautiful gardens and enjoys terrific views of the Renaissance fortress of Porto Ercole. Inside, it’s immaculately presented and oozes style and charm.
How to travel to Porto Ercole
By car: We strongly suggest that you hire a car to visit Porto Ercole
By plane: The nearest airport to Porto Ercole is Rome Fuimicino, approximately 110 km away. Otherwise, both Perugia airport and Rome Ciampino airport are about 130 km away. Florence and Pisa airports are both approximately 155 km from the town.
By train: If coming by public transport, the nearest train station is at Orbetello. From here, you’ll need to catch a bus to Porto Ercole itself.