In the late 19th century, first British, then other Northern European aristocratic tourists began to visit Portofino, which they reached by horse and cart from Santa Margherita Ligure. Aubrey Herbert and Elizabeth von Arnim were amongst the more famous English people to make the area fashionable. Eventually, more expatriates built expensive vacation houses, and by 1950 tourism had replaced fishing as the town's chief industry, and the waterfront was a continuous ring of restaurants and cafés.
Statue of Christ of the Abyss, placed underwater on 29 August 1954 in the inlet at a depth of 17 metres (56 ft). This statue was placed to protect fishermen and scuba divers and in memory of Dario Gonzatti, the first Italian to use SCUBA gear, who died in 1947. Sculpted by Guido Galletti, it represents Christ in the act of blessing while looking up towards the sky with open arms in a sign of peace.
Portofino is often thought to be the inspiration for Sir Clough Williams-Ellis' Italianate village named Portmeirion, built between 1925 and 1975, in north Wales. However, this was repeatedly denied by the architect. He stated only that he wanted to pay tribute to the atmosphere of the Mediterranean. He did, however, draw on a love of the Italian village, stating "How should I not have fallen for Portofino? Indeed its image remained with me as an almost perfect example of the man-made adornment and use of an exquisite site."
In 1959 Dalida released song "Love in Portofino", written by Leo Chiosso and composed by Fred Buscaglione. With lyrics in French and Italian language, it became a hit and was later iconized alongside the village's name. It also spawned several international covers, including Andrea Bocelli's in 2013 which was followed by a concert recorded and issued on DVD.
Portofino is the eponym of Frank Schaeffer's Portofino: A Novel (1992). It was the first of Schaeffer's Calvin Becker Trilogy.