There’s a reason why Portofino Bay Hotel is considered the flagship resort of Universal Orlando – it’s beautiful, impeccably-themed, and is positively huge, despite having one of the smallest room counts on-property (only Aventura Hotel and Hard Rock Hotel have fewer rooms). It’s not unusual to hear of first-time guests getting lost on the premises, and it’s also rare to hear anyone complain about it – with seemingly a secret around every themed corner, devoting a few hours to strolling Portofino’s grounds, whether you’re staying there or not, is one of the best possible ways to spend time at Universal.
And befitting its size and prestige, there’s plenty to do here – taking pics with the European-style vehicles out front, exploring all three(!) of the hotel’s pools (including one gorgeously-designed water slide), enjoying the luxurious Mandara Spa, or (one of our personal favorites) getting a stunning harbor-view room, if you’re spending the night. But as wonderful as all these are, there are a few experiences in specific that stand out even more, representing the best Portofino has to offer. We’re going to make sure that you catch them and, thus, have the best time possible at what many consider to be Universal’s best hotel.
1. The Harbor Piazza
Portofino Bay’s Harbor Piazza is easily one of the grandest spots at all of Universal Orlando Resort. The water all by itself is mesmerizing, particularly with all of the boats (both real and fake) that populate it, but when combined with the gorgeous buildings and the thrum of people moving leisurely throughout the area, it’s positively picturesque.
There is no shortage of ways to enjoy oneself here. Go for a stroll with that special someone, hand in hand, as you continue to explore the grounds, or grab a drink and cicchetti (small plates of food) from the Thirsty Fish wine bar – which, yes, is also right there on the waterfront – and enjoy your refreshments while you watch all the other guests go about their way. Probably the best option, however, is to head into Trattoria del Porto, which ordinarily specializes in seaside Italian cuisine, for breakfast on some bright morning and ask to eat it outside, right on the Harbor Piazza – we promise French toast never tasted as good.
2. Bocce ball
Never heard of Bocce ball? It’s one of the oldest lawn games in the world, and its surprisingly-easy-to-learn-but-hard-to-master gameplay befits its age. (It’s also a blast to play, almost like a land version of the Winter Olympic sport of curling.)
Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned expert, sneaking off to a corner of Portofino Bay Hotel that is as well-manicured and (comparatively) secluded as the Bocce courts are is an extremely pleasant way to while away the time. Even better, it’s located on the Villa Piazza, which is a serene recreation of the Italian countryside; nearby is the Villa Pool, which is far smaller than its sibling, the Beach Pool, but is also more low-key and peaceful. Taking advantage of all of these amenities transforms an hour’s leisure into a full afternoon of refreshing, relaxing fun.
3. Mama Della’s Ristorante
It should be no surprise that Universal’s biggest on-site hotel has the biggest collection of restaurants, and it should be no surprise again that Portofino’s eateries are some of the best to be found all across the resort – Bice Ristorante is equal parts elegant and decadent, while Trattoria del Porto is colorful and fun and Sal’s Market Deli is nicely-themed and offers some of the best pizzas to be found on-property.
But the real stand-out at Portofino Bay is Mama Della’s Ristorante, which is designed to look – and feel – like a real Italian grandmother’s home, right down to the wallpaper and, if you’re lucky, Mama herself, who will welcome you into her kitchen to eat (and then eat some more). The food is superb, hailing from Tuscany, Naples, and Piemonte, and the strolling musicians are the icing on the authentic Italian cake, performing a surprising range of songs (we even saw them do the Spider-Man theme song for one particularly bored-looking adolescent).
4. Musica Della Note
This is one of those little touches that may sound nice or quaint on paper, but once you see it for yourself, in person, it surprisingly blows you away and makes your night all the more magical.
Musica Della Note (Music of the Night) takes place on a balcony overlooking the Harbor Piazzi; every evening, at sunset, a singer comes out and performs a song or two, welcoming the night’s activities in grand style. The staging is grand, but grander still is the type and range of music performed – everything from classic opera to “romantic and festive music” to popera (yes, pop opera). It’s hard not to get swept up in the moment. (Our favorite song that we’ve heard performed thus far is “The Music of the Night” from Andre Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, but call us biased.)
Want to make the experience even more romantic? Get a harbor-view hotel room and enjoy the mini-show right from the comfort of your own balcony, watching the light glint off of the harbor’s peaceful waves as the music serenades you. Forget having a Universal moment – you might call this Universal perfection.
BONUS: Harbor Nights
This isn’t always an option, as the event is held only four times a year, but if it falls within your vacation window and lands within your budget, it’s a really hard experience to say no to.
Harbor Nights is a combination of wine tasting and jazz concert, held right out on the Harbor Piazza, with “the ambiance of the Mediterranean” held front and center. Gourmet food options, usually prepared from each of Universal Orlando’s on-site hotels and paired with the wine offerings, are also present, along with the occasional entertainment (including those wonderful Musica Della Note singers).
Tickets generally cost around $55 for general admission and $90 for VIP access (which includes a private wine-tasting session, passed hors d’oeuvres, and a reserved seating section [no, you don’t have to stand the whole night]). Each Harbor Night has a different subtitle and general date it falls within: Romantico is in February, Primavera in April, La Dolce Vita in October, and Holiday in November.
(You can keep up with all of the next event’s specifics on our Universal Snapshot page.)
Find out everything you ever wanted to know about HHN – plus more! – in our insider’s guide.