Dating back some seven hundred years and built adjacent to the ruins of nearby Dunskey Castle, Portpatrick's position on the Rhins of Galloway affords visitors views of the Northern Irish coast twenty-one miles to the west, with cliff-top walks and beaches both north and south. The Gulf Stream, flowing in from the north, gives the coastline a pleasant climate, in which subtropical plant life can flourish.
The village was founded on fishing, operating from the sandy, crescent-shaped harbour. It was the principal port for goods and mail traffic to Ireland from the seventeenth century, but the strong winds across the North Channel made this impractical. In 1770, John Smeaton constructed the town's first proper harbour. In 1821, John Rennie was appointed to create a new harbour defined by two new piers. The north pier collapsed in 1839, but the south remains standing. The harbour's inner basin was built between 1861 and 1863, but by then, the main goods route to Ireland was via Stranraer, and services went into decline.
By the inner harbour is the starting point of the Southern Upland Way, a long-distance walking route to Cockburnspath on the east coast. The Portpatrick Hotel, built in 1905 and extended in 1907, sits on the cliffs above this point.
The village was used as one of the locations for the 1952 film "Hunted," starring Dirk Bogarde and directed by Charles Crichton. It also featured in the BBC drama "Two Thousand Acres of Sky" as a stand-in for Portree.