Located on the north western coast of Italy’s beautiful Tuscan Riviera, Cinque Terre is a group of five old fishing villages that are connected along a stunning coastal path. Cinque Terre translates to ‘Five Lands’ which refers to the five villages which are centuries old – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.
Walking through this little piece of Italian wonderland, it’s no surprise that it was turned into a Unesco World Heritage Site back in 1997. Exploring the villages can feel like you are stepping back in time with the lack of vehicle access, no high end hotels, and no fast food joints (yes, no McDonalds OR Starbucks!).
Let’s get straight to the good stuff – hiking! Glorious hiking! The main reason to visit Cinque Terre is to hike along the stunning coastal trails that connect all five villages, however check before you travel as several of the trails are currently closed for safety. During our visit the trail between Corniglia and Manarola was closed until 2018, as was the main part of the trail between Manarola and Riomaggiore, unfortunately due to a landslide back in 2012.
The trails range from 2km – 4km in distance and 1hr – 2hrs depending on your fitness. Make sure you wear suitable footwear as although most of the pathways are relatively flat, you will be clambering up and down steep steps at the beginning and end of most trails, as well as scrambling over the occasional loose rock throughout. The trails are suitable for anyone with a basic level of fitness. We saw people of all ages along the pathways – old, young, families with small children and even an admirable man on double crutches!
With the exception of the Vernazza to Corniglia trail, there are no shops or toilets enroute so make sure you pack plenty of water and take a pee stop before you head out. There were only a few rest spots in the shade, so it’s vital in the summer to pack your sunscreen and wear appropriate clothing to protect yourself from the sun. Do not be that person who attempts this in their flip flops and vest thinking it’s a casual stroll! And of course don’t forget your camera for those breath taking coastal snaps along the way.
The National Park has a daily fee of €15 per person which can be paid in cash at the small ticket huts at the beginning of each trail. The daily passes can be used on multiple trails, so ideally you want to try and plan a few of the hikes together which can easily be broken up for a lunch or beer stop in the villages in between. For more info on each of the main trails have a read here.
Whilst most people prefer to hike between the villages, they are also connected by a 19th century railway line that takes a maximum of 8 minutes to travel between Monterosso to Riomaggiore, stopping at the other three villages in between. One way tickets between individual stations cost €4 per adult, otherwise you can purchase a daily ticket for €16 that allows you unlimited travel between all stations for a 24 hr period. Note, this also includes the main train stations either side of the villages – La Spezia and Levanto. The same train line will connect you all the way north up to Genoa, and all the way south down to Pisa.
I visited Cinque Terre with my boyfriend, as part of a week’s trip combined with Florence. We chose to base ourselves in Monterosso which is undoubtedly the largest of the villages, with the widest choice of accommodation, restaurants and small shops selling all kind of local trinklets, including lots of pesto and lemon related items!
The new town of Monterosso is the only village that has a proper sandy beach, which in the peak of summer is heaving full of holiday makers soaking up the sunshine. Connected via a small underground tunnel, the village is split into two, the new town, and old town, which is quieter of the two. This is also the only village that allows car access and you’ll find a small car park in both towns which have a stonking daily charge of €18 per day.
We spent 4 nights in a lovely little B&B called Il Timone Loreto, which was perfectly located within the heart of the Old Town, just steps away from the local bakery where we picked up fresh pastries each morning before we set off. I’ve learnt through my travels a good bakery is everything, so always have a google for the local bakery!
We ate at some wonderful local restaurants including Pizzeria La Smorfia which had an impressive menu offering over 90 different types of pizza. Honestly, no joke! Next door at Trattoria de Oscar you’ll be best off making a reservation to get in as this little gem is always overflowing with customers. Along the promenade in the new town Milky is a great choice, (we sadly couldn’t get a reservation here but I hear it’s excellent!) as is Hotel Baia where we enjoyed several cocktails whilst people watching.
Each of the villages are slightly different from one another. The hub of Vernazza is based around the small harbour and beach (both of which you can swim in), along with the Chiesa di Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, a waterfront church. Up along the windy narrow lanes, you’ll be able to reach the ancient ruins of Castello Doria (castle!). For a small fee you can enter and climb the circular tower for a spectacular view of the village. With an abundance of cafes, restaurants, and ice cream shops you won’t have a problem finding somewhere to eat here. Vernazza was definitely by far my favourite of all the villages!
The smallest and quietest of the villages Corniglia, has no direct access to the sea. Set atop a 100 metre high rocky promenade, here you will find more colourful houses, narrow passage ways and several rewarding lookout points. I heard there was a small beach here located via an abandoned railway tunnel, but we didn’t get to see this. Why not ask a local for directions and go find it! Want thighs like Beyonce? Great, have a go at the staggering 377 steps from the station up to the town which are pretty steep. There is a small shuttle bus for anyone who may struggle though!
Possibly the most photographed, the romantic village of Manarola is most famous for its sweet Sciacchetra wine. You’ll be greeted with yet more picturesque colourful little houses facing the small harbour and piazza featuring an old bell tower which was once used as a lookout for pesky pirates. Punta Bonfiglio is the stunning viewpoint for that ultimate kodak moment, so make sure you allow time for a visit.
Lastly Riomaggiore is the most eastern of the villages and also known as the unofficial HQ of Cinque Terre, as you’ll find the main office for the National Park located here. Sadly, there was a flood back in 2012 and the popular 20 minute pathway between Riomaggiore and Manarola is still closed. Locals are hoping this will be open by 2018 though. With a much busier vibe to the town, you can head out diving or snorkelling, visit the local nature reserve (Torre Guardiola) or wander along the small pebbly beach.
Like most of Italy, a scooter is a great way to explore the coastal roads and the surrounding villages and towns. We took the train down to Le Spezia which is the nearest main town from Monterosso, where we hired a scooter for the day for around 40 euro’s. We meandered down south to visit Portovenere, a quaint stretch of pastel coloured buildings that line the harbour front.
Despite the town not being very big (a half day is long enough for your visit), it was still bustling with day trippers. A popular boat trip takes you out to the three islands of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto in a mere 40 minutes. The end of the promenade is surrounded by rocks, where sunbathers found their own space to soak up the sunshine.
There is a large castle looking out to the ocean that you can visit, several churches, or better still, simply enjoy the local way of life amongst the picture perfect lanes with a cold gelato! Parking was a nightmare here and there was an endless stream of cars circling around trying to find somewhere to park. No problem parking the scooter though, so a wise choice!
We briefly visited Santa Margherita to the north of Cinque Terre, for an afternoon to catch up with friends from back home who just happened to be visiting at the same time as us. We took the train directly from Monterosso which took around 45 minutes, and the station was located a 5-minute walk from the main piazza. Santa Margherita was much larger and lacked the quaint village feel of Cinque Terre, but its huge harbour was super handy when we took a boat over to Portofino for dinner.
In one of those true random traveller stories, we found ourselves with friends who had befriended a local wine merchant who had offered to take us out on his private boat. We got a mini tour, an insight into the local life and a complimentary platter of fresh fruit and homemade prosecco. Much like a mini Monaco, the harbour was easily filled with multi million pound yachts, designer boutiques and wall to wall restaurants filled with gorgeous looking people – until we turned up!
We got comfy at a floating bar and enjoyed a bottle of prosecco before heading to dinner at one of the many waterfront restaurants. An Italian town that I’ve always wanted to visit, this playground is home to the rich and famous (Elton John was in town when we visited) and actually a far cry from my usual type of holiday, but I’m glad I got to see it – even if it were just to casually stop by for dinner via our private boat!
The nearest airports to Cinque Terre are either Pisa or Genoa – both approx. 90 km away. Both airports have excellent train links that will allow you to easily connect from the airport all the way to Cinque Terre, although be preparred for a change or two. We travelled into Pisa simply because there was better flight availability from London. From Pisa airport we connected visa the Pisa mover (airport shuttle bus) which takes 8 mins every 10 minutes to Pisa Central rail station. The quickest route was a direct train onto La Spezia (one hour) and then connect onto the slow train which stops at all the village stations. Check out Rail Europe for travel times and fares.