Italy's Incredible Cinque Terre: My Guide
About a year ago, my boyfriend and I sat down with a giant piece of cardboard, a handful of Sharpies and our laptops. We'd booked return flights to London to see one of my best friends get married and we had month afterwards to explore Europe! My dream was to cycle through French vineyards while my boyfriend wanted to visit Cinque Terre. I'd never heard of it. "It's in Italy. It looks cool!" he said. He showed me some photos on Instagram. It looked incredible so it went onto our list.
Our plans progressed and in May this year, we boarded a train in Nice, France and five hours later arrived in Cinque Terre. It was a surreal moment, disembarking at Monterosso's small train station at sunset and towing our suitcases along the beach path to our guest house. The days that ensued were absolutely magical.
If you're looking for spectacular scenery, dramatic architecture and a relaxed village vibe, Cinque Terre delivers it all. Bonus: Italian food and wine!
Cinque Terre ("Five Lands") is on the northern Italian coastline, about two hours north-west of Florence and 450 kilometres (280 miles) north-west of Rome. It comprises a string of five coastal towns, each a few kilometres apart. Cinque Terre is a national park and was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997 for its outstanding cultural value, along with nearby Portovenere and several islands.
From north to south, Cinque Terre's towns are:
- Monterosso: the biggest, made up of Old Town and New Town (about 10 minutes walk between them). It has a large beach area.
- Vernazza: arguably the second most popular village, and rivalling Maranola for most beautiful. Probably the most photographed, thanks to being an easy hike from Monterosso. Vernazza has an iconic pier and castle.
- Corniglia: the only town without direct beach access, it's instead perched high on a hill. For that reason, it has the least number of tourists. Considered the most quant and peaceful.
- Manarolo (shown in the cover photo): another popular choice, often considered the most beautiful.
- Riomaggiore: the most southern village in Cinque Terre, so the first one you'll reach if travelling north along the coast.
It's worth noting the nearby towns, as they're important for getting your direction right on train travel: Levanto is north of Monterosso and you'll find La Spezia and Portovenere south/south-east of Riomaggiore.
where to stay
My boyfriend and I found this one of the most difficult things to decide when planning our visit. Thankfully, a colleague had just been to Cinque Terre and recommended we stay in Monterosso's Old Town. He said it was beautiful, and the only village big enough to handle the influx of tourists without feeling too crowded. He was spot on! Make sure you book accommodation as soon as you can. We were travelling in the shoulder-season and had limited options when trying to book three months in advance!
We got a double room at the perfectly located Affittacamere Irene for 4 nights (Via XX Settembre 16, Monterosso | €130/night). It was one of four rooms at the family-run guesthouse and very spacious, just a minute or two from Monterosso's bars, restaurants and bakeries. Our host was running the guesthouse for her mother and personally showed us to our room, along giving us an introduction to the region. She provided some great dining recommendations too! The complimentary snacks, tea and coffee were enough for a light breakfast before hiking and the small fridge was handy too.
If you're struggling to pick a town, consider these factors:
- 1. How much luggage do you have?
Make no mistake - Cinque Terre is steep. While the main street may be wide and comparatively flat, guesthouses may be several flights of uneven steps so taking a cab (if available) isn't an option. We had a 23kg (50 lb.) suitcase each but thankfully our accommodation was a 10 minute, flat walk from the train station. Corniglia is on top of a hill but the train station is at sea level. It'll take you at least 10 minutes to go down the stairs, let alone going up with a bag! If you've just got a weekend duffel, you've got more options.
- 2. How many bar/dining options do you want?
Monterosso is the biggest of the towns, so if you like to explore different venues over a few nights, this is a good bet. We didn't actually make it to the New Town area during our four night stay because we had so many local choices! We spent less time in Vernazza and Manarola, but there were multiple dining spots on offer too, both by the water and at higher lookouts. Corniglia is the smallest town although one of our favourite bars was here (see "drinks" below). Riomaggiore is the only village we didn't eat or drink in, but only because it didn't work with our hikes.
- 3. Will you spend more time hiking or beaching?
Monterosso has the biggest beach area, made up of public and private facilities. Vernazza and Manarola have small harbours to swim in. As Corniglia is perched on a hill, beach access is possible but not easy. The town to train station stairs would be torture after a day of hiking and there's no ferry access. Riomaggiore has a rocky, pebbly beach but the town is an excellent base for hiking, as you can continue further south to Portovenere.
The best advice I can give is that ultimately, it doesn't matter where you stay. None of the villages are particularly big, they all have similar facilities and the Regionale trains between them are cheap (€4), fast and frequent. If you like bigger towns and have a heavy suitcase, go for Monterosso. If you want the most quant and least touristy village, head to Corniglia. I felt Vernazza was overcrowded with tourists, but this may change at night once daytrippers have left. Manarola was a magnet for Instagrammers but honestly, most of Cinque Terre is selfie-central. It's shame we only transitted through Riomaggiore! I'd possibly stay there or in Manarola next time, mostly to explore alternate hiking routes. My boyfriend said he'd happily return to Monterosso.
what to do
If you're mildly active, you've got to do at least one hike in Cinque Terre. There are popular hikes, each 1-3 hours, connecting each of the villages as well as more challenging, professional paths. These footpaths have actually connected the villages for centuries. The most popular walk is the simple, two-hour hike between Monterosso and Vernazza. It's a perfect introduction to the region and one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
My boyfriend and I were keen to hike as much as we could, and we did four journeys in three days (each one harder than the last!). The scenery was jaw-dropping and breathtaking at almost every step and meeting travellers from all around the world was a bonus. Our daily routine became a morning hike, leisurely lunch, an afternoon hike and apertifs (see "drinks" below) before returning to Monterosso for dinner. I'll do a separate, detailed post about our hikes shortly but in the interim, this website has detailed, accurate advice: www.incinqueterre.com/en/trails-advice.
Make your Cinque Terre trip a real vacation by spending a day at the beach. As mentioned, Monterosso has the biggest beach area (both private and public facilities) but you can reach the water from any of the villages with varying levels of difficulty. We spent an hour or so sunbaking on rocks at Vernazza, but in Manarola it was too chilly to swim in the small harbour. The beaches are more rock than sand, so bring a towel.
Whether it's a sanctuary, monument or plain old church, each village has at least one place of worship. I saw two - a church in Vernazza we awkwardly walked through to get to a beach and another on our hike between Riomaggiore and Portovenere. I've seen enough churches and temples in my travels for a lifetime, but if this is your thing you'll some options in each town.
I love taking cooking classes abroad and Cinque Terre would've been exceptional! I looked into local schools and found most classes were around €130. When researching this post, I did see the cafe Nessun Dorma (see "where to eat" below) offered a pesto making course for €35. Amazing! If you offer or have taken a cooking class in Cinque Terre, please comment below.
where to eat
Cinque Terre is in Italy's Liguria region which is famous for its pesto! You'll find the short, twisted trofie pasta on most menus, as the shape is apparently well-suited to the famous basil sauce. Sadly, pesto contains parmesan so I couldn't try any but I ate a lot of other food! Spaghetti pomodoro, minestrone, salads, bruschetta, focaccia and dairy-free gelato! The menus were seafood heavy too, with anchovies a local specialty. The meat dishes are a great option if you need a break from carbs.
You won't find McDonalds or sushi anywhere, and pizza is only occasionally on menus. I chuckled at the number of restaurants with signs saying "NO EGGS!," referring to Americans' love of a cooked breakfast. You'll receive a bread basket everywhere - it's included as part of the €2-3 per person service charge.
Our favourite places were:
- Monterosso: Ristorante Ciak (Piazza Don Minzoni 6) served the most gobsmackingly delicious meal I had during my entire visit. I couldn't finish my gnocchi (€14) so staff kindly packed it to go. Local white wine was €19 a bottle. You MUST eat here!
- Vernazza: We had a post-hike lunch at Al Castello, perched high near the iconic castle overlooking the town and sea. The food was fine, but it was the views and value that were impressive. We paid €14 for a bottle of house white and €8 for spaghetti pomodoro.
- Corniglia: We walked past half a dozen restaurants before reaching the exquisitely located Bar Terza Terra. It was like we were on a private island, tucked around a corner with only a dozen other people taking in the incredible scenery. We had multiple Aperol spritzes (€6) paired with assorted bruschetta (€7) and focaccia (from €2.50). A real highlight!
- Manarola: I'd go back to Nessun Dorma in a heartbeat! This entirely outdoor venue is exceptionally popular due to its stunning views of the town. It was full of Instagrammers but was surprisingly good value given the setting. They had a range of drink and platters combinations from €11-20, focaccias at €6-7 and of course Aperol spritzes. This venue alone is worth a day trip to Manarola.
We arrived in Cinque Terre after four days in France's best vineyards but that didn't stop us from guzzling Italian vino. While you can't compare Grand Cru with the local Cinque Terre wine, we truly enjoyed everything we drank. My boyfriend and I ordered mostly local white wines, which were around €15-20 for a bottle and €4-8 for a glass. On one occasion we tried an €8 bottle of house white, which surprisingly good too. Beer lovers, there's options for you too.
Aperitif is something I'd heard of but not experienced. Consider it Italy's cocktail hour, enjoyed pre-dinner with snacks such as chips, nuts or crackers.
- Monterosso: La Balena Blue (or "the Blue Whale"). Our host suggested this place but it took us a while to find because the signage was quite small. I liked that Italians were drinking here, and people would simply drop in and say hello. A few people had their dogs with them.
- Corniglia: We had lunch at Bar Terza Terra, but I'd return just for drinks. And the scenery!
- Mararola: I'm repeating myself, but go to Nessun Dorma. You could stare at Manarola all day.
The Regionale train is by the far the easiest way to get between towns. The services are fast, frequent and only €4 per trip. Be sure to check the last train times (around midnight) to avoid being stranded after dinner. Click here for the timetable.
A ferry also connects all the towns except Corniglia, and goes further south to Portovenere. The ferries are less frequent, every hour or so, and more expensive (€18 one way Portovenere to Monterosso) but it's a nice way to see the villages from the water. Click here for the 2017 timetable.
Of course, you can walk between the towns too with each only 1.5 - 4km (0.9 - 2.5mi) apart. The villages themselves are best explored on foot due to their small size and steep inclines.
The nearest major cities are Milan (220km/135mi) and Genoa (130km/80mi) in the north, and to the south-east Pisa (100km/62mi) and Florence (170km/105mi). As mentioned, Italy's capital Rome is about 450km south-east of Cinque Terre (or a five hour train ride). The simplest way to reach Cinque Terre is to fly or catch a train to one of these cities, and then catch another train.
We travelled from Nice, France to Genoa (3 hours) and then onto Monterosso (1 h, 15 mins) which was €24.90 each, for both journeys. We pre-booked our tickets using the excellent website Loco2. Italian trains are frequently delayed so be generous with connection times. We were delayed by 20 minutes a few times and saw others delayed by 40 minutes. You could also hire a car but we found the train services were more than adequate.
You'll need Euros (€) for Cinque Terre, as it's part of Italy. I was surprised at how affordable the area was, given it's touristy and somewhat remote. For example, a basic pasta was often €8-10 and focaccias at a bar started from €2.50. Be warned: there's only a couple of ATMs in each town, and they were frequently out of service. You can pay for trains and maybe half the restaurants by credit card, but smaller grocers and hiking fees for example were cash only.
I used our train ride to Monterosso to brush up on my Italian (learnt in Rome, 2006 while backpacking). English was widely spoken in Cinque Terre but to varying degrees. Either way, it's polite to know the basics. Download the free app Duolingo to learn Italian, otherwise here are some essentials:
- Hello/bye = ciao ("chow")
- Thank you = grazie
- Please = per favoure
- Excuse me/pardon = scusi
- Do you have a table for two? = Avete un tavolo per due?
- May I have..? = Vorrei..?
- White/red wine = bianco/rosso vini
Don't buy stamps from postcard vendors. They'll cost you €3 each (on top of the card) and are actually part of some private courier service. Instead, search for a post office here.
I left Cinque Terre feeling I'd had a once in a lifetime experience. The walks were spectacular and the villages, although touristy, were as unspoilt as the scenery. It was a fantastic way to stay fit while travelling and inspired me to explore much more of Italy and its regional cruises. To my boyfriend - thank you for choosing such a stunning, memorable destination!
QUESTION: Where's your favourite place in Italy?