Tips for Hiking Cinque Terre, Italy
Hiking is something I never thought I'd enjoy. Walking up a hill all day in chunky boots and unattractive attire had as much appeal to me as rolling in grass during hayfever season. But I like running outdoors and I believe in mixing things up fitness-wise, so I gradually succumbed to the idea. My boyfriend and I went on a few hikes around our home city last year and while I didn't love them, I did feel a sense of calm from the nature hit and absence of protein-smashing weight lifters.
When my boyfriend suggested we visit Italy's Cinque Terre during our trip to Europe earlier this year, I jumped at the chance. Not only is it jawdroppingly beautiful, but hiking is one of its key attractions. Again, I wasn't wooed by the long steep hills. I just wanted to keep fit on a five week vacation. Thankfully, Cinque Terre isn't the hardcore GPS, water filtering and pants with 15 pockets kind of hiking. Advanced routes exist but mostly, you'll find stunning, centuries old footpaths that should satisfy anyone who likes to move.
This post covers my general tips for hiking in Cinque Terre and I'll bring you a detailed guide to specific trails we hiked in coming weeks. For advice on where to stay, eat and how to get to the region, check out My Guide: Italy's Incredible Cinque Terre.
The most popular trail is the Blue Path. These are the four scenic, relatively easy paths connecting each of Cinque Terre's five towns which (in order from north to south) are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. The total path stretches 12 kilometres (7.5 miles). Unfortunately, the Corniglia-Manarola and Manarola-Riomaggiore sections were closed during our visit and won't reopen until 2019. Don't let that stop you. We found alternatives!
There's also the High Path, which as the name suggests is higher and more inland than the Blue Path. It's far longer than the Cinque Terre, stretching 40km (25mi) from Levanto in the north (shown in map below) to Portovenere in the south (not shown).
There are plenty more paths, but the above details should suffice for first-timers to the region and beginner hikers.
choosing a path
With hundreds of trails to choose from, where should you start? Firstly, check the status of the paths here or ask at a local tourist bureau or railway station. As mentioned, two sections on the Blue Path were closed during our visit (Corniglia-Manarola and Manarola-Riomaggiore) but we found an alternate, intense 50 minute hike over a mountain from Riomaggiore to Manarola. Also, check the weather. You don't want to hike during or after rain so plan accordingly.
- If you have one day: Do the Monterosso-Vernazza Blue Path (2 hours) and if you enjoy that, continue with Vernazza-Corniglia (2 hours). You'll be more than satisfied.
- If you have three days: You can easily do all of the Blue Path (depending on trail statuses) and an extra hike on the High Path. We did four hikes in three days, including Riomaggiore to Portovenere. This post is coming soon.
- If you have a week: You lucky thing. You're spoilt for choice! You can explore Cinque Terre and beyond (such as Levanto, La Spezia or Portovenere) and have a day's rest at Monterosso's beaches too.
If you're a serious hiker, you'll nail the entire Cinque Terre in a day but who wants to rush on vacation?
how fit do I need to be?
I run, cycle and do strength training six days a week but I still found Cinque Terre challenging. This could be because a) I have shorts legs b) I don't normally hike and c) I'd been eating out and drinking for three weeks before I reached Cinque Terre. If you're reasonably active, you'll be fine.
You control the pace, you can take a break anytime, you'll be stopping for photographs anyway and there'll be plenty of struggling seniors (there'll be lots who'll kick your ass too). I tried to find yoga classes to stretch out without luck. These are small fishing villages!
how sore will i get?
Neither my boyfriend or I were sore after our Monterosso-Vernazza hike but that's only two hours. You're bound to get jelly legs at some point on your walk and be prepared to groan when you stand up after lunch. Our accommodation was up two flights of stairs which was painful, and the steps up to train station platforms weren't pleasant either. By day three, my legs instantly stiffened with the first step. However, I say hiking is like getting a tattoo - it hurts at first but you'll quickly go numb. For the remaining two weeks of our Europe holiday, my quads seized whenever we went up stairs. Again, we're two active people in our early 30s who didn't do any training. We survived.
should i do a tour?
Absolutely not. The Blue Path sections are clearly marked and each part only takes a few hours. There are people everywhere. You will NOT get lost! If you're travelling solo and plan to hit the High Path for a week, then an organised tour might be an option as these trails are less busy and can get a little confusing. My boyfriend and I saw a few tour groups, both on the popular Blue Path and on the High Path. The group on the High Path looked quite professional but even then, their tour leader turned them around after we'd been tailing them for 10 minutes because they'd missed a turn off.
We hiked four paths in three days and only had to pay an entrance fee on the most popular route, which is Monterosso-Vernazza. We paid at the Monterosso checkpoint and there was also a checkpoint on the outskirts of Vernazza. A one day adult pass cost €7.50 (cash only - and your nearest ATM is a good 15 minutes hike down a staircase).
We didn't bother with a train pass as we weren't sure of our plans and it's only €4 per ride anyway. We didn't see any other checkpoints during our four days of hiking.
What to wear
If you're in Cinque Terre without athletic gear, you could walk the Monterosso-Vernazza path in shorts and a t-shirt, with casual sneakers or tennis shoes. Your shoes will get dirty, dusty and possibly muddy. Some people say flip flops are fine, but I'd say they're a last resort and only on the Monterosso-Vernazza path as it's the most sturdy. You'll still encounter uneven terrain, dirt, loose rocks, and possibly mud.
I was very comfortable in my Lululemon crops, Lulu tank and Asics sneakers although my toes were a little sore after day three, even with orthotics. My boyfriend wore board shorts and a t-shirt or singlet, also with sneakers. We sweated like crazy but even in May, I still wore a puffer vest as the sun went down. Both our shoes looked a little worse for wear after Cinque Terre, but were fine once we'd cleaned them.
I was concerned about going to the villages restaurants and cafes in my hiking gear, but it was perfectly fine. There were hikers everywhere and no-one blinked when we turned up to venues with white tablecloths and suited waiters, despite us being in singlets and sports shoes. This was true at night too. One bar in Monterosso felt like I'd stepped into a North Face catalogue!
What to bring
The obvious stuff - water, a hat, suncream and your phone or camera. On the short Blue Path hikes we had a 500ml (16 oz.) bottle each, and on the longer High Path hike (Riomaggiore - Portovenere) we had two bottles each. We also brought a small towel and a sweater/puffer vest each, as it did cool in the afternoons. My boyfriend brought a spare t-shirt to change into after hiking as he'd sweat through the first one. I saw people carrying their dogs on the path and people with baby hiking frames too.
There were no restrooms on any of the routes we did, except for the 12km (7.5mi) Riomaggiore-Portovenere path which had a cafe at Pass of Telegrafo and you can also break in Campiglia. I stay really hydrated and was concerned I'd need a bathroom break, even on the two hour hikes. But we sweated so much it wasn't an issue. Don't assume you can run into trees if nature calls - the trails are busy, they're mostly exposed and there's a cliff face below so it's not always safe or possible to deviate.
I didn't see any water available despite signage on the Riomaggiore-Portovenere route, but there were occasionally picnic tables or flat rocks where you could have a nice break.
when to go
We were in the Cinque Terre in mid-May and temperatures were around 17-18°C (62-65°F). It was fresh in the morning so I wore a puffer vest at first but quickly shed it. I love the heat and I don't sweat much - but boy, did we sweat on those tracks! You're walking uphill and there's only occasional shade. I told myself I wouldn't want to visit any later, even if the nights were cool enough to warrant a jacket. The crowds were also noticeable at this time, and multiple times we had to wait at narrow sections or go slowly upstairs because of people ahead. Thinking back, I'd possibly go a few weeks later but only so I could ditch the coat at night.
Do NOT hike in the rain or immediately after. Even in dry conditions, I came close to slipping several times wearing my reliable, $200 cross-trainers. There are loose rocks too. It must have rained in the days before our visit as the paths were also muddy in some parts.
There are a few ways to reach your starting point or return to your accommodation:
- Train: There's a station in every village and services are frequent (every 20 minutes), fast (5 minutes or less between each town) and affordable (€4 per journey). If travelling to or from Corniglia, be aware the village is on a hilltop and the train station is at sea level, with about 15 flights of stairs connecting them! I did see a sign for a shuttle bus but didn't use it.
- Ferry: The ferry is much slower but a nice way to sightsee and appreciate the terrain you've covered at the end of the day. A one-way adult ticket from Portovenere to Monterosso is €18, with services approximately every 30-90 minutes. The ferry doesn't stop at Corniglia. Click here for the 2017 timetable.
- Walk: If your trail is a loop or you're feeling energetic, you can get home on foot. I guarantee this is less attractive after a few aperitifs!
The website In Cinque Terre is excellent. We used this extensively to plan our hikes and found the information both detailed and accurate. The estimated hiking times were more or less correct too.
My boyfriend downloaded the app Trails of Cinque Terre (AU$4.49) which I highly recommend if you're doing the Riomaggiore-Portovenere route. I liked that we could track the distance we covered - 12 km (7.5mi) in less than five hours! It was also helpful when the path reached a fork or wasn't obvious. Every step is valuable and you don't want to go uphill unnecessarily!
Want to see the four hikes we did on our trip? Stay tuned - that post will be up shortly! As mentioned, you can also check out my guide Italy's Incredible Cinque Terre for general tips on the area, such as where to stay, language and where to eat.
The Cinque Terre trails have been the most memorable hikes of my life and inspired me to find more treks around the world. Monterosso to Vernazza is a walk everyone should do once in a lifetime, and the region's National Park and UNESCO Heritage Listing statuses make it some of the most pristine yet tourist friendly paths you can find. The scenery was breathtaking and jawdropping, and I'm forever grateful my boyfriend suggested we visit Cinque Terre.
QUESTION: Where's your favourite hiking spot in the world?