When I close my eyes and imagine the most beautiful place in the world, Cinque Terre along the gorgeous Ligurian Coast of Italy is what I see. And after traveling to all of the major sites in Italy, by far this one is still at the top of my list! Luckily, Cinque Terre not only lives in my dreams but is real and I have been so fortunate to travel there multiple times over the years. It is by far my favorite place in Italy and perfect for a laid-back vacation or honeymoon. It is quaint and remote, located a great distance from all of the major cities yet easy enough to access through Italy’s great rail access. It’s the perfect location for sun, sea, historic and charming villages, great Italian food and all the captivating charm that Italy has to offer.
The views and vistas are breathtaking, with large cliffs and mountains plummeting into the blue sea. Terraced hillsides weave their way up the hills, forming grape and olive vineyards that were once the backbone of this area’s economy. Stretching for 4.5 miles, the Cinque Terre encompasses five tiny fishing villages that are connected mostly by trails.
There are some roads throughout the area, but most of the travel in and between the towns occurs either by boat, train or on foot. Many of the local people that live on the hillsides tending their orchards & gardens can only walk up the trails to get to their homes and you will often find yourself in someone’s backyard while hiking through the hills.
The sparkling blue sea is another draw to Cinque Terre and in the summer thousands descend to the beaches and rocks along the coast to cool off. It’s also where can find yourself sailing, diving, snorkeling and kayaking. In addition to the larger ferries that bring visitors to each village, you will also find colorful wooden fishing boats still used primarily by the locals for fishing and transportation between each town.
THE FIVE VILLAGES
The five villages, Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore date back to the 11th century and were originally small fishing towns that were isolated from the surrounding area and only accessible by boat. A train line was built in the 19th century connecting all of the villages together, as well as to larger cities like Genoa and La Spezia. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the villages of the Cinque Terre are each unique and maintain their historic charm with brightly-colored buildings and homes covering the hillsides.
This area is also further protected by the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre which protects the fragile environment by maintaining the landscape and balancing sustainable tourism with preservation of the buildings, harbors and terraced hillsides used for farming. Tourism is now the main economy here, drawing thousands of people every day which further jeopardizes this small and fragile landscape.
HOW TO GET THERE
Although there are some roads between the villages, I highly recommend traveling by train to access the towns. You can take local trains from Sestri Levante or La Spezia, and they stop in each town. Be sure to buy a day pass so you can travel between towns as much as you want.
Another great way to see the entire coastline is to take a ferry from the main harbor in La Spezia. A few tips… If you get seasick, the boat may not be for you as the sea waters can be quite rough. The ferries may not run year-round, or have slower schedules in the spring and fall. Be sure to check at the dock in La Spezia to see when and if the ferries are running. If not, train is your best bet to reach the villages.
WHEN TO GO
By far the most popular time of year to visit Cinque Terre is in the warm, summer months. Tourists and locals alike venture to the beaches to soak up the warm, Mediterranean sunshine and swim in the sea. Every corner of these small towns are full of life during this time and trains are filled to capacity, sometimes standing room only.
My personal preference is to explore these towns during the slower and cooler Spring and Fall months, especially if you’re hiking. The trails and trains are less crowded and you’ll have the beaches all to yourself. The only downside to traveling here over the winter is that many shops and restaurants are closed and are only open during high-season, but you will still find many that are open year-round. If you are hiking, be sure to stop and get a hiking pass and map of the trails. There are many trails to choose from and range from an easy, flat walk to a more strenuous, all up-hill climb. You can find more information about tickets and maps of trails at Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre.
WHERE TO STAY
Most tourists base themselves in either La Spezia, just south of Riomaggiore, or the towns of Levanto/Sestri Levante north of Monterosso. Both options feature the best access to local trains traveling to the region as well as more hotel options than in any of the five villages. I recommend staying in one of the towns for a more authentic and real experience. There’s something magical about experiencing these seaside towns in the early morning when only the local villagers are out, going about their daily business. You get a sense of what real life is like here, and the culture of this beautiful land. In the evening, the towns turn sleepy and you can peacefully enjoy your dinner on the sea and take an evening stroll. There are many small bed and breakfasts located within the towns, all of which can be quite unique and charming.
Riomaggiore is the first town you’ll reach by boat from La Spezia. One of the larger towns, there are two main parts – first the harbor to the south which is connected via a pedestrian tunnel to the train station and entrance to the first trail that connects to the next town.
The most famous, and easiest, trail to hike between towns is the Via dell’Amore which begins in Riomaggiore on the north end of town past the train station. These villages were so isolated for centuries – even from each other. Townspeople rarely traveled outside of their city and often married others that were from their own town. After the first train line was built in the 1920s, a path was also built to connect Riomaggiore to Manarola. Legend has it that many lovers from both towns would walk and meet in the middle to see each other and carved their names into the rocks. The path was eventually named Via dell’Amore, or Pathway of Love.
Devastating floods came to the Cinque Terre in October 2011, burying most of Vernazza and Monterosso in mud. Many of the trails were severely damaged during this flood, including the Via dell’Amore. Some of the trails are still under repair, and one of the last trips I made the Via dell’Amore was still closed. Be sure to check with the local tourist offices where you buy trail tickets for the latest updates on trail closings. Also, you can read the story about the floods as well as donate to Save Vernazza, a non-profit organization founded to rebuild, restore and preserve this delicate and fragile land.
In Riomaggiore, visit the harbor and spend the day at the beach on the south side of town. From the harbor, walk south along the pathway and you’ll arrive at a beautiful beach. Be sure to stroll up the main street and visit all of the local shops and restaurants. You will find many treats to take home with you, including pesto (a regional specialty) and wine made in Cinque Terre. If it’s open, don’t forget to take a walk on the Via dell’Amore to the next town, Manarola with your love.
Upon arriving in Manarola, you’ll find many people enjoying the beautiful harbor and relaxing on the giant rocks lining the coastline. There’s a bar and gelateria at the top of the stairs once you climb up, so stop and enjoy a caffè or fresh gelato. There’s a great pathway from the harbor to an old cemetery to the north. If you’ve never been to a cemetery in Italy, I do recommend it. Here, most tombs are located above ground in marble structures and photos of the departed are transferred to a small ceramic plaque displayed on the outside.
Next, hike up to the church of San Lorenzo at the top of the town. There’s great views of the town as well as lots of quaint residential areas too. For lunch, stop by one of the small stands selling fresh “Fritto Misto” or fried seafood in paper cones. The mixed shrimp, fish, calamari, anchovies and mussels are all local and super fresh! Most people might discard the anchovies, but seriously try them – they are a local specialty and so delicious! For dinner, try Trattoria La Scogliera for traditional Ligurian specialties such as Trofie alle Genovese, which is trofie (a local, twisted pasta noodle) with fresh pesto for your first plate. Then, for your main dish seafood is a must here – it’s fresh and typically pulled from the sea just hours before. I recommend the Linguine ai Batti Batti, or Linguine with little Lobsters, or a whole Branzino Fish baked to share.
Corniglia has a bit of a different feel from the other villages, because it is perched high above the sea and doesn’t have a big harbor like the other towns. If you arrive in Corniglia via the train, you’ll need to climb a steep, yet tranquil set of stairs that ascend through vineyards and hillsides where grapes and olive trees grow. Once reaching the top, the town is small with one main street with a few shops and restaurants. Stop at Fanny Bazar, a small ceramics shop and pickup a souvenir from your trip. All of the pieces are made locally and are a specialty in this area.
If you’re brave enough to venture down to the water, a long and steep series of stairs will lead you through more vineyards down to the sea. It’s quite the trek, but worth it if you want to enjoy the remote and quiet dock far away from the crowds.
After the steep hike up the stairs, all of the shopping and another hike up and down the stairs to the water, end your day at the end of the main street with a view of the sunset over the sea. There is a small bar at the end (it does not have a name, literally…so Italian) with wine and gelato that you can enjoy on the small terrace. It’s a lovely way to end your day!
Be still my heart…my favorite town by far in all of Italy is beautiful Vernazza. Quaint and charming, it has a stunning harbor surrounded by shops, restaurants, the main church as well as a small beach. Colorful boats line the long dock, which is a great place to sit and people watch and enjoy an afternoon gelato. There’s something about this little village that’s not like the rest, maybe it’s just a feeling I have when I’m there, but you have to experience it for yourself.
Colorful, painted wood boats line the harbor and are the subject of many photos taken here by all. These boats are still used by the local fishermen today.
The town has one main street, but don’t be afraid to wander off into some of the side streets and explore. You’ll find many residential areas where the locals live, interspersed with some small hotels and B&B’s. Take the stairs on either side of the main piazza at the church and you’ll find many pedestrian paths and stairs that wind through charming little scenes like these.
Climb through the residential area up to Castello Doria to take in the 360 degree views of the town, sea and the entire coastline. It’s spectacular! After a little exploring be sure to stop for lunch at Ristorante Belforte, another old tower turned restaurant with a view of the harbor and sea. I recommend the Orata, a local light white fish served with grilled vegetables – one of my favorite meals in this area. Don’t forget dessert, a yummy lemon sorbetto, a specialty here.
View from the top of the tower looking back at the mountains.
Spend the afternoon on the “secret beach” as I call it, a bit of a hidden spot to most tourists. From the main street, Via Roma, you enter an unsuspecting path (near the Blue Marlin Bar) and cave that takes you to the rocky beach. A great spot to enjoy the sun and sea.
In the evening, from the small piazza at the end of the harbor watch the sunset over the sea and Portofino Peninsula in the distance. Or, if you happen to be here during the day take the trail from Vernazza to Monterosso for a 2 hour hike through the hills and vineyards. This hike is my favorite because you see a panoramic view of Vernazza, and get to climb through so many beautiful orchards.
A great place for lunch or dinner is Ristorante Gianni Franzi, serving local specialties like Tegame Vernazza; a dish made with potatoes, local fresh anchovies, tomatoes, parsley, garlic and white wine. The patio is a great spot for dinner and observing the locals long after all of the tourists have left for the day.
The last and also biggest town is Monterosso, famous for anchovies and most popular for it’s large beaches. Here, you’ll find sunbathers and people climbing on the big rock you see above. In the summertime, the beach is lined with colorful umbrellas beckoning you to the shore. There are two main parts to Monterosso, the larger beach area where the train station is and the smaller part of town to the south which is connected by a tunnel. Each area has plenty of shops and tons of restaurants for you to choose from. My last trip I enjoyed lunch at Ristorante Belvedere, whose specialty is Amphora Belvedere – a seafood stew with mussels, clams, octopus, lobster and shrimp.
Hand-painted red and white striped arrows designate the main trails from town to town.
In the off-season you’ll find ample room on the beach to relax and enjoy the sea and sun. In the more crowded summer months, most Italian beaches are packed with people. At this time, space on the shore is at a premium and most of the beaches are operated by beach clubs that charge you for a chair and umbrella. One tip is that every beach has a ‘free’ area where you can bring your own towel or chair and camp out for the day. In Monterosso, the best area is at the southernmost part of the beach where the trail begins for Vernazza.
Take a hike up the hill to see the Convento dei Cappuccini, an old franciscan monastery and church housing many beautiful pieces of art. Sit in the chapel and listen to the hauntingly beautiful singing performed by the monks. There is also an old cemetery behind the church which also has amazing views in all directions.
Oftentimes, people ask me about the best places to go in Italy and my recommendation is always to skip the bigger tourist cities and go straight to Cinque Terre and enjoy the beautiful land and sea. You won’t be disappointed spending a week or two on the Italian Riviera enjoying all of the wonderful things that the Cinque Terre has to offer.
Ciao e Buon Viaggio!