The Practical Guide to Cinque Terre in Italy: What You Need to Know
Cinque Terre, much like its “counterpart” in the south of Italy, the Amalfi Coast, is high up on many travelers’ bucket lists of places to visit. The five towns that make up Cinque Terre in the region of Liguria are so popular that officials will start limiting the number of tourists that are permitted to visit.
The five towns that make up Cinque Terre – Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso – are incredibly enchanting; they offer a visual explosion of rainbow-coloured houses perched high up on rugged coastline, glistening aquamarine water that line the shores as well as lush green national park areas between each town – it’s no wonder that the area was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Each of the towns has its own distinct personality and it is worth exploring Cinque Terre over a few days, although it can get extremely crowded during the summer months. Here’s what you need to know to help plan a trip to Cinque Terre.
Tips you should know before you go
How long should I stay? It is extremely easy to travel between the towns in Cinque Terre and each town itself is relatively small; you can easily explore each of the towns in a few hours’ time and most towns only have one main street. We planned to stay in the region for 10 days and that would have been way too long if we had not explored other fantastic towns in the region such as Portovenere, Levanto, Bonassola and Portofino. While you might need a full week or more to explore other places in Italy like the Amalfi Coast, I would recommend staying in Cinque Terre for 3-6 nights.
Where should we stay? When booking your hotel, it is important to bear in mind the proximity of the hotel to the train station. For example, if you choose to stay in Corniglia you will have to walk 382 steps between the train station and Corniglia town or catch a bus (but the schedule is infrequent). We chose to base ourselves in Riomaggiore for 3 nights and then moved to Levanto (one town over from Monterosso) to get away from the madness.
Where can I swim? There aren’t a ton of beach spots along the five towns. There is one long stretch of beach in Monterosso that can get fairly crowded and a fun rocky swimming spot at Manorola. I personally wouldn’t recommend swimming at the port in Riomaggiore as we have seen the waves get very rough along the coast.
How’s the food? We found that the restaurant options were somewhat limited compared to the Amalfi Coast and other Italian cities, and the majority of the restaurants we visited were average (and $$$), but there were some standouts! Also, I hope you like pesto because it is the region’s local specialty!
Are there ATMs? Bring cash. Most places don’t accept card or have a spending minimum and there aren’t many ATMs.
Is it easy to use my phone to navigate? Cell signal is pretty shoddy even though we had a local SIM card, make sure you use the offline maps feature in Google Maps to navigate.
Getting there and getting around
The best way to get to Cinque Terre is by train. You can get there easily by taking a train from Pisa to La Spezia or Florence to La Spezia and then taking a local train from La Spezia to Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza or Monterosso.
Trains: Trains between towns are frequent and it takes on average <5 minutes to get from town to town, but single rides are not exactly cheap. Your best bet is to purchase a Cinque Terre Card as it also includes entry to the coastal hiking trails (and wifi!). Save the train schedule to your phone before you travel to make your life easier, and also make sure that you validate your ticket before you get on as inspectors frequently do spot checks.
Ferry: You can also travel between towns by ferry.
Car or scooter: I would not recommend hiring a car as most towns do not allow you to drive in without a valid resident permit. Hiring a scooter is pricey (50 Euros a day), but allows you to ride straight into town and the drive between towns is extremely picturesque. It also makes it easier for you to travel beyond Cinque Terre to places like Portofino and Portovenere. We hired our scooter from Paddock Scooter in Levanto (1 town over from Monterosso).
Hiking: Hiking between towns is popular but paths are often closed for maintenance. Make sure you check the status of the path before you go. Not all paths are created equal either and vary in difficulty. The short walk between Riomaggiore and Manarola is popular and is known as “Lover’s Lane”, but was shut when we were there this summer. Hiking between Monterosso and Vernazza/Vernazza and Corniglia was challenging with lots of steps up (and down) and I would recommend that you choose one hike to do a day, rather than attempting multiple segments in one go. Bring good running or walking shoes, a bottle of water, sunscreen and a hat. In order to access the coastal paths you will need to purchase a Cinque Terre Card and present it at the checkpoints at the beginning of each trail.
The Five Towns
If you’re planning a trip to Cinque Terre, here’s a quick overview of each of the five towns so you can make the most of your time exploring this amazing region!
Riomaggiore is probably best known for its colourful marina and stacks upon stacks of brightly painted houses. There are a number of accommodation options and the main street is very close to the train station, so Riomaggiore is a good option if you’re looking for a base for your visit.
At the foot of town is a set of stairs leading down to a tunnel. Follow the tunnel and it will take you to Riomaggiore’s beautiful marina. There are steps on either side of the port but take the stairs on the left to get to the view point where you can get that classic Cinque Terre money shot. Keep walking past the bar at the view point and follow the steps down to the rocky shore. This is a great place to hang out to watch the sunset, just BYO wine and pizza from the stores in town!
Il Pescato Cucinato is a small fish & chip shop, make sure you get here early and try their cod because they sell out fast! Da Paolino is a small takeaway shop that sells small squares of pizza by the slice as well as arancini balls – we were here almost every morning. Try the pesto mozzarella pizza for the perfect amount of grease.
There is also a beautiful little church at the top of the town, follow the main street all the way up and take a left turn. This path offers a slightly different view of Riomaggiore from above. If you keep going you will see the remains of an old castle and while there’s not much of it left to speak of, it’s a great place for panoramic ocean views.
We stayed at La Dolce Vita, conveniently located right on the main street. The room was spacious, comfortable and had a little balcony overlooking the heart of town. The only thing is that they do not offer breakfast, but it was easy enough to wander downstairs and pick up freshly baked pastries. Click here to book your stay at La Dolce Vita!
Manarola is picture perfect and is the oldest of the five towns and was our favorite spot to swim. The marina has a rocky coastline with crystal clear (cold!) water as well as a shower to rinse off the salt water. We saw people snorkeling here as well so bring your gear along! The famous Church of San Lorenzo can also be found in the upper part of the town.
Corniglia is different from the other towns in that it is perched up high up on a hill. We were offered a glimpse of this seaside town on our hike from Vernazza but didn’t spend too much time here. There’s supposed to be a small beach by the train station, but to get to and from the train station you will need to battle 382 steps along the Lardarina, a long brick flight of stairs. I personally wouldn’t recommend finding accommodation in Corniglia for this reason. For those looking for a refreshing beverage and an unbeatable view, head to Bar Terza Terra.
Vernazza is easily recognizable by its protected V-shaped port and is home to the Doria Castle, a lookout tower built in the 15th century to protect the village from pirates. Vernazza is surrounded by lush vineyards and olive oil trees, two important industries for the region in addition to fishing. My recommendation? Buy gelato from one of the shops around the marina and sit by the bay to take in all the beauty.
Monterosso al Mare
Monterosso is the largest of the five towns and is actually divided into two sections: the old (Centro Storico) and the new – where you can find the train station, several beach clubs and a large stretch of public beach. For this reason, Monterosso is also significantly busier and livelier than the other towns, but offers the classic beach umbrella shot for you avid Instagrammers.
Most of the beach clubs rent out umbrellas and deckchairs at outrageous prices, so you’re better off trying to find an empty spot on the public beach. You can also rent a kayak and paddle around the coast, which is what we did – we got to hop out of the kayak and swim in quiet little coves and bends around the coastline.
One of the best restaurants we ate at in Cinque Terre was in Monterosso – Ristorante Via Venti in the old part of town – and we also had amazing pizza at Pizzeria La Smorfia (try the pesto pizza!).
What else should I know?
You don’t have to stay in Cinque Terre to visit Cinque Terre! In fact, hotels in the five towns are significantly more expensive. We opted to move from Riomaggiore to Levanto, which is one town over from Monterosso and used that as a peaceful base for exploring the coast (plus, it has a beautiful beach and awesome restaurants!). The Cinque Terre towns can get extremely crowded so it’s nice to be able get away from it all in the evening. If you’re looking to do the same thing, look no further than Villa Caterina in Levanto, a wonderful family-owned property with beautiful gardens and rooms. It is a short walk away from the train station or you can rent a scooter to zoom your way around the coast. Click here to book your stay at Villa Caterina in Levanto!
If your heart is set on staying within the 5 towns, check out La Dolce Vita in Riomaggiore. It overlooks the main street and offers a spacious and reasonably priced room as well as private terrace.
Have you visited Cinque Terre? What are your tips to travelers visiting the area?
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