Dramatic. Iconic. Remote.
A dream for romantics and hikers alike, and if you’re a romantic hiker then you should probably book a flight right now.
The 5 colourful fishing villages that cling to the Italian Riviera coastline are world renowned for their stunning beauty and charm. A picturesque collection of pastel houses and vineyards, previously isolated from the world, with only walking trails connecting them. Cinque Terre is a jewel in Italy’s crown and the perfect spot to spend a few days enjoying what has remained an authentic experience.
If you have looked into Cinque Terre you have probably read about how touristic and overcrowded it is. This is fairly accurate, especially in July and August. However, the beauty and magic have not been spoiled, and you can easily slip into your own world, largely avoiding the crowds.
I didn’t do any hiking on this trip, so here is a guide for the non-walkers.
When to go?
June was perfect: sunny and hot, not too busy, and the sea was a nice temperature.
April through October will all be good but wait till the warmer months to swim and be prepared to face the heat, crowds, and higher prices in August.
How to get there?
We hired a car during our stay in Tuscany but this is one place not to drive to. Cinque Terre is now really well connected by trains from La Spezia and a train line connects each of the villages. This makes exploring them perfect for those not looking to walk.
- Train from Pisa to La Spezia – 1hr
- La Spezia to Riomaggiore – 7 minutes
- Riomaggiore to Manarola – 3 mins
- Manarola to Corniglia – 3 mins
- Corniglia to Vernazza – 5 mins
- Vernazza to Monterosso – 3 mins
- A day pass for the Cinque Terre train costs €16
- A single trip will cost €4 so think about if you will just spend the day at 1 village or multiple
- La Spezia to Riomaggiore is €4
- La Spezia to Pisa is €11
Validate your ticket by putting it into one of the green and grey machines on the wall and slide the ticket to the left. Take a moment to enjoy multiple tourists getting frustrated with not understanding this, then be nice and show them.
How many days?
3 days will give you enough to explore each of the villages and enjoy a couple of sunsets in different places. You’ll have time to relax on a beach and maybe squeeze in a shorter hike, if you want.
Where to base yourself?
We stayed in Riomaggiore which made a great base and the sunset from the rocks was a definite bonus. I think Vernazza would also make a great base. Corniglia was one of my favourites but the stairs might become tiring after a couple of ascends or a few drinks! There is a bus to help but then you are relying on their timetable! Manarola had the best swim spot but didn’t feel like a good base spot. I’d pick Vernazza or Riomaggiore.
The 5 villages
Most likely Riomaggiore will be your entry to Cinque Terre and it does a great job at first impressions. The views are every bit as impressive as the professional photos and edits you spent so much time scrolling through. A steep main street, lined with eateries and shops, has a nice charming buzz to it with more energy than the other villages.
Exploring begins as you slip down side streets and up staircases to quieter paths, often offering spectacular views of the small harbour below. Navigate down narrow corridors or past historic churches and along cliff edge paths to enjoy its beauty during the day. Then head down on the rocks of the harbour to enjoy Riomaggiore at its best moment, sunset. Pick up a beer or bottle of wine from the small shops and try to position yourself on a rock with good views up the coast towards Monterosso. The sun sets behind the coastline further up, but not before providing quite a magical experience casting low light across the boats and water of the harbour.
Coming from Riomaggiore, Manarola initially feels like a smaller copy with potentially nothing new to offer. However, once you walk down to the seafront the options for exploring open up with paths leading along the coast and up into the vineyards. Large steps provide easy access into the sea, with a wide wall and sloped area for sunbathing. The water is super clear around here and is the ideal way to take a break from walking around the villages or to start off your day with a swim.
HOT TIP: When you are at the dock you will see people swimming down below but there is a much better and more secluded spot! If you take the path along the cliffs to the right and follow it around and down you’ll reach a much quieter place that is perfect for swimming.
Definitely the most surprising of the five, Corniglia is not to be missed. Being the only one without a seaport those with limited time often wonder whether to skip it. The answer is don’t. The 382 steps from the station to the centre are not as challenging as they sound and the reward at the top is more than worth it. Set high up in the cliffs, Corniglia immediately has a great feeling to it. Narrow streets lead you past gelaterias and cafes before breaking out into tiny piazzas centred by quaint churches. Cute backstreets take you to secluded lookout spots or the chance to get a little lost. Grab a basil flavoured ice cream (yep, you heard right!) and perch on a wall overlooking the ocean.
Widely regarded as the most beautiful of the villages, Vernazza has beaches, great restaurants and stunning views. If you are looking to take some incredible photos the path towards Monterosso will provide you with picturesque opportunities. For another great view head up to Belforte Tower by following the stairs near the harbour and pay the €1.50 entry. Aside from the viewpoints, Vernazza has two small beaches and is a good place to get boat trips from or to hire a boat.
With a beach running alongside the town, Monterosso is always extra popular. Most of the beaches are private and will cost you €25 for 2 sunbeds and an umbrella as well as use of their changing rooms and showers. Even if you are willing to pay you might want to arrive early as many of the private ones were full when we got there. At either end of the main beach, there are public free areas that are just as good. You can explore both the old and new town and will a lot more evening entertainment than the other villages.
HOT TIP: Whilst beds and umbrellas cost €25 for the day you can usually buy an umbrella from a nearby shop for €12. If you area happy laying on a towel this investment can save you money.
Like many heavily touristic places, the real appreciation comes from not just passing through on a tightly scheduled day trip but taking the time to experience it. When time is short there is pressure to take photos in all the spots you saw on Instagram and make sure your selfie is on point. But by giving yourself a few days to slow down and really explore you can get a much more genuine feel for a place, its history, and its people. You also get more time for selfies.