Cinque Terre comprises five villages (hence the name, which translates to “Five Lands”) on the northwestern coast of Italy in the region of Liguria. A national park, it is characterised by terraced agricultural land and colourful houses tumbling down cliffsides into the Mediterranean Sea. The area is home to some 4,000 inhabitants, but attracts around three million tourists every year, many of whom are day-trippers. But the villages, and hiking trails that unite them, deserve a longer visit. Stay for three nights to really absorb the area. By Julia Buckley
Cinque Terre Towns
The southernmost village, and the first you’ll encounter if coming from La Spezia, Riomaggiore is breathtaking — its tiny harbour wedged between the houses is one of the area’s most famous sites. Compared to neighbouring Manarola (equally pretty), it’s a bit more lively, with a roster of excellent restaurants squeezed into the narrow town, though beware as it’s incredibly hilly. This is the start of the Via dell’Amore (Road of Love), which curls around the cliff between Riomaggiore and Manarola. Though it’s been closed since a 2012 landslide, there are hopes to reopen it in 2024. A 45-minute hike up above town brings you to Santuario di Nostra Signora di Montenero, a church perched at the edge of the cliff with spectacular views of Cinque Terre.
That iconic photo of Cinque Terre, with a cascade of colourful houses tumbling toward a little harbour? That’s Manarola, in the cove just north of Riomaggiore. There’s no beach here — instead, people hop into the sea from the rocks around the village. As hilly as Riomaggiore, Manarola is famous for its sunsets, best seen from its small cliffside park below the cemetery, or from Nessun Dorma, the bar right below. It’s also where you can catch the bus to Volastra, high on the cliff above, where the hiking trail to Corniglia begins. Grab one of the best sandwiches you’ll ever eat at Cappun Magru before heading up.
Corniglia is the smallest of the Cinque Terre villages, and the only one perched on a cliff — it’s a 377-step climb (or an easy bus ride) from the train station to the village. That helps it stay slightly less touristy than the other villages. It’s a gorgeous little place, though, with pretty churches, a locals-filled square, and plenty of panoramic lookout points. The Corniglia to Vernazza section of the Sentiero Azzurro is the most well-known — it’s best started from Corniglia to avoid the long ascent from Vernazza.
Vernazza, with its small sand beach, is the most popular of the villages — not least, perhaps, because the centre is relatively flat. Where Riomaggiore and Manarola are crammed between the cliffs, Vernazza is more open, with a promontory curling around its pretty harbour, which also doubles as a beach. There’s a ruined castle, an atmospheric church, and another beach on the other side of the promontory.
Monterosso al Mare
The biggest of the Cinque Terre settlements, and more of a small town than a village, Monterosso al Mare is the closest you’ll get to a regular beach resort here. It’s relatively flat, with a cute centre (full of shops and cafes) opening onto a large, sandy beach. The “modern” town and historic centre sit on either side of a cliff.
How to get to Cinque Terre
Part of Cinque Terre’s charm is its relative inaccessibility — originally, the villages were accessed either by sea or trail. Although there’s now a road, parking is limited, making driving stressful. Instead, take the train — the Cinque Terre Express runs from La Spezia in the south to Levanto in the north three times an hour, stopping at all the villages with just a few minutes between each. Tickets cost EUR 5 (INR 401) per journey or from EUR 18.20 (INR 1,461) per day (from €14.80 or INR 1,188 per day in the low season, from January to March).
The nearest international airports are Pisa and Genoa. From there, you can take the train to La Spezia (from Pisa) or Levanto (from Genoa).
You can also access Cinque Terre the way they were meant to be seen — from the water. From March to November, ferries depart from La Spezia, Lerici, Portovenere, and Levanto in the summer, stopping at all the villages. Finally, there’s a tourist minibus serving the coast, Explora 5 Terre. The hop-on, hop-off service can get you to the hamlets further up the cliffs, though travel times by road are much longer than going by train or boat. Tickets start at EUR 18.50 (INR 1,485).
Best times to visit Cinque Terre
High season begins after Easter weekend and lasts through October, with May to August being the busiest period of all. The high season gets crowded, so try and book accommodations at least three months in advance. May is a pretty perfect time to visit — though you can find rainy days, it tends to be warm, with wildflowers blooming on the trails — with September being a close second. Be aware that it’s very hot and humid in the summer, and the trails have little shade. During the off-season months, you’ll experience the villages as the locals do, but rain is common — the worst month is November. In heavy rain, hiking trails may be closed for safety reasons.
Where to hike in Cinque Terre
In the past, locals got around by boat or on foot via the mule paths running between the villages. Today, there are 75 miles (120 km) of trails, but the best known is the 592, known as the Sentiero Azzurro (or Blue Path), a 7.5-mile (12 km) stretch between the villages, from Riomaggiore to Monterosso al Mare. You need a Cinque Terre Card (EUR 7.50 or INR 602 per day) to access the trails. Note that as of summer 2022, the Riomaggiore to Manarola (Via dell’Amore), and Manarola to Corniglia sections are closed. You can, however, hike through vineyards higher up the cliff, from Volastra to Corniglia (part of the terraced vineyards trail), and pick up the 592 from there — the Corniglia-Vernazza and Vernazza-Monterosso sections are open.
There are also themed trails, covering churches and clifftop sanctuaries, vineyards, and ancient settlements. Note that you must wear suitable footwear (hiking boots or sneakers) to access the trails — you will be turned away if you’re in flip-flops or sandals. Be aware, too, that the trails are moderate to difficult — the easiest section is Riomaggiore to Manarola, which is closed. Although the views are breathtaking, the paths can be narrow in places, with vertical drops, and involve a lot of up and down, including hundreds of stairs at times. Always take water and sunscreen on a hike. See all the trails here.
Where to stay in Cinque Terre
The five villages are very close to one another, so there’s no need to stay in a different one every night. Choose one as a base, and visit the others by train or foot. Keep in mind that most of the lodging available in Cinque Terre is in privately run bed-and-breakfasts or rentals.
Riomaggiore: I Limoni di Thule is off the main drag and has a spectacular sea view through a garden of fruit trees and flowers. If you want an authentic Italian experience, but love communicating with someone who speaks your language, get in touch with Californian transplant Amy at Riomaggiore Reservations for an assortment of apartment options.
Manarola: Stylish decor and top-notch customer service make La Torretta Lodge one of Manarola’s classiest acts. Up at the top of the village in a quiet, residential area is B&B Da Baranin, a cosy inn run by two sisters who bend over backwards to make your stay memorable.
Corniglia: Corte del Gallo is a charming little B&B, far from the hubbub of the high season. L’Agave is like having a little villa all to yourself, as it’s tucked away amid narrow laneways and offers a private rooftop terrace. If you want to stay on the Sentiero Azzurro, try Leo’s Lodge, with boho rooms and slick mini-apartments on the cliff in Prevo, located on the trail between Corniglia and Vernazza.
Vernazza: La Malà‘s bright, breezy rooms are fresh and modern, and the service is impeccable. If you’re up for a bit of a hike toward Corniglia, consider L’Eremo sul Mare (or the Hermitage Over the Sea). It’s the perfect retreat away from the crowds and has a huge terrace with a sea view.
Monterosso: You’ll find a few hotels here, like Porto Roca, one of the only ones within the national park offering a pool and room service. Located above the village in one of the most scenic locations in the entire area is the elegant La Cabana.
Additional reporting by Kiiri Sandy.
This story first appeared on www.travelandleisure.com
Main and Feature Image Credit: SimonSkafar/Getty Images