We discovered the five glorious towns of Cinque Terre a few years back during our 6 week stay in Italy and have been clamoring to get back ever since. [Side note: There’s that push/pull again. When planning a vacation, do we return to our old favorites, or explore new adventures? If only we had the gift of time and could do both, but I digress.]
When we first explored the five lands of Cinque Terre when they were still referred to in many guidebooks, as hidden fishing villages. Today, the towns are no longer a secret, and in fact have become one of Italy’s most popular tourist destinations. Cinque Terre has won a place in our hearts as a family favorite, and is featured among the elite of our European Favorites post.
The Cinque Terre lies along the cliffs of the Ligurian coast in the Italian Riviera. They are a haven for hikers, as there are scenic hiking trails linking all five towns overlooking the gorgeous Mediterranean Sea. Nestled among the hills are narrow vineyards winding along the cliffs producing the jewel of the region – a sweet white wine called Sciacchetrà.
The official five towns consist of Monterosso Al Mare, which is the largest and northern most of the 5 towns, and where we stayed for 4 days. It is the only town with a sandy beach (a little rocky, but relatively sandy). If a beach is important to you, stay in Monterosso.
The other towns have rocky cliffs, which are great for perching in the sun before cooling off in the sparkling blue water, but may not be ideal for small children, as the water is too deep to stand and the rocks can be steep.
Heading south from Monterosso, lies Vernazza. The most charming of the 5 towns, Vernazza has it’s town center right up at the harbor with a backdrop of candy colored homes clinging to the hills. It has a lovely church tower with an elegant cupola on one side and castle ruins with a cylindrical tower in the hills. If you don’t stay in Vernazza, you can easily spend an afternoon here enjoying both the food and the sights. Next is the cliff top town of Corniglia. Because of it’s location, it is the quietest of the 5 towns and the only one that we never got to explore. During that year, the hiking path to Corniglia was closed due to a landslide. If you plan to stay in Corniglia, be prepared to lug your luggage up over 300 steps to get to the village and your accommodations! Below Corniglia, is the slightly more rustic and maybe less populated Manarola. There are no sand beaches here but we spent a terrific afternoon deep water swimming off the rocks (see above), and highly recommend it!
Last, but certainly not least, is the beauty of Riomaggiore. That will be where I look to stay in future visits to Cinque Terre. In my opinion, Riomaggiore is most dramatic looking from the water. It’s tiny town center lies in a steep ravine at the water level and all of the pastel colored homes climb up the steep surrounding hills. I often marveled at the heart health of the elder residents as I watched them lug their wares from market trips, back home to their house on the hill. Riomaggiore also has a small beach but it is significantly more rocky than sandy.
Accommodations: You can’t really go wrong with a stay in any of the five towns as they are all so beautiful. Personally, I recommend an apartment for this trip rather than a hotel. Hotels are limited and can be pricier. Apartments are plentiful and can be found pretty readily. We used Airbnb.
Transportation: Traveling from one village to the next can be done by hiking trails, a train that stops at all 5 villages, or a boat. Cars are best left out of the equation as they are not even allowed in most areas. If you do drive to Cinque Terre, plan to park the car outside of the village and leave it there for the duration of your stay. Trains run regularly between the 5 towns and are the easiest method of transport. It is not more than 20 minutes of travel from one town to the next, and the train station is a short walk from the village.
We began our exploration with a boat trip from Monterosso (the northern most village) to the southern most village of Riomaggiore to get a sense of the distance between the towns. Trailing through the sparkling blue water and watching the villages go by littered with candy colored homes set into the cliffs, is truly a memorable sight and a highly recommended afternoon.
Hiking from one town to the next is one of the greatest attractions in the Cinque Terre. Trails linking the 5 towns vary in difficulty from easy to challenging and some require a fee to pass through. You can purchase the Cinque Terre Card which runs between 7 and 10 Euro and includes access to the trails as well as some trains.
A few things to note about the trails:
- As we were settled in Monterosso, we originally planned to hike from Monterosso, south to Riomaggiore. When we got a look at the trail head at Monterosso and saw that it was a narrow trail 30 feet up with very little to no guardrail , we decided that it was a treacherous way to start. Let me explain. In the US, we view personal safety as a joint responsibility between ourselves and public officials. Our system of punitive damages is quite onerous when that safety is not properly provided. So if in the US, a trail running along the edge of a cliff with no little to no guardrail seems dangerous, for example, we can be pretty certain that a) it would not be an option for us to explore it or b) there would be sufficient signage indicating the risk we are taking. In Europe, punitive damages are not really a big thing and therefore, it is generally the responsibility of the individual to decide on their own safety. We have seen examples of this all over Europe and while plenty of people were embarking on this trail, we chose to skip it with our two smallish (and clumsyish) children in tow. We later learned that the trail from Monterosso to Vernazza was one of the most challenging, so we were happy to have made that decision.
- We chose instead to start with the easiest part of the hike – from Riomaggiore to the next town of Manarola. The pathway was wide and well protected – albeit not much of a “hike” and is called the Via dell’Amore (the road of love). The walk to Manarola takes no more than 30 minutes and is even stroller friendly. I understand that this path is closed for a few years for preservation purposes so check before you go.
- Note that because all of these towns are sitting on cliffs, they are subject to natural conditions like landslides. At any given time, at least part of one trail will be closed during your visit due to either natural occurrences or to basic land preservation. For the most up to date trail descriptions and closures, check here.
- Wear comfortable shoes and bring sunscreen and water!
Note – if you are planning to travel to Cinque Terre in mid July, look out for the Festa dei Pirati (Pirate Party) held in Monterosso. It is a great pirate themed celebration with a large bonfire and a pirate parade.