Travel Tips for Italy's Cinque Terre (From a Guy Who Loves Bargains and Hates Crowds)
Is there anything left to be said about this famous destination? Yes, actually.
A lot has been written about the Cinque Terre — those five charming seaside villages strung along the rocky Italian Riviera coastline.
What makes me think I have something more to add?
Maybe it’s because, unlike a lot of travel writers, Michael and I usually don’t breeze into a place for a week or even two. We stayed in the Cinque Terre for a month.
More importantly, I’m cheap and impatient, and I hate crowds. In other words, when I travel, I try hard to maximize the fun and minimize the pain, all for the lowest possible price.
Sounds like a guy who should be giving travel advice, right?
And if nothing else, this article gives me another chance to publish more of Michael’s fabulous photos.
Yes, you should go.
The Cinque Terre, which means “five lands” in Italian, is a series of five small villages — Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore — perched on and in rocky canyons along a very steep and dramatic coastal shoreline.
And this truly is an extraordinary, must-see part of the world. The entire area is a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you’re still on the fence, check out our earlier coverage of the Cinque Terre here and here.
But before arriving, I don’t think I appreciated just how wildly popular the Cinque Terre has become. You might be more tolerant than I of high prices and crushing crowds, but I would never in a million years come here during the summer high season.
That said, because the area is trying to accommodate as many people as possible in those summer months, there are some real bargains late in fall shoulder season, and early in the spring one (see my negotiation strategies here). And the weather can stay sunny well into November.
The closest airports are Genoa and Milan, both easy train rides away — a hour or three hours, respectively; however, a taxi or transport will be ridiculously expensive.
But keep in mind that most of the long-distance trains do not stop in the five villages of the Cinque Terre. To reach them, you’ll probably have to stop in Levanto (to the north) or La Spezia (to the south), and transfer to the local train, the 5 Terre Express.
But you probably shouldn’t stay in the Cinque Terre itself.
The five villages of the Cinque Terre are small, with limited amenities. They are:
Monterosso al Mare is the largest of the villages, and has the most amenities and the best beaches. I’d argue it also has the least amount of “charm,” but it has some great ancient buildings and stunning seaside walks.
Vernazza definitely has charm, with a famous little harbor and winding, narrow alleyways. But it’s very cramped.
Corniglia is perched on a rocky promontory above the sea — which means to get there, you have to climb up the 382 steps of the Lardarina stairclimb (or take a shuttle from the train station). This is the sleepiest village, and one of few spots where all five villages of the Cinque Terre are visible.
Manarola was our personal favorite, with the right balance of charm, amenities, and natural beauty. The small harbor has a rocky island in the center, making it the perfect swimming hole.
Riomaggiore is famous for the way its colorful houses pack the narrow ravine in which it’s located, and it has, perhaps, the most number of hotels.
There are pros and cons to staying in the villages of the Cinque Terre. On one hand, it can be romantic, and come nightfall, once the daytrippers leave, you’ll have the villages mostly to yourself. On the other hand, you’ll pay a very high premium, and you might also get kind of bored, at least after a couple of days. These used to be “real” working fishing villages, but they’ve long since become almost entirely tourist attractions — living museums.
You’ll also be very limited in your non-souvenir shopping options. One nomad friend of ours stayed in Riomaggiore for a month but hopped the train to nearby La Spezia to stock up on groceries. La Spezia also has a wonderful outdoor market selling everything from shoes to underwear to sunglasses.
If you do choose to stay in one of the villages of the Cinque Terre, consider the time of year. The buildings tend to be tall and narrow, and built in rocky canyons. That means that your apartment could well be in the shade much of the day. This might be a good thing in summer, but it’ll be a bad thing in the fall or winter.
If your stay is longer than a few days, a better option is to stay in either Levanto or La Spezia. We loved Levanto, which is a small vacation town with plenty of amenities and lodging options. La Spezia, meanwhile, is much larger, and a bit working class — in part, an actual fishing port and Italy’s largest naval base. It’s grittier, with less charm than Levanto, but it has many more dining and lodging options, including some great budget ones.
Access to the Cinque Terre from Levanto or La Spezia — or between the different villages — is extremely easy thanks to the 5 Terre Express, a sleek, modern train system that runs constantly all day. It costs €5 per trip, or you can buy the all-day Cinque Terre Train Card (adult: €18.20/day or €33/2 days), which also includes access to local buses, as well as the two inter-village trails that require a fee — more on both these things, below. Train tickets and train cards are both available at all local train stations, or buy the train card online. Don’t forget to validate your card in the train station’s kiosks before the first use, or you may be fined by a conductor on the train.
The hiking is incredible.
That is a good place to point out that the Cinque Terre is not a place for visitors with mobility issues. The villages are old, with steep, cobblestone climbs and lots of oddly-spaced steps.
This said, our favorite part of the Cinque Terre experience was absolutely the hiking.
The most famous hike is Verde Azzurro, or Blue Trail, which connects all five villages. Unfortunately, two of the four paths between villages are currently closed, and they don’t look like they’ll be opening up any time soon. This includes the famous Via dell'Amore (or Lover’s Walk) — between Riomaggiore and Manarola — which isn’t scheduled to open again until 2024 (and don’t hold your breath on that time-table — this is Italy, after all).
There are currently alternate routes to bypass the closed sections of the Verde Azzurro, and the section from Corniglia to Manarola is absolutely spectacular, our second favorite hike in the park; it goes right through some of the Cinque Terre’s famously terraced vineyards and olive groves. But the “bypass” hike between Manarola and Riomaggiore is very steep and not especially attractive; it was our least favorite hike.
The two “open” sections of the Verde Azzurro — between Monterosso al Mare and Vernazza, and between Vernazza and Corniglia — both require either a €7 access fee (or a Cinque Terre Train Card). Both these trails are a little over two kilometers, and they’re fairly difficult, but they’re very worth doing. (From November 7th to the end of March, there is no fee.)
The trails between the villages are a combination of pavement stones, stone steps, and dirt, and they’ll probably be fairly or very crowded. In summer, they will be really, really, really crowded.
The Cinque Terre national park includes dozens of other trails, and as a general rule, going away from the villages of the Cinque Terre will be less crowded than hiking between them. For example, there’s also a very scenic trail from Monterosso to Levanto, and it’s less crowded than most of the Verde Azzurro. In part because of the lighter crowds, it was our third favorite hike.
But our favorite hike of all? The one from Portovenere to Riomaggiore. But this requires a bit of explanation:
There is a sixth “bonus” village of the Cinque Terre that many tourists skip.
Just down the coast from the five villages of the Cinque Terre is another village, Portovenere. It’s every bit as charming as the others, and includes the famous Church of San Pietro, which is a grand medieval castle that seems to rise right out of its dramatic rocky overlook.
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