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.
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.