Cinque Terre, that magical place on the Italian Riviera, translates to Five Lands and is comprised of just that. Five distinct villages make up the region of Cinque Terre. These tiny villages are both quaint and distinctive. In recent years the area has gained popularity with day trippers and cruise ship passengers, causing the tourist crowds to swell during popular vacation times. For that reason, I do highly recommend staying in one of the villages for at least a couple of days. This way you get to experience the true personality of the villages once the crowds have left for the day.
The five villages of Cinque Terre from North to South are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza,Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.
Monterosso al Mare is the largest of the five and has more options for accommodations and dining. We chose Monterosso as our base for those reasons and also because we were arriving by train and there are direct trains from Milan to Monterosso. If staying in any of the other towns, you would switch In Monterosso and board the Cinque Terre line.
Hotel Pasquale was our choice of accommodations in Monterroso based on the numerous reviews found on TripAdvisor . I loved that it was ocean front, easily reached on foot from the train station and it included breakfast. The hotel is small and charming, built into the rocks of the cliff. The staff were incredibly warm and friendly. A bountiful breakfast was served that even offered fresh eggs cooked to order.
Vernazza is thought by many to be the most picturesque town. For that reason it also tends to be the most crowded with hordes of tourists flocking to get that perfect Instagram shot. Personally I found each town to be just as picturesque in their own unique ways. Vernazza has a bustling seaside area that is a wonderful spot to grab a snack, meal and drinks to quench your thirst, especially if you’ve come by foot along the hiking trail ( more on that later).
Next down the line comes the town of Corniglia. Corniglia is the only village that is not accessible by water. The town itself is built on a promontory that is 100 meters high. All the towns are accessed by the Cinque Terre railway. From the station in Corniglia there are 33 flights of stairs to reach the town. Unbeknownst to us..there is also a shuttle bus. But honestly, the climb up the stairs added to the whole experience for us!
Manarola is the next village and one that I found particularly charming. It is thought to be the oldest of the towns and is the second smallest. There are climbing, winding paths to reach shops and restaurants built along the cliff sides. And of course the views are killer!
The most southern village is that of Riomaggiore. The climbing streets and paths of Riomaggiore are bustling with shops and cafes, while the Harbor is filled with colorful boats.
All five villages are part of the Cinque Terre National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The villages are connected by a network of hiking trails that are very popular for both novices and experts alike. Unfortunately portions of the trails have been closed since storms and flooding in 2011 devastated the area. To get accurate up to date information on which trails are open, go to Parconazionale5terre.it.
To use the trails and the Cinque Terre trains you can purchase a Cinque Terre Card which entitles you to use of the trails, the trains, WiFi service, local buses and costs about 16 euro/adult for a one day pass. These can be purchased at any of the Cinque Terre stations or in advance online again at Parconazionale5terre.it
The trains run very frequently ( typically every 20-30 minutes) and stop in each village. These towns are tiny and most are 5-10 minutes apart by train. It is possible to visit all 5 towns in a day but I don’t recommend it. In order to really appreciate your surroundings, I suggest visiting over at least 2 days. There are also ferries that run between the towns, except Corniglia. The ferries are dependent on weather/sea conditions therefore not as reliable as the trains. We had 2 different boat excursions planned that unfortunately did not happen due to the sea conditions.
We were able to hike the trail from Monterosso to Vernazza. This is considered a Skilled level trail and proved to be challenging in areas. But oh, it was so worth it!
I can say that the food and wine after hiking was especially rewarding!
This region of Liguria is most well known for its wine, olive oil, focaccia , pesto and seafood. You will find plenty of Focacceria where you can grab a mouthwatering thick warm slice of this hearty bread topped with anything from olives to cured meats.
You will also find a lot of Friggittoria selling paper cones of mixed fried seafood. Anchovies are especially prevalent and apparently nothing like the tiny tinned ones that we see here in the states. These make for easy eating while strolling.
Of course one can sample delicious fresh pasta all over Italy and Cinque Terre is no exception. Definitely try a seafood pasta and something with pesto, while you are visiting! We spent 4 nights in Monterroso and our favorite meal was dinner at L’ancora della Tortuga. This was an upscale fine dining experience with very reasonable prices, exceptional service and the most amazing setting. Make a reservation in advance !
The local wines were our main choices while dining. The whites are especially good and always very reasonably priced! You will find plenty of wine bars to sample different varieties.
We loved the atmosphere at Nessun Dorma in Manarola. This outdoor venue sits along the cliff side and serves up wonderful cocktails, wines and beers alongside heaping platters of bruschetta, antipasti and paninis. You can sit at long communal tables and make new friends while sampling an array of goodies!
We also enjoyed Enoteca Eliseo in Monterroso. This busy spot has outdoor tables as well as a small interior space lined with shelves upon shelves of wine.
If you have time there are several options for day trips from Cinque Terre. I was debating between Portofino ( to the North) or Porto Venere ( to the South). Finally deciding on Porto Venere, if only because it seemed the less touristy of the two!
Originally we had planned on an easy ferry ride to Portovenere, alas the seas did not cooperate and they were not running that day. Thankfully the train station was just a short stroll away. To get to Porto Venere by public transportation, you take the regional train to La Spezia. From La Spezia train station you can buy bus tickets at any Tabacchi shop and ask for the nearest bus stop. This was the one and only time we’ve had some confusion in using public transit in Italy. We got a bit lost trying to find the bus stop that was supposedly a five minute walk away. After about 20 minutes and stops at 2 more tabacchi for directions we found it! A very crowded 30 minutes later we had arrived!
Porto Venere is a popular tourist destination with roots that date back to the first century BC. It is said that the name refers to a temple to the goddess Venus which was sited there. There are numerous sights to see here including the Church of San Pietro, Doria Castle and the Bay of Poets. The Bay of Poets gets its name from the English poet Lord Byron who once lived here and would swim across the bay to visit fellow English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley would go on to drown while sailing on the Bay in 1822.
Today the picturesque town is home to artisan and souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes lining the harbor and its main shopping avenue Via Capellini.
We had a wonderful time exploring Cinque Terre and beyond. I know it sometimes gets a bad rap as being overly crowded, touristy or even dirty, but we did not find that to be the case. We found beautiful scenery, delicious food, charming locals and quiet evenings!
My feeling is that with a little thoughtful planning you too can experience the true charm of Cinque Terre and all it’s natural beauty!
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