Picture this: You’re walking along a narrow dirt and rock trail several hundred feet above the blue, blue Mediterranean sea. You are surrounded by fig, lemon, and olive trees, flower gardens and vineyards. Several hundred feet up the slope is the road where, yes, there are cars, but you can’t see them and you can’t hear them. You’re following an old mule path that connects five towns, or Cinque Terre: Monterosso al mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. You clamber over some rocks, hungry and hot, and see a small village ahead of you with an inviting sandy beach and some cozy sidewalk cafes.
Visiting the Cinque Terre
I’ve been to the Cinque Terre many times, including when I worked as a guide for Butterfield & Robinson. The area is famous for views, hiking, small towns, and food. It’s not that easy to get to, but once you’re there you don’t really need more than a day or two.
- Allow a full day – but not necessarily more than – for the actual hiking part of the Cinque Terre. If you start at a reasonable hour – say, 9 am – you can stop for lunch, have a swim, look around the towns, and hike at a pretty leisurely pace. Go in the spring when the days are longer.
- Hike it from north to south – starting at Monterosso – not the reverse. It’s prettier, and you do the hardest hikes at the beginning.
- There are 5 towns, therefore 4 hikes. The first two are actually in the category of hiking as opposed to walking (though I’ve actually seen people on the trail wearing flip-flops and stiletto heels), and take about 1.5 hours each. The third hike is much easier and takes less than an hour. The final one can certainly be done in flip-flops or stilettos and takes about 20 minutes.
- Eat local: taste the farinata, taste the focaccia, taste the local wine; don’t miss the limoncello, don’t miss the pesto. If figs are in season, don’t miss them!
- If you’re tight on time, just don’t want to hike, or suffer from vertigo, view the Cinque Terre from a ferry boat.
Note: Many people would argue that the Cinque Terre is on the “obvious” list of things to do in Italy, and over the past few years the trails have become somewhat crowded in high season, so set expectations accordingly, or go in low season or a shoulder season like try April or October. Or hike other trails in the area for the same views but fewer crowds.
Getting to the Cinque Terre
Arriving by train
The train is the best way to get to the Cinque Terre, however fast trains don’t go there. You’ll likely get a train to La Spezia and change trains from there, which means that doing a day trip to the Cinque Terre is challenging, or, it’s a really long day. Trains do connect all five towns, and run frequently, so once you’re there, it’s easy to get around by train.
Arriving by car
I don’t recommend having a car in the Cinque Terre. You don’t need one, and it will sit parked while you are there. But, if you must arrive by car, you’ll use the roads that are up the hill from the towns. If you’re staying in one of the five towns, you may not be able to drive right up to your accommodation: you may need to park and walk. If you must drive, ask your accommodation about where you’ll park.
Arriving by boat
There are boats that connect many towns along the coast in the summertime, so although this is the slowest way of getting around, it’s a very pretty way to arrive. There are a few different boat companies that run up and down the coast. Navigazione Golfo dei Poeti is a good place to start, and if you want to go up the coast to Portofino or Camogli, check Traghetti Portofino as well.
Photo of Vernazza by rayced
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