The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Cinque Terre
I’ve mentioned this before, but something has kept me from writing posts about my favorite places. Maybe I’m afraid I won’t be able to do justice to it, or that you won’t love it as much as I do??
Which is crazy, because Cinque Terre is awesome and anyone who says otherwise is nuts. It’s one of my favorite places in the entire world! It definitely wins for “places I’ve visited the most”, and every time I go back, I think maybe it can’t be quite as amazing as I’ve built it up in my head…but somehow it’s even BETTER. We all have those places.
So I’m finally going to lay out all my favorite places, best tips, and photo inspiration for le Cinque Terre—literally “the five lands”. This post is a DOOZY but I want to give you all the goods.
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What is Cinque Terre?
If you’re not familiar with this perennial Pinterest fodder, the area known as Cinque Terre is actually 5 small towns perched on the gorgeous Ligurian coastline, kind of right below the muffin-top of Italy (you know what I’m talking about…). The towns are not very car-friendly, but super easy to reach by train and connected by hiking trails (about 9-12km total between the top and bottom town). They are charm personified.
This area is a perfect pairing with Tuscany, has easy access from Milan, Genoa, Pisa, Florence, and even Rome, as well as the south of France and many other places.
Some of my overall best tips for visiting Cinque Terre:
- Pack lightly! I seriously cannot stress this enough. Every time I go, I pack less. The narrow hills and cobblestones and STAIRS are insane and you’ll be cursing even a carry-on roller.
- Stay overnight, to see the chiller and less-crowded side once the day trippers leave.
- Use the trains, they’re a great way to get around—but expect delays. The Swiss train system this is not.
- Don’t count out Corniglia…many people do since it doesn’t have beaches and is more challenging to get to, but it’s more peaceful due to fewer crowds (because of all those stairs), and its spot on top of the cliffs makes for amazing views.
- Photography tips…light is everything! The best light depends on the town and the time of day (and which photo spot you’re at), and I’ll share specific tips about each town below.
- In general, early morning and late afternoon/evening are your best lighting.
- However, Riomaggiore and Manarola’s beautiful marinas are harder to photograph well in early morning so late afternoon/evening is best there (and sunset is amazing).
- Cornliglia and Monterosso photograph beautifully all day, including in the middle of the day, and Vernazza probably falls in this camp too.
- Plan for rain—it’s always a possibility and certain parts of the year it’s a high likelihood, so think about what you’d like to do if the weather doesn’t cooperate. This is also part of why doing Cinque Terre as a day trip isn’t ideal, because you may end up not getting to see much.
- Consider staying a little longer to take some of the great day trips in the area, such as Portovenere.
When is the best time to go to Cinque Terre?
Obviously this really depends on what you’re wanting to do and your threshold for crowds. The most popular time of year is probably May-August, similar to peak European tourist season in general. If you’re specifically coming to get in the water then this is the the best time, since the water will be a bit warmer. Note, August in Italy is kind of weird because most of the country—indeed, much of Europe it seems—goes on vacation for the whole month.
I’m a big fan of the “shoulder season”, so visiting in March/April or September/October, because the weather is still usually really nice (and not as hot), the days are still long, but the crowds are lighter. When traveling in Italy, always make sure to check ahead for public holidays (this list can get you started), since those can dramatically affect what’s open and closed, crowds, accommodation rates, and more.
Winter’s an option—not so much for hiking but could be a nice quiet vacation, and there are some nice activities around the holidays. But in general I’d not recommend visiting in winter to get the full Cinque Terre experience.
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How to get to Cinque Terre
Train is definitely the best way to get to le Cinque Terre, as they’re not very car-friendly. The Italian train system is very easy to use, in my opinion. If coming in from the south (like from Florence or Pisa), you’ll make a stop in La Spezia to change trains, and from the north (Genoa or Milan) you’ll change in Levanto. Then each of the Cinque Terre towns are 5-10 minutes apart by a slower local train. It’s usually not even worth sitting down between stops.
A few Italian train travel tips:
- The Trenitalia website or app makes it easy to look up train times and routes, and it’s the official one for Italy so there aren’t extra 3rd-party markups.
- When traveling within Italy I usually don’t bother purchasing tickets way ahead of time, though you can. But if there’s a specific timed train you need, go ahead to be safe.
- Don’t forget to validate your ticket at the machines in the station (right next to the trains)!
- Always watch out for pickpockets on the trains in Italy, including in Cinque Terre. Just ask my dad…
Technically you could come by car but I don’t recommend it unless you have to…Cinque Terre is not car-friendly. If you have a car for your trip, I’d recommend parking it at one of the larger towns (like La Spezia) and then using the trains to get to and from the Cinque Terre towns.
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How to get *around* Cinque Terre
You have three main options—trains, hiking, and boats. The trains are your friend for getting around, for sure. Theoretically there are buses too, but I’ve never taken them or seen them so I can’t advise. But in general, I’d say the trains are a better and more scenic option and they run frequently. Besides the Trenitalia site, this site is helpful for schedules and details.
The ferry only runs in high season, stopping around around November. This is a lovely, scenic way to see the towns from a different vantage point, though you can’t stop at Corniglia. This is a fun thing to do maybe once—I’d recommend taking the train or hiking between each of the villages and then taking the ferry all the way from Monterosso to Riomaggiore or vice versa so you see all five villages from the boat. In my opinion it’s not the most efficient means of transportation but it is an option.
Hiking is the other main option but that’s a little tricky right now because storms and mudslides did a bunch of damage to some of the main trails back in 2011 and they haven’t re-opened yet. This site has good up-to-date info on the state of individual trails, and I get into this a little more in the hiking section below.
How to use the Cinque Terre Card
You will probably want to get the Cinque Terre card, which gives you unlimited access to Cinque Terre trains, hiking paths, guided visits, local busses, Wi-Fi and even public restrooms. While you can can buy separate train tickets or a hiking card, it’s generally cheaper and easier to just get a card for a day (or however many days you need).
You’ll buy it at the train stations (or the little visitor center by Riomaggiore’s station, for instance), but you can’t buy it at the train ticket machines. It has to be dated and signed, and validated, and then it’s good until midnight of the day it’s validated (unless you buy a multi-day, then it’s midnight that day).
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So now, on to the individual towns! We’ll go south to north, starting with my favorite…
Riomaggiore: where to stay
I’ve done an entire other post on why Riomaggiore is my favorite town and the place I always base myself when visiting, so I won’t duplicate efforts *too* much here. Riomaggiore is the southernmost village, with an adorable little marina and then you walk straight uphill into the town. It’s really chill at night once the day trippers are gone, but still has enough restaurants and a few bars to not be completely dead (something Manarola suffers from).
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I always rent an apartment right by the water so I can wake up with this view. Your other option is to rent one way up the hill, but that’s too much work for me. I stayed in this amazing Airbnb last time!
While the coastal views are the biggest draw, there are a couple cool things to see at the top of town as well. Make sure you swing by the Church of San Giovanni Battista di Riomaggiore (St. John the Baptist), built in the 1300s. It’s in the Romanesque style so a little severe by Italian cathedral standards but I’ve always found it strangely beautiful. A little further on is the Castello, built in 1260. You also should just wander the narrow alleys and stairways, as they’ll often reward you with unexpected beautiful views.
Since I went into detail about some of my favorite places to eat in Riomaggiore and why in the other post, I won’t duplicate efforts here, but I definitely recommend you check out La Lanterna, Rio Bistrot, and Enoteca dau Cila for nicer meals, A Pie de Má for coffee or wine with a view, and there’s a great takeaway place for a fried snack fix. The other post has all the details if you’re interested!
But make sure you get some pesto al trofie, one of the best foods in the world. Pesto (according to them) originated in Liguria, so it’s all over the place here and is soooooo delicious.
What I WILL still rave about here is the sunsets. My favorite thing to do here is watch the sunset. What we do is grab a bottle of wine (and a corkscrew, obvs) and a couple glasses, then make our way down to the base of the marina, where there are these massive marble-like boulders out in the water. Scramble out as far as you dare—yes, you might get splashed!—and crack open that bottle. Then wait for the magic.
Now that you’ve settled into your cute apartment and have a sunset game plan, let’s talk next steps. Hiking the beautiful Cinque Terre trails is one of the biggest reason that people come visit this area.
Hike the Via Dell’Amore, or whichever trails are open
The towns of Cinque Terre are connected by several different trails, somewhere in the neighborhood of 9 (or maybe 12?) km between the towns (though this depends on which trails you hike).
My two favorite segments (including the famous Via dell’Amore) have been closed for several years, since mudslides and floods in 2011. Last I heard, one of the legs might reopen in 2019 and one in 2021, so just check the websites and TripAdvisor forums for info. Don’t worry though, there are some parts of the main Blue Trail (the one 95% of tourists do) that you CAN hike!
You can kind of see in the pics below some of the damage to the trails between Riomaggiore, Manarola, and Corniglia, where the mudslides and flooding washed out the trail and took out the railings.
My recommendation: hike from Vernazza to Monterosso if you’re mostly wanting the experience (it’s still quite a hike!), and then take the trains (or boat) the rest of the time.
Currently you can only hike the main train (Blue) between Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, and Corniglia. These two segments are unfortunately the longest and most challenging of the Blue trail, but are still doable for most people with a minimal fitness level and decent mobility.
I’d call these legs moderate from a hiking level standpoint, though when it’s really hot or if the trails are wet/muddy I’d upgrade them to slightly difficult. Monterosso to Vernazza will likely take about 2 hours, and Vernazza to Corniglia about 1.5 hours.
One other option is to hike trails between all 5 towns that are much higher up on the cliffs. Some are more challenging and I’ve heard the views aren’t quite as spectacular, but that’s still an option. Personally I haven’t done it, but wanted to throw that out there. If you haven’t bought the Cinque Terre card then you’ll need to buy a pass for hiking specifically, about 8 euros per day for an adult.
On to Manarola…
Manarola can definitely compete with Riomaggiore as the most picturesque town and the best sunset. For this iconic view, come out of the train station and head down toward the water. Do bear in mind that in Manarola (like a few of these towns) it’s all uphill on your way back to the train station—so make sure to leave plenty of time for huffing and puffing your way back before your train leaves.
Once you get down to the marina, hang a right and follow the water around (some signs may point toward Corniglia as well). You’re basically following the hiking trail that’s closed, but you can walk a small part right up until you round the corner. This is where you’ll get your amazing shot of the town.
Manarola photographs beautiful throughout the day, but often in the earlier morning when the sun is behind the cliffs everything will be too dark. I recommend regular morning (like 9-ish?) and mid/late afternoon here, as well as sunset. Be prepared—Manarola is probably the smallest, quietest town, so if you’re looking for a coffee shop open early you may be disappointed. Not speaking from experience or anything…
Corniglia is the odd guy out, since it’s up high on the cliffs rather than having a waterfront and beaches. So when you hop off the train you’ll have to walk uphill a bit and then climb 300+ stairs to reach the town. I think there’s a shuttle as well, so you could wait for that, but I’ve literally never done it. Stairs = more gelato 🙂
Because it’s a little more challenging to get to and doesn’t have that waterfront photo opp, Corniglia tends to be more peaceful and less crowded. I love wandering the cool, narrow streets with a gelato and finding little nooks and crannies to photograph. I often find souvenirs I like a little better here. And there are a few different belvederes with great views that you can discover for amazing photos.
I love grabbing a bottle of cold, crisp white Cinque Terre wine and enjoying it on one of the belvederes here.
Yeah, that’s the life. So, make sure you leave AT LEAST 15 minutes to make your way back to the Corniglia train station, and that’s if you’re super booking it (which I do). If you walk at a normal human pace then leave 20-30 to be safe.
Because it’s on to Vernazza! If you’re taking the train, it’s an easy left and straight down to the water from the station, and BOY is it a gorgeous waterfront?! Vernazza is many people’s favorite town and housing here is usually pretty expensive. It has some fairly upscale restaurants and is more of a glitzy experience. None of that is bad, but the extra cost is one of the reasons I haven’t based myself here in the past.
We did discover this super cute restaurant with a BALLER view…they weren’t quite open when we were there (like 11am) but I’d totally recommend going. I believe it’s called Ristorante Belforte and is on your left right at the water (up some stairs).
If you walk down to the harbor like this, then turn right and go across the square, there’s a very steep, narrow staircase tucked between the buildings that leads up to the path that goes to Monterosso. And I do mean UP. Sooooo many steep stairs and quite the climb. It’s not well-marked but you should see other people making their way up there.
This view of Vernazza is one of the more famous ones, and is a little way along the hiking path toward Monterosso. The light can be really harsh at certain times of day, though, and not great for picture taking. I think this was late afternoon, which I wouldn’t recommend. Morning and evening are really pretty, and midday is nice too.
And last but not least, Monterosso. The hike from Vernazza to Monterosso on the Blue Trail took me and my parents about 2 hours. Not super difficult but is hot and quite a lot of uphill/stairs, so tiring. In rain or mud it would definitely be challenging.
BUT THIS VIEW. This is one of my favorite views in Cinque Terre on a beautiful day.
Monterosso is the town a lot of people stay in, definitely the biggest and the only one with a traditional sand beach. But to me it’s more touristy and has (slightly) less charm than the other towns.
When the tide is right you can dash up this famous little rock on the beach. Enjoy the water, the sand and sun, the gelato, and walk up and down the promenade.
So now that we’ve covered all the towns, here are a few other little tidbits…
Best beach in Cinque Terre:
From a traditional beach standpoint, Monterosso al Mare, hands down. The rest of the main beaches in the other towns tend to be more rocky (though still beautiful, and less crowded).
There’s also a famous nude beach near Corniglia called Guvano Beach that is stunning (*ahem, don’t ask me how I know this…study abroad was educational*), but currently it’s nearly inaccessible due to the same mudslides/landslides that damaged the main trail. But here’s a pic sans-naked people that I surreptitiously snapped back in college…so pretty!
Best place to watch the sunset in Cinque Terre:
This is hotly debated, and quite frankly there’s no right answer…you’re spoiled for choice. Many people will say that Manarola is the best sunset, and while I’ve never watched the sunset there (which is insane!) I can’t argue that it’s gorgeous. My personal favorite is Riomaggiore, and specifically going down the path to the water and climbing out on the giant marble-like boulders to be able to look back at the town and out at the sea. This is my happy place.
SO, have I answered all your questions? Are you now a Cinque Terre convert and expert, ready to jump on a train, fill your belly with pesto, and frolic in the turquoise waves of the Ligurian Sea??
A few of my other favorite places:
- An Otherworldly Desert Adventure in Wadi Rum, Jordan
- Three Days of Sailing in Sweden
- A Night Chasing the Northern Lights
- Hiking the Hooker Valley Track on New Zealand’s South Island
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