I think maybe it’s hardest to write about the places we love the most.
At least that’s the excuse I’m using to explain why I’ve never written a word about one of my favorite places in the entire world, and hands-down the place I’ve visited the most. In fact, it’s shameful I haven’t really written about Italy at all…I’ve long called it the home of my heart, and it draws me back time and again. So today it’s time to talk about Cinque Terre, or more specifically, Riomaggiore.
I’ve now put together a much deeper post that’s a full guide to visiting Cinque Terre, but figured I’d start with something a little more manageable. For whatever reason I find it’s overlooked as a base, but I’ve used Riomaggiore as my base all of the 5 or 6 times I’ve visited Cinque Terre, so it does feel kind of like home.
A way more awesome, more colorful home with better food…
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My love affair with Riomaggiore goes WAY back. The summer after my sophomore year of college I studied abroad in Florence with a language immersion program. It was amazing, and on our first weekend there my roommate, four other classmates, and I took the train up to Cinque Terre.
This was before you could just use the internet to find things (or before smartphones were a glimmer in anyone’s eye), so we got to Riomaggiore, split up and took different jobs—finding an apartment, groceries, guard the luggage, etc. We spent the most amazing weekend based in Riomaggiore hiking the trails between the towns, eating amazing food, visiting the famous nude beach (story for another time), and climbing out on the giant rocks in the marina to watch the sunset. Riomaggiore has had a giant piece of my heart ever since.
Fun fact: I accidentally rented the EXACT same apartment as when we were in college the next two times I visited Riomaggiore. Again, the internet wasn’t super helpful in these things so it was completely by chance.
So, let’s talk about why you should base yourself here and what to do.
How to get to Cinque Terre
Riomaggiore is the southernmost town in “le cinque terre” (literally the five lands). Train is definitely the way to go. 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. Like, don’t even bother sitting down in between stops.
Also, always watch out for pickpockets on the trains in Italy, but particularly in Cinque Terre. Just ask my dad…
You can use the Trenitalia website to look up train times and routes, I’ve always found a very easy-to-use site and it’s the official one for Italy so you’re not getting markups. Typically when I’m traveling within Italy I don’t bother purchasing tickets way ahead of time, but if it gives you peace of mind it’s always an option. And don’t forget to validate your ticket at the machines in the station!
Why base yourself in Riomaggiore?
I’ve gone more into detail about how to choose between the different towns as a base in my Cinque Terre post, but overall Riomaggiore is incredibly charming, has (probably tied with Manarola) the best sunset views, and actually has restaurants and bars open in the evening (Manarola is tiny and pretty much shuts down at night).
To me, Monterosso is too touristy, Vernazza is lovely but also a lot more fancy and expensive, and Corniglia has waaaaaay too many stairs and is too far above the water. Riomaggiore in my opinion is the best place to stay in Cinque Terre.
What to do in Riomaggiore
Rent a super cute apartment with a water view
I mean, you can also go for a “top of the hill” view, but that is SO much work to climb up to every night. No, I’m a big fan of one of the marina-view apartments you can find on Airbnb or similar. Even on a stormy day (like the last time I was there), you can enjoy your coffee and pastry with the crashing waves and watch the fishermen.
I stayed in this one (“finestra sul mare”, or window on the sea) last time and this one (“le finestre sul mare”…original) the time before that. Both were lovely and a perfect location. Apartments are definitely the way to go in Cinque Terre, particularly for any of the towns that aren’t Monterosso. If you haven’t used Airbnb, you can use this link to get $40 off your first rental.
Haul yourself up the hill to see the church and castle
Wandering around town is one of the best things you can do, and don’t forget to go UP! The Church of San Giovanni Battista di Riomaggiore (St. John the Baptist) was built in the 1300s in the Romanesque style, somewhat austere but oddly compelling.
A little further on is the Castello, built in 1260…I have only fuzzy dark memories, but I think my roommate may have nicked a peach from one of the trees in the middle of the night while we were in college 🙂
One of the places that I feel gets overlooked is Bar e Vini a Piè de Mà, a little bar/restaurant on the other side of the train station from the main town. Basically, you walk out the train station and instead of heading toward the tunnel toward town, you turn left and there’s a steep staircase, go up, and you’ll find the bar (you can follow signs toward the Via dell’Amore too).
This is a perfect place for a coffee or glass of wine with a view, with decent wifi and fewer crowds.
Eat your bodyweight in gelato
While ice cream doesn’t do much for me, I am ALL IN for gelato. One challenge you could set yourself is trying gelato in every Cinque Terre town. I know, it’s asking a lot. But I believe in you.
I typically go for fruit flavors (and am in love with banana when I can find a legit gelato place), but this particular time the dark chocolate and nocciola (hazelnut) caught my eye.
Pro tip: One way to tell if it’s a really legit gelato place that makes really fresh stuff (vs. powdered mix) is to look at their banana gelato. If it’s yellow, I’d keep walking. If it’s kind of a weird beige (like actual banana when you leave it out), this is the place you’re looking for.
Eat *more* than your bodyweight in delicious fresh pesto
Literally one of my favorite foods in the entire world…pesto is my JAM! While the internet seems to indicate that pesto was born in Genoa, everyone in Liguria will tell you that Liguria is the birthplace of this amazing basil-based sauce. And in my opinion there is no better place to eat it than in Liguria. They traditionally serve it with a handmade pasta called trofie, and I eat plates and plates of it while here.
My host mom when I studied abroad in Florence was originally from Liguria, and she made pasta con pesto quite a bit while I lived with her, and I learned several of her recipes. It’s still the recipe I use and is in my regular rotation, you can see it here if you’re interested—it’s super easy!
Pesto isn’t the only game in town, so try some of the other main dishes you’ll see appearing consistently on menus. Foccacia also originated here, and they’re famous for their anchovies (worth a try, not like you’d get from a can here in the U.S.). Seafood here in general is amazing due to how fresh it is.
This baccalá frito (fried salt cod) was my EVERYTHING. Fresh, salty, herbed, bready, and greasy (in a good way), I grabbed it on a whim from a takeaway restaurant, the best I’ve had there. If you turn left out of the train station tunnel in the main town (so going uphill), it should be the second takeaway on your left (not the Mamma Mia one).
I just realized there are some random fried anchovies thrown in there too…well, they were delicious!
Go see the trailhead for the famous Via dell’Amore
One of the things that hurts my heart is that half of the main Cinque Terre trails aren’t open, and won’t be for quite some time. There were bad storms, flooding, and mudslides in 2011 that severely damaged some of the trails (and Vernazza), so the trails between Riomaggiore, Manarola, and Corniglia have been closed ever since. They’re working on repairs but it will still be at least a year before they open. You can check status here.
But while you’re in Riomaggiore you still can head up to the trailhead just to get a glimpse of the famous Via dell’Amore (way of love). I love the gate and all the locks on it, and that first little peek of the trail as it turns the bend. While you can’t hike these parts of the path, you can either go way up (there are higher trails above all the villages that are open…a little more strenuous and maybe not quite as amazing of views) or you can still hike between Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso.
Head down to the water for sunset
THIS is the biggest reason I keep coming back time and again. When you go down to the marina, head to the left, up the stairs and it will take you to a nice belvedere with a great view. If you look down from there, you’ll see people climbing out over the giant marble-like boulders that go out into the sea.
Depending on your willingness to get a bit damp (sometimes the wave splash is sneaky), you can scramble out on the rocks as far as you want to watch the sunset, take amazing pics, etc. Or you can just sit right at the base of the marina and watch the sun sink behind the sea. Either way, I recommend bringing your own bottle of wine and a couple glasses.
I’m a huge proponent of not doing Cinque Terre only as a day trip, for many reasons but particularly because when you stay overnight you get to experience the towns without the day trippers.
As soon as you hit around 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon, the crowds start to dissipate and you get to have the towns much more to yourself. People will say that Cinque Terre is too crowded and touristy now (and they’re not entirely wrong), but I think you can still capture its magic if you stay at minimum overnight.
Seriously, the best sunsets in the world.
Eat all the things
Now it’s time for a beautiful after-sunset dinner. I’m getting hungry.
We got to eat at two of my favorite restaurants in Riomaggiore on my last trip. The first night we were at Enoteca dau Cila, which has this really beautiful fairy grotto-like feel inside. It also has an amazing patio that looks out on the water for drinks or dinner, though the weather wasn’t cooperating on this particular evening.
The second place is just a few steps uphill from dau Cila and on the other side of the path, called Rio Bistrot. I believe it was previously called La Lanterna (in past times when I visited). I’ve eaten here several times over the years and it’s super good, can have a great view of the water, and the service is pretty good too.
There’s also a good one called La Lampara that’s immediately to your left when you emerge out of the train station tunnel, on the left of the path. All of these are quite nice for dinner, not cheap or super casual (though you don’t have to really dress up, just look decent). Not crazy expensive either, just not like 10 euros for an entree.
(Sidebar, when my parents and I went to La Lampara, we had two waiters, and one was smoking hot, like a cross between Hugh Jackman and Joe Manganiello, and the other was this tiny old man who said “ticky ticky ticky” at the end of every sentence…)
Sample the (decently chill) nightlife
If you’re out and about in the evening, there are several bars or pubs to choose from in Riomaggiore, all (to my knowledge) above the tunnel in town and none right down on the marina. Head up the hill in search of them. My parents and I hung out at Bar O’Netto (partially for the wifi), though it was kind of dead the night we were there.
I think this really depends on what time of year you’re in Cinque Terre. In the summer it’s quite the tourist crush and you get a lot of college students as well, but in shoulder or off-season it’s a ton quieter.
Wander the town at night too
To me, Riomaggiore is magic at night, so burn off some of that pasta and wander up and down all the staircases and alleys. Get a view of the moon, see the church at night, and listen to the ocean from way up on the hill.
So this is just the tip of the iceberg…next we talk about Cinque Terre as a whole and where to go, what to do, what to eat, and why this little stretch of Italian coast has a hold of my heart and won’t let go!
What questions do you have for me?? Hit me up in the comments!
A few more of my absolute fave places:
- A Perfect Northern Croatia Road Trip Itinerary
- Sleeping in a Norwegian Sami Tent & Other Arctic Adventures
- The Ultimate First-Timer’s Guide to Visiting Petra
- Sailing in Sweden…Or That Time We Rented a Sailboat on Airbnb
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