Why the Cinque Terre? Why do millions of tourists and travellers flock to the north west coast of Italy every year? What is it about walking between the five tiny villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore?
Find out why you should visit, what to expect when you do and how to get there. And, why the Cinque Terre is a fairytale, hiker’s dream.
The Cinque Terre National Park, or simply Cinque Terre (“Five Lands”), is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The entire area includes plenty of great coastal and inland walking tracks that show off some of Italy’s most beautiful landscapes. Picture five picturesque villages, a rugged coastline and vineyard-covered hillsides. Imagine a unique way to explore the local culture and discover what Italy is truly all about.
It’s a not-so-hidden-gem that needs to be at the top of your bucket list.
Each of the five villages offer a great mix of delicious food, unique panoramic views, swimming opportunities and walks. Which is why it’s too hard to pick a favourite!
Discover the five villages of the Cinque Terre
Monterosso al Mare
The most northerly and perhaps most accessible Cinque Terre village is Monterosso al Mare. Compared with the other villages, it’s flat and easier to navigate. Located in one part of the town is the train station and a long stretch of beach. Located in the other part is the pretty old town, village market, alcove beach and ferry port. And, you can simply walk from one part to the other via a road tunnel.
We spent a few hours wandering through the quaint old town, discovering beautifully painted buildings and a uniquely stripped church. And, it’s where the beginning of the Cinque Terre coast walk to Vernazza.
Walking into Vernazza, from Monterosso al Mare, is one of the most memorable views I will ever see. The stunning view made me almost forget about how tired I was after the 3.2km walk up and down steep stairs in 30 degree (Celsius) heat. The colourful buildings and beautiful blue bay glimmered back at me as I caught glimpses between the grapevines and winding trail.
There is no car traffic in Vernazza. So, the only way to access the town is by foot or by local train, and the only way to get around is by foot.
The main part of the small fishing village is full of restaurants and cafes offering a range of pizza, pasta and bruschette (because Italy). They surround a small harbour sand beach from which visitors can hire kayaks, boats or paddle boards. A more secluded beach can be accessed only through a large cave opening that is almost hidden in the very centre of town.
Want the best view in town? Spend a few minutes navigating steep stairs, between colourful homes, to get to the impressive Castello Doria. It’s a castle that was built in the mid-1500’s to protect the village from pirates. From here, you can see some spectacular 360 degree views.
The middle Cinque Terre village is located high up on a hill and is a great place to stop off for a well-earned gelato. Note, it’s around 400 steps above the train station, but you can catch the bus to the centre of town from the surrounding Cinque Terre towns.
It seemed slightly smaller than the rest of the towns. And, the narrow passageways had plenty of stairs crowded with other tourists trying to get a postcard photo. In the centre of town is a church built in the 1500s surrounded by small cafes and restaurants. Behind the church is a great lookout over the Ligurian Sea. Two small, exclusive beaches sit either side of the hill-top village and are only accessible by foot.
(In my opinion, Corniglia is the town you could eliminate from your itinerary. Especially if you don’t have much time to explore all of the Cinque Terre villages, or you need a break from walking up and down stairs. However, other friends of mine loved it.)
Manarola (and Vernazza) must be the most photographed and recognisable villages in Italy. So, why the Cinque Terre? Manarola.
When you arrive at the train station you can access the village through a long, underground tunnel. Used as a shelter in WW II, the tunnel is now decorated with pictures of village life and beautiful landscapes. Delightfully, all of the villages have similar artwork that tell story about every-day life in the village and/or a little bit about the history.
When you exit the tunnel and continue downhill, you’ll find yourself wandering through the pedestrian only streets lined with brightly coloured buildings that sit high in the cliffside. The quaint village overlooks a rocky bay of crystal blue water that looks almost too perfect to swim in. Sunbathers scattered across the boat ramp and rocks (there is no sand here) soak up the sun. And, swimmers paddle around in the deep water and thrill-seekers jump from the rocks.
High on the opposite hill, a public park and popular wine bar offer panoramic views of the serenity and fun below.
We arrived in Riomaggiore just in time to grab a couple of beers, a gelato and a front row seat for the most spectacular sunset. The pink, red and gold hues perfectly highlighted the colourful village and surrounding hillsides as couples and groups of friends gazed out over the water and soaked it all in.
We discovered that there was much more to explore in the village when we returned to Riomaggiore the next day. And, the windings roads, tall buildings and green landscape were just as spectacular.
Where is the Cinque Terre? And, how do I get there?
The Cinque Terre consists of five small villages located in the Liguria region on the Italian west coast. The township of Levanto is located just north of the five villages and La Spezia is just south.
We flew in and out of Genoa airport and caught a train from the main train station in Genoa to Levanto. We stayed in Levanto because it provided easy access to the Cinque Terre via the local train. I think there was also a bus connection. And, for those who were really keen, you could also walk to Cinque Terre from Levanto.
The Genoa – La Spezia train line stops at all of the Cinque Terre villages along the coast. And, the ferries make regular shuttle runs between La Spezia, Lerici, Portovenere, Levanto and Sestri Levante.
How long do I need when I’m there?
The Cinque Terre is well worth exploring, whether you walk/hike, catch a local train, join a tour bus, catch a ferry or drive between the villages.
You can do part of the coastal walk and still have a short amount of time to explore one or two of the villages in one day (the walk from Monterosso al Mare – Vernazza – Corniglia will take approximately three hours). But, I highly recommend visiting the area for two or three days if you want to complete the full walk and/or explore the villages.
Find out more about walking (hiking) the Cinque Terre, Italy, including what to expect, what to wear and how fit you need to be.
The village centers have been built into the cliffs and hillsides over the last 1,000 years. So, keep in mind that there are plenty of steep stairs and narrow passageways if you want to explore beyond where the train/bus/car/ferry drops you off.
Look out for our upcoming posts on the Cinque Terre, including how we were able to explore the Cinque Terre for less than £600!