It seems like some destinations have been on my “Travel Bucket List” for ages. Recently, I had the sweet pleasure of visiting one of those locations from said list: Cinque Terre, Italy.
Cinque Terre. The Five Lands. Five small fishing villages along the rocky western coast of Italy. Tiny dots on the map that millions have flocked to over recent decades. A vibrant collection of colors that spills into churning blue waters. Once isolated communities now transformed into international Italian icons.
Yes, that Cinque Terre.
Ever since my Spain years, I held off on making the trip to Cinque Terre, hesitant to plunge into the thick fray of tourists flowing from central Italian cities towards the coast. Yet, all the while, this place continued to pull on my heart-strings. So, when an opportunity arose to make a spontaneous travel decision for the Easter holiday, Justin and I decided it was time to make our move.
Now, I can say from my experience that the rustic glory of Cinque Terre is still there. The locals are kind and warm, and the scenery is nothing short of spectacular. Yet, it remains to be said that travelers wishing to include Cinque Terre on their next Italian travel itinerary would be wise to have a healthy expectation of how to get the most out of a trip to this much-loved touristic treasure.
GETTING TO KNOW THE 5T
Cinque Terre – aka “The 5T” – is a family of five little towns folded around the mountains of the Mediterranean coastline, just south of Genoa and northwest of Florence. These tight-knit communities go back for generations; their small size and steely determination to remain true to their family legacy has allowed residents to maintain local traditions while welcoming outsiders at the same time.
While they share a common heritage, each village of Cinque Terre has its own distinct qualities, attributes, and even differing dialects! Starting from the north, Monterosso al Mar stands out for its large sandy beach, the only one among the five. Vernazza is next down the line and arguably the most photogenic sibling – defined by its picturesque harbor and castle lookout. With a population of less than 200 people, the central village of Corniglia is by far the smallest. Yet, seated atop a steep precipice like a crown, Corniglia seems to say that beauty need not be measured by size.
Only slightly larger than its mountaintop sister, Manarola is hemmed in by terraced vineyards that wind up the narrow valley, creating a sense of cultivated tranquility. In comparison, the southernmost and largest town, Riomaggiore, seems like a bustling marketplace, especially along its Via Colombo.
Together, these towns form the Cinque Terre, a harmonious assembly of enchanting villages and majestic terrain. And like a beacon on a hill, they harken to travelers from far and wide, offering refuge from the storms of life and welcoming all into unpretentious rhythms of existence.
GETTING AROUND THE 5T
For the most part, the villages of Cinque Terre are carless. Thus, the principle form of transportation to, from and between the 5T is the Trenitalia line running from La Spezia Centrale to Levanto/Genoa. Trains service is regular; however, they tend to run late and can be exceptionally crowded during the middle of the day.
Ferryboats transport passengers between select ports and offer a nice perspective to the rugged coastline.
Cars are allowed on the upper roads, but drivers must park in the hills and then walk down to reach the towns of 5T. Minibuses assist people to different transfer points, such as the Corniglia train station or mountaintop parking lots, but their miniscule size coupled with a high demand can make for a long wait just to get a seat on one.
For those in good health, the most memorable way to get around Cinque Terre is to hike from town to town. More on how to do that below!
WHAT TO DO IN THE 5T
The activity list for Cinque Terre is rather short, but that is exactly why it’s such a treat for travelers, especially those who have OD’d on museums tours and cathedral visits across other cities in Italy.
Besides the overwhelming need to photograph and Instagram the manmade and natural beauty found throughout Cinque Terre, the main activity for day-trippers and overnighters alike is hiking. Various trails connect the villages, leading folks up and down the cliffs, through vineyards and wooded mountain terrain.
Of course, after a robust hike, enjoying the local cuisine is a fabulous reward for efforts made to reach each town. Regional specialties include whopping slices of focaccia, tart and icy granitas, and succulent anchovies with lemon and olive oil – simple, yet divine.
Many come to Cinque Terre to shop around for unique commodities, such as fresh pesto, local wine, lemon products, and original artwork. On hot days, water activities, like swimming, kayaking and diving in the deep blue waters, give many a welcomed respite from the summertime heat.
HIKING IN THE 5T
In 1999, the Italian government declared the lands surrounding the Cinque Terre a national park (Parco Nazionale Delle Cinque Terre). The Sentiero Azzurro is the lowest trail to link all five villages. Hikers must pay about 7.50 Euro per day to move along the park’s principle path. However, the upper trails are not regulated and free to the public… but they are steeper, too.
Unfortunately, the beloved Via dell’Amore, which connects Riomaggiore and Manarola with an easy 20-minute stroll, has been closed since 2013 and has no specific date for reopening in the near future. Furthermore, the seaside trail between Manarola and Corniglia is currently closed, requiring hikers to ascend well into the mountains.
As for the Swiss Family Domecks, we were determined to hike between all five towns over the course of two full days. And we didn’t let one day of rainy weather stop us from reaching our goals.
The first morning, we started in Monterosso and hiked the Sentiero Azzurro to Vernazza, which we did in less than 2 hours. After a tasty lunch, we walked on for another hour and a half to Corniglia. We relaxed in Corniglia – resting, shopping, eating – and decided to hold off on the last two sections because of the trail closures already mentioned.
On our second full day in Cinque Terre, we trekked for just over two hours up and over the mountains from Manarola back to Corniglia. This was a tough climb, but a really enjoyable journey. After a brief gelato stop, we took the train from Corniglia to Riomaggiore, where we had a healthy portion of perfectly fried seafood with a Caprese salad on the side for lunch. Finally, we took the upper trail from Riomaggiore back to Manarola, a one-hour hike that was steep but brief.
WHERE TO STAY IN THE 5T
If you’re lucky enough to book accommodations anywhere in Cinque Terre, do it. But don’t fret if you can’t find a place in 5T and must resort to staying in a nearby location, such as La Spezia to the south or somewhere to the north.
After spending two nights in the adorable beach town of Moneglia, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose accommodations anywhere between Sestri Levante and Monterosso al Mar – Riva Trigoso, Moneglia, Devina Marina, Framura, Bonassola, and Levanto – because they are not far from the 5T with the train. However, unless you’ve got friends in Genoa, I don’t suggest staying beyond Sestri Levante.
As last-minute travelers, Justin and I got really lucky to find an available room in Manarola on Easter Sunday. We stayed at the 5 Terre Pelagos B&B, and we loved our night in this nicely renovated, family-run hotel. The gorgeous sunset view from our patio balcony was a major bonus.
HOW LONG TO STAY IN THE 5T
While plenty of people blast through in a day or two, I strongly suggest allowing time to cherish and savor every part of Cinque Terre. I recommend staying for a minimum of two nights, which allows you to observe these communities as they once were, before they became a major tourist destination. The early mornings are pleasant and quiet, when shopkeepers sweep off their welcome mats and fishermen pull in with a fresh catch. The nights are tender and sweet, when all you hear are the crash of the waves on the rocks, the breeze rustle through the mountains, and a light echo of laughter coming out of the restaurants. If you are going to hike the 5T or undertake other organized activities, I think three or four nights may be just the right amount of time in this little slice of the Italian Dream Pie.
WHEN TO VISIT THE 5T
In my humble opinion, the magic of Cinque Terre is lost when too many tourists flood the narrow streets after pouring out of the trains. Thus, I would still avoid the 5T during the summer months of June, July, and August. Spring and autumn seem to be the best times for a visit, when warm sunshine and cool temperatures offer great conditions for hiking the mountain trails. If you can’t avoid the peak season, then arrive with a healthy expectation of having to share the spectacle that is Cinque Terre.
THE FINAL VERDICT
Wow! What a treasured trip this will be for us! Justin, Basil the Kooiker, and I truly enjoyed our Cinque Terre experience. We are thankful to know personally this popular destination, but we were happy to have stolen moments alone during our travels along the Ligurian Coast of Italy.
Ciao! Have you ever heard of Cinque Terre? How do you feel about visiting extremely popular tourist destinations? Do you avoid them like the plague or dive in head first? If you’ve been to Cinque Terre, what was your experience like? Were you day-tripping from Florence or Milan? Did you spend too much time in the 5T or could you not get enough? What was your favorite hike, favorite town, or favorite flavor of Cinque Terre?