Before visiting the Cinque Terre, I read blog after blog, and scrolled through website after website trying to plan our trip… what was the best way to do it? How long did we need to stay? Is one town better than another? Should we hike? Train? Boat? Practical tips for visiting the Cinque Terre!?? What even was the Cinque Terre?? Argh!! As useful and wonderful as the internet often is, there are times when there really is just TOO much crap to wade through. So below I am going to attempt to break it down as simply as possible. In the hope that I will be as helpful as possible! My practical tips for visiting the Cinque Terre … basically everything I wish I had known before we went! And, if you’d like to see our exact itinerary, this post here covers exactly that!
It was a place that I had not only longed to go, but a place that I had seen on my Instagram feed, day in and day out for quite some time. I wanted to get my trip to the CT right!
First off – what even is the Cinque Terre?
People refer to this place ‘Cinque Terre’ (pronounced chinkwa teh-rey) as if whoever they are talking to knows exactly what it is… perhaps they do know what it is, perhaps they have seen a photo or two (or 3 million), afterall, it is plastered all over Instagram these days. But if you aren’t familiar the Cinque Terre is not just one place. Nope! It’s the name given to an area of land on the Italian Riviera. Cinque Terre is Italian for ‘five towns’ or ‘five lands’… why? Put simply, there are five small towns within the area, dotted along the Ligurian coast of Italy. Each has its own name, but collectively they have become known as the Cinque Terre. Oh the confusion!
Given that ‘Cinque Terre’ is the name for the entire area, don’t waste time trying to book a hotel in the Cinque Terre… get to know what town within the Cinque Terre you want to stay and you’ll find booking much easier…
On that note, let’s talk about the towns! From north to south, we have Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. While they are very close to one another as the crow flies, in reality the towns are separated by huge cliffs and mountainous farmland. The first historical documents featuring the Cinque Terre date back to the 11th Century so as you can imagine they are pretty ancient! They’ve had a tumultuous time the last few hundred years, from torrential rains causing severe mudslides, to regular pirate attacks in the 16th century. And while heavy rain is still an issue for the walking tracks, the major concern nowadays is the impact tourism is having on these tiny little pockets of ‘old’ Italy.
A summary of the five towns from north to south…
Monterosso al Mare –
Generally referred to as Monterosso, this town is the closest to Genoa. It is also the largest and the flattest, and the most ‘resort-like’… there are even some cars – which I can tell you is not a common occurrence in the Cinque Terre! For a mix of these reasons this town was my least favourite (I mean you can’t love everything right?). To me it’s missing some of the charm that the others have. However, what it DOES have is a wonderful sandy beach (which the others are all lacking). With rentable beach umbrellas, soft sand and turquoise water, this is the place you want to stay if you’re after a beach holiday. Being the biggest, Monterosso also has the largest choice when it comes to accommodation and nightlife.
With an ancient castle ruin, a sweet domed church, small boardwalk and picturesque waterfront piazza, Vernazza is hard not to like… errr LOVE! Throw in a couple of cute, colourful fishing boats and some aquamarine water and VOILA, you have a postcard-perfect shot. But alas, such beauty does not go unnoticed and she is therefore quite a busy town come midday (even in the shoulder season which was when we went!). You’ll get the most out of Vernazza if you can spend an evening or early morning here. The hoards of day trippers won’t spoil your viewing experience at those times.
The teeny, tiny, baby of the Cinque Terre fam. Though small, Corniglia is in no way insignificant. She is perched atop high rocky cliffs 100m above the sea. It’s for that matter that I suggest you pack light if you do decide to stay here – to reach her, you must hoof it up 300 or so stairs to get to the centre of town from the train station… which is no mean feat in 30 degree heat! But, let me tell you the views (and sunsets) are so worth it. Her streets are a quiet tangle of cobbled alleys and colourful corners. Because she is the most difficult to get to, she is often the most peaceful – a definite plus in my books. Unlike the others she does not have a harbour and direct access to the sea.
The second smallest of the five. She is charming and picturesque and quite possibly my fave! Her jumble of vibrant houses hug a small rocky cliff and tumble to the sea. The main street opens out onto a tiny harbour, rocky boat ramp, and crystal clear swimming hole. So enchanting! Tiny, cobbled passageways (with a tonne of stairs!) peel off the main street leading to small bars and eateries and groves of lemon trees. Surrounding her are ancient grape terraces producing the famous wine of the region – Sciacchetrà, a dessert wine worth trying!
This was where we chose to stay and I must say, I absolutely loved it. Much like Manarola there is one (rather steep!) main street with a multitude of pathways and stairs winding off it. The four-story high houses are stacked together in a colourful clutter – much like drunken dominos. The rustic harbour is lined with fishing boats, a tangle of fishing nets and colourful fishing buoys. There is no beach as such, but plenty of large rocks and concrete slabs to catch some sun on. When standing in the harbour looking out at the sea, the rocks to the left (that form a kind-of spit) make a great place for watching the sun disappear and the town turn to different shades of pastel. Riomaggiore is a little bigger than some of the others so has a little more choice in terms of accommodation.
Soo which town should I stay in?
If the descriptions above didn’t really help you choose which town to stay in (because let’s be honest they mostly all sound pretty idyllic right?) Never fear! … read on…
It’s hard to fully understand till you get there, but the towns are really, really close together – by train. That means, it honestly doesn’t really matter which town you stay in. Between each town (ie Riomaggiore to Manarola – neighbouring villages) the train literally takes 4 minutes and they run frequently… simply board the train, zoom through a tunnel carved in the cliffs and arrive in the next village. Very quick indeed. To get from Riomaggiore to Monterosso (ie to train from the very first town to the very last town) it takes 20 minutes. Again, not long at all. And so, as I said, it doesn’t really matter which town you stay in – all can be reached in a matter of minutes if you take the train. Keyword being ‘if you take the train’.. We’ll start on the hiking information in a bit… If I were you I’d choose the town based on the type of accommodation you are after – availability, features, reviews, and of course the price! (which is what we did…)
First things first… the Cinque Terre is part of the Italian Riviera. In my mind the words ‘Italian Riviera’ immediately conjure up images of dazzling posh resorts and places to stay. Thankfully (in my opinion anyway) the Cinque Terre is far from this. The only hotels and resorts here are found in Monterosso… So I guess if that’s what you’re after, that is where you should stay!? The other villages are home to an odd array of Bed and Breakfasts, apartments, hostels and rooms. Be warned, it can be a little on the expensive side. Especially considering what you get. But hey! That’s what happens when tiny but beautiful places get inundated by tourism. And actually, it’s all part of the charm. My advice would be to book your accommodation as soon you as you know you are going – in the hope that you will get some choice. Even in the shoulder seasons, book early. We scoured Airbnb, Booking.com and hostelworld.com before deciding on our place.
We chose our accommodation (in Riomaggiore) mostly based on price. It was €75 per night for two of us. By no means expensive but it was pricier than what we’d generally pay for a similar room elsewhere in Italy. It was a low frills private room which was comfy and clean enough. It was only a minutes walk from the main street and it came with a fridge! An absolute essential for chilling pesto/cheese/beers – basically all the picnic yummies!
One last thing on accommodation! Know that your arrival at your accommodation is likely not going to be a smooth one! Finding our accommodation was no small feat, especially in the dark! You’ll likely walk around aimlessly for a while trying to find your place before trudging up a hundred-or-so stairs to find your small and basic room. It’s all part of the adventure! One last thing to remember is that you’re hardly going to spend any time there. There is literally so much to see and do in all the villages that you really don’t need a luxe place to stay – you’ll hardly be there – spend the money on seafood and boat rides instead!
Getting to the Cinque Terre
Genoa and Pisa are the closest airports to fly into if you’re heading to the Cinque Terre by plane. A train from Genoa to Monterosso takes about 1.5hours and there up to 30 trains a day. A train from Pisa to La Spezia (which is one stop away from Riomaggiore) takes around one hour. Both train routes cost about €7.90. If you are travelling to the Cinque Terre from within Italy, Milan and Florence are an easy but slightly longer train ride away. Milan to Monterosso is 3-4 hours depending on the train. Whilst Florence to La Spezia is 2.5-3.5 hours away, again depending on the train. As a general rule in Italy, the slower the train the cheaper the ticket will be for that route. You can check https://www.trenitalia.com/ for train tickets and timetables to suit your needs.
Travel within the Cinque Terre
As I mentioned earlier, car sightings are a rarity. And those that you do see are well dented! Travel by car is a somewhat hazardous option…. If you are only flying into Italy to visit the Cinque Terre, car hire is not necessary. However if you are driving through, parking up for the day (or a few) will be the most relaxing option. While it is technically possible to visit each village by car, the wiggly windy roads that link them are narrow and parking is often a nightmare. Each village has a limited number of visitor parking spots and these are generally a kilometer or so away from the village itself. If you can’t avoid driving, this website here is great for parking info.
The best way to get around the Cinque Terre while you are by train, hiking (Yep! Your own two feet!) and by boat.
Trains within Cinque Terre
If you do not plan on doing any hiking and only wish to train from town to town I would recommend getting the Cinque Terre Train Card. This card will set you back €16 per day (€29 for two days). It will give you flexibility to jump on a train in any direction whenever suits and as many times during a day as you like. The Cinque Train Card also gives you access to the Blue Hiking Paths which we’ll touch on soon… Alternatively, a single ticket from one village to the next costs €4. If you’re having a hard time knowing what to get, ask your self: while I be hiking? Will I be taking at least three trains throughout the day? If yes, then get the card. Trains run frequently in the high season (every few minutes during the day but less frequently late at night), and during the shoulder/low season trains run less often. Each town’s tourism office will give you a timeable but you can also check times here.
Believe it or not there are over 100 different trails that wind deep into the Cinque Terre National Park. You could literally walk for weeks! The land within the National Park is made up of impressively steep, terraced farmland. Olive groves and vineyards and plenty of rich Mediterranean scrub. There are two types of hiking path in the Cinque Terre National Park – the Blue Path and the Red Path.
The Blue Path runs along the coast. Think of it as being the path that is nearest to the blue sea, and thus it is called the blue path. This is the easiest and most popular path of the Cinque Terre trails and is made up of four sections linking each village to the next. On some maps it is referred to as #2, and thus each of the sections between villages are called #2a, #2b, #2c etc. It is well marked and mostly flat and is around 12 km in total length. However, at the moment the trail between Riomaggiore and Manarola (#2a), and the trail between Manarola and Corniglia (#2b) are both closed due to landslides. They are “under repair” and are expected to open in 2021. In order to walk on the Blue Path you must buy a Cinque Terre Card for €7.50. (If you have already have the Cinque Terre Train Card mentioned earlier, this will also give you access). You can purchase these at any of the tourist offices in each of the towns and normally at the beginning of each walk where they check for tickets.
Unless you are a hiking buff you’ll want to focus on spending most of your time on the Blue Paths and only some of the Red Paths. When looking at a map given to you by the Cinque Terre info offices, you’ll clearly see the Blue Path near the sea, and dozens of red squiggly paths heading inland. Look out for the red paths that are closest to the Blue path. We hiked on these and they are fabulous! They get you up into the hills away from crowds, but aren’t too hard or too long. They weave between ancient vines and climb high into the mountains. offering unbeatable views of the ocean and the five little villages. They are longer and steeper than the Blue Path but are a nice challenge. We took paths #531, #506, #586 and #587 from Riomaggiore to Corniglia (via Volastra, another small colourful town) which took us about 3.5-4 hours with breaks (you’ll see these path numbers on the map given to you by the tourist office). More about that wonderful hike on this post here.
If you are coming solely for a hiking holiday I suggest doing a little more research and chatting to the Tourism Office once there. There really are hundreds of trails to choose from! And each are no doubt quite special.
Though not the fastest nor cheapest way to get from village to village, going by boat is still a wonderful experience. There is something quite special about being out at sea and gazing up at dramatic cliffs and colourful cottages. The towns look totally different from a boat! Public ferry boats take tourists between villages every day from April to September so long as the weather conditions are fine. They run hourly from Levanto to Portovenere stopping at each Cinque Terre village (except Corniglia) along the way. Each leg between villages take 10-20 mins. In the shoulder and off seasons the ferries become less frequent and it’s best to check with the tourism and boat offices for information on which routes are running. You can purchase tickets (with cash!) at a small ticket booth down in the harbour for €25-€35 per daily ticket (where you can get on and off throughout the day). There are also single trip tickets available. Prices are slightly cheaper in the off season. Unfortunately you can’t book ferries in advance and they do get very busy in the height of summer. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Other than the public ferry, there are also numerous options for boating tours, kayak tours and private boat rent. Some last a day and include lunch while others are evening sunset tours. A quick google or trip down to the harbour will get you all the information you need, however with these it is definitely best to book in advance as they are popular!
Last but not least…
How long should I stay?
If you have listened to my recent podcast, you’ll know that I am a huge believer in spending more time in a place than less. I really believe that the more time you spend, the more you get out of it. If you are only going to train between towns (no hiking) you could comfortably fit all five towns into two full days (two nights). This will give you enough time to wander the streets, swim and soak up some Italian hospitality. However I wouldn’t recommend just training unless you have to – the hikes are too wonderful to miss. For a mixture of hikes and trains (what we did), spend at least three days (three nights). You’ll have time to enjoy the hikes and views, swim and bask in the sun and wander aimlessly. Basically all my favourite things. If you’re just hiking – probably at least four days… there are so many wonderful trails! And there is nothing worse than being rushed. If you have more time, Portovenere is a small town down the coast from the Cinque Terre and is so worth a visit.
You’re in Italy – you’ll never go hungry! Or thirsty for that matter! Each town is dotted with dozens of bars and restaurants, you’ll no doubt have a hard time choosing where to eat. However if you are wanting to keep things cheaper by cooking for yourself or are after some supermarket goods, you’ll find that there are no big supermarkets in any of the Cinque Terre towns! Instead there are the occasional mini market-come-deli… which though small, often have some yummy local specialties in them. All five villages have one of these small shops and you’ll find enough inside them to get by for a few days. Make sure to try the focaccia and pesto, both items are local specialities to this region! Practical tips for visiting the cinque terre
Hopefully by now you feel a little more prepared for your trip. Did these practical tips for visiting the Cinque Terre help you? Is there anything more you’d like to know? Please comment below and ask away! Alternatively, this post covers our exact itinerary while we were there.