The Cinque Terre is a must add to your bucket list. These five stunning towns are tucked in the mountainside along the Italian Riviera. Dripping with beauty they each offering their own unique views, lifestyle, and experiences. While they all still carry the amazing Italian food and dolce far niente mindset!
You can visit these cities through a quick train ride (that runs every 30 minutes) that stops at all the towns. But if you’re more of a nature lover and exercise addict like me the area also offers the unique experience to hike between the towns. Each trail offering out of this world views, varying difficulties and great photo advantages.
My visit to the Cinque Terre came at a time when I was exhausted, behind on my work, and feeling displaced. It was a new experience for me, different from the homesickness you can feel, where I was missing staying in one place for a longer period of time. Part of that was also because I was traveling with back injuries and hauling a heavy suitcase in and out of fast moving trains.
I was staying in a neighbouring city called La Spezia, in a house that gave me an amazing view of the city. I rested and recuperated there and waited until I felt energized enough to tackle the Cinque Terre and make the most of it. I fell in love with the area and it’s non stop beauty.
Because each town is unique I will tell you about them separately in the order you would arrive to them by train heading north from La Spezia. However I did not visit them in this order – I headed to Monterosso first to hike and did a bit of a shuffle between them all. But the one thing I will say, I agree with my fellow bloggers, you can’t choose just one town – you have to see all five.
This is probably the smallest of them all and the first one you will arrive at if you’re heading in from the neighbouring city of La Spezia (which is also stunning and worth exploring). When you get off the train you will walk down a long tunnel covered in art and mosaics and find yourself surfacing onto the main street. It isn’t long before you’ve past all the small shops and just arrive at houses and turn around.
If you’re not paying attention you’ll miss the staircase at the beginning of the main street leading down to the boat launch and harbour. Once at the harbour, if you make the effort to walk up the paved trail to the left hand side, you will look back and get the stunning view (you see in the picture above) – of the town itself and of the rolling mountainsides hiding the other four towns (as you see in the picture below).
I didn’t spend much time in Riomaggiore but I have a suspicion that if you do some exploring and wandering where no one else goes you will find some hidden gems. And of course for swimming you will find less crowds. I wish I had spent more time in this city but I was feeling strained for time.
For the outdoor adventure/active people – as you walk to the harbour you will find a shop that has cheap kayak or snorkelling rentals. In summer 2016 when I was there the prices were: 7 euros for a single kayak rental for one hour, 12 euros for a double for one hour, with every additional hour being 12 euros. For snorkelling equipment all day it is 12 euros. It also looked like there were tours and boat rentals as options.
One of the most pictured and stunning of the five, you’ve most likely seen a picture of it at one point or another in your life whether you knew where it was or not. When you arrive you are in the heart of the town you have many options of where you go. The streets are lined with shops, restaurants and flowers.
There were the shops with swim gear, with beautiful women’s flowing dresses, and Cinque Terre gear. But I am not one of those travellers that browses shops much. I go try to soak in the culture and save my money for experiences. So I found beauty through the streets and the people laughing and enjoying wine on patios.
You can head up through the city or down. I picked down because I knew that is where the views, the water, and connection to the trail would be.
You’ll come out to a wide harbour as usual, with swimmers lining the rocks like seals drying in the sun. If you’re willing to do some exploring you can find your own less busy coves and places to cliff jump. For the iconic view of the city turn right at the harbour and follow the red and white lines (symbols of the trail). Here you will also find some much needed shade from the strong sun.
It was here in Manarola that I found peace and calm in my scrambled day of exploring. I happened to this area by happenstance and thought it was perfect for how I was feeling. I had reached a point where I was quite tired and I only had one last town to see so I took the time to wade in the warm ocean and just relax.
A lot of people bypass Corniglia simply because of the 300 stairs you climb to get to the top and the lack of that iconic city-in-the-mountainside picture. I have to admit even I was hesitant. It was my last stop and I
wasn’t sure I had enough energy to make it up those stairs but I knew I would regret it if I didn’t see all five.
I am so glad I made the effort to climb those stairs as Corniglia is quiet with a lot of tucked away beauty and secrets ready for you to discover. As you climb the steps you’re greeted with views of flowers and a vineyard.
You come to the top
surrounded by houses versus the city centre itself. I simply followed the few other people I saw and came out to little shops selling fruit and a basilica. It’s streets wind, giving you glimpses out over the sea and mountainside.
If you do some exploring you can find stunning patios along the mountainside, people relaxing on basilica steps and secret gardens. I got there for sunset, and despite things being closed it is definitely the perfect location to enjoy a bottle of wine and watch the sun set over the mountains in the distance.
Corniglia is perfect place for someone to stay who wants the Cinque Terre experience but somewhere quieter to spend their evenings. This town feels like the more genuine Italian cultural experience – less geared toward the tourists but a quaint town tucked in the mountains with residents who make the most out of the stunning area.
This is one of the most popular and busy of the five – for good reason, doesn’t that picture just make your heart jump? I think a lot of people gravitate there because of the picture opportunities but the town is much more than it’s beautiful exterior.
I hiked into Vernazza from Monterosso, catching the beautiful views of the city from the high vantage point. The trail was beautiful the whole way through but as you descended into Vernazza it offered stunning turn after another. It was worth all the work.
You’re greeted with purple flowers and the view of the sunning aqua harbour. But my first mission when I got there was to find food. With hiking in the Italian heat you burn a lot of calories.
I went to a little restaurant right on the harbour where I sat under tons of multicoloured umbrellas. I had calamari to start and spaghetti bolognese for lunch. (Although if you’ve been to Italy you’d know they don’t view spaghetti as an entree but rather a starter – which is why I learned enough to order something else or ask for a entree portion).
Despite its busy nature it still holds beautiful streets filled with unique shops, swimming spots through a hole in the mountain, and delicious restaurants. There are places to discover for more views if you’re willing to do some tower climbing or some more walking to the opposite side of the city.
Although I only enjoyed a short while in this city it really does capture your heart and your need to take non stop photos of it’s never ending colours and beauty. It is a common misbelief that cruise ships dock here. I think it comes simply from the sheer number of people in this city. They dock in La Spezia instead so people come into the towns from there. Prepare for crowds here as it is by far the busiest one.
Monterosso al Mare (Monterosso)
You get off the train and look out to a long beach lined with reclining chairs and umbrellas. I think most tourists actually turn around confused that there is not city there. And some simply go no further than the beach in front of them as for most people it’s often their last stop and they are ready for relaxation.
But if you keep walking toward what looks like an old castle tower and past that you come out to see the town itself hidden away. There are more reclining chairs and umbrellas but there is also a lot of city to see. I believe this is actually the biggest of all five of the cities but also the most deceiving.
What can seem like a sleepy city for those who simply want to lay at the beach its has many hidden treasures. it boasts areas to cliff jump and swim away from the crowds and a lot of unique beauty to explore. My Italian host at my accommodations told me that she really loved her time spent in Monterosso as a music teacher and that there was a lot more to the city than the beaches.
I didn’t spend too long there as I was determined to start my hiking with the plan to loop back there to relax for a swim after doing all the hiking. But I forgot about my need to explore and wander and how much time that can take as you find beauty in all these amazing places. Which is why I highly recommend giving yourself multiple days here. Honestly I recommend one for each town to truly take each one in.
Hiking the Cinque Terre
The trails itself are all different, for which I wont go into much detail. There are so many other great blogs online that offer great detail specifically to the trails. Instead I will share with you my experience between Monterosso and Vernazza and the views from this section.
Although I was prepared with my hiking gear and shoes I was thankful to find that the beginning of the trails from the cities are paved, they then turn to stone work paths, from there it slowly fades away into a simple earth trail.
For people that don’t hike often this is the best type of trail you can hope for as there are not many roots or big rocks that you could trip over. As the trail climbs at parts they have built stairs that lead you up.
Sometimes the trail becomes skinny and you have to wait for others to pass but everyone I met had great trail etiquette and each person went their own pace, taking breaks when needed.
They are very easy to follow and there is never any confusion as to where to go. However if you’re looking for the start in a city I recommend going toward the harbour and looking for the red and white painted lines that symbolize a trail.
I loved that the trails weaved in beside the vineyards giving you views of the grapes, and the views of the coast as the Liguarian Sea hugs the mountainsides and boats speed off to their adventures.
You pass by little creeks and tons of plant life despite the region giving a more desert look. At one point there was even a local Italian who had set up a table of hand made jewellery. Even if you just do one portion of the trail I recommend it for anyone who is physical fit. It will give you a much different perspective to your travel.
Want to know the technical side of it?
I recommend going to the Cinque Terre website to read up on prices and getting any answers to questions you may have. Currently only the trail between Monterosso and Vernazza is open (as of July 2017) but you can check their website for updated information on which trails are open.
Unfortunately with so much traffic from tourists and with the trails being on the cliff sides lots of damage happens as the earth becomes unstable. The famous Via dell’Amore (commonly known to tourists as the Lovers Walk) has been closed for at least 5 years. So unfortunately despite what you may have read a lot of the hiking isn’t available or open. Keep that in mind while planning your travels.
If you’d like to get a hiking card you can buy one at any train station (including La Spezia). This will also include your train travel between the towns.
• Allow yourself multiple days to truly explore each city. It is possible to do it in one day but believe me you don’t want to limit yourself on experiencing this beauty to one day.
• For the best views and photos of each city you will need to do a bit of uphill walking/hiking. The view you get from pictures are always further away from the town and not the view you see getting out of the train.
• I’ve heard from tourists they were disappointed when they saw the towns because the buildings weren’t actually as colourful as the pictures had lead them to believe. Remember most photographers will boost the colouring to make the picture look better. Most of the colours will be a faded pastel not bright vibrant colours.
• Also keep in mind that millions of tourists visit the Cinque Terre every year. The summer will be especially packed. If you don’t like crowds but still want nice weather I recommend going in the Spring or Fall. Or stay in Corniglia and keep in mind Vernazza and Manarola are the busiest and visit them on the off times (early in the morning). But definitely don’t miss them.