The Cinque de Terre. What more can I say about possibly the most beautiful and picturesque part of northern Italy. The Cinque de Terre is simply magnificent, understated but now a tourist hot spot, which makes its quaint decor and isolated location feel a bit like an Italian version of Disneyland. There are many ways you can do the Cinque de Terre but many of those ways will leave you hot, sunburned and in huge lines, ruining your time on the beautiful Mediterranean coast and causing you much more stress than its worth. Just follow these simple tricks and your time on the coast will go as smoothly as mine did.
To start off, Cinque de Terre in Italian means the Five Lands. The five lands represent an isolated chain of small towns tucked away on the hills between La Spezia and Levanto. The Cinque de Terre includes the towns of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Each town has their own unique flavor and layout, each specializing in something different.
Monterosso al Mare: The biggest and most popular destination is Monterosso, which is characterized by its large beachfront properties and rows among rows of chairs for tourists to lounge and enjoy the ocean. It is the northernmost town in the chain and certainly the most busy during the day. Consider getting there early in the morning or late in the evening for the best experience. In the early morning they have a farmers market with fresh fruit, cheese and vegetables which many locals hit before the tourist rush, a great cheap way to get a good meal.
Vernazza: Vernazza is definitely not to be missed. Vernazza is characterized by its beach access and vantage points. Definitely my favorite and possibly the most beautiful town in the Cinque de Terre.
Corniglia: Corniglia sits high up in the hills and has no actual beach access. The only way up to Corniglia is a small bus that runs every ten minutes or a hike up the hill which can take upwards of 30 minutes. If you are going to walk up to Corniglia I would recommend doing it in the morning as the Cinque de Terre gets extremely hot in the summer months. The bus, although incredibly uncomfortable, sweaty and rarely punctual is definitely worth the wait, especially in the sweltering heat. Corniglia has awesome lemon products and pottery.
Manorola: Manorola is gorgeous with its multicolored buildings wrapping around the cliff for the best view of the ocean in the Cinque de Terre. I spent the least amount of time there but for the most part it seems that the accommodations, the food and the experience in each of the towns are very similar on face value.
Riomaggiore: Riomaggiore is the southernmost town in the Cinque de Terre and is characterized by the hill it sits upon. It probably has the most attitudinal difference with both beach access and awesome view points. Riomaggiore is basically one big line from the sea to the top of a hill dotted with wineries. I was there in the late evening and had classy cocktails at a local place owned by a guy from Naples and his wife from Chicago.
How to Get There
The towns are connected by a train and each town is only about 5 minutes away from each other. The trains run about every 20 minutes through the day although only certain trains especially between 11-6 stop at all the towns on the same line. The best thing to do it to buy a Cinque de Terre pass at the train station for 15 Euros a pop. The pass gives you 24 hours of access to all trains that run through the Cinque de Terre, free wifi in the stations and free access to the hiking trails. The Cinque de Terre pass is definitely worth it and in all honesty, one day in the Cinque de Terre is definitely ample.
Accommodations in the Cinque de Terre can be tricky to say the least, especially on a students budget. The best bet and what many people recommend to do is to either stay in La Spezia, only about a 7 minute train ride from Riomaggiore or Levanto again only about a ten minute train ride from Monterosso. Hotels in the actual towns are incredibly expensive. To get the full vibe of the Cinque de Terre it is certainly not necessary to stay overnight there but I do understand the appeal.
My mother and I decided to stay in an Airbnb, paying around 80$ a night, which for high tourist season and the location is just about as good as it is going to get. A normal hotel will run you about 120$ in La Spezia and much more in the towns themselves. Save yourself some money and stay out of the towns, it definitely has no effect on your experience and you will have ample time to see just about everything in one day.
Unless you are willingly trying to get ripped off or are simply out of options, try and refrain from eating in the towns. Most of the businesses are overpriced and dumbed- down for tourists. Levanto and La Spezia are full of restaurants that are both cost efficient and delicious. I would recommend maybe getting an aperitif or late night drink in one of the towns and saving dinner for one of the bigger cities. The dishes in the towns run abo0ut 5 to 10 Euros more than the exact same dish in the city. I know there is something special about eating in a cafe right on the water with Italian music in the background, the smell of the ocean contrasting nicely with your seafood risotto. Unfortunately, that’s not reality and if you want an authentic Italian dining experience, you most likely wont find it sitting next to a German family and eating a bowl of pasta for 18 Euros. Also be aware that in Italy, there is something called a coperto, which is basically a cover charge for service and bread. I have never seen a higher coperto than the ones in the Cinque de Terre, nearly 4 Euros per person.
There is an awesome self-service sea food restaurant that sits right on the port in La Spezia, filled to the brim with locals and tourists. Not only was it absolutely delicious, but also extremely cost-efficient for such a great experience. La Spezia also has an awesome old city filled with restaurants, gelaterias and cafes, perfect for enjoying local fare for a good price.
Levanto, just like La Spezia also was full of places to eat for good prices. I would argue that both Levanto and La Spezia have that local feeling, the kind of feeling you rarely get going to tourist places or large cities. I noted that most of the people there spoke Italian, which is not the case in Florence or Milan or anywhere in the Cinque de Terre.
What to Do
The Cinque de Terre has a bit of everything, so there are many different ways you can spend your day. If you are more of a food and wine person, the Cinque de Terre is known for their vineyards and orchards, which you can see all over the region glistening in the sweet Mediterranean sun Each town offers plenty of wine tastings and fresh food markets for you to check out. If you are in Corniglia make sure to get a lemon granita. It’s basically a fresh lemon slushie that really can’t be beat on a hot summers day.
I would absolutely recommend going hiking, but if you are planning on it, commit and make sure to get up early! I went hiking with my mother from Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza, about a 2 kilometer hike characterized by incredible views you simply can’t get from the city, tons of stairs and a first hand look at Italy’s finest grapes. There are both sea routes and land routes that go through the hills between the towns with the Monterosso to Vernazza hike being the longest and most challenging. Normally you have to pay a fee of 5 Euros to use the paths but the fees are covered if you buy the CInque de Terre pass mentioned earlier. To avoid the sun and make sure I could enjoy the hike fully, I woke up around 530, making sure I was in Monterosso starting the hike around 630-7. The sun really starts to beat down around 10 am, so I would recommend either getting up early or not doing it at all. I saw tons of miserable hikers trapped halfway through the two hour hike wishing they had done the same.
The most popular hike is between Riomaggiore and Manorola, not because it is the best but because it is the easiest and only takes about 20 minutes to complete. That hike can be packed and feel like a line at an amusement park so I would recommend trying one of the different trails.
There are plenty of beaches for swimming and relaxing although to even use the beach there is normally some sort of fee. You can also rent both paddle boats or charter a larger boat which will transport you between the five lands for around 15 Euros a day.
The Cinque de Terre is stunning and something I would 100% recommend going to. Its the perfect day trip, a nice introduction to northern Italy and the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, the towns themselves have become a tourist trap with both high prices and just a lack of locals which makes for a less authentic experience. I would recommend doing the Cinque de Terre in a certain way in order to avoid all the tourists and make your like as simple and enjoyable as possible. Split your day into two. Get up early, go for a hike and see the towns. Get out of there at around 11 and go enjoy La Spezia or Levanto for lunch and a mid afternoon coffee. Go back to wherever you started and take a nap, you have earned it. Get up and take the train back in around 6 for aperitif hour and an extraordinary sunset. You could eat dinner there if you wanted to but watch the train schedule. I would recommend eating in Riomaggiore. Its filled with bustling little restaurant and cafes with people staying out late and enjoying the fresh sea air.
Each town in unique and wonderful although once you get through three of them, the others seem just more of the same. If you are on a budget, don’t eat there, buy the Cinque de Terre pass and spend your time hiking or on the free beaches. Grab some local flavor in Levanto, try some Trofie al Pesto, the regional pasta specialty and grab some seafood for dinner in La Spezia along the water late night. And for the love of god don’t plan on going on a Wednesday. That is the day that the cruise liners dock in La Spezia and the entire Italian coast is absolutely mobbed during the day.