You’ve undoubtedly seen iconic images of the colourful fishing villages of the Italian Cinque Terre splashed across social media of late. It has become a bucket-list destination for many and it is not hard to see why. Cinque Terre translates as “five lands” and these five beautiful, vibrant hillside villages cascade down steep slopes into the blue seas of the Italian Riviera, making this rugged coastline a UNESCO World Heritage site that attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. People travel from all over the world to hike the mountain trails, cruise the picturesque coasts, photograph the pastel-coloured communities and explore the characterful villages of Cinque Terre, not to mention taking the opportunity to enjoy the famed Italian cuisine and summer sunshine, but is it worth all the hype?
When to visit
With the Cinque Terre becoming such a popular tourist hot spot, I would not recommend visiting in the height of summer. The hordes of tourists in June, July and August pack the tiny streets of the coastal villages and combined with the heat of the Italian summer, it is not a pleasant experience. Instead, it is worth visiting out of season, or on the edge of the busy tourist season.
I visited Cinque Terre at the end of May/start of June and the weather was ideal for exploring – not too hot, but with plenty of sun. It was before the summer holidays too, so although it was starting to get busier, it was still far less chaotic and over-crowded than it could be! April, May, September and October are great times to visit Cinque Terre. With less tourists and more temperate weather conditions, you will have the chance to explore to your heart’s content and hike the mountains without getting heat exhaustion, yet being so close to the main tourist season, the locals will still be geared up and open for business so that you can experience the best of the Cinque Terre.
How to get there
Located in a mountainous region of Liguria, the Cinque Terre were famous for being inaccessible by car until recent years, although nowadays, you can reach the towns through the winding mountain roads. However, the best way to get to the Cinque Terre is by train.
We flew into Milan Malpensa Airport, took a train to Central Milan and then changed to the Milan to La Spezia train to reach our final destination. We booked the tickets in advance through TrenItalia and it was a simple journey, but you can just as easily fly to Pisa, Genoa or Florence and make a similar journey to Cinque Terre.
Being located on the coast, you can also reach the villages by boat, cruising in from nearby towns like La Spezia. Each village has its own harbour where boats can stop, delivering you right to the heart of each fishing port.
Travelling from one village to the next is simple and you have several options, but a car is not one of them. Each of the five villages is connected by rail and has its own train station, so you can purchase a Cinque Terre Pass while you’re there, allowing you to travel between the villages by train (or bus) to make the most of your time there without breaking the bank. With train stations in each village, this is a popular option, so the trains can become a little crowded, but the journeys are short and take no time at all.
Alternatively, you can walk along the coastal paths and through the linking tunnels, taking in the scenery and breath-taking views along the way. If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can even take the mountain paths, hiking up the steep terraces and viewing the villages from above. Some of these treks are quite tough, so make sure you’re prepared with food and drink (there are few cafe stops along the way), plenty of sun cream and good walking boots and poles to keep you steady on the rocky paths. Some routes are only advised for experienced hikers, but the numerous walking routes are a great way to explore the Cinque Terre national park.
Finally, costing a little more, but well worth the money, boat trips are a popular mode of transport in Cinque Terre. The relaxing boat rides stop in each village, allowing you to hop-on and hop-off at the harbours as you wish. Travelling by boat is perfect for soaking up some rays while appreciating the five towns from a different perspective. There’s something beautiful about the way the villages seem to flow seamlessly into the glittering sea!
Where to stay
The five villages of Cinque Terre are beautiful to explore and full of the hustle and bustle of curious tourists, but personally, I prefer the option of staying in a quieter spot, away from the main tourist crowds. The five villages are packed with accommodation options, from plush hotels to basic B&B’s, but you might find that they are pricey compared to what you can find elsewhere and they fill up quickly during the summer months.
We opted for an Air BnB in the neighbouring village of Levanto. Located just before the main Cinque Terre villages and connected by the same train line and coastal paths, Levanto was the perfect base. Although not as pretty as the Cinque Terre villages, it boasts a sandy beach, beautiful mountainous surroundings and a range of restaurants, bars and ice cream parlours for a fraction of the price. Our Air BnB apartment was owned by a friendly Italian host – Bruno – who lived downstairs in the apartment below. He was welcoming and helpful, and above all, the apartment was clean, comfortable and well equipped. We would give bonus points as dogs are welcome, which meant that Pepsi (the adventure pup) was able to join us on holiday too. It’s unsurprising that Bruno has been awarded the title of Air BnB Super Host!
How long to stay
There is so much to see and do in the Cinque Terre region that a day trip would barely be enough to experience the tip of the iceberg. We stayed for four days, which allowed us enough time to visit each village and explore the surrounding area, but we could easily have spent much more time exploring each village more and discovering their hidden secrets. I would recommend staying for longer than this if you really want to make the most of the unique area and experience all it has to offer. We didn’t get a chance to hike into the mountains or spend a full day in each village, so 5-7 days would have been perfect.
The Five Villages
Located closest to Levanto where we were staying, Monterosso is the most easily accessible village, with a new half and an old half to explore. The new town is home to many tourist facilities like hotels and restaurants, and it is connected to the old town by a tunnel. The old part is characterised by narrow medieval streets, the 16th century tower
of Aurora, historic churches, a convent and castle ruins. Boasting a large sandy beach flanked by the “Monterosso Giant” – a statue of Neptune, the God of the sea – this is an ideal place to spend the day. With a mixture of sight-seeing, exploring, good food and sun-bathing opportunities available, Monterosso feels more like a resort that the other Cinque Terre villages. Being the largest and oldest of the five villages, it is also the busiest and liveliest in the day and night.
Top tip: I would recommend stopping to sample the local Torta Monterossina – a sweet pie with a chocolatey filling that will satisfy your sweet tooth!
My favourite of the five Cinque Terre villages is definitely Vernazza, which still feels like an authentic fishing village despite the descending tourists. The village’s steep, narrow streets culminate in a classic Italian piazza lined with cafes and restaurants and filled with colourful umbrellas, leading onto a charming little harbour. The fortified town is adorned by churches and winding alleyways just waiting to be explored, and the piazza is overlooked by the octagonal bell tower of the Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia standing tall above the harbour. This quaint village takes you back in time with its rustic architecture and peeling paint, yet somehow it feels peaceful, quiet and away from the hustle and bustle when you’re standing in the picturesque harbour, with little rowing boats perched on the small sandy beach.
Top tip: A little wander along the pier gives you spectacular views of the village clinging to the steep hillside, surrounded by terraced vineyards and flowing into the sea.
The only one of the five villages without direct access to the sea, Corniglia is reached by climbing the Lardarina, the steep red brick steps leading from the train station to the hilltop village, which looks down onto the rocky coastline below. Rumour says that there are 365 steps, one for each day of the year, but I got distracted and didn’t count them all because the views were too good to miss. For an easier ride, you can also take a shuttle bus from the bottom to the top, but that’s not half as fun!
Corniglia seems smaller and quieter than the other villages, but just as pretty. Surrounded by vineyards and terraces, the village has a central square with an old olive press at its heart – the perfect place to stop for a refreshing drink after the climb to the top of the Lardarina. Even on a hot day, it’s worth it, because the view when you reach the top is a reward in itself, with panoramic vistas of the coast and Italian countryside.
Top tip: Corniglia is a treat for the senses. I was particularly struck by the sweet, perfumed aroma of flowers lingering in the air wherever you go!
Just like Vernazza, Manarola has a sweet little waterfront piazza on the edge of the harbour, surrounded by colourfully painted houses. The tiny streets and ramp leading to the water’s edge are lined with small boats parked like cars in a big city and the air is filled with the aroma of seafood restaurants. You can’t visit Cinque Terre without sampling the fried seafood served in a cone to take away and eat on the go – you won’t be able to resist the delicious smell!
Manarola is situated very close to the fifth village, Riomaggiore, and the two are connected by the famous Via dell’Amore – translated as Lovers’ Lane – a one-kilometre long footpath carved into the rocks above the sea. Unfortunately, we discovered that this path is currently closed due to coastal erosion.
Top tip: Take a walk along the path which curves around the coastline, taking you higher up for unbeatable views of Manarola descending into the sea.
The most famous of the Cinque Terre villages, Riomaggiore is as pretty as a postcard and is best viewed from the sea. The pastel-coloured buildings tumble down the hillside and appear to be stacked one on top of the other. No matter what time of day, Riomaggiore looks stunning in photographs, with the sun highlighting the vibrant colours of the buildings or the romantic evening lights glittering and reflecting in the water below at night.
Riomaggiore is the busiest of the five villages and it is packed with places to eat. The region is famed for its focaccia and pizza, which are not to be missed. You’ll also find quirky little shops filled with local produce and souvenirs to remind you of your trip to Cinque Terre and interesting paths to walk along and discover the backstreets of this buzzing little town.
Top tip: It is best to visit Riomaggiore early. This village is located closest to the nearby town of La Spezia and is often a starting point for tourists visiting the Cinque Terre. So, the earlier you arrive, the quieter it will be.
The hidden sixth village
Portovenere is a lesser-known gem in the Cinque Terre region. It is not one of the five villages; however, this beautiful town is still a UNESCO World Heritage site with so much to see and explore. Unlike the five villages, you cannot reach Portovenere by train, so we took the boat instead. As we rounded the coastline, we were met with the stunning view of a Roman citadel with the church of San Pietro perched on the rocks and a castle high above, standing guard over the pretty and colourful harbour-front town.
In comparison to the five villages of the Cinque Terre, Portovenere feels calmer and more relaxed as it still remains largely undiscovered by the majority of tourists. You can enjoy a stroll along the promenade, have lunch overlooking the harbour filled with private yachts and meander through the ancient city gate into the historic streets of Portovenere without the strain of thousands of other tourists fighting their way through.
Don’t miss a wander up to the Church of San Pietro, a striking black and white striped building situated alongside Romanesque arcades that perfectly frame the Cinque Terre coastline. Look out for Mother Nature nestled in the rocks keeping watch over her realm and discover the exquisite views from the towers of the centuries-old castle overlooking the Ligurian coast.
Top tip: Unless you’re looking to go on a hike into the mountains, steer clear of the steps running up the right-hand side of the castle. We thought it would take us up to the castle towers, but we soon discovered that there was no way through the castle walls here and we got caught in a heavy downpour of rain while making the slippery descent!
I loved visiting this unique part of Italy and can gladly tick it off my travel bucket list, but I reckon one day I will simply have to go back and experience its delights all over again. Have you also been to Cinque Terre? Which was your favourite village and why? I’d love to hear about your experiences too!