Cinque Terre: Hiking and Relaxing on the Italian Riviera
If you love following travel accounts on Instagram, then you've undoubtedly seen pictures of the beautiful Cinque Terre along the Italian Riviera. The Cinque Terre, or "Five Towns" in Italian, refers to a string of colorful villages nestled into the coastline on the western side of Italy. The five towns, coastline, and surrounding land are part of the Cinque Terre National Park and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I had been wanting to visit the Cinque Terre since college when my friends who studied abroad in Rome raved about an amazing weekend spent hiking, eating delicious fresh seafood, and swimming in the warm waters on the Italian coast. When my in-laws were planning a big family trip to Italy last September, I knew we had to add this region to our list.
We spent two days in the Cinque Terre during the last week of September. We were hoping the crowds and temperatures would have died down, but the area was still so packed and hiking in the dry heat was no joke. I can't imagine what it must be like in the height of summer. That being said, while the small towns were quite busy, the trails were pretty empty.
While the Cinque Terre is known for its hiking, you can also go to marvel in the beauty of the area by exploring the towns by train or ferry (more on getting around below). In this post, I'm going to share everything you need to plan your perfect visit to this stunning and special place. If you're looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the big Italian cities, head to Cinque Terre for a few days to admire incredible views, eat delicious seafood, and have some of the best gelato I've found in all of Italy. Get ready for an overload of pictures. Trust me, I couldn't help it and you'll completely understand.
About the Cinque Terre
As I said above, there are five fishing villages that make up the Cinque Terre. Here they are from South to North:
The southernmost fishing village. Great to walk up to the top for sweeping views and excellent focaccia options.
Perhaps the most picturesque town. You can swim in the harbor and relax on the rocks. A great spot for lunch.
Located up on a cliff. Not much going on and very overrun with tourist spots.
A central town with great restaurant options.
Monterosso al Mare
The largest and northernmost town with sand beaches.
The Perfect two day itinerary
Day 1: Hike from Vernazza to Monterosso
> First, make sure you have your pass to hike and for the train in the Cinque Terre (more detailed info below).
> Depending on where you are staying, take the train to Vernazza. We arrived late morning to Levanto (just north of the Cinque Terre), and took the local train to Vernazza.
> Explore the town and have a delicious lunch at Belforte (reservation required!).
> After lunch, take the hike from Vernazza to Monterosso. The hike takes around 2 hours with photo stops. The start of the trail is marked below on the map. It's located up a small set of stairs in the village. You can always ask for someone to point you in the right direction.
> When you reach Monterosso, keep walking north along the water through the tunnel to reach the beautiful Fegina Beach. You can enjoy an apperitivo by the beach or even enjoy some sunshine, depending on the time, before taking the train back to your accommodation.
> Find a delicious restaurant for fresh seafood for dinner.
Day 2: Make Your Way from Riomaggiore to Vernazza
> Take the ferry from your home base to the southernmost town, Riomaggiore. Incredible views and photo opportunities!
> Explore Riomaggiore and perhaps get a focaccia snack at one of the many shops. You don't need to plan on too much time here. Walk up the main street and make your way up to the castle for some great views before heading to the train station. **Note that you can take the famous Lover's Lane walk (30 mins), but it's been closed for some time. If it's open, by all means go for it and report back please ;)
> Train or hike from Riomaggiore to Manarola (perhaps my favorite town). You can spend some time swimming in the beautiful harbor in the center of town! The water was a little too cold for me at the end of September. If you're hungry, find a place for pesto for lunch since it was born in Cinque Terre. Make sure to walk around to the other side of the harbor along the path for beautiful photos looking back at the town.
> Again, you can either train or hike to Corniglia, the village on the cliff. The "easier path" (1 hr) was closed last year and the longer one takes over 3 hours. The train takes about 5 minutes. There are over 300 steps from the train station in Corniglia up to the town...I consider this a hike in itself.
> You don't need to spend too much time in Corniglia because there's not much going on. I would recommend eating in Riomaggiore or Manarola before you get to Corniglia because the options were a lot nicer on the water. Walk through the town and find your way to the end at a beautiful viewpoint before your last big hike of the trip.
> Hike from Corniglia to Vernazza (2.5 hrs with stops and photo opps). I'd say the longest and hardest hike. Again, make sure to follow the blue route. The entrance to the trail is outside of town (marked on the map below). About halfway through the hike, make sure to stop at Bar il Gabbiano for a delicious lemonade on the terrace. Trust me, you'll need it. When you reach Vernazza, there's a gorgeous view overlooking the city. Try to get there later in the day for a beautiful, soft light.
> If you didn't get a chance to explore Vernazza the day before, you can spend some time doing so. I highly recommend grabbing a gelato and Gelateria Vernazza, perhaps the best I had that trip. You can even go for a dip and watch the sunset from the beach on the other side of the town (marked on the map below).
> Take the train back to your home base and grab an easy dinner, perhaps pizza at La Picea if staying in Levanto.
A Note on Hiking
Be prepared for some of the most gorgeous hiking you've likely ever done - imagine incredible seaside views as you hike amongst the vineyards. But, let's just say that I wouldn't call the hiking "easy" or "for beginners" even though they are marketed as such. The paths can be quite steep and not well marked. Plus, the hikes took longer than advertised.
> Monterosso - Vernazza: 3.5km, 1.5 hrs
> Vernazza - Corniglia: 4km, 2 hrs
> Corniglia - Manarola (closed September 2016): 3km, 1 hr
> Manarola - Riomaggiore (aka Lover's Lane, closed September 2016): 1.5km, 30 mins
If you are an advanced hiker, you may want to try taking some of the longer trails that lead up into the hills. If you love hiking, but don't want to spend all day on the trails, I recommend following the blue trails (#2), which are marked by red and white stripes along the way.
You must have a valid Cinque Terre card to hike between the towns. You can purchase one at the information center, typically in or near the train stations. There are checkpoints along the way, so make sure you have it. I purchased the 2-day pass. You should also confirm that the trails are open. We had a lovely guide help us plan our two days after he informed us two of the main trails were closed.
Make sure to wear sturdy sneakers, bring water, a hat, and sunscreen. Bring or wear a bathing suit if you plan on diving in.
Getting around the Cinque Terre is easy.
By Train: Make sure to purchase the Cinque Terre card that includes a train travel pass. You can purchase the pass at an information center, typically in the train stations. The card allows for unlimited use of the trains between the towns during the timeframe you've purchased. The trains run 1-2 times per hour and you just need to know which direction you're headed, north or south, along the route. Don't forget to validate your card on the machine in the station each day!
By Foot: An obvious choice! Hike one or all of the trails while you're there. If you do not plan on taking the train at all, you can simply purchase the Cinque Terre card without the train portion.
By Ferry: On our second day, we took the ferry in the morning from Levanto to Riomaggiore, the southernmost town. We were able to see all of the towns from the water as we traveled south. I highly recommend taking the ferry! It's calm (for those who get seasick). You must purchase a separate ticket from wherever you catch the ferry. It stops in all towns except Corniglia (the one on the cliff) and typically runs from March until mid-October. Make sure to confirm the ferry is open if you're there during the shoulder season.
You can hire a private driver or take the train. The train system is easy to navigate although you must be wary of strikes. On our last day, we had to hire a taxi to take us to the train station at La Spezia because the local train was not running through the Cinque Terre. I recommend booking your tickets ahead of time on RailEurope. You can search from your starting point to Monterroso (northernmost town) or Riomaggiore (southernmost town).
From Pisa: Take a direct train to La Spezia. You can take a high speed (45 mins) or regional (1 hr 20 mins). In La Spezia, you can purchase the Cinque Terre card and then take the local train to your final destination.
From Florence: You can take a train to Pisa (1 hr) and then onto La Spezia from there.
From Venice: Before Cinque Terre, we were in Venice. We took a train from Venice to Florence and spent the night near the train station and then headed for Cinque Terre first thing the next morning. Relais Luce Florence is a great option if you're looking for somewhere to stay either just for a night near the station or for your entire visit to Florence. You can also take a train to Milan (2 hrs high speed).
From Milan: One of the most popular starting points, you can take a train directly to Monterroso (3 hrs). Make sure to book one of the direct trains!
Where to Stay
There aren't many hotel options within the National Park. We were a larger party, so chose to stay out of Cinque Terre proper. We stayed in Levanto, the town just north of Monterosso and the last top on the local Cinque Terre train. I highly recommend our hotel, Hotel Al Terra di Mare, with breakfast and round trip transportation to the train station and into town included with your stay. Plus, the breakfast views are incredible.
If you do choose to stay in the villages, I recommend looking into an Airbnb in Vernazza, one of the most bustling towns and centrally located.
Where And What to Eat
Make sure you get pesto in Cinque Terra, its birthplace. The region is also known for its lemon products and focaccia. And don't forget the freshest seafood. You can get a cone of fried seafood if you're looking for a quick snack.
Where you eat will depend on where you stay. Here are some of my recommendations:
> La Picea - good, casual pizza
> La Gritta - great fresh seafood where you can pick your fish. Great dinner spot on the water. Maybe ask how much the full fish costs before ordering...
> Gelateria Vernazza - just trust me. The best.
> Belforte - first choice for a great seafood meal. Sadly, it was too busy and we didn't plan ahead. Learn from my mistake.
> Al Castello - if Belforte is booked, a decent option with incredible views.
TBP Insider Tips
> Bring sturdy sneakers if you choose to hike. Don't forget sunscreen and a hat!
> The trains in Italy always state the final destination on the board, so you'll want to know in what direction you're headed to find the appropriate line on the local train. The same goes for a regional train, just make sure you know your train number.
> Reservations are always recommended! Even for lunch at the busier restaurants.
> Consider stopping in Pisa for an hour or so to see the Leaning Tower. Yes, it's touristy, but totally worth it!
> Cinque Terre is an extremely popular destination. They are even thinking of limiting the number of visitors to the old fishing villages each year! Try to go in the shoulder season, March-May and September-October. You may not want to swim, but the area will be less crowded and the hiking will be more bearable in the lower temperature.
> You may want a full three days in Cinque Terre if you'd like some beach time. The nicest sandy beach is Fegina in Monterosso where you can rent a chair and umbrella.
> If you're not interested in hiking, you can easily visit the Cinque Terre in one day. Perhaps stay in beautiful neighboring Portofino.