Cinque Terre: Italy’s Charming And Colorful Destination

I went back to Cinque Terre for my third time over the summer, and it was just as magical as I had remembered.  If you haven’t been, you should plan to go soon!  Cinque Terre is a series of five seaside villages on the Ligurian Riveria – a coastal part of Italy a bit south of Genoa and four hours north of Rome (by train).  Popular with backpackers for decades, Cinque Terrre was thrust into the spotlight in Rick Steves’ guidebooks and recently received unwanted attention due to massive and debilitating flooding and mudslides in 2011.  Luckily, Cinque Terre has mostly recovered and is back to its beautiful old self:

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While increasingly popular, Cinque Terre is still not as popular as Italy’s big hitters, such as Rome, Venice and Florence, and its relative seclusion makes sure this is the case.  This visit, I spent four nights in Cinque Terre and three full days.  I spent one day in Portovenere, one day hiking and one day visiting a winery above Monterosso and then hiring a private boat for a sunset tour!  That was the perfect amount of time, although I could have easily stayed longer.  The highlights of visiting are the natural beauty of the towns and surrounding area and the food.

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Which Town Should I Visit?

Where should you stay or spend time in Cinque Terre?  There is probably no wrong answer, but here are my thoughts on each town!  For a few days, I would pick one home base and then day trip to one or two of the others.

Monterosso al Mare – The most resorty and modern of the towns, Monterosso is also the largest town and the only town with a proper beach.  This where you come for pictures of the striped umbrellas!  It also has the biggest train station and is relatively flat compared to the other towns.  Unlike the other towns, Monterosso has a direct train connection to Milan (only 3 hours), which makes this an easy base for arrival and departure by train.  Composed of a new town and old town, you could easily spend a day exploring the town and beaching!  Since this is the largest of the Cinque Terre towns, there is a decent amount of night life here, especially compared to the other towns.

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Vernazza – The tiny seaside village made famous by Rick Steves’ guidebook, Vernazza is a beauty.  Lots of colorful buildings and a several delicious restaurants, Vernazza’s biggest charm is the town itself.  I have stayed in Vernazza twice, and it is best enjoyed in the evening after the crowds have left.   Aside from just being in the town, Vernazza does not have many sites.  I would recommend spending an hour here if just stopping by to check out the town.  That will give you enough time to walk through the town and snap some pictures!

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Corniglia – Corniglia is the sole Cinque Terre town that is not at sea level; instead, it is set among vineyards perched high about the Ligurian sea.  Corniglia is probably the quietest of the towns, but has a busy center during the day and a beautiful old church.  If you are training here, note that the train station remains at sea level, so you will either have to walk up and down a lot of stairs (300+) or take the complimentary shuttle.  This is  a good option to “get away from it all.”

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Manarola – Another beauty, Manarola is quite popular in pictures!  Manarola is smaller and more grown up than Riomaggiore, but still has a young feel.  Manarola can occupy a few hours of your time strolling the shops in town and spending time sunbathing and/or swimming in the port.  While there is no beach, many bronze themselves on a rock.

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Riomaggiore – The most backpacker-friendly of the towns, Riomaggiore is the second largest of the towns and the closest to La Spezia, where there is a big train station with transfers throughout the country.  Riomaggiore has a number of hostels, restaurants and a town with some decent shopping.  For a romantic dinner, eat in one of the restaurants at the tiny, old port.  Riomaggiore also has a rock beach popular with backpackers.  Note – the easiest stretch of the trails, Lovers’ Lane, is between Riomaggiore and Manarola.  It was closed in August 2015 due to mud slides.

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Portovenere – A bonus town!  On the Southern side of La Spezia, Portovenere is  not technically part of the Cinque Terre, but has a very similar feel, is absolutely gorgeous and lacks the American tourists that populate the Cinque Terre.  Portovenere is a good option for those looking to take it easy and get away from it all!  Portovenere has a town, a few churches to visit, many yachts to watch, but no beach.  Portovenere is not accessible by train.  Staying here requires a €35,00 taxi ride to/from the La Spezia train station, a car or a public bus ride.  However, it is accessible to the Cinque Terre by boat during the day.

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What To Do

Much of the charm of Cinque Terre is its beauty and low-key feel.  I recommend spending an easy day exploring two or three of the towns, sipping wine, relaxing on Monterosso’s beach, or venturing out into the sea to see the towns from the water!  Also recommended is a day hiking. Whether you take the traditional route on the Cinque Terre trail or one of the lesser known trails (there are tons), the views are absolutely spectacular!  Aside from hiking and experiencing the towns, there is no main bucket list item to see, which is quite nice in a county packed with bucket list sites.

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I would note that due to Cinque Terre’s location, it takes some effort to get here.  I recommend spending at least three nights and two full days.  That may seem like a lot of dedication to a beach locale, but you will not regret it.

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What To Eat And Drink

The Cinque Terre area has some of the most delicious food in Italy!  What to eat and drink during your stay here?  Try pesto, which is from this area!  It is so fresh here!  Try it with trofie al pesto, a dish local to the area, or on pizza!

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Focaccia bread is also popular, and often served with sweet or savory toppings – kind of like a pizza (you can have this with pesto, too)!

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Seafood.  You cannot come to Cinque Terre without eating the seafood.  Of particular deliciousness, lobster gnocci and stuffed mussels!

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For the brave – anchovies!

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Don’t forget the wine!  Cinque Terre is famous for its light white wine (left) and for its dessert wine, Sciacchetrà (right).

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Limoncino (instead of limonchello (further south)) is also popular.  If you want Cinque Terre reds, try visiting the Buranco winery in Monterosso.  They have a solid Syrah and heavy pours.

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STEAL OUR TRIP

We got to the Cinque Terre via train from Milan.  You can buy train tickets online here.  Tickets go on sale 90 days in advance, and the earlier you buy, the cheaper the ticket!  Our train was direct from Milano Centrale to Monterosso (3 hours), and we then changed to the local train to get to Vernazza (3 minutes).  Alternatively, you can train into La Spezia (just south of Riomaggiore) and then connect via local train to your town.  La Spezia has connections to Pisa, Lucca, Florence and Rome (among others).

We got around Cinque Terre by taking the local trains between the towns.  You can’t buy these in advance, and instead buy single tickets at each town train station.  Its good to have coins and/or small bills on hand should you need tickets after the office is closed or if there is a line.  Note – you must validate your ticket prior to boarding.  To do this, insert your ticket into the yellow box on the platform and it will be stamped (and a small hole punched in the ticket).  While I have never been checked, the fine is apparently €50,00.  Trains run from early in the morning until about 11:00 p.m.  Confirm so you don’t get stuck.

We stayed in Vernazza at Albergo Barbara, right on the main square.  Great location and fair prices, but there is no air conditioning.  This was a problem in August, but here’s the view from the room:

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