Cinque Terre is one of the most iconic places in Italy and one of the most famous coastal landscapes in the world. It consists of five centuries old fishing villages which is perched high on the Italian Riviera in the province of Liguria. In Italian “Cinque Terre” (pronounced as “cheen-kway tear-ay”) means “five lands” and these five beautiful, vivid colored coastal villages running from North to South are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.
With extremely picturesque rugged landscapes with tiny pastel colored houses build on the edge of the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean coastline, each one of the villages is a beautify of its own and with their own different character. For many centuries the locals mainly lived off on fishing, olive cultivation and vineyards. The inhabitants have built stone walled terraces and cultivated the sloping, steep rugged land overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Over the centuries generations have collectively worked on creating this steep terraces sloping down to the coastline which is held by over 7000 km dry stone walling. This man created monument in landscape architecture is the only one of its kind in the world. This is the true identity of Cinque Terre which made them famous worldwide.
In the year 1997 the five villages and its surroundings, the Cinque Terre National Park and the Protected Marine Area were recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Until the recent years Cinque Terre was virtually unknown to the rest of the world. The destination was completed isolated and was accessible only through a series of winding walking paths or by sea. This was once considered as an off -the beaten path destination but due the increasing publicity received by the Instagram and other Travel posts over the recent years now the circa 4000 populated area is attracted by more than 2 million tourist annually from all around the world.
Many of the tourist who visits Cinque Terre are day tripper and most of them arrive from Cruise ships. Cinque Terre can be visited all around the year but the ideal time phase would be from May to October. The most summer months are too hot, crowded and expensive so often try to avoid these peak tourist months. If you want to avoid the heat and the masses of tourists the great time to visit Cinque Terre would be before the summer or towards the end of it.
How To Reach Cinque Terre
Arriving from abroad Cinque Terre can be reached by Pisa & Genoa International Airports. Since there are only small and expensive parking lots available and the difficulty in navigating along the narrow cliff – edge roads, driving by private car is discouraged. If you are driving around it is advisable to park the car either in La Spezia or Levanto and then catch the train to Cinque Terre.
The best and the fastest way to reach the Cinque Terre is by train. There are local train connections from Ganova to La Spezia. (La Spezia is located at the Gulf of La Spezia and minutes away from train from the nearest village in Cinque Terre). All five villages are well connected by the local train “Cinque Terre Express” operating frequently from La Spezia Centrale to Levanto which runs along the coastline between the villages. The 20 minutes long scenic train ride will take you through picturesque landscapes with pastel colored houses perched on the cliffs and vineyards overlooking the turquoise colored Ligurian coastline.
To travel by train to the villages, it is required to buy a “Cinque Terre Treno MS Card”. A day pass costs 16€ per adult and the day card is only valid until midnight of the day it was purchased. You need to write your name on the Day Card and validate it before getting into the train. The Cinque Terre card gives access to the trains, hiking trails, local buses, Wi-Fi and also to local rest rooms.
The traditional and the best way to discover the villages is by foot. If you are into hiking you will have the chance to enjoy the panoramic views and more time exploring the small towns. The cliffside hiking trail “Sentiero Azzurro” (The Blue Trail) is a 12 km mule path which once linked all the five villages by foot which dates back to 12th to 13th centuries. For centuries this was the only road connected the inhabitants of the coastal villages until the construction of the railway lines in the 19th century. Considered as “one of the best hikes in the world”, the terraced vineyards with strips of olive trees and Mediterranean scrubland overlooking the blue sea will make the trail a unique experience.
To access the hiking paths one needs to purchase the “Cinque Terre Trekking Card”. The Blue Path is moderately difficult and will take around 6 hours to cover the whole scenic route. Due to the often rain and landslides in the recent years the sections of the Trail has been closed for restoration for next years.
In summer there are daily ferry connections from La Spezia to all four villages except Corniglia, located on high on the hill, which has no access to water.
The Cinque Terre are
Monterosso al Mare
Monterosso al Mare (literary “Red Mountain by the Sea”) has a long sandy beach, which is relatively lager than the other cliffed beaches of the other villages in Cinque Terre. The long pebble beach attracts the swimmers and sun – lovers which can get pretty crowded during the summer. The village is divided into two distinctive parts, namely the “The old town” and the “The new Town” which is separated by the Medieval Tower of Aurora.
The remains of the Medieval fortifications, the “Fieschi Castle” and the “Aurora Tower” and the typical medieval streets with colorful houses can be admired in the old part of the village whereas the new part of the village “Fegina” is mostly dominated by a great quantity of restaurants and hotels. Here you will find a seafront promenade which is full of life.
Undoubtedly Vernazza is one the most beautiful villages of the five in Cinque Terre. From the railway station strolling through the small alleys passing local restaurants and small shops towards the tiny harbor you can reach the village’s main square “Piazza Marconi“. It is directly located in front of the village’s natural tiny port. From this point you can have a great view of the tiny harbor with the turquoise colored sea, colorful fishing boats and the medieval fortress “Castello Doria” (Castle Doria), considered as the oldest surviving fortification in Cinque Terre which stands on the cliff edge of the village. The Castle contains “Belforte Watchtower“, one of the original watchtowers built during the Reign of Republic of Genoa.
Note: Vernazza can get pretty crowded and chaotic during the midday and will get inconvenient to explore and enjoy the small hamlet.
The charming tiny village of Corneglia is perched high upon a cliff overlooking the Ligurian Sea which is the smallest and the quietest of the all five. Considered as the oldest of the five villages, Corniglia dates back to the Roman Age. To access this village you can either take the bus ride from the train station to the village itself or climb up the famous over 350 steps stairway “Scalinata Lardarina“, to the village’s summit. While taking the wide brick stairway which is built to the side of the cliff you can enjoy the panoramic views of the Mediterranean coastline and the vineyards surrounding the village. Since it is harder to access, Corniglia is quiet and mostly less likely to be busy and crowded than the other four villages. Once you reached the summit of village with the colorful storeyed houses you will sense the less commercialized and laid back atmosphere.
Through the cobblestoned alleys with small souvenir shops, local restaurants and bars you can reach the “Piazzetta Largo Taragio” the main square of the village. Here you will find the 18th Century Orotatio of Santa Catarina and the 14th Century Parish Church of St. Peter. With small bars and restaurants the Piazetta is a perfect place to rest during the walks.
From the main square you can access the “St. Mary’s Terrace” where you can enjoy the panoramic view of the blue Ligurian sea from Vernazza to Manarola. It was actually worth the climb, even to enjoy the breathtaking panoramic view of the Ligurian coastline.
With the picturesque multicolored houses and the tiny sea port facing the Ligurian Sea, Manarola is one of the most charming and the beautiful village in Cinque Terre. The tiny village is perched on side of a cliff which faces to the small piazza and the tiny sea port below.
As you exit the train station you can walk to the main square of the town, “Piazza Papa Innocenzo IV” where the village’s main historic monuments of importance are located. On this principal square you can find the 14th Century Church of Saint Lorenzo, the Oratorio dei Disciplinati and the Campanile (bell tower). To reach the lower part of the village you need to walk through narrow cobblestoned alleys passing the charming small artisan shops and bars.
Manarola is connected to the nearby Riomaggiore by the romantic walking path “Via dell’ Amore” (Lover’s Lane) which is the easiest section of Sentiero Azzuro and unfortunately due to the reconstruction work the path is currently closed.
Riomaggiore, the most southern village of Cinque Terre is wedged upon ridges with narrow cobblestoned lanes with pastel colored “Case torri” (tower houses) with slate roofs overlooking the Ligurian Sea. The village also has a small fishing marina filled with traditional fishing boats.
From the train station passing the Oratorio di Santa Maria Assunta one can access via Colombo, the main street of the village. The main street connects the upper part of the village with the Piazza Vignaioli, where you can easily access the tiny marina. Via Colombo is spirited with restaurants, bars and small artisan shops. Walking further uphill along Via Colombo one can reach the upper part of the historical center of the town where the Church of San Giovanni Battista is located.
Capturing the picturesque sunset view by the marina is an essential activity when visiting Riomaggiore in the late afternoon. If you want to find the perfect spot to get the best view you will have to go left of the pier where the boats are docked. From this spot you can get a perfect view of the sea and colorful houses in the background. This is the perfect location to take the perfect Cinque Terre photograph!
Where to Stay in Cinque Terre
As I mentioned earlier there are many ways to explore Cinque Terre. If you have more time you can stay in one of the villages and can leisurely explore the destination. Due to the limited availability of the hotels the accommodation choices in the villages are fairly limited. Monterosso al Mare has more hotel options and has access to the sandy beach. The rest of the four villages has limited accommodation, mostly Airbnbs and privately owned apartments. Since the destination has become so popular the accommodation has also become overpriced during the summer season and virtually it is impossible to find a suitable accommodation in Cinque Terre. That being the case, you will need to make the reservations far in advance if you want to stay in one of the villages in Cinque Terre.
Consequently it is recommended to stay outside of Cinque Terre, in La Spezia where a wide range of hotels, apartments and Airbnbs are available for fairer and reasonable prices.
What To Eat & Drink in Cinque Terre
Visiting Cinque Terre and enjoying the incredible food is a must! The local food specialties have the general characteristics of the Ligurian cuisine – also known as la cucina profumata (the fragrant cuisine). The main delicacies of Cinque Terre are the freshly prepared succulent seafood with local wine and locally grown fruits, vegetables and herbs. All the five villages offer a wide range of local eateries and most of them offer amazingly delicious and inexpensive local specialties.
Cinque Terre is a great destination to enjoy the seafood. The most popular regional seafood specialties are,
Acciughe (Anchovies): are all across in Cinque Terre and served fried, marinated or salt- cured.
Fritto Misto: Mixed fried portions of fried seafood (shrimp, anchovies, calamari & baby squid) served on paper cones with a slice of lemon.
Cozze (Mussels): heaping portions of Mussels served with pasta or garlicky tomato sauce are available everywhere in Cinque Terre.
When you are there, you should also try,
Pesto : Pasta served with classic pesto sauce made with of Cinque Terre’s own variety of basils, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic and parmigiano reggiano (parmesan cheese). The sauce is also served on gnocchi, risotto and also with lasagna.
Focaccia: Ligurian flatbread baked with olive oil and salt.
Farinata: a type of thin uneven savory pancake made of chickpea flour.
Vino delle Cinque Terre (White wine): The local white wine has a dry and savory note and great with local seafood. In Cinque Terre the vineyards are located on the slopes of the mountains and most Wineries offer tastings and tours.
Sciacchetrà is a local dry dessert wine made of sun dried grapes according to an ancient method.
Lemons: are grown all over in the region and vastly featured on local cuisine.
The Best Experiences in Cinque Terre
Hiking: Hiking trail which connects the five villages is the main highlight in visiting Cinque Terre.
Swimming: After spending whole day walking in the hot Italian summer having a dip in the cold waters is perfect for relaxing your body and soul. The only proper beach where you can have a swim in the sea is Monterosso al Mare. During the summer you can settle yourself in the free area of the beach or pay a per day rate and hire an umbrella and a sunbed on the main beach. The small “Spiaggia libera” (public beaches) with pebbled beach with boulders and turquoise waters can also be found in each village.
Kayaking & Paddle Boarding: The villages offer kayaking and paddle boarding in which you can paddle between the villages for an hourly rate.
Boat Tours: The private boat tours will take you along the coastline and to secluded beaches.
Watching the sunset: Witnessing the amazing sunset from viewpoints is must do in Cinque Terre.
Enjoy the view: Either hillside walks through the narrow terraces or the pebbled beaches with turquoise waters every one of these locations offers unforgettable amazing views.
Paragliding is available in Monterosso al Mare from October to April.
Note : Packing light and wearing a pair of comfortable shoes for walking is essential if you are planning to take the hiking trails. Also don’t forget to bring sun scream and a hat !