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An Insider’s Guide to Italy’s Cinque Terre

Chances are you’ve seen the photos of these stunning cliffside villages—or at least seen the Disney-Pixar flick Luca on which they’re based. But the truth is, neither photos nor animation can ever do Italy’s Cinque Terre justice. This place is beyond capture or compare. It’s a bucket-list destination for the ages. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, a national treasure, an adventure traveler's paradise where cliff-jumping, sea kayaking, and rugged hiking meet old-world pleasures of wine, seafood, and 400-year culture. Cinque Terre truly is in a league of its own.

Here, we’re uncovering some insider tips for making the most of a visit. From which villages to stay in, to the must-do activities in each, plus how to avoid the crowds, here’s how to do Cinque Terre in adventurous style.

The five towns of Cinque Terre

A landscape view of crystal blue waters and a coastal town on the right The beaches of Monterosso al Mare. Photo by Ry Glover

 

The history of Cinque Terre dates back several centuries. The villages were established by local fishermen and farmers who settled in the area during medieval times. Due to the region's rugged terrain and isolated location, the villages developed independently and remained relatively isolated from the surrounding areas for many years.

From south to north, you have the following villages.

Riomaggiore

Not only is it fun to say, Riomaggiore is also a fun place to stay. This southernmost village is a cascade of multi-colored houses, all tightly clustered around a natural harbor carved between the rocks. Riomaggiore is quintessential coastal Italy. Cats roam across the parapets. Laundry hangs from high-wire clotheslines. Espresso bars and aperitivo bars and trattorias carve into hidden nooks along Via Colombo. Pebble beaches await with beckoning charm.

Manarola

Aesthetically speaking, Manarola is quite similar to Riomaggiore. It has a tiny harbor with beautiful blue waters and cliff jumping. It has Tetris-like stacks of brightly-painted houses, which crawl up the rugged hillsides in multi-tiered mazes. It has world-class dining tucked in hidden alleys. What sets Manarola apart is its slightly chilled-out vibe. As the second smallest of the five towns, Manarola comes with a quiet, almost mature and sophisticated energy.

Corniglia

If you want long-range coastal vistas (and a lung-busting climb to get them), then Corniglia is for you. Perched high above the train stop, this is the only village not built directly on the sea, but on a cliff 100 meters above. It is the smallest of the five villages and the least accessible. To reach Corniglia, you have to climb 382 stairs or you can take the shuttle bus from the station. Once there, you’ll find a less-crowded, more authentic vibe and a handful of aperitivo bars with stunning overlook views of the Ligurian Sea.

Vernazza

A birds eye view of a harbor, with boats in the middle and a costal town bordering the water Swimming in the Vernazza harbor is a must. Photo by Ry Glover

In a word, Vernazza is underrated. From a purely “picturesque” perspective, this place might be the pick of the litter. The harbor, as viewed from above along the Blue Trail, looks like it was conjured up in a Hallmark factory—as in, it takes “postcard-worthy” to new heights. Truly something else. Definitely spend an afternoon here swimming and sunbathing with the locals.

Monterosso al Mare

The biggest of the towns—and the best for beachgoers—Monterosso is like a miniature slice of a White Lotus episode. It has the only sandy beach in the area. You can rent chairs and umbrellas and lounge with a book and an aperol spritz. Or you can explore the many coves around the coast by kayak. Dozens of bars and pastry shops dot the strand, so you’ll have plenty of amenities.

Where to Stay

The view from a balcony, looking out at a view of costal village buildings of all colors Getting an Airbnb in Riomaggiore is as intimately local as it gets. Photo by Ry Glover

Our advice? Opt for one of the towns that bookend Cinque Terre. This means either Riomaggiore or Monterosso. The reason is that one of the best ways to experience the area is to take the train from one terminus to the other, and then make your way back via foot or some combination of foot and train. If you stay in one of the interior towns like Vernazza or Manarola, this will just complicate that linear journey, throwing in some perhaps unnecessary leap-frogging.

As for which town to choose between Monterosso and Riomaggiore, it depends on what you’re after. The former is the largest and most-visited of the five villages; this means more (and bigger) hotels. Riomaggiore meanwhile is slightly less crowded, offering a more intimate and authentic experience—especially if you opt for an Airbnb over a hotel, which will often come with your own personal balcony and a veritable scavenger hunt through winding back-alleyways to find it.

What to Do

A running path with a grassy, rolling hill view Trail running or hiking the length of the Sentiero Azzurro is a can’t-beat experience. Photo by Ry Glover

Here are a few of the most iconic experiences to have in Cinque Terre.

Hike the Sentiero Azzurro

Stretching 7.5 miles and linking together all five towns along one gloriously serpentine stretch of coastal singletrack, the Sentiero Azzurro(Se abre en una ventana nueva)—or Blue Path—is the preeminent hiking path in the area. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can trail run the whole thing. Or you can bite off various sections between certain towns. The stretch between Monterosso and Vernazza is sublime, featuring near-constant coastal views, mesmeric vineyards, and even the occasional encounter with locals. Some even post up in their own vineyards along the route and offer you locally-made Limoncello and freshly-bottled white wine as you pass through.

*Of note, the stretch between Riomagiorre and Manarola called Via dell'Amore, or Lovers’ Lane, will be closed until summer 2024 due to a landslide.

Swim & Cliff Jump

A landscape view of people cliff jumping off of either side of a pair of cliffs into the water Golden hour swimming in the harbor of Manarola. Photo by Ry Glover

Is it even a trip to Cinque Terre without a dip in the sea? It could be from a sandy beach like Monterosso al Mare or a pebbly yet popular beach like Spiaggia di Riomaggiore(Se abre en una ventana nueva). Or, if you’re feeling daredevilish, you could cliff jump from any one of the innumerable 10-15 foot rocky cliffs that dot the natural harbors of Riomaggiore, Vernazza, and Manarola. Whichever your method, be sure to swim. The water is incredible—cold, salty, buoyant, and impossibly clear.

Kayak or Boat Tour

If you’re looking to hit the water by boat (either human-powered or otherwise), there’s no shortage of options(Se abre en una ventana nueva) in the area. As in, there are probably too many options, and it’s frankly a little overwhelming. The good news? You can’t go wrong with any of the tour companies. The less-good news? They book up pretty quickly. If you know this is something you want to do, then it’s best to book in advance. The silver lining news? If you can’t find a tour company that suits your fancy, it’s not a dealbreaker; Cinque Terre by land more than suffices.

Where to Eat & Drink

A table set with snacks and two aperol sprtizs; in tall-stemmed glasses An aperol spritz with bruschetta atop Corniglia’s Bar Terza Terra. Photo by Ry Glover

Again in order from south to north, here are a few must-hit places to grab either a snack and an aperitivo or a full-fledged feast.

In Riomaggiore, enjoy an aperol spritz at La Conchiglia(Se abre en una ventana nueva) for golden hour views and a terrace carved into a cliff. Have dinner at Fuori Rotta(Se abre en una ventana nueva), a stylish trattoria with excellent seafood pastas and great views of the town below.

In Manarola, many people opt for Nessun Dorma(Se abre en una ventana nueva) for its unrivaled terrace overlook. But Trattoria dal Billy(Se abre en una ventana nueva) is arguably better, an off-the-beaten-path spot tucked in the hillside offering an array of impossibly delicious seafood dishes.

In Corniglia, grab a cocktail or glass of wine with olives and bruschetta at Bar Terza Terra(Se abre en una ventana nueva)—arguably the best views in all of Cinque Terra.

In Vernaza, one of the top experiences you can have in all of Cinque Terre is to grab a focaccia from Batti Batti’(Se abre en una ventana nueva) and a Birra Moretti to-go, find a sitting spot somewhere along the harbor among the bathing locals, and have a little golden hour picnic and a swim.

In Monterosso al Mare, it’s all about the beach. Simply grab a pastry or snack from one of the many bars or cantinas next to the public beach, then post up under an umbrella.

A Few Tips for Avoiding Crowds

Looking down on a coastal town street, where people are walking in both directions Come evening, the crowds clear out, which is the best time to explore. Photo by Ry Glover

The inconvenient truth about Cinque Terre is that it can get busy. Like really busy. Especially during peak seasonality.

With that said, the first tip for avoiding crowds is to visit during the off-season between October and May. Temperatures rarely drop below the 50s even in the coldest months, so while you may miss out on some of the beach lounging and swimming, there’s still plenty of hiking and exploring to be had.

If you’re intent on having the full Cinque Terre summer experience, here are a few extra tips for finding a little solitude.

Get nocturnal

What’s wild about Cinque Terre is that, from 9am-5pm, it’s like Times Square on steroids. But come evening, it’s practically a ghost town (er, towns). The reason is that lots of visitors come from nearby hubs like Levanto and La Spezia. If you opt to stay in Cinque Terre rather than commuting in (which you should), then come evening the town will empty out, leaving in its wake a gloriously laid-back vibe. Plus, golden hour and sunset truly are the best times of day here.

Avoid the train

The five villages of Cinque Terre are connected by the Cinque Terre Express, with some stations only a couple of minutes journey from each other. It’s both super convenient and super crowded. As best you can, try to skip the train. It gets PACKED. Hike between towns via the Blue Path instead. Even this trail can be crowded, but nowhere near as bad as the train. Plus, you’ll have the seablown wind in your air and photo ops around every curve.

Skip lunch

Pack a picnic. Avoid trying to find a place to sit for lunch. This is often the busiest part of the day. It’s better to grab a focaccia or seafood cone filled to the brim with fried anchovies and calamari doused in lemon and salt.

Get off the main streets

Each village has a main street which spills down from top to harbor with a litany of shops, bars, and tourist traps. As best you can, steer clear of these main streets. Instead, get off the beaten path. Get lost. Take turns. Climb stairs. It’s wild how quiet things get as soon as you’re just a dozen yards from the main thoroughfare.

A birds eye view of people sunbathing on a beach Sunbathing at Monterosso al Mare. Photo by Ry Glover

Last but not least, if time and money afford, try to spend as much time in Cinque Terre as possible. It’s true that you can probably have a fulfilled experience in 2-3 days. But in 4-5 days—or even a week!—that’s when the true character of the place starts to unveil itself. Either way, be sure to knock this incredible destination off your bucket list. Until then, ciao!

 

Featured image by Jenny Whitney(Se abre en una ventana nueva)