Discover Cinque Terre
Like many beautiful places In this world, there’s a bit of lore behind Cinque Terre (pronounced sheenqua-terreh), or the “Five Lands.” Local legend has it that when God finished creating the earth, he let five seeds fall to the ground and they grew to become Cinque Terre. Today it's known as the "Italian Riveria," a rocky section of coast comprised of five distinct villages on the Ligurian Sea.
The region only became the collection of villages we know today when a ruling Tuscan family ousted Saracen invaders in the 11th century. In the following years, locals occupied their time by growing grapes and lemons and building defenses to repel pirate attacks off the coast. Cinque Terre was controlled by Genoa from the 12th-18th century, which is why its culture hews towards the Genovese. You'll find evidence of this in restaurants serving dishes featuring that region's famous pesto sauce.
It's only in the last couple of decades that Cinque Terre has become a firm fixture on the tourist trail. The principal city to its south, La Spezia, is now a port-of-call for the big cruise ship lines, and local tour operators run day trips from here to the various towns. Located in Italy’s province of Liguria, all of this region is part of Cinque Terre National Park a UNESCO World Heritage Site that draws travelers not just for the romantic towns but for the prime hiking opportunities in the surrounding mountains as well.
Planning Your Visit
The good thing about Cinque Terre is that even if you're on a limited schedule you can still visit its five villages. They're so close together that it's possible to see them all in a single day, but to really enjoy your time requires a long weekend. If you happen to have a week to spare, you can really luxuriate in Cinque Terre, whiling away the hours relaxing on wooden balconies and pebble beaches, a glass of wine in hand, and the coastal air and cotton-candy-pink sunset to keep you company.
If you do have a week or more free, consider embarking on this active eight-day tour.
As for when to visit, it's best to come to Monterosso before Easter because the holiday crowds have yet to descend Cinque Terre. To avoid the masses of crowds in summer, it’s best to tour Monterosso in the morning before 10 am (when the first tour boats arrive), and after about 4 pm, when people start returning to the boats.
Getting There & Around
There are no airports in Cinque Terre, and major roads end at the entry points. That only leaves train travel as an efficient form of transport. Services run from the south and La Spezia into Riomaggiore, and from the city of Levanto in the north to Monterosso al Mare. Once in Riomaggiore or Monterosso, Cinque Terre Express trains connect the villages along the coast. It takes around five minutes to travel between towns, and trains run every 15 minutes from the early morning to just before midnight.
You can purchase a single-use ticket, but if you plan to visit multiple towns in one day we recommend buying a Cinque Terre Card. Not only does this give you access to multiple rides on the Cinque Terre Express, but it also provides access to the paid hiking paths of the national parks as well as bus services between villages.
Hiking Cinque Terre
A great way to experience Cinque Terre is by foot on one of the many hiking routes around the towns to the outskirts of the coastal mountains. In Vernazza, for example, there are good hikes into the terraced vineyards behind the town. The handy thing about Vernazza is that there’s a wall map of the best trekking routes in Cinque Terre located in the tunnel below the train station. There’s also a good hike into the mountains and vineyards behind the Church of San Pietro in Corniglia.
Regardless of which route you take, the scenery is guaranteed to be stunning. The routes typically pass through vineyards and groves of lemons, peaches, and oranges, as well as tall sea pines and blue agave plants. Lookout for the bright yellow ginestra bushes, a flowering plant that none famous local poet Eugenio Montale heralded in one of his classic romantic poems.
If you're in the southernmost town of Riomaggiore, you might notice a building sitting above the town on the top of a mountain. This is the Sanctuary of Montenero, which dates to the 6th century. You can hike up to it by following Riomaggiore's main street up until it turns into a trail running 2.2 miles (3.5 km) up to 1,115 feet (340 meters). You can complete the hike in a little over an hour, at which point you'll be treated to incredible views up the coast including of all five towns of Cinque Terre.
If you have little interest in exploring the mountains, however, you can walk between the towns along the coast. One of the best routes is from Vernazza to the northernmost town of the region, Monterosso al Mare. The entire hike takes about 1.5 hours to complete.
The 5 Villages of Cinque Terre
Riomaggiore is the southernmost of Cinque Terre's antique villages. If you arrive by train from La Spezia, the transition is pleasantly jarring. One moment you're traveling by the rolling green hills and tall cypress trees of northern Tuscany, then you pass through a short tunnel and before you know it you're alongside shimmering blue Ligurian waters gently lapping at the rocky coast.
From Riomaggiore's train station you'll pass through a long tunnel until you find yourself in the town proper. The main street is called Colombo, and it's lined with salumerias, cafés, wine stores, patio restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops selling lemon-shaped soaps and other items. Above these are brightly colored hillside residences where hanging laundry competes for space on balconies with brightly colored bougainvilia flowers.
The street runs down to a charming little harbor, which in summer is filled with swimmers diving off the rocky point next to the dock. A great activity is exploring the surrounding hillside neighborhoods. You can wander through the narrow alleys above little b&bs and guesthouses near the town center, ascending beyond pastel-colored homes adjacent to terraced gardens filled with lemon trees, red roses, and fresh herbs.
A prominent landmark is the Oratorio San Rocco, a 15th-century church on a stone plaza at the highest point in Riomaggiore. The pleasantness of the church is ironic considering the oratory was built in remembrance of a plague that hit the village and killed almost half the residents. Next to it is the Castello di Riomaggiore, a defensive fortress that dates back to the 13th century and features two circular towers offering 360° views. Today the castle is a cultural center.
Manorola is the second-smallest village in Cinque Terre, and you'll get that impression on the brisk five-minute walk from the train station down its main drag to the water. It's remarkably like Riomaggiore in many respects, only on a smaller scale. You'll find the same little guesthouses, hotels, and B&Bs as well as a collection of fine trattorias, gelaterias, cafés, and little markets. The principal benefit of this is that it's a more laid-back village than Riomaggiore and thus is perfect for travelers looking exclusively for R&R.
Nightlife and dining options are also limited. At the end of the main road, however, you'll find a harbor above which are a number of patio restaurants with sea views. A stone walkway leads around a point with a number of fine viewpoints looking back to town (see photo above). Ths walkway also continues north from Manarola to the next train station at Corniglia about one km away. The coastal scenery on this quick hike is indeed incredible.
Many locals in other towns in Cinque Terre will secretly admit that Corniglia is their favorite village, and that goes triple for residents who actually live here. You can access this hilltop town via a minibus from the train station (they run every 10 minutes) but many visitors prefer to hike up the Scalinata Lardarina, a stairway that runs up the hillside into town and is flanked by terraced vineyards and farmhouses. Be aware, this is a steep switchback stairway that contains 382 steps, so it's a bit of a workout.
The dimensions of the town are uniquely small, almost as if it was constructed at 3/4 scale of a real town. There's a single road—Via Fieschi—running from the principal church of San Pietro to the Dr. Seuss-like Piazza Tarragio, in the center. Here you’ll find some patio restaurants and a small chapel, Santa Catarina. Behind the chapel is an old stone battlement tower which you can walk up and affords incredible views down the coast to Manarola and beyond.
If you're visiting in summer and are eager to take a dip in the water, it's possible to access the sea from Corniglia. Stone steps run down from the main plaza to La Marina, a little cove with a small dock great for diving (but unfortunately no beach).
Vernazza is a small town comprised of one main stone road leading to a plaza on a harbor that's lined with cafes, souvenir shops, bistros, restaurants, and boutiques. This is one of the biggest harbor areas in Cinque Terre and there's even a little dark-sand beach where you can swim. The harbor is hemmed in by a line of stone breakers to the north, and you can walk out to the end and get good views looking back at the town as well as out to sea.
On the east side of the harbor sits an ancient Ligurian gothic church, Santa Margherita di Antiochia, which dates to the 14th century. It has an impressive clock tower outside, but inside it’s pretty austere and moody. The interior is outfitted with little more than stone collonades and rickety wooden pews.
Dominating the west side of the harbor is the Castello Doria (daily 10 am last entrance at 8:45 pm). This stone fortress was built in the 11th century as a defense against North African invaders, and the Germans also occupied it during WWII. You can follow stairs leading up the battlements, and at each story are hotels and restaurants overlooking the harbor. The platform at the top features nearly 360° views of the coastline, and you can see all the way down to Corniglia in one direction and Monterosso in the other.
Monterosso al Mare
Monterosso is the largest and glitziest of Cinque Terre's towns, and it features the longest pebble beach in the region, which fronts crystalline water. Know that it is mostly private, so you'll have to pay for your spot if you want to enjoy it in summer (and it does get crowded during these months). If you want to find a more secluded beach, you'll need to book a small tour boat or kayak trip around the coast to remote coves and bays.
You can Monterosso's rich history strolling along Via Roma, the main street passing through the historic old town. You'll see the main church, San Giovanni Battista (Church of St. John the Baptist) which is constructed out of Carrara marble from Tuscany and painted black with white stripes in Moorish style. It was built in 1307 and features a baroque altar. During the 1940s, in the plaza behind the church, Nazis executed anti-fascists; today there's a plaque there decrying the Nazi cowards.
Just off the main drag is Via Buranco, a little street leading up to the famous Castle and Convent of the Capuchin Friars. Perched atop St. Christopher Hill at the top of town and overlooking Monterosso Bay, this ancient monastery/convent dates to 1628. It's still in operation, and the monks even grow their own food in the form of fruit trees and vegetables. Above the monastery is the town cemetery. Buried in its crypts are many people who died as a result of Nazi bombings in the 1940s.
Wine in Cinque Terre
First timers to Cinque Terre will be forgiven for thinking that these post-card perfect seaside villages rely on a fishing-based economy. This isn't the case. Like its neighbor Tuscany to the south, Cinque Terre is a wine-producing region. Residents of this area have been cultivating vineyards and producing wine since as far back as the 12th century.
Little of the wine-production process has changed in the intervening years. Locals still plant grapes on terraced land rising up on the steep hillsides and separated by stone walls. And they still harvest the grapes by hand. These days the only modern technology you'll see in this process comes in the form of mini tractors that workers use to help them transport baskets of grapes down the hillside.
There are over two dozen wineries in this region, many of them family-run. Wines here are organic and use a basic pressing process with no additives or pesticides. Most are a mix of three grapes: Vermentino, Alborola, and Bosco. If you’re a newbie, have the sommelier start you with a tasting that begins with lighter wines (less skin content) before moving up to the darker whites. As you taste, you’ll notice the flavors go from smooth to bold with a heavy mineral flavor. This is the "flavor of the earth," as locals say.
One expert rule of thumb to keep in mind: If you're unsure which Cinque Terre wines to try, always start with wines produced in the town you're in at the moment.
Where to Stay
Most of the villages in Cinque Terre are so small they don’t have neighborhoods but rather two areas: the town center and outside the town center. There are lodging options in both parts of these villages, but the drawback is there isn’t much variety in price range: it’s pretty much all high-end lodging. Less expensive options include family-run homestays, often in old houses that date back centuries. Staying in one of these is a great way to get to know local families, and you’ll find some charming options in Manarola.
Travelers on a budget who want to be where the action is can stay on the main drag in Riomaggiore. And of course there are four and five-star lodging options in and around Monterosso. Some of the bigger hotels in Monterosso can be found in the north end of town, while there are many romantic boutique options around the historic center.
Where to Eat
Where do you go to indulge in great local food, then? In Monterosso, probably the best spot is Enoteca Internazionale. This family-run wine shop/restaurant sits in the heart of the historic center, and the friendly proprietors double as sommeliers who lead guests through delicious tastings. Everything on the menu is great, but if you had to choose only a couple items to pair with your Cinque Terre white, make it a pesto bruschetta and creamy burrata cheese.
For dessert you can head over to Pasticceria Laura for the locally famous torta Monterossina, a decadent pie comprised of three layers of chocolate pudding, apricot jam, and cream.
For an intimate night in Manarola, you can enjoy fresh seafood at Da Aristide, one of the best restaurants in town and located near the tunnel leading to the train station. If you can't resist the view, go to Nessun Dorma Wine Bar, which overlooks the water. Enjoy a sundowner and some of the best views in the region.
In Corniglia, your best bet is any one of the handful of restaurants around Piazza Tarragio. For more great seafood paired with regional wine, there's Dau Cila, a small and intimate trattoria with a terrace overlooking the harbor. Try the octopus and you won't leave disappointed.