The Cinque Terre is an area on the western Italian coast, located within Cinque Terre National Park. Translated from Italian as “five lands,” the Cinque Terre is most often used in reference to five colorful cliffside towns: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.
Let’s start with the northernmost town. Monterosso al Mare is one of the larger towns in the Cinque Terre, and is divided into two sections: Old Town and New Town. These areas are connected by a tunnel that caters to more foot traffic than automobile traffic. Monterosso is the only one of the towns to feature a sandy beach, used by both tourists and locals.
Continuing down the coast, you’ll find Vernazza. When you think of the Cinque Terre, it’s likely that the image in your head will be of Vernazza. This village features a seaside church, a functioning harbor, picturesque houses, and a small pebble beach. To top it off, there isn’t a single car allowed in the town.
Right in the middle is Corniglia. Unlike the four other towns, Corniglia doesn’t actually border the sea. Instead, it sits surrounded by vineyards and terraces on three sides with a steep cliffside on the other. Its location makes it more difficult to reach — you either have the choice of climbing 33 flights of stairs or waiting for a small bus to take you to the top.
Further south is a town called Manarola. Considered to be the oldest of the five, Manarola is primarily known for its fishing and winemaking. Its local dessert wine — called Sciacchetrà — is popular among locals and visitors. And its famous Via dell’Amore (Love’s Trail) runs from Manarola to the southernmost town, Riomaggiore.
Finally, we come to Riomaggiore. Featuring a bustling main street (Via Colombo) and several youth hostels, this fifth and final Cinque Terre town is popular among backpackers and study-abroad weekenders. Try the wine, sample some seafood, or cliff jump into the Mediterranean before you head to the other towns by train or Via dell’Amore.
Though the five towns are commonly referred to as one, it’s helpful to understand when you say the “Cinque Terre,” you’re actually talking about an entire area, not one particular place. Thus, you won’t be able to find a train ticket directly to the Cinque Terre (instead, you’ll have to search for nearby La Spezia or Monterosso al Mare).
The Cinque Terre is easily reached via train from Milan, Florence, or Pisa. It is possible to get there from Rome, though it will take a bit longer. Check the timetables on the Trenitalia website. Once you’ve reached the Cinque Terre, there are several options for navigating the five towns.
The easiest by far is train. It only takes 10 minutes to travel from one to the next, and you can buy a one or two-day train pass that can be used to navigate between the towns.
If you prefer to travel by sea, move between the five towns via ferry. Each town has a ferry port, which is also where you’ll find the most up-to-date timetables and fees. Though it might take a bit longer, this mode of transport provides a view of the villages that the train can’t. Be sure to pack a zoom lens to snag great shots of the colorful towns from your boat!
Finally, if you’re more of a hiker, consider hiking between the villages. There are paths that connect each, though some are considerably more strenuous than others. The most popular, Via dell’Amore, connects Manarola and Riomaggiore.
Note that unless you’re looking for a serious workout, it’s easiest to reach Corniglia via bus. And, while it is possible to drive between the villages and park at each entrance, it’ll cost you a hefty fee each time.
The main attractions of the Cinque Terre are the five colorful towns themselves. Be sure to pack extra batteries for your camera — you’ll need them on long days of exploring the coast. Other popular activities include hiking and relaxing on the beach, though it’s also possible to take biking excursions, cooking classes, or wine tours.
You’ll find piazzas and churches in each of the villages, though few merit mentioning. In Monterosso, there is a hillside church and convent, a seaside castle, and a giant carved in the cliff face of New Town. Vernazza also features several churches and a lookout castle.
If you’re looking to explore a bit further, check out nearby Levanto or Portovenere (to the north and south, respectively).
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Like many Italian destinations, the Cinque Terre is most crowded during the summer months. That said, we don’t recommend visiting in the winter because rainfalls close many of the hiking trails and make other outdoor activities difficult. The best months to visit are April through May or September — though, if you’re a swimming enthusiast, you’ll want to visit in June or July, when the water is warmest. Avoid the month of August altogether; you’ll find that prices are three times the usual.
It’s best to plan your trip to the Cinque Terre well in advance. Lodging options are somewhat restricted, given the small size of the villages, and you won’t find the popular hotel chains there either. Book ahead of time and consider staying in Levanto or Portovenere instead — since these towns are not technically included in the fabulous five, the prices might be cheaper too!
Speaking of accommodations, when visiting the Cin que Terre, it’s best to choose one town as a home base. Then, for the remainder of your stay, explore the others by boat, via train, or on foot.
It’s possible to visit the Cinque Terre for a short stay, but it’s better if you have time to slow down and really experience each village. Plus, with all the hiking options, you’ll want time between day-treks.
Once you’re in the Cinque Terre, be sure to try the regional dessert wine (called Sciacchetrà), keep an eye out for midday snacks of friggitoria (bite-sized seafood in paper cones), and order the pesto whenever you can (the region of Liguria, but the Cinque Terre especially, is known for it)!
Finally, if you’re looking for something to take home, go for local products if at all possible. Purchase small jars of pesto, bottles of olive oil, or bags of uncooked pasta to enjoy in your own kitchen, or keep an eye out for handmade pottery or trinkets in the smalls shops. The region is also known for its lemons, and produces an array of lemon-related items — like limoncello — (both edible and usable) that make perfect souvenirs or gifts.
Header image by Matzifer.