The Cinque Terre National Park is one of the most beautiful and popular destinations in Italy. The main focus is the five coastal villages linked by a popular walking trail. Hiking here is a memorable highlight for many visitors to Italy and the best way to enjoy the area. This guide maps out all you need to know for planning a trip.
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THE FIVE VILLAGES
Built on the banks of the river Maior (Major), Riomaggiore has tall buildings stacked around the river mouth and a fishing village atmosphere with colourful boats. As there’s no natural harbour the colourful boats are pulled up on the ramp. The terraces are steepest here and it’s the main basil-growing area.
It has a lively worker’s vibe thanks to the road links with La Spezia, and is the most popular village for cheap digs, cheap eats, and watersports. Don’t miss Pie de Ma for a glass of wine with a view.
Riomaggiore is the easternmost village of the five, and the traditional starting point for the coastal hike. It can be very busy in the morning. At the time of writing, the section from Riomaggiore to Manarola (the famous Via Dell’Amore) is closed. As an alternative, you can walk all the way to Portovenere (4-5 hours), to Manarola via Beccara (lots of steps), or for a shorter walk take the Riomaggiore Ring route to Montenero Sanctuary.
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Pink-hued buildings cascade down from terraces to the sea, where there’s no beach but a rocky platform with some excellent deep water for swimming. Personally, my favourite village for atmosphere and sunset panoramas.
At the time of writing, the coastal trail is closed in both directions from Manarola. You can visit the nearby hill villages of Volastra and Groppo by foot – if you don’t mind a bit of uphill – or by bus. The trail to Volastra involves 1200 steps so might be best to take the bus! Here you can visit the Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Salute. There’s also a ring trail around Manarola that will take you up into the vineyards for sunset panoramas. On the western side of the village, you’ll find jasmine-scented gardens, an excellent spot to watch the colours change with the sunset.
The bell tower of the Church of San Lorenzo was used as a lookout for pirates and will wake you in the morning if you’re staying nearby.
Corniglia is the highest village at 100m above sea level, and the only one with no direct sea access. Don’t book here if you dislike stairs or want to swim a lot! As such, it’s the least touristy of the bunch. It has a comparatively isolated and romantic vibe, popular with couples. Cute B&Bs abound.
The train station is at sea level and there is an electric bus available to take you up to the village if you don’t fancy the 382 steps, (note that the bus doesn’t run in the evenings). As there is no harbour the ferry does not stop here.
Local lore says the village was founded by a famous wine producer who named it for his mother, Cornelia, and it retains a wine focus with some very pleasant enotecas here.
Its height ensures excellent views of the other four villages. There is a nudist beach, Guvano, that the brave can access through the tunnel underneath the village (€5). You can also walk to Manarola via Volastra, a relatively difficult hike.
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The classic option, Vernazza is the only village with a natural harbour and so became the wealthiest of the villages. This is reflected in the architecture and the lively waterfront lined with restaurants.
It’s probably the best village for photography thanks to the harbour where you can catch the colourful reflections on the water. There are excellent vantage points from the trail and from the ruins of the Doria Castle. Even if you’re not planning on hiking the Coastal Trail to Monterosso it’s worth walking part way up for the views.
Other paths include the trail up to San Bernadino and the Sanctuary of Reggio.
There’s a small pebbly beach on the west side of the village, and some good deep swimming off the rocks near the pier.
The largest, liveliest and most cosmopolitan village, and the best for beach lovers. It’s the only village with an organised and sandy beach and has numerous beach bars popular with Italian tourists. You will have to pay for sunbeds (€15-18) or entrance on some of the swankier bits, but there are a few free areas of the beach. Look for the sections with no beds.
Monterosso has the widest choice of bars and places to eat. Home of the anchovy industry, you’ll find plenty of seafood restaurants and bars to explore. The architecture is different here, with a few black-and-white striped churches typical of the Northern Italian Gothic style.
Monterosso is divided into an old and new town. The new town is a good choice if you have lots of luggage. It’s the flattest area so you won’t have to haul luggage up and down steps.
Surrounded by lemon groves, the trails around Monterosso are among the most strenuous. As well as the Coastal Trail, you can walk to San Antonio Monastery or the Sanctuary of Soviore, or carry on along the coast to Levanto.
The five villages that make up the Cinque Terre are book-ended by two picturesque towns equally worthy of a visit.
One stop (approx. 4 minutes) from Monterosso on the train, Levanto is so close to the Cinque Terre you’ll hardly notice you’re not staying there. It’s quieter and cheaper with a traditional resort atmosphere. There’s a great beach that you might even have to yourself outside high season, and watersports are available. Spot the Trompe d’Oeil fake painted windows on the buildings.
Levanto is surrounded by pine and feels less claustrophobic than the five Cinque Terre villages. It’s a great location if you want to explore further along the coast to places like Camogli, Sestri Levante, Portofino, or basically any stop on this absurdly pretty coastline.
Portovenere sits around the coast from the villages of the Cinque Terre and has the same colourful tall buildings as the main villages, although its not so steep and rocky. There’s no train station so is not the best base for exploring the area, but perfect for a day trip. You can either catch a bus from La Spezia or take the ferry. You can also hike here from Riomaggiore (4 hours).
It was the site of a naval base and marks the beginning of the Gulf of the Poets, named so as it was a favourite haunt of Byron, Shelley and Lawrence. It’s an excellent town for shopping, eating, and a stroll around the castle with its famous sea window.
Also available on the ferry is a quick boat trip around the small islands of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto. Combined with the town, they form part of the UNESCO world heritage site. Only Palmaria is accessible to the public and has trails and a beach. Tino and Tinetto are off-limits military zones.
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The splendours of Italy continue in either direction along the coast; the train line makes day trips easy. To the west, you have Bonassola, Framura, Chiavari, Santa Margherita Ligure, Camogli, Portofino. To the east, Lerici, Tellaro, Ameglia, Forte dei Marmi (for the best food market in Italy.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
The easiest way to and around the Cinque Terre is by train. Each town has its own station. Timetables change twice a year, with extra regional trains added in June. Check the Trenitalia site for the most up to date information. Check for strikes before you go, and don’t forget to validate your ticket before boarding the train.
There is a shuttle bus from the airport to the main station Genova Piazza Principe. From here take a train towards La Spezia. Not all trains stop at the Cinque Terre villages, you may need to make a change. Alternatively, you could take the faster and more expensive train to La Spezia and then double back using the Cinque Terre Express.
The scenic journey takes around 1-2 hours and follows the coast. If you have time to kill in Genoa the backstreets around the station are pleasant to explore.
Take the shuttle bus from the airport to the station Pisa Centrale. From there you can catch either a regional or more expensive express train to La Spezia, then change for the Cinque Terre Express.
It’s not a good idea to drive around the Cinque Terre, the few roads are narrow and steep. Expensive car parks do exist in and around Riomaggiore and Monterosso but you’re unlikely to find a space.
If you are bringing a car, choose accommodation outside the National Park or leave your car in La Spezia. You can easily find a car park and then hop on the train.
THE CINQUE TERRE CARD
The Cinque Terre Card is not needed to enter the National Park, but you will need to buy one to access the Coastal Trail. A one-day card for trail access only is €7.50 and includes use of the ATC shuttle buses and guided tours (high season only).
A single train ticket between the villages is €4. So if you plan on using the train frequently during the day then buy the extended Cinque Terre Train Card (€16.00). This covers the same trail access plus unlimited travel on the Cinque Terre Express between Levanto and La Spezia.
You can purchase the cards at the Tourist Information offices in the villages and La Spezia train station. Local trains run 1-2 times an hour in each direction and the villages are just a few minutes apart.
The hop-on-hop-off ferry links all the villages except Corniglia, plus Portovenere to the east. You can buy single journeys, or unlimited day (€30) or afternoon passes. Great views of the villages from the sea which makes it a popular way to get around, although rough seas can mean cancellations. You’ll receive a copy of the timetable when you board. Other ferry routes are available further along the coast in both directions if you fancy a day trip to Portofino or Lerici.
The Cinque Terre Card includes use of the ATC electric buses which run vertical routes up to villages in the hills. Check at the Tourist Information offices for schedules.
In 2016 the co-operative Manario launched a new bus system, Explorabus, which can be used as an alternative to the overcrowded rail system to explore the main villages. These buses are not included in the Cinque Terre Card, although you can buy a combination pass. It’s a more expensive option but you do get A/C and the opportunity to stop in the hills, useful for wine-tasting and hiking. Thanks to Amy at Cinque Terre Insider for the tip off, you can find timetables and more information over at her site.
Don’t overthink which village to stay in as they’re all spectacular and easy to travel between. Whichever one you stay in will end up being your favourite. Accommodation options are mostly affittacamere – rooms for rent – now represented well on Airbnb. Prices in the villages are at a premium compared to the surrounding towns. There are a few boutique B&B and agriturismo options around, as well as a growing number of hostels (see Cinque Terre on a Budget for more details).
For better value hotels try Levanto which has the bonus of a sandy beach.
The Cinque Terre is ideal for inexperienced hikers as the lower trails are well-marked, easily accessible, and don’t require specialist equipment or knowledge. Take plenty of water, you can refill at the water fountains in the villages. Do check with the Tourist Office about the state of the trails, particularly if it’s been raining heavily.
The most popular trail is the 12km Coastal Trail (also known as the Blue Trail, Sentiero Azzurro, or Trail No.2). However, sections are often closed due to landslides and repairs so check the Park Authority website before you go. At the time of writing the sections between Riomaggiore-Manarola-Corniglia are closed. These are the easiest trails in the Park so be prepared for a more strenuous hike with a few narrow dropoffs where it’s tricky to pass crowds. The trail gets harder the further west you go.
It’s more popular to walk east to west (Riomaggiore to Monterosso), which avoids a few stair climbs and keeps the sun on your back. But bear in mind that this is what everyone else will be doing. I mostly walked it west-east.
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Approximate walking times:
Riomaggiore – Manarola (Via Dell’Amore) 20 mins, paved and flat, closed at present but don’t be too sad as despite the romantic name it’s the busiest and least interesting section. For an alternative gentle walk ask at the Tourist Office about the coastal train track from Levanto to Famura which has been converted for walkers.
Manarola – Corniglia 1 hour, mostly sea-level and easy until you reach Corniglia where you face 382 stairs (or a bus) to reach the village. Closed at the time of writing.
Corniglia – Vernazza 1.5 hours, mostly rock steps down from Corniglia.
Vernazza – Monterosso 2 hours with plenty of ascent, narrow passes, and steps down to Monterosso.
BONUS Monterosso – Levanto 2 hours You can continue along the coast to Levanto, although there are a lot of uphill steps on leaving Monterosso. Best to do this one from Levanto-Monterosso.
Way of the Sanctuaries
The sanctuaries are roughly midway between the Blue and Red trails, you can visit them individually or you can walk between them. Approximately 1-1.5 hours between each one. Trails 3, 6, 7 and 8 lead up to the sanctuaries in the hills behind the villages.
The High Path
For more experienced hikers there’s the High Trail (the Red Trail, Sentiero Rosso, Trail No.1) which runs the length of the mountain ridge behind the Cinque Terre. This 35km route joins Levanto and Portovenere. There is 800m elevation but it’s flat once you’re up there. It’s not advisable for inexperienced hikers to tackle the whole trail in one day, but there are paths leading down to the sanctuaries and villages. You can join from Riomaggiore via Telegrafo, or Monterosso via the Cape of Mesco. It will take a whole (long) day and you should bring supplies and dress appropriately.
Rick Steves is the mac daddy when it comes to the Cinque Terre. Check his guidebook out on Amazon.
For an enjoyable summer read, pick up Jess Walter’s novel set in the area. Check it out on Amazon.
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