On my first visit to Cinque Terre in Italy, I had one of those unscripted, surreal experiences. I was young, traveling with some other college students, hiking the length of the coastal park. Around lunchtime, we ventured up into the middle of its five towns, Corniglia, where a resident poked her head out of a window and called out. She invited us into her home, and set plates out for lunch. She then proceeded to serve us (bottomless) white wine, and the most melt-in-your-mouth pesto lasagna. I still dream about that meal today, and have tried emulating the recipe dozens of times. She was so warm to us, a group of young, ignorant foreigners. We paid her, of course, but it was a bargain given how much magic surrounded the moment, and her generous hospitality.
On top of all that, we were in Cinque Terre—the stuff screensavers and aspirational posters are made of! You know the scene: Colorful homes seemingly piled on top of one another as they ascend along the cliffside, overlooking the Ligurian coastline. You can imagine the seafood, wine, and pesto—ooooh, the pesto—plus the recreational component to earn all the carbs and calories.
A visit to Cinque Terre is itself one of those surreal experiences—though it’s best scripted to a degree. (Get a good hotel, eat at the right spots, pack your SPF, and bring your best hiking boots.) Having this framework will ensure the best unscripted moments happen, too.
Here are our best Cinque Terre tips, plus some necessary insight on the area.
What to Know about Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre is itself a park on the coast of Liguria (think Genoa, Sanremo, Portofino…). It comprises five “hamlets”—small towns that dot the coastal cliffs, which become landmarks for a hike through the manmade park. (Cinque Terre Park is also referred to as “Parco dell’Uomo,” or “Man’s Park”). These five hamlets are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore (down the coast, in that order). Historically their residents were fishermen and farmers, and the isolated region was largely self-subsistent.
One of the most distinct features of these “five lands” (the “Cinque Terre”) is how they’re built almost vertically into the cliffside. This is the result of centuries of work by area residents and farmers, who sectioned off the land using dry stone walls in order to build their homes and cultivate it—as well as to prevent it from floating away with the tides. You’ll see active green spaces on your visit still (they look a lot like rice paddies in southeast Asia). This land is where they grow grapes, olives, vegetables, etc, in an environment not originally suited for crops. Again, this is where the impressive manmade element shines through.
How to Get to Cinque Terre
Unless you rented a car, then the train is your easiest bet. It’s easy to get a flight into Genoa or Pisa, then hop on the train along the coast toward either end of the park. The local train also runs through all five towns, so you’ll be connected regardless of where you lay your head each night. It’s also easy to add a three- or four-day visit to the area before or after a stop through Milan or Florence, both a few hours away by train.
If you’re coming from the south, via Florence/Pisa/La Spezia, then you’ll arrive at Riomaggiore first. If you’re coming from the north, via Genoa/Portofino/Milan, then you’ll arrive at Monterosso al Mare first.
When to Visit Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre is open year round, 365 days a year. However, when you visit will largely determine the experience you have—though all are good. (The location, food, and hospitality are unmatched.)
It’s rainiest between October and February, which means a handful of the earth-ier walking paths are closed. (These more vulnerable pathways will also close down on rainy days throughout the year.) That doesn’t restrict hiking in instances of light precipitation, and instead limits some of the options. For heavier rainfall (in which the local authorities color code with orange or red warnings), they might cease the sale of tourism cards, close the paths, and wait until things dry up.
Summer will be the busiest season and hottest, especially August. In normal years, the towns are even overtouristed, which puts some serious strain on the locals.
So, with all of this in mind, pick a shoulder season if you want the best odds at quieter trails, less crowded towns, better seats at dinner, and lower chances of rain. April and May are optimal, as well as September into early October, with September and May being warm enough for a dip in the sea.
How to be a Respectful Tourist in Cinque Terre
Due to overcrowding in Cinque Terre, it’s obviously important to be a respectful and responsible tourist.
Smartly, the region has issued a Cinque Terre Card since 2001, which helps fund the utilities that keep the park open. It gives visitors access to the parks and trains between each town. One version of the card also includes train access from Levanto (just north of Cinque Terre) and La Spezia (just south).
Here are a few tips on how you can be a respectful tourist to Cinque Terre:
- Stay on the designated hiking paths—and keep the trails clean.
- Travel in small groups.
- Obey all weather warnings; avoid hiking the trails when potentially muddy.
- Stay in one of the area’s designated “Environmental Quality Label” hotels (since they adhere to regional eco- and heritage-friendly standards).
- Book with certified tourism companies, who are also aware of local cultural and environmental preservation efforts.
Where to Stay in Cinque Terre
Monterosso al Mare is the primary destination town, given it has the largest beach sprawl. However, the train runs between the five towns, making it easy to stay at any of them. You could even stay in Corniglia and hike in either direction easily, on two different days. Riomaggiore, Manarola, and Vernazza are, in my opinion, the most “quintessential” in terms of how you’d envision a charming, coastal Italian getaway.
As for the best hotels, this isn’t Portofino. You won’t find high-end luxury, which helps preserve the charm and appeal of the place. What you will find is homespun hospitality. Use the region’s “Quality Label” guide to find the best properties in each town—and ones that abide by eco-friendly, sustainable standards set forth by the region, and which work to preserve the way of life for locals. Three to hone in on are Locanda il Maestrale (Monterosso al Mare), Scorci di Mare (Riomaggiore), and 5 Terre Pelagos (Manarola).
What to Do in Cinque Terre
Here are a dozen things to do during your visit.
- Visit all five hamlets—ideally via hiking!
- Reach the 5 Sanctuaries that overlook each hamlet, using designated hiking routes.
- Visit the Convento Frati Cappuccini in Monterosso al Mare.
- Rent an e-bike in Levanto and cycle your way south through Cinque Terre.
- Wine tastings and tours with A piè de Campu or Buranco. You can also visit Cantina Cinque Terre winery at Groppo in Manarola.
- A private Cinque Terre boat trip.
- Cruise the coast in a ferry.
- Or in a kayak.
- Visit La Spezia, the portside resort city to the south, and venture to Portovenere and its islands (like Cinque Terre; they’re also a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
- Be lavish for a night on the Italian Riviera (we’re thinking Portofino or Santa Margherita)
Where to Eat in Cinque Terre
Here are the best spot in each of the five hamlets.
Monterosso al Mare: La Cantina di Miky
Vernazza: Gianni Franzi
Corniglia: Osteria a Cantina de Mananan
Manarola: Nessun Dorma Wine Bar
Riomaggiore: Rio Bistrot
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