The picturesque Cinque Terre villages, built into the cliffs by the sea along the Italian Riviera, make up one of Italy’s most popular tourist destinations. While many people visit Cinque Terre on a day trip, the best way to experience their beauty is by spending a couple of nights to enjoy the ambiance after the crowds have gone.
Because the villages are small, there aren’t a lot of places to stay (and they’re mostly small with only a few rooms) so you should book in advance as early as possible, especially if you are going from late spring through early fall.
Monterosso al Mare is the largest village so it has more lodging choices and is livelier in the evenings. It has the best car access if you’re driving and has more train options for coming from or going on to other cities without having to change in either La Spezia or Levanto. It’s also the best if you want a sandy beach. See places to stay in Monterosso.
Manarola has a hostel, Ostello Cinque Terre, with both shared dorm rooms and private rooms. It’s slightly above town in a quiet location and has a good rooftop terrace. While you can swim in Manarola, there’s no sandy beach for sun-bathing.
All 5 villages can be reached on the Cinque Terre Express train that runs frequently between La Spezia and Levanto (either of these towns makes a good base if you prefer to stay outside the villages themselves or you can’t find a place to stay in the villages). Train stations are in walking distance to the towns.
4 of the villages are directly on the sea and have ferry service when the weather is good. Buses connect Cinque Terre towns to towns above. Roads are small and parking is limited so arriving by car is not recommended although it is possible.
Hiking trails also link the 5 villages although some trails may be closed due to damage so it’s always best to check which trails are open.
For this itinerary, we’ll assume you’re staying in Monterosso. After checking into your bed and breakfast or hotel, explore the old town, walking along the narrow medieval streets lined with colorful houses. Monterosso is known for lemons and anchovies so you’ll find products featuring both in the shops as well as olive oil and wine. Visit the 14th century Church of San Giovanni Battista and the Baroque Chapel of Mortis et Orationis. Castle ruins sit above the old town.
On San Cristoforo Hill, the hill separating the old and new parts of town, are the 17th century Cappuccini Monastery and Church of San Francesco. Next to the hill is one of the three remaining watchtowers, built in the 16th century. Just beyond the new town is a huge statue of Neptune, built in 1910.
If it’s nice weather, of course the afternoon is a good time to go for a swim. Or if you arrive early, you could also take the train or ferry to Vernazza to explore another of the towns.
Your second day can be spent exploring the other villages. First decide if you want to hike between any of them (and return by train). The trails are not easy walks, they are often narrow and go up and down hills. Be sure to carry water and buy your Cinque Terre card before you start (see information above). There are also hikes to other villages and churches above the Cinque Terre.
For picturesque views of the coast, take a ferry between towns (note that ferries are cancelled in inclement weather which includes wind and rough seas). Take the ferry to Riomaggiore, the furthest from Monterosso, and work your way back. Riomaggiore has shops, castle ruins and a couple of churches. Most of the Via dell’Amore, the short trail connecting Riomaggiore and Manarola is closed (except for a small section from Manarola) due to damage and probably won’t reopen until 2019. So hop on the train and go to Manarola.
From Manarola, take the train to Corniglia, the smallest Cinque Terre town and the only one that’s not directly on the sea. It’s also difficult to access by car. The hiking trail connecting the two towns is expected to re-open in 2019. You can access it on foot by hiking up to Volastra, then back down to Corniglia, taking about 2.5 hours but it’s better to take the bus to Volastra and hike down for great views.
The next stop is Vernazza, reached by train or hiking trail. Although the trail is only about 2 miles, it can take 1 hour 45 minutes as it’s fairly difficult but the scenery and views are great. If you prefer to travel by ferry, you can skip Corniglia and instead head to Vernazza from Manarola. A castle, built in the 13th century, once covered the hill above town but all that’s left now is a tower that was build in the 11th century.
Finally going from Vernazza to Monterosso, ferry or train is recommended. This part of the hiking trail is the most difficult with a lot of stairs and narrow sections, taking about 2 hours, however it has very good views. If it’s getting close to sunset, taking the ferry would be a picturesque trip.
Spend the evening relaxing in Monterosso at an outdoor bar or restaurant if the weather’s good, enjoying the sea views and atmosphere. In the morning you can visit any of the other towns you missed, take a ferry to the colorful town of Portovenere, or go the other direction by train or ferry and visit Levanto, a more laid back and less crowded Italian Riviera town that has very good beaches, plenty of shops and places to eat, and a small historic center.
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