The hikes, the views, the colors! Cinque Terre is a grouping of five settlements that are like charming brothers and sisters. The area’s majestic scenery draws throngs of tourists to the area, which is an extremely popular destination. Here, I hope to offer you some tips so that you can enjoy some of the less touristic aspects of a trip to the “five lands.”
When you see images of Cinque Terre, it’s no mystery what draws the hordes of tourists from all over the world. On the rugged east coast of northern Italy, in the embrace of the Ligurian Sea, five small villages cling boldly to steep cliffs. The cavalcade of Mediterranean pastel shades emanating from the vineyards and the deep blue of the sea, painting the walls of densely-built houses, are now a trademark of the Cinque Terre.
The meaning of Cinque Terre is “five lands,” a region encompassing five settlements that have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. From south to north, the villages are as follows: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. Despite the region having already been inhabited in antiquity, today it draws visitors not because of its historical monuments, but rather because of its exceptional geographic location and climate.
The UNESCO World Heritage List settlements in the region are like brothers and sisters with similar external features but distinct personalities. And, indeed, each one possesses something that the other does not, and that’s why it’s very subjective which one becomes your favorite. For those who love beaches, Monterosso will be their favorite, with its long sandy beach and its characteristic blue-white / orange-green parasols. Monterosso is really the odd one out where you can have a typical holiday on the seaside right in Cinque Terre.
Corniglia, meanwhile, has no direct beach access as it is built on a dazzlingly high cliff top. But that’s exactly what makes it charming: because it is nestled away, it continues to get quieter there, unlike Manarola and Riomaggiore, whose dense rows of candy-colored houses attracts tourists like moths to a flame. Such places that burst with the colors of life can really steal our hearts.
For me, however, Vernazza turned out to be my favorite with its pale yellow, all-seeing church tower and narrow streets.
Getting to Cinque Terre is one of the most important aspects of planning your journey: car traffic is non existent. If you arrive by car, you have to leave it in one of the nearest paid parking lots (for example La Spezia, Lerici) and get on a train. The railway is a very manageable system and runs without a hitch, with frequent lines and tickets available at stations. Still, once you get to your destination, you may be forced to contend with a long hiking trail to reach the town, a consideration before you pack.
In high season there are at least 4-5 tourists standing on every square meter. Everyone has a different threshold; I was always trying to flee from the crowd. Got up at 7 am to get a glimpse into the everyday life of Vernazza’s residents who chatted freely amongst themselves in the blinding morning light, without a mass of tourists. During the day, in the sweltering heat when everyone flees to the beaches, I went hiking on the steep, spectacularly beautiful mountain roads, and in the evening I ordered takeaway from the local restaurants and retreated to my balcony over the sea to stare at the bustle of the beach and admire the seemingly infinite sunset. So, overall, the Cinque Terre is beautiful, but a bit too loud and too popular for my taste.
In the peak season for Cinque Terre, when it attracts a cacophony of foreign tourists, don’t expect many quiet moments – and if you’re not lucky with your hotel booking – don’t expect a peaceful night either.
If you are sensitive to noise, make sure your accommodation is in a quiet place. My first room in Cinque Terre was directly above the train station. There were some who were not bothered by this, but I was not able to sleep all night from the rumbling of trains arriving every half an hour.
My top THINGS TO DO IN CINQUE TERRE
Rent a motor boat
This was the best thing I did. I was able to visit the five settlements within a half day and even sunbathed and stopped for a swim away from everything, outside in the open water. One thing is sure: Cinque Terre is the most gorgeous when viewed from the water.
The five settlements are linked by mountain roads, which offer promising hiking trails with wonderful views, but that require great energy!
Sentiero Azzurro or Via dell’Amore sound like a love confessions, but in fact these are the names of mountain hiking trails linking the settlements that feature wonderful scenery, but are very strenuous. Thinking myself a routine hiker, I thought these paths would make for a pleasant walk, but in the mountain range between Vernazza and Corniglia it soon became clear that the word “tour” really had to be taken seriously and it was not enough to attack them in flip flops. My favorite of these was the longest and most difficult journey from Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza.
Eating and drinking in Nessun Dorma
My rationale for eating in Nessun Dorma is not because of some local culinary specialties, but mainly because of the views and great photography opportunities. Taking on a steep hike, you can access it directly from Manarola harbor, so you can take photos that are really worth bragging about.
Although Portovenere does not belong to Cinque Terre, it is worth the day boat trip there. Portovenere and its area also earned the name “The Poet’s Gulf”, as it inspired literary greats such as Shelly, Lawrence, Sand, Byron, Dickens. Many ships arrive there from Cinque Terre every day.
I’m always interested to see how much the photos you see on Instagram depict reality, or how much I’m going to be disappointed with what I actually see. And although in reality the colors were less saturated, I still can’t complain: It’s one of the most picturesque Mediterranean places I’ve ever been to.
Who shouldn’t go to Cinque Terre:
- Those who mind sharing the place with many other tourists;
- Those for whom visiting a museum is a must on their holiday;
- Those who prefer long, sandy beaches for sunbathing (with the exception of Monterosso).