Do your friends keep saying that you MUST visit Italy's Cinque Terre...but you're not sure how to start planning your adventure? First off, they're absolutely right--this string of colorful centuries-old seaside villages that cling to the rugged coastline of the Italian Riviera is a true bucket-list destination!
As a Backroads Trip Leader, I've been introducing our guests to this enchanting Mediterranean destination for over five years. Along the way, I've cultivated a deep understanding of the natural and cultural wonders of this unique and isolated locale that you can use to jump-start your trip planning.
Introduction to the Cinque Terre
The Cinque Terre, which translates literally to "Five Lands," is a group of five villages along a six-mile stretch of the Ligurian coastline in northwest Italy. Evidence of civilization here dates back to the 11th century. These villages, along with their coastlines and hillsides, are part of Cinque Terre National Park, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and a favorite destination for just about any traveler who has had the good fortune of visiting this magical destination.
One of the defining characteristics of Cinque Terre is its landscape of rocky terraces. Shaped by a network of ancient, permeable, dry stone walls that have been constructed over the centuries, these terraces are the reason these villages haven't slid down into the sea! The walls of tightly-fitted rocks are designed to absorb water as it flows downhill during heavy rainfall and then slowly release the runoff. This intentional design naturally creates pathways and trails that connect the villages. Other routes have been added over the years so that walkers and hikers can explore this fascinating area on foot. These routes can be walked in a single day or over the course of several days. The villages are also connected by local train and ferryboat service so you can choose your own adventure with as much or as little hiking as you like. While the trails of Cinque Terre may find you breaking a sweat, they will reward you with breathtaking panoramic views of the coastline.
Be aware that some of the trails are narrow with surfaces that can be uneven at times due to exposed roots and rocks and many, many stone steps. But don't let the steps and stones scare you off--there are many different options for exploring these villages and the Backroads Cinque Terre & Tuscany Walking & Hiking Tour takes you on a journey that offers plenty of flexibility. We'll help you find the right option to match your ambition and fitness level! It is not advisable to hike in the heavy rain as the impressive stone staircases and pathways can become muddy and very slippery. In any weather, hiking boots or sturdy walking shoes are highly recommended, as is a sun hat and a daypack with ample water and some snacks. This simple bit of advance planning will set you apart from others who may arrive outfitted in flip-flops, an experience that usually prompts the question, "Are we there yet?"
Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre was first designated as a UNESCO World Hertiage Site in 1997 and, two years later, became Italy's first national park. There are in fact many trails in the park - not just the four sections of Trail No. 2 - the most well-known trail that connects the five villages closest to the coastline. Two sections of this coastal trail--between Riomaggiore and Manarola, and Manarola and Corniglia--are mellow and boardwalk-like but have been closed for many years due to unstable rock conditions. It is uncertain when or if ever they will re-open. Fortunately, there are higher and less-trafficked trails that connect these villages. The trails between the northern-most villages, Monterosso and Vernazza, and the adjacent trail between Vernazza and Corniglia are consistently open, comparable in both distance and level of difficulty. An average hiker could expect to take about two hours for each section. Keep an eye out for vendors selling freshly squeezed lemonade along the way! The Instagram-worthy views abound, and nothing can beat the sense of awe and discovery as you round a corner to gain your first glimpse of the next village. The excitement only builds as you descend the steps to reach the next village, the bustling sounds of voices and inviting smells of eateries growing closer with each step.
The Five Villages of the Cinque Terre
Riomaggiore is the southern-most village with most of its activity taking place on the main street, Via Colombo. You can expect to find shops selling lovely, locally made jewelry, cards, shirts, and artwork inspired by the villages. The name stems from the Latin "big river," referring to the rivers that flowed from the hillsides to the sea.
Heading northward, the village of Manarola boasts some hiking-focused shops if you need to upgrade or replace any of your gear. The name comes from Latin and means "big wheel," which is a reference to the water mills of the town, one of which can still be seen. The higher trail from Manarola to Corniglia via the tiny hamlet of Volastra is a wonderful alternative, offering sweeping coastal views along long sections of stone staircases. Stop and catch your breath at the large nativity scene overlooking the town. The longest section of stone steps takes you into the town of Volastra where you are greeted by a welcoming water fountain. Corniglia is the only village that is set on a hilltop above the coast, rather than directly above the crashing waves like its four neighbors. To travel between the village and the train station, there is a shuttle bus that runs frequently during the day or you can take the modern brick staircase with 365 steps! Corniglia is a lovely place to grab a snack before embarking on the hike to Vernazza.
Be sure to try a slice of doughy focaccia or flavorful farinata, a local chickpea flatbread (it's gluten free). Check out Km 0, a tiny eatery that boasts local-only food and drinks (from "zero kilometers away," as the name describes). Vernazza is considered the gem of the region with a beautiful harbor, a scenic castle tower and an inviting, semi-hidden pebble beach. Eating options abound here including the upscale Ristorante Belforte in the tower (try the fish soup!) and the take-out joint Batti Batti, which serves delectable fried fishes in paper cones. Don't forget to grab a scoop at Gelateria Vernazza--the local lemon sorbet is a favorite! The last village, Monterosso, is in fact two villages connected by a passageway. It consists of an old village and a modern beach town that sprang up in the 1950s. What's special about it is that it's the only village of the group to have both a large beach area and selection of hotels. The other villages are better served by rental apartments and B&Bs. The name Monterosso means "red beard," referring to a red-bearded Germanic ruler that once inhabited the prominent waterfront castle.
What You Should Know Before You Go
It's no surprise that this unique destination attracts 2.4 million tourists a year. This means that you can expect to see many fellow hikers on the trails and significant crowds during the peak summer season. Summertime also brings very high temperatures that can seem even hotter on the exposed, sunny sections of trail or on a crowded train car. If you choose to visit in the summer, practice your deep breathing and embrace patience as a virtue. Or, take my advice, and visit during the shoulder season--April is lovely and typically warm, as is October. September is a must for anyone wanting to witness the impressive sights and smells of the grape harvest. You can traverse the villages in either direction, which may be dictated by which airport you use. If you fly into Genoa, it is logical to go north to south.
If you fly into Florence or Pisa, however, it makes sense to travel south to north--starting in Riomaggiore and ending in Monterosso al Mare. You can easily take a train to the city of La Spezia and then a train to Riomaggiore to start your adventure. You will need to purchase a Cinque Terre Card from the national park that allows you access to all the trails and trains between the five villages. (You can purchase a walking-only pass for a discounted price if you don't plan to use any train transport.) Either can be purchased at the railway station info points within any of the five villages or even ahead of time online at the Park's official site. It's a good idea to check beforehand to be up-to-date on any trail closures or other urgent information. No time to plan a trip for yourself? No need to fret, my friend! Check out our Cinque Terre & Tuscany Walking & Hiking Tour, which gets you to the heart of the five villages as well as a behind-the-scenes look at Liguria and neighboring Tuscany. Join us!