The Beginner's Guide to Visiting Cinque Terre
If you are planning your first visit to the Cinque Terre region of Italy, otherwise known as the Italian Riviera, there are a number of things you may want to consider before you decide which village to stay In. As we get ready to return to this beautiful stretch of coastline famous for its stunning views, incredible hiking, and local cuisine it dawned on me that many people have a serious misconception as to what to expect when it comes to accommodations here.
While the term “Italian Riviera” conjures up images of posh resorts along a stretch of beautiful sandy beaches, the Cinque Terre is anything but this. The five villages that make up this UNESCO World Heritage site are old world Italy, although their recent popularity threatens to change that. Thank you, Rick Steves. In all but one of the villages there are no hotels to speak of. And if you are looking for a Bed & Breakfast, you will see many advertised yet most do not offer breakfast. What you do get is an odd assortment of rooms, apartments, hostels, and Bed & Breakfast like places. Finding and securing accommodations can sometimes be a challenge and realizing exactly what you booked can often times offer a surprise.
Keep in mind also that your arrival at your accommodations in Cinque Terre will not be to a check-in lobby and do not expect an elevator to whisk you and your luggage to your room. There are steps everywhere and I have never seen an elevator here although they may be hiding somewhere.
Your arrival process will most likely involve searching aimlessly for where you are supposed to go and then climbing some stairs to find your room, which will most likely be smaller than you envisioned. You would be well advised to get accurate directions before you leave or better yet have someone meet you at the train station when you arrive. Many of the accommodations will do this for you if you ask. But, and I say this with all sincerity, this is all part of the charm of this region of Italy. If you are looking for resorts and fine sandy beaches then you would be advised to go elsewhere, perhaps to the Amalfi Coast or the French Riviera? If you are intent on visiting Cinque Terre the closest thing you will find to a resort feel would be Monterosso, which is the flattest of the five villages. It is also the only one with a stretch of beach to enjoy.
Monterosso: The largest by area and flattest of the five villages with a population of just over 1,500. Stay here if you want a strictly beach vacation or if climbing stairs is an issue. It does not have the steep slopes and long vertical stairs that the others are known for. Definitely offers the largest selection of accommodations.
Vernazza: Perhaps the most scenic of the five villages with the train station right at the top end of town. Hiking in either direction from Vernazza will involve a steep ascent out of town but the views are unforgettable. Probably the most popular village to stay in for visitors so start your search early. Vernazza has a population of about 1,000 residents.
Corniglia: Definitely the smallest and quietest of the villages. It's perched high on a cliff above the sea and offers great views and sunsets. We stayed here on our first visit to the Cinque Terre and loved it. The train station is located down by the shore and there are 382 steps to reach the town although a shuttle bus does make the trip for a small fee. With a population of about 250 there are many more steps than people in Corniglia.
Manarola: Offers scenic views as you hike in along the coastal trail. Bustling village during the day due to its close proximity to Riomaggiore, which is a short walk away through the Via dell’Amore. Accommodations are limited so start your search early. Manarola has a population of about 450 residents.
Riomaggiore: The easternmost and first of the villages as you head into Cinque Terre from La Spezia. The village rises quickly from the tiny harbor so expect a lot of steep steps and hills. Riomaggiore offers a few more options when it comes to accommodations than Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola, and with a population of about 1,700 residents it is the most populous of the five villages.
There may certainly come a day when this magnificent place will change and become more mainstream although I hope not. There may be big name hotels with plush lobbies and elevators and I suppose this might be considered progress, although it's hard to envision Cinque Terre ever becoming this. Even now, while Cinque Terre retains its charm and old world feel, it is being overrun with tourists on a daily basis during the peak season and being forced to change as it copes with its ever increasing popularity. To understand and appreciate the true allure of Cinque Terre you will need to stay there. I say this because during the day tour buses and cruise ships arrive and hordes of people descend on these villages. At night they leave and the villages return to their somewhat peaceful and relaxed norm and you see what it is that makes this region so appealing to visitors.
Did you know that Cinque Terre is actually part of a National Park, established in 1999?
When to visit
The best months to visit Cinque Terre are considered April through mid October. While the winter months can offer some nice weather the rainy season begins in mid October and the trails are sometimes closed due to the weather. Summer months bring larger crowds and higher accommodation rates along with the summer heat, which makes the shoulder season as the ideal time to visit. If I had to pick the best months to visit I would go with May, early June and September.
Known for its scenic hiking trails, all it takes is a short hike out of one of the villages and you will soon realize why you came here. When you find yourself high up on a trail with a beautiful view of one of the villages and the Ligurian Sea you will realize that this stretch of coast is indeed one of the most beautiful in the world. And your affection for this region will only be reinforced when you reach your destination and find one of the many wonderful restaurants here to relax and sample some of the local cuisine that Cinque Terre is famous for. Yep, that’s what this region of Italy is best known for, hiking and eating. Throw is some locally crafted wine made from the vineyards that dot the hills and you have hit the trifecta.
If this is not what you had in mind for your Italian Riviera vacation then you may be somewhat disappointed. Understandably, when one hears the term “Riviera” they immediately form a mental image and I’m sure this has misled many a visitor to this stretch of coastline. The Amalfi Coast this is not. Yet, if you enjoy hiking, beautiful scenery, great food and wine, then you have certainly come to the right place.
Getting to Cinque Terre
The closest major airports are Pisa and Genoa although Florence and Milan are also close enough to take the train in a reasonable time. Depending on where you are coming from you can take the train to either Levanto or La Spezia and then take the local train, which connects all five of the villages.
Something else to be aware of is that the villages are for the most part no drive communities. Monterosso, the largest of the five villages does allow limited vehicle traffic for locals but you will be forced to park outside of the villages and walk if you bring a car. It is not really a good idea to being a vehicle when visiting Cinque Terre. Even if hiking between the villages does not appeal to you all five communities are connected by the local train that stops every 30 minutes. There is also ferry service available, which will offer a different perspective of the coastline. The easiest way to access Cinque Terre is to take the train to either La Spezia or Levanto, which are the towns just outside of Cinque Terre and then take the local train from there.
Travel Time by Train to Cinque Terre
Approximate Travel Time
Pisa Central Train Station
Genoa Brignole Station
Florence Santa Maria Novella Station
Milan Central Railway Station
Because many of the trails connecting the villages are located within the Cinque Terre National Park there is a fee to access the trails. The Cinque Terre Card gives visitors access to the trails and use of the park buses. The cost is 7.50 euro for a one day card and 14.40 euro for a two day card.
There is also the Cinque Terre Train Card, which includes access to the trails, park buses and daily unlimited use of the train from Levanto - Cinque Terre - La Spezia. The one day card is 16 euro, two day card is 29 euro, and the three day card is 41 euro.
One last thing to consider before you plan a trip. While you should certainly pack your bathing suit, be forewarned that only one of the communities has a true sandy beach. Riomaggiore and Manarola have no beach what-so-ever although both have rocky areas where I suppose you could place a towel and sunbathe. Corniglia is perched high up on a cliff with no beach also, but it does have great views. Vernazza has a small harbor with a very small beach area but small boats come and go here so it’s not ideal. There are some rocky cliffs that kids use to jump into the sea but that’s probably not a good idea. Monterosso al Mare is the only village with a true sand beach but it is interspersed with pebbles and small rocks with intermittent patches of sand. Many visitors use the beach here and we have used it in the past but be sure to bring appropriate footwear for navigating the rather uncomfortable beach terrain.
Hopefully this helps you as you prepare for your visit to the Cinque Terre. A little preparation and wisdom always helps and can certainly prove useful to avoid any misconceptions you may have about the area. This really is one of the most scenic and beautiful regions of Italy with amazing food and scenic hiking so enjoy all that it has to offer.
Ciao for now.
Did I Mention the Beautiful Sunsets?
© 2017 Bill De Giulio