The villages of Cinque Terre offer a welcome break from the big cities in Italy.
These small seaside villages offer unique scenery and diverse activities. Everything from beachside relaxation, and snorkeling, to hiking mountainous terrain.
You can really set your own pace here and we have written this post to help prepare you to get the best out of your itinerary. Whether it be an action packed day trip or a weeklong immersion in this unique Italian gem.
In this post:
Why We Visited Cinque Terre
After a crazy few days at Tomorrowland in Belgium, I wanted to find somewhere we could have a relaxing few days to recover.
Not the best decision on my part.
I should have known better and that we were never going to relax and take it easy. It is more in our nature to jam in as much in as we could, and that’s what we did.
In hindsight, coming here on fresh legs would have been better. But it didn’t stop us from covering all of the villages in limited time, and we still managed to get in some hiking on already tired feet.
We were just slow to get out of bed and had some late starts.
Which Village did we Stay?
We chose Vernazza for our home base and could not have been happier. This is one of the smaller villages and is very quiet after dark, which suited us after the long days of exploring.
The waterfront area had a beach, plenty of restaurants, a nice looking old church, and a clifftop castle that gave it a unique character that we loved.
For more on the five villages, we have done a more detailed summary of where to stay in Cinque Terre here.
How Long to Stay in Cinque Terre?
We had just the two full days and this was enough to see almost everything we wanted to (details to follow). But we would have loved one more day just so we could have paced ourselves little more.
Three full days is a good starting point for a steady paced itinerary.
You can adjust this to suit if you want extra days to relax or to do some higher intensity hiking trips.
A day trip is also a viable option if you start early and have plenty of energy to burn. But the heat and crowds that you will encounter in peak season could make this a drag and you may burn out before reaching all five villages.
Our Two Day Itinerary
While we stayed in the region for three nights, we didn’t arrive until late at night on day one and left very early on the final day. So I will just talk about the two full days we had.
Due to the fatigue of the preceding days, we were a bit sluggish to get started each day. So this was not an optimized itinerary by any means.
But here is the Team AJ experience – we didn’t get to doevery activity we wanted in Cinque Terre, so will have to come back again one day.
Vernazza was our home base, and the fourth village along the coast. With only Monterossa to the west, we thought a nice way to ease ourselves into things was to limit our day one to just one extra village.
This would allow us to head east on day two and work our way back to our home base.
We wanted to do some hiking and thought it would be best to do this on the shorter day so we could have a quick trip home if it proved more challenging than expected.
So after a late start and a relaxing breakfast at one of the cute little Vernazza cafes, we headed off up the staircases that snaked its way between the buildings and towards the hiking trail.
Each trail has a checkpoint where you need to present your hiking card. This was as far as we got….
There were three problems:
- No hiking card
- Anh didn’t have proper walking footwear
- The trail was closed
So not just a false start, but a massive fail.
Lucky for us the attendant was nice enough to allow us to head a little further down the path so we could get some nice photos of the view looking back at the village.
Plan B – take the passenger ferry and enjoy the view.
After trudging back down the village stairs we headed for the wharf.
The ferry runs back and forth along the coast and is a very nice way to see the area. The main challenge is getting on the correct boat!
You will not find any signage or announcements aside from the timetable. Which is not the most reliable guide given that these boats are dealing with high volumes of people at each stop, and sometimes challenging sea conditions.
After lining up for the wrong boat once, and then Anh being shoved out of the way by the attendant when another arrived we finally got on our way.
The view from off the coast is pretty spectacular and definitely worth the extra costs and inconvenience when compared to the train.
It didn’t take more than 10-15 min to arrive at Monterosso.
This was a very different place to Vernazza and looked to be most suitable for family holidays. With a long beach and frequent gelato stores just over the hill from the ferry wharf.
We were dropped off at a small beach with the surrounding streets being full of excellent restaurants.
We stopped for lunch at Tosca Bistrot and it was easily the best meal we had in Italy.
I never knew just how many variations of bruschetta were possible until we visited this restaurant. It was hard to choose, and everything we tried was excellent!
Everything we tasted was wonderfully fresh and made from what I assume must be local produce.
The local wine is cheap and tasty. I love that you can order a 500ml jug, which is just about the right size for lunch for two.
After lunch, we walked up to the Statue of the Giant which sits at the headland between the beaches. The high vantage point again gave some nice views of the village.
From there we followed the coastal path that weaves its way over the hill and towards the main beach.
The beach has deckchairs, sunbeds, and umbrellas that you can hire for the day. This will cost you anywhere from 8-25 euros depending on what you go for.
If you are going to spend the day here it is a must as the beach is formed of pebbles and not very comfortable to lay on.
There are also lockers and showers available if you need to secure your valuables.
Of course, we couldn’t leave without sampling some gelato. The first of many over the two days!
The railway tracks run parallel to the beach and there is not much to see on the other side of the tracks. It was getting late in the day by this time so we headed back to the ferry wharf.
Did I mention the timetable was a guide only?
We arrived just before the last boat was due to take us back to Vernazza. One did arrive just on time, but we were prevented from boarding with our actual boat leaving ten minutes earlier.
The last for the day…
So back to the railway station, which was all the way back behind the beach we just left. No respite for those tired legs.
The railway line between the villages is not as pretty as the ferry, but fast and an easy option to get around.
On arrival in Vernazza, we headed to one of the local delis to get a selection of cured meat, cheese and a bottle of local wine to bring back to our room and hold us until dinner.
The meat especially was amazingly cheap!
Just a few bucks got us more prosciutto, pancetta, and salami than we could eat in that one sitting.
We then rounded out the day with a nice dinner at once of the restaurants overlooking the beach.
It is very peaceful in Vernazza at night with most of the tourists clearing out to the larger villages. The atmosphere is relaxing and a nice way to wind down after a long day.
This was our last full day in the region and we still had three villages to see.
So we headed out a bit earlier and headed straight to Riomaggiore for breakfast – the furthest village- and work our way back through the day.
We headed to the water first to walk around the coast. It didn’t take us long to realize that this was probably the most photographed spot in the whole region.
If you have ever scouted for photos of Cinque Terre online then the view back towards the village from the seaside is unmistakable.
And it is a beautiful sight!
But of course, it is one of the more crowded areas so we didn’t hang around too long.
We walked to the east around the headland towards the beach.
Be careful on this walkway as some of the fences and pathways have holes in them big enough to walk through. In her excitement to check out the photos we just took Anh very nearly fell through one.
Not a life threatening fall, but it would be very nasty – and you can kiss any devices in your hand goodbye!
Unfortunately, the tide was very high at this time and the pebbled beach was completely cut off. The waves coming in were rougher than usual so we turned back and continued to walk to the western most point of the village.
The hiking pathways were also closed from here and were visibly trashed by the events of recent years. It looks like it will be some years until they are repaired.
As has been the case at every vantage point the views were stunning and the pathway to get there steep, but full of Italian character.
The food selection in this town was less impressive than the day before. We stopped for a mediocre breakfast that barely rates a mention… But judge for yourself.
But at least we were not hungry anymore.
After a quick five minute train ride we were at the next village, and definitely my favorite one.
As you walk towards the main street you climb the postcard perfect staircase synonymous with Manarola. This takes you up to a platform overlooking the main street that is great for photos.
The pics below were some of my favorites due to the simplicity of the streetscape and the authentic Italian feel.
The main street is very short and the walk comes to an abrupt end with the pathway leading to a sheer drop down to the water. There was no beach to be seen, just a dark cliff face and stone structures that looked more out of a game of thrones set.
Manarola village rises out of the sea on one side, and there is a tiered coastal walk on the other. The top tier occupied by restaurants offering a picturesque dining experience.
The pathways are accessible and the view from the top tier looking back at the village was simply spectacular.
The walk through the town on the other side of the tracks has a nice selection of Focacciarias, cafes, delis and of course more gelato.
I stopped to sample a chocolate gelato milkshake…. Waaaayyyyy too heavy on the chocolate for me. But I guzzled it down anyway.
Overlooking the town is steeply terraced farmland with mostly grape vineyards. As my eyes scanned the hillside I could see people walking around in the distance. Far too many of them to simply be workers on the farm.
There must be a pathway somewhere that could get us up there!
We headed all the way out the back of the town and near where the road started its steep climb to the (name) highway interlinking the villages.
We spotted a small sign pointing to a walkway that zigzagged its way between houses and back out towards the headlands.
It started as an easy climb with some steeper sections that led to a nicely elevated pathway that provided nice views of the waterfront of Manarola where we had just been.
The pathway wrapped around the coast until we had some really nice views all the way to Corneglia – the next town on our journey – looking through the coastal vineyards.
I wasn’t done yet, I wanted to get to the top!!
Anh was surprised at my eagerness to push on. Apparently we were not looking at the same group of distant people when I first pointed up the mountain declaring my intention to get where they are.
What was initially met with “no f%^cking way!” shortly became “ok let’s do it” – one of the many things I love about this girl.
So, we backtracked and found the steep rocky stairs that led up the ridge and we were on our way.
The pathway weaved its way between farms. Most likely held by the same families for generations. No clearer indicators of this than the family burial plots along the pathway on the fringe of the farmable land.
A reminder that while this region has enjoyed a tourism boom in recent decades, these surroundings are mostly untouched for centuries.
The local farmers have enjoyed some of the advances in technology though. As we walked, the serene atmosphere was cut into pieces by a helicopter that was dropping supplies of what I can only assume to be fertilizer into the terraced fields up and down the mountain.
Large bags were scattered up and down the valley over the course of an hour as this helicopter flew back and forth.
An interruption we would happily tolerate to alleviate the farmers need to carry that shit up there!!
As the climb became steeper the higher we went. At one point we found ourselves on a narrow pathway with a very steep drop off towards the cliffs.
While it wasn’t dodgy or unsafe, you definitely had to take care.
The views through this section were worth the climb in the hot sun, and one of the highlights of the day.
While the mountain looked enormous it didn’t really take that long to scale to the top. There was a long flat pathway that ran the length of the mountain. This gave a great platform for wide sweeping views of the valley that led down to the waterfront.
After taking a few moments to rest and a few more happy snaps, we started our way back down and headed straight to the train station to head to our last village for the day.
As we got off the train we followed the walkway towards the town and were greeted with more steep terrain and a zigzagging staircase that led there.
After just walking up a mountain this was met with some laughter and the hint of a groan due to our tired legs.
Perhaps this may have been a better first stop for the day… But up we went.
Corniglia sits on a narrow ridge at the top if the mountain. There is no waterfront to speak of, but the high vantage point means some great views (with far less effort to see).
With the village sitting atop this mountain it has a medieval feel to it where all of the streets are closed in by the surrounding buildings.
The entry point leads through to a small main square flanked by small restaurants. A great place to relax and have a well earned beer late in the afternoon.
But first, we wanted to get to the coast and check this view out.
We made it to a stone wall that is perched right at the top of the cliff face with a 270 degree view from Manarola back to the East, all the way to Vernazza to the west.
There is a bar with seating all along this waterfront position. But it’s a popular spot and only five or six tables available. So we headed back to the main square.
Here we met a very colorful lady who looked after us well with her attentive service and hilarious demeanour.
I sucked down a well earned cold beer, and Anh a cocktail as we perused the traditional menu of pasta dishes.
It was our intention all day to hike from Corniglia back to Vernazza to finish our day. The 3.4km trek was one of the few hiking trails that remained open.
But a combination of the heat and distance we had covered so far, coupled with the now relaxed state of mind after a few drinks and a heft late lunch conspired to push us towards the easier option of the walk back down to the train station for our final leg into Vernazza.
But, there is no shame in being comfortable on holiday! But if we did have an extra day that hike would have been first on the agenda.
We again repeated our ritual of cured meat, cheese, and wine to lead us into the evening.
This time we wanted something a bit more casual than a sit-down meal at a restaurant.
We had not yet tasted a Vernazza pizza and there was a place in the centre of town, adjacent to a cave leading to a hidden beach.
So we got a takeaway pizza and (insert food here) and headed through the dark cave to the beach for a quiet waterside dinner.
Unfortunately most of the beach was again cut off by the tides so we were confined to the small area where the cave opened up.
It was quite windy and there was two or three other small groups there. But it was still a cool little spot to enjoy a casual feed with a few more wines.
We were up and gone early to catch a 7am train back to La Spezia, and on to Pisa. Which is only 90 minutes away.
There was just enough time for us to detour to the Leaning Tower of Pisa – and some cheesy photos – before dashing to the airport for a 1pm departure.
How to get to Cinque Terre
The closest airport is Pisa. This is where we flew in and out of, and it was just a quick 90 minute train ride which we will detail below.
Any of the Milan airports are also a viable option. The travel time extends to about four hours by train.
For any airport that you fly into, make your way to the central train station of the city to find your train connections to Cinque Terre.
Despite the appearance of complete isolation, these five seaside villages are very accessible by train.
First we wanted to share a couple of tips:
- In our experience the trains rarely run on time. This poses a minor problem;
- There are screens on the trains that inform you of where you are on your journey…. Pay attention to them rather than rely on the time you are expected to arrive.
The journey is manageable from all major cities and we will provide a brief summary below.
For more details visit the Italiarail website for ticketing and timetable information.
- Pisa Centrale Station -> Stazione La Spezia Centrale (60-80 minutes)
- Stazione La Spezia Centrale -> the village of your choice (7-15 minutes)
- Milano Centrale Station -> Genova Brignole (120-140 minutes)
- Genova Brignole -> The village of your choice (65-80 minutes)
- Firenze S.M.N -> Sarzana (120-140 minutes)
- Sarzana -> The village of your choice (25-35 minutes)
- Roma Termini -> Stazione La Spezia Centrale (4 hours approx..)
- Genova Brignole -> The village of your choice (7-15 minutes)
Driving to your village is discouraged, but is definitely possible.
The roads are narrow and windy on the way in, but will offer some spectacular views! But they are not for the faint hearted.
You also have the added inconvenience of parking on arrival. You will not be able to get close to most villages with the parking areas located a long and steep walk down to the village.
If you have heavy luggage this will be a challenge.
You will also have to pay a daily fee that varies between villages from about 10-25 euro per day.
And remember when looking for a parking space:
- Yellow = locals
- Blue = everyone else
If the drive and/or walk scare you off, an alternative option is to park at of the major train stations like La Spezia or Levanto and simply catch the train in.
Would we return to Cinque Terre?
This was Anh’s first Italian experience and the only major destination we visited… and she has not stopped talking about it since!
Italy will be high on our list when we are planning our next European vacation.
I want to see the south, and Anh is yet to see the major cities of Rome, Venice and Florence. Will we swing by Cinque Terre again? Hell yeah!
This time we will hike the trails we want to hike (if they’re open), take a cooking class overlooking the Mediterranean, and sample a hell of a lot more of the local wine.