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The dramatic scenery and laid-back lifestyle of Italy’s Cinque Terre has made this small area a must-see, on par with Florence, Rome, and Venice. Our comprehensive guide will tell you how to get there—and have the best possible trip. 

December 09, 2016

Cinque Terre comprises five small towns (hence the name, which translates to “Five Lands”) on the western coast of Italy in the region of Liguria, just above Tuscany. Situated within a national park, it’s characterized by terraced agricultural land and colorful towns that appear to rise from the Mediterranean Sea. The area is home to some 4,000 inhabitants, but attracts 2.4 million tourists per year, many of whom arrive by cruise ships at one of two nearby ports. The principle attraction is the beautiful but rugged landscape.

While Cinque Terre is a popular day trip from Florence, the charming towns and hiking trails that unite them deserve a longer and slower visit, so we recommend staying for three nights in order to fully absorb what this territory has to offer. 

When To Go To Cinque Terre

• High season begins after Easter weekend and lasts through October. The busiest months are May through August. The high season gets very crowded, so try and book a room at least three months in advance.

• In the low season, rain is common—the rainiest month is November. Rainy days means staying inside and reading a book, so this isn’t the best time to visit if you’ve traveled far to get here. If there are heavy rains, hiking trails may be closed for safety reasons.

• Like most areas in Italy, food and religious festivals take place frequently. Expect fairs for lemons (in May) and anchovies (mid-September), both of which take place in Monterosso al Mare. Each town celebrates a different patron saint.

How to Get There

Part of Cinque Terre’s charm is its relative inaccessibility. Local trains best serve the area, while individual car access is highly discouraged. Group travelers tend to arrive by organized bus or boat tours.

By Plane:

• Arriving from abroad, the closest large airport is Pisa International Airport (PSA), considered Tuscany’s hub. Serving 20 airlines including charter and low-cost airlines, most flights in to Pisa arrive from other European destinations.

• Pisa Airport has its own train station (Pisa Aeroporto), which has been closed since 2013 in order to construct an automatic train line, though it’s expected to be completed in late 2016. There’s a temporary bus service from the airport to the nearby Pisa Centrale station: take “LAM Rossa” in the direction “Pisa”. Tickets cost €1.20 and can be purchased from the information office at the airport. 

By Train:

• Once in Italy, train is the best way to reach Cinque Terre. There’s a local train, the Cinque Terre Express, which runs along the coast between the stations of La Spezia Centrale and Levanto. It stops at all five towns (Monterosso, Corniglia, Vernazza, Manarola, Riomaggiore), and you’ll need to take it to move between them once you’re in the area (unless you opt to hike on the oft-challenging trails). As of summer 2016, the cost of the Cinque Terre Express is €4 per trip. During the off-season, typically from November to March, the cost drops to €1.80. This train does not offer reserved seating.

• Arriving from Pisa Airport: From Pisa Airport, go to Pisa Centrale station and take a train to La Spezia Centrale. This train may be “regionale,” (no reserved seating), or “Intercity” or “Frecciabianca” (with reserved seating); prices start at €7.50. Transfer at La Spezia station for the Cinque Terre Express.

• Arriving from Florence or Rome: There are a few direct trains per day from Firenze Santa Maria Novella station to La Spezia Centrale; others require you to change trains in Pisa. Prices start at €13.50. At La Spezia, change for the Cinque Terre Express.

By Car:

• Private car access is discouraged in the Cinque Terre, so if you are driving, park in La Spezia or Levanto, and then take the Cinque Terre Express train into the park area. There are small and expensive parking lots at the top of each village. Some hotels have parking available, so be sure to ask before arriving at your accommodation.

By Boat:

• In the summer (March through October), there are daily ferry connections to Cinque Terre from La Spezia, Lerici, Levanto and Portovenere, though they’re suspended in bad weather.

Getting Around Within Cinque Terre:

By train:

• Take the Cinque Terre Express, described above.

By bus:

• A new mini-bus service called Explora5Terre launched in July 2016 and offers service between all the towns. This is a hop-on, hop-off formula with panoramic views, air conditioning, and an audio-guide aimed at individual travelers. Day passes cost €22, with discounts for children.

By boat:

• There are tourist ferry connections with a hop-on, hop-off formula as well. Day passes cost €30, with discounts for children.

By foot:

• The traditional way to move between towns is by foot. Access to the main hiking trail (592) that runs along the coast is only permitted with the Cinque Terre Card, but note that the first two sections, connecting Riomaggiore to Manarola and Manarola to Corniglia, are closed due to landslide (a reopening date has not been set). In-land trails are available but require a good level of fitness or hiking expertise.

Travel Tips

• Cinque Terre is famously crowded, so be prepared for crowds during your visit. The good news is that the tour groups congregate on the central streets of each town from about 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the high season. In the early morning and evenings, the pace slows down and you can experience the small Italian town feeling. Even mid-day, it’s possible to get away from the crowds on some of the side streets.

• Be prepared to walk. These towns are pedestrian-friendly only. Not only are there virtually no options for assisted transportation, but the towns themselves are hilly, so it’s common to encounter stairs—sometimes a hundred at a time. If you have mobility problems, consult with your chosen accommodation to find out if they are accessible and if they can assist you with bags or any other needs.

• Due to the vertical nature of the towns, keep in mind that you’ll have to carry your bags from the train station to your lodging. Wheeled bags are adequate to get from the bottom to the top of the town when you arrive by train, but be advised that at some point, you will encounter stairs. If you’re on a longer trip and have the possibility to do so, consider packing a backpack and leaving your large bag somewhere to pick up later.

Again, since the towns are walking-oriented and hiking is a major activity here, we cannot stress enough the importance of packing appropriate footwear, like running or hiking shoes. People dress casually here, though stores and restaurants expect clients to cover up before entering.

• Be aware that the hiking trails that are currently open are quite challenging. Many visitors have a romantic vision of walking between the villages, but unfortunately, the easiest stretch of the coastal trail is closed for the long term due to landslide. Trails can and should be taken at your own pace, and though being a regular hiker is not a prerequisite, being active and in good health is. Paths often begin with a strong vertical and can be narrow at times. Always hike with a bottle of water, and in the summertime, a hat and sunscreen. There are no services along the trail.

• The National Park sells an optional Cinque Terre Card that provides access to the coastal hiking trail (the others are free access), occasional guided tours, and free Wi-Fi. The card also comes in combination with a train pass. Prices vary based on length of stay and activated options.

• Internet and cell service are not guaranteed in this area. Cinque Terre Wi-Fi, included in the Cinque Terre Card, services the train stations. There’s no citywide Wi-Fi beyond there, and some cell phone carriers don’t offer coverage, so be sure to check with your accommodation in advance if having internet access is essential to you.

Where to Stay in Cinque Terre

The five villages are very close to one another, so there’s no need to stay in a different one every night; choose one town as a home base, and visit the others by train or foot. Keep in mind that most of the lodging available in the Cinque Terre is in privately run B&Bs and room or apartment rentals. There are few hotels, so you’ll want to start your search early and check for availability at multiple properties. Expect a bit of lag time on requests made by email.

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Monterosso

Monterosso is the northernmost town; it’s the biggest and the flattest, so it’s the best option for those who have mobility issues. It’s divided into two parts: the New and Old Town, and has a long stretch of sandy beach with a hotel-lined boardwalk. It has a few hotels, like Porto Roca, one of the only in Cinque Terre with a pool and room service. Located above the village in one of the most scenic locations in the entire area is La Cabana, which has rooms that are elegant down to the last detail.

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Vernazza

Vernazza is the most picturesque of the villages, and as a result, probably the most overrun by tourists in the summer months. It has sandy beaches (albeit much smaller than Monterosso’s) and is also mostly flat, but most places to stay here require a lot of stair climbing. La Malà’s bright, breezy rooms are fresh and modern, and the service is impeccable. If you’re up for a bit of a hike towards Corniglia, consider L’Eremo sul Mare, or the Hermitage Over the Sea. It’s the perfect retreat away from the crowds and has a huge terrace with sea view.

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Corniglia

Corniglia is the smallest of the Cinque Terre villages, and is the only one of the towns not directly on the water. High up on a cliff, there are more tha 350 steps to climb from the train station, but there’s also a small bus that ferries visitors up and down. Because of its less accessible position, and, since it has no beach or marina, it’s also slightly less tourist-y than the others. Corte del Gallo is a charming little B&B far from the hubbub of the high season. L’Agave is like having a little villa all to yourself, as it’s tucked away amid narrow laneways and offers a private rooftop terrace.

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Manarola

Some of Cinque Terre’s most iconic photographs are of Manarola’s marina, with its cascade of colorful houses tumbling down towards the sea. There’s no beach here—instead, people sunbathe on the rocks surrounding the marina and cliff dive from craggy outcroppings in the water. Stylish decor and top-notch customer service make La Torretta Lodge one of Manarola’s classiest acts—take advantage of their happy hour if you want to meet other guests. Up at the top of the village in a quiet, residential area is B&B Da Baranin, a cozy inn run by two sisters who bend over backwards to make your stay memorable.

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Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore, the southernmost town, has a similar look to Manarola, but a slightly livelier nightlife in the summer—outdoor DJ nights and concerts are frequent on weekends here. The beach is rocky, but the water is crystal clear, and a 45-minute hike up the hill at the top of town brings you to the santuario, a church with a panoramic vista all the way back to Monterosso. I Limoni di Thule is off the main drag and has a spectacular sea view through a garden of fruit trees and flowers. If you want an authentic Italian experience, but love communicating with someone who speaks your language, get in touch with Californian transplant Amy at Riomaggiore Reservations for an assortment of apartment options.

What to Eat 

• Riomaggiore has become known in recent years for its cones of fried seafood. Get off the train or ferry there and you’ll see everyone walking around popping shrimp, calamari, anchovies, and cod into their mouths with long wooden skewers. The best spot is Il Pescato Cucinato (via Colombo, 199); before its opening, owner Edo was the area’s fishmonger, peddling his morning catch on via Colombo every Monday, so you know his stuff is the freshest.

Trattoria Da Billy in Manarola is one of those places you can only find if you know where to look. Way up at the top of town and hidden on a little laneway, it’s considered one of the best restaurants in the Cinque Terre. The breathtaking view doesn’t hurt either.

• If you’ve made it all the way up Corniglia’s 365 steps, you’ll appreciate a cone of the Cinque Terre’s best gelato at Alberto Gelateria (via Fieschi, 74). The honey flavor is good, but nothing beats the basil drizzled with olive oil.

• The best breakfast spot in Vernazza is Il Pirata delle Cinque Terre, tucked up the back way past the train station—but don’t expect eggs and bacon. They serve it up Italian-style, meaning delicious fresh pastries and coffee. Their famous cannoli are a must-try.

• Monterosso is known for its anchovies—look out to the horizon at night, and you’ll see the fishing boats’ characteristic spotlights attracting their catch. Though you may have not dreamed about tasting the small salty fish, they’re worth trying at Trattoria Da Oscar (via Vittorio Emanuele, 67), where the locals go.

Things to do in Cinque Terre

• The great outdoors rule in the Cinque Terre—this is not a museums and art galleries kind of place. Hiking is what most people come here to do, and you shouldn’t feel you have to stick to the most popular coastal trail. There are dozens of paths snaking between the villages and up into the hillside beyond; head to tourist information and ask about walking to Portovenere, a beautiful little town just past La Spezia, or to interior towns like Volastra and Groppo. If you’re not comfortable hiking on your own, hire a guide like Pal from Trek Guyd, who not only knows the lay of the land, but also carries a first aid kit.

• If you’re not on the trails, you’ll likely be by the water, whether it’s taking a dip, sunbathing, or participating in water sports. Scuba diving and snorkeling in Riomaggiore, paragliding in Monterosso, and kayaking in Vernazza are all fun ways to explore the coast.

• If you prefer to enjoy the scenery without breaking a sweat, consider a boat tour. Gabriella and Raphael of Cinqueterre Boat Tour will take you to the best secret spots for a swim, and provide lunch and drinks as well.

• Before tourism, winemaking was one of the main industries here, and almost every bit of arable land was used to that end. Terraced vineyards were carved on top of the other along the hillsides along the coast, and many are still producing today. Get in touch with a winery like Cantina Cinque Terre for a tour of the cliffside vigne

• If you’re staying for a few days, you might want to get to know some of the pretty little towns just beyond the Cinque Terre. Bonassola’s sandy beaches can be reached by train, or from Levanto via the old track along the sea that has since been converted into a walking path. Check out La Francesca, an eco-resort, if you decide to spend the night. Other nearby gems are Portofino, Santa Margherita Ligure, Chiavari, Camogli, Forte dei Marmi (their high-end Wednesday market is one of Italy’s best), and Lerici.

Additional reporting by Kiiri Sandy.

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