In the north-west of Italy, at the limit between Liguria and Tuscany, the landscapes of the Cinque Terre are among the most beautiful places of the country. You probably already saw pictures of these five colourful villages, sitting on a fabulous coastline, halfway between the mountains above them and the deep blue Mediterranean Sea below. If you’re thinking about going there (and you definitely should!), here’s everything you need to know about the gorgeous Cinque Terre before planning your trip.
📷 For more pictures have a look at my gallery of photos of the Cinque Terre.
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A bit of history
The first villages of the Cinque Terre (which literally means “Five Lands”), Monterosso and Vernazza, were created during the 11th century while the three others (Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore) followed later. Until the 16th century, the area was very flourishing thanks to the trade of wine, oil or citrus fruits. Fortifications and towers, some of them still visible today, were erected to protect the villages from pirates (essentially from the Ottoman Empire).
But that situation didn’t last: the Cinque Terre eventually perished and their inhabitants became very poor. They remained completely isolated from the rest of the country until 1874, when the railway line between Genoa to the north and La Spezia to the south was completed. It marked the end of the traditional agriculture and activities, but the popularity of the villages slowly started to increase. The area became a major tourist destination in the 1970s, and the houses were painted with their bright colours so famous today. The Cinque Terre have been part of the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1997, while a National Park created in 1999 guarantees the preservation of this fragile ecosystem, threatened by the flood of millions of tourists every year.
When to go and how to move around?
I visited the Cinque Terre in the middle of September 2020, at the beginning of a 2-week road trip in Italy, probably at the best possible period. It was already late in the season but the weather was still amazing (actually even too hot at some point!), and due to the COVID situation they were no tourists from Asia or America at all so it was way less crowded than it could have been. Anyway, try to avoid the months of July and August if possible, as they coincide with the peak period for visitors. May, June, September and October are probably the best choices. One day is enough to see all the villages and hike on some parts of the coastal path (the Blue trail or “Sentiero Azzurro”), but if you can stay for a night the sunsets must be amazing… Unfortunately I only had one day!
There are a few roads leading to the villages but only residents are allowed to park so it’s clearly not recommended; the easiest way to reach the Cinque Terre will be by train from La Spezia to the south or Levanto to the north. The Cinque Terre Card (which costs 16€ for a day) is by far the best solution; it allows you to take any train as many times as you want between these two cities (trains every 15 minutes in average). It also gives access to the coastal path which otherwise costs 5€ per day. Only boats aren’t included and if you want to see the Cinque Terre from the sea you would have to pay extra. I haven’t done it and I’m not sure if it’s really worth it considering how beautiful the views already are from the coast, but it must be a very enjoyable moment.
The closest cities to visit the Cinque Terre are La Spezia and Levanto, but you can also do a daytrip from Pisa for example, which is what I did. It’s only an hour and 20 minutes from La Spezia by train but be careful if you’re choosing this option. Even if it’s very warm, take a jacket or something to cover your body. The air conditioning in the train is terrible and as I had been sweating a lot due to the heat in the afternoon, it made me really sick for a couple of days.
Four or five villages?
It’s in the name: there are five villages in the Cinque Terre. From north to south: Monterosso Al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. But in 1948, Monterosso was briefly excluded from that list as it was considered “too big” compared to its neighbours. It has quickly been reincluded, but in my opinion it’s still by far the less interesting one and if you’re running out of time you can skip it without missing too much.
If you want to see the five villages, I would highly recommend to begin from Monterosso though, for two reasons: first, if you’re ending there you might be really disappointed compared to the other ones. And second, if you’re in Riomaggiore or Manarola in the morning, the sun will be in front of you and behind the villages, which means that the exposure of your pictures would be bad. It would be much better in the afternoon after the sun has moved to the other side. Here’s an example with pictures taken around 11am (to the left) and 4pm (to the right) in Manarola.
The coastal path
Called “Il Sentiero Azzurro” (the Blue Trail), the coastal path connecting the villages is a must. Its total length from Riomaggiore to Monterosso is around 10km, but the sections between Riomaggiore and Manarola (the “Via dell’ Amore”, usually the most visited) and between Manarola and Corniglia are currently closed for consolidation, at least until 2021, probably longer. You have to pay to take it, which reduces the amount of people and brings money to maintain it, but it’s included in the Cinque Terre Card as I mentioned before. There are huts at the beginning of each section where people will check your tickets.
I hiked the section between Corniglia and Vernazza, which is a bit more than 3km. I expected an easy coastal trail, but not at all! It climbs quite steeply until the hamlet of Prevo, 220m high above the ocean. Only a few parts of the path are in the shade, and with rocks and low stone walls reflecting the sun, the heat was extreme, probably around 40°C on the most exposed parts. But the reward was an amazing panorama over the entire coast, from Manarola to Monterosso, with the village of San Bernardino overlooking the trail from the top of the hills above.
As a big part of the hike is directly on rocks, it can get very slippery when wet and the trail might close in case of rain, which is what happened to my parents during their visit a few months ago.
Monterosso Al Mare
Monterosso is the northernmost and the biggest village of the Cinque Terre with almost 1,500 inhabitants, but as I already said it’s also the least interesting, unless you’re keen on crowded beaches. This is where you’ll find the largest beach of the area but you would have to pay to get access to most of it (as in many others places around Italy), and this landscape of deckchairs and parasols so close to each other isn’t something that I like.
Monterosso is divided in two parts by a rocky barrier, with the most recent district (Fegina) and the train station on one side, and the old town on the other. I didn’t stay very long so I can’t tell you anything else about this village!
I might write this many times in the rest of this article, but Vernazza is incredibly picturesque. Even if you don’t intend to hike all the way to Corniglia, climb the first part before the toll hut to enjoy the amazing bird’s eye view over the village.
Vernazza is probably the most popular village of the Cinque Terre. It was at least the most frequented during my visit. I can understand why: with a medieval tower and the ruins of a castle on top of a rocky spur overlooking the colourful houses below, the postcard panorama is absolutely stunning. There’s also a tiny sandy beach at the end of the main street going through the village.
Third village of the Cinque Terre, Corniglia is the least visited but also the one that remained the most authentic. It’s the only one that isn’t directly connected to the sea: it is located on top of a promontory about 100 meters above sea level. The train station has been built below the village, and you need to climb the 382 steps of the Lardarina staircase to get there, which might explain why it’s the least visited… But there’s also a shuttle running all day long between the station and Corniglia (price included in the Cinque Terre Card).
I particularly enjoyed the more relaxed atmosphere of the tiny lanes of Corniglia and the great views over the sea in every direction. I had a very nice lunch in a tiny bar/restaurant called “A Caneva” in the upper part of the village, where I ordered a slice of focaccia (a sort of Italian bread served with olive oil and in this case cheese) and a piece of farinata, a sort of traditional Ligurian pancake made with chickpea flour. After my meal, this is where I began the previously mentioned hike to Vernazza. The first part winds through olive groves and terraced vineyards, before climbing to Prevo.
Manarola might be the most famous cliché of the Cinque Terre. You have probably seen that picture before, haven’t you?
From the train station, walk down through the main street of the village until you reach the harbour. That perfect lookout over Manarola is at the end of the peninsula to your right, and the panorama to the north on the other side is also really dramatic.
But you shouldn’t limit your exploration to the main street only! Via Belvedere for example will give you the best views over the village.
Finally,what I also liked in Manarola was how the boats were parked on the street, due to a lack of space in the tiny harbour. Quite unexpected!
Last village if you come from the north, first for me as I arrived from La Spezia. I don’t know if it’s because it was the first one I visited, but Riomaggiore remains my personal favourite. It was so great to meander in the countless labyrinthic lanes, admiring the panorama over the coast and climbing up multiple sets of steps for many different points of view.
A tunnel from the train station leads directly to the middle of the village, but you can also take a walking path around the cliffs that starts directly from the platform (at the left end of the platform when you’re facing the sea). Admire how pure and clear the water is below…
This is where I’ll end this article, after one last series of pictures of Riomaggiore. That day in the Cinque Terre was really fantastic and I couldn’t have hoped for a better start for my Italian road trip!
Have you ever been to the Cinque Terre? Which village was your favourite? Let met know in the comments!
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