Destinations, Europe, General Advice, Italy, Travel Resources

The Cinque Terre: Where Mountains and Sea Collide

The Cinque Terre is on a lot of people’s must see travel lists and it shows. This place is very much found, but once you get here, you start to realise why so many international and domestic tourists alike flock to this mountainous national park on the Ligurian Sea – it is simply the perfect vacation destination. Now, I don’t give this praise lightly, especially as I normally reserve my love for off the beaten path destinations and the Cinque Terre is decidedly on the tourist trail, but it really does deserve it. See, the Cinque Terre has something for everyone, from serious hikers to beach focused sun worshipers, and it is the ability to combine so many different holiday pursuits into one destination that makes me love this place so much. My enjoyment of this part of the trip also has to do with that fact that we came here as an extended family, my parents, my sister and her husband, and Kane and I. See, we are all very different people, with different goals when it comes to travel and different abilities to do the more strenuous things (my sister is currently pregnant so lots of hiking was out of the picture for her), yet the Cinque Terre offered us the ability to each pursue what we wanted during the day and come together in the evening for dinner and card games back at the hotel. It was a balance that worked out quite well for us and, based on the number of American accents I heard around Monterosso al Mare, it worked out for a lot of other people too.

This is the view of Monterosso from above, the new town beach is closer to the far hill and the old town beach, where our hotel was, is in the foreground.
Monica on Monterosso's new town beach
We loved our time in the Cinque Terre, especially the lovely beach of our base in Monterosso al Mare.

What is the Cinque Terre?

The Cinque Terre is a costal region of Liguria, in northwest Italy, that is famous for its pastel coloured homes perched precariously on mountain cliffs that descend into an azure sea below. The five towns of the Cinque Terre are officially Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare, though uber tiny Volastra is accessible via the trails in the region as well if you take the high route from Manarola to Corniglia (however, Volastra is not officially in the five villages that make up the Cinque Terre, much to the locals chagrin). The national park includes the five towns, surrounding hillside, and marine environments and was set up in 1999 to protect and preserve the unique environment for generations to come. The Cinque Terre is also an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Cantina Capellini is situated just outside of Volastra on the way from Manarola to Corniglia and definitely worth a stop, though don’t drink too much as you will still need to complete the hike after your midday vino.
There are many reasons to love the Cinque Terre, wine bars in the middle of hikes is just one of them.

This is not a day trip destination

When you first decide to visit the Cinque Terre, you need to decide which village to stay in, or to find a home base outside of the five towns to day trip in from. I do not recommend the day trip option, unless you must to find affordable accommodation, because the hordes of day trippers that rush the area between the hours of 10 am and 5 pm can make these small towns downright packed. In particular, if you are planning to visit the Cinque Terre as a day trip from a cruise, do yourself and everyone else a favour and just don’t. These towns are too small to handle the serious influx of tourists at the exact same time, as occurs on cruise ship day trips, and you really aren’t getting a great experience either as you are herded along in a rather bovine manner by a flustered tour guide. I was having a mid-hike macchiato in a previously quiet café in Manarola when one of these groups came storming in, all New York bluster and demands; it really ruined the atmosphere and pissed off the poor staff to boot. The group of about ten started yelling about needing their food right now despite the restaurant starting to make food early for them (it was 11:45 am and the food part of their café did not open until 12 pm) and that if they didn’t get it right then the tour would leave them…good lord it was chaos. I nearly felt like apologizing for Americans as a whole, but wasn’t keen on outing myself after that display so instead, once they left, I paid, thanked the staff in rudimentary Italian, and went on my way, thanking my lucky stars that the cruise ship crowd did not venture into the mountains with me.

Where to Stay

So, once you have made the correct decision that you’re just going to need to fork out the cash necessary (this is not a budget destination) to stay in the Cinque Terre to see it properly, which of the five towns do you choose? Each town has its own character and how you pick should reflect your personality and what you want out of your trip. We stayed in Monterosso al Mare, the more resort style beach town at the northern edge of the region, and it was a great pick for the group we had. Monterosso al Mare’s beaches are not white sand, but they are lovely in their own right – think grey sand and pebbles – and the ocean was surprisingly alive, which thrilled us to no end after our sadness at the lack of fish in the Aegean Sea. Due to Monterosso al Mare having the only true beaches of the Cinque Terre, it is very popular and, as such, expensive. We could not find a suitable AirBnB for six (admittedly large groups are harder to accommodate in the usually small Italian apartments) so we decided to splash out for a hotel, it being my dad’s first time in Italy and a bit of a once in a lifetime trip to have the whole family together abroad. We stayed at the Hotel La Colonnina and it was worth every penny. The rooms were beautiful, the breakfast was sublime, and the location was great. Normally, this is not a place Kane and I would have stayed due to cost, but for the type of trip we were doing it was great. I would definitely recommend it and Monterosso al Mare in general for big family vacations.

I cannot give as much detail on the other four towns, as I only visited them a few times, mostly passing through on hikes, but here is the general overview. Corniglia is the only town of the Cinque Terre without easy access to the sea and, due to this, it is probably the most affordable and least popular. I thought it was a lovely quiet town when I walked through and felt it could be a really good spot if you’d like to avoid crowds, yet still see the Cinque Terre. Also, apparently there is a beach on the hike from Corniglia to Vernazza, but its definitely not what you’d call easily accessible, due to this, and that fact that it is a nudist beach means it’s one of the quietest in the area. If you are keen to explore the freer side of life, follow the signs to Spiaggia Libera (public beach) and you’ll find Guvano beach. I did not go so I cannot comment on how nice it is, only that it, theortically exists. One thing to note about Corniglia is that, due to its location in the hills, you must walk up a lot of stairs from the train station to the town – this town is not a good option for anyone with mobility issues or small children needing a stroller (unless your idea of fun is lugging stroller and child up and down lots of stairs in the Italian summer heat).

Corniglia, the Cinque Terre town on the hill, a place of respite from the crowds below.
These are the stairs to the train station, they really do get your heart rate up and definitely need to be considered when choosing Corniglia.

Manarola was my second favourite town to visit and I thought it was postcard perfect with its pastel coloured houses all piled on top of each other like a haphazardly joyful birthday cake. It is more accessible than Corniglia, as the town is at sea level, but it’s only sea access is a deep water harbour 3 minutes from the train station. It does have a ladder to help getting up from the rocks, but I wouldn’t recommend this area for less adventurous swimmers. I think if Kane and I ever return to the Cinque Terre on our own that we would stay in Manarola. The final two towns are Vernazza and Riomaggiore, which seemed fairly similar to me, but, as stated before I did not really make a thorough investigation of them. We found lovely and affordable seafood in Vernazza and Riomaggiore has a bit of a reputation as the backpacker’s preferred Cinque Terre town due to it’s nightlife. I cannot confirm the nightlife reputation as we didn’t stay there so we weren’t there at night and my idea of a wild night is less shots and more making friends with strangers in the pouring rain while crammed nearly knee to knee in a tiny restaurant (this actually happened and the restaurant in question was Gastronomia San Martino, hands down the best food we had in the Cinque Terre for a surprisingly affordable price).

This is Vernazza from the path from Corniglia, Vernazza is pretty and has a reasonable town ‘beach’, which is more like a harbour with sand.
Manarola is the town to the far right of this photo, perched atop the cliff, and Volastra is the town at the far left, nestled in the hills. Volastra is very small and not an official town of the Cinque Terre.

What to Do

There are a few main activities of the Cinque Terre: hiking between the towns, exploring via train or ferry, swimming and enjoying the sea, and eating a lot of seafood (seafood haters beware, it can sometimes be hard to find non-fishy meat options here). The main option for a beach day is Monterosso al Mare and there are two ways to enjoy the sea here: 1) paying for a beach umbrella and two chairs for the day at the cost of 35 euros or 2) taking advantage of the Italian law that requires the beach chair sellers not to block access to the beach, thus allowing you to bring your own towel, find a patch of sand (harder than you think in tourist high season), and enjoy the ocean as it should be – free of charge. If you go for option two, some beach chair sellers and the lifeguards they pay may try to make you move, as they rely on tourists not knowing the law to sell more chairs. Generally, if you mention the laws that allow public access to the beaches and that their chairs must be no closer to the water than 5 meters they tend to shut up and leave you be (as almost all of their chairs are way closer to the water than 5 meters). However, if you would rather avoid any potential confrontation there is a lovely cove free of beach chairs operators at the far south end of the old town beach, just access it via the stairs that descend from a path right before the trail to Vernazza.

You are allowed to enjoy the 5 meters between the sea and the chairs free of charge, but if you’d prefer to avoid the chair area entirely there is a small cove that doesn’t have them at the far end of the old town beach. The new town beach is pictured here, to reach the old town go through the tunnel.

Hiking and Train Costs

Hiking in the Cinque Terre is the other main activity that draws people here and there are some things to understand before you lace up your shoes and go. There is the blue path (generally considered the easier ones, though this is up for debate based on our experience from Monterosso to Vernazza), the SVA, and the high path. The famous ‘Way of Love’ from Riomaggiore to Manarola on the blue path is closed until 2024 due to a landslide, as well as the blue path from Manarola to Corniglia, which means if you want to do these sections you must take either the high path or the SVA path (kind of a middle path). I used this website to check what trails were open/closed and to get basic information on each section.

I hiked from Riomaggiore to Vernazza and took the SVA path until Corniglia, then took the blue path to Vernazza – that section took me about 5 hours, including stops for coffee and lunch. The blue path costs money to access, all the other paths are free. You can get a Cinque Terre train and trails pass that includes all you can ride trains and all the trails, which can be good value if you are doing a lot of trains, but we found the best value was to buy each train individually (5 euro each). It worked out like this for us because our hotel offered a discount to guests for access to the trails, what would have cost us 7.50 euro each per day, only cost 2 euro each per day, which made the Cinque Terre train and trails card that costs 18.20 per person per day, not really worth it for us.

Follow these signs to stay on the Cinque Terre paths. They are well signed, even I didn’t get lost when hiking all day by myself, though do make sure to follow the red and white stripes rather than red and white circles, the circles will lead you astray.
There are free water fountains all over Italy (I think Rome set a precedent) and the Cinque Terre towns are no exception. There should be a place to fill your bottle for free in every town.

Hiking Safety in the Cinque Terre

The Cinque Terre officials have recently made it illegal to hike the trails in flip flops (or thongs as Aussies call them) as they got tired of having to rescue ill-prepared tourists from the trails, which is fair given the costs of a helicopter rescue. I did all my hiking in my trusty Chaco sandals, but these aren’t your average sandals, they are awesome hiking sandals that I would trust more than your average road running shoe (my other option for hiking footwear). The trails themselves vary from lots of reasonably made stairs to steep ascents and descents down shaley stair imitators; nothing is flat beyond the Way of Love blue path trail and that is closed for the foreseeable future. It is also hot and can be humid in the Cinque Terre so dress accordingly and bring a water bottle. Luckily, all the towns have lovely free water fountains to fill up at so you only need enough to get from town to town.

I found the SVA route from Manarola to Corniglia to be the prettiest and the easiest, due to the fact that once you get up you are hiking along a fairly long, relatively flat section through terraced vineyards. The SVA path from Riomaggiore to Manarola had me reassessing my plans to do as much of the whole trail as I could, it was steep, with poorly maintained parts of the trail, and, yes, I had to use my hands at some points. The next hardest section, in my opinion, was actually the blue path from Monterosso to Vernazza, though this might just be perception due to it being the first trail we did, which happened to be on the hottest and most humid day. Long story short, the trails are definitely worth doing for their stunning views, but don’t underestimate them, they can be tougher than people realise. One thing that I really loved and that increases accessibility is the option to just do a single section by making your journey use trains and trails, without this I’m certain my pregnant sister would not have been able to enjoy the scenery of the Cinque Terre trails, but with it she was able to do as much as she felt comfortable with then train home and enjoy the beach for the rest of the day.

The Cinque Terre: A Destination for Everyone

To be completely honest, I didn’t expect to fall in love with the Cinque Terre. I’d heard it was touristy and crowded, especially in the high season of summer, and all those things are true, but somehow it is still wonderful. Monterosso al Mare gives the best European beach resort vibes of luxury relaxation and the trails offer respite from the crowds (well the harder ones anyway, the easier ones can get crowded). It’s not a cheap place to visit, as with tourist come price increases, but it is worth it for what it is, a holiday maker’s mecca. So, if you’re willing to go with the flow of tourists, then head to the Cinque Terre and grab yourself an Aperol Spritz to enjoy overlooking the gentle sea at sunset.

Once you’re here, it is easy to see why so many people fall in love with the Cinque Terre.

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