Drawing over 2 millions of visitors each year, the Cinque Terre are pretty much on every traveler’s list when it comes to a trip to Italy. And rightly so, because the five villages and its cliff-clinging and colorful houses together with the wild coastal landscape in between are indeed of an intriguing beauty, despite the large number of tourists crowding its streets. If one avoids the high season and explores the less popular but equally scenic trails further up the mountains, it is even surprisingly easy to escape those tourist crowds.
Getting to Cinque Terre by Train
To get to the Cinque Terre in the first place it is best to travel either to Levanto or La Spezia, both of which have frequent connections to most major Italian cities such as Genoa, Pisa, Florence, Rome or Milan. From there the Cinque Terre can easily reached by half-hourly regional trains (see “Getting around” below).
The best way to explore this magnificent stretch of coast is by foot on the numerous trails or, you’ve guessed it, by train. By far the best option in my books is a combination of the two. With air-conditioned regional trains linking the five mostly car-free villages to Levanto in the North and La Spezia in the South about every 30 minutes, you’ll never wait long for the next train. Tickets are cheap, a trip from Monterosso to Riomaggiore costs 2.10€ for example. If you’re travelling with an Interrail/Eurail Pass you can use those trains for free.
In case you’re planning to go hiking, you’ll need to buy the Cinque Terre Card in order to be able to use the trails in the park. It is available at train stations as well as at tourist information services or some of the bigger hostels and costs 7.50€ per day just for the trail access. There is also a version including the regional trains between Levanto & La Spezia for 12.00€. So if you’re planning to make several journeys on a single day, it might be worth the difference.
Except during the winter months there is also a boat service connecting the villages that offers beautiful views from a different perspective, although it is rather expensive. For prices & schedules have a look at the company’s website.
The five villages & trails in between
The northernmost of the five villages is also the biggest and most resort-like of the five, its two beaches being the main attraction for most visitors. Although it can’t compare to the others in terms of charm, Monterosso not only features a big range of accommodation options but also some direct Intercity services to Genoa/Milan/Pisa, making it a convenient option for travelers.
From Monterosso, one can reach its neighbor in the south, Vernazza, by hiking the first bit of the very popular trail N°2. It is Cinque Terre’s main and most famous trail and the one closest to the sea (i.e. with the least number of stairs) linking all five villages. For the first section hikers can estimate to take a little less than 2 hours to reach Vernazza. Despite the high number of people on it, the trail is steep and narrow in most places, which makes a pair of sturdy hiking boots imperative. While it usually is considered the most demanding portion, it also offers some of the best views of the entire trail.
With its picture-perfect combination of harbor and piazza surrounded by colorful facades, Vernazza probably is the most popular village amongst tourists. As an effect the main street usually is rather crowded and prices seem to be slightly higher than in the neighbouring villages.
Following the trail towards Monterosso for a few minutes, one can get a beautiful view of the village from above. In the other direction, the trail towards Corniglia is similar to the first section of trail N°2, although being a little shorter. It winds through the typical terraced vineyards & orchards and, once again, boasts some great viewpoints.
Corniglia’s standout feature certainly is its location, perched on a rock some 100m above the Mediterranean Sea with a great vista of the coast and particularly Manarola. As a consequence, it is rather calm compared to the other four villages and a great place to escape the big crowds, especially in the evening & morning hours. The drawback that comes with the location is the flight of about 400 steps called Lardarina leading from the train station straight up to the village.
At the time of writing (April 2016), the third section of trail N°2 from Corniglia to Manarola was still undergoing repair works after it had been damaged by landslides and it was unclear when it would open again for the public. Of course there are other trails further up the mountain connecting the 2 villages, though. They reward hikers willing to brave the numerous stairs with great views of the coast and few other people.
Another tourists’ favorite, Manarola is in many aspects very similar to Vernazza with its size, narrow alleys and colorful fronts. It is connected to Riomaggiore by a paved walkway curved into a rockface called the Via dell’Amore, which is an easy stroll of about 20 minutes along the seashore. However, as for the part between Corniglia & Manarola, it is closed to the public until further notice and its future seems to be unclear as rockslides pose a continuous threat. So while the closed Via dell’Amore goes around the hill, the open alternative trail goes right over it, with long and steep stairs on both sides.
The southernmost village in the park, Riomaggiore, is a little smaller than Monterosso and boasts cliff-clinging, colorful old buildings as well as a multitude of hostels, restaurants, etc. It can therefore be a great base for exploring the Cinque Terre for a few days, although you’ll probably find more tourists here at night/in the morning than elsewhere.
I have tried to include most of the important aspects in this blog post, however if there is anything unclear or should you have further questions do not hesitate to ask me directly or in the forum!