Cinque Terre is the name of national park, located in the Liguria province, consisting of the 5 beautiful small towns (5 terre) that are a 3 hour train ride from Milan. First things first, before you starting searching for flights to Cinque Terre (Italian for “Five Towns”), know that there’s no such a thing. Direct flights to the national park don’t exist – you’ll have to fly through Milan or Florence.
About Cinque Terre:
Monterosso al Mare is the largest of the five and first stop if you’re arriving from the north. It’s the ONLY one that actually has a full beach (although very rocky rather than sandy) and road easily accessible by car. The town has big resorts and dozens of restaurants, and gives off a Italian/French Riviera feeling.
Vernazza has a beautiful harbor surrounded by a church and its iconic colorful houses. You’ll find lots of people swimming in the port or sunbathing by the rocks. Unfortunately, it’s not the hidden gem it used to be. Although the town is small with one main road flowing through it, it’s the current favorite of day trippers so it gets overrun with crowds during the day.
Corniglia is the only one that is not right on the water; it sits a few hundred meters up at the top of the cliff overlooking the sea and valley. It is the smallest of the 5 and requires a semi-challenging climb up 382 stairs from the train station to the main town (the payoff is worth it!). In the busier months, there’s also a shuttle bus running from the station to town for those who want to just enjoy the view without the hike.
Manarola is the steepest town (a lot of up and downs) and also has the smallest harbor, which forces fisherman to famously stack their boats along the town’s main road (making for some great pictures). Its geography is particularly friendly for enjoying sunsets and one side of the valley is covered with wineries and olive trees.
Riomaggiore is the second biggest town after Monterosso and is where the famous Via Del’amore (lovers route) starts. Since landfalls dramatically damaged the path a few years ago, it has been closed indefinitely. There’s an alternative road for those that want to hike to/from Riomaggiore that’s a bit further up from the sea. There’s also a terrific area in the harbor where you can swim or jump from the rocks into the sea.
And it is incredibly photogenic!!
Yes, the first thought that came to my mind (and might be yours) is to sleep in one town each night, but it really doesn’t make any sense. The towns are less than 5 min away from each other by train, which runs every 10/20 min late into the night. Exploring the Cinque Terre requires a lot of walking and trust me, you will not want to carry your stuff every day from one town to the next.
The Cinque Terre is a world-famous hiking spot, so you might want to opt for your sneakers or hiking boots rather than your cute summer sandals. And now (with the help of photos shared on Instagram) that is has risen to be a hot spot for travelers, be sure to make reservations!!! There are only a few places to stay and eat in each town and you don’t want to lose out on the best ones!
We chose to stay in a bed & breakfast I found on AirBnb right outside Vernazza which I couldn’t recommend more highly: L’Eremo Sul Mare . It’s on a hill just outside the town center, located on the beginning of the blue path from Vernazza to Corniglia. Fair warning: getting there from town requires a 10 minute walk which doubles as a Stairmaster, but the place is truly special because the property has a private terrace overlooking the town, sea and sunset!
I would also definitely stay in Manarola, we passed by many places with terraces!
Our 3-day itinerary:
Taking the train at 8am in Milan you arrive in Vernazza around 11.30, just in time to leave your bags and grab a quick lunch or snack. The best options are the focaccia at Batti Batti, sandwiches at the Lunch Box or the bruschettas at the Bruschettae.
From there we took the train to Riomaggiore.
We still had some more room in our stomachs form the bruschetas, so we had a frigittoria, a fried seafood cone which is one of the famous delicacies of the area.
Il Pescato Cucinato is known to have the best ones in the area.
You can’t go wrong with the Calamari rings!
From there, we went straight to the harbor to jump in the water!! Yeeeas! The water in May was not that warm but you quickly get used to it once you take the plunge. The rocks aren’t too slippery so it’s easy to get in and out.
We then walked all the way up to the top of the town, passing Riomaggiore’s church and the train station, finally ending at Bar e Vini a Pié di Má, a great spot to sit for a coffee or beer (or both) while admiring the amazing emerald sea.
Back in Vernazza, we bought some Cinque Terre, the local white wine, before heading back to “our” terrace to enjoy the sunset. Despite what most people think, the Cinque Terre were not fishermen villages, but rather producers of wine and olive oil. Nowadays, of course, it has great seafood cuisine.
For dinner we went to Belforte, which has an amazing location on the cliffs with numerous terraces containing outdoor seating overlooking the sea. Amazing fresh Carpaccio and seafood pastas!
It was time to burn off all that wine and pasta with a good hike.
Walking behind Vernazza’s church, you will see the start of the blue path towards Monterosso. Because it’s a national park, you must buy passes at the checking point before starting the hike. A day pass costs 7,50 euros and gives you access to all trails.
With few people in front of us and only a few stops, we kept a good pace and arrived in Monterosso in 1h 20m. Some parts of the trail are extremely narrow, allowing one person at a time, so if it’s a busy day you may need to wait before going through.
I strongly advise you to do this hike in the morning or afternoon. For some reason, the trails are packed at lunchtime (when it’s also the warmest, of course) and even more importantly, to hike from Vernazza to Monterosso. If you go the opposite way, you’ll encounter hundreds of steep steps for the first half hour. We were very glad to be descending instead of ascending!Bring enough water, no places to fill it up!!
In high season, most of the beaches in Italy have only a small part that remains open to the public (and normally not the most beautiful part, like here). In Monterosso, to enjoy the comfy daybeds for a day, you must pay at least 8 euros a person and 4 more for the umbrella. But if you’re coming only for a quick dip like us, you can just leave your stuff on the rocks and dive right in.
After cooling off in the sea, we picked up a focaccia (also famous in the area) and caught the train to Corniglia, where it was time for more lunges. Although there are hundreds of stairs up to town, it was actually easier than we thought, as the steps were quite small.
For lunch or dinner, Cantina de Mananan is a MUST, as you can enjoy original, award winning food surrounded by unique authentic décor.
We tried the testarolo, which is a typical pancake consumed as pasta with pesto sauce (which is also from Liguria region). Their deserts are also to die for!
After a filling lunch, it was time to walk again, why not?! Since our B&B was located on the blue path from Corniglia to Vernazza, we decided to just hike back!!!
After only a few minutes, you can catch an amazing view of Corniglia from a distance!
And of Vernazza one hour later:
Again – for the sake of your knees – I’d recommend hiking from Corniglia to Vernazza instead of visa versa, since you’re starting from a high point and it’s mostly downhill.
For sunset this evening, we took the boat to Manarola.
The highlight of this town is admiring its beauty from Nessun Dorma’s terrace while sipping wine and eating bruschettas and prosciutto with melone as the sun goes down!!
Then walk down into town and see its beauty at the magic golden hour:
If you still have space, Tratoria dal Billy is a great (and popular) place for dinner, where you can enjoy amazing pastas with pesto, truffle and seafood overlooking the town.
Our train back from Vernazza to Milan was at 2pm, so decided to spend the morning relaxing in Vernazza and getting to know it better, visiting its church, Castel Doria and enjoying the sea.
A great option for a casual breakfast or lunch is Il Pirata Delle Cinque Terre, at the end of the main road, far from the craziness of tourists.
As you can see, a trip to Cinque Terre very much revolves around food (HA, welcome to Italy), wine and hiking for views! If you want to take a day to relax, you can also arrange a day tour around the towns and beaches with boatmen in the harbor or take a day trip to Portovenere and the Islands around it.