Cinque Terre- Helpful tips for exploring the Five Lands
If you are lucky enough to spend some time in Italy, a visit to the Cinque Terre is a must do. Cinque Terre (pronounced Cheen-kweh tehr-reh) is a beautiful area of the Italian Riviera consisting of colorful pastel buildings surrounded by the electric blue water of the Mediterranean.
It’s name stands for Five Lands and refers to the five small fishing villages nestled on the Ligurian Coast. Each village has unique features and its own personality and charm. Depending on which article you read, each town is considered the most beautiful by different authors so you really can’t go wrong. Deciding on which village to stay in is part of the fun of planning your visit to Cinque Terre.
Different Towns of the Cinque Terre
First, let’s break down the different villages from East to West:
Riomaggiore– If traveling in from La Spezia (a common starting point) this will be the first town you come to and is also the largest. It has plenty of amenities and some great restaurants. Once you get off the train, if you walk up the first flight of stairs you come to, there is a restaurant/cafe with sweeping views of the ocean and coastline. This town is known for having a young, fun vibe.
Manarola– This picturesque village is where many iconic photos of Cinque Terre are taken. It is a wine growing town that is a little quieter than some of the others once the sun goes down. But watching the sun go down here is definitely a beautiful site. There is also a small harbor where you can swim in the Mediterranean. If you’re looking for a romantic stay, this may be a good choice.
Corniglia– This is the smallest of the five towns, but should not be taken lightly. This is the only town without direct access to the ocean because it hangs high above on the cliff side. The train station is at the bottom of the cliffs, and the town is at the top of the cliffs and the only way up is using the stairs… there’s a lot of them. So if you are towing a large amount of luggage, you shouldn’t stay in this town unless you also have a pack mule with you. The benefit to this, is that Corniglia is a quiet town away from all the hustle and bustle.
Vernazza– This is arguably the most popular destination of the five. It is known for its picture perfect views featuring a castle and church on the ocean, and ocean side piazza with shops and restaurants. It is a pretty hopping town with lots going on and a great night life. This town is a good blend of everything Cinque Terre has to offer.
Monterosso al Mare– This is the western most town and also the most modern. You may even see some cars here. This is the most resort like town where cruise ships come and drop people off into the crowded streets. This town also has the most hotel options as well as the only true sandy beach in the Cinque Terre. Monterosso is the only one of the towns that is relatively flat. So if you are trying to avoid stairs and steep hills, this could be your spot as long as you don’t mind crowds.
How do you get there?
This can be one of the most frustrating parts of visiting this gorgeous part of the country. Cinque Terre villages are small, with tiny roads and no parking. So if you have a rental car, the best option for you is to park in La Spezia and take the train in. There is a covered garage right at the train station, but you will need to purchase parking in advance because it does fill up during the busy season. If you decide not to heed this warning (like we did regretfully), there are still other options, but no where near as convenient. There is street parking if you’re lucky, and there are also other covered parking garages, but you may have a decent walk or quick cab ride to the station. So the short story is, if you don’t reserve one ahead of time, you will be fine, but you will just add some time and inconvenience to your trip in. If you are using the train to get around Italy, then you have no worries. Just head to La Spezia and hop on the Cinque Terre train at the main station. Trains seemed to run about every 30-60 minutes. The other option is catching the ferry in La Spezia and boating in which is a beautiful way to see the coast and get some amazing pictures of the different towns from the ocean. Just remember that the ferry does not stop at Corniglia as there is no ocean access (see above). For the ferry schedule click HERE
How do I travel between towns?
Assuming you dumped your car off in La Spezia, that won’t be an option. The most popular and quite easy way to travel between villages is by train. If you’re not used to traveling by train, don’t be intimidated. The trains run very often between towns and they are listed on the monitors by direction you are heading (Levanto if you’re heading West and La Spezia if you are headed East). This means that no matter where you get off, the price for your ticket is the same (4 Euros). You can refer above for the direction of the towns, but if you are heading from Riomaggiore (Eastern most town) to Monterosso (Western most town) you will take the Levanto train and the price will be 4 Euros. If you get off at any of the other towns you will need to get another ticket before getting back on the train, even if you are still heading toward Monterosso. ONE IMPORTANT THING TO NOTE- before boarding the train you must time stamp your ticket at the little green boxes placed all over. Put the ticket in and slide to the left and it will stamp your ticket so they know when you are supposed to be on the train. Since every leg, no matter how long is 4 Euros, you should buy a day pass if you plan on stopping at multiple places as you will only pay one price up front and will have unlimited trips on the train. This pass will also give you access to the National Park which is used to walk between towns…. which brings us to our next option…. hiking.
Hiking between the towns brings many people to the region from nature lovers, to backpackers, to photographers, to fitness folks. The Blue trail (or #2 Trail) is one of the most picturesque trails in the world with sweeping views of the Mediterranean and Ligurian Sea for miles. Plus you get to stop every so often at a new town for a cafe’ or gelato or wine… I guess you can have lunch too. Some of the towns are close together and a short walk. Above is the path between Riomaggiore and Manarola called Via dell’Amore and it is about a mile to get between the towns. This is by far the easiest part of the trail and is well paved. As you continue on, the paths get tougher and longer with each passing town. If you are an avid hiker, there is not really a part that can be called difficult, but there are a lot of stairs and ups and downs once you get to Corniglia and beyond traveling west.
The great part about the trail is you can call it quits at any time. If you arrive at a town, and your yearning for prosecco is outweighing your desire to keep climbing, you can easily indulge and then just jump on a train to get to wherever you are headed.
The last option to travel between the towns is by boat which we’ve already covered.
Where should I stay?
Now you are armed with information on the different towns and how to navigate between them so you are ready to decide where to stay. Use the brief descriptions of each town above to pick which one best suits your vacation desires. Some towns have hotels, some only B&B’s, and some you will find it quite difficult to find lodging at all. Whichever you choose, you will need to book well in advance, especially if you are visiting in the peak season of summer. You will hear travelers talk about how back in the day you could get off the train and there would be people holding signs of vacancy and tempting travelers to stay at their place. Those days were gone a decade ago and the demand has surpassed the supply. The tales of the beauty of Cinque Terre has spread all around the world so this location is no longer a hidden gem. You will need to do a little more work ahead of time to secure your place in front of the other thousands of people trying to do the same thing.
Two important pieces of information to remember when booking a place in one of the Cinque Terre towns…
- Don’t search for a place to stay in “Cinque Terre.” Search in the specific town or towns you want to stay. There is a much larger area that is considered the Cinque Terre which would put you well outside the 5 coastal towns. This would make transportation difficult since you don’t have a car and the train stations are miles away. Many of the places online advertise being in the Cinque Terre but they are actually 5 miles inland. If you search for places to stay in Riomaggiore for example, it will give you much more accurate places right in the town that will allow you to walk and train around the Five Lands.
- Consider your packing and amount of luggage when picking a town. We made a point of picking on Corniglia earlier, but remember that all of these towns with the exception of Monterosso are built into the side of cliffs. There are very steep streets and a lot of stairs both in town and in the buildings. Think about how much luggage you are bringing when picking a place. Some will actually list the ease of access on their listing.
For our time on the Ligurian Coast, we picked to spend our nights in Manarola. Although we explored the rest of the towns during the day, we loved that Manarola quieted down at night so we didn’t have to fight for a reservation at the ocean view restaurant/bar. We looked at a bunch of places on airbnb in an attempt to find our perfect perch in the middle of the colorful houses. We did find that place and it was even cooler in person than the pictures on the site. Our balcony was in the middle of the tall colorful buildings with views of the main street below and the ocean.
This was a top floor condo, so there were some stairs, but overall it was easy to access and the views made it all worth it. After we had an awesome dinner in town at La Scogliera we walked up the path on the far side of town (which leads up to an ocean view bar) to a scenic overlook where we watched the sun set over the western towns of the Cinque Terre.
Manarola was perfect for us because we were looking for some peace and tranquility during our stay. Since all the towns are busy during the day with visitors, it was nice that in the evenings and the mornings we had the streets all to ourselves. For early morning risers, the cafe down near the water opens at 8:30 am for your espresso/danish fix, and I “hear” that they even sell gelato that early.
Hopefully this gives you enough information to at least get started with your planning. Just remember not to get too hung up on which town to stay in. Where ever you stay, you will enjoy one of the most beautiful areas of Italy.