‘5 Terre’ – I kept seeing it written everywhere, and after 4 days it dawned on me that ‘cinque’ is 5 and after a quick Google ‘terre’ is lands. Durrh. Makes sense, the Cinque Terre is made up of 5 towns along the west coastline of Italy south of Genoa – Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. Together they make up the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre.
Cinque Terre Guide
Before I came I didn’t quite understand what the Cinque Terre was and a lot of the people I’d told I was going had never even heard of it. So just for them, here’s my quick guide to the Cinque Terre.
I’d first seen it on one of those viral ‘10 places to see before you die’ kind of articles. I couldn’t believe the photos were real. I can now confirm the photos you see are genuine. You don’t need any kind of Photoshop or filter to make the Cinque Terre look good.
What to expect
The core trade in the Cinque Terre is wines and olives – the cultivation and selling of. The overriding business however is tourism. The whole area has been certified as a UNESCO Heritage Site and it’s not difficult to see why.
The dry stone walls follow the coastline – it’s said they’re even longer than the Great Wall of China. Narrow lanes, colourful houses, rugged coastline and beautiful churches make up the Cinque Terre in a nutshell.
Middle class fit Brits, Australians and Americans flock here every year. I’d estimate about 80% of them were over 50 and the rest were either backpacking Ozzies or young British couples after a romantic break, maybe looking for the perfect location to pop the question. Not that I’ve sat people watching and making up stories or anything.
The five towns
Working upwards from south to north here’s a guide to what to expect from the five villages that make up the Cinque Terre.
Riomaggiore is the biggest village of the five. Come out the train station and if it’s open the Vill’d Amore – the famous love walk – is the first thing you’ll see on the left. Unfortunately for me it wasn’t open so I had to go right. I did go up and have a little look at what could’ve been though. I clocked an excellent bar that was built into the side of the mountain and would be perfect to try the Cinque Terre wine if you haven’t yet sampled it. The views across the sea were incredible.
In Riomaggiore I tried fried anchovies and calamari (€5), and it was honestly the best of both I’d ever had. Fat, juicy and delicious. Riomaggiore has the same Cinque Terre souvenir shops you’ll see in all the villages and a few bars, a fruit shop and some clothes shops too. The village is on a slope and easy to walk around, although I guarantee you’ll be stopping every few minutes to take a photo.
Once you’ve gone through the tunnel to exit the train station go downstairs and you’ll find the snorkel and scuba shop I was talking about. Carry on and you’ll come out at the marina where you can start the walk to Porto Venere, if you like, or just chill out and watch the world go by.
Manarola is the next village along and my favourite. This is where I spent most of my time as it’s where I stayed, happily coincidentally it’s also the one that’s photographed most when you read about the Cinque Terre. It was a bit dull and rainy until about 10am, and then the skies cleared up, which is why I look like that on the photo.
If there’s one thing you need to do in Manarola it’s to try the pistachio gelato in the village ice cream shop. God it was good. I went twice.
There are a few cafes and restaurants in Manarola – Da Billys is the most famous. Make sure you book before to get a spot, I couldn’t get in. Or was that because I was on my own? I don’t like to assume.
If you’ve got some money to spend and want to know more about the Cinque Terre, there’s a tourist shop here where you can organise tours to go wine tasting, up in a helicopter or on a private boat ride. They start at €25.
I hiked around Manarola quite a bit and found this graveyard built into the hillside. All the graves were in the wall and all had pretty flowers and photos accompanying them. If you have to be buried, this seems like a good final resting place!
Make sure to bring your swimming kit to Manarola, the marina is beautiful and the perfect antidote to a day spent hiking the Cinque Terre trails. There are plenty of shops to grab some focaccia bread on the fly here too. Just keep an eye on the prices: I paid €4.50 for a slice and then realised the shop over the road was selling it for €2. Let’s just hope it was better quality.
This is the smallest of the villages, but definitely worth a look. I hiked the opposite way from Vernazza and ended here.
Corniglia is the highest of all the mountain villages and if you walk down to the train station you have to escalate about 100 two-inch steps. I feel it would actually be quicker to walk to the next village instead.
I wandered around for a few hours in Corniglia, but didn’t actually spend a cent. There are some stunning views out to the sea, some cliff side bars and from the looks of it a very popular gelato shop, although I didn’t indulge.
Aah, my second favourite Cinque Terre town. On the approach to Vernazza from the trails of Monterosso I felt a bit emotional at how beautiful the village was.
The marina here is the life and soul and I let my quivery legs recover by chilling at the waterfront watching the tourists attempt paddleboarding.
Monterosso is the most touristy of the villages. There’s a rough sand beach complete with sun loungers and umbrellas for a fee, a beach bar (great anchovy salad) and plenty of water sports to keep you busy. When the sun comes out it gets pretty hectic.
Don’t just hang at the beach, make sure to explore the town too. I nearly missed it. There are some really cool black and white churches here and a buzzing food and drink scene. Like the rest of the Cinque Terre there are some stunning buildings and it’s a good uphill walk to see all the village.
Don’t buy gelato from the guys in this shop. It wasn’t a patch on the gelato in Manarola – tasted like tub ice cream – and the guy was a real ‘one’ too.
Things to do
There’s loads to do in the Cinque Terre for an active traveller, and for a lazy one too. This Cinque Terre guide covers the lot…
One of the main reasons for tourists to visit the area is to hike between the villages. Note that at certain times of the year, and depending on the weather some paths are closed. This was the case when I was there and I could only do two of the paths – Monterosso to Vernazza and Vernazza to Corniglia. That was enough for my clicking knees though – honestly don’t know how all the old dears were doing it.
(Thanks to goeurope.about.com for the map)
Here’s an idea of the approximate times and distances according to the Cinque Terre guidebook I got from the tourist information shop…
- Porto Venere to Levanto (the full trail) – 12hrs – 24.6km
- Riomaggiore to Manarola – 20m – 1km (closed when I went)
- Manarola to Corniglia – 1hr – 3km (closed when I went)
- Corniglia to Vernazza – 1hr 30 – 4km
- Vernazza to Monterosso – 2hrs – 3km (read about how I did it the other way round, from Monterosso to Vernazza)
You’ll need plenty of water, sun lotion, a camera, sturdy shoes, a good attitude and strong knees to make the paths. Walking pole optional.
If you don’t fancy hiking between the villages in the Cinque Terre you could kayak. You can rent a kayak out from the marina in Riomaggiore for €7 per day. I didn’t try this but I would definitely have given it a go if I wasn’t travelling by myself. There were plenty of other people trying it out. The waters seemed calm and you could easily pull your kayak up in the next village and reward your efforts with some of the Cinque Terre food and drink.
There’s a snorkelling and scuba diving shop at Riomaggiore marina. Every day at 10.30am, weather permitting, you could join the snorkelling trip for €20. I tried to book on but I only had one day left and he said it was going to rain, so I went to Portofino instead. The rain had finished by 8am, but que sara sara.
If it’s a no to hiking and a no to kayaking, you can always get a boat between the five villages. Buy the Cinque Terre day pass and you can ride the ferry boat schedule all the way round, all day long. Alternatively you can get one of the local taxi boat owners to take you where you need to go. It’s up to you to bargain a fee.
When I was in the Cinque Terre I was trying to do it on a budget and decided I didn’t need a boat trip – the views were incredible from land. Then, when I couldn’t get on the snorkelling trip, I decided to do the boat trip from Manarola to Portofino for the day (€25). I was so glad I did. Approaching each village from the sea to pick up passengers gave a whole new perspective on the beauty of the area that photos could never do justice to. I’d strongly advise taking a boat trip when you’re in the Cinque Terre, both in the day and at dusk, if possible.
Boat trip to Portofino
The boat trip to Portofino was a great experience. I was at the harbour bright and early (8amish) to buy my ticket for the only departure at 9:40am. The ticket office opened at 9:30am and a few minutes later I was on my way. The day I went, the 12th September, was the last trip for the year and it started in early May. The trip is weather permitting.
We did pick ups in Vernazza, Monterosso and Levanto which took three hours. I’d managed to bag a great seat on the right hand side, giving an uninterrupted view of the villages as we departed. The ferry had a toilet and held around 200 people.
We had 2 hours 30 mins in Portofino, which was perfect for some lunch and a look around. It really is a beautiful place. I sat and watched the yachts, walked round the village and up to the church, and enjoyed an anchovy pizza at one of the marina restaurants. I’d planned on mussels, but prices were around three times as much as those of the Cinque Terre.
The journey back took a bit less time and we were in Maranola for just gone 5. I couldn’t get this song out of my mind for the whole trip.
Riomaggiore, Manarola and Monterosso were the best villages for swimming. If I had to pick my favourite it would be Manarola – the swimmers were having a great time jumping off the rocks into the clear water. All ages were playing together along the rocky shore and having a lovely time. If you want traditional beach atmosphere go to Monterosso and for a paddle try Riomaggiore.
I flew into Genoa Airport on the 9:20am BA flight from Gatwick. You could also fly into Pisa, which is xx away.
As soon as you exit Genoa airport there’s a train ticket machine but don’t confuse yourself by getting it here like I did, one thing at a time. You can easily buy it at the train station and then you have the chance to ask the guard any questions about your route too.
The nearest train station is about a 10-minute walk away through an industrial estate. I did this because I’m impatient but I recommend you wait for the free airport bus, it wasn’t my favourite experience.
The train ticket from Genoa to La Spezia was €8. I’d read on the internet that I needed to go there and then back out again. I should’ve asked the train ticket office though because what I ended up doing was going to Riomaggiore, one down from Manarola and before La Spezia, and back on myself again on the regional train. It was easy.
Trains go up and down the Cinque Terre all day long. During the day they’re around every 30 minutes. After 6 they change to every hour. Make sure to check the schedule thoroughly if you’re out in the evening. I had a bit of a mare one night and ended up waiting two hours for a train to take me 10 minutes. The information TVs at the stations list the arrivals first for some reason, not departures – which is where I went wrong.
You need to get a ticket for every journey and you need to validate it using the machines on the platforms too. On about three quarters of my journeys the ticket was checked and people were getting busted for not paying. Journeys are around €2 depending where you’re going.
Just to note: 90% of the trains I wanted to get were late.
Food and drink
The food and drink in the Cinque Terre is one of the best things about it. I didn’t realise before I went but one of the main local specialities is anchovies – one of my favourite foods. I’ve got an article to come on the Cinque Terre food and drink I tried, but the absolute musts include the fish. And make sure to try the Cinque Terre homegrown wine too.
Where to stay
I stayed at the Hostel 5 Terre, just behind the church in Manarola. The hostel and I definitely didn’t hit it off straight away – mainly thanks to the expectation being totally different from the reality, and the Wi-Fi didn’t work on the first day – but actually by day two I really liked it. It was only €24 per night and the only option for a solo budget traveller really.
The hostel was in a brilliant location, the iron beds were surprisingly comfy and it was warm and friendly. I actually had some really good night’s sleep here.
I can’t really vouch for anywhere else, but I’d recommend you stay in Manarola and near the marina. These hotels look good based on location, but I haven’t stayed in them.
You don’t hear ‘budget’ and ‘Cinque Terre’ in the same sentence very often – it’s known to be expensive.
I experienced the Cinque Terre as cheaply as I could while still sampling as much of the local food and drink as I liked.
In four days and four nights I spent €138 plus €96 hostel accommodation. Here’s a guide to where that went…
- €6 Liguria speciality (Cinque Terre white wine and anchovy bruschetta)
- €7 anchovy antipasti in the hostel
- €1 bottle of water
- €1.50 bottle of Iced Tea
- €2 yogurt and banana Maranola shop
- €2 cappuccino by the Maranola marina
- €25 boat to Portofino and back
- €17 anchovy pizza and fizzy water in Portofino
- €2.50 for big water, yogurt and cappuccino in the hostel
- €4.50 focaccia in Maranola
- €2.40 train from Maranola to Monterosso
- €10.50 Monteresso salad, small beer and Sciacchetrà wine
- €2.50 ice cream
- €3.50 banana milkshake
- €13 pesto trofie and fizzy water
- €3 strawberroies
- €7.50 trail pass from Vernazza to Corniglia
- €5 fried anchovies and calamari in Riomaggiore
The rest went on water, most likely. I’m always a thirsty girl. I did drink out the taps in my hostel but sometimes only a bottle of cold and purified will do when you’re on holiday.
The only thing I feel I missed out on was the menagerie of seafood available, wine tasting and limoncello – I can deal with that. I would also have liked to do a picnic from the shops – the deli counters looked amazing!
If you are trying to do the Cinque Terre on a budget, you’ll find that one of the best things about it is that there’s so much to do for free. Most of the trails are free, you don’t have to pay to swim and you can find a point to admire the colourful villages for nothing.
How long to go for?
Four days and four nights was perfect for me – I think you can see everything in this time, try a lot of the food and drink and still chill out. Hiking the whole route from Porto Venere to Levanto can be done in a day, if all the trails are open and you’re willing. If you do go to the Cinque Terre try and fit in a snorkelling trip too. I wasn’t organised enough but the waters are so clear and beautiful I’d would’ve loved to see what was down there.
Of course, if you want a longer break you could definitely enjoy a week here, or even longer.
I hope you’ve found this guide to the Cinque Terre useful, just let me know in the comments box below if you have any questions or you plan to visit soon!