Cinque Terre is comprised of five incredibly colourful fishing villages, each perched on jagged cliff sides and surrounded by teal waters. This place is Instagram heaven and one of the most bucket-list worthy places around. The villages and coastline are not only part of the Cinque Terre National Park, but also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fun fact, Italy is home to 50 UNESCO sites, the largest of any country. With its national park status ensuring no large hotel chains or fast food joints have been able to set up shop, it’s like stepping into a time warp void of any modern day eyesores we’re so accustomed to (I’m talking about you McDonald’s and your shiny golden arches). With five colourful villages to choose from, you’re going to have a hard time choosing your favourite.
Like all the villages, Riomaggiore has been well preserved and still maintains its rustic charm. While it may be a tourist town, you can still experience local Italian life as you watch women hang laundry out their windows and elderly men whistle together on park benches.
Best table in town: The most popular activity to do here is grab a take away pizza or paper cone of seafood and enjoy it by the harbor as the sun goes down.
Best view point: To get that golden shot of Riomaggiore from the water, head down to the rocky outcrop by the harbor and start climbing over all those rocks.
Arguably one of the most photogenic towns of Cinque Terre, Manarola is also a favourite amongst couples as it is considered the most romantic of all the villages. While there’s no beach here, that doesn’t stop the summer crowds from laying their towels on any rock and square metre of the boat ramp they can find. If you’re thinking of doing this, I highly recommend bringing an inflatable lilo for some added comfort.
Best table in town: For the table with the best view in town head to Nessun Dorma. This place is blowing up all over social media thanks to its Insta-worthy views. To find it simply follow the path along the marina until you get to the bend, then take the staircase up and look for the line of people. Given that the Italian Riviera is the home of pesto, you know it’s going to be the freshest, tastiest pesto you’ll ever have in your life. So when it comes to choosing which bruschetta to get for lunch, make sure you go with the pesto option.
Best view point: The cemetery at the top of the hill just above Nessun Dorma is one of the best-kept secrets in town. While it is open to tourists and was actually recommended to us at the tourist information centre, the crowds that gather along the marina never tend to make it up there. Remember it is a cemetery so be respectful.
Corniglia is the most unique of the five villages, perched on a hill amongst rolling hills and vineyards. To reach the town you’ll need to climb the 365 steps from the train station below, or alternatively take the shuttle bus that occasionally appears. As it takes a little more effort to reach this village, it’s by far the quietest of them all.
Best table in town: For dramatic ocean views, head to Bar Terza Terra’s outdoor terrace that’s perched on the edge of the village.
Best view point: This postcard perfect shot you’ve seen of Vernazza on everyones Instagram can be found in the first 15 minutes of the hiking trail towards Monterosso. Be sure to have cash or your Cinque Terre Card, as this is part of the paid hiking trail. If we’re talking about epic photo spots in Cinque Terre, then this viewpoint wins hands down. It’s also a great reward for those hiking from Monterosso to Vernazza, as THIS is the view you get coming into town.
For a different view of Vernazza head to the back of town and start the trail that heads in the direction of Corniglia. The viewpoint here is before the official trail so you won’t need your Cinque Terre card. You can also get some great views from the top of Castello Doria.
Best table in town: There are 3 gelatarias in Vernazza, I personally only went to Gelateria da Stalin (three times) and found it to be the best gelato I had in Italy. The honey and lemon flavours in particular were delicious, both of which were made from locally grown produce.
Monterosso is the largest of the five villages and renowned for its colourful umbrellas that stretch along the coastline. While it may not be as quaint as the other villages, it does offer a modern resort like vibe, with the town spread out across flat land rather than the hilly cobblestone stairways that make up the other villages. It’s these qualities along with its beach and seaside promenade that make Monterosso one of the more unique towns. It should be noted that the majority of the beach is private (everywhere there are deck chairs and umbrellas), but there are still a few small areas known as the free ‘public beach’ where you don’t need to pay to lay your towel.
Best table in town: Without a doubt the best pasta I had in Italy was at the small family fun Gastronomia San Martino. You can either get some take away pasta and eat it by the beach, or cozy up to the other tourists in their quant outdoor eating area that seats 12. We went there 3 nights in a row and I still dream of their shrimp, tomato, asparagus and pesto pasta.
Best view point: To get that classic beach shot walk to the end of the promenade in the direction of Vernazza, you’ll get a delightfully colourful photo of rows and rows of umbrellas popping against the turquoise waters and pastel buildings.
Where to Stay
As the villages in Cinque Terre are quiet small, accommodation is limited and books out months in advance, so be sure to plan ahead. I personally stayed in Monterosso as it had the largest variety of new and modern accommodation options, while also being easy to wheel a suitcase around with it being the flattest of all the towns.
That being said, don’t get too caught up deciding which village to make your home base as they’re all beautiful and equally Instagram coma inducing. Wherever you decide, be sure to get specific directions to your accommodation, as the labyrinth of hills and stairs can be very confusing and locating a street name almost impossible.
To Do: Explore
In my opinion, the best thing to do in Cinque Terre is simply wander the villages and soak up all the colour and beauty (with a gelato in hand of course).
To Do: Swim
Coming from Australian beaches, I’m never going to understand the European past time of lying on pebble beaches, rocks or slabs of concrete at the marina, but you work with what you’ve got. If my European summer taught me anything, it was to always have a yoga mat or some form of inflatable on hand, or be willing to splurge the €15 for a sun lounger and umbrella. When it comes to Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore may have a small pebble beach but Monterosso is your best option if you’re looking for a lounge chair to sun yourself on. Manarola and Vernazza also have a few areas to jump in the water by the marina.
To Do: Hike
Heavy storms, landslides and flooding devastated the region in 2011, almost destroying the towns of Monterosso and Vernazza and killing 13 people. The towns have since been returned to their shining glory, while parts of the hiking trails are still a work in progress. If you wish to hike any of the ‘blue trails’, which are the most popular trails along the coast between the villages, you’ll need to buy a Cinque Terre Card. This can be purchased at the train station of any of the five villages for €7,50. You can also buy a pass that includes unlimited train travel between the villages and access to the blue trails for €16 (one day pass).
The trails between Riomaggiore and Manarola, known as Via Del Amore (The Lovers Lane) still remain closed due to the landslides, as does the Manarola to Corniglia trail. So as of now, the only blue trails currently open are Monterosso to Vernazza and Vernazza to Corniglia. However, don’t let the closed trails put you off, as there are other trails that wind further above the hills of the villages. They’re longer and more physically demanding than the blue trails, but they’re free and don’t require the Cinque Terre Card.
The quickest and cheapest way to travel between the villages is to take the local train. During the summer months they run every 20 or so minutes, however outside of summer they can be every hour. Tickets are a couple of euros (one-way) and each village is only a matter of 3-5 minutes from the next. You also have the slower, more expensive but scenic option of taking the ferry between villages. Don’t forget Corniglia has no marina, so you’ll need to take the train there.
If you’re arriving by train, you’ll quickly learn that Cinque Terre is not an available destination. You’ll first need to travel to La Spezia before transferring to a local train for the last 15 minutes, which will take you to any of the five villages.