Cinque Terre, Italy

Beautiful and charming Vernazza

Italy, Travel | March 3, 2015 | By

The Cinque Terre is made up of five main fishing villages – Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore (from north to south).  The villages are set against some of the most beautiful and dramatic coastal scenery in the world with its steeply terraced cliffs.  The best way to travel between the villages is by train as the travel time between each village is mere minutes.  If you prefer to take on the 12 km hike through all five villages, start at one end and then take the train back to your starting point!  I prefer to stay/start the hike in Monterosso al Mare and take the train back from Riomaggiore.  The nearby villages of Levanto and Portovenere aren’t technically part of the Cinque Terre but are breathtaking and worth checking out if you have the time.

Best time to visit…

The ideal time to visit the Cinque Terre is mid-May to mid-September.  If you want to hike, the ideal season is mid-March to mid-October.  Some of the hiking trails may not be accessible due to heavy rainfall in winter and fall.  Cinque Terre is famous for the biggest Presepe in the world in the winter (located in the Manarola).  Avoid traveling here at all costs in August which is peak season…you’ll end up paying three times as much!

Getting there…

The best airports to fly into are Pisa (easiest), Genoa or Milan.  Monterosso is approximately 1.5 hours from Genoa and La Spezia is the closest city of any.  La Spezia station is the main transport hub and you can reach any Cinque Terre town via train from there.  It takes approximately 10 minutes to get from La Spezia to Riomaggiore and less than 5 minutes in between each town.  The trains generally run once an hour and the train tickets are cheap (Vernazza to Corniglia costs €1.80).  Make sure you validate your train ticket at one of the small yellow machines located on the train platform to time stamp your ticket and avoid a hefty fine!  Private vehicles are not allowed beyond village entrances so if you’re arriving by car, you may need to pay to park in designated car parks (€2.30 per hour or €19 per 24 hours) then hike 1 km or more to the villages or take the minibus shuttles (if offered in your village).

From late March to October, daily shuttle boats run between all of the Cinque Terre villages with the exception of Corniglia (€16 one way including all stops, €21 return on weekdays and €23 on weekends).  This is a fabulous way to see the coastline and view each town entering from the sea!

Where to stay…

Monterosso al Mare is the northernmost village and the largest of the five villages so most of the larger hotels are located here.  You’ll find an old town, a new town, a nice sandy beach and a long seaside promenade.  The La Spiaggia Hotel is a family run hotel right on the beach in Monterosso al Mare.  Like all hotel rooms in Italy, the rooms are small but you can’t beat the location.  The owner, Andrea Poggi, has quite an interesting personality…you may love him or hate him.  The hotel is steps from the train station and offers free parking at the property.  Get off the train at Monterosso al Mare, turn right and walk for 1 minute past the restaurants and cafes.

La Spiaggia Hotel (2-Star, Monterosso al Mare)
Via Lungomare, 98, 19016 Monterosso al Mare, Italy
+39 0187 81 75 67

Hotel Pasquale (3-star, Monterosso al Mare)
Via Fegina 4, 19016 Monterosso al Mare, Italy
+39 0187 81 74 77

A weekend in….Cinque Terre, Italy

Friday

As soon as you step off the train in Monterosso al Mare, you’ll immediately find yourself on the Ligurian seafront of the Fegina promenade.  Monterosso is divided into the old town and the new town by a single tunnel used by pedestrians and the few cars that are in town.  You’ll find a free small pebble beach right in front of the train station with beach resorts to the right and the left (the only beach resorts of the Cinque Terre).  Monterosso’s sandy beach is also the biggest of the Cinque Terre so if you’re a beach lover, you will love it here.

Stepping off the train in Monterosso

Stepping off the train in Monterosso

Check into your hotel then head through the tunnel to wander the streets of old Monterosso.  The old town is made up of pedestrian cobblestone streets lined with shops and restaurants.  Visit the medieval historical centre which lies on the summit of the hill of San Cristoforo.  Marvel at the castle that overlooks the sea with its three round towers, the Aurora Tower which is the only surviving tower out of thirteen towers that protected the village, and take in the panoramic view from the Church of St. Francis.  Afterwards, go to Bar Bagni Alga, a great little beach bar serving snacks with beautiful views of the sea from the patio, for a pre-dinner drink while you sit just above the beach and watch the breathtaking sunset over the water.

Bar Bagni Alga (Monterosso al Mare)
Località Corone, 19016 Monterosso al Mare, Italy
+39 338  889 9326
$

Drinks and snacks at Bar Bagni Alga

Drinks and snacks at Bar Bagni Alga overlooking the beautiful sunset

View from the bar

View from the bar

After you enjoy your sunset drinks, head to dinner at Gastronomia San Martino.  This little family run cucina restaurant is off the main walkway with the most magnificent food!  The menu changes every night and you order at the counter then sit at one of the 6 small tables in the restaurant.  Grab a table set in the alley to people watch then head to the mellow, pub-style bars on Via Roma for an after dinner drink.  I clearly am enjoying the seafood spaghetti and the delicious bottles of wine (8 euros each).  Yum!

Gastronomia San Martino (Monterosso al Mare)
Via San Martino 3, 19016 Monterosso al Mare, Italy
+39 338 569 9017
$

The best seafood spaghetti in Monterosso

The best seafood spaghetti in Monterosso

Saturday

Cinque Terre is famous for its walking paths and trails.  Some people hike all five villages but if you would like a taste of the hike and don’t want to commit to the 12 km hike, try the Monterosso to Vernazza trail which is 3.5 km long and takes a little under two hours.

Start your journey in Monterosso al Mare after your complimentary breakfast and latte in the lobby of the La Spiaggia Hotel.  The first town you will arrive at is Vernazza, a magical one street town built on the water and situated on an impressive cliff.  I find Vernazza to be the prettiest of all five villages with its beautiful harbor and cobblestoned main street.  The small alleys and colorful houses give this village its beautiful charm.  You’ll want to visit the church of Santa Margherita of Antiochia, a 1318 church built on sea rock with its back to the piazza and the lookout towers of the 11th-century Castello Doria with its stunning aerial views of the region (1.5 euro fee).  Hike to the tree-lined square of Sanctuary of Nostra Signora di Reggio or enjoy a drink on the gorgeous waterfront piazza!

Walking through the town to the viewpoint

Walking through town to the viewpoint

The view overlooking charming Vernazza

The view overlooking charming Vernazza

Stop for a drink or gelato in the piazza

Stop for a drink or gelato in the piazza before leaving Vernazza

You’ll then reach Corniglia, the only town in the Cinque Terre that can’t be reached from the sea and situated on a cliff 100 meters high.  Climb the 365 steps up to the center of town for an amazing sweeping panoramic view of the coastline.  Pass the Gothic church of San Pietro and walk through the 18th century square “Largo Taragio” (the main square of the village) with the Oratory of Santa Caterina that stands over the houses.  Continue to the scenic terrace of Santa Maria to be rewarded with glorious uninterrupted views of the entire coast of the Cinque Terre.  If you’d rather sunbathe than climb, discover the clothing-optional private beach of Guvano that only locals seem to know about.  Head down a narrow flight of stairs above and to the right of the train platform and follow a brick coastal wall and turn right until you come to a tunnel with a metal gate.  Ring the bell to the left and wait to be buzzed in.  Walk down the path for 10 minutes until you arrive at a private vineyard overlooking two breathtaking beaches.  Pay the gatekeeper 5 euros and enjoy paradise!

The 365 steps to the top of Corniglia

The 365 steps to the top of Corniglia

Beautiful view from Santa Maria Terrace

Breathtaking view from Santa Maria Terrace

Beautiful Corniglia

Beautiful Corniglia!

You’re next village is the medieval town of Manarola, the smallest village of the Cinque Terre and the oldest!  Manarola is a one street town with a small harbor for swimming with a long tradition of producing wine and olive oil which come from the hills above Manarola.  This area is known for two specialty wines: Cinque Terre white, a dry, tangy blend of three different grapes and sciacchetrà, a super-sweet late-harvest dessert wine generally reserved for special occasions.  Historians believe that the name from this town comes from “magna rota” meaning “big wheel” for a wheel of a water mill.  You can still see the old mill that was recently restored in the lower part of the city.  In the upper part of the city, you will find the Gothic church of San Lorenzo which was built in 1338 with three beautiful naves and baroque interior.  Visit the white bell tower, an ancient watchtower, the ancient San Rocco Hospital and the Oratory of Disciplinati della Santissima Annunziata that dates around 1400.  Manarola is one of the most picturesque villages with its brightly colored tower-houses and steep, narrow alleyways leading to the sea.

Your last and final village is Riomaggiore with its one main street, a harbor, rocky beach, castle, church, pharmacy and a dozen restaurants.  The houses on Riomaggiore have two entries: one at level of one street and the other at the level of the upper street.  The houses were built this way in 1500 when a quick escape route was necessary in case of Saracenic raids.  Take in the panoramic view from Castello sul colle di Cerricò and visit the church of San St. Lawrence with its 14th century bell tower behind it that was once used as a watchtower.  The Via dell’Amore (“Lovers Lane”) is a wonderful paved and flat path carved into the mountain that begins in Riomaggiore and ends in Manarola that takes you on a relatively easy 30 minute walk along the water and rock and provides inspiring views and romantic nooks.  The Via dell’Amore is also the first segment of the Sentiero Azzurro or the Blue Trail, a five-hour and somewhat challenging hiking trail that connects all five villages (5 euros for a daily pass). 

View of Riomaggiore from the sea

View of Riomaggiore from the sea

Take the Cinque Terre train back to Monterosso.  Rest and clean-up for the best meal you will experience in Italy.  Michelin recommended Ristorante Miky is hands down one of the best restaurants in the Cinque Terre.  Their ingredients are top notch, as is their menu, presentation and service.  What makes their dishes stand out is that they serve most of their main courses baked in pizza dough so that the flavors steam and meld inside until it’s time to eat the delicious pizza crust!  Make a reservation for a table on the outside patio and enjoy the view of the ocean with a good Borolo or Barberresco wine.  The restaurant is closed on Tuesday nights.  Make sure you make a reservation in advance, when we arrived for our reservation they were turning away EVERYONE without a reservation.  You cannot go wrong with the seafood risotto and ravioli!

Ristorante Miky (Monterosso al Mare)
Via Fegina 104, 60015 Monterosso al Mare, Italy
+39 0187 81 76 08
$$$$

An amazing seafood risotto and experience at Miky

An amazing seafood risotto and experience at Miky

Sunday

Take the morning to sleep in as you’re most likely exhausted from your day of walking!  You’ll want to stop in at Nuovo Bar Eden for a cappuccino or a snack.  Nuovo Bar is perfectly located above the golden sand in the new part of Monterosso with a terrace that feels like you are sitting right on top of the water.  The prices are great and they serve a variety of dishes from snacks to substantial meals.  The service is wonderful and you can’t beat the free Wi-Fi that they offer to catch up on e-mails or current events! 

Nuovo Bar Eden (Monterosso al Mare)
Via Fegina 7, 60015 Monterosso al Mare, Italy
+39 0187 81 82 56
$$

Sitting on the terrace at Nuovo Bar Eden

Sitting on the terrace at Nuovo Bar Eden

View of Monterosso Beach

View of Monterosso Beach

Head to the beach for the remainder of the afternoon and enjoy your last few hours in the Cinque Terre.  You can rent a beach chair with an umbrella for an hourly fee at the Bagni Eden beach club or take advantage of the free beach (albeit pebbly).  Find a sunny rock from which to read or write or just stare at the sea and take in the beauty!  If you have room for a last meal, have lunch at one of the three tables overlooking the sea at L’Ancora della Tortuga, a new restaurant housed in a converted bunker that was used during World War II.  The kitchen specializes in fish and houses spectacular views from its location on a cliff.  Simply divine!

L’Ancora della Tortuga (Monterosso al Mare)
Salita Cappucini, 6, 60015 Monterosso al Mare, Italy
+39-0187-80-00-65
$$$

Panda’s Tips for the Cinque Terre

  • Bring mosquito repellent if you are planning to walk on the trails!
  • Book hotel reservations and train tickets in advance as they tend to sell out especially during high season.
  • There are markets in La Spezia on Fridays (bargain clothes and shoes), Forte Dei Marmi on Wednesdays (designer discount clothes) and Levanto on Wednesdays (food and clothes)
  • Take a day trip to Portovenere on the ferry if you have the time!
  • The tip is generally included in the price of the meal (especially if you see a cover charge) but some people choose to round the bill up and leave extra.
  • Liguria is the birthplace of pesto, try a pesto pasta!
  • The house wine in Italy is amazing!  Simply ask for red or white wine.  Try a glass of the Sciacchetrà, the local sweet wine, with a biscotto cookie for dipping.
  • Significant discounts are often available if you purchase your train tickets in advance online here

 

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