Cinque Terre, which literally translates to ‘5 Towns’ was nothing short of amazing. Located on the western coast of Italy, I personally love this area of the country the most. Why? The SCENERY!!! There is absolutely nothing more uniquely beautiful than these little colorful towns built on the edge of cliffs. Throw in Italian pasta, pizza, gelato and wine and you’ve got the perfect mix of a holiday from heaven.
Fortunately, Cinque Terre is small, so all you’ll need is just 2-3 days. You could certainly stay longer to relax and enjoy each place or even see all 5 towns in just one day…it’s all about what you’re looking for! I’ve mapped it all out for you to have the BEST holiday possible, no matter what budget or length of time you’ll be visiting for!
- A little history please?
- How is Cinque Terre set up & How to get there?
- Where to stay?
- The Cinque Terre Card
- Cinque Terre Hiking Trail-a MUST DO!
- How to see Cinque Terre in ONE day
A LITTLE HISTORY PLEASE
The first known inhabitants of this region lived in Monterosso and Vernazza, dating all the way back to the 11th century. I absolutely assumed that all these village would have survived off of fishing, but the only actual fishing village was Monterosso. The rest of the towns lived off vineyards and olive cultivation (another glass of wine, please).
There was a huge decline in the economy from the year 1600 to the 19th century and it wasn’t until the 1970’s that tourism brought back wealth. I was SO surprised to learn (and semi-dissapointed) that the 1970’s was the time when all the houses were painted different colors. In 1997, Cinque Terre’s coastline, the 5 villages and the surrounding hillsides were added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Fortunately, Tren Italia makes navigating all of Italy super seamless. You can arrive by train to La Spezia from Venice, Milan, Florence, Rome, or just about any other city! You certainly do not need to reserve your tickets weeks or months beforehand, as there are SO many large trains that venture there multiple times a day.
All 5 of Cinque Terre’s towns can be accessed by an efficient local train system (although sometimes late) from either the northernmost city of Levanto or the southernmost town of La Spezia. Tren Italia is easy to use and the kiosk is simple to navigate (it can be changed into many different languages)…but beware of pick pockets on the train! You can totally drive to all 5 towns, but it is NOT recommended, as the roads are windy and dangerous, especially for someone not acclimated to them. We had a rental car because we were on a 2 week Euro road trip, so we left our car at the La Spezia parking garage for 3 days (around 20 Euros a day).
From north to south, the towns are as follows:
- Levanto (not one of the 5 towns, but an important entry city)
- Monterosso-the town with a proper beach
- Vernazza-our favorite and most picturesque
- Corniglia-the most quiet
- Manarola– great for sunsets
- Riomaggiore-SUPER picturesque as well
- La Spezia (not one of the 5 towns, but important entry city)
So, why is this important? Because you have to CHOOSE where to STAY! I did a TON of research and decided that Vernazza was the best fit for us. Why? Because most hotels and Airbnb’s in Vernazza were located right on the water and it is, in my opinion, the most picturesque. I totally think you should do your own research into each town and figure out what is best for what you’re looking for, of course!
If you’re on a budget, you can totally stay in La Spezia or Levanto in a hostel. It seemed to me that all of the 5 towns have all privately owned accommodation, from 5 star luxury to basic Airbnb’s. We are avid Airbnb users, as we travel with our furry dog, Miesha. Our Vernazza Airbnb was is the most perfect location everrrr! Although the Airbnb was totally basic and NOTHING fancy at all, it was all about the location location location for us! The apartment was situated in the CENTER of town, 2 steps from the beach. We had restaurants, the hiking trail and all the possible fun right outside our door! If you’re staying with Airbnb, then you MUST STAY HERE! For $33 off your first AIRBNB booking, click HERE for my discount code!
To buy or not to buy…I am NEVER a sucker for these tourist cards, because, I’ll be honest with you, we NEVER get our money’s worth (we’re not really museum people)! UNTIL…Cinque Terre! This is one of the ONLY tourist cards we bought that we actually utilized to the fullest.
Why is it so great? Because the value for the money is a NO brainer if you’re dong an itinerary like ours. Let me explain…
We stayed in Vernazza and did the hike starting in Monterosso. The hike entails traveling to all 5 towns, two of which are by train because part of the trail is closed (see the HIKE details below). We rode the train 4 times that day and did the hike. This would’ve costed 18 Euros for the train and that doesn’t even include the trail entrance of 7.50 Euros.
Essentially, you’ll need the Cinque Terre Card when taking more than four local trains in one day OR when doing the hike from Monterosso to Corniglia. If you’re just visiting the villages (3 or less) by train and NOT walking the trail, then you don’t need the card.
What’s included with the Cinque Terre Card?
Besides entrance to the Blue Trail Hike (Monterosso to Corniglia) and free train rides, the Cinque Terre Card also includes:
- Free wifi! Each station has wifi and its included with the card. Yes please!
- Free museum entry in the Cinque Terre Park
- Toilets-if you’ve traveled before, you now how valuable this is. Toilets all over the world are not free like in the good-old-USA where I come from (wait, you mean that I can’t just pull up to a Taco Bell and run inside to pee?). Normally the toilet costs 1 EURO to enter (eyes rolling). It’s included with the card. Do it, trust me!
- Bus-all buses in each village are free to use with the card as well
What’s the cost then?
I took photos to make life easier:
So where do I get this Cinque Terre Card?
The Internet (it is the 21 century, you know)! While the website looks like it was designed when I used AOL dial up, all you have to do is log on and purchase! If you’re not feeling the website or decide to feel out your intienary when you get there, you can always get the card just about anywhere: at any rail station in all the villages, La Spezia, Levanto, the entry to the hiking trails, or from bus drivers in any of the 5 villages of Cinque Terre. We bought our card just before the start of our hike. But, do note, that if you plan to do the same and start your hike in the morning, the queue for the Card can be rather long (so it’s best to buy online).
If you’re physically capable for a moderate hike, then the Cinque Terre trail is a MUST DO! It was the highlight of our trip and I wish we had time to do it more than once! The trail is also known as Sentiero Azzurro (“Azure Trail”) and it used to connect all 5 towns. Sadly, the last two sections from Corniglia to Manarola to Riomaggiore are now closed. Because you now can only hike from Monterosso to Vernazza to Corniglia, this means that you ABSOLUTELY can do this in one day, but it will be quite strenuous (and totally worth it)!
Info about the trail
We took the train to Monterosso to begin our journey from there, and I highly suggest it! Upon exiting the train, we stopped in the information office and bought a 1-day Cinque Terre Card for 29 Euro for two people. This gave us entry to the trail and unlimited usage of the bathrooms, train and bus all day. The trail is well marked-it’s called the BLUE TRAIL-but it is NOT easy! There are a LOT of incline steps and, since we went in the afternoon, it was really HOT. We liked it because most people hike the trail in the morning, which can make it more crowded, so, if you can handle the heat, go in the afternoon and you’ll basically have the trail to yourself! Be SURE to bring LOTS of water (there isn’t much for sale along the way), snacks, a hat, sunscreen, your bathing suit, a towel and wear tennis shoes! The entire hike (to 3 towns) and visiting all 5 towns (train to the last 2 towns), takes around 6-8 hours in total.
Itinerary for the hike
STOP 1: MONTEROSSO
Monterosso is the BEST for the beach, and you’ll quickly realize that when you exit the train station. The beach is SO crowded, but totally gorgeous! If you didn’t stock up on water and snacks, be sure to do it here, because the hike form Monterosso to Vernazza is 2 hours+. The trail hugs the coastline, so be prepared for BREATHTAKING VIEWS-camera ready! You’ll see lemon trees, vineyards and, if you’re lucky, locals coming down the mountain on the coolest motorized cart I’ve ever seen!
STOP 2: VERNAZZA
Upon arriving in Vernazza, you’ll totally have worked up an appetite! I have to be honest, all the restaurants we tried that came recommended in Cinque Terre are the same touristy restaurants with mediocre food. These restaurants never plan to see you again, so they don’t exactly put a lot of love into their food or service. Our favorite spot was a tiny, family run pizza place in town that sold slices and beer, so we stopped for lunch to enjoy that.
Vernazza is such a picturesque little town. Get lost roaming the back streets or post up on the small beach to catch some rays. If you have the time while in Vernazza, head up to Doria Castle for a drink and beautiful views. There is also a Sea Cave, which is fun to explore!
STOP 3: CORNIGLIA
Fortunately, the hike from Vernazza to Corniglia only takes about an hour. Corniglia is an equally adorable little town with lots of cute streets and shops to discover. Upon arriving we got ice cream at a friendly little shop and walked about the city to check out some souvenirs.
After your time exploring Corniglia, you’ll have to head to the train station, which is located about 10 minutes walking outside the city. From here, you can venture to the next town of Manarola.
STOP 4: MANAROLA
Manarola is the best town to watch the sun set over Cinque Terre, but we were so exhausted by this point and Miesha (our fluffy dog) was waiting back at our Airbnb, so we didn’t have enough time to stay. But you totally should!!! If you decide to go the sunset route, I suggest taking the train form Corniglia to the 5th town of Riomaggiore and then back track to Manarola for sunset.
Manarola is another quaint and beautiful, colorful city. If you head toward the water and then take a right, there is an awesome walking path that offers up picturesque views of the town!
STOP 5: RIOMAGGIORE
By the time we reached the beautiful town of Riomaggiore, we were absolutely dead tired, so we didn’t explore too much. There are a lot of shops and restaurants in the center of the city, which are absolutely worth a visit. Then head toward the water to take in all the beauty of this town!
I’ve had soooo many friends message me and ask how to see all 5 villages in one day because they were just passing through the region. This is TOTALLY possible, but note you will be tired (obviously). I suggest staying in La Spezia, buying a one day Cinque Terre Card and taking the first train out in the morning to Monterosso. You can do the hike and/or the train and back track all the way back to La Spezia in the evening.
Cinque Terre is absolutely lovely, but, like other tourist destinations, it is overran with people! We enjoyed Vernazza (where we stayed) the most early in the morning and late in the evening when all the day-trippers had left. Get up early and explore!
If you’re looking for local culture, you may not find it here. Much like Venice, it seems that a lot of locals don’t really live here anymore (I really cannot blame them), unless they’re running the souvenir shops, boutiques or restaurants.
Surprisingly, food, drinks and groceries were quite affordable in Cinque Terre. I truly thought they’d be ridiculously marked up because of the location, but everything was quite reasonable (much cheaper than Venice).
There is a local grocery store in Vernazza (and I’m sure in every town), so you can save cash by buying a few items and cooking inside your Airbnb for a few meals.
Pizza, pastries and ice cream are everywhere so you can absolutely get by on a small food budget here!