“A rocky, austere landscape, similar to Calabria’s harshest, the refuge of fishermen and farmers living meagerly on an ever-smaller shred of beach, the naked and solemn frame of one of the most primitive lifestyles in Italy.” -Eugenio Montale
Cinque Terre, the “five lands” of the Italian Riviera. Five towns, each with their own unique history and personality. Colorful houses, infinite blue sea, lush, green hillsides, and terraces stacked upon terraces, Cinque Terre is the ultimate escape. In the past, this area was a stop on the Grand Tour, a prime target for pirates raids, and even a site of fighting during World War II (notice the German pillboxes in Monterosso al Mare). Now Cinque Terre is known for it’s wine, seafood, lemons, and pesto, not to mention the thousands of tourists who flock here looking for their own escape from life back home. What’s not to love? Whether you’re looking for a relaxing time, an adventure, or a little bit of both, there is plenty to do and see while you’re here.
Cinque Terre is part of the Italian Riviera, in the Liguria region of the country. It is composed of five, small towns (hence the name “Cinque Terre”): from west to east, Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The five villages and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Access to Cinque Terre is easiest by train, as attempting to reach the area by car is quite difficult. Originally the only way into the area was by horse and boat, but with the addition of the train in the 19th century came more visitors and more income. Additionally, the train also affords you the chance to reach all five towns. The best way is to take a local train from La Spezia or, more commonly, from Genoa into Monterosso al Mare. You can also reach Cinque Terre by train from Rome, Milan, and Florence.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN CINQUE TERRE
This is a must for anyone visiting Cinque Terre. Hike through the two millennia-old walking trail that connects the five villages, all part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is protected for its historical and environmental significance. Originally a trail for farmers and donkeys carting various produce, this hike is challenging, but well worth it. The views are incomparable. You’ll walk through towns and along vineyards, between the mountains and the ocean–it’s the best way to truly explore the area. One of the most unique sights on the hike are the seemingly endless terraces that cut across the hillsides, looking more like hanging gardens in the clouds above the sea. One would think that this is not the most ideal location for agriculture, what with the steep cliffsides and salty air, but the creation of terraces (which date back to pre-Roman times) has allowed the locals to grow lemons, olives, grapes for wine, and basil for pesto.
Don’t forget that the trail connects the five towns, so you can choose to do only one or two trails, or take the challenge of doing all four in a single day. Stop at each town along the way and see what they have to offer. Once you reach the end you can take the train back to your starting point for a much-deserved break and maybe a dip in the cool Mediterranean Sea.
Monterosso al Mare
Monterosso is the most northern (and western) town in Cinque Terre. If you’re trying to figure out in which town to stay, this one is a safe bet, as connection to the other towns is easy. Divided into two parts, an old Monterosso in the east and new Monterosso in the west, the town is the most frequented by tourists as it has, by far, the best beaches. Unlike the other towns, Monterosso’s beaches are the only to contain an extensive, sandy shoreline. What’s unique about Cinque Terre is that the locals have been quite resistant to any commercialization, meaning you won’t find any franchise restaurants and hotels. That being said, Monterosso is the most commercialized of the five towns as it offers the most modern amenities, but the least historic character of the area. But what you’ll find is a quaint village where all the locals know each other. Regardless, we’re certain that you’ll come to love and appreciate what Monterosso al Mare has to offer.
Vernazza is one of the only towns in Cinque Terre (in all of the Italian Riviera, really) to resemble a small fishing village: colorful houses, a close proximity to the water, and a small harbor give this town its distinct flavor. Speaking of flavor, it comes as no surprise that the city’s primary income came from fishing, although now it profits more from tourism. Vernazza is one of the most photogenic towns in all of Cinque Terre. Some of the iconic features of the city include the colorful buildings, which enabled fishermen to find their houses when arriving late in the night after fishing all day, and the octagonal bell tower resting on the highest hill of the city. However, not everything has been bright in the town’s history: in 2011 a massive mudslide buried much of the town and caused flooding throughout. Monterosso al Mare was another victim of this disaster. As a result, five people lost their lives. While obviously tragic, today the city still retains its bright demeanor and continues to attract tourists from all over the world.
Corniglia is unlike the other towns in Cinque Terre for a few reasons. For one, it is not found next to the sea, rather it is on a 100-meter promontory overlooking the sea, surrounded on three sides by vineyards and terraces. Because of this, Corniglia is well-known for its wine, with the Roman poet Pliny the Elder calling the wine of the region as “lunar wine.” Also, it’s the only town to have been founded during Roman times. As such, Corniglia retains a unique personality. Cabeza Tip: Make sure to visit the Corniglia Harbor and Guvano Beach.
Manarola is the second smallest of the towns in Cinque Terre, but there is no shortage of personality. Colorful houses slope down to the harbor, where plenty of jellyfish can be spotted. Walkways hug the edge of the city, offering spectacular views of the sea and the cities north. Interestingly, the local dialect, Manarolese, is slightly different from the other dialects in the region. The famous Via dell’Amore, a path that connects Manarola to Riomaggiore, is accessible from here as well, although it has been closed since the mudslide of 2011.
The most southern town in Cinque Terre is Riomaggiore. It is also the smallest of the five villages. As the town closest to the Florence, this is the first stop for most visitors, and second to Monterosso insofar as modern development. Historically it has access to the Via dell’Amore from here, which would take you to Manarola, but again, it has been closed since the mudslide of 2011. Fingers crossed that it opens soon!
Striated cliffsides meets clear Mediterranean water meets Inception-like landscape with a “clothing-optional” twist. A secret beach accessible only by braving the 20-minute, pitch-black walk through an old railway tunnel. Are you intrigued yet? Hike to, or depart the train at Corniglia and follow the pathway down into a maze of local homes. You’ll find the mouth of the tunnel painted with aquatic scenery. Make sure to donate to the preservation of Guvano Beach and greet the locals under the chiki at the end of the tunnel. Do not miss it, trust us.
Corniglia rests upon a 100-meter high promontory overlooking the Mediterranean, meaning if you want to reach the water, you need to find a way down. Corniglia Marina is accessible by a never-ending staircase that winds through houses and across rock face. But once you reach the water, you’ll find that the trek was well worth it. Slabs of rock rounding the marina offer a great opportunity to sunbathe, drink wine, and eat. Swim out to the rockledge for some exciting cliff jumping. Just be sure not to step on any sea urchins.
Out of the five villages of Cinque Terre, the beach at Monterosso is Cabeza’s favorite. White sands, wild waves, and lots of swimming, it’s easy to lose track of time here. Look into the possibility renting a kayak. Cabeza tip: Find Gianni for beach chair, paddleboard, and kayak rentals. Also, be aware that most beaches in Monterosso are not free to lay on, so always check before you lay. You’ve been warned.
Give your legs a break and go kayaking. Find Gianni Vai at the beach in Monterosso and rent a kayak for a couple of hours. Beginners can paddle near the shore, but if you’re up for it we recommend exploring further. With your kayak you’ll be able to access breathtaking waterfalls, small, secluded beaches, and even a sweet spot for cliff jumping. Ask Gianni and he’ll Sharpie you a map to the ideal location.
Looking for more thrills? Take your day at the beach to the next level and do some cliff jumping. Particularly refreshing after kayaking, cliff jumping is popular among visitors and locals alike. Our recommendation? Ask the locals where you can find the best spots. They’ll direct you to the most exciting–and, more importantly, safest–places to take the leap.
Cone of Fried Seafood
There is no place better to enjoy fresh seafood than by the sea. Try an assortment of the local favorites and order a cone of fried Seafood in Vernazza. Crispy fried shrimp, anchovies, mussels, and calamari, topped with a locally-grown lemon, will make your day at the beach that much better.
Santuario Nostra Signora di Soviore
Nestled in the forest overlooking Monterosso is the small, quaint, Santuario Nostra Signora di Soviore. Famous for being the oldest sanctuary in the Liguria region, dating back to the year 740 AD, the Sanctuary also contains a Pieta, a wooden sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding a dead Christ. The sculpture is known for its miracles and for drawing those on pilgrimages. One can also see the old wall foundations through the glass floor in the church. The sanctuary also serves as an excellent starting point, or end-point, for those on the UNESCO hike. Overnight stays are available with the proper reservations.
Il Gigante (The Statue of Neptune in Monterosso al Mare)
Camouflaged by the rocks lining the water, Il Gigante is a 45-foot statue of Neptune on the northern part of Monterosso al Mare. The statue originally had Neptune clutching his trident, bearing the weight of a gigantic seashell on his back (which was used as a dance floor), but due to Allied bombing during World War II, the statue suffered serious damage and lost both of his arms (think Venus de Milo).
Punta Mesco Hike
If you love hiking like we do, then we have one final treat for you. Although the UNESCO Hike, taking travelers through each of the five towns, is by far the most popular hike in the region, what most travelers may not realize is that there are plenty of other hikes in the area. One of Cabeza’s favorite “road not taken” is the Punta Mesco Hike. Beginning in Monterosso al Mare and hiking north up switchbacks and eventually reaching a plateau, Punta Mesco offers travelers an incredibly scenic view of all five towns. It’s quite easy to spot from the beaches in Monterosso: look north to where the land descends to meet the water. See the pointed rock jutting towards the sky? Now go!
Tranquility, history, and adventure. These are are the words we would use to describe Cinque Terre. Here you will find a much needed break from the museums, the history, and the bustle of Italian cities. Instead, you will be exposed to the incredible beauty of nature and tradition. Incredible cliff-jumping, thrilling kayaking, relaxing sunbathing, and the arduous hike, all make a stay in Cinque Terre unforgettable. Everywhere you go you will want to take a picture—the endless sea, the green mountains, and the colorful houses will take your breath away. Originally, Cinque Terre was an opportunity for pilgrims to reflect on what they’ve encountered on the Grand Tour, and to reflect on their lives. Our recommendation? Do the same. Put the phone away for a few hours, use your eyes to take the pictures, and soak in the incredible beauty that is all around you. Contemplate your life, what you’ve accomplished so far, and what you wish to achieve. There is no time like the present, and there is no better place to realize this than in Cinque Terre.
Mariotti, Mauro. “Cinque Terre.” Genova: Ligurpress, 2013.
AUTHOR(S) AND LAST UPDATE
Stephanie Sepulveda, John William Bailly, and Corey Ryan 1 June 2016
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