Dating back to the medieval period, this once unassuming coastline of quiet fishing communities is today firmly on the tourist map as one of Italy’s most popular attractions – and it’s not hard to see why. Translated into English, The Land of Five, is made up of five picturesque towns. The surrounding coastline, villages and hillsides are all part of the UNESCO-listed Cinque Terre National Park.
Built into the rugged cliff edge of the Italian Riviera, Cinque Terre embodies everything that draws travellers to Italy. Beauty, romance and delicious cuisine. Despite its popularity, the towns of Cinque Terre have retained much of their original charm in their steep cobbled streets, peeling pastel facades, quaint plazas and harbours lined with fishing boats.
Keen walkers can explore the foot paths that connect the five towns, while most prefer to take the scenic train option. Alternatively, four of the towns can be accessed by boat. While the villages can be reached by car, the roads are narrow, winding and treacherous. If you’ve rented a car to explore Italy, then your best bet is to park it in La Spezia and then catch the train.
Each of the five towns has its own unique qualities and characteristics, with every traveller having their own favourite. Whether you spend a day or a week here, you are bound to be captivated by the beauty and charm of this small stretch of the Italian Riviera.
The most eastern of the Cinque Terre towns and the first stop on the train from La Spezia is Riomaggiore. The town sits in a small valley with classically colourful Ligurian houses all clustered together around a natural harbour. The railway line that runs through the town divides it into two distinctly different areas. In the lower part you’ll find colourful boats in the harbour and fishermen sorting their daily catch. While in the upper area you’ll find green agricultural terraces. The main street, Via Colombo, is found towards the top of the town and is lined with shops, restaurants and bars. The famous trail Via dell’Amore (Lover’s Lane) starts here, which is a picturesque path leading to Manarola.
Top tip: As Riomaggiore is the first stop on the railway line from La Spezia, it can get particularly busy during summer months. Make sure you wake up early to get there before the crowds do and enjoy the views of the town in the glow of morning.
The next town on from Riomaggiore is Manarola, thought to be the oldest of the Cinque Terre towns. Quiet and romantic with multi-coloured houses, the town is perched on a cliff edge overhanging the Mediterranean Sea. The tiny harbour is lined with fishing boats; all parked neatly in a row just like you’d expect cars to be in a city. And in the quaint piazza guests can tantalise their taste buds at one of the many seafood restaurants. Wine lovers must be sure to sample Sciacchetra, the sweet wine produced in the town’s surrounding vineyards.
Top tip: Start walking down the trail towards Corniglia until you reach Nessun Dorma restaurant in Punta Bonfiglio. Here enjoy a cold drink and a bite to eat while enjoying fantastic views of Manarola across the Mediterranean Sea.
Perched on a lofty clifftop is Corniglia, the only Cinque Terre town not built directly on the water. Located in the middle of the five towns, Corniglia’s elevated locale means that it has considerably more stairs than its neighbouring towns. Thankfully however the sweat-inducing 365 stair climb from train station to the town centre can be done by bus. While its stair count may make Corniglia unfavourable amongst visitors, this means that its the most genuine of the towns. Without direct access to the sea, Corniglia has long depended on agriculture and wine production. Be sure to try their speciality – the white wine of Vernaccia di Corniglia.
Top tip: While Corniglia may not be built on the water, it does have a beach. Rather than going up the stairs to the town from the train station opt for the abandoned railway tunnel instead. Follow the tunnel then carefully descend down a steep rocky cliff to clothing-optional Guvano beach.
Gracing the covers of glossy travel magazines and post cards sent home to loved ones is Vernazza, the most photographed of the Cinque Terre towns. One of the most common images winning over the heart of travellers is of Vernazza’s natural harbour. And with its amphitheatre-shaped harbour, colourful Ligurian houses and the azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea – it’s no wonder why. The harbour front church is a popular hangout for the locals, making it a wonderful place to people watch. With few hotels to stay in, much of the accommodation in Vernazza is in charming B&Bs. Beyond the town, the surrounding hillside is sprawling with vineyards and olive groves.
Top tip: For your own postcard perfect picture of Vernassa, walk the first hill of the Seniero Azzurro trail between Vernazza to Monterosso. From here you can admire amazing views looking back on the town.
The favourite town to stay in amongst tourists, Monterosso is home to the only sandy beach in Cinque Terre and a delightful seafront promenade. The Old Town exudes the expected classic Italian charm with quaint cobble stone streets, peeling pastel abodes and artisan workshops. The main square – Piazza Garibaldi, is lined with charming restaurants and cafes. Here you can treat yourself to an espresso or gelato. Separated from the Old Town by a foot tunnel burrowed into San Cristoforo Hill is the modern Fegina area, where most of Monterosso’s hotels are located. As the flattest of the Cinque Terre towns, it’s a favourite for families and silver surfers.
Top tip: Hike up San Cristoforo Hill for spectacular views of the entire Cinque Terre coastline. And while you’re up there pay a visit the Convent of Cappuccini and the Church of San Francesco.
Walking the Cinque Terre trails
For centuries the only way to travel between towns was on foot and today the same paths can be retraced by visitors. There are two main paths walkers can choose from – Sentiero Azzurro or Sentiero Rosso. Though each of these is actually made up of a series of shorter trails. Unfortunately the floods in 2011 left many of the trails in disrepair meaning they are prone to closure for repairs. As such it’s always wise to check the Cinque Terre National Park website before setting out for a walk.
The Blue Trail
The most popular path is Sentiero Azzurro – also known as the Blue Trail or Trail #2, which stretches 12 kilometres along the coastline. While the route can be walked in six hours with short stops in each town, most prefer to spread it out over several days. That way you can appreciate each town without having to rush. Alternatively you can simply choose to walk between individual towns and not others. The trail can start in either direction, though it’s recommended that you start in Riomaggiore. Here the paths are easier and better paved, so you can work your way up to the more challenging sections.
The Red Trail
Experienced walkers might find the alternative Sentiero Rosso – also known as the Red Trail or Trail #1, more to their liking. This 35 kilometre route stretches from Porto Venere to Levanto and can take between nine to 12 hours to complete. Forming a high arc above the towns, the walk is mostly flat but gradually rises and descends 800 metres from start to finish. The walk is much quieter than its Blue counterpart and there are plenty of restaurants and rest stops along the way to quench your thirst.