Cinque Terre: Italy’s Fantastic Five
In a world of skyscrapers and manmade wonders, there is this irresistible charm in places that seem to not have caught up with the smartphone age. Cinque Terre, which means “Five Lands”, is one of those places.
Nestled on the coastline of the Italian Riviera is the Parco Nazionale Delle Cinque Terre. It sits on the Ligurian region in Northern Italy, is just a few hours away from international Italian airports and is an idyllic respite from the city’s hustle and bustle. From hiking to swimming to walking to just basking under the Italian sunshine, there are lots to do and explore in Cinque Terre, with each town offering a unique character and experience. It is rich in history, agriculture, architecture, hospitality and that local feel that comes very rare in tourist-flocked areas these days. It is worth mentioning that prices in Cinque Terre are markedly lower than its more popular counterparts such as Portofino or Amalfi Coast. The towns take pride in protecting the ecological balance and being the humble fishing villages also cultivating their own lemons, olives and wine—so Hollywood celebrity homes are pretty much unheard of here. So if the tranquility of sitting by a rock listening to seagulls and crashing waves while watching the sunset suits your style, then Cinque Terre should be on your list.
The towns get quite packed during summer, so I visited in October when the tourist season has just ended and the weather shifts your sundress to a light jacket. Although swimming will no longer be part of your itinerary if you visit during the colder months, hiking becomes less arduous and more enjoyable. The cool autumn breeze was such a welcome treat to the senses after the summer heat. Cinque Terre features few of the most picturesque landscapes you will ever see. From the top of the hiking trails are some of the best panoramic views to admire the colorful houses, the terraced vineyards, the rolling hills and mountains, and the beauty of the Ligurian sea.
The first and westernmost town is Monterosso, which is the best town for beach lovers, boasting a seafront promenade usually packed with daybeds in summer and a rock formation by the shore that you can climb. It is divided into two parts: the old town and new town. It is the largest town, housing the bulk of hotels, restaurants and shops in Cinque Terre. Between Monterosso and the next town Vernazza is the picturesque view seen in most post cards. Colorful boats abound the wharf, with beautifully assigned sea view cafes and restaurants. Next is Corniglia, the smallest of five towns, which is unique because it does not directly face the sea therefore it is the only town not reachable by boat, and requires about 380 long (but worthwhile!) steps to reach. There are viewpoints from which you can view the two towns to the right and the other two to the left. Manarola, the second smallest town of five, is my favorite town to photograph; from the skies to the seas—the clouds, the vineyards, the houses that seem to be on top of each other, the shrubs growing off the cliffside and the rocks afloat that repel the waves—all make up for a picture worthy of a thousand words. It’s a sight to behold, almost like a painting that came to life. A cemented walking trail leads you to the best view of the town until a curving end facing the sea before it leads you to the next town. Finally, Riomaggiore is the southernmost town I find to be the most vibrant. This is where I discovered what photographers call the “blue hour” which is a few minutes after sunset. It was so beautiful, watching it unobstructed from a rock reachable via a narrow pathway down into the water. If you explore further into Riomaggiore’s narrow staircases and winding little roads, you will find a church, gardens, and a residents’ area where you will find only locals. I stayed at an Airbnb apartment just off the main street and a few meters climb away. It had a balcony where I drenched my senses in the richness of the beauty before me each morning. The houses are so close to each other that I waved and said hello to my neighbors, “Buongiorno!”.
All five towns are easily accessible by the local train that stops by the town itself if you do not have time to trek from one town to another. If you do though, the full stretch of the five towns normally take 6 to 8 hours on the most famous Trail # 2 or Sentierro Azuro (Blue Path), depending on your fitness level or the amount of photos you take. However, I would recommend you to spread the route to a few days if you have the luxury of time to enjoy each town.
It is not recommended to bring a car to Cinque Terre as the towns themselves are hardly accessible by car (Ah, the freedom of walking in beautiful, car-less streets!), although there are parking areas a kilometer away from Vernazza and in La Spezia, from where you can take a train to Cinque Terre. It only takes about 5 minutes between towns via the local train. For just 10 euros a day, the Cinque Terre Treno MS Card grants you access to unlimited train rides, museums, trails, park areas, WiFi and contributes to the local preservation of the towns.
Italy is vast, diverse and enchanting in its own right, and Cinque Terre is one of the best places to prove that. The Ligurian region has not received as much attention as it deserves so make your way here while the local feel is still very strong. It may or may not be the focal point of your Italian getaway or Eurotrip but you can surely trust me on one thing, Cinque Terre will be memorable and will leave a special mark on your travel diary. Ciao!
Nearby towns like Portovenere and La Spezia are less popular but also beautiful and interesting places to see. You can also take side trips to Genoa (Italy’s stronghold in wartime history) or Santa Margherita Ligure (where Portofino is) or both, and both are absolutely worth visiting—from their elaborate churches to their scenic piazzas (public square).
Besides the usual Italian fare on pizza, pasta and gelato, don’t miss a glass of authentic Cinque Terre wine called Sciacchetra, fermented on location and purchased directly from the winemaker. You can also try limoncello, an Italian liqueur produced from lemon. This Ligurian region is also the birthplace of focaccia and pesto so make sure you try it. I am a big fan of pesto and have tried pesto in almost every Italian city and this region serves the best, I kid you not! Cinque Terre produces their own olives so that’s a huge plus for the local experience too. Cinque Terre is no fishing village for nothing so try their seafood specialties, especially their anchovies cooked many ways and you’ll be hooked.