You may not recognise the name Cinque Terre right away but no doubt you will have seen pictures all over Instagram of these small colourful villages! They hug the steep terraced slopes of a section of the coastline of the Italian Riviera in such a precarious way.
Over the years the inhabitants have used any and all space available to build little houses or to cultivate olive trees or grape vines. While the Riviera has always been a popular holiday spot these five particular villages have spiked in popularity for international visitors over the past decade. So much so that the local authorities are now considering restricting numbers to the national park to help protect their unique character.
When to Go
We visited the park in late July this year which is potentially the busiest time of year. While there were a lot of people in the villages it didn’t destroy the magic of this place. The villages are so unique and so undeniably photogenic that it didn’t seem to matter! However June, July and August are certainly the hottest months of the year. If you are going to be doing a lot of walking during this period be prepared to sweat up a storm. This is also the most expensive time of year, Italy in general is a fairly pricey destination and the Cinque Terre is no exception. If you particularly dislike crowds or want to save some dosh then perhaps choose a quieter time of year. If your dates are flexible you could think about visiting in the shoulder seasons as this part of Italy is still warm in Spring and Autumn.
How Long to Spend in Cinque Terre
As we had limited time available to us we did a very quick visit to the park on a day trip from Florence with Ciao Florence which included a bus ride to and from the park and the train trips to get from one village to the next. While the day trip was done at a very quick pace I still think it is a good option for anyone limited on time or money or who doesn’t want to do too much walking. If you don’t like group tours you could consider staying in the nearby city of La Spezia and using the trains to visit the villages from there. On our day trip we got to see all but one of the villages and fell for their charms nonetheless. In saying that I can definitely see the attraction of walking the whole track so that you get to more fully appreciate the park and properly enjoy the time you spend in each village.
The Cinque Terre Trail
The Trail (or Sentiero in Italian) that connects all five villages is known as Sentiero no. 2 or the Sentiero Azzuro (Blue Trail.) The entry fee to the track depends on which sections are open (there can be washouts due to heavy rain, particularly in Autumn) but it is generally around EUR 5-7. The trail is divided into four sections but the total length is 12 km / 7.5 miles. You can start the hike at either the northern end (from Monterosso) or from the southern end (Riomaggiore.) If you start in Riomaggiore the paths are paved and easier and you can work your way towards the more challenging trails at the Monterosso end.
Full Day walk vs. Taking your Time
The trail can be done as a long full day hike but this can be complex to organise when you figure in travel times, particularly if you are not starting your journey from a town or city close to the park. The estimated walking time if you do the trail all in one go is 6 hours including short breaks. You also definitely need to be reasonably fit if you want to do it all at once as there is some ups and downs to contend with (there is 500m elevation difference between the lowest and highest points of the trail). Conversely there’s no real need to stay in every single village along the way as the walking distances between them aren’t particularly long and the villages start to resemble one another after a while. Personally If I was going to go again and had the time I’d opt for walking the full track staying 1 or 2 nights along the way which would allow more time to explore the villages, go swimming and enjoy some fantastic Italian food.
The Five Villages of Cinque Terre
From south to north/east to west they are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso Al Mare.
Riomaggiore is very compact as the valley it sits in is quite V shaped. This is where you can really get a feel for how colourful and jumbled up the small pastel buildings are. You can also appreciate views around the coastline and over the green terraces that were so important to early settlers for agriculture and who continue to be used for making wine to this day. The Church of Saint John the Baptist is worth a visit as is the Medieval Castle on the hill where you can take in some stunning sea views.
Manarola is the oldest of the Cinque Terre Villages and perhaps the second most stunning village to visit (after Vernazza). It was most likely founded in Roman times but today’s settlement was started in the 12th century when people from Volastra descended from the hills to exploit the resources of the coastline. The village then grew as part of the Rebublic of Genoa, as did the other villages. There is no real beach in Manarola as the village and harbour largely sit on rock but if you like deep sea swimming then it’s possible here. Finally the delicious local wine Sciacchetra has its origins in Manarola so why not enjoy a glass with some local seafood.
Corniglia is the only village that is not set directly on the Mediterranean, it is about 100m up the hill from the seashore . For this reason there are less tourists which means that it offers a more authentic example of a traditional Cinque Terre settlement than the other towns. This is the only village we didn’t visit on our day trip, purely for lack of time.
Vernazza is the jewel in the crown of the Cinque Terre as it is certainly the most photogenic of the five. It also has the most traditional fishing village feel of all of the villages. The settlement mostly sits on natural pier shaped a bit like an amphitheatre so it is easy to capture its essence in a single photo. You have to climb the hill a little to get the full few of the village and its tiny little port. If you haven’t paid to do the track it may be hard to get past the checkpoint but give it a try as I was able to get past by explaining that I just wanted a photo and would come straight down to the village again.
Monterosso ‘by the sea’
Monterosso is bigger and more spacious than the other villages, it also has more amenities in terms of restaurants and accommodation options. There are two parts to it- an old town and a newer area called Fegina. It feels more like a traditional Italian bustling seaside resort with larger beaches with paid beach chairs and rows of colourful umbrellas. There is a great wee walk to do up above the Aurora Tower (now a private residence) where you can get lovely views over both sides of the town.
It was a dream come true for me to see this iconic area that I have been wanting to visit for years. If you get a chance to go in the future definitely jump on it and if you’ve already been to Cinque Terre I’d love to know which village was your favourite!