The Cinque Terre needs no introduction. A true bucket-list destination and a definite addition to any trip to Italy. Cinque Terre translates to ‘Five Terraces’. A string of five fishing villages (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare) in the Liguria region of northern Italy. These villages, the coastline, and the surrounding hills are all within the Cinque Terre National Park and, no surprises here … it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This trip to the Cinque Terre was not planned. In fact I ended up here on an elaborate game of ‘Travel routlette’ – more about this later.
Day 1 / Exploring La Spezia
La Spezia often referred to as the gateway to the Cinque Terre, as is a great place to base yourself (read: cheaper!) but instead of heading straight to the five villages take some time to explore this charming town. Unlike the other villages, La Spezia feels real, lived in, with a bit of grit.
Arriving in La Spezia, it was a hot and sweaty kind of afternoon (36°C) that could only be fixed with a beer and a swim…possibly at the same time.
After checking into family run hotel “Mary”, pausing briefly for a blast of the air conditioning, I headed out into town.
First thing to do: Purchase your Cinque Terre ticket, whilst this can be done online, you will get up to the minute information about any closures on the trail and a physical map which is always useful. More on the Cinque Terra card later.
What not to miss on a whirlwind tour around La Spezia:
- A wander around the Centro Historico (the historical center.
- Visit the 14th century hilltop castle Castello San Giorio for incredible views of the town and the port.
- Visit the Technical Naval Museum (Address: Viale Giovanni Amendola 1).
- Wander down the esplanade and stop for a beer and some people watching at a cafe.
- Spend half a day exploring the nearby islands of Palmaria, Isola del Tino, and Tinetto.
Day 2 / Exploring the Cinque Terre on foot: Corniglia to Monterosso al Mare
The Sentiero Azzurro (or Trail #2) is the classic Cinque Terre walk between Riomaggiore and Monterosso al Mare, at 11kms long, the full walk takes around 5 hours to complete. Sections of the path can be closed at any given point due to landslides, seek advice on path conditions from tourist information before you head out.
Trust me when I say this get to the first village before sunrise, you will not be disappointed. Starting at Corniglia Station (the path between Riomaggiore and Corignlia (aka, the really sexy part) was closed) you are immediately greeted by a set of approximately 200 steps (your thighs will think its x 1000) to up the town and the blue path itself. Halfway up these (bloody) stairs cursing my lack of fitness, and caffeine I lit a cigarette in defiance and pushed on, at the top however you are greeted with a spectacular view.
Passing through the sleepy (quite literally at 05:45am) village of Corniglia, keep at eye for the signs, you will see the first one at the church below a statue of the virgin mary. Do not turn right even though the sign suggests you do. Follow the sign marked SVA to the left downhill.
This wrong turn took me deep into the national park, all the while arguing with myself that this couldn’t be right, … it wasn’t. One hour later I was on top of a mountain, watching the sunrise, did I finally admitted to myself that I’d taken the wrong way (to be honest it was worth it)
Back on the right path, leaving Corniglia, you pass through the shade of olives groves as far as the eye can see, accompanied only by the noise of birds and the odd dog. This section takes around 2 hours depending on your speed, and stopping to take in the scenery.
On arrival in Vernazza, wander down to Castello Doria and take in the view from here you can see the entire Cinque Terre, its simply stunning. If you arrive here after 07:00am, there is a bakery on the Cinque Terre path in the centre of town that you will be able to get a (much needed) espresso and pastry to keep you going.
Onwards to Monterosso al Mare, this section is shorter (1.5 hours), more beautiful, but also busier, than the previous one. Keep an eye out for the very bizarre cat enclosure in the middle of nowhere, it’s not clear why they are there, these massive felines are definitely feral and unsettling growling can be heard from at least 40 paces.
The Vernazza – Monterosso al Mare section hugs the spectacular coastline completely. I’m not going to lie here, there are steep “undulating” stairways (to be honest quite a lot of these) and narrow paths here on uneven ground. Be aware of where you are stepping so you don’t roll an ankle.
If you are lucky, you may come across an older gentleman by the name of Gino (I think!), possibly the happiest man alive, he will serenade you with his saxophone, its a wonderful and surprising addition to the morning – stop for a quick dance break.
On the approach to Monterosso al Mare you can spy the beach and its colourful orange and green umbrellas – It’s almost time for a swim! Grab yourself a cold drink and book a sunlounger (around €20) and get into the sea, the cool, azure water is practically orgasmic (sorry!) after a long hot walk.
Top Tips: Walking the Sentiero Azzurro
- Buy your ticket in advance and carry with you. NOTE: Ticket checks are carried at random by park rangers.
- Keep a beady eye out for the signage. The path is marked SVA these can be easy to miss.
- Wear sturdy closed-toe shoes. The path is rocky underfoot and sometimes slippery in places. Sandals or flip-flops won’t cut it here (in fact they’re actually prohibited)
- Patience is a virtue! Use it on the busier part of the trail. There are areas that are one way only and you may have to wait briefly.
- Bring plenty of water, snacks, and sunscreen especially if you are going early in the AM. Once the sun is in the sky it gets hot very quickly.
- Don’t forget your swimmers. Treat yourself to a swim when you reach the end, the water is amazing after a long, hot hike.
Day 3 / Exploring the Cinque Terre by Boat
Time to take to the water. Some of the best views of the Cinque Terra villages are from the water. There are a number of tour operators based in La Spezia at Porto Mirabello. A ferry service also travels between La Spezia and Monterosso al Mare, these services stop at all villages on the way (nonstop services also available). A one-way trip takes approximately 2 hours and costs €27 for a one-way journey.
A boat tour is always a fantastic way to get another perspective of the Cinque Terra. It was fantastic to see the closed section of the path between Corniglia and Riomaggiore from the water. It was obvious why this section was closed I spied at least 6 landslides (mostly small) from the boat.
Top Tips: Cinque Terra Boat Tour
- Don’t forget your sunscreen and a hat
- Get a set upstairs deck and preferably next to railing, this will ensure clear photos without 50 people in the shot.
- If you get seasick, this may not be the best trip for you, the seas can be quite choppy even on the good day. Alternatively, take some seasickness medication in advance of boarding the boat.
Alighting at Monterosso al Mare, take some time to explore the town. I came across the Mortis et Orationis Confraternitas. This charming chapel is a must-see, unsurprisingly I was lured in by the skull and crossbones on the front door. The chapel itself has skulls and bones everywhere, that just adds to the mystery of the whole place, unfortunately, I never found out why they were there. Some things will stay a mystery.
Whilst you are in Monterosso al Mare, take a look at the huge ‘Il Gigante’, a 14 metre sculpture of the god of the sea. At the time of this trip, it was covered in scaffolding. Also, walk up to the St Francis of Assissi statue for wonderful views in all directions.
Feeling peckish? get to a bakery and buy focaccia. Focaccia originated from this region, and its a cheap filling lunch. Delicious, massive, and still warm from the oven, thick with ricotta and studded with salty olives, olive oil dripping down my fingers as I inelegantly shoved it into my mouth. Yum!
Take the rest of the afternoon to travel through the villages as you like, or hit the beach again, or both.
As the day starts to cool, and your stomach begins to rumble. Travel back to Manarola and head up the hill to Nessun Dorma, a restaurant that has the best view of Manarola. Nessun Dorma is extremely popular so be prepared to queue but you will not wait for long. Enjoy a glass of wine/ beer and a lovely meal as you watch the village change colour at the sun begins to dip in the sky.
After dinner pop to the rear of the restaurant to the scenic view point known to locals as Paradise. The sunset set here is nothing short of spectacular and definitely worth the wait.
Getting to the Cinque Terre
From Christopher Colombus Aiport (GOA) – Genova
On arrival at Christopher Columbus Airport (GOA), you can either take a shuttle bus (30-40 mins)
into the city to both Brignole and Principe stations (tickets are €6). If you do fancy stretching the legs after your flight then the train from Genova Sestri ( a 20 minute walk) RE2299 service (Direct) to La Spezia and takes a little over 2 hours. There are slower services with multiple changes also available and are a little cheaper.
From Galileo Galilei Airport – Pisa (PSA)
If you are flying into Pisa, the trip to La Spezia is a little quicker. The airport shuttle leaves hourly to Via Crispi, a 5 minute stroll to the Pisa Centrale . The journey to La Spezia will take between 45 mins and 1 hour 15 mins.
Top Tips: Getting there
- The Rome2Rio and Trainline.com apps are incredibly useful to identify how to get from A to B and book train tickets that can be downloaded straight to your phone. (Available on Apple and Android)
- Don’t forget to bring water! Trains do tend to be extremely busy and hot (on older trains) in the summer, ensure you have a bottle of water with you and keep hydrated.
Buying your Cinque Terre Ticket
There are two types of tickets available for the Cinque Terre, and can be purchased as a 1 day / 2 day/ 3 day passes.
- Cinque Terre Card Treno ms
- Cinque Terre Trekking Card
The Cinque Terre Card Treno MS includes access to the national park, seconds class trains, bus services, some guided tours , wifi access, reduced admission to some museums, and toilet access (without having to pay per use).
Prices for the Cinque Terre Card Treno MS (Adults): 1 day (€16.00) 2 day (€29.00) 3 day (€41.00)
The Cinque Terre Trekking Card offers the same access as above excluding trains.
Prices for the Trekking Card (Adults): 1 day (€7.50), 2 day (€14.50) additional days can be added for €5.00.
The trekking pass and the card can be purchased online at Cinqueterre.com or at Tourist Information at the train stations along the Cinque Terre and La Spezia. It worth popping into tourist information if you have purchased your ticket online to get trail updates before you set off.
Where to stay?
This was a last minute trip during high season. I literally booked accommodation as I was boarding the plane from Amsterdam. Fortunately, I was able to find somewhere great.
Mary Hotel, La Spezia a basic but comfortable place to stay. Mary Hotel is conveniently next to the train station. The hotel is great value for money, and breakfast is included (bonus.) A side note: The family that owns it are fantastically funny.
A huge variety of accommodation options in and around the Cinque Terre that will suit any taste or budget. If you plan to go in summer, take a look at the link below for some suggestions:
If you have a little more time on your hands…
Pop over to the gorgeous village of Portofino, located only an hour away from the Cinque Terre. Oozing old world charm, Portofino has been a favourite getaway for the rich and famous for decades. Take an afternoon or perhaps a full day to explore Portofino.
What an incredible few days, and completely restorative. If you have the Cinque Terre on your bucket list, just go. It is everything you would expect and more.