The Ligurian coast is filled with unique towns, from major port cities like Genoa to small cliff-hanging villages like Alassio, but there is a reason why Cinque Terre (the five towns) are known around the world. Although Cinque Terre has been populated since the Bronze Age and played an important role in the geographical strategy of Ancient Rome (its position on the Mediterranean was great for commerce and the military), exploring Cinque Terre’s colorful towns has not always been within everyone’s reach (not even the locals), due to its isolated location. It was only in 1875 that a railway tunnel was built through the mountains, connecting the five villages to each other and then to the rest of Italy. Now, it’s one of the most visited places in the entire country: up to 2.4 million people a year travel to the National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. That being said, the region is still stunningly beautiful–especially in the off-season, when the narrow caruggi are less choked with tourists. (And if you’re particularly crowd-avoidant, we recommend checking out the nearby Gulf of Poets.)
Cinque Terre doesn’t need more traffic, but if you want to check it out once in your lifetime (and for good reason!), you better do it right… Here, a brief guide to the five towns and the best hotels, restaurants, wineries, hikes and beaches in Cinque Terre:
MONTEROSSO AL MARE
Cinque Terre begins behind the Punta Mesco promontory, where the gulf of Monterosso opens up to the first of the five towns: Monterosso al Mare, the largest and most animated among the five. The village is divided into two parts by a small tunnel. The old and the new. The old part is certainly the liveliest, distinguished mainly by the caruggi (narrow alleys typical of Liguria), where you can find wine bars, restaurants, bakeries and ice cream parlours. Without any doubt, the beach is one of Monterosso’s best-known attractions. Not just because it is the only sandy one, but because of the overly-photographed orange and green beach umbrellas.
Proceeding south towards La Spezia, the second town you come across is Vernazza. Its steep, narrow streets descend towards the main road and end in a small square in front of the port, where much of the village’s life takes place. From here it is possible to admire all the surrounding landscape that embraces Vernazza, made up of stone walls and fields overlooking the sea. In this piazza, there is also the Church of Santa Margherita, a Renaissance building made entirely of stone and full of religious art.
Clinging to the rocks overhanging the sea we find Corniglia, the only village not directly in contact with the sea. Standing on a high rocky promontory intensively cultivated with vineyards, this little borgo is reached by a 377 step staircase from the main station. From Corniglia, you can explore the network of paths along the overhanging rocks… a real “balcony” over the whole Cinque Terre.
It is difficult to rank which of the Cinque Terre is the most beautiful, but one thing is certain: Manarola is certainly the most fascinating. The structure of the village develops like an amphitheatre along the course of the old stream (now covered and transformed into the main street of the village). Walking through the narrow streets of this borgo will make you feel like you are inside a movie set. To enjoy the slow life of Manarola to the fullest, I recommend an aperitivo on the seafront to see the shades of the town warm up as the sun goes down. Immediately after sunset, a multitude of lights from the various houses will light up the village again, just like a Christmas creche.
Last but not least is Riomaggiore, the most dramatic of the towns, dominated by Mediterranean vegetation, an example of the beauty of Cinque Terre and its natural environment. The two to three story houses are painted in typical Ligurian colours, and the shaggy cliffs that greet you as you arrive from the sea starkly contrast with the vibrant houses. In the summer months, the port comes alive with visitors and dozens of kids climbing over the cliffs, jumping and diving into the sea, dangerously sneaking through rocky crevices. Watching from the sea–either by renting a small gommone or by swimming just a bit beyond the shore–the red, orange and pink tones create an undisturbed, picturesque landscape.
WHERE TO STAY
Cinque Terre offers a great choice of accommodation from hotels to bed & breakfasts in the five villages, close to the sea and with panoramic views.
Lodge la Torretta – Manarola
Il Sogno di Manarola by the First – Manarola
Amanarola – Manarola
La Vista di Marina – Riomaggiore
For those who want to stay off the beaten track, outside of Cinque Terre:
Sosta di Ottone III – Levanto
OMHOM — La Spezia
WHERE TO EAT
Cantina di Miky – Monterosso: In the sunny heart of Monterosso stands this small, family-run restaurant. It is quite well known for the quality of its menu and the choice of dishes, all made with local, km0 ingredients. The menu varies according to what the local farms offer and what fish was caught that day. The owners Christine and Manuel are very helpful and manage to convey their passion for the territory and for local cuisine with enthusiasm.
L’Ancora della Tortuga – Monterosso: The restaurant is located on a beautiful cliff with a view of the entire gulf of Monterosso. The restaurant is family-run and brings to the table the traditional Ligurian seafood and land cuisine. I absolutely recommend trying the basil and prawn risotto, which is very delicate and fresh.
Trattoria dal Billy – Manarola: Run by a family of fishermen, this restaurant is the very best of home cooked Ligurian food and the closest you can get to eating with the locals. The fish is always caught on the same day: you’ll taste the difference. Once you’ve tried fish like this, I’m afraid you’ll never enjoy other restaurants as much again.
Dau Cilà – Riomaggiore: In the lower part of Riomaggiore, the outdoor tables are set along a romantic downhill road leading to the sea between moored boats and pastel-coloured houses. Seriousness in the kitchen and in the service accompany seafood dishes in traditional recipes, mainly Ligurian, to which inviting “raw fish” is added.
Nessun Dorma – Manarola: For sure one of the most incredible places in all of Liguria. Depending on the season, you will enjoy the same sweeping views, but with different shades of sunset (and light too). During summer, it is very poetic sipping an Aperol Spritz, watching the sunset and enjoying the slow life from above Manarola. The host is very welcoming and the service is very fast. The Italian bruschetta with pesto is terrific.
WHAT TO DO
Hike – You can hike from one village to another on foot, following beaten paths that will open up the most secret (and most suggestive) views of the villages. The most beautiful path of all is the one that connects Monterosso to Vernazza: it will take you over an hour, but the view repays the effort.
For those who like long walks, I also recommend the path leading to Volastra (renamed the “sixth town” for its similarity to the other borghi)–a path among the vineyards overlooking the sea, wrapped in the scents of the Mediterranean maquis underbrush. The village, nestled in the olive groves above the hills of Manarola, offers a truly unique perspective on the Cinque Terre.
Drink Wine – Quite characteristic of this whole area of Liguria is the terraced vineyards. There are several wine cellars where you can get to know the local wines better: Azienda Agricola Possa and Cantina 5 Terre are the best for tasting a good glass of wine in a venue overlooking the sea. Ligurian wines are very savoury and tasty thanks to their location on the sea, lots of sun, wind and little water. Among the most famous to remember (and to try) is the Sciacchetrà, the most delicious wine of the Cinque Terre. The grapes are still selected one by one to make a very concentrated mosto, left to age until the following year after the harvest.
You can also try Sciacchetrà at Ca’ du Ferrà, another winery near San Giorgio (above Bonassola). A real must for anyone interested in Italian wine culture. The owner Davide will guide you through the discovery of an exceptional territory. At the end of the visit, you will be able to taste the estate’s wines in a truly spectacular location.
Rent a Boat – Among the various perspectives from which to admire Cinque Terre, the view from the sea is certainly not to be missed. It is possible to rent boats in one of the marinas to move freely between the various villages and take a dip in the blue water between visits. There are a number of companies that rent boats for a day with or without a guide. San Giorgio Boat offers the possibility of cruising, accompanied by a guide, on a beautiful gozzo between the various coves. You will get to discover places and beaches that are difficult to reach by land like the Guvano beach or San Fruttuoso.
Go to the Bagni – For those who are looking for the comfort of a private beach to enjoy the sun, the best equipped establishments are Bagni Eden or Stella Marina in Monterosso’s old port. Alternatively, leaving Cinque Terre, you will find Bonassola’s Bagni San Giorgio, run by two brothers.