Cinque Terre will always have a special place in my heart as I was there with my childhood girlfriends. Despite living in 3 different countries we have managed to maintain friendship with a distance and this little trip was to celebrate it. Cinque Terre is a truly fascinating place, not because of the pastel color villages built on the cliffs (there are plenty of them in Italy) or the sea and cliffs enclosing it (that’s even less impressive – 80% of Italy is by the sea), but because of the views that opens when you walk up the coastal walks and hiking trails that are connecting five villages. Even if you are not a great hiker (like me), pushing yourself slightly off the comfort zone of sun lounger and prosecco in your hand, and climbing even 50 meters above the sea level will reward you with incredible views.
In some way Cinque Terre remainds me of Amalfi coast, but this place seems so much more down to the earth, more real and so much closer to the nature.The five villages are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore which are all located in the Cinque Terre National Park and are also the UNESCO heritage sites. I would definitely add Porto Venere to the five(cinque) villages/lands (terre), but then they would need to call them “sei terre” and that would ruin the branding (and Lonely Planet would need to reprint all their travels guides) so clearly that’s not gonna happen. Anyway, as you can imagine majority of the these villages are literally built on cliffs, and there is no actual beach in the typical meaning of a “beach”, therefore be open-minded in your expectations.
Monterosso al Mare
Monterosso al Mare is the last (or first depending from which side you arrive) of the 5 villages and deepest into the coastal region. This will be the only place where you can expect proper beach experience with sun loungers, beach bars/restaurants and even Baywatch Italian version lifeguards. Beach is made of light pebbles, water is clear and the scenery is amazing. Top thing to do on this beach is to open bottle of Peroni and indulge into the best fried sardines and calamari in Cinque Terre (get them at a small kiosk at the entrance of the Monterosso train station).
Bonus of the Monterosso al Mare is second Monterosso beach – cross the tunnel on the right side of the main beach and you will get to another lovely bay. This is a city beach, so you have everything you might want just across the road. Once you reach the second beach, you are one step closer to the coastal footpath between Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza. That’s 3.5 km or 1h 30 min of sweat and hard work, that includes a good 30 minute climb up (does miracles to your tights), but when you get to Vernazza you won’t regret it – best view guaranteed (see below). It will cost you 3 EUR (there is a ticket point at certain point up the walk) and please do not forget to take water, you can’t buy it there.
Bad news are that like any of the Cinque Terre villages, you can’t reach it by car (you would need to leave the car at the village entrance which is good 15 minutes walk), therefore to get to the main beach take train or taxi boat to the second beach.
This view was inspiration of the trip, and when I saw it arriving from Monterosso I felt complete. Vernazza is truly a picture perfect little village, with a small bay in front of it, not really beach material, but a definitely place to rest your feet after the hike. You can walk up the hills to get a glimpse of it from the Vernazza side as well, even before the ticket point, but this particular view is slightly higher. There is no car traffic allowed in the Vernazza, so the only way to get here is by train or boat. There is a very convenient boat taxi service connecting all 5 villages including Porto Venere, it only doesn’t stop in Corniglia. For more info click here.
Corniglia was the only town we didn’t visit, mainly because the boat can’t stop at it as it is the only hill-top village, the coastal path from Manarola still remains closed after the terrible landslides in 2011, when the path was damaged, (it briefly opened in 2014, but was closed again after accident, when somebody fell off it). If you take the train, you need to take 400 steps up (and down) to the town and the hike through the hill-top is 6km, which we actually attempted to start from Manarola, but after the million of steps climbing up the hill, my legs just gave up. We gave last attempt to drive there, but nerves of my dear friends were too weak for the narrow and curvy hillside roads, so we gave up completely and went to Porto Venere instead. Beach in Corniglia, clearly as it is a hilltop village, does not exist. There is a path to the sea and you can swim, but I have no further comments.There is a hiking trail connecting Vernazza and Corniglia – 4km, so slightly more than from Monterosso al Mare.
Our hub for the three days was Manarola, a small romantic fishing village – with no beach, but with couple of sunbathing spots on the cliffs, it is also a fantastic place to watch sunsets, while eating gelato and sipping glass of local wine. The “love way” footpath from Manarola to Riomaggiore was closed, which meant another hike over the top of the hill. It is only 1km long, but at some points it is so steep you have to go on all four. Bonus – it was free.
Riomaggiore, is the first of the 5 villages when you arrive from La Spezia and is another lovely village. There is a tiny beach on the other side of the village, which has some potential, but does look quite rough. Plus pier is used as a sunbathing and chilling point and it actually has the best view of the village. The footpath back to Manarola is closed , so either you hike it over the hilltop of take a train, which as you already know is cheap and very convenient(if you don’t count that there is another two thousand people trying to get on it).
I was amazed to realize, that I have been here once already with another dear friend of me, and I had no idea that Cinque terre villages are only 20 minutes drive away from here. Porto Venere is a picturesque seaside town with historic church built right at the top of the seaside cliff. There is pebbly beach all the way into the village, which is decent plus second place for water leisure is at the grotto of Lord Byron (just by the seafront church). The town is very lively and joyful to walk around. Easy to get here by car, but there is no train connection.
How to get there?
Cinque Terre is very close to Tuscany, therefore if you are in Pisa or Florence, it is 1h 30 -2 h drive and potently could be a very intense day trip. It is pretty much the same distance from Milan, but car is definitely not the most convenient way to get there. There are no cars allowed in any of the 5 villages, and you would need to leave it high above the town and then walk down. The distance between the villages with the car takes up to 30 minutes drive, while train take 3 minutes between the cities or 10 minutes with a taxi boat. So in summary best way to explore the Cinque terre is definitely by train (which could be packed, but stations are really short) and it goes regularly from 5am to midnight and 2.4eur in the Cinque Terre area (check more about Cinque Terre express here, use google translate for English version).
Where to stay?
If you want to stay in one of the villages, book your stay early or you will pay top dollar for shabby room. Staying in La Spezia is actually not a bad idea, especially as the train is only 10 minutes away from Riomaggiore and it really goes until midnight so you even can have a dinner in one of the villages, watch a sunset and then get back to hub. Of course staying in one of the towns has a very special charm, but there isn’t much going on, biggest entertainment is watching sunsets on the seafront while eating pizza. City goes pretty much dead quite after 11 o’clock. If you decide to stay in Cinque terre, Airbnb is not a bad shout, even for a last moment bookings.
What to do?
Three things – hike, exploring cities and spend some time by the sea. More info on the trails & paths here.
Check all the beaches on the map: