Everything You Need to Know for the Perfect Trip to Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre, meaning "Five Lands," is a string of five seaside towns nestled along the rugged coastline of the Italian Riviera. The area, which is a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the most picturesque and popular destinations in the country (and in Europe).
If you’re planning a trip here you’re probably dying with anticipation. You want it to be perfect right? Well we got you covered. Here’s everything you need to know for the perfect trip to Cinque Terre:
BEST TIME TO GO
Cinque Terre is beautiful no matter when you go but the 'best' time to go is between April and September when the weather is better for hiking and being outdoors. Like in the rest of the country, peak tourist season is June to August when temperatures are high (perfect for beaching, swimming and hiking) but so are prices. Going between October and February is less ideal because of frequent rainfall (which can result in closures of the hiking trails).
WHERE TO STAY
The first thing you’ll want to decide is which of the five towns to base yourself in. Each town has it’s own personality and something different to offer. You can’t really go wrong with any of them (and it’s easy enough to get from town to town) so don’t stress too much about picking “the right one.” To help you decide, here’s a bit about each of the towns. From south to north:
Riomaggiore is the town closest to La Spezia and the first you'll arrive in coming from Pisa or Florence. It has one main street, lined with restaurants, markets and shops, a small but beautiful marina (with a jetty that you can climb out to that offers great views of the town, see the picture to the right), and a small rocky beach.
I stayed here during my trip and loved it, especially because it was the quietest/least touristy of the bunch. Plus, because it is one of the first/last towns (depending on your direction), it is well serviced by the trains. Some trains actually skip towns but most stop in Riomaggiore or Monterosso at a minimum.
Manarola is similar to Riomaggiore in that it has one main street. It's harbor is also small but offers amazing swimming and some minimal cliff jumping. The town also has a small waterfront walk way along the adjacent cliff that gives you the most incredible front views of the town (it's the angle from where most of the 'postcard' photos are taken).
Corngilia is the smallest of the five villages and the only one not located on the waterfront. It's perched high above the ocean on top of the cascading cliffs. It's a little less accessible than the other villages, even by train, because you have to walk from the station up some 300+ steps to reach the center of town. The flip side to this is that it's incredibly serene and much calmer than the rest of Cinque Terre - perfect for relaxing and unplugging yourself.
If you Google Cinque Terre you're probably looking at pictures of Vernazza, the most photogenic of the five towns. It's often described as the "beauty queen" of the bunch - and has has the popularity to back that up. The town has a fort offering sweeping views, a beautiful harbor, and small beach that can be reached by passing underneath the natural foundation of the town. Hundreds of people flood into Vernazza every day. And, unfortunately, because the town has one main street (like Riomaggiore and Manarola), it can get quite crowded during the day. But, on the flip side, there's something exciting about being in the middle of all the action.
Monterosso al Mare
Monterosso is the northernmost town, closest to Levanto, and is the largest of the five. It has several streets filled with shops, restaurants, bars and supermarkets. Unlike the other towns it is more flat (meaning less steep stairs!) and has a beautiful beach front promenade. It's long stretch of beach gives the town a more resort-like feel to it, with loungers and umbrellas available for rent. It's also where most of Cinque Terre's larger hotels are.
HOW LONG TO STAY
Despite being a small and compact area, the five towns and the surrounding area have a lot to offer. Just see the "Things to Do" section below. Depending on what you're hoping to see and do, I would recommend staying at least 3 or 4 days. If you're short on time it is possible to do less because you can do a lot in a day.
We were in Cinque Terre for 4 days and 5 nights and I personally wished we could have stayed a day or two longer.
If you're really short on time, it is possible to do a day trip to Cinque Terre from Florence. While you'll inevitably wish you had more time, sometimes a half day is really all you have (and it’s better to get a taste, than not at all).
For a day trip I would recommend one of two options:
- Take the train to Monterosso first. Walk around Monterosso for a bit then hike the SVA trail from Monterosso to Vernazza, spend the morning there before the crowds poor in. Then take the train from Vernazza to explore the other three remaining towns: Corngilia and Manarola and Riomaggiore.
- Take the train to Vernazza. Walk around Vernazza for a bit, then hike from Vernazza to Monterosso (if you’re not the outdoorsy type you can walk the first 200m of the trail to get the vantage point for the infamous view of the town from above). Hang out at the beach or have lunch along the waterfront in Monterosso. Then take the train to explore the other three towns. Spend late afternoon/sunset in Manarola at the Nessun Dorma bar or in Riomaggiore at A Pie' de Ma'.
Within each of the five towns, the best way to get around is on foot. They are all walkable (though be ready for some steep stairs!) and walking is really the best way to explore the tiny alleyways. In Monterosso, there are taxis you can take to get from point to point if needed.
Train & Ferry
To get from town to town, there are two main modes of transportation: train and ferry. The regional train system services Cinque Terre, going in both directions from La Spezia to Levanto and stopping in all five towns. (These are the same trains you will use to arrive in Cinque Terre). To go from south to north (e.g. from Manarola to Vernazza) you’ll want to catch a train headed towards Levanto. To go from north to south (e.g. from Vernazza to Riomaggiore) you’ll want to catch a train headed towards La Spezia. Trains run regularly (about every 15-30 mins) during the day; less often in the later evenings. You can find the train schedule once you arrive at the station or check ahead online at the Trenitalia website. The price from one town to the next is €4 regardless of the distance traveled. So, for example, going four stops from Riomaggiore to Monterosso (or vice versa) costs the same price as going one stop between neighboring towns Riomaggiore to Manarola (or vice versa). (note: tickets use to be €1.50; there was recently a steep price hike). You can purchase tickets from the ticket office or from the ticket machine (cash, credit accepted, English/Italian language options). After you buy your ticket you'll need to validate it at one of the machines next to the ticket office or near the platform. Validating it stamps the the date and time on your ticket so it's linked to your journey. Signs at the station warn that you could be fined up to €40 if you fail to validate your ticket before boarding the train. In the dozens of times we rode the train not once did a train attendant come by to check our tickets, let alone if it was validated.
If you anticipate taking the train more than three times in a day than you can consider buying a Cinque Terre card.* For €16 a day you get unlimited rides on the train between towns and access to the hiking trails.
The ferries run less frequently (about once every hour) and are more expensive than the train. Tickets run between €7-18, depending on how many towns you're traveling over, and can be purchased in cash only from the ticket booths near each town's ferry dock. It generally takes 15-20 minutes to go from town to town. Keep in mind that you can't take the ferry to Corniglia (since it's not on the water and doesn't have a marina or harbor).
Note: you can also get from town to town by hiking (see below).
THINGS TO DO
For an arguably small place, there is plenty to do in Cinque Terre. Just wandering through the tiny alleyways of each town will keep you busy for days, with obligatory pit stops for food, drinks and great views along the way. For the nature lovers and the active travelers, hiking and swimming are also a must.
There is an entire network of hiking trails throughout Cinque Terre. Most of the trails are free. Some, including the popular sentiero azzurro (SVA) trail (also called the blue or #2 trail) have a fee. You can pay this fee in cash at the entrance of the trail (you’ll see a small wooden booth with an attendant) or purchase a Cinque Terre card. A one day trail pass costs €7.50. With the Cinque Terre card, all you have to do is show the attendant your card and you’re set.
The trails are open at all times, but ticket booth attendants are only there during normal working hours (around 9am – 5pm). In our experience, the ticket booths are intermittently attended and trail fees are not consistently collected. We did not end up paying the trail fee either time we went because we started our hikes early (around 7 or 8am) before the ticket booths had opened. By the time we reached the other end of the trail, the ticket attendant was present but only collecting fees from incoming hikers. This ended up saving us nearly €30 in trail fees.* Do with that information what you will.
*This is why I would only recommend purchasing a Cinque Terre card if you know you will be riding the train more than three times a day, plan to hike more than one trail in the same day, and/or and you prefer to hike during peak times (when booth attendants will be collecting trail fees).
If you decide to do some hiking while in Cinque Terre, you'll probably want to do the popular SVA trail. This is the trail that links the five towns, allowing you to walk from one to the next, starting in Riomaggiore and ending in Monterosso (or vice versa; you can start and walk in either direction). Hiking the trail from town to town takes about 1.5-2 hours. Currently the portion of the trail that links Riomaggiore to Manarola and the portion that links Manarola to Corniglia are both closed. The trail was damaged by landslides several years ago and haven't yet been repaired. It's unclear when/if they'll reopen. Because of these closures you can only hike the SVA trail from Corniglia to Monterosso. The segment of the trail between Monterosso and Vernazza is the most popular, because it leads you to the vantage point where you can get the infamous postcard-perfect picture of Vernazza from above. Following the trail is easy, just keep an eye out for red and white markers along the path with "SVA" in black letters.
If you're short on time or not really into hiking I would recommend doing the SVA trail starting in Vernazza and going towards Monterosso. About 200 meters into the hike you'll reach the photo-op vantage point. Once you've snapped your picture you can decide whether to continue on or turn around and go back to town.
Monterosso, Vernazza, Manarola and Riomaggiore all have beaches and/or marinas or harbors where you can go swimming. The water in Cinque Terre is crystal clear, clean and wonderfully warm in the summer months. And there's nothing like taking a dip alongside the beautiful facades of each town as your backdrop.
Cinque Terre is best reached by train. From Milan, you can take the train south, connecting via Genoa. You’ll arrive first in Monterosso followed by Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. The total journey takes about 3 hours. From Florence or Pisa, you can take the train west, connecting via La Spezia. You’ll arrive first in Riomaggiore, followed by Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. The total journey takes about 2 hours (about 2 hours to La Spezia, and then 10-15 minutes from La Spezia to Riomaggiore and onwards). Travel by train is really economical and tickets cost about €20-40 one way for second class (more for first). Most regional trains in Italy don't have reserved or assign seating so plan to arrive at the station a bit early to grab a seat and stow your luggage.
You can look up routes/train times and book your tickets ahead of time via Trenitalia or ItaliaRail (which is an official branch of Trenitalia that caters to foreign tourists, so all information is in English).
You can purchase tickets at your departing train station (e.g. Florence, Milan) but this can be time-consuming during peak travel times and purchasing them online will save you time and headache.
One final tip: planning a trip can be stressful, especially when you really want it to be perfect. But don't stress too much about Cinque Terre. The towns are easy to navigate and the people are friendly. Anything outside of the basic information we've provided here you'll be able to figure out once you get there! And even if you have a bit of trouble, at least you're getting lost in one of the most beautiful places in the world!