Your Quick Gritty Guide
Background: Cinque Terre is a series of centuries-old seaside villages on the rugged, mountainous Italian Riviera coastline. In each of the 5 towns, colorful buildings and layered vineyards cling to steep winding terraces,
OK, so it went something like this.
We were traveling from the magical Italian Alps in South Tyrol, making our way back to Barcelona. When I realized we were a few hours from this gorgeous postcard, I talked my partner into changing our route so we could spend 22 hours in Cinque Terre, Italy.
We’ve all seen the dreamy, color-filled photos and the romantic imagery. I just couldn’t be 5 1/2 hours away and not swing through. We've always been on assignments and passing nearby, but never had the chance to stop.
To be honest, I had done absolutely no research and had no idea logistically what to expect. I booked a hotel in what I thought was Cinque Terre but realized it was an outlying village. Be mindful when you book, because if you enter Cinque Terre for hotel perimeters you’ll also get numerous other areas. We stayed in Levanto where cars are allowed, a village next to Monterosso, only a 5-minute train ride away.
The string of 5 villages that make up Cinque Terre are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso, and they are car free (with almost no parking). If you have a vehicle it may be easier to stay in a town on the outskirts where the train still runs.
What To Bring
There are so many stunning world-class trails with an idyllic backdrop of mountains, set against the sea, surrounded by colorful villages. There’s great hiking for almost every level between 2 and 9 hours. Bring your trail running or hiking shoes and a headlamp. If you’re really feeling adventurous and it hasn’t rained recently, try the full-day, nine-hour hike (you can find details online). Many of the trails allow you to stop in between villages and have a meal as you go.
Rule Number One: Always bring a swimming mask or goggles. The Mediterranean is famous for clear water, and jellyfish, called medusas in Europe. There are only a handful of allotted swimming spots in Cinque Terre. The middle village of Corniglia has an area where you can stop your boat 50m from shore. The translucent turquoise water allows you to see the bottom (something I need). You can lounge on the rocks or explore caves from the water.
The second time I swam, between Corniglia and Vernazza, I had so much confidence that I jumped from the boat and headed to shore, landing in a cluster of thick jellyfish floating about 5 feet below the surface. If you know me, it is my worst nightmare. Panic followed, there was thrashing and theatrics my husband lovingly calls Marandrama. Take your mask. Always.
I met two wonderful Australian women swimming later who told me they weren’t afraid of jellyfish because they were Aussies. I had the privilege of witnessing permanent burns from tentacles on people last Summer in Europe, so I’m gonna take a mask.
Let’s Talk Boats
If you have more than two people it is more economical to rent a private boat for two hours with a driver.
The group tours are outrageously expensive compared to the rest of Europe and the boats are tiny with no comfortable places to sit and there could be up to 12 people on a little boat. A tiny wooden boat. Uncomfortable and squished together is not my idea of a romantic boat trip.
It’s 80€ per person for a two-hour group tour on an old antiquated boat, with 12 people. It’s so much better to get gauged for 250€ (also for 2 hours) and have a private boat and it pays off if you have three or more people.
We only had 22 hours, so on the morning of our second day we rented a (no license) boat in Levanto, one of the only places we found where you can take a self-driving boat for 250€, for 4 hours. Please note that it takes 40 minutes with a small 20 hp engine boat to get from Levanto to the first village because they limit the speed around the natural preserve and also your engine feels like a very old man pushing a car.
You can rent kayaks in Riomaggiore and breeze over to Manarola. You can also rent them in Monterosso (the only village with a sand beach), but it’s a good paddle over to Vernazza from here.
The Nitty Gritty
To protect your sanity and your vacation, be alert. I don’t care what your hotel tells you, never leave any bags in your car. We saw busted car windows in the parking lot in the center of town where people are constantly walking and driving. Don’t have anything that looks like baggage that people might assume would be valuable. We always throw our clothes and shoes everywhere so it looks like a bunch of drifters with no possessions.
Please, do not move your bags from your car to your trunk in a parking lot and then leave. As for most of southern Europe, people are watching and it would take them less than a minute to remove your bags from the trunk. You’re dealing with professionals who wait and watch. Move them at another location than the one you park and leave. We met a couple in Italy at a grocery store who threw their backpacks into the trunk at the store, for a quick 10-minute food run. When they returned, their bags were gone. Also make sure your passports aren’t ever left in your car.
The first thing the train ticket machine tells you is to beware of pickpockets before it even starts your transaction. If anybody accidentally bumps into you at the train station, immediately check your phone and your wallet. Demand it back if taken. They usually just hand it over and walk away.
Parking + Hotels
We rolled in knowing very little logistically so we chose a place in Levanto. Choose a hotel or apartment with private parking on the inside of a gate. I don’t recommend street parking if you can avoid it. It was one of the benefits of staying in a village right outside. We parked our van, dropped our bags, and headed straight for the train station. If walking is an issue, ask your potential hotel how far they are from the train station that connects the villages.
Before you book your accommodation, ask them if you can leave the car there until you’re ready to go, because check-out is typically at 10 or 11 AM. We left town at 5 PM and we were able to leave our car at the hotel until we departed which was really convenient and much safer than parking in town.
If you’re staying in one of the actual five villages, I do not recommend having a lot of luggage, especially if your accommodation isn’t super close to the train station or if there are a remarkable amount of steep stairs. Vernazza, the most intimate and picturesque, is known for steep, unending stairs. Research before you book.
The Train Lowdown
The trains, built into the side of the mountain, run through tunnels every 20 minutes, offering glimpses of each village. It’s easy to navigate and jump on and off in between villages.
It’s really important to note that you should never buy your return ticket unless you are positive about the EXACT time. The trains run frequently and even if they’re empty and if the ticket is the same price, and you’re 20 minutes off, the train controller has an entire racket of giving tickets to tourists and kicking you off the train. We saw this happen three times on an eight-minute train ride.
We saw some pretty savvy Americans refusing to be ticketed who just kept walking because they paid for 10.30 pm not the 10.50 pm slot on an empty train. It was an entertaining circus, and while it makes a great story, if you want to avoid that kind of drama, just wait to book your ticket until you’re at the train station ready to leave.
Where to Go First
If I had planned like normal people and had more time here, I would have gone in order exploring villages. We only had one night and we rolled in at 7 pm the following day. We knew we’d be boating the next day so I had to choose one village to see by land, by nightfall. We chose Vernazza.
We chose very well.
The views at every turn are just stunning. You walk off the train and it’s immediately WOW. It is the most intimate of the five and is filled with winding stairways. One minute off the train and you see the cathedral, mountains, and small harbor filled with colorful boats, but my favorite part of Vernazza was listening to all of the Americans complain about how many stairs they had to climb to go to their hotels. Every angle is a photo. Bring snacks and sit on the rocks and enjoy a panoramic view.
The food is awful, unfortunately, Coney Island-tourist bad. We saw those gorgeous restaurants with amazing views and astronomical pricing and they still served your salt and pepper, dressing, cheese, and condiments in disposable packets. Our bread was brought to us in a to-go bag before our meal and wasn’t suitable, even for ducks. Many of the restaurants mention that their fish is frozen, written in small font on their menus. Surprisingly, we struggled to find anything plant-based. Even pasta with marinara without meat was difficult to find in the harbor.
On the brief walk between the harbor and the train station there’s a gelato shop that has super dark chocolate vegan ice cream. Grab a double on the way back to the train for your next stop.
When To Go
We were there in May and it felt like Little America. Early May and September and early October are the best months. I would completely avoid it in July and August. We were there before the official tourist season had begun and it was already pretty full (but manageable).