A Local’s Guide To The Cinque Terre

I’ve spent a lifetime exploring these five towns: here’s what you can’t miss.
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The Cinque Terre are one of Italy’s most picturesque destinations. Nestled along a rugged stretch of coastline of Liguria, these five towns form a National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And in recent years, they’ve graced the feeds of Pinterest and Instagram users worldwide. Their iconic colorful houses, winding footpaths, and stunning sea views make the perfect picture backdrop.

Having spent nearly every summer of my life in the region, I’ve witnessed first-hand how the Cinque Terre have risen in popularity — evolving from tranquil, idyllic villages into tourist hotspots. Yet, the Cinque Terre retain an undeniable charm that makes them well worth a visit, in spite of the crowds. Discover insider tips about the five towns to make your experience more memorable and enjoyable.

Riomaggiore

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Riomaggiore, one of the largest villages of the Cinque Terre, greets travelers as the gateway from La Spezia. Nestled between two terraced hills that slope down to the sea, Riomaggiore boasts a charming harbor dotted with colorful boats and surrounded by pastel-hued houses. A small rocky beach is a popular spot for sunbathing and swimming.

The famous “Via dell’Amore” — a scenic 30-minute trail carved into the rock connecting Riomaggiore to Manarola — begins here. Closed for years after a landslide in 2011, a portion of the trail has now reopened, and full restoration is anticipated by July 2024. For those seeking an alternative route, Via Beccara offers an inland path to Manarola, the next town. Don’t miss the Castello di Riomaggiore in the upper part of the village. This historic stone fortress dates back to the 1200s and now hosts various events and exhibitions.

If you’re looking to grab a bite, check out Rio Bistrot located on the street leading to the harbor. This small, charming restaurant offers delicious seafood and Ligurian dishes, like basil pesto, with a creative twist. The terrace offers stunning views of the sea, making it a popular spot. I recommend booking in advance. For an aperitivo with a view, head to A Pié de Ma, a restaurant and wine bar overlooking the Via dell’Amore. It’s an incredibly romantic spot, especially at sunset.

Manarola

©Nessun Dorma Cinque Terre

Manarola offers some of the most iconic views in the Cinque Terre. Its popularity and small size often result in bustling crowds, making it the busiest of the five villages. As you descend the steep streets towards the sea, you’ll come across an array tourist boutiques and shops offering traditional foods–focaccia, pesto, trofie, seafood cones and Ligurian olive oil.

For an unrivaled view of the marina, take the path to the right of the harbor, along the rocky coastline. Here you’ll also find Nessun Dorma, a bar famed across social media for its spectacular views. This spot offers small bites, like bruschetta and meat and cheese platters, perfect for aperitivo. While you can’t make reservations, you can join a virtual queue through their very own app. The owners of Nessun Dorma also run Officina 231, a boutique and deli shop in town where you buy local products and make your own panino. Another stunning spot in Manarola is La Regina di Manarola. This trendy restaurant and pizzeria serves contemporary dishes in a charming setting with a very nice view.

Surrounding Manarola are vineyards producing the region’s wines, the Cinque Terre DOC and the sweet Schiacchettrà. The hills of the Cinque Terre are in fact covered in terraced vineyards, painstakingly built by locals over centuries. These steep, sun-exposed terraces allow the grapes to ripen slowly, resulting in well-structured wines. I highly recommend visiting a vineyard during your stay. Cantina Marinella, a small wine bar in town, offers a “wine experience” which includes a walk through their vineyard followed by a wine tasting.

Although most people visit the Cinque Terre during the summer season, locals live in these towns throughout the year. If you happen to visit Manarola around Christmas, you’ll be treated to the spectacle of the world’s largest nativity scene, with the whole hillside illuminated with enchanting lights—a truly magical sight. For more information about the “Presepe” (nativity scene) check out this article.

Corniglia

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Corniglia, the third village, is the only one not directly accessible by sea. Rather, it sits 100 meters above it. It’s also the smallest and most challenging to reach — you’ll need to climb 300 steps from the train station. Its remote location means fewer tourists, giving the village a more authentic feel. Although the village is perched above the sea, you can still access the shoreline via steep stairs (approximately a 10-minute climb).

With stunning views of the sea and the surrounding national park, Corniglia is a haven for hiking enthusiasts. The most popular trail is the Sentiero Azzurro, which stretches from Corniglia to Vernazza and offers breathtaking panoramas. Corniglia is also renowned for its exquisite wine, celebrated by Boccaccio in the Decameron and many others throughout history.

For lunch, head to A Cantina di Mananan. This small, rustic restaurant specializes in fresh, locally sourced seafood dishes. Don’t miss out on the typical acciughe (anchovies) and testaroli, a special southern Ligurian pasta. Said to be one of the oldest types of pasta, testaroli are made from a sponge-like crepe, cut into diamond shapes, boiled, and served with pesto, Parmesan cheese or tomato sauce. They’re one of my  favorite dishes from the area, one that tourists often overlook.

If you’re looking for souvenirs, at MG Cinque Terre you’ll find handmade treasures, including quirky anchovy-themed mugs, home décor and jewelry.

Vernazza

Along with Manarola, Vernazza is one of the most iconic villages of the Cinque Terre. It also proudly holds the title of “one of Italy’s most beautiful villages”. Vernazza’s steep, winding streets lead to a charming square that overlooks the harbor. Here, right by the water’s edge, you’ll find the church of Santa Maria di Antiochia, an example of Ligurian Gothic architecture. Adjacent to the church is a small sandy beach, as well as some rocks where both locals and tourists lie down to sunbathe. For an unforgettable vista, follow the hiking trail towards Monterosso, where many pause to capture the Vernazza’s colors from a distance. The entire hike takes approximately two hours.

Vernazza also boasts the ruins of the Castello Doria, a castle with a cylindrical tower once used as a lookout for pirates. For a tranquil escape from the crowds consider visiting the Santuario di Nostra Signora di Reggio, a Romanesque church situated amidst the serene hills about an hour from Vernazza. You can reach the sanctuary by following a scenic path that winds through vineyards and olive groves, adding to the charm of the pilgrimage.

While in Vernazza, I recommend stopping for a meal at Belforte, a restaurant by the harbor with breathtaking views of the sea. If instead you’re looking for a quick bite, Pippo is the perfect spot. This small eatery serves traditional Ligurian street food, from stuffed focaccia to pasta to-go. And, for a wine tasting, head to Cinque Sensi wine bar.

Monterosso al Mare

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Monterosso al Mare (or simply Monterosso) is the northernmost and largest village among the five, with a population of 1,400 inhabitants. Split into two distinct areas connected by a tunnel: the old town, with the iconic colorful houses and narrow streets, and the newer town of Fegina, featuring both tourist and residential structures. Unlike the other cliffside towns, Monterosso is set alongside the seafront with a long, sandy beach, making it an accessible town that is perfect for families.

Monterosso is also ideal for sunbathing as you’ll find plenty of private beach clubs or free beach areas. Due to its popularity, the free beach tends to get crowded – I advise arriving early in the morning to secure a spot. If you prefer lounging on a lettino (sun bed), consider making a reservation at one of the many beach clubs. The most popular club, with the iconic green and orange umbrellas, is Stella Marina. It’s always packed, so expect to be placed in the back rows if you don’t reserve well in advance.

In terms of cuisine, Monterosso is renowned for its acciughe. Thanks to the unique salt levels in Monterosso’s waters, these anchovies boast a distinct delicate taste. You can try them at L’Osteria, a cozy family-run restaurant offering delicious fresh seafood. If you prefer dining with a view, I highly recommend L’Ancora della Tortuga. The location is stunning: you’ll be treated to vistas of the blue sea, perfect for a romantic dinner. And for aperitivo, head to Enoteca Internazionale, the oldest wine shop in Monterosso. Here you can try a selection of local wines accompanied by small bites.

Planning Your Visit

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Planning a visit to the Cinque Terre can seem daunting at first, especially for those unfamiliar with the region’s logistics: how to reach the villages, how much time to spend in the area, and where to base yourself?

When To Visit: The Cinque Terre can be chaotic and overcrowded, especially during the summer months from June to August. For an enjoyable experience with fewer crowds, I recommend visiting in April, May or September, October when the weather is still pleasant but the towns are not as busy. However, keep in mind that some establishments may be closed during these times, as locals are not used to catering to tourists outside of peak season.

Where To Stay: I recommend staying in La Spezia and using the train to explore the Cinque Terre. La Spezia offers a wide variety of hotels with better prices compared to the accommodations in the five villages. The Cinque Terre Express runs from La Spezia in the south to Levanto in the north, departing every 15-20 minutes. While the Cinque Terre are accessible by car, the narrow, winding roads and limited parking options make traveling by train a much more convenient choice. To move from one town to the next, you can either hike or catch the train.

If you prefer to stay within the Cinque Terre, I recommend choosing Monterosso as your base. Here, you’ll find a greater selection of hotels and restaurants, and you can easily reach the other villages by train. The other villages have fewer hotels, with mainly guesthouses and apartment rentals available.

How Long To Stay: Two nights is ideal. This allows time to immerse yourself in the atmosphere, try the local cuisine, and truly experience the charm of the Cinque Terre. If you’re short on time, I recommend choosing just two or three of the villages — Manarola, Vernazza, and Monterosso offer the most characteristic experiences.

What To Pack: One crucial piece of advice is to wear comfortable shoes. Even if you don’t plan on hiking, the Cinque Terre villages are steep and require a fair amount of walking. If you intend to take photos, consider bringing a separate pair of shoes with you – this way, you won’t have to worry about your sneakers clashing with your outfit!

Respect The Local Culture: The Cinque Terre will take your breath away. These five villages truly are a gem in Italy, with stunning landscapes and a rich culture. However, with their increasing popularity comes the responsibility of being a mindful traveler. It’s essential to respect the local environment, culture, and community while exploring these picturesque villages, to preserve the beauty and integrity of the Cinque Terre for generations to come.

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