Cinque Terre Unveiled: Exploring Italy’s Enchanting Coastal Marvels

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The five villages that make up the Cinque Terre (pronounced chin-kwe ter-re, with a rolled “r” sound) are tucked away in a particularly hilly curve at the eastern end of the Italian Riviera. These charming, vibrant villages, which are surrounded by some of the world’s most breathtaking coastal scenery, can lift even the most pessimistic moods. People travel between villages via a 19th-century railway line that was cut through a network of coastal tunnels while winding around seemingly impenetrable cliff walls. For more than ten years, vehicles have been prohibited in the communities.

Although all five villages are no longer the isolated hamlets they once were, there is still a sense of authenticity here, with few roads, impeccably preserved architecture, and a network of spectacular coastline and mountain trails.

Introducing the five villages of Cinque Terre

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riomaggiore italy

Riomaggiore, the largest of the Cinque Terre’s five villages and its easternmost, serves as the group’s unofficial center. The greatest way to experience the lovely sunset in this town is from the water. Its crumbling pastel buildings march down a steep ravine to a little harbor, which is the area’s favorite postcard vista. Up the hill from the pebbly Fossola Beach is a rocky promontory with a botanical garden and bird observation center.

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Manarola is well known for its sweet Sciacchetrà wine since it has been endowed with more grapevines than any other Cinque Terre settlement. Its abundance of precious medieval artifacts also lends credence to assertions that it is the oldest of the five villages. Fishing boats and other symbols of traditional village life still line the busy main street and seaside promenade. Beautiful views and a playground with a bar (or a playground with a bar, depending on your priorities) can be found at Punta Bonfiglio, a short uphill stroll.

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picturesque sea town. corniglia in cinque terre, italy

Corniglia is a “quiet” traditional village perched on a 330-foot-high rocky promontory surrounded by vineyards. Although steep steps lead down to a rocky inlet, it is the only Cinque Terre village without direct sea access. The ancient core is defined by narrow lanes and colorfully painted four-story buildings, a timeless streetscape mentioned in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Its peaceful, winding alleyways lead to a spacious and breezy sea-facing terrace, the only vantage point from which to see (and photograph) all five villages at once. To get to the village main from the railway station, either climb the Lardarina, a 377-step brick stairway, or use a shuttle bus.

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Vernazza’s little harbor, the only safe landing spot on the Cinque Terre coast, protects what is possibly the quaintest and steepest of the five communities. A main cobblestone boulevard (Via Roma) connects the seashore Piazza Marconi with the train station. Side alleyways lead to the village’s signature Genoa-style caruggi (small streets), where sea vistas abound.

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The westernmost village of Monterosso, the only Cinque Terre settlement with a genuine stretch of beach, is the least traditional of the five. The hamlet, famous for its lemon trees and anchovies, is charming. Its new and old sections are connected by an underground tube dug beneath the windswept San Cristoforo promontory.

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The best hikes in Cinque Terre

For years, walking pathways were the only method to move between the Cinque Terre settlements and were frequently the only connection to the outside world. Hiking here is done in constant companionship with the water, but it also provides stunning views of unusual terraced fields and coastal woodlands.

Many of Cinque Terre’s walking trails have been in poor condition since the 2011 floods, and are subject to temporary or permanent closure. Before you leave, always verify with the Cinque Terre National Park headquarters. From May to September, park guides lead daily guided walks.

Options for accommodation

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Accommodations in the Cinque Terre are pricey, overcrowded, and generally uninteresting, so look for something unique and reserve early. Hotels can book out for the entire season from April to October (locals joke that there is no shoulder season) and are practically all closed outside of that. Alternatives include renting an apartment or establishing a base in La Spezia or Levanto.

If you want to take a day excursion, the enormous but laid-back town of La Spezia is much closer than Genoa or Pisa, with a seven-minute “commute” to the nearest Cinque Terre village, Riomaggiore, and 15 to 25 minutes to the farthest village, Monterosso. Returning to La Spezia’s busy bars at night for inexpensive and ample dishes of focaccia, pesto pasta, and seafood is a pleasure.

When is the best time of year to visit Cinque Terre?

Spring in the Cinque Terre offers cooler weather for hiking and fewer tourists. This place is a swimming and boating paradise in the summer, but it’s also extremely hot and busy. In the Cinque Terre, things slow down in the winter. Hotels and many restaurants are closed, but apartment rentals are available for the daring and amorous.

How long should you stay in Cinque Terre?

beautiful colorful cityscape

The Cinque Terre is a timeless place that cannot be fully appreciated in a one day journey. It’s the kind of setting that rewards slowing down, whether you’re relaxing at a beachfront table in Vernazza with a glass of wine in hand or listening to birdsong and resting your tired legs at an old refuge on a clifftop far above.

Allow three to four days to explore all five Cinque Terre towns, become acquainted with the numerous twists and turns of at least one village center, and enjoy a couple of half-day walks. If time is limited, even a single overnight visit will expose you to the gentler rhythms of the villages at dawn, dusk, and midnight.

How to Travel to Cinque Terre

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The railway is the most convenient way to get to the Cinque Terre and navigate between the settlements. Genoa and Pisa have the nearest airports.

Arriving by rail in Cinque Terre

All five communities are linked by a railroad route that extends along Italy’s west coast to Genoa, Pisa, and Rome. Between 6:30 a.m. and 10:00 p.m., one to three trains every hour run along the coast between Genoa and La Spezia, stopping at each of the Cinque Terre communities. The Cinque Terre Card, which is reasonably priced, includes unlimited 2nd-class train travel between Levanto and La Spezia as well as hiking fees, or you can purchase a €4 ticket for transit between any two villages.

Getting to Cinque Terre by automobile

Private automobiles are not permitted beyond village entrances, and highways linking villages may be restricted on busy days. If you arrive by car or motorcycle, you must pay to park in designated parking lots (€12 to €25 per day), which are frequently full. Minibus shuttles depart from parking lots in certain villages. Seasonal timetables are available at the park offices.

Although all of the Cinque Terre villages are accessible by car, the small, twisting cliff-edge roads will test your nerves. If you’re going by car, it’s a good idea to leave it in the adjacent town of La Spezia. At the train station, there is secure parking.

Arriving by boat in Cinque Terre

It is also possible to arrive in Cinque Terre via sea. During the summer, Golfo Paradiso SNC operates boats from Genoa to Cinque Terre. Servizio Marittimo del Tigullio handles seasonal boat services to and from Santa Margherita. You can even charter a yacht from one of these ports if you want to make a grand entry.

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