Cinque Terre ranks high on the bucket lists of both the Italy-bound and the Italy-hopeful. One of our quasi-local staffers shares some tips for traveling to this beloved–though just a tad bit overcrowded–region in Liguria.
No, I am not from Cinque Terre nor have I ever lived there. However, I often visit my friends who call this rugged five-mile gem of Liguria home, and they have declared me local by association. So, I thought I’d share some information that I’ve learned over the years in the hopes that you’ll find it useful for your travels.
Cinque Terre, which translates to five towns, is a national park and UNESCO World Heritage site comprised of five old seaside fishing villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. The region was first documented in the eleventh century, but its history most certainly predates that first mention.
Although not one of the official five towns, Portovenere is nicknamed the “sixth cinque terre” as it’s officially part of the National Park. Located on the fabled Golfo dei Poeti (Gulf of Poets), the town is a little less crowded than the others but perhaps even more charming than the five. Take a ferry here (more on that below). When you pull into the harbor, a line of narrow, tightly packed seemingly impenetrable colorful buildings greets you, standing front and center like soldiers. Behind them is a labyrinth of a town that winds up and down, with lots of stairs and narrow lanes to explore. It will steal your heart.
Now, you might think Cinque Terre will be a beach bonanza since it’s on the Italian coastline. However, that’s not exactly the case. Now don’t get me wrong, you can still experience Italian beach life in its rawest form here, but the extremely rugged coast limits your options. I think this only adds to Cinque Terre’s charm, but you can be the judge of that yourself. Here’s the beach breakdown…
Monterosso is the only one of the five with a “proper beach” outfitted with facilities like beach clubs and where you can truly get your beach on, Italian style. In Vernazza, you can swim in the harbor, jump into the sea from the dock or reach a very rocky beach via a passage just before the main square–on your left if you’re facing the square.
Corniglia‘s wild beaches are the most “rough and ready”, and you can reach them from the train station by following the signs to the harbor and heading down. The water is a bit deeper at these locales. Perhaps you’ve heard of the fabled clothing optional Guvano Beach? It’s just a 15-minute walk towards Vernazza in an abandoned rail tunnel. You’ll spend most of the time in pitch black darkness. Nudity isn’t required but if you happen to be going there and you’re not taking it all off, just remember to be respectful to the people who do. In other words, don’t gawk at them. It’s rude.
Manarola’s lack of a proper beach hasn’t stopped “beachgoers” from setting up shop on the ramp or rocks along the harbor to catch some vitamin D and also to swim. Fassola Beach in Riomaggiore is tiny and rocky and sits south of the town harbor. If you’re walking towards where to catch the ferry, you going and you’ll come across it. Swimming in the harbor here is forbidden.
Good to know
A friend refers Corniglia as the town that no one visits because it’s up there and no one wants to climb the 382 steps. Firstly, it’s really not that bad. Secondly, there’s always a small bus by the railway station that will drive you up to the town for just 1.50 euro. Go here. It’s worth it.
The trains are nifty, however, be prepared for delays and plenty of crowds. Train rides between each town take about five minutes each, and one train ticket between any of the five towns costs 4 euro each way. So yes, a round-trip ticket between Monterosso and Vernazza or Manarola and Riomaggiore costs 8 euro. Just whatever you do, DON’T FORGET TO VALIDATE YOUR TRAIN TICKET IN THE GREEN MACHINES ON THE PLATFORM.
If your ticket isn’t validated, you have to pay a 100 euro fine on the spot. If you can’t you will be escorted off the train and taken to the police station. Pleading ignorant won’t work…the ticket-takers take this very seriously as Trenitalia generates an ample chunk of its income from these fines. If for some reason, the validation machine isn’t working (unsurprisingly, this happens a lot!), then find a ticket-taker as soon as you board the train and let him or her know before he or she finds you! Then you won’t have to pay the fine. If you’re planning to hike (more on that below), you will most likely get a Cinque Terre Card and you can add a daily unlimited train travel option for an additional cost.
As convenient as the trains are, the best way to see the towns is from the water so you should take the ferry one way at the very least and perhaps take the trains back. The ferry makes stop at all the towns except Corniglia which doesn’t have a proper harbor. Until the hiking path between Corniglia and Manarola is repaired (this is one of the easier treks between the towns), your best bet is to take the train here. Schedule and ticket info here.
Again, expect delays and lots of them on both the train or ferry. The sheer volume of people makes it a challenge to keep to the schedule.
Cinque Terre is world famous for its hiking and if you’re planning to hit up the trails, you can read all about hiking in Cinque Terre here. One note on this: If you’re planning on staying in a few of the towns, there is no need to schlep your stuff on the hiking trails with you. The towns are super close! Take the train from one town to another, check into your hotel, leave your stuff, then go back and start your hike. Who doesn’t enjoy a lighter load?
Since it’s located on the sea, it should come as no surprise that many restaurants serve seafood. However, don’t be surprised to find dishes that don’t seem like they’re from the sea at all, such as rabbit alla Ligure or Pansoti in salsa di (walnut sauce).
What separates the good from the not-so-good are the places who sell fresh local fish. For instance, according to my friend Christine Mitchell, if you see crab or lobster on the menu, you should be wary. Liguria does have some lobster, the “thin spiny kind” and Christine said it costs a lot. So if you see a place selling pasta with lobster for 10 euro, you should question where they got the lobster from. Other local faves:
- Foccacia: If you want to really do like the locals do, you should have plain focaccia for breakfast and dip it into your cappuccino.
- Farinata: a flatbread of sorts made from chickpea flour.
- Obviously, pesto reins supreme here! Pesto made with basil from Pra’ is always amazing.
- If you see stuffed mussels on the menu, get them! This is an old Ligurian recipe that not many people make because it’s time sensitive.
- Monterosso is famous for its anchovies so expect anchovies any and every which way: pickled, with lemon, fried, stuffed, with butter on bread and more.
- Salsa di noci, or walnut sauce, is also quite popular.
- Testaroli: An ancient pasta that’s kind of like a round pancake cut up into triangular pieces and often served with pesto. It originated from the Etruscans.
Where to eat in each town
- La Cantina di Miky
- Ristorante Miky
- L’ancroa della Tartuga
- Torre Aurora
- A Cantina de Mananan
- da Billy
- Nessun Dorme for drinks
- Rio Bistro
- Ripa del Sole