Many years ago, I visited Cinque Terre for the first time and I really screwed it up. I arrived in Italy with no real plan and ended up sleeping on a cold, hard bench in the Pisa train station while waiting for a midnight train to anywhere. This time, I vowed, I explore the beautiful Cinque Terre hiking trails the right way!
But travel plans don’t always run smoothly. An unscheduled French transit strike nearly derails us before our trip begins, but we somehow catch our Flixbus from Nice to Genoa. Then we arrive in Genoa to find out we’re booked on a train out of the wrong Genoa train station (there are SIX stations in Genoa!). So, getting to Cinque Terre proves to be a struggle, but it’s so worth it in the end.
Once we finally arrived, we could exhale and find the zen in this stunning area of Italy!
Here’s how to see the beautiful Cinque Terre hiking trails!
Cinque Terre refers to the area in western Italy that encompasses five colorful, incredibly picturesque villages built into the side of the rugged coastline. The area was named a UNESCO heritage site in 1997 and attracts over 2 million visitors each year. The busiest months are May through August so I would highly recommend avoiding the area during those months! I’ve visited in September and April and, although it’s quite busy, the Cinque Terre hiking trails haven’t felt completely clogged with tourists. November begins the rainy season when many of the shops and restaurants close and the area goes into hibernation for the winter.
Exploring the villages
Each of the five villages has its own distinct personality. From north to south:
Monterosso – This village has the best beaches. It also has the most hotels, restaurants, wine shops, and tourists.
Vernazza – I think Vernazza is the most picturesque of all the villages. Colorful fishing boats line the harbor which is surrounded by cafes with a rainbow of brightly colored umbrellas. Near the harbor is the Church of Santa Margherita which dates back to 1318 and was one of the first built in this area.
Corniglia – This is the only village built on top of a hill rather than seaside. When I visited a few months ago on a day trip from Florence, we arrived by train and climbed the 350 stairs from the train platform to the village. Quaint gift shops, restaurants, and delicious gelato stands line the narrow streets.
Manarola – This village is famous for producing the local wine Sciacchetrà. A few small pubs and shops selling tourist trinkets line the village streets. We ended our hike in Manarola and searched for a small pub with a cold beer and a view. There is only one, set high on the cliff overlooking the small harbor, Punta Bonfiglio, but it was packed with tourists so we hopped the train back to Riomaggiore.
Riomaggiore – We spent two nights in Riomaggiore at Locanda Dalla Compagnia (use this link for $15 off on Booking.com)! Once the day-trippers depart, the village is so peaceful. People line the rocky harbor each evening to drink wine, eat pizza, and watch the sun sink into the Mediterranean. Best happy hour spot – Bar O’Netto, where they serve an ice cold pint of beer for 5 EUR and free snacks. When researching accommodation I found this village the most affordable of the five.
Hitting the Cinque Terre hiking trails
The entrance fee to Cinque Terre National Park is 7.50 EUR for the day. We purchase a day pass for 16 EUR which includes unlimited train and bus and free use of the toilets and wifi hotspots along the trail. Individual train tickets are 4 EUR per ride so, if you pay the 7.50 EUR park entrance fee and ride the train twice, it’ll be almost the same price. Tickets are available for purchase at any train station and must be validated at the machines in the train station prior to use. (More details on the Cinque Terre Card here.)
Monterosso to Vernazza (2 – 2.5 hours at a very leisurely pace)
The trail heading north to south is slightly easier than hiking in the opposite direction, so we choose easier. Hoping to avoid the crowds, we set our alarms for 6:30 am and board the 7:15 am train heading north from Riomaggiore to begin our hike in Monterosso. (I am NOT a morning person, but in this case, I make an exception!) In Monterosso, we join the locals for a cup of coffee at a small cafe and watch as the quaint village slowly wakes up. The morning air is cool and the streets are quiet and tourist-free.
After a few cups of strong coffee, I slowly wake up too and we’re ready to begin our hike.
The climb out of Monterosso begins gently, with wide stairways and Mediterranean views. And best of all – no people! An hour later, about halfway to Vernazza, we meet a few hikers going in the opposite direction. Later, as we approach Vernazza, a few more small groups appear. The late morning air is still cool, the trail is quiet, and the views of Vernazza down below are stunning!
Vernazza to Corniglia (2 – 2.5 hours at a leisurely pace)
We spend time in Vernazza taking photos of the brightly colored umbrellas and fishing boats lining the shore. Suddenly, the floodgates open and tourists clog the narrow streets of this picturesque village. So, we escape the crowds and hit the trail for Corniglia. This section of trail proves to be the most popular and crowded for good reason – it offers stunning views of both villages.
Halfway to Corniglia, the midday heat begins to drain our energy. Suddenly, like a mirage appearing in the hot desert, we stumble upon a hilltop bar with a cold beer and a view! An ice cold beer tempts me, but with steep trails ahead, I choose cappuccino instead. After a short rest, the caffeine kicks in and we hit the trail for Corniglia.
Corniglia is a trekking center for the day-trippers from Florence and we find the town bustling with hikers lingering over lunch, shopping, and rehydrating with a cold beer. We indulge in delicious Italian gelato!
Corniglia to Manarola (2.5 – 3 hours)
Landslides have closed the popular trail from Corniglia to Manarola, so we take the alternate trail – the panoramic route. This trail begins with a 45-minute climb straight up a very rocky trail. It’s a difficult trail and shade is hard to find, so we take it slowly and reapply sunscreen frequently. There are very few other hikers on this section, which is a welcome relief. Feeling slightly exhausted, we take frequent breaks and try to stay hydrated.
And then we both begin to wonder if this alternate trail was a good idea. It’s hot, we’re tired, and the views are not spectacular. Finally, we meet a gaggle of women coming from the other direction, all sporting some version of bra & shorts or bikini top & shorts. They reassure us that the views will be well worth the effort so we continue on feeling a bit more hopeful.
At last, about 90 minutes into the hike, we stumble onto a UNESCO heritage site and the views are stunning. Centuries-old terraced vineyards dot the steep mountainside and are incredibly picturesque.
The trail continues along the top of the terraces and into what appears to be someone’s front yard. From there, we slowly weave back and forth straight down to Manarola as our old knees scream in pain.
At the tiny visitor information counter in Corniglia, we had overheard a young couple asking about the trail all the way to Riomaggiore. They’re young and fit and I’m sure they had fun. We’re old and our knees are tired, so we go in search of an ice cold beer in Manarola.
Flights – The nearest airport is Pisa located about 90 minutes away by train. There is convenient transportation from the Pisa airport to the train station, making the connection to Cinque Terre quite easy. (Check here for details.)
Train – Most visitors arrive by train from Genoa in the north or Le Spezia or Pisa in the south. Roads between the villages are few and parking almost non-existent. (Check trainline.eu for schedules and prices.)
Day trip from Florence – Located just a few hours away, many visitors arrive on day trips from Florence. I joined one of these trips last fall and really enjoyed it. So, if you have time restrictions, this may be a good option. (More Florence day trip details here.)
If you’ve got the time and money, it’s definitely worth staying a few days rather than trying to do Cinque Terre in a day. You’ll get to experience quiet evenings, Mediterranean sunsets, and a more relaxed pace. While all five villages have a certain charm, if you’re looking for accommodation in Cinque Terre on a budget, Riomaggiore tends to be less expensive than the neighboring villages. Cinque Terre can also be easily incorporated into a longer trip through Italy and France.
So, pick a village, book your hotel, jump on that train, and hit the beautiful Cinque Terre hiking trails!
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