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 would create a Cinque Terre travel plan and do it right!
Somehow, even with an actual plan, Cinque Terre still begins with a challenge.
The French Strike
The trip begins with a transit strike in France. Our bus to the Nice airport to connect to our Flixbus to Genoa, is canceled. Standing at the bus stop, we declare an Uber emergency and soon our Uber driver, Dennis, rescues us. He fights his way through rush hour traffic and comes to a screeching halt at the Nice airport – 24 minutes after our scheduled bus departure. But, shockingly, the bus is still there! (Maybe taking pity on those of us affected by the striking transit workers?)
Gratefully, we board the bus, exhale, and the bus departs.
Later, on final approach to Genoa, I glance at our connecting train tickets from Genoa to Riomaggiore and realize – damn, we’re booked out of the wrong train station in Genoa! Genoa is a very large city and has SIX train stations offering service to the Cinque Terre area. Our Flixbus drops us in a parking lot directly across the street from the main train station, Genoa Piazza Principe, however, we’re booked on a train out of Genoa Nervi which is about 30 minutes away!
The Information Man at the train station adds to our complete confusion. He sells us tickets from Genoa Principe to Genoa Brignole to make our original connection in Levanto to Riomaggiore. He also issues tickets from Genoa Principe to Nervi and encourages us to run for the train leaving RIGHT NOW to make our original train out of Nervi.
Dazed and confused, we jump on the train to Nervi. Thirty minutes later our train pulls into Nervi at departure time of our train to Riomaggiore. Nervi is a small station with only two tracks, so we sprint under the tunnel and up the stairs on the other side as our train (5 minutes delayed) is boarding!
I glance behind me to make sure my friend, struggling up the stairs with her small backpack and large roller bag, is still with me. Then I see the train doors start to close so, in desperation, I lunge for the door and stick my right foot and left hand inside as the door shuts on my limbs. In my left hand, I’m holding a plastic bag containing a bottle of wine and some happy hour snacks. I stubbornly refuse to let go of the wine and withdraw my hand from the train door, so the conductor reluctantly reopens the door.
We board the train, exhale, and the train departs.
Here’s how to create a perfect, stress-free Cinque Terre travel plan!
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, it hasn’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. The main street is lined with a few small pubs and shops selling tourist trinkets. 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 trail
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 hit the trail.
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 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 the narrow streets of this picturesque village are clogged with tourists. 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 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 there’s honestly not much to see. 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’re limited on time, 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 in one of the Cinque Terre villages. 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 just do it!