How to Spend a Weekend in Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre is a region of Italy made up of five small fishing villages. Each is unique in their own way but share a few similarities:

  • The pastel coloured buildings built deep in the rock side
  • Paths that crawl across the mountainside, down rocky cliffs to finally meet the sea.
  • The effervescent sound of the sea, ringing through every view
  • The smell — the salt in the air, fresh fish ready for grilling and restaurants teeming with life
  • Beautiful coastal views

Almost everywhere you look there’s a picture perfect image framed by some essence of the sea. It’s either the deep blue waters, fishing boats or seaside visitors. From Monterosso it’s up close and personal and from Corniglia it’s a bird’s eye perspective of the sea.

It’s easy to see why this area was inaugurated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. 20 years ago its unique construction, vibrant colours and seaside feel was completely unspoilt by more modern ways of life. They were five simple villages fishing for a living. Even then, what made them unique was how the houses had been constructed — as if carved out of the earth.

With fishing no longer the main source of income, tourism has taken over. The bustling shops and restaurant scene is stark evidence of this transformation. However, despite the crowds there’s plenty of reasons to visit this charming area. Think of it like a new kind of island hopping. This is town hopping at its finest. Simply hop on the quaint 19th century train cut through the mountainside. After a few minutes ride hop off to enjoy one of the five small villages.

What to do in Cinque Terre

The five towns of Cinque Terre can be easily explored in one day due to the easy train links between. In each town you can experience the scenery, the food and spend time relaxing over a drink or two. There’s also a little shopping and a few sights to see along the way. The main offering of the region is a glimpse at a simple Italian life — good food, good company and stunning views.

There’s also plenty of nature to enjoy with hiking trails accessible from each of the five towns. These offer views out to sea and a challenging enough hike you’ll feel that second ice cream was justified. Alternatively enjoy the seaside with a bit of beachside fun in Monterosso de Mare.

How long do I need in a Cinque Terre?

Many people take on the five towns in one day, using the train to breeze through the region. While it’s perfectly possible to experience all five in one day without rushing too much I’d advise slowing down the pace a little. Take your time over two days, or a long weekend. This way you can get in a bit of hiking, plenty of eating and drinking, and even a little sunbathing or swim in the sea.

The Famous Five at Cinque Terre

Riomaggiore

This is the closest of the five towns to La Spezia, the main train stop that gets you into the region. The village itself is located along a steep valley next to the Rio-Major from which it takes its name. On getting off the train, walk through a tunnel carved deep into the mountain rock. Build anticipation for what’s on the other side as you walk through the cool tunnel. When you emerge, pause to take in the coloured houses. Notice the steep incline that seems to lead up towards the luscious green countryside. This reminded me a little of Bali (if not for the drizzling weather I experienced off-season).

Seemingly the quietest of the five take time here to wander around and explore. There’ll be plenty of time to stop elsewhere for a bite to eat. Find your way along the paths that lead around the marina, towards the San Giovanni Batista. There’s a nice viewpoint that shows a glimpse at the bigger perspective of the five towns. You can see the earthy coloured houses jutting out from the rock with the bright blue sea in contrast.

Further along those paths is the Castle. Enjoy the striking image of the turrets, and the clock face standing sentinel set against the sea views. Then wind your way down steep stone staircases until you make your way back to the marina. If it’s raining, like it was for me, take your time here and be careful of the new stream rushing down the steps, or possibly being spat out overhead. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the postman running up and down those steps on a stormy day!

If you’re looking for a bite to eat I’d recommend exploring the marina. There’s a number of cosy looking restaurants and coffee shops right by the sea. The atmosphere was great and I could easily imagine spending a good amount of time here.

Manarola

Known as the Insta-city of the five villages because of a particularly overcrowded viewpoint along the coast, there’s more to see in Manarola than just one spot. Perhaps one of my favourites of the Cinque Terre towns due to the beauty of the houses against the cliff side. They all seem to huddle together, their pastel colours standing strong even on a darker day. Next to them the sea beats at the small harbour, cushioned by the bay, and the dark rocks loom behind them. It truly looks as if the houses are nestled within and are even part of the rock formations themselves. Their colours burst forth to define them from nature.

From the train station walk towards the sea through the Main Street. Check out the tourist shops or make a note of some places to grab a bite to eat later. I can thoroughly recommend ‘Cambusa’ selling focaccia. I must admit I couldn’t resist the chocolate one but they had plenty of savoury, and local staple, options too. Warmed in the shop, though, my chocolate focaccia was melted goodness.

Take a moment to breathe in the seaside feel — the fishing boats creating an aisle down the high street leading to the harbour as an altar. Then walk up around to the right in search of the viewpoint which offers views out to the Cinque Terre villages. Walking along that path will also lead you to the insta spot. Yes, it’s a beautiful view but it also gets overcrowded very quickly. Get up there before everyone else on your train does, admire the view, sure grab a few pics but then get out of the way. There’s nothing more frustrating than watching the same person hog the view and take 16,000 selfies. The view is there to be enjoyed by all so lets share a little bit of the world and be courteous to each other.

Plus there’s another great view I can recommend. Inspired by the Katie Show Blog, walk back down to the harbour and venture out along the rocky outcrop in the sea. Not only is it an amazing place to take it all in and have a moment of peace but it also makes for a great pic. This is the sea view perspective, looking up at the buildings and the mountain that offers the bay its shelter. Do spend some time contemplating here though. Put your phone or camera away, breathe the air and enjoy the moment — you won’t regret it.

If you fancy a quick break and to rest those legs after a few hilly bits of walking I’d recommend a break at Da Aristide. It’s a little cheaper than the seaside alternatives and also a little quieter. I found the coastal establishments got pretty busy with tourists snapping the view, trying to capture every angle. Da Aristide is just opposite the tunnel to the railway so it’s also a great place to wait for the next train.

Corniglia

The only village visible from all the other four in the Cinque Terre Group. It’s clear visibility is both a blessing and a curse of sorts. Though it offers impressive views it’s not the most accessible, perched atop the steep cliffs leading up from the sea. The train station leaves you a little distance from the centre of town — so factor this extra time in when planning your trip.

There are a few different options to make it up the hill — firstly there’s a free shuttle bus service. This minibus picks you up from right outside the station and drops you off in the city centre. Often more people get off the train than there are seats on the minibus so if you’re keen to catch it try and get there first. Alternatively, you can book a taxi or if you fancy it, and don’t mind rather a lot of stairs (300 to be precise!) you can walk. It’s probably about 20 minutes on foot up a series of winding stairs. They traverse the steep terrain by doubling back on themselves. I have to say it’s a lot of stairs but manageable if you’re happy to spend the time doing it. It’s also well sign posted so don’t worry about getting lost.

Once you make it to the top wind your way through the narrow stone streets all the way to the end. You’ll pass much of the tourist noise doing this and find a quiet viewpoint looking out to sea. Spend some time here soaking it all in before rushing back to the crowds.

With plenty of bars and restaurants along the main street this is a great place to stop for a bite to eat. I’d recommend the cosy Ristorante Enoteca Il Pirun. Each time I walked past, the few tables on the ground floor were overflowing with guests and delicious looking food. Always a good sign when people are willing to queue for a seat. Its cosy interior was more intimate thanks to the sound system — videos of bands playing live in the tiny restaurant. Many of the singers and band members would sit, crowded round a table, and play their music. It gave the place a personal and jovial feel. I could imagine the locals spending time here out of season. They’d be cosied up from the stormy sea weather, drinking wine and singing long. The food was also delicious and I took the opportunity to try a swordfish pasta dish. I then revelled in soaking up every ounce of the buttery sauce with fresh bread. Magnificent!

Feeling warmed from the inside out I walked away from the main street and up towards the church. This offers wonderful views down to the sea and you can also see how far you walked up those stairs! With the trains every half an hour, plan your journey to the station so you have time to navigate the stairs.

Vernazza

Another of my favourites in Cinque Terre is Vernazza. The town appears to grow out of the entrancing bay. The water here reflects the striking Church of Santa Marguerite d’Antovhoa which sits prominently on the water’s edge. To get there walk down the main street, past coral and amber coloured houses with green shutters buffeting in the breeze. If you’re a shopper take your time to stroll through. There’s plenty of beautiful clothes and trinket shops here (as well as the usual tourist souvenir shops). I can also recommend the Lunchbox cafe for a spot of brunch or a coffee break.

About half way down you’ll notice a branch off the street turns to the left. It’s fenced off with a low hanging rope but take a quick hop over that and walk through the stony cave and out to the sea. Feel the roar of the waves as they crash into the rocky cul de sac and watch the power of the sea unfold before your very eyes. This enchanting place is only a stones throw from the main high street and yet offers a whole different atmosphere. You can feel the sheer power of nature here.

Following the main street to the end you’ll find the harbour in front of you and the Church to the right. Religious or not, it’s worth checking out the Church. Its stone entrance is quite unique. The views from the windows look out to sea and the light that falls through is almost divine.

If you have time, venture off the beaten track in search of the castello. Be on the lookout for a small sign on one of the little side streets on the left of the harbour. Follow these and you’ll wind your way up some steep, quiet residential paths to arrive at the castello. Not much of a Castle remains but, after paying the €1.50 entrance fee, you receive 360 degree views of the coast and the town of Vernazza itself. For a short walk and the cost of a coffee it’s totally worth it. There also aren’t so many tourists so if you’re looking for a quiet spot to collect your thoughts or nab a more private photo, I’d say this is the place for you.

Monterosso

This seaside town has a more holiday feel to it. The main promenade sprawls across the coast with the sandy beach below and waves lapping at its edges. It would be easy to spend a day here at the beach, jumping in and out of the restaurants that line the water's edge. There’s plenty of good swimming spots and beach chairs available. If you fancy a local Cinque Terre DoC glass of wine I’d recommend Nuovo Eden Bar & Gelateria. The wine was delicious, reasonably priced and came with a bunch of snacks. Plus you couldn’t beat the view and the sound of the waves crashing beneath you.

Aside from the beach and the food Monterosso offers less in terms of attractions than the others. That’s why, for me, it made the perfect final stop of all five. This town was described as a ‘fisherman’s refuge’ by Nobel Prize winner Eugenia Montale and I would have to agree. This is a lovely place to end your day after town hopping through Cinque Terre at a more relaxed pace. If you like seafood, be sure to stop here for dinner.

The Cinque Terre National Park

The national park was established in 1999 and is the smallest national park in Italy (at only 3860 hectares). It is also the most densely populated park with approximately 4,000 residents across the five villages. The real charm of the area is the way it’s shaped and moulded by its human inhabitants. Cultivated patches of land lead down to the sea and are framed by dry stone walls and coloured brick houses. The park aims to preserve the history and protect what remains.

There are over 200 guided walking tours available in the area. Or you can join the maze of routes scrawled across the countryside and hike them yourself. I walked the well sign-posted route from Vernazza to Monterosso (taking about 1.5 hours). If you’re nervous to venture out alone there are also regular safety signs. These are identified by number to easily locate walkers and also have emergency telephone numbers.

I would recommend a good pair of sturdy shoes to explore the park. The hiking trails involve climbing uneven stairs, crossing tree trunks and doing a little scrambling here and there. It’s also banned to walk in the park wearing open toe or smooth soled shoes — you could face a fine of €2,500!

With appropriate footwear you can take your time to explore the 48 paths that cover 120km of Italian countryside. Either you can hike the coastal paths between towns or venture further inland away from the tourist crowds. Check out the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre website for more information.

The Cinque Terre Pass & Transport

Cars were banned from Cinque Terre over 10 years ago so to get around there are two different ‘cards’ you can purchase. They both offer slightly different services:

  • The Hiking Card includes:
  • Access to the park (and all the hiking trails)
  • Bus travel within the five towns
  • Free access to the toilets
  • Wifi within the park hotspot zone
  • Reduced entrance to a number of museums

The Train MS Card includes:

  • All the benefits of the hiking card alongside train travel between the five towns. The trains run every half an hour and take a few minutes to hop between. On purchasing your train card you’re also provided a handy timetable so you can coordinate your day.

The hiking card comes in at a price of €7.50 whereas the train card is €16. It’s worth giving some thought to your plans for the day — particularly if you spend a weekend in Cinque Terre. However it’s also nice to know that much of the money from these cards goes towards the upkeep and restoration of the area. It’s not all about maintaining the bus and train services.

Other Practical Information

As mentioned above if you plan to hike the trails do bring sturdy footwear. In fact, even if you’re just visiting the towns I’d recommend a good pair of sandals or shoes. If you cover all five towns in one day you’ll do a lot of walking so you really want comfy shoes. Plus there are lots of uneven surfaces which can be particularly slippery if you get caught out in any showers. (On that note waterproofs are an absolute must if you’re travelling off-season like I did.)

It’s important to consider the weather if you plan to hike. The Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre website highlights any weather warnings in place. They have a colour coded system to notify hikers whether they should walk or not. It’s really a recommendation so it’s up to you whether to heed the warnings or not. I hiked on an orange day (not recommended) and the route seemed completely fine. I’d recommend you use your common sense and judge how you feel based on your experience with hiking. Although I saw plenty of inexperienced hikers who seemed just fine.

Further Recommendations

If you have time, and the weather is good, I’d recommend taking one of the boat tours offered. The five towns each have their own beauty and charm from within but from the sea you’ll be able to see them in much more context. I’d love the opportunity to marvel at the way the buildings appear part of the landscape due to their construction. I noticed prices at Manarola ranged from 25 to 45 euros.

And if you need somewhere to stay I can recommend the beautiful La Francesca Resort. It’s location is ideal for a weekend in Cinque Terre but offers a quiet oasis away from the tourist crowds.

Check out my post about the resort here. Disclosure: my stay at La Francesca Resort was gifted.

Originally posted on Sage Adventures travel & wellness lifestyle blog: www.sageadventres.co.uk.

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Sage Adventures is a travel and adventure lifestyle blog encouraging people to try new things, travel and practice self-care. We want you to learn what makes you happy and live wisely through life.

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Hannah

Hannah

Travel blogger, student journalist, lover of adventure and climbing | 33 countries visited | Travel & Adventure Blog @ www.sageadventures.co.uk

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