Cinque Terre is one of the most striking, vibrant, and romantic places I’ve ever been. For years, I had been hearing people tout all of its greatness, and yet I’d never really felt much of a pull to go. With the weekend quickly approaching, Jim and I desperately wanted to get out of town and hit the road. We decided to drive south, and looking at the map, Cinque Terre was practically calling to us, so we went. After leaving the highway and driving down the windy, steep road to our hotel, “oohs” and “ahs” kept erupting from us and by the time we parked, we were smitten.
From the quaint and colorful hilltop villages to the deep, fresh taste of the seafood and pasta, we had an amazing few days. We hiked; we drank wine, and even though there were plenty of tourists, the atmosphere was relaxed and we had a wonderful time. In some ways, though, maybe in part due to its popularity, it’s helpful to be prepared before you go to Cinque Terre. Here are our top ten tips for having the absolute best and memorable time.
Our Best Top Ten!
One – Getting to Cinque Terre can be a bit challenging.
I told a friend that we were driving to Cinque Terre and she told me, “We tried one weekend, but we couldn’t find it.” True story. The problem is, you see, Cinque Terre is not on the map. You have to know that it is actually a region made up of five coastal towns in the province of Liguria. The five towns from north to south are Monterosso del Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, so you might need to type one of those into your GPS. Of course, many tourists will be flying or taking the train in after seeing other parts of Italy. The closest airport is Pisa or Florence, and then you will still have to take a train to get all the way to one of the Cinque Terre towns. Shuttle buses run frequently between the airport and the major train stations in those cities, and afterwards you will need to book a train ticket to La Spezia, which is the largest city near Cinque Terre There you will change to a smaller, local train to find your hotel.
Two – The absolute best times to go to Cinque Terre are in late spring and early fall.
To begin with, and thanks to big travel shows and guidebooks, Cinque Terre is on everyone’s Italy “to do” list. We went in late October and still couldn’t believe how many people were in the streets and on the hiking trails. June and July is not only very hot and sweaty, but there are so many people on the trails that you hardly feel like you are hiking, more like crossing a street in New York City. Even if you want to swim, you can still do this from the end of July and well into October. When we went to the beach, there were not many people there, but all of them had been swimming. The water was still warm. It had been a little rainy and windy, so getting out of the water was a little chilly, but no one seemed to mind too much.
Three- Don’t stay in the five towns of Cinque Terre.
Even with summer and the majority of visitors long gone, the hotels in the five towns had still not dropped their prices very much. The only solution is to stay outside of the five towns that make up Cinque Terre. We stayed in Bonassola which is a mere eight minutes on the train to Monterosso and only 20 minutes all the way to Riomaggiore. Every town within the national park was packed full of tourists from all over, America, the UK, Japan, Korea, you name it, but just going that extra stop on the train, the crowds not only thinned out, they were non-existent. In our hotel, there were only three other parties staying, a total of maybe 10 people, and that’s all we saw in the entire town. We had no trouble getting into a restaurant for dinner, and even better, since it was low season the waiters were relaxed and took their time to tell us stories and even recipes. Our hotel was well situated by the train station, and it provided free parking, which believe me, we did not see anywhere else we went.
Four – Don’t bother with driving, take the train.
At this point in the post, you probably could have predicted that this was one of the tips. The five towns of Cinque Terre do not allow cars in their centers, and even businesses had to use metal carts to haul their goods from the edge of town on in. You wouldn’t want to drive there anyway; there are people everywhere! Another theme of this post…Cinque Terre is a very popular destination! Even in the late evening, after dinner, there were hundreds of people walking to and from the train stations, along the beach, and in the center of the towns. They were busy. Not only that, but here’s a hint. The wine is pretty good. You wouldn’t want to miss out on trying any of the local wines. That would be a pure shame!
Five – Cinque Terre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and national park – hike it!
You definitely will want to do some or all of the hikes between the towns and enjoy the spectacular views of the towns from the coast. Even people who don’t like to hike should go on the trails between the towns. There are many different trails, but the one that is by far the most popular is the coastal trail. It is only 11 kilometers in length from start to finish, but takes about six hours of walking because of the steepness of the cliffs. There is also no water once you get on the trail, so bring some with you. It is hot, hot, hot in the summer, so if you are hiking in June, July, or August, start walking very early! For some reason, I expected the trail to be paved the entire way, which is not the case, so sturdy walking shoes are a must as well. There is a fee to hike. When we were there it was 7.50 €.
Six – The beaches are stunning!
It’s very hard to go to an area known for its rugged coastal beauty and not want to go swimming. Somehow, we stayed in a town with one of the most beautiful and accessible beaches, Bonassola. Other great places to swim would be in Manarola and Riomaggiore. Even if you don’t want to immerse your entire body, it’s pretty difficult not to take off your shoes and soak your feet for awhile.
Seven – Eat the amazing local dishes.
Before we went, we had heard of the famous Genovese pesto and salted sardines, not to mention the amazing wines made primarily from Vermentino grapes. We couldn’t wait to try them. Even though I’d never before been a pesto fan, the Ligurian variety made me change my tune. It was amazing. I ordered it twice in the weekend, because it was so delicious. Apparently, the soil and climate on the coast there, is the absolute best for growing the main ingredient, basil. I loved it.
Eight – Even budget travelers can enjoy Cinque Terre.
Well-visited sights are not the best for frugal travelers, but there are a few ways to enjoy the Cinque Terre without busting your budget. We already mentioned staying outside of the national park, and that will save you quite a bit of money from the get go. Yes, you’ll have to take the train more often, but that won’t even come close to the money you’ll save in accommodation. Also, in the other towns, there are more grocery stores, and you can also buy some great local sausage and bread or sardines to have a Ligurian picnic on your walk. If a picnic is not your thing, then within the Cinque Terre, there are also plenty of walk-up food windows serving amazing pizza, paninis, and even seafood. No, there aren’t any fast food chains, but you can still eat for only a few Euros if you only give up sitting down at a restaurant. The Italians charge a table fee of 1-3 Euros per person, so even without ordering it’s cheaper to stand and eat.
Nine – The best way to get that stunning photograph!
While you are on the hiking trails, you do get some amazing views. Just remember that there are lots of people all vying for that same shot. The good thing is there will always be someone to take a photo of you and your partner without having to do a selfie! The best shot, though, of any of the towns is from the water. Luckily, there is a water taxi that goes from Riomaggiore all the way to Monterosso and back, that you can take and get those views for a bargain. Buy your tickets at any of the boat taxi kiosks in all of the five towns. Many people do use these boats as a means for getting between the towns, and of course, you can do this as well, but each time you get off you will pay a higher price than if you just take the train or stay on the boat for the entire ride. This allows you to get stunning shots of each of the towns. To get the best results, put your camera on sports mode or if you are shooting with a DSLR, increase your shutter speed to at least 1/800 to stop the movement of the boat. A longer lens will do better here since the boat cannot hug the shore. Many, many people ride the taxis, so it’s a good idea if you get in a long line and you make it to the front, let everyone else pass you on that run and take the next boat so you will have your choice of seats.
Ten – The absolute best part of Cinque Terre are the sunsets!
Make sure you time this right! If you aren’t outside walking along the beach or sitting on a sea wall, make sure that you are in a good spot with a view. The sunsets are amazing, so pink and purple. There are plenty of restaurants with balconies and viewpoints, but of course those are premium spots, so if you just eat before or after sunset you will be much, much happier!