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 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, the beautiful towns of the Italian Riviera, and then more pointedly those of Cinque Terre were 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.
We know from the many movies set in Italy we’ve devoured that the quaint and colorful hilltop villages to the deep, fresh taste of the seafood and pasta, we would have some amazing experiences in Cinque Terre. 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 this stunning region. Here are our top ten tips on visiting Cinque Terre and having the absolute best and memorable time.
The Ligurian coast between Cinque Terre and Portovenere is a cultural landscape of great scenic and cultural value ~ UNESCO World Heritage List Inscription
Tips for Cinque Terre
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 villages 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 in order to get there by car.
One – How to Get to Cinque Terre
If you are coming from anywhere in Europe, you will fly into the bigger cities and have to take a train the rest of the way. You can also drive, but the entire time you are in Cinque Terre, you will be walking, and parking is always at a premium.
What is the Nearest Airport?
The two closest airports are 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.
Getting to Cinque Terre by Train
If you are going by rail, you will need to book your train ticket to La Spezia Centrale, which is the largest city near Cinque Terre. From there you will change to a smaller, local train for the town or village that your hotel is in. From La Spezia to Monterosso al Mare, the furthest Cinque Terre Village, is at most a half hour ride.
Check out the ItaliaRail website for prices and time tables. You can book ahead of time, however there are plenty of departure times each day. It might be better to wait until you are there.
Train times to Cinque Terre:
- from Rome = 3-4 hours
- from Pisa = 45 minutes to 1.5 hours
- from Florence = around 2 hours
- from Genoa = about 1 hour
- from Milan = 3 – 3.5 hours
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Two – When is the best time to visit Cinque Terre?
September and October, and here’s why:
Thanks to big travel shows and guidebooks, hiking in Cinque Terre is on everyone’s Italy “to do” list, so the summer months June – August are very crowded.We went in late October and still couldn’t believe how many people were in the streets and on the hiking trails.
As you can see, July and August are very hot and sweaty, and 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.
The fall is the best time to go, from mid-September to early November. The major crowds have died down, and the temperatures are much more temperate and suitable for hiking.
Swimming is an option through October as well. 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. They were just ready with their towels.
Three – Where do you stay in Cinque Terre?
Even with the summer season and the majority of visitors long gone, the prices in Cinque Terre hotels had still not dropped very much. The best budget travel tip is to stay outside of the five towns that make up Cinque Terre. We stayed in the Hotel Pensione Moderne 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, 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 give us some recipes. Our hotel provided free, secure parking (a rarity in the region) and was well situated by the train station. Try it for yourself or click here to check out hotels in Cinque Terre.
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Four – Getting Around Cinque Terre
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 in Cinque Terre. When we were there it was 7.50 Euros per person per day.
Six – The beaches of Cinque Terre 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.
Check this out for other things to do in Cinque Terre.
Seven – What to eat in Cinque Terre
Before we went, we had heard of the famous Genoese 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. According to our waiter in the quiet little town of Bonassola, the basil grown in the Ligurian region has been recognized with the distinction of being a European protection of DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin), the soil, climate, and cultivation practices combine on the coast to make this the absolute best place for growing basil. I don’t know about all that, but I do know I loved it!
Eight – Cinque Terre on a Budget
Well-visited sights are not the best for frugal travelers, but there are a few ways to enjoy the Cinque Terre on a 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 – Cinque Terre Photo Tips
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!
Additional Reading: Why not take a day trip to Lucca, a beautiful and ancient walled city whose roots stretch back thousands of years?
Have you been to Cinque Terre? Do you have any tips or advice to share with us?
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