To get a good picture of Cinque Terre, combine the great food of Italy and the relaxed atmosphere of a beach town with great hiking and stunning vistas everywhere you turn. Basically, Cinque Terre gets pretty close to paradise. Cinque Terre happened to be our first taste of Italy, and it didn’t disappoint!
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This post is part of our month-long European trip. Check here for our whole trip!
What’s Cinque Terre?
Cinque Terre is a group of five small fishing villages on the northwest coast of Italy. They’ve only become tourist destinations in the past decade or so, so they’ve got a fun mix of local small town flavor and tourism-oriented bustling beach towns. A train connects them that runs every 30 minutes (or so… not the most on time of trains, but that’s part of the vibe, right?)
Choosing your town
Made up of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, each town has its own flavor and its worth it to spend some time in each if you’re visiting for more than a weekend. Logan and I were only there for 2.5 days, but we still got to experience of four out of five!
One of the most important decisions when you plan your trip is where you want to stay. We chose Corniglia and were so happy with our decision! Corniglia is the smallest of the towns and sits on a mountain outcropping above the water. What we loved the most about Corniglia was that because it’s smaller and a little more out of the way, there were less tourists. The locals mingled with the visitors, most of whom were young backpackers on long-term trips. I love following backpackers – they tend to find the best off-the-beaten path restaurants and experiences because they’re not in a rush to get onto the next place!
We arrived one evening, checked into our Airbnb, and then headed straight out to find some dinner. My top priority was seafood, of course! We were hungry enough to wander into one of the first places we saw, and it didn’t disappoint. Enoteca Il Pirun is a tiny, two story restaurant. Like most of Italy, the house wine (vino della casa) is local, but Cinque Terre takes it to a new level – the owner/our waiter had his face on the bottle! The grapes from everything we drank came from within a mile of where we drank it. Perfection.
Bruschetta with melty cheese and bacon, pesto pasta, and baked shrimp made the perfect “welcome to Italy” feast!
The next morning, we planned to go hiking, so we knew we needed a solid breakfast to send us on our way. The town square sits right around the corner from our place, complete with a church and 5 or 6 locally-owned restaurants. We headed into Caffe Matteo for breakfast, and ended up going there every morning! It was the perfect place to sit outside with cappuccino to plan the day and overhear other backpackers dissect last night’s adventures.
Cinque Terre is known for its hiking. There’s tons of trails meandering through the mountains in addition to the blue trail, which snakes along the coastline between the five towns. This main trail requires a pass to hike it, which you can buy at any train station. For the foreseeable future, though, the southern half of the blue trail is closed due to landslides.
To the north, then!
The trailhead picks up at either end of each village. We walked through vineyards, up mountainsides, and always along ocean views. Hikers range from super-athletes to retirees to people in dresses and heels, although how the latter manage these steep, dusty trails, I have no idea. I will say that the trails from Corniglia north are fairly strenuous: not terrible, but definitely not something you can just skip along and accomplish without a little sweat.
That being said, it’s 100% worth it. The views are unbelievable. The photos don’t do it justice. Also, the ecosystem fascinated me: it’s almost desert-like, with succulents growing wild and the biggest aloe plants I’d ever seen, but also surrounded by grape trellises on every square inch of arable land. Plus you’ve got this indescribable ocean below you, showing off in every imaginable shade of teal and blue.
It took us about an hour between Corniglia and Vernazza. We stopped to grab some gelato and water and take in the beach, a small (crowded) affair but gorgeous to behold. Vernazza is bigger than Corniglia, but not as big as Riomaggiore or Monterosso, and you can feel that in the size of tourist crowds.
The next leg (Vernazza to Monterosso) took about 90 minutes and was just as rocky, but just as gorgeous. This leg allows for a view of the city as you approach, tantalizing you with its bright beach umbrellas. We arrived and immediately assessed the restaurant situation – we’d worked up an appetite with our journey!
We chose a pizza place in the first piazza and loved it! With some white wine (local, of course – I love this country) and pizza a diavolo, we rested our legs and filled our bellies.
To head home, we decided to take the train. It’s pretty simple: you can buy a trail pass that includes a day pass for the train, but if you’re just taking it one way it’s better to buy them separately. The trains don’t really run on time here, but you can count on one every 30 minutes or so. Relax, you’re on vacation, don’t worry about timing too much!
After hot showers and a relaxing hour of reading and soaking in the late afternoon glow on our rooftop patio, we knew it was time to find some dinner. Another wonderful part of Corniglia is you never have to go that far for food, even if you do no research! We didn’t make it past the main square, where we found Locanda La Lanterna. Eager to partake in some local choices, we got the seafood risotto.
This was the stuff of legends. Seriously, I think it was the best thing I have ever put in my mouth… I’m not kidding. Somebody make a note, this is what I want for my last meal.
The seafood probably was swimming that morning, and the plate was teeming with it. Whatever butter-olive oil-wine combination the rice cooked in, I wanted to drink the stuff. It blew my mind.
Bar none, my favorite meal of the trip. Seafood risotto. And that’s saying a lot for a die-hard pasta fan.
On our last full day in Cinque Terre, we knew we wanted to hit the beach. The water was just too tantalizing to not get in. So we headed back to Monterosso for a day of sun and water!
Pro tip: if you’re planning to go to the beach,
you’re probably going to want to rent some lounge chairs. (And if you’re as white as me, an umbrella. Italian sun don’t play.) However, these fill up, especially during the high season, AKA exactly when we went. We didn’t make it to the water until noon, which I don’t recommend if you want a good spot. We ended up the last umbrella available from our group! You pay a fee and have it for the day, which was great.
Crowds are part of beach life here. You’re a foot from the next umbrella, and hawkers hover nearby with beer, towels, or massages. But even still, the waves’ crashing sends you into your happy place and you wile away the afternoon reading, swimming, and napping, content in the shade because you’re not turning into a lobster but still soaking in the warm salt air.
After a sun-drenched afternoon, we lazily headed back for home in search of showers and dinner. Searching for dinner became this lovely adventure of its own, the happy challenge of finding the best food possible. Since it was our night in town and I wanted as much ocean air as possible, we first headed to the overlook area in Corniglia, which Bar Terza Terra has cleverly set tables and serves drinks and appetizers while you watch the sun sink beyond the horizon. We gloried in the orange light, complete with chilled wine and crostini, and experimented with the novel concept of cheese paired with honey (something I saw several times in Europe, with more than one type of cheese!).
As the sun sunk beyond our view, we wandered out in search of more sustenance. We landed at Dau Tinola, which is right of the main road. If that seafood risotto was my favorite dish of the trip, this seafood pasta made the top five. If you take the incredible seafood and sauce of last night and replace the rice with pasta, you have a good idea of what this was. I usually wouldn’t order thing so similar two nights in a row, but the seafood here became irresistible.
We ended our time in Cinque Terre full, sunned, happy, and utterly satisfied with our adventures. Cinque Terre definitely merits a return visit, and I’ll dream of that ocean color and unbelievable seafood until we make it back.
A word about driving
It’s a little… precarious. You’re driving mountainous roads never intended for even medium-sized cars. Roads get regularly shut down from landslides, meaning you’ll do even more meandering than expected to reach a destination. While there is technically some free parking in white spaces (NOT yellow or blue spaces – we made that mistake), there are very few spots and very many tourists with cars. We literally saw about 10 white spaces in Corniglia, and only about 20 paid (blue) spots. So do yourself a favor and use the train on this trip. If you do drive, read my tips for European road tripping.