Five quaint, colourful towns perched on the rugged cliffs of north-west Italian coastline- Cinque Terre is a place you’ve got to experience in your lifetime.
Whether you are planning a visit to Cinque Terre or simply dreaming about these seaside towns, I’ve put together a guide to the region, including where to stay, things to do, and the best spots to swim, eat, take photos, and most importantly… Get the best gelato.
As I sit here writing this, I’m perched on a rock, the sound of lapping waves filling my ears, the taste of fresh seafood and a juicy peach fresh on my lips. I’m staring in awe at the view in front of me- a cluster of colourful pastel building hanging daintily off the side of a cliff. Riomaggiore is the first of five seaside towns on the north coast of Italy that make up Cinque Terre, and is our residence for the next five days. After a month-long whirlwind tour of the USA, I am eternally grateful to have this time to unwind and adjust to a slower pace of life. After all, in Italy, the biggest problem I face in a day is selecting which gelato flavour is next to delight my palate (a problem that sometimes occurs twice a day, mind you). It’s only been a day, and already I’ve become deeply infatuated with the Cinque Terre region. From the artisan wine to the impeccable seafood, the iridescent water to the vibrant throng of building facades, a stay in one of these seaside towns is a magical experience to say the least.
The first and the second biggest of the five towns, Riomaggiore is known for its locally-produced wine and picturesque wharf framed by colourful tower houses. With lots of accommodation and dining options and a nice sheltered beach to swim at, Riomaggiore is a great base for your visit to the Cinque Terre region.
Where to eat: Il Pescato Cucinato is a little takeaway seafood shop that makes the most delicious fried calamari buckets. Enjoy one of these down by the wharf with a cold beer in hand and you’ll be in heaven. You’ll find the shop half way along the main street in Riomaggiore.
Where to stay: I stayed at the Casalorelei: Camera Rosa through AirBnB and was very pleasantly surprised with the accommodation. The apartment was very close to the train station and it took about 5 minutes to walk into town. The room was simple, clean, and fairly spacious, and came fully equipped with everything down to supplies for breakfast. It even had a little balcony with a view of the sea! If you haven’t used AirBnB before, you can sign up here to receive $45 off your first stay.
Best photo spot: Down by the marina, you will notice a rocky outcrop that you can access via stairs. If you are limber on your feet, climb out to the furthest point at sunset to get the best view looking back on Riomaggiore!
Where to Swim: From the main street, head through the tunnel to the wharf, then follow the stairs up and around the cliff until you reach a rocky beach. This is the perfect spot to sunbake and take a leisurely swim in the ocean as oppose to swimming around the harbour.
Manarola may be the second smallest of the towns, but it is also the oldest, and in my opinion, the most beautiful in the Cinque Terre region. With the magnificent San Lorezo church perched up on the hill, mazes of cobblestone alleyways to meander through and a cliff face like no other, Manarola was easily my favourite of the five towns that make up Cinque Terre.
Where to Eat: Trattoria dal Billy is a little hidden gem that is definitely worth the short trek. This restaurant not only had a great view over the water, but the food was absolutely divine. Very fresh seafood and impeccable homemade pasta.
Where to Drink: Nessun Dorma boasts postcard-perfect views over Manarola. Perfect for a drink or a snack whilst you watch the sunset, and you’ll get an extremely insta-worthy photo whilst you are at it! The café is away from the main town and can be found by walking around the path along the cliff edge and then up the set of stairs at the bend of the path.
Where to get Gelato: 5 Terre Gelataria will fulfil all your gelato cravings and then have you coming back for seconds. Simple but delicious flavours of both gelato and sorbet to suit all tastebuds.
Best photo spot: After many hours of searching for a photo spot that was not obstructed by fences or hoards of tourists, we accidentally stumbled upon a place with the perfect view over the city. If you follow the path around to Nessun Dorma, walk up the stairs until you see a pink arch. The spot is actually a cemetery, so be respectful, but if you walk through you’ll soon have the best view over the city without any obstructions or crowds to get in your way. Alternatively, if you are feeling adventurous, climb over the fence of the main path and on to the rocky cliffs and you will be able to get an epic shot. Not that I would ever do something like that…
I personally didn’t spend too much time in this town, but it is hard not to instantly fall for Vernazza… Especially once you’ve seen it from above. The closest of the five to remain a “true” fisherman’s village, it has the only natural harbor in Cinque Terre. Vernazza is even home to the Castle Doria, a 15th century lookout tower, which was allegedly used to protect the village from pirates.
Best photo spot: Hike the trail towards Monteresso for about 15 minutes and you’ll get to the place with the postcard perfect shot. It really doesn’t getting much better than this vantage point! Normally you do have to pay to enter this path, but if you aren’t planning to hike the whole trail you can always try asking if you can just go in take some photos and come back.
Where to swim: I wouldn’t suggest Vernazza for swimming. There are a few places to swim around the harbour but the other towns definitely offer better swimming options.
Where to eat: When you need a break from the carb-overload of pizza and pasta, Lunch Box has your back. With fresh juices, smoothies, sandwiches and salads, this is an ideal stop after completing one of Cinque Terre’s killer hikes.
The biggest and most resort-like of the five towns in Cinque Terre, Monteresso is the place to come for anyone after a variety of restaurants, shops and a proper beach to swim at. Personally, I wouldn’t choose to stay at Monteresso- it doesn’t quite have the same quaintness as the other towns and is noticeably busier. However, I would definitely still recommend checking it out as the beach is rather beautiful and there is a lot to explore in town!
Best photo spot: No particular vantage points to highlight, but make sure you get a snap along the beach of with the colourful umbrellas against that popping blue ocean. You always have to get that classic beach shot!
Where to eat: You won’t run out of restaurants to choose from here. For a cheap, informal eat, try Gastronomia San Martino Restaurant. The establishment itself doesn’t look like much, but they make arguably the best handmade pasta in the region. This place is not to be missed!
Where to swim: Most of the beach at Monteresso you do have to pay for. Generally the price includes a chaise lounge and an umbrella, but it still sucks having paying to use a beach. There are a few spots along the beach that are free but inevitably are very crowded. We ended opting not to swim at the beach due to these crowds.
Corniglia is the most unique of the five towns, mostly due to its geographical position. Unlike the other four seaside towns, Corniglia is perched up on a hill. We didn’t have a chance to visit Cornelgia on our visit, which was a shame as the views from the top are meant to be rather spectacular!
Where to eat: After climbing 365 stairs to reach the top of the town, you are going to be ready to have your hunger satisfied. Pan e Vin Bar is a hole-in-the-wall cafe that will do exactly that, offering a delightful range of focaccia and bruschetta.
Where to drink: Fancy drinking a glass of wine against a backdrop of shimmering ocean? Bar Terza Terra offers an extensive range of wine and cocktails and its outdoor terrace offers the best views in Corniglia.
Where to get Gelato: Alberto Gelateria Restaurant boasts some of the most deliciously unique ice cream flavours in Cinque Terre, using locally sourced ingredients such as basil and honey. For something a little more refreshing, the Lemon Granita is said to be the best around.
Getting from town to town: The train is by the far the cheapest and easiest method for getting from town to town. Tickets are sold at the station for a couple of Euros, running from La Spezia to Levanto and stopping at the five towns along the way. If you have time and want to escape the throng of tourists inside Cinque Terre, both La Spezia and Levanto are both towns that are worth visiting for the day. The other option for getting between towns is the ferry. Although it is pricey, the ferry is the most picturesque way to travel as you are able to see the full glory of each town from the water. Ferries will only run when the sea conditions are right (I learnt this the hard way), so try schedule a ride at the beginning of your visit to avoid missing out.
Hiking: One of the most popular things to do in Cinque Terre is hike the famous trails between the towns. To do so, you have to purchase Cinque Terre card from one of the tourist offices, which you buy as a daily ticket for about 5-7 Euros. Unfortunately, many of the paths are closed at the moment due to the devastating landslides that occurred a few years ago. Be sure to check which trails are actually open before planning your hiking trip.
I hope this guide helps you to enjoy your time visiting Cinque Terre to the maximum. In the end, the five villages that make up Cinque Terre may be a little more commercialized, overcrowded and overpriced than their former fishing village days, but in my opinion, they still haven’t completely lost their Italian charm. My best piece of advice? Avoid the crowds, grab a bottle of wine and a takeaway pizza, find a little sanctuary on the rocks, and get lost in this magical mirage of pastel paints, rugged cliffs and turquoise ocean.