You have historic Rome, the Tuscan countryside, and then there’s the Cinque Terre. This coastal cluster of five villages complements the Mediterranean with a splash of corals, canary yellows and charm. The villages of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore are strung together by trails and are a national park as well as an UNESCO World Heritage site.
This northernmost village of the Cinque Terre is also the most crowded, with a beach scene that will keep backpackers glued to the sand for days. While most of the towns on the Cinque Terre are luxuary-free, Monterosso does glam things up a bit more. In fact, Monterosso’s show and posh presence almost got it kicked out of the national park in 1948. The town is divided into old and new, harboring two extraordinary historic towers in its older district, the Aurora Tower and San Giovanni church bell tower. Besides sightseeing, eating is always on the agenda in Italy, and in Monterosso anchovies are the specialty. Seafood, in general, is an obvious choice while you are perched cliffside of the Mediterranean, but the anchovies of Monterosso actually have a “protected designation of origin” status from the European Union. As for that touch of luxury, the top-pick hotel for pampering on the Cinque Terre is the Hotel Porto Roca in Monterosso – it gives Italian Riviera revelers the chance to indulge in their own private beach.
This village of 600 makes a great home base for the rest of the Cinque Terre. It boasts quintessential Italian delicacies as well as friendly locals ready to make your stay enjoyable. Terraced vineyards sprawling across the hillside tell tales of an age-old winemaking tradition, which is quickly dying out. Still, locals continue to harvest and contribute to the Cinque Terre’s specialty wine mix, which takes from the vine of all five villages. Vernazza’s historical center features the Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, the Shrine of Santuario di Nostra Signora di Reggio, and Doria Castle, which overlooks the sea. The church stands regal in the piazza while the shrine is a bit of a hike. Whether you are hiking the lone cobblestone strip of Vernazza, exploring its never-ending stair system, or spanning the entire national park, a little food in the belly couldn’t hurt. Sicilian twin brothers Luca and Mossimo own the restaurant farthest from Vernazza’s shore and serve up some of the best gnocchi and mouthwatering desserts, sprinkled with an outrageous sense of humor. Stop in for a mid-day snack – their Sicilian slushies made with fresh fruit put 7-Eleven to shame.
Caught in the middle, Corniglia is a quieter town and harbors the smallest number of residents with a population of 240. While all the villages of the Cinque Terre rest on the shore of the Mediterranean, Corniglia has a unique landscape and poses an obstacle for weary travelers. The “Lardarina” is the 400-step (33 flights of stairs) pathway to Corniglia and must be scaled to enter town. The only other option is to follow the road that leads from the train station into town. No matter which route you choose, a scoop of gelato awaits you at Gelateria Artigianle. Find more treats for your tastebuds on Via Fieschi, which is the main road in Corniglia.
The vibrant buildings are mirrored by equally colorful fishing boats, which line the street of Manarola. Like most towns on the Cinque Terre, Manarola has its share of history with the San Lorenzo church dating back to 1338 and the tunnel marking a hiding place for fearful residents during World War II. Manarola also has direct access to Riomaggiore by way of the Via Dell’Amore, which entices lovers to indulge in the romance of the Cinque Terre.
This town takes a page out of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. In the 1920s a path was built between Riomaggiore and Manarola. During World War II it was a dangerous road to travel, but when the war ended it re-opened and served as a meeting place for inter-town lovers. This is how the Via Dell’Amore began, as a canoodling ground for courting teens. Today it still welcomes twitterpated couples who leave their mark on the walk by carving their initials in aloe plants or leaving padlocks to symbolize their binding commitment to all things amorous. After your 30-minute stroll, celebrate love with a drink at Bar Centrale located on the main street, Via Colombo.
Ride the rail north from La Spezia or south from Levanto, or if you dare, make the winding, weaving ride down the hillside by car; however, you must park your car outside one of the five villages, as motor vehicles are not permitted within the national park. Once you make home base in one of the five villages, you can purchase a trail pass (mandatory) and see each town in about five hours. The main trails, formerly mule paths, are crowded with Rick Steves faithfuls, so either make it an early morn or try some of the more difficult (and free) trails off the beaten path. If you came to the Italian Riviera planning to relax, you can hop the milk train between towns or take the ferry system, which is cheaper and provides a scenic view of the hillside villages as you approach land once again.
Eating and drinking on the Cinque Terre
It should come as no surprise that olives and grapes are a hot commodity on the Cinque Terre (as well as much of Italy), but the real gem of the Liguria region is the pesto. Besides offering up two local wines, the five towns also drown their sorrows, but mostly their joys, in grappa and limoncello. Grappa is a brandy made from leftover ingredients of the winemaking process, while limoncello is a sweet liqueur made from none other than – lemons. But a small boot full of the liquid treat and kick back.
Overall, the best way to spend your time on the Cinque Terre is simply indulging. Indulging in the scenery. Indulging in the food. Indulging in the everyday simple way of life on the Italian Riviera.
Cinque Terre Beach
The only real beach exists in the village of Monterosso and is worth a day or two if you are a sun & sand worshiper. The beach is made of small stones rather than fine sand, but it still is a great place to spend the day with locals and tourists alike.
Cinque Terre Nightlife
Nightlife in the Cinque Terre is quite tame and bar usually close early. Check out Monterosso for a few pubs and restaurants that have decent nightlife. Also Bar Centrale in Riomaggiore is popular with the backpacker types.