Who doesn’t know Cinque Terre? Follow us as we show you how to explore the area by train and foot, including quirky tips for each of the five villages. Enjoy this stunning UNESCO-listed place!
**Article updated in August 2017**
Why Cinque Terre by train?
You just need to look at a picture of Cinque Terre to fall in love. If ever there was anything to reflect the meaning of ‘picture perfect’, it was these five villages. Visit Cinque Terre, and you’ll see colourful houses, clinging to the rock, with streets and walkways clinging onto the mountain face. All around, the sea and the mountains, terraced with olive trees and grapevines.
The best way to visit Cinque Terre is by train. Narrow streets and pedestrianised historical centres mean that travelling Cinque Terre by car is tantamount to a nervous breakdown. We covered all the villages in one day, but we recommend taking it easy and dedicating at least one weekend to your Cinque Terre experience – and at least three days if you’re planning to hike the Cinque Terre coastal path. We also recommend visiting off-season – Cinque Terre is so busy in summertime, that a ‘tourist quota’ system was suggested to be introduced.
So, unless you’re staying in the Cinque Terre villages already, head to Levanto train station, and start exploring. Levanto is also a wonderful base to visit Cinque Terre by train – the town is larger is far less busy than the Cinque Terre villages and Levanto hotels are a lot more affordable. Not to mention that Levanto is also an adventure hotspot – you can go sailing, surfing, paddleboarding, mountain biking, hiking, diving… you name it!
We stayed at La Francesca Resort in nearby Bonassola. On the day, we set off bright and early towards Levanto. We walked down from the mountain to the beach, through unused railway tunnels and paths with stunning views over the rocky coast. The 4 km walk took us just under an hour.
Once in Levanto, it’s a good idea to pick up a Cinque Terre Card. For €12, you get unlimited train travel for one day between Levanto and Riomaggiore (the last of the Cinque Terre villages), use of buses within the Cinque Terre area, use of toilets, wifi and access to walking trails. Given that train tickets start from €1.80 per trip between one village and another, and access to the walking trails is €7.50, it’s a pretty good deal.
Trains run every half-hour; from Levanto, we alighted at Monterosso.
Monterosso by Train – Cinque Terre Village #1
Where is the Train Station? Between the Gigante and the historical centre, about 10 min walk from both.
Monterosso is the largest and most developed of the five villages. It is the only Cinque Terre village with a sandy beach, making it very popular with day-trippers. From the station, head left, and follow the coastal walkway down towards the historical centre. Spend some time walking around, between Romanesque churches and traditional Ligurian painted houses, before taking the coastal path to Vernazza.
Quirky tip: if you head right instead of left from the station, you’ll soon get to the Gigante (giant), a rock-cut statue of Neptune that is one of the coolest things to see in Monterosso. It was sculpted in 1910 to decorate a villa that was subsequently destroyed by Allied bombs. The Gigante lost its arms and trident, but the statue is still there. In 1982, an Italian climber discovered a golden rabbit at the Gigante’s feet; it was the prize of the popular Masquerade treasure hunt.
The Cinque Terre Coastal Path
Everything about Cinque Terre spells uncertainty. The villages are wedged between mountains and sea. On a nice day, the view is spellbinding; when the weather is bad, the sea and the mountains turn into dangers. One day in October 2011, torrential rains hit the area, causing a massive landslide. A river of water and mud submerged the candy-coloured villages; people lost their lives, and the famous coastal paths were washed away.
When we visited in 2014, the Cinque Terre coastal path section between Monterosso and Vernazza was the only section that had been restored after the floods, but now (Aug 2017) it has all been reopened. A fee is charged to offset maintenance costs; but if you have the Cinque Terre Card, entrance is included.
The Cinque Terre coastal path walk between Monterosso and Vernazza takes about one hour and a half, climbing for a fair while, through olive and grapevine terraces and then up a trail bordered by oak trees. The path is narrow and sunny for most of the way; a reasonable amount of fitness, carrying water and wearing good walking shoes are good ideas. I know it sounds patronising, but we’ve seen dozens of people in flip-flops, as well as some elderly and overweight people for whom the walk was clearly too much.
Then, the trail starts to descend and after a while Vernazza appears, a cluster of pastel houses and a round castle tower around a harbour, built on a promontory between mountain and sea.
Cinque Terre village #2 – Vernazza
Where is the Train Station? Right in the centre of town, on top of the main drag.
It may be me, but I think Vernazza is the prettiest Cinque Terre village. The location is stunning, and wandering the historical centre is fun, one alleyway after another, stopping to look at edicole (small statues with the Virgin Mary and other saints traditionally built on streetcorners) and cats laying in the sun. Once you get off the main drag, the place is ideal to while away an hour or two, before heading off to the next village.
Quirky tip: remember the round tower I saw walking down from the coastal path? The proper name is Torre Doria, and it was built in the 15th century to patrol against raids from the sea and the mountains. In my opinion, this is one of the coolest things to see in Cinque Terre! The view is amazing, and it’s well worth the 1.50€ entrance ticket (not included in Cinque Terre Card, as all revenue supports local ambulance volunteers).
Cinque Terre village #3 – Corniglia
Where is the Train Station? Below the village, about 15 mins walk uphill.
This is the secret village of Cinque Terre, the only one that does not lie on the cost, but on the mountain. For this reason, it’s kind of rough around the edges, it doesn’t have that pretty-candy-coloured-picture-perfect feel that the other villages have.
Village sightseeing is hard work, especially in this area, with lots of steps and hills. From Corniglia train station, you need to head left until you get to a staircase; the village is on top. Or you can catch the bus, included in the Cinque Terre card.
For this reason, many don’t bother visiting Corniglia, heading straight to Manarola and Riomaggiore. We think Corniglia is worth visiting, for the wonderful views over the coast and because it’s the only village that retains a bit of local flavour, unadulterated for tourists. Kids played street football in front of the main church, elderly fishermen mended their nets and ladies chatted on the balconies.
Quirky Tip: There’s not much in terms of Cinque Terre things to do and sights in Corniglia, but by the time you get here you’ll probably be hungry. Stop off at La Gata Flora, a tiny and unpretentious pizza shop. Grab a couple of slices and make sure you try farinata, chickpea flour pancake baked in the oven.
Cinque Terre village #4 – Manarola
Where is the Train Station? 5 mins walk from the centre. Head left and follow the tunnel.
Wait. I said Vernazza was the prettiest. Maybe it’s Manarola, I’m not sure. The village is built on a rock 70 meters above the sea. If you are looking for what to see in Manarola, walk down through the carrugi, thetraditional Ligurian narrow streets, until you get to a raised piazza overlooking the sea. You can walk left for a while and follow the only practicable stretch of the coastal path, or grab a cone of fritto misto from the takeaway shops and just watch the view for a while.
Quirky Tip: there’s no beach in Manarola, but a couple of crystal-clear rocky coves where swimming is great. Brave souls jump off the big rock in the middle of the cove; and unlike Acapulco or Mostar, they won’t come around for tips!
Cinque Terre village #5 – Riomaggiore
Where is the Train Station? 5 mins walk from the centre. Head right and follow the mosaic-covered tunnel.
First things first, I didn’t like Riomaggiore much. Monterosso was busy, but in an Italian weekend sort of way. The last of the Cinque Terre looked a bit like a tourist trap to us, with overpriced restaurants and souvenir shops lining the main drag. But this was just our opinion.
Riomaggiore used to be joined to Manarola by the Via dell’Amore (Lovers’ Way) a spectacular path cut into the rockface popular with walkers and nature-lovers as well as sweethearts, and one of the most famous Cinque Terre attractions for a very long timw. I’m sure that, had we arrived from the Via dell’Amore, our opinion of Riomaggiore would have been different. However, the path is still closed, pending renovation after the 2011 floods. Will it ever open again? I hope so.
In Riomaggiore, I recommend skipping the main drag, and heading to the marina. That’s the best place to appreciate the village as a whole, with the now familiar pastel-coloured houses clinging over the sides of a narrow valley.
Quirky Tip: Follow Riomaggiore kids and hop over the scogli (skerries), the artificial barrier of rocks a few meters from the shore, to watch the sunset.