Last updated on October 24th, 2016
Among all of Italy’s attractions, the Cinque Terre is completely unique. It’s a group of five picture-perfect seaside villages located on the dramatic Ligurian coast. It’s also a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. And the Cinque Terre has charms to satisfy even the most jaded international tourists.
Nestled among centuries-old terraced vineyards and olive groves are the five villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Each village is perched along the region’s breathtaking cliffs, and each one offers an old-world ambiance that’s not easy to find in this fast-paced world.
Cars have been banned from the Cinque Terre for over a decade, so traveling this fascinating region is done by train, local electric buses, or on foot. If you plan to stay for a few days, consider buying the Cinque Terre Card, which gives you access to unlimited train travel, all the hiking paths, local buses, and a number of museums and cultural sites. Once you’ve got your Cinque Terre Card — and your walking shoes — you’re ready to start exploring! Here are 5 Cinque Terre experiences that can’t be missed:
Top 5 Ways to Experience Italy’s Beautiful Cinque Terre:
1. Hiking the Cinque Terre
The entire region is covered with twisting paths that take you from one village to the next, ascending the rocky cliffs and winding down along the water’s edge. This is really the best way to see the Cinque Terre; many people come here specifically for the hikes. Distances are relatively short — in fact, you can walk through all five villages in one day — but the terrain can be demanding, and the scenery is spectacular, so take your time.
The most popular hiking is on Trail #2, the Sentiero Azzurro, or Blue Trail. Start your hike in Riomaggiore, where the pathways are paved and easier going, and work your way north toward Monterosso and the more strenuous going. If you’re looking to avoid the crowds, take the Sentiero Rosso (the Red Trail) instead. It’s a much longer hike, but very doable if you take it in small sequences. And remember, you can always hop on the train if you’re getting too tired!
A special note: In 2011 the Cinque Terre was deluged with flash floods and deadly mudslides in a torrential rainstorm. Several people were killed and the villages were terribly damaged. They’re still recovering from this disaster. Some of the most famous hiking routes, including the Via dell’Amore (the Lover’s Path) from Riomaggiore to Manarola and the trail from Manarola to Corniglia were closed after the floods and remain closed as of this writing. Alternate trails still provide spectacular views, but may require a bit more stamina. Check with the Cinque Terre National Park Service for updates.
2. Exploring by sea
Enjoy a whole different view of this gorgeous region and its lovely seaside towns from the deck of a boat. There’s a ferry that makes regular runs between four of the five villages, and also provides access to the nearby towns of La Spezia, Levanto, Portofino and Portovenere, and the picturesqe island of Palmaria.
If you’re feeling a bit more daring, try renting a kayak. There are rental spots all along the coastline, and it’s just a 30-minute paddle between villages. You’re guaranteed an afternoon all to yourself in a kayak — and nothing beats a quick dip in the ocean after a day in the hot Italian sun.
3. Local culture and history
The history of the Cinque Terre is fascinating, and it’s on display for you at the Museo delle Cinque Terre Antiche in Riomaggiore. In this small museum, housed in an old restored wine cellar, you’ll learn about local traditions, regional agriculture, and the long history of this ancient region.
The oldest of the five villages, Monterosso, was founded back in 643 A.D. The others followed a few hundred years later, and most of what you see in Cinque Terre dates back to the High Middle Ages. Each town has its own historic architecture, with Benedictine monasteries, Roman villas, and old, old churches. The Church of San Lorenzo in Corniglia is especially worth a visit, as is the ancient castle in Riomaggiore.
4. A taste of Liguria
The food in the Cinque Terre is simple, fresh, and delicious. Perhaps as a result of the rich algae that thrives in the Ligurian Sea, seafood here is especially tasty. Anchovies are a local staple, and you’ll find them in antipasti, on top of pizzas, or fried up as an appetizer. Mussels, calamari, and prawns are all scrumptious grilled or served in a pasta dish.
Fresh basil pesto is another local specialty — in fact, it was invented here in Liguria. And of course, the olives (and olive oil) are everywhere. For a really special treat, try trofie, a light brown pasta made from wheat or chestnut flour, with a fresh pesto genovese. And if you happen to find yourself hungry in Corniglia, make a beeline for the Miele di Corniglia — a delicious creamy gelato made with local honey.
5. Wines and winemaking
Make sure to tour a local vineyard during your stay in the Cinque Terre. The terraced vineyards are lovely, and the local wines are famous. On a hot afternoon, the crisp white Cinque Terre wine is refreshing and intoxicating; for a sweet after-dinner drink, try Sciacchetra. It’s a late-harvest wine, made from dried grapes, with a rich golden color.
Spectacular ocean views, quaint villages, and great food and drink make the Cinque Terre one of the world’s finest destinations. There’s really no way to convey the beauty and charm of this place in words. It’s quite simply one of the loveliest spots on earth — a timeless place that enchants and delights everyone lucky enough to experience it.