Last year, I ticked a big old wish off my travel bucket list and finally made it to the world-famous Cinque Terre region in Italy with my lovely friend FoodNerd4Life. Cinque Terre literally translates as “Five Lands” and these five colourful fishing villages are without a doubt one of Italy’s most magical attractions.
There’s a lot of pressure when visiting somewhere that frequently ranks among the “most Instagrammable places in the world” but Cinque Terre is every bit as beautiful as it looks. In fact, it’s even prettier. There’s no Instagram filter that can do justice to those pastel-coloured houses, or that can capture the golden glow of sunset over the Ligurian Sea.
But for all its beauty, Cinque Terre comes with some baggage (don’t we all?!) Everyone wants a little piece of this Italian paradise, so it’s no longer the remote hideaway it once was. But as long as you manage your expectations, Cinque Terre is an unforgettable travel experience and one of the most stunning places you’ll ever visit.
Here’s 5 top tips for making the most of your day trip to Cinque Terre.
1. Don’t try to visit all 5 villages in a day
The biggest mistake any first-time visitor to Cinque Terre can make is trying to squeeze all five villages into a day. If you’re set on seeing them all, then I’d recommend booking an overnight stay and taking at least two days to explore. With this amount of time, you can also take advantage of some of the coastal trekking paths, which will give you a completely different perspective of the region.
If you have just one day in Cinque Terre, I would recommend visiting no more than three of the five villages. We actually ended up visiting four, as a result of our very poor navigational skills (!), but our last stop felt quite rushed as a result.
So how on Earth do you choose which villages to visit in Cinque Terre? They all have their unique charms, so here’s a little run-down to help you decide.
Riomaggiore is the first village you’ll arrive at from La Spezia train station (the main transport hub connecting the villages) and sets an unbeatably high bar for the rest of the region. Rainbow-coloured terraced houses clustered around the harbour are every photographer’s dream and the cobbled streets look like they’ve been plucked right out of a fairytale. If you ask me, this is the one village that can’t be missed.
Vernazza offers up your typical postcard views of Cinque Terre, with pastel-painted houses and brightly-coloured fishing boats floating in the bay. There are a couple of small sandy beaches, perfect for relaxing, or if you’re feeling adventurous you can hire a boat or kayak out on the water. The beautiful Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia of Vernazza on the main square is also worth exploring.
Monterosso (al Mare) is the only village with a proper stretch of sand and is ideal for sun-seekers. This is the biggest village of the five and has more of a resort-feel, with sea-front hotels and beach bars a-plenty. But the old town is also full of history and charm, with cute piazzas and ornate churches, not to mention lemon trees everywhere you look!
A little train mishap meant we made an unexpected stop at Monterosso, so we took the opportunity to have a cheeky Aperol Spritz by the sea, before swiftly moving on (when in Rome and all!)
Manarola is perhaps the most iconic of the five villages and one of the most photographed spots in Italy. The village is breathtakingly beautiful – the kind of beauty that stays with you long after you’ve left. Just beyond the harbour is a walkway that takes you around the cliffs to a viewing point – here, you’ll get that picture-perfect shot of the colourful houses, nestled within the cliffs.
Corniglia is the smallest of the five villages and the most impractical to reach, as there are more than 300 steps up to the main village from the train station. We chose to skip over Corniglia, as we were short on time, but this village is known for its more laid back vibe and spectacular sea views.
2. The Cinque Terre card has you covered
The easiest way to travel between the villages is by train and the Cinque Terre card is a great-value option, providing unlimited train travel for 24 hours, as well as usage of the shuttle buses and access to all trekking paths.
You can buy the Cinque Terre card at La Spezia station, or any of the village stations, for 16 Euros or you can order your card online in advance (family, group and concession discounts are available).
Trains run every 15 minutes, or so, and it only takes a few minutes to travel between the villages. However, we experienced several delays and were waiting at least 15-20 minutes for each train in the scorching heat. This kind of delay would be considered pretty good-going in England (!) but train travel in Italy is generally excellent and very reliable, so it’s something to bear in mind when planning out your day.
Top tip: Remember, you must always validate your train ticket at the green machines before you board the train!
3. Be prepared for some serious crowds
I expected Cinque Terre to be busy but I was completely unprepared for just how jam-packed the villages would be. The whole region is a magnet for Instagram influencers, cruise ship tourists, and just about anyone else within reasonable travelling distance of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It isn’t just the villages – the trains running between the villages and the platforms themselves are over-run with tourists. Not so fun if you’re a hyperventilating claustrophobe, like me. We travelled in late September, so I can only imagine how busy it gets during peak season.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely worth braving the crowds to experience the unparalleled beauty of this place but I’d wish I’d come a bit more prepared, so that I could manage my expectations!
4. The best bits can be found beyond the crowds
That said, it’s not impossible to escape the crowds. Most day-tourists tend to stick to the main squares, beaches and shops but if you venture out a little further, you’ll be surprised at what you can find.
In Riomaggiore, we kept on walking up the main hill from the harbour until the crowds dispersed and before we knew it, we had the fairytale streets all to ourselves. There’s a gorgeous gelato place at the top of the hill, called Old School, where you can cool down with an ice cream, overlooking some of the best views in the village.
5. Stick around for sunset
I’ve always been a sucker for a sunset and Cinque Terre sure knows how to pull one out of the bag. Having seen countless photos of a sun-dappled Manarola, I knew this is where I wanted to catch the last rays of the day. But whichever village you find yourself in, sunset is sure to be an unforgettable experience.
There’s a popular restaurant-bar (Nessun Dorma) along the coastal walkway in Manarola with prime sunset views but the queues were HUGE, so we grabbed a spot along the path instead and watched the sky and village change colour, before our very eyes.
Top tip: Trattoria La Scogliera is a lovely, reasonably-priced seafood restaurant right in the heart of Manarola. Main dishes will set you back by 10-15 Euros a dish and a 1/2 litre carafe of delicious house wine comes in at just 9 Euros – not bad for a spot in one of the most beautiful places in the world!
Exploring more of Italy? Check out my first-timer’s guide to visiting Taormina in Sicily.