Cinque Terre is made up of five old fishing villages nestled into the hillsides of the Italian Riviera. With unobstructed views and breath-taking panoramas, it’s about as close to Shangri-La in Europe that you can get.
The Charming Cinque Terre | Italy
The quiet and rustic Cinque Terre is in the Liguria region of Italy and the province of La Spezia. It happily lacks souvenir shops, gas stations, chain restaurants, or tourist information centers. Locals don’t like them, and for good reason. The absence of kitschy modernity is what makes it a true escape, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The vintage-looking village are offsite by the deep, bright, and sparking waters that crash against its shores below. When they were originally settled, the steep hillsides were cultivated into terraces of vines for wine and farming. But it’s the contrast of the towns on the cliffs against the eternal view of the vibrant waters that stretch softly until it meets the horizon, that is most striking.
When my friends and I had first arrived and were looking for our hotel, we had noticed that from most streets you could see the water. And that every other corner provided cool breezes from the Riviera; a breeze that had rose over the jagged rocks and was able to put anybody into an immediate state of relaxation.
As one person once put it, “The suggestive kind of coast falling sheer to the sea, with cliffs which are often vertical, alternated with small creeks and enchanting beaches among rocks, with depths rich in fish, make this territory a real natural work of art“.
Cinque Terre isn’t your typical Italian vacation. Usually in Italy there are tons of old churches, museums, and ancient ruins to see. Here, you don’t really do that. Instead, or at least what we did, was spend the weekend doing nothing but going to the beach, sitting on promontories, eating, hiking, and walking.
There’s little more that you what to do than that. Plus, you might be too full from the delicious food to attempt to. When we weren’t dining on the terraces that overlooked the beach, we sat on the rocks with our legs hanging over the side and savored the creamy, homemade taste of my favorite gelato flavor, pistachio.
I remember one of the afternoons when we were sitting by the beach in Monterosso Al Mare. I had a warm piece of bread from the panetteria in one hand, topped with a fresh piece of salami, and a cup espresso in the other.
Basking in the warm morning glow we were fantasizing about quitting our jobs and moving here. Without a doubt, Cinque Terre is a place that comes to mind when you finding yourself saying when I retire, if I were rich, if I could live anywhere.
We felt very lucky to be there. At one point we had asked the elderly gentleman who ran our small, boutique hotel (on a very narrow cobblestone street) if he ever got sick of the views. Wearing all white and a straw fedora, he stopped in front of us, looked back, and a small smile formed at the corners of his mouth. He said “Never.”
I mean, would you? It’s a lot better than staring at a computer screen all day in a cubicle. Listening to the sing-song sounds of the Italian language dance about the winding streets and up the hills is a scene out of a movie.
I also loved how sinuous walls and roads lead to hidden paths that disappear up into the cliffs and beckon you to explore it. It’s tempting to climb the most desolate ones with the unaffected hope that just maybe you’ll discover something lost from the world at the top.
To put it simply, of all the places that I’ve visited in Italy, Cinque Terre was one of the most beautiful. I couldn’t believe I had never heard of it because it was so charming. Cinque Terre is like secret place that you want to remain hidden from the masses forever. It would be a shame to see it commercialized. Too often natural landscapes of beautiful places are spoiled by popularity.
As great as tourism is for local economies, it is wildly disappointing to see chain hotels rise into the sky, parking lots being built over greenery, and large coach buses bringing in swaths of tourists that disrupt the serene peace of nature. Thus far, Cinque Terre has escaped this fate, although recently it’s been climbing in the ranks as one of the most sought after places to visit in Italy. Let’s hope it can hold out.
The 5 Villages of Cinque Terre
If you’re looking for things to do in Cinque Terre, I highly suggest spending time visiting the 5 towns and their colorful houses. The names of these precious villages are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.
Up until 100 years ago outsiders couldn’t visit until the railway was built. This helped keep it isolated. A chain of mountains surrounds the towns, of which runs parallel to the Appennino Mountains. This ends up creating what the locals call an insenatura – a natural inlet.
When visiting Cinque Terre, you can stay in one of these five Cinque Terre villages or in the town of Levanto. Levanto is what people consider to be the doorway to Cinque Terre and where you can start to explore.
We took a day to visit as many of the villages as we could. At first light, since we had to get up very early to complete this ambitious plan, the only things we heard were the soothing sounds of the ocean sloshing onto the shore, the wind whooshing overhead, and a mother calling out, “Vieni qua!” to a giggling toddler as he scampered out the door and down a narrow street. There was a decidedly quiet, sweet vibe. As for the villages…
Monterosso is known for having the best beach, most wine shops, hotels, and restaurants. You’ll like stay here. A good cultural sight to visit is the Church of the Capuchin Father, with the painting of Cambiaso and a “Crucifixion”.
The village of Manarola sits long the stream and is surrounded by vines, which is why it’s best known for its wines. But most importantly, this is where the Via dell’ Amore begins here. This is the 2 kilometer trail to Riomaggiore. You should also visit the church of San Lorenzo with a rose window that dates back to the 14th century.
Vernazza is a fun one to look at from afar since its sits entirely on the natural pier that juts out into the water in a wonderfully picturesque way. A long time ago the Romans found this particularly useful during the Maritime Republics in Genoa. There is a watchtower that caps the end of the pier and is surround by castello (castle) ruins. You can also visit the church of Santa Margherita di Antiochia.
Corniglia is flanked by two exclusive beaches and the town is set on a promontory (similarly to Vernazza). What I like about it is in order to get into the village you have to take a long flight of stairs from the railway. The best things to see in Corniglia is the view of Belvedere, the beautiful natural terrace along the seaside, and the Church of San Pietro from the 14th century. The church is considered a prime example of gothic-ligurian architecture.
Finally, there is Riomaggiore, which is utterly enchanting. The only way to move around the town is by steep staircases, a remnant from the 8th century when the people of the Vara Valley used the are to raise grapevines and olive trees.
Riomaggiore moves upwards along the ridges that overlook the sea. It’s characterized by colorful stone houses and slate-roofs. While you’re there also visit the sanctuary of Madonna di Montenero.
Hiking in Cinque Terre – Sentiero Azzurro
The way to get from one village to another is by boat, train, or path. But the preferable option is to hike Cinque Terre. If you enjoy the outdoors you can’t miss this. Vineyards cling to the sides of the steep cliffsides of the Cinque Terre villages and all the way you have sprawling views of the Riviera.
The most popular of the hiking trails is called Sentiero Azzurro. It’s made up of four trails along the coast that takes about six hours to hike. My advice is to start in Riomaggiore. The paths are paved here and get progressively harder later as you climb.
These coastal trails take you up, down, and through each town. Depending on which route you take, it can be fatiguing, but insurmountably charming. Make sure you leave your gear at the hotel. You can hike the villages in one day if you plan ahead.
My favorite point of our hike was when we reached one of the many trail peaks and saw an old white-bearded man sitting calmly off to the side. He had big wicker-baskets and was selling homemade limoncello!
At that point we so thirsty that of course we bought a bottle – or four. It was delightfully thirst-quenching, but I couldn’t help thinking as we walked away, how the hell did he get up there?
One of the other popular trails in Cinque Terre is the Via dell’Amore trail, or Lover’s Lane. It’s part of trail #2 and is considered the romantic route. Aw. It goes from Riomaggiore to Manarola for about 1.2 miles. Look out for the famous kissing statue and tunnel with declarations of love when you go.
I loved my Cinque Terre vacation and want to go back. Let’s hope the locals can hold out and carry on the existing authentic Ligurian culture. Overexposure is not welcome here. So, please, do not build any cruise boat ports in Cinque Terre!