By Jim Ferri
“We love Rick Steves!” the effusive Cinque Terre shop owner exclaimed while we conversed about the region’s popularity.
Steves, the well-known guidebook writer, and host of the popular PBS series bearing his name, visited Cinque Terre years ago. Back then, this region of the Ligurian coast in northwest Italy was only a clutch of sleepy fishing villages. After Steves included them in his guide, however, tourism skyrocketed.
You’ll quickly see why if you visit Cinque Terre yourself. It’s about an hour’s drive from Pisa, two hours from Florence.
The region is a clutch of five tiny fishing villages, all part of a 10,000 acre /15-square-mile National Park. It compensates for its small size, however, with some of the most dramatic and wild coastal scenery in Italy.
Amazingly, it’s now one of the most popular destinations in Italy, right up there with Rome, Florence, and Venice. And despite it having a population of only about 4,000, nearly 2.5 million travelers now visit it annually. Luckily, many of them disembark from cruise ships at ports outside the region.
Getting to Cinque Terre
Most people don’t want to drive to Cinque Terre because of the difficulty of navigating the winding cliff-edge road. And when you arrive it’s often hard to find parking; when you do, you’ll usually pay dearly.
When I visited Cinque Terre, I drove from Pisa and left my car in La Spezia near the rail station. I then took the train to Vernazza, the prettiest village in the region.
The 19th-century railway runs through a series of tunnels, bringing visitors to all the villages. The closest village, Riomaggiore, is less than 10 minutes from La Spezia. Add 15 minutes to reach Monterosso, the furthest town.
You can buy the Cinque Terre Pass, which, among other things, includes all train travel between La Spezia and Levanto. Cost is €16.00 per adult for one day, €29 for two, €49 for three.
The Cinque Terre is also a popular day-trip from Florence. A good option for many who are visiting Florence is a day-tour with a company such as Ciao Florence. Their “Scent of the Sea” tour visits all of the villages except Corniglia, the only town not on the sea. Better yet, it includes a boat ride from Monterosso to Vernazza, providing beautiful views of the coast from the sea. Price of the 12-hour tour is €90 per adult. (The company also offers a chauffeur-driven tour from €84, although it includes only three villages and no boat ride.)
Interestingly, the company also offers a tour I haven’t seen before. It’s a half-day sail with a local fisherman helping him to bring in his net (cost starts at €43). If you’re looking for something bigger, there’s a full-day Monterosso Big Game Fishing tour for €102. Some of those fish, such as Bluefin tuna, are catch-and-release only.
Be Prepared to Walk
The beauty of Cinque Terre is its tiny, colorful villages, some dating back to the 13th century. Most are tucked into the Mediterranean coastline beneath rocky and wooded cliffs.
The villages ban cars so be prepared to walk. You’ll find it quite crowded during the summer months when throngs of tourists arrive daily. But you can beat the crowds by coming before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. When I visited in mid-September the weather was delightful, and there were no crowds at all.
Cinque Terre is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but one doesn’t travel here to visit galleries or museums. You come for the outdoors. 75+ miles of coastal hiking trails crisscross the region, so it attracts many hikers.
You’ll get a fair amount of exercise even if you stick to the villages. They’re quite hilly, and you’ll often encounter stairs as you walk about their tangle of streets.
There aren’t a lot of hotels in Cinque Terre, although there are many rooms for rent. Most lodging is in B&Bs and apartments. Since accommodations you do find are usually somewhat expensive, however, one of the reasons many travelers visit only on day trips. The best listings for rooms in the region, it’s said, are found on Booking.com and Airbnb.
Riomaggiore is the southernmost village and the closest to La Spezia. It has one main street, which leads to its small harbor, and pastel buildings climbing up the hillside.
In Manarola, where grape vines surround the town, you’ll find a marina, surrounded by colorful houses on its hillsides. The marina is one of the most photographed places in Cinque Terre. Due to the lack of a beach, people sunbathe on the rocky outcrops that surround it.
Corniglia is the only village that’s not on the sea. It’s the smallest of the towns and the least touristy, likely due to its non-seaside location. Be aware that it’s more than 300 steps up from the rail station to the town proper.
For many, Vernazza, with its pretty piazza and bobbing boats in the harbor, is the most popular village. That popularity means that it can get crowded in the summer months. Crowds or not, travelers love the pastel buildings about its Piazza Marconi.
It’s a great village to wander about, perhaps while enjoying a Friggitoria – a paper cone filled with seafood cut into small pieces.
Monterosso (also known as Monterosso al Mare) is the largest of the five villages. It’s also the only village with a proper beach. As one might guess, bathers are packed like sardines across it in the warmer months.
Among the terraces of lemon groves and vineyards outside Monterosso, you’ll find the Buranco Winery. Due to its beautiful setting, it’s a popular place for tastings of its Sciacchetrà, Magiöa, and Cinque Terre DOC wines. Buranco is also an agriturismo, i.e., a working farm that rents rooms but you’ll likely have difficulty renting one.
Be aware also that Monterosso is the least hilly of all the villages, something to consider if you have mobility issues.