Five charming villages clustered together on the Italian Riveria, the Cinque Terre has recently gone from relative obscurity to one of Italy’s biggest tourist highlights, and with good reason – the sight of brightly-colored buildings perched on cliffs above the crystal clear sea is breathtaking. Less than 10 miles separate northernmost Monterosso al Mare and Riomaggiore in the south and the villages are connected by hiking trails, a ferry and a train that runs every 10-15 minutes. Because it’s so easy to get around, most people choose to base themselves in one town for the duration of their stay and explore the rest of the region via day trips. Although the villages have much in common, they have their own distinct personalities and each one offers different pros and cons. Here are my impressions of them and a few photos from each.
Monterosso al Mare
Monterosso differs from the other towns of the Cinque Terre in several important ways. It’s the only town that lies pretty much flat along the shoreline as opposed to being built into the cliffs above the water and it’s the only town with a real beach. It also has a reputation as the most developed, with a number of real hotels and the region’s only luxury hotel (whereas your lodging options in the other villages are mostly simple guesthouses) and a beachfront boardwalk full of shops and restaurants. We visited a little early – both in terms of the season (the beaches weren’t really up and running in early May) and the time of day – but Monterosso was my least favorite of the five villages. I didn’t think it was nearly as picturesque as the other villages, and the boardwalk gave me a little bit of an Atlantic City vibe. That said, “rank the villages” is a very popular topic of conversation on the hiking trails and train stations of Cinque Terre, and I heard quite a few people say Monterosso was their favorite. It would be a good choice for someone who cares about nightlife or (in the summer) for a family that wants to go to the beach every day.
Vernazza was up there with Manarola as my favorite Cinque Terre town. Although it doesn’t have a developed beachfront like Monterosso with chairs and umbrellas, it has more of a beach than the other three towns (which just have rocky harbors or no harbor at all, in the case of Corniglia) and it has a booming main square with restaurants and bars overlooking the beach area. But it also has the classic Cinque Terre look, with a rainbow of pastel-colored homes rising up out of the sea, which makes it a good choice for someone who cares about both scene and scenery. I’ll talk more about the hiking we did in future posts, but the views of Vernazza as we descended the trail from Monterosso were some of my favorites of the entire trip. Even if you don’t plan on hiking the whole way, I strongly recommend walking a little bit in the direction of Monterosso in order to look back on Vernazza from the trail.
Corniglia (pronounced Cornelia) is the hardest village to reach and is supposed to be less crowded for that reason, although it seemed plenty popular to me. If you plan on doing any hiking in Cinque Terre, Corniglia is a great village to hike to, because if you arrive by train you’ll have to walk up 365 long steps from the train station (and the ferry doesn’t service Corniglia, so foot and train are the only ways of getting here). It seems like it would be a pain to stay here because of how hard it is to reach, but the town is definitely charming. My strongest memory of it is the very narrow streets that gave it more of an Old World feel than the other villages.
I will admit I am totally biased, because we stayed in Manarola and it was the only village I got to see in the gorgeous, calm evening hours when the daytrippers had all gone home, but it was definitely my favorite. It’s home to probably the most iconic Cinque Terre view (pictured above), which was one I never got tired of looking at or photographing. I’m definitely not alone in loving Manarola though, and during the day the crowds here can be panic-inducing even for those who aren’t particularly agoraphobic. Whether or not you stay here, I’d recommend coming here for dinner and sunset to experience a more peaceful side of this beautiful village. Grab a drink and some food at the wine bar Nessun Dorma, which is perched on a cliff overlooking the village, and then enjoy sunset and the blue hour at the most famous Cinque Terre vista.
Before tourism took over, fishing was the main industry of Cinque Terre, and nowhere is that more evident than in Riomaggiore. Boats and nets line the harbor and many food counters along the main drag of Via Colombo offer fresh fried seafood to take away. The houses near the harbor are so tightly packed together that I think the best views here would really be from out on the water (something we didn’t get to do, because the operator of the boat tour we had booked flaked) but you can get some nice shots by walking out a little ways onto the jetty.
Up next: a recap of our first day of CT hiking, from Monteresso to Vernazza and then on to Corniglia!