The five colorful, cliff-side villages on Italy's coast always seemed like a movie set to me. Every picture I saw of the Cinque Terre made me think of a romantic scene where the male lead whisks a woman into his arms as they saunter into the clear waters.
Turns out, Cinque Terre is just as beautiful as I imagined it to be.
Since there are five equally lovely towns, I wanted to break down the best things to do in Cinque Terre to ensure you make the most of your trip.
Each village clings dramatically to the steep cliffs and offers it's own story. I recommend that you leave enough time to visit each one on your journey.
What I immediately loved about Cinque Terre, besides the view, is how quintessentially Italian it is. When I took a walking tour someone asked about a good place to eat pizza. The guide responded, “We don't have pizza in Cinque Terre.” Italy is very serious about food. And the same goes for Cinque Terre. They pride themselves on delicious seafood, sometimes fried, and taken on the go. Of course, you can also try the phenomenal focaccia bread, smothered in pesto and cheese. Just don't call it pizza, please.
What to do in Cinque Terre
The Cinque Terre is made up of five villages beginning with Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Each are nestled on the rocky coastline of the Rivera di Levante on the Ligurian coast. It's very easy to village hop. You can take the strenuous but glorious hiking trail, or you can simply jump on the train to go from town to town.
The hiking path is ancient and is known as the Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Path) and was once the only link from each town. In fact, these towns used to be extremely underpopulated and relatively unknown. The region that is now known as Cinque Terre became part of Genoa back when it was an extremely important trade market and center of power. It took two days to sail from Genoa to Cinque Terre. However, it was increasingly popular for its delicious wine. In the 15th century, the locals started to use the name Cinque Terre.
But it wasn't until the a rail line, finished in the 1960s that people started to come to Cinque Terre. And that's when the fascination started and tourism really took off.
Hiking Cinque Terre
In order to make the most of your time I recommend taking a hike to engulf yourself in enchanting Cinque Terre. There are multiple hikes that you can enjoy throughout the villages for different skill levels and interests. These trails offer some of the best coastal hiking and provide some of the most scenic views.
The Sentiero Azzurro trail spans the length of all 5 villages and takes 5-6 hours to walk along Cinque Terre's Ligurian coast. Unfortunately, the trail is still going under reconstruction and is still not accessible in some parts. The trail starts at either (depending on if you'd rather hike north to south or south to north) Riomaggiore or Monterosso and is one way.
Some other popular trails are Manarola – Volastra- Corniglia trail, this one is steep and goes up through the vineyards for picturesque views. There is also the Monterosso to Vernazza, called the Way of the Sanctuaries, and passes through the Ligurian churches. The easiest trail is between Riomaggiore and Manarola called the “Lover's Lane” and is only a half mile.
Regardless of which trail you take, it requires that you wear proper hiking shoes (not flip flops) and bring plenty of water.
Often, the trails are closed due to damage or floods, so make sure to check the Cinque Terre National Park website before heading to your hike.
You can also find all the different paths, skill levels, length of time, and whether or not the path is closed or open right here. This PDF is also updated and easy to read for all the trails in the area.
Hiking means wandering trails filled with ancient vineyards, olive groves, oak trees, and even old Roman roads. The chain of mountains near the villages creates a unique landscape of steep cliffs which is different from the rest of Italy.
Pro tip: many of the trails are “pay trails”, which means you need to buy a Cinque Terre Card (this can be done at the entrance of the trail) for €7.50. This also includes the use of the bus. If you'd rather, you can also purchase a card that includes the train for €16.
Now, from north to south, here's what to do in each village of the “Costa Ligure of Levante.”
What to do in Monterosso al Mare
This is the largest of the five villages and lies on the northwestern edge. Here, there's a large bay and a sandy beach perfect for a swim. This village was absolutely my favorite because you get the best of everything in one town. Great beaches lined with umbrellas, fantastic views, and classic Italian restaurants.
If you opted not to hike, then Monterosso Al Mare is a wonderful place to stroll. There is a square that opens up on to the bay that's the perfect spot to drink a limoncello spritzer. You can walk the large walkway that takes you from the town to the train station and admire the views. Or, you can delve into the narrow alleyways to grab some fried seafood in a cone, the Cinque Terre way.
Make sure to look out for the old German bunker that dates back to WWII days.
Since this is the biggest town, it's also a great place to do a little shopping. You can buy their precious extra virgin olive oil, pasta printed with the family crest, sun-dried tomatoes, anchovies, and spices.
One of my favorite things I ate was the focaccia bread (that we definitely won't call pizza) at Il Frantoio. It was cheap and delicious.
Monterosso al Mare has the best beaches of all the villages, so make sure to spend some time here. If you want to stay in one of the five villages I do recommend that you stay here.
What to do in Vernazza
With steep steps or arpaie the colorful city is a maze of shops and restaurants. I love the pretty port that juts out below the village. Here, you can sit and watch the boats go in and out.
Vernazza has a natural amphitheater and pier making it a picturesque spot for photos. A great place for picture-perfect views is to walk the first hill of the Seniero Azzurro trail between Vernazza to Monterosso.
Go inside the Santa Margherita di Antiochia Church located right next to the seaside.
What to do in Corniglia
Access Corniglia through a long flight of stairs from the railway station. Pro tip: you can also take the bus! Here, you'll find two small beaches and a charming town, the only one not located on the sea. Head into the Church of San Pietro from 1334 and see the beautiful Belvedere, a lovely terrace on the seaside.
Because Corniglia isn't located on the sea, they depended on wine production and agriculture. Make sure the try their white wine “Vernaccia di Corniglia.”
There's also a small beach in Corniglia called Guvano which can be accessed from a tunnel in the railway.
If you're looking for less tourists and a more authentic experience then head to Corniglia.
What to do in Manarola
Manarola seems untouched by the passage of time with its rocky terraces and beautiful cove. Manarola has the start of the famous and scenic path, “Via dell’Amore” (Lover’s Lane) which leads you to Riomaggiore in about 20 minutes.
This is thought to be the oldest town of the Cinque Terre. This is a great place to take in the views and drink some wine. Sciacchetra is the sweet wine produced from the surrounding vineyards. Also check out San Lorenzo church which has a beautiful rose window that dates back to the 14th century.
I found the views of Manarola to be some of my favorite. There is the stark, rocky coastline with the outcropping of colorful villages. Once you make your way to the water from the train station head up towards the right for the Manarola Scenic Viewpoint. This is also a great place to people watch!
What to do in Riomaggiore
Perhaps one of the most famous of the villages, Riomaggiore has the iconic scene of colorful buildings tumbling out onto the sea. This small fishing village is characterized by houses near the sea and green terraces in the upper part of town.
It's true, this is the “Instagram spot” that is plastered on everyone's feed when they visit Cinque Terre. But it's not just a pretty face. Here, you can go swimming, cliff jumping, or bask on the rocky sea shore.
Walk along the main street of Via Colombo towards the top of town to find shops and restaurants. To get the classic viewpoint of Riomaggiore, head to Santuario di Nostra Signora di Montenero.
Since this town is closest to La Spezia it can get very crowded during summer. I suggest you go here first, and in the morning to avoid crowds.
Other Things to Do in and Around Cinque Terre
If you're very short on time I suggest taking a guided tour of Cinque Terre. You can see a few of the villages (and if you really want to push it, all 5) in just a day. Simply hop from village to village on the train.
Or, you can also do a guided tour, like this one from La Spezia.
In any of the towns you can go kayaking, swimming, or snorkeling. Another great option is to see Cinque Terre by boat and get a glimpse of how the ancient Italians would come get their wine! There are many options but this tour is the perfect way to cap off your trip.
Venture out of Cinque Terre and head to beautiful Porto Venere, a UNESCO world heritage site on the Ligurian coast that has a stunning church (Church of St. Peter) and a great place for swimming and snorkeling.
Genoa is a much larger town nearby Cinque Terre and is well worth exploring. This remains Italy's most important commercial port. But it's not just a port town, it's sprinkled with incredible architecture and history.
Lastly, explore La Spezia! While this is also a great home base for your Cinque Terre travels, there are some hidden gems here as well. There's a lovely port and harbor, great food, and plenty of bars and restaurants.
Where to Stay in Cinque Terre
There are plenty of hotels in Cinque Terre. Regardless of where you stay, I personally always use Booking.com to book my hotels, find the best rate, and accommodation that meets my needs.
I think your best bet is to actually stay out of Cinque Terre in La Spezia. We stayed in a lovely, modern and centrally located hotel called The Poet. This was about a 7 minute walk from the train station so it made it easy to get to the villages of Cinque Terre.
How Long To Stay in Cinque Terre
Since there are five villages I recommend that you give each one their due. 2-4 days is a good amount of time to spend in Cinque Terre.
Now that you're prepped for your trip I recommend a good fiction novel that will set the scene for this enchanting place. I absolutely loved “Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter. It's a fast paced, fun love story that I couldn't put down.
I love how any place you visit in Italy is steeped with incredibly ancient and rich history. The same is true of the beautifully romantic Cinque Terre. I hope this guide gives you a good idea of what to do on your next trip!