Anyone who has visited the Cinque Terre will know why it is so popular with tourists. For those who stay more than a day or two, the five villages perched precariously on a cliff top offer a wealth of exploration and traditional Italian life. And the mostly car-free status of the area makes it an ideal destination for walkers and train-lovers.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Cinque Terre is characterised by a wild landscape of ancient hills sweeping down to the sea. Although seemingly inhospitable, the slopes have been tamed and terraced for farming. For many centuries this coast was only accessible by boat, making it attractive to romantic artists and poets (including Byron and Shelley). However, the building of the railway in 1870 opened the region up to outside visitors.
The five villages of the Cinque Terre – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore – are now part of a national park and a protected marine area. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. This was a recognition of the interdependence of human activity and the unique environment, and an attempt to preserve the villages, their traditions and the terraced vineyards.
A Train Lover’s Paradise
The Cinque Terre is the ideal destination for those enjoy trains, or who just want to do without a car. Although you can drive to the edge of the villages, cars are not allowed on the narrow streets. The only practical way to get around is by train, boat or foot.
The Cinque Terre Express runs between Levanto and La Spezia, stopping at each of the villages in turn. From where I stayed, halfway up the hill in Riomaggiore, I could see the trains far below, discharging a fresh set of eager tourists each time one pulled into the station. I bought a pass for the train, and used it as a hop‑on, hop‑off service: it was very satisfying to be able to take the train to Manarola for dinner, or to buy provisions in a back street shop in Corniglia. Some of the trains are double decker, allowing stunning views of the cliffs and across the sea.
The Villages Of The Cinque Terre
I used the trains to explore the villages, too. Each has its own character: Monterosso is larger and more resort-like than the others, and Corniglia is the least accessible (there is a very long flight of stairs between the station and the village). But, wherever you go, you can expect winding streets and hidden churches and castles. You will see vineyards, abundant fig trees growing by the sides of the road, and gardens groaning under the weight of fruit and vegetables. At sea level there are boats and small secluded areas for sea bathing.
Riomaggiore has plenty to offer tourists, including a castle, churches and the Botanic Garden (a long sloping park that I had almost to myself). One evening I followed a torchlit procession carrying a statue of the Virgin to the main church, a celebration of the feast of Ferragosto. A reminder that, despite the tourists, the villages are steeped in tradition.
Then there is the food and the wine. Lots of it. If you love fresh fish you will be particularly well catered for, but there is plenty of choice for everyone.
Hiking And Hiking Trails
To get the most out of the Cinque Terre, you have to enjoy walking. Within the villages you are forced to walk – up and down the steep streets and twisting staircases – although in Riomaggiore a lift from the station to the town centre makes the task a little easier. The shopping streets are lined with cafés and restaurants where tourists and locals alike can take a break from exploring or buying their groceries.
You can walk between the villages, too, along the coastal path. The most popular section is the Via dell’Amore, an easy paved path between Riomaggiore and Manarola. However, hardier walkers may choose to tackle the whole 11km route along an old goat path, taking in sea views and woodland sections with a few up and down climbs.
If that is not enough, there is a whole maze of inland hiking trails. I chose the path from Vernazza to San Bernardino, a hamlet with an impressive church, and walked for miles through abundant farmland with no-one else to be seen. Another plus point for the Cinque Terre: it may be popular with tourists but you can always find peace and seclusion here.
But What About Overtourism?
There is no doubt that the Cinque Terre gets crowded at times. Although the absence of large hotels with swimming pools has saved the area from many tour operators’ itineraries, it is popular with day trippers and as a stop for cruise ship passengers. It is a favoured spot for the Italians themselves, and I met Americans in search of their ancestors (50% of the Italian emigrants to the US in the early 20th century were from Liguria).
Pre-pandemic overcrowding had become such a problem that there was talk of limiting access to the region. However, it was always the case that the villages became quieter and more traditional once the day-trippers had gone home, allowing those who stayed overnight a more relaxed experience. And in the summer of 2020 it was reported – not surprisingly – that tourism had dwindled to a small number of local visitors. It remains to be seen in what way, and to what extent, tourist numbers recover in the future.
How To Visit The Cinque Terre
I took the opportunity to take the whole trip by train, starting with the Eurostar from London to Paris, followed by sleeper train to Milan. But you could fly to Milan, Genoa, Pisa or Florence before continuing your journey by train (save time by booking your train ticket in advance). Read more about How to Use the Trains in Italy.
A Cinque Terre Train Card will give you unlimited access to trains and hiking trails. (Most of the hiking trails are free, but one or two limit access by making a charge.)
Ferries run between the villages during the summer months, but note that they can get very crowded.
When To Visit
Spring and Autumn are the best times to visit if you want to avoid the worst of the heat and the crowds. But at any time of year the evening are much quieter than the daytime, so a multi-day trip is recommended.
Where To Stay
You won’t find large, impersonal hotels in the Cinque Terre. Most visitors choose small guesthouses or self-catering accommodation. Have a look at some of the suggestions on Booking.com.