Visiting Cinque Terre is unmissable
Although we prefer to take the path less trodden, visiting Cinque Terre, the five beautiful coastal villages in Italy’s north-west has always been on the cards. After seeing the many packaged tours to the acclaimed region, it immediately became apparent that we could do it without the annoying group tour experience. Where we can, we prefer to find our own way. It’s just easier in so many ways. We certainly didn’t want to spend an hour in a gelato line to having to relinquish our spot three or four people from the counter. Or as would more likely be the case, be left behind, because we all have priorities, right?
Take the Express when visiting Cinque Terre (via La Spezia)
Italy is incredibly well-serviced by trains, and its extensive network made it simple to get from Florence to the towns of Manarola, Vernazza, and Riomaggiore in a day without rushing it (too much). Full disclosure, a total experience of all five towns does require a full couple of days, especially if you want to trek it.
With minimal time to enjoy the Italian Riviera, we prioritized our wishlist to these three towns – Vernazza (for the famed panorama), Manarola (for its quieter and free “beach”), and Riomaggiore (to at least get to enjoy a small part of the hiking you want to experience when visiting Cinque Terre).
Our plan: Leave early to avoid the crowds, head straight to the most distant village, and work our way back towards La Spezia, the main station that services the Cinque Terre region.
Departing from Florence on an early train, we take an express with the morning commuters. Arriving at major coastal center, La Spezia, we change to a small local train, full of day-trippers.
Arrive early to avoid crowds
As our first foray into Liguria, we arrive early into Vernazza (just before 9 a.m.), and it’s already a balmy 28 degrees Celcius (it’s summer in Italy so what do you expect?!) Our first stop is at the tourist info booth to buy a trekking pass. We had planned on hiking from Manarola to Riomaggiore later in the day, the shortest trail, but are notified that the track is closed due to sand fly season.
Unfortunately, this means that we will miss experiencing at least a fifth of the acclaimed trails. While the T5 trek pass includes the train fare, it works out cheaper for us to pay the individual tickets for each train as needed – especially as the one part of the path we wanted to walk is closed.
Vernazza, a harbor below the vineyards
The station is situated high above the village, and we are pleasantly surprised by just how quiet the town is. Locals are chatting and purchasing fresh fruits from a farmer’s market, strategically positioned to capture the attention of tourists arriving at the station. From there, the main street weaves between colorful houses and ends up near the jetty where just one venue is open at this hour—a tiny coffee bar. We get in a shot of the daily grind, planted in between to locals going about their morning routine of coffee and pastry.
One of our favorite parts of travel is people watching, and early morning starts like this where locals are going about their day uninhibited.
By the time we emerge, restaurant owners are beginning to set up colorful umbrellas and signage, ready for the hordes. We take this rare moment of solitude to tour the town’s church, Santa Margherita di Antiochia before the crowds start to arrive. This Ligurian-style church, constructed of stone in 1318, still houses an in-tact bell tower, looking out over the port and the Tyrrhenian Sea.
The most famous and picturesque view you want to see when visiting Cinque Terre is of Vernazza – and it’s best captured from the start of the hiking trail. If you ask politely (as we did), it may be possible for the guide to let you venture just past the starting point without paying the trail fee. You’ll even get a glimpse of the famous vertical vineyards that have been tended to by the locals for decades. A single person monorail system transports farmers up to their vines, weaving like a roller coaster through the fertile hills.
By the time we walk back down the hill to the path’s entrance, which is hidden in a narrow alley between two stone buildings, we can hardly move in the sea of people. A train has just arrived, and we are battling the crowds that are heading with intent to the water’s edge. We are very grateful to have had the village to ourselves, even for a short while.
We jump on the next train heading south to visit Manarola. Dark tunnels carved through the hills make it an easy commute of only a couple of minutes versus a couple of hours and blisters you’d get along the path. From all reports, Manarola is the perfect place to sunbathe off the jetty with a calm section of water hidden by the surrounding rocks in which to swim. To us, this makes more sense than paying for the famous beach in Monterosso. Pale, ginger and with blue eyes, one of us is never in the water for too long anyway!
The area around Manarola affords us the chance to have a mini trek along part of the famed Cinque Terre coastline. With our limited time, we want to get a taste for the Cinque Terre trek experience at least. We take a small part of the trail up and out of town, up to the nearby surrounding cliffs. While the most photographed view of this town is from the water’s edge, our advice is to start to walk trail 6P which will take you through some vertical communal gardens, through stunning wildflowers, and up some stone steps for sweeping views of the town. We got some great photos from up there. A word of warning—the rock stairs are very steep and almost require a crab crawl down. This section isn’t for the faint of heart.
Stay hydrated and cool
Heading back toward town, we stop for a gelato—lemon of course—and explore the Chiesa di San Lorenzo and its bell tower. It’s at this moment that we realize our plan has worked perfectly. Launches ferry tourists from cruise ships, while large groups arrive on buses, herded around by guides wielding umbrellas. Arriving as early as we did, we have been able to see the towns almost empty and peaceful.
Bring a towel and swimsuit
Because of the sweltering heat, we decide that the water’s inviting allure can’t be avoided for another minute. Free of inhibitions, we stash our belongings on the rocks, strip down to our swimmers and ease ourselves into the (gentle) waves. The water is not just crystal clear, but it’s also refreshingly cold, taking away those aches and pains from a day’s real-life stair-mastering.
Seafood and Spritzes in Riomaggiore
In the early afternoon, we jump back on the train, this time to the first village, Riomaggiore, where it is apparent that our lucky streak has been broken. There are a zillion people visiting Cinque Terre today, and they have all descended onto Riomaggiore. It’s standing room only. The village is carved into the hill at parts, and you will walk through an extensive tunnel system to get from the station to the main port – even then, some shops are carved into the cliffs as you find your way to the tiny harbor.
Hot and hangry, we queue for lunch at Dau Cila, a charming restaurant overlooking the water. After waiting in line for all of 15 minutes, we are ushered to a table under the shade of an umbrella and with an ocean view. We are pleased to discover that this restaurant is Michelin recommended. To fit in with the setting, we order an Aperol Spritz and a Campari. It just seems like the right time of day and the right thing to do here. We also order rock lobster tagliatelle and a mussel and prawn tortellini. The food is tasty, fresh, seasonal, and everything we expected it to be and more.
In the mid-afternoon, after feeling sufficiently full and festive, we trek up the hill to the town’s most picturesque vista. It’s a very narrow pathway to this platform, and you’ll do well to even get a shot without being elbowed out of the way, or without a hand, head or hair flying into frame. We take this as a good sign that it’s time to call it a day, but not before dipping our feet into the sea waters along the dock and taking the time to breathe and be present in the last few moments of visiting Cinque Terre.
Visiting Cinque Terre is easy to achieve independently without a guided tour.
We chose three of the five towns when visiting Cinque Terre: Vernazza, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.
Take the Trenitalia train from Florence to La Spezia and then switch to the local line. It costs 4 Euro per ride on the local line between the villages. It’s 16 Euro for the trekking pass (including train tickets) during high season. You can buy one here.
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