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Italy is known far and wide for all the trappings of an ideal vacation: romantic strolls through narrow cobblestone streets flanked by pastel-colored homes, foot traffic instead of traffic jams, crystalline-blue waters hugged by quiet coastline, gelato and pasta and wine that make even the Heavens envious. But, for the best bet at experiencing this all in one trip, there’s one destination that stands above all the rest: the iconic and enchanting Cinque Terre.
Astute readers will be quick to recognize that the Cinque Terre is actually the culmination of five villages, not one standalone town. But, wise travelers also know the journey is oftentimes just as enjoyable as the destination. The Cinque Terre is bliss through-and-through: the quaint villages are carved into cliffsides overlooking the Ligurian Sea—which means driving town-to-town is somewhere between “not worth it” and “near impossible.” With that, here’s a definitive guide to town-hopping in Cinque Terre, so you can enjoy the journey and the destinations.
Oftentimes the starting point for many visits to the Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore is the southernmost village in the chain. Beyond the botanical garden and the bird watching centre, there’s plenty else to take in and discover. While the Santuario di Nostra Signora di Montenero, the Castello di Riomaggiore and Oratorio di San Rocco all provide stunning snapshots of Italian architecture throughout time, the best views are older, grander: the sight of the peeping horizon from Riomaggiore Beach is as refreshing as the water, and—if you can—get a good look at the town from the vantage point of the harbor during sunset. The pastel walls seem to return the sun’s glow in kind.
While lingering in this paradise for your entire trip seems perfectly palatable, there are four more villages to discover. Take the time you deem fit, but you’re just at the start of your journey.
Just a half a mile away from Riomaggiore, the next village you’ll encounter heading north is Manarola. Grapevines enshroud the town like a leafy low-hanging cloud; there are more of them here than at any other village of Cinque Terre. History buffs will enjoy the treasure trove of medieval relics housed throughout the village, while families will appreciate Punta Bonfiglio, with its impressive playground (for the kids) housing a bar directly underneath it (for the parents). Whatever your ventures in Manarola entail, they should include plenty of Sciacchetrá, the sweet wine famously produced here.
The third village you’ll find heading north is Corniglia. While it’s true that this is the only village of the five not directly next to the sea, and thus has no harbor, you’ll be happy to know that the claim “Corniglia has no beaches” is a myth. Historically, the town relied on farming instead of fishing—this way of life provides a striking scene as it’s carved into all the surrounding hillsides. Besides the view, this farmland also provides for excellent wine—sample as much of the diverse selection as you like, just make sure to cap it off with a glass of Sciacchetrá. In terms of its beaches, adventurous (and maybe kids-free) couples might consider and afternoon at Guavo Beach, famous for its “clothing-optional” rule. Otherwise, Spiaggione beach is a simple stair-descent away from the train station. Besides the beaches and farms and wine, Corniglia is the only place where you can enjoy a panorama of all five villages.
The fourth village of the five is Vernazza. With its central harbor and steep geography, its arguably the quaintest of the towns. Cafes dot the main street like seashells on the beach, with side streets and caruggi (narrow lanes) sprouting off and unfolding in every which direction. A leisurely stroll amongst the web of paths provides jaw-dropping sights at each and every turn of a corner, but they’re just snippets compared to Piazza Marconi—the popular lounging spot next to the harbor. If for whatever reason you’d like a break from the water, the pair of the Santa Margherita di Antiochia Church and The Sanctuary of the Virgin of Reggio make for spiritual excursions ripe with historical lessons.
Monterosso al Mare
The fifth, and final, of the villages to discover is Monterosso al Mare. Because it’s the only village to house a proper beach by modern standards, you can expect more of a crowd. Additionally, it’s also the most accessible by car. Beyond the beach and the famous lemon trees sprinkled throughout town, the village is separated in two: the old village and the modern village, or Fegina. Within the old village, you’ll find echoes of the past as they jut out of the ground all around you—the ancient fortress, the shell of Fieschi Castle, the Church of Saint John the Baptist and the Capuchin Monastery. Within Fegina, you’ll find a seafront promenade tracing the length of the beach, as well as the Parco Letterario Eugenio Montale, the park honoring the words and life of acclaimed poet Eugenio Montale. You’ll also want to make sure to admire the hulking beachside statue of Neptune—known colloquially as “The Giant.” But between the shops, restaurants and pristine beach, it’s entirely up to you when you visit these attractions. While in Monterosso al Mare, you absolutely need to savor a sampling of the anchovies, which are caught local and served fresh off the boat—it’ll make an anchovies-lover out of the firmest skeptic.
Options for Getting Around
While each town provides a slew of sights to see, delicacies and treats to savor, and memories to make, there is the other half of this endeavor to consider: the travel. Driving is precarious—the narrow roads and many tour buses can be stressful, and parking options in each town ranges from expensive to non-existent. Luckily, other options are far more charming. Charter a boat, hike the trails or ride the coastal train that threads through the towns with gorgeous views the entire way. Or, mix and match to enjoy the best of all worlds. Here’s a breakdown of the different ways to navigate through Cinque Terre.
The Sentiero Azzurro is known as “The Blue Trail” and marked as No. 2 on all the maps of the area. A mule path from the twelfth century, it’s seven and a half miles long in total, and divided into four sections between each of the towns—allowing for you to opt which stretches you’d like to walk, and which you’d rather spend riding the train. Through and through, you can expect much of the pathway to be narrow and precipitous, but offer jaw-dropping views of coast.
The one section of the Sentiero Azzurro you absolutely cannot pass up is the Via dell’ Amore, or “Lover’s Lane.” Covering the span between Riomaggiore and Manarola, this famous stretch of stroll is known the world over for a sense of romanticism rarely replicated, even within Cinque Terre. Legend has it that the trail was originally a footpath between the two towns where lovers would often meet to steal away hours together. A paved (and level) walking path today, the aura of romance is still present—thanks in part to the sweeping picturesque views of sleepy vineyards, jutting cliffs and twinkling cerulean sea.
The Sentiero Rosso is known as “The Red Trail” and marked as No. 1 on all of the maps. Roughly three times the length of the Blue Trail, it takes between 9 to 12 hours to complete. It’s length arguably makes it “the road less traveled,” and as such you’ll find less crowds on it. Just under 22 miles long, this ridge-top route is mostly flat and tree-covered, making it a smoother trek compared to the Blue Trail. Add in the shortcuts scattered throughout, as well as the multitude of welcoming bars and restaurants lining the trail along the way, and this day-long trek is far less daunting than you’d expect.
Cinque Terre Express – If your trip to Cinque Terre is more centered on leisure than discovery, fear not: there’s an easier way to get from town to town than hiking. The Cinque Terre Express is the train that runs right along the coast and through the five towns, allowing you to rest your feet while still enjoying the stunning landscape between villages. With the cost of a ride being a reasonable €4, it’s incredibly easy to pick and choose where you’d like to hike, and when you’d rather sit down.
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