As many other destinations in Italy that used to be hidden gems, Cinque Terre today is facing the ugly side of its own success: overtourism. These charming fishermen villages are absolutely worth a trip, but we need to be responsible travelers, and think about the well-being of the National Park and its inhabitants while planning our visit. Here you’ll find advice on how to do so, and on the best way to see these “five land” (a hint: hiking in Cinque Terre and taking a boat back was my choice to explore them, and I completely recommend it!)
You know how great it feels to find a hidden gem, a little unknown place that’s amazing and not touristy? Well, this was Cinque Terre about a decade ago. Today it definitely has been discovered. They went from unknown fishermen villages to a worldwide famous UNESCO Heritage Site. So much that nowadays is one of the Italian destinations suffering from overtourism.
So, what’s this place everybody seems to want to see?
Cinque Terre, as the name states in Italian, are ‘five lands’ –5 small, charming villages in the Italian Liguria region: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare.
They’re one of the most picturesque places you can visit. A mix of nature, beaches, architecture, and great food and wine turned them into a must.
When I added “hike through the Cinque Terre” to my travel experience bucket list it was still on the ‘to be discovered’ category, and I visited during autumn, so I managed to avoid the crowds. Now it’s almost impossible to have the place to yourself, but I’ll give you some tips on how to make the experience the best it can be, both for you and for the conservation of the place.
Cinque Terre (pronounced chin-kwe ter-re, with a rolling ‘r’) is a collection of small towns on the Ligurian coast that are part of the 3860-hectare Cinque Terre National Park. It’s inhabited by about 4,000 people. These tiny towns are jam-packed with colorful houses hanging in cliffs, cute picturesque little churches, deep blue water coasts, and all is surrounded by vines. It’s a photographer’s dream!
From north to south the five lands are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.
The busiest one is Monterosso, which is seen as the resort town of Cinque Terre. It has the biggest (and fanciest) hotels, the longest sandy beach, and (way) more nightlife than the other villages. It’s also the easiest one to access by car, which makes it even more touristy.
Corniglia, on the other hand, it’s the hardest one to reach, and the least visited one. It sits atop a 100m (328ft) high rock, and doesn’t have direct access to the sea. If you visit it by train, from the station you’ll need to go through 377 steep steps.
Surrounded by vineyards, Manarola is best known for its sweet wine: Sciacchetrà. You’ll see fishermen’s boats as you go up the main street, which are a welcome reminder of the origin of the villages, and a nice contrast to the pastel-painted buildings.
Little cafés dot the cobblestone streetsin Vernazza, which seem to be designed to get lost (I say this in the most positive way!). This lively village is set on dramatic cliffs, with a defense tower still atop, the only reminder of the medieval castle that dominated the town.
The postcard of Cinque Terre is Riomaggiore. The vibrant houses descend a small hill towards the sea, painting the little harbor with bright colors. This is the biggest of the villages, and home to a perfect sea-front bar, Piè de Mà, where –I must confess– I had wine and olives for breakfast, while enjoying the thrilling view, and recharging energy to hike.
How to get to Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre is located three hours from Florence, and only one and a half from Genoa, to the south of renowned Portofino.
From Florence, take a train to Riomaggiore, the southernmost of the villages. You’ll need to change trains at La Spezia, but the whole journey will take about 3 hours. If you’re starting from Pisa the route is the same, but you’ll get to Cinque Terre in about an hour and a half; and in around 2 hours if you start from Livorno.
From Genoa, take a train to Monterosso, the northernmost of the villages. There’re plenty of direct trains that will complete the journey in about an hour and a half. If you’re starting from Portofino the route is the same, but the trip will only be around 45 minutes.
There are buses that serve the same routes, but there’s no point. The trains are slightly cheaper, and much more environmentally friendly.
As distances are short, and Italy is very well connected via railway, you can also reach Cinque Terre from other destinations, such as Rome and Milan. Actually, it can be visited even from France.
Hiking in Cinque Terre
There are over 100 km of hiking trails in Cinque Terre, that will take you through vineyards, forests, olive groves, beaches, and, of course, picturesque villages.
Pro tip: Due to the constant risk of landslides, before attempting any hike, check the official National Park site for the latest info about the trails.
If you’ve read or heard anything about hiking in Cinque Terre, I’m sure it has been about the Sentiero Azzurro (the blue trail). It’s the most popular hike, connecting all five villages. But there’s two big issues with it. First, that it’s too well known, so it becomes crowded. Second, and more important, is that a landslide occurred after a flooding in 2011, closing parts of the path, including the most popular one –Via dell’Amore (the road of love)– the section linking Riomaggiore and Manarola. Nowadays couples eager to walk it must settle with putting a padlock on the gate.
If you want to hike through the open parts of Sentiero Azzurro you need a hiking pass. The day pass costs 7.50€, and 14.50€ for two days. If you’re also planning on taking the train around the villages, you might want to consider the Cinque Terre Train Card (16€ one day/ 29€ two days), which gives you access to the hiking trail and works as a train pass too. The great thing about it is that the revenues from the card go to trail maintenance and into projects to support local farmers.
Other (much better) hikes
If you want to get a better vibe of the place, and a path that allows you to trek without elbowing other hikers, forget the Blue Trail.
The itinerary of the sanctuaries and churches connects Monterosso and Riomaggiore. It’s 24.6 km (15.3 mi), with a difference in height of 468 m (1535 ft). It’s labeled ‘for expert hikers’, and it’s supposed to be finish in about 7 hours. You can break it in parts, though: from Monterosso it goes straight uphill to a couple of sanctuaries before it descends to Vernazza. If this part felt comfortable, then next day you can continue with the longest stretch to Riomaggiore.
This trail offers amazing views of the villages from above, and a walk across vineyards, olive groves, forests and lovely churches.
An easier option (although also labeled ‘for expert hikers’) is the itinerary of the terraced vineyards (vigneti terrazzati). It links Riomaggiore and Corniglia in about 3 and a half hours. The path’s length is 8.3 km (5.2 mi), with an altitude gain of 75 meters. This is the old “road” connecting the two villages, used before the train was built, and before Via dell’Amore was opened. It offers a beautiful panoramic view of the deep blue coast while slowly climbing through cultivated terraces and Mediterranean scrub.
A quick detour will lead you to the co-operative winery “Cooperativa Agricoltura 5 Terre” where you can have a refreshing wine tasting. Nothing beats the combination of hike and wine, right?
Hiking tips for Cinque Terre
This should go without saying, but please do not wear flip flops! Some parts of the trails are quite easy, but most of them are true hiking paths, so the proper footwear is essential.
You can either hike between the towns and stay at the one you arrive, or find a base and go back and forward. You can also combine parts of different paths. Get a map anyways, to be on the safe side. The paths are well signaled, but it’s easy to mix them up and end up in a different place than intended.
If you’re not sure about your fitness level, then secure a base in one of the villages, and try hiking only with a daypack. When you reach the destination, take the train back to your accommodation. That should take some pressure off.
Don’t forget to take water with you, even in colder months. You’ll be able to refill –and to get snacks– when you reach the next village, but in between there’s no chance. If it’s sunny, also remember to pack sunscreen.
If you don’t want to hike (Cinque Terre by train or boat)
The villages are connected by a regional train, so you can visit them all via railway. You can either get individual tickets (from 1.90€), or get the Cinque Terre Train Card (16€ one day/ 29€ two days).
Another alternative is to visit them by boat. Actually, I hiked from Riomaggiore to Monterosso, and took a boat back. This was a great decision, because it gave me a completely different perspective on Cinque Terre. The uphill countryside, the villages themselves, and the seaside vistas are very distinct experiences!
The boats operate from late March to early November, and the tickets can be purchase only on site, the same day. They start in La Spezia and go to Levanto, stopping in Portovenere, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza and Monterosso, and back the same route, but you can purchase only the section you need. Going from the first to the last is super scenic, since you’ll be approaching all the other villages too (only with the exception of Corniglia).
Cinque Terre sustainable travel tips
Here are the top 5 things you can do to be a sustainable traveler in Cinque Terre.
Travel off season
You’ll read this advice at the top of every other sustainable tourism guide I write. And I can’t stress it strongly enough. I visited in autumn, and still I saw a lot of people in the train and in the towns. I haven’t seen it personally during summer, but what I’ve read and heard is that it’s unbearable. I’d go as far as to say that if you can only go during July or August, it’d be better to find a different destination.
Autumn and spring are great for hiking, since the temperatures are much better for the outdoors than in summer. Also, think harvest season in September. If you’re into wine (and who isn’t?), it’s a great opportunity to get a closer look into the production.
Even winter can be magical. You can be lucky and get sunny days, or spend a few rainy days contemplating the sea while sipping wine and eating local delicacies. Could be much worse, don’t you think? Some commerce might be closed (same goes for some restaurants and hotels), but there’s still plenty open to cover your needs.
Don’t take a tour from Florence
Already busloads of people arrive from the cruise ships that stop in La Spezia, rush through the villages and leave, without spending a dime that helps the local economy. If you join an organized trip from another big tourism hub, you’ll be no better.
Getting to the villages, and going from one to the other, is easy to manage, so don’t be afraid to do it independently. If you want a tour guide to learn more about the place, hire a local. Any of these excursions will give you a different perspective on the place, and a fun memory away from the crowds:
Regardless of which village you choose, I recommend staying for at least one night. Not only to have more time to go around these lovely lands, but because in the evening, even during the crowded summer, things calm down and you can see the real character of the place. Cafés and restaurant workers go crazy between people asking for a photo or for the wifi password, so the service, obviously, suffers. In the evenings, on the other hand, you’ll get a much better sense of Italian hospitality.
Spending a few days will also give you the chance to explore Cinque Terre without rushing, allowing you to feel the vibe that put these villages on the tourist’s map –that is long gone for the day trippers. Find accommodation here:
Eat and drink local products
I don’t’ need to tell you this. Just walk around any of the villages and try to resist the tantalizing smell of pasta al pesto. Choose locally own restaurants and bakeries to support the local economy, or get locally grown products if you’re cooking yourself (here’s a recipe for delicious Genovese pesto to inspire you). Don’t forget to also try olive oil, figs and aromatic herbs (like basil, rosemary, thyme and marjoram).
Cinque Terre specialties also include the ubiquitous focaccia, a staple food in Liguria; and farinata, a pancake made with chickpea flour, to which you can add toppings. If you have a sweet tooth, try pandolce, a typical fruit cake.
There’re also drinks to taste. The fragrant lemon groves you’ll see around are responsible for the local liqueur: limoncino. And the vines, of course, produce wine.
Cinque Terre is a small DOC white wine region (denominazione di origine controllata –the equivalent to French appellation d’origine contrôlée). The most popular wine is sciachetrà, a dessert sweet wine. There’re also dry, aromatic whites made from the varieties Bosco, Albarola and Vermentino that are well worth a taste.
Keep your trash (and pick up the one you find)
One of the most heartbreaking things I often witness in hiking trails is the garbage that’s left behind by people that, I’m sure, have no soul. Make sure you keep your own trash with you until you reach a village, and –if you can– also carry a bag to collect some of the trash you see on the paths.
It’s a shame that hikers have to concern themselves with this, but considering that other hikers left garbage on the paths, it’s a small service to put our names in a better light. Also, at least for me, it’s quite fulfilling to leave a place better than how I found it.
Do you have any other hiking or sustainable travel tips to make a better trip to Cinque Terre? Let me know in the comments!
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