Cinque Terre boasts one of the most beautiful, postcard perfect vistas in the whole of Italy. With their tiny coloured houses perched surreptitiously along the cliffs that overlook the Mediterranean, the five fishing villages of the Cinque Terre are well worth a visit for anyone who find themselves passing through the northern regions of Italy.
The villages are quite accessible, though it’s best to arrive by train. From the south, they are situated only an hour from Pisa. While it is possible to make a day trip from further a field (Florence for example), the five communities really do deserve a full day in order to explore all their secrets. It’s not surprising then, that it’s best if you don’t lose too much time commuting.
If you are up for it, there are also walks and hiking trails that link the villages together. These vary in difficulty from stroll-like to those that are akin to climbing Mt Everest (slight exaggeration, but after an hour into the walk it sure feels like it!). While the views from above the villages looking down to the sea are spectacular, walking the tracks requires a little more preparation, and a good level of fitness.
On the other hand, if enjoying a nice cool gelato from a gelateria while listening to the waves lap along the seawall in one of the villages sounds equally enticing to you, by all means, go head, especially if you find yourself here in the heat of an Italian summer.
I visited Cinque Terre at the beginning of March, so the peak tourist season was well and truly still to come. That being said, there were still a lot of daytrippers visiting, and considering the size of the villages (tiny!), sometimes it did seem crowded at times.
I did a fair bit of research and planning before I arrived so that my day would be enjoyable as possible. Despite my best efforts, as always, there were a couple of things I wish I had known before visiting Cinque Terre. I’ve listed them here along with some general tips I found out while doing my research.
1. Visit each of the five villages
The five villages of Cinque Terre are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso (from south to north). Each is very small, and can easily be walked in an hour or so, including time for exploring and a coffee or gelato. Each village has its own unique atmosphere, sightseeing locations and, of course, excellent backgrounds for that new profile pic!
Apart from Corniglia, the train stations are located within each of the actual villages. After hoping off the train you are right there amongst it all within a couple of minutes. Corniglia is the only village located away from the edge of the sea; it’s on the top of the cliffs and requires a walk uphill from the train station. Speaking of train stations…
2. Purchase the Cinque Terre Train Card
The Cinque Terre train card allows you unlimited travel for the day between La Spezia and Sestri Levante, the two stations that fall on either side of Cinque Terre, with La Spezia being the southernmost station, and Sestri Levante the northernmost. There is a Trenitalia train that runs between these two stations and the five Cinque Terre stations. The card is well worth buying if you plan on visiting each of the five villages and walking any sections of the tracks (actually, it’s required if you plan on doing any of the hikes).
I paid 13€ and took the train seven or eight times throughout the day. It also saves you from having to remember to validate your ticket each time (if you forget and get caught, there are hefty fines!) and queuing at the limited number of ticket machines with hoards of other tourists doing exactly the same thing.
The train cards can be purchased at the Trenitalia windows/counters in La Spezia station. Every attendant I spoke to in Italy at train stations spoke English, so you should have no trouble explaining what you need.
If you are on a really tight budget and are happy to sacrifice visiting a couple of the villages, by all means buy individual tickets – it will be cheaper if you are only taking the train three of four times. However for a couple of euros extra, I think it’s well worth it for the convenience and peace of mind (and time savings if you are just about to miss the train!) Ah, yes, the train times…
3. Get yourself a train timetable and read the screens carefully
Despite the popularity of Cinque Terre, the trains are, for lack of a better word, inconvenient. The train that stops at all five villages basically runs once per hour, with the odd random train that stops only at particular stations. I found this out the hard way – I missed the train from Manarola to Monterosso (see #5), and the next train only stopped in Corniglia but not at Monterossa. Hello 30 minute wait at Corniglia train station…
As soon as you get off the train, check the screen for the arrival time of the next train and plan accordingly! You don’t want to miss the train and then have to occupy yourself for another hour if you’ve already spent an hour in the village. While there is no denying that they are beautiful, there are only so many photos you can take of each village. If you plan to see them all, you really do need to make the most of your time.
Timetables can be found from the Cinque Terre official website or buy searching the station names on the Trenitalia homepage. I’d still go by the time that appears on the screen at the station however, because there is no guarantee that the timetables online are 100% up-to-date (also no internet required!).
4. Riomaggiore and Manarola are a photographer’s dream
These two villages are the two most picturesque of the five, especially if you intend on taking photos from within the villages, rather than from a distance along the hiking trails. Riomaggiore (below, left) is v-shaped and offers excellent locations to take photos from one side of the village of the buildings and houses on the opposite side.
Manarola (above, right) has a walkway that passes out around the headland and from here you can take AMAZING photos looking back towards the village. If you google ‘Cinque Terre’, I guarantee you that the majority of photos that appear are of one of these two villages. The first photo in this article is the typical Cinque Terre postcard shot.
If you’ve been researching you may have read that Riomaggiore and Manarola are linked by an easy walking trail known as Via dell’Amore, or Lovers’ Lane. If so, the next tip is for you.
5. Via dell’Amore is closed
Yes that’s right. When I visited in March 2017, Via dell’Amore was closed due to damage (landslide!). This walk is meant to be the easiest of any in Cinque Terre, so much so that it’s more of a stroll along a footpath, rather than a hiking expedition.
During my research I didn’t read that the walk was closed, so I took myself to the beginning of the walk in Manarola (located to the right of the station as you alight) all ready for a nice picturesque walk back to Riomaggiore.
Being Italy, their public signage is a little, ah, lacking, and there was nothing beside the station to indicate that the walk was indeed shut. The Italians might make a mean coffee and a delicious pizza, but they really need to invest a little more time in improving their signage, but I digress…
I merrily made my way along the start of the path that passes up beside the station (good views!) and after about 10 minutes came to a locked gate telling me that I couldn’t go any further due to the zombie apocalypse (read: landslide) that had destroyed the walkway.
Take this into consideration when you plan your day as you’ll have to take the train to get between the two villages.
6. Arrive early
It goes without saying that the more time you have, the better. The other benefit is that the villages are relatively empty in comparison to the afternoon. I left Pisa around 8am and by the time I bought my Cinque Terre card and changed trains in La Spezia, I arrived in Manarola (the first village I visited) around 10am.
I made my way up the coast and stopped for lunch at a bar on the beach at Monterosso about 1pm. By the time I strolled around Monterosso and made my way back to Venazza at 3pm, I had to share the village with others. Earlier in the day I more or less had the whole of Manarola to myself.
7. The afternoon light in Cinque Terre makes for better photos
OK, so this point is entirely superficial and definitely fulfills that criteria of first-world-problems. At the time of year I went (March) the sun was in the sky behind all the villages in the morning. Since the streets are so small and the house cladded cliffs so high, it created some pretty intense lighting differences between the extremely bright sky and the excessively dark shadows of the buildings and cliffs (technical talk: under/overexposure). This could be partly because of the season (the angle of the sun will be higher in summer, therefore less shadows), but it’s also due to the orientation and positioning of the villages and the vantage points for taking photos.
If you’re going along with professional or semi-professional SLR cameras, you will definitely have less issues, but if you only have the (not so) humble iPhone or mobile phone camera, you’ll be facing some interesting lighting challenges. I heard many a tourist complaining that they looked like just a dark shadow against the blinding bright background in their photo.
I ended up going back to Manarola later in the afternoon to retake some photos because I knew the lighting would be better, and it was definitely a good decision. The afternoon sun lit up the colours of the houses and the ocean spectacularly, producing those travel brochure worthy photos. Vanity warning, my selfies were better too since the sun was now shining both on yours truly and the village from the same direction.
8. Bring snacks and water
Depending on your budget, you might find some of the bars and restaurants in the Cinque Terre villages a little expensive. It makes sense since they have a pretty small market and nearly everything (a part from maybe the locally produced wine, olives and seafood) has to be brought in from somewhere else.
I stocked up on some snacks and bottles of water at the train station in La Spezia, and despite the location, everything was reasonably priced.
Cinque Terre is one of those places that you visit in your life and will never forget again. The views of the villages before your eyes are really quite magical. I guarantee at all times you will feel like you’re walking through a Lonely Planet magazine.
No doubt on your own visit to Cinque Terre you’ll discover your own secrets in the streets and surrounding hills. It’s not a place that requires an awful lot of planning but keeping a few things in mind will definitely make your trip to these postcard perfect fishing villages all that more memorable.