For your first visit you need no less than two full days to explore all villages. If you want to walk all of the major trails and spend enough time around Portovenere, add at least one more. This does not include “beach time”.
Worthy destinations: Vernazza; Monterosso al Mare; Corniglia; Manarola; Riomaggiore; Portovenere.
Left for another visit: Islands of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto.
Last visit: July 2014.Cinque Terre comprises five seaside villages, each with their own features. For nearly a millennium, the only way to reach each of the hamlets was by sea, and the remote ruggedness remains part of the character of the region, in addition to its natural beauty and the infusion of culture and colour that each village provides.
Vernazza provides the best balance of character and accessibility of all villages. Both train and ferry stop in the centre of the village without too much walking up/down the steps to get to/from.
And it maintains its quaintness. A dozen restaurants and bars, half a dozen gelaterias, several food stores, and a few other stores line the main street. The street ends at a fairly spacious main piazza, which is also home to Santa Margherita di Antiochia, and has the lagoon as one of its sides.
Beach at the lagoon is small, with boat and canoe rentals. Bigger beach, undeveloped and pebbled, is accessed through the passage – marked “dangerous” – under a rock off main street.
Just as almost everywhere on Cinque Terre, there are no overwhelming points of interest in Vernazza. The village and its atmosphere is all the attraction one needs. In the evening, a dinner at the piazza, a stroll on the pier, and an open-air concert (on weekend nights) makes for perfect time.
Places to Eat
All places last visited in summer of 2014 and are located on the waterfront main waterfront Piazza Marconi.
Taverna del Capitano ♥♥. Reasonable service and the food was quite good. Huge bowl of minestrone and nice bruschette miste (pesto, tomato, courgette) for appetizers. For mains, we tried excellent grilled fish and very good frittura mista di pesce. Panna cotta was not as good as elsewhere in Italy, but it is not a Ligurian dessert anyway. Our damage: €74 for two with mezzo-litro of house wine.
Gianni Franzi ♥♥. The most centrally located of all of the eateries on the piazza, and therefore the ideal people-watching spot. Nice service. Good charcuterie and octopus salad for appetizers. Excellent tagliatelli neri as well as the local specialty, baked anchovies (called acciughe del forno at this restaurant). Lots of good desserts, including baccoleto, which is similar to Tuscan vin santo and biscotti, only the cake is soft. Our damage: €84 for two with a bottle of house wine.
Gambero Rosso ♥. Good service, good food, but maybe we got too used to the same type of food after a few days, so were not overly impressed. Zuppa di pesce was not actually a soup but rather a stew of seafood; not bad, but expensive, priced for two people. Grilled mixed fish was also pretty good. Verdure all griglia was delicious, and the chocolate cake for dessert got high marks, plus a serviceable panna cotta. Our damage: €117 for two with a bottle of wine (inflated because we in effect had 3 main dishes).
A small apartment on the ground level, Maria Capellini’s “charming room” ♥♥♥ (website) is at the edge of the main square and the lagoon. All necessary amenities were present except wi-fi, and a ceiling fan instead of A/C (which was entirely sufficient). Kitchen is stocked with only tea and coffee, since breakfast is not included. The location is fantastic; a beautiful view, and very convenient for dinner and night strolling. A bit noisy, both from passerby and from the local bell tower (at 7 in the morning, the bells ring quite extensively). But although sleeping with the windows open lets the noise in, it also provides the soothing background sound of waves in the lagoon. Privacy may be an issue for some, keeping the curtain closed while inside may be necessary. In the early morning, lounging in a chair outside the window gave us a mesmerizing spectacle of the village walking up from night’s rest.
The owner, Giacomo, met us at the train station on arrival and walked us to the apartment while giving us a bit of a tour. His wife, Maria, offered us their homemade limoncello on the evening prior to our departure. Last stay: 2014.
Monterosso al Mare
For some people, Monterosso represents the best base in Cinque Terre on account of being the only village with a proper developed – and extensive – beach. It is also significantly larger than other villages, with a number of walkable – as opposed to climable – streets, a couple of sizable squares with monuments and even playgrounds, plus more extensive shopping and dining opportunities. There are also more people because of that, which gives the village a decidedly “popular resort” vibe.
There are several minor points of interest in the village. We stepped into ornate St John Baptist church and the unusual death-themed Oratorio della Confraternita dei Neri.
Places to Eat
Restaurant Ciak ♥ sits at the nexus of human traffic in the center of Monterosso. There could be a suspicion of a tourist trap with such location, but our experience was largely positive. We had two fantastic spaghetti dishes: Ciak (with clams and mussels) and bolognese. Each of the portions was probably enough for two people, but we almost finished them nevertheless. Quite tasty verdure alla griglia on the side. Our damage: €40 for two people for lunch.
Corniglia is constrained in space on the top of the mountain, with no easy access to the water and a long staircase leading down to the train station. This is a big disadvantage but also adds a certain extra charm. Central streets are narrow and cute, but nothing especially impressive. One possible point of interest is Church of San Pietro on the upper level of the main town square, but contrary to our custom, we did not step inside.
Places to Eat
A refreshment break hardly provides basis for a proper review or recommendation, but nonetheless. We stopped for a while Cafe Matteo on the main town square. Working wi-fi and a few drinks was all we needed, and we also had a good lemon with pinenuts cake, accompanied by friendly service.
The smallest of the five hamlets, with a tiny lagoon with big rocks doubling as a beach. A small piazza overlooking the lagoon acts as the village focal point. There is a church probably worth a look in, but little else of stand-out interest in Manarola.
The second largest of the five villages, Riomaggiore has a very colorful tiny closed off marina where people swim, with dramatic walls of houses converging over it. There is practically nothing that could be termed a waterfront piazza. But the town spreads out as you walk up its main drag, with plenty of shops and eateries. There are a couple of churches and a castle, but not anything that might pass for a significant point of interest.
Places to Eat
We had lunch at La Lanterna, entered from the landing of the staircase going up from the marina. The choice was made because other places were closing for mid-day siesta, but this eatery expressly advertizes that it does not close. Not a bad meal on balance, although a bit on the expensive side for lunch, with a strong suspicion of preponderance of reheated offerings on the menu. Service only ok. What we ordered, tomato salad, tagliatelli ai funghi porcini, and spaghetti alla acciughe was at the very minimum satisfactory. Our damage: €47 for two with half-bottle of wine.
Cinque Terre Trail
The mountain walking path is not easy, at times very steep and uneven, but a lot of fun ♥♥♥. Use comfortable walking – if not outright hiking – shoes, bring plenty of water, pace yourself, try to avoid midday sun (although there are shaded intervals). When on the trail, do not trust distance markers, they seem to indicate “as the bird flies” and are insanely wrong.
The four legs of the trail connect all five villages, but portions may be closed after heavy rains. The southernmost (and shortest) leg between Manarola and Riomaggiore is the most famous and supposedly the most romantic, dubbed “The Alley of Love”; it was unfortunately not accessible when we visited. We walked two other legs: Vernazza to Corniglia takes ~90 minutes, Monterosso to Vernazza ~2 hrs. The latter leg is more interesting, with better views and a number of waterfalls to break the landscape. Tickets can be bought for a single day, but also for multiple days; multi-day savings are not huge. People in indifferent physical shape should probably limit themselves to one leg.
Although not part of Cinque Terre proper, Portovenere shares the same World Heritage designation with the five villages. It is a slightly bigger town with extended waterfront. The quay is lined with cafès, and people use the rocks as the beach along the way. There are several sights, among them the complex of Church of San Pietro ♥ and Church of San Lorenzo. There is also a castle that we did not go to. A few panoramic views are utterly breathtaking.
The main pedestrian street is very atmospheric with lots of shops. Try a snack of acciughe (anchovies) at one of the cafès. Pleasant looking side streets are accessed by stairs.
Our familiarity with La Spezia is limited to the driving route to and from its train station. This relatively large town is a gateway to Cinque Terre area and offers little by itself in comparison.
Car parking and transportation
In season, it is practically impossible to use the car around the area. Leave your car in La Spezia, preferably at the train station, and take the train to get to the villages. If you decide to reserve your space in advance online, make sure that you carefully read and understand instructions on the parking reservation voucher. We ended up unable to figure out how to get a pre-paid entry ticket from the machine, and there are no human guards or cashiers around. If you do not reserve in advance and then keep your car in the lot for several days, paying for a “lost” ticket may be less than paying full multi-day price.
Trains between villages are not too frequent, running once an hour most of the time. Some of the trains are not stopping at all villages, be careful to know which train stops where. Pick a schedule at any station office.
Portovenere cannot be reached by train, only by ferry from Cinque Terre villages or by bus from La Spezia.
Ferries go between all villages except Corniglia several times a day, but not with significant frequency. The ride includes guided commentary at some points, in Italian and in English, but it is not always decipherable and cannot be heard from everywhere on boat. In the afternoon, the ferries usually become overcrowded. They also can be cancelled altogether if the weather turns inclement. The ticket between Cinque Terre and Portovenere also includes a separate island tour, but I find it hard to include in the intraday itinerary, given the scarcity of return options.