Cinque Terre comprises five seaside villages, each with its 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 color that each village offers. Cinque Terre is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Vernazza ♥♥♥ provides the best balance of character and accessibility among all villages. Both train and ferry stop in the center of the village without too much walking up/down the steps to get to/from. 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. The beach at the lagoon is small, with boat and canoe rentals. A bigger beach, undeveloped and pebbled, is accessed through the passage – marked “dangerous” – under a rock off the 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) make for the perfect time.
For some people, Monterosso al Mare ♥ represents the best base in Cinque Terre on account of being the only village with a properly developed – and extensive – beach. It is also significantly larger than other villages, with a number of walkable – as opposed to climbable – 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 Monterosso. Step into the ornate St John Baptist church and the unusual death-themed Oratorio della Confraternita dei Neri.
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. One possible point of interest is the Church of San Pietro on the upper level of the main town square.
Manarola ♥♥ is the smallest of the five hamlets, sitting by a tiny lagoon with big rocks that double as a beach. A small piazza overlooking the lagoon acts as the village’s focal point. There is a church probably worth a look.
The second largest of the five villages, Riomaggiore ♥ has a tiny closed-off marina where people swim, with dramatic and very colorful 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.
The mountain walking path of the Cinque Terre Trail ♥♥♥ is not easy for indifferent athletes, at times very steep and uneven, but a lot of fun. Use comfortable walking shoes – if not outright the hiking variety – bring plenty of water, pace yourself, and try to avoid the midday sun (although there are shaded portions). 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 individual segments 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.
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 an 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 the Church of San Pietro ♥ and the Church of San Lorenzo. There is also a castle. 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.
In addition to Portovenere, the islands of Palmaria, Tino, and Tinetto are as well included on the WH property.
This relatively large La Spezia is a gateway to the Cinque Terre area and offers little by itself in comparison.
In season, it is practically impossible to use a car in and around Cinque Terre. Leave your car in La Spezia and take the train to get to the villages. Trains run a few times a day, and some do not stop at every village, so plan carefully if you use them for transportation between villages. Pick a schedule at any station office.
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 as well as in English, but it is not always decipherable and can only be heard when you are near the speakers. In the afternoon, the ferries usually become overcrowded. They also can be canceled 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 it in the intraday itinerary, given the scarcity of return options.
Portovenere cannot be reached by train, only by ferry from Cinque Terre villages or by bus from La Spezia.
In the “memorable stays” category, Maria Capellini’s “charming room” (link) is a small apartment on the ground level at the edge of the main square and the lagoon that was our base in Vernazza. All necessary amenities were present except the Wi-Fi and a ceiling fan instead of A/C (which was entirely sufficient). The kitchen was stocked with only tea and coffee since breakfast was not included. The location is fantastic, if a bit noisy, both from passersby 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, so 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 the night’s rest. Maria’s husband Giacomo met us at the train station on arrival and walked us to the apartment while giving us a bit of a tour. Maria treated us to homemade limoncello on the evening prior to our departure.
As far as eating out is concerned, we had meals at eateries in every village, all enjoyable enough without being superb. The several adjoining restaurants on Piazza Guglielmo Marconi in Vernazza all give you a similar dining experience highly enhanced by people-watching.