Situated between Pisa and Genoa are five picture-perfect pastel-tinted villages on the edge of a mountain slope with the Mediterranean Sea lapping below: welcome to the “Cinque Terre”, aka “The Five Lands”!
The Cinque Terre are Italy’s answer to the French Riviera, without the high-rise buildings that is. Known for great walking, beautiful scenery and tasty food, the five villages are very well interconnected by train and walking paths, even if they could only reached by the outside world about one hundred years ago, when the railway line was built!
Most people walk to all of the villages in one day, but the slow traveller in me wanted to see beyond the villages. I decided to stay for a week, camping in nearby Levanto to truly experience a maximum of what this stunning area has to offer! Read on and discover the perfect Cinque Terre itinerary.
Cinque Terre itinerary
1/ Visit the 5 villages
No doubt you’re here to see the villages, so you might as well tick that of your list first.
The five villages that make up the Cinque Terre from north to south are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. All of them will compete for the title of “the prettiest one”, but they do all have a distinct feel to them. Monterosso is the biggest one, with some of the best beaches in the area. Vernazza is my favourite one, with the watchtower overlooking the village below. Corniglia can be reached by a flight of 382 steps and is situated on a steep promontory.
If you prefer walking amidst the local vineyards, then Manarola is the place to be and Riomaggiore is famous for its picturesque harbour and colourful houses.
You can visit all of them in one day by either using the local train, which gets very busy during high season, or by walking the trail that connects them: the Sentiero Azzurro aka The Blue Path. The trail has a total length of 12km/7.5 miles. It’s the most popular walking trail in the area, so again be prepared for crowds in summer (see below for best time to visit) Since the trail is often damaged by autumn rains and probably eroded by the thousands of walkers every year, you’ll need to buy the Cinque Terre Card which costs approximately 7.50 euro.
If you’re only planning on walking a short stretch, then opt for the “Via dell’Amore” (Lover’s path), which runs between Riomaggiore and Manarola over a distance of 2km /1.2 miles.
There are no real must sees in the villages, it’s all about soaking up the atmosphere, taking plenty of pictures of the charming streets and harbours and simply enjoying the Italian “dolce far niente”. You won’t find authentic Italy here, it’s too touristy for that, but it would be a real shame not to visit! It’s simply too stunning not to!
2/ Discover life before tourism
There’s no doubt that the Cinque Terre thrive on tourism nowadays, but not so long ago, the villages were mostly known for wine-making. The numerous vineyards, especially around Manarola, still bear witness to that time and walking through them, with the blue Mediterranean lapping below, is an experience not to be missed! Little details like the old wine press in Corniglia take you back to a time not that long gone…
3/ Go up the mountain trails
Don’t limit yourself to the Sentiero Azzurro, the walking trail that connects all five villages. Go higher up into the woods and you’ll have the area all to yourself! Be aware that these walks require a bit more fitness and there are fewer places to find water or other provisions. I attempted the walk from Manarola to Corniglia through the forested hills , but got horribly lost somewhere along the way. Hitching a ride to the nearest bus station I ended up in La Spezia, an overlooked hard-working port town. It is here that I tasted the best food of my whole stay: a delicious plate of “ravioli di spinaci burro e salvia” (that’s spinach ravioli with a sage-butter sauce to you and me) in a local restaurant next to the train station. An experience I would never have had if I would have rushed through the region and stayed on the well-trodden path…
4/ Take time for an aperitivo on the beach
Half an hour walk from Levanto, the nearby town I stayed in, is the village of Bonassola. Tourism is still very low key here and in September there’s plenty of space on the beach for everyone. I enjoyed numerous sunsets in one of the bars, enjoying the IItalian “aperitivo” habit, where you order a drink and get a range of snacks with it for free. Reading the local newspaper, do some writing, do some people-watching: life can be blissfully simple in the Cinque Terre!
5/ Enjoy the local food
I love camping -in sunny weather that is- and occasionally I like to cook my own food on a little stove, enjoying a glass of wine and some cheese and olives as a starter. There is a lot to be said about going to the local “alimentari”. You get a true feeling of the local products , you get new ideas for recipes at home and above all, you get to enjoy the gossip of the Italian housewives!
Whether you’re cooking yourself or not, there are a few dishes that you definitely have to try while in Liguria. The most famous and signature dish is “trofie al pesto“, pasta with basil pesto. You won’t need to look for it, it’ll find you everywhere! The pesto is made by hand by crushing pine nuts, basil, garlic, parmesan, pecorino and olive in a mortar and pestle.
A close second and very popular at lunch time is “focaccia“, a flat oven-baked bread, made with olive oil and deliciously sprinkled with sea salt and rosemary.
But my favourite one of all has to be the “pansoti in salsa di noci“: ravioli with a creamy walnut sauce. I haven’t seen it anywhere else in Italy, so every time I’m in Liguria I look out for it!
6/ Discover the hidden sanctuaries
Italy is considered as a pretty religious country and the Cinque Terre are no exception to that. Churches can be found on the main square of every single village, but more interesting are the sanctuaries you come across when venturing into the countryside. I was accompanied by a few fellow travellers at the Sanctuary of Nostra Signora di Soviore, but the rest was very much deserted. Paths number 3,6,7 and 8 are the best trails to follow for exploring the sanctuaries. Most of the them offer exceptional views over the surroundings!
Bonus: unlike the Sentiero Azzurro, these paths are FREE!
The Cinque Terre is a region to be enjoyed slowly! Don’t limit yourself to visiting the villages, as beautiful as they might be! Take time to immerse yourself in the area and go beyond the main trail. Only then can you appreciate everything the area has to offer!
Cinque Terre: practical information
How to get to the Cinque Terre?
The closest airport is Genoa. From Genoa train station, you can catch a train to the villages. (+/- 1h20min)
All villages are interlinked by train as well. As mentioned before, the platforms and trains can be extremely busy in summer! Train time tables can be found on Trenitalia.
When to visit the Cinque Terre?
The Cinque Terre are very, very busy in summer season, so this is not the time to visit if you are looking for peace and quiet! I went in September and the crowds were manageable. The train platforms were still pretty busy at times, but it was ok to walk through the villages without feeling like you were cattle behind herded through the streets.
April/May is a good season too to avoid the main crowds, though the weather and the sea won’t be as warm then.
Where to stay in the Cinque Terre?
As tempting as the villages are, I would vote against staying in them. Accommodation is very expensive and it might be nicer to escape the tourist madness for a while in the evening. I stayed in the nearby town of Levanto, from where all villages were easily accessible by a short train ride. By doing so, you’ll have at least the chance of meeting locals and/or eating in restaurants that aren’t only frequented by fellow-tourists.
Are the Cinque Terre too busy for you? Why not venture inland to discover some of the most beautiful villages of Liguria, with hardly a soul in sight!
Have you been to the Cinque Terre? Or a similar charming region? Looking forward to hearing your stories!