Less expensive than Capri, less high-profile than the Amalfi Coast, the Cinque Terre is my absolute favourite Italian coastal getaway.
Think boxy houses in pastel shades, stacked haphazardly up the hillside among the stepped grape wines. Cinque Terre is more than a visual treat, it’s the perfect place to kick back, whether you’re in the middle of an epic backpacking adventure but need a little R&R, or taking a stand-alone holiday to escape the monotony of work.
I spent just over a week here while backpacking around Europe, and it was undoubtedly the highlight of the trip. The (100) scenery, the fresh seafood, the snorkelling, oh man, I could’ve spent 6 months here.
Getting to Cinque Terre
If you want to get down to logistics, the Cinque Terre region is made up of five villages, hence the name, meaning “the Five Lands”. You can catch a train from La Spezia, in northern Italy, and it’s about a 15 minute ride to the west. The villages themselves are a couple minutes apart by train, or you can catch a boat, hike the cliffside trails, or paddle board between them, whatever takes your fancy.
Where to stay in Cinque Terre
There are a number of super cheap hostels and budget hotels in (200) La Spezia, but if you’re a fan of getting away from the touristy crowds, there’s a few hostels and family-run B&Bs in the villages themselves. One of my favourite things about the week spent here was when most of the tourists disappeared in the late afternoon.
We wandered around the tiny, deserted cobblestoned alleyways, chatted to the locals, and got to explore much more than we would’ve if we’d stayed in the city. Plus you get to see some spectacular sunsets out over the water.
What to eat in Cinque Terre
Seafood is the flavour of choice. Wine and dine on fresh mussels and scallops (300) in Monterosso, or find the hole-in-the-wall joint in Manarola that sells lightly battered lemony squid served in paper cones. You can’t really go wrong. Of course the Italian staples of pizza and pasta are available, but they’ll probably come with prawns or anchovies. The region is also famous for some pretty spectacular dessert wine, it is sweet and fruity and quite delicious.
If you’re on a budget, I recommend getting a picnic together. On our last night in Cinque Terre, we went to a couple of places in town, picking up some fresh crusty bread, some cheese, (400) olives, grapes, and a bottle of wine. We then headed up some stairs that went up to the stepped vineyards, and managed to find a spot up on the headland with a perfect view of the ocean. We talked and ate and watched the sun set on the water. That was in our “home village” of Manarola, but all five towns are a little bit different.
The northern-most town is Monterosso. It’s the largest, the most touristy, and where the most nightlife is. As an Australian, I’ll admit that the beach here was a tad disappointing. Idenitical lounge chairs (500) and umbrellas lined up along the beach in parallel rows is a long way from the crowded chaos back home at Bondi beach. On top of that, you have to pay a few euros to even get onto the widest section of sand. However, we did have a blast hiring stand-up paddleboards and paddling out beyond the gentle waves to get a fantastic view of the village.
We were surprised in Vernazza when it turned out there was a local festival on. A basil festival, of all things. We would walk around the streets and come across tiny pots of sweet basil outside most houses. It’s also got the largest and most popular beach, but if you head to the right of the main square and go through the tunnel you can find the secret beach. It’s got rocks instead of sand, but it’s a lot less busy.
Why do all my tips seem to be about escaping the crowds, you ask? I’m actually not sure, I think there’s something about Cinque Terre that makes you want to believe you’re the only one there.
The decidedly bratty middle child of the five, Corniglia holds onto its less-than-favourable identifier thanks to the torturous set of stairs that lead from the railway station to the town. (600) 33 flights, 382 steps. It’s a trek and a half, and to be honest there’s not a lot to see along the stairs, except the occasional artist peddling their wares. I bought a couple of lovely original watercolour landscapes off an ancient old woman about 200 steps up. Corniglia is the only one of the villages that doesn’t have its own bay, and because it’s much higher than the others it’s a little cooler than the others, which is nice in the summer months when the temperatures reach the early 30 degrees (celcius).
It seems the stairs can be both a (700) curse and a blessing. Sure, it’s a bit of a walk, but because of that its a lot less touristy, and that combined with a tiny population of approximately 240 people, you can wander for hours relatively unbothered.
Ahhh, Manarola, my home away from home. This was the village in which we holed up for a week, sleeping late, getting to know the locals, and having pizza-and-wine parties on the sunny deck of the hostel (Ostello Cinque Terre, for those who are curious). Judging by how quickly a week passed, you could easily spend months here, meandering through (800) the narrow alleyways, and heading down to the bay in the afternoon for a swim after the clear water has been warmed by the sun.
Thanks to my insatiable sweet tooth, we ended up befriending the women who run the gelataria. Talk about making friends in high places. Since they make their gelato fresh each morning, we would walk in and simply ask what flavours were good that day. We got exposed to pine nut gelato (surprisingly amazing), as well as the best pistachio I’ve ever had. They also gave us invaluable advice on hiring snorkelling gear, and good (900) restaurants to check out.
I’ll admit that I didn’t go to Riomaggiore on this trip, but it’s been on my bucket list ever since I got back. Home to some of the best wine out of all the villages, it just seems like my kind of place, you know? It’s the southern-most town of the chain, and the origin of most of the walking tracks. If hiking is your cup of tea, I’d recommend the blue trail, which hugs the coast and connects all five of the villages. It’s not too hard and you get incredible panoramic views.