Note: This post has been updated for the 2016 season.
I love showing people the Cinque Terre for the first time.
I’m lucky enough to do that on my group trips to the Cinque Terre , and I dig seeing their faces when they arrive.
I’ve spent a ton of time in the area as a resident, a tour guide and a traveler. Whenever someone asks me, “What should I do in the Cinque Terre?” my eyes light up and I start listing off all my favorite things.
Since I get asked a lot of questions about what to do in the Cinque Terre, I decided to post this free itinerary for you to steal. Use it to plan your trip.
My DIY Cinque Terre itinerary is for four days and three nights and you can see it below.
Don’t make this #1 Cinque Terre planning mistake.
Some people think the Cinque Terre is just one place — but that’s a mistake.
First, understand that the word is used to describe an area of land, not one place.
Don’t waste your time trying to find train schedules for the “Cinque Terre.”
Don’t get confused trying to book a hotel in the “Cinque Terre.”
Know that there are five main villages that make up the zone — so before you plan your stay you’ve gotta figure out which of the five villages you want to stay in.
There are also other villages surrounding the Cinque Terre, like Levanto and Portovenere, which are not technically part of the “five lands” but are still wonderful options for a home base.
If you’re looking at the map, the Cinque Terre is located just north of the Tuscan border and takes about three hours to get to on the train from either Florence (to the south) or Milan (to the north). If you’re flying into Italy and will be visiting the Cinque Terre first, the best airports are Pisa (easiest), Genoa or Milan.
A note to hikers: Some people imagine the villages as spread over a vast area, but this isn’t true. If you want to hike between all the villages, there is really no reason to walk with all your belongings to each of the villages and change hotels, pilgrimage style. That’s a pain in the ass. I recommend just doing day hikes between the villages (you could hike them all in one big day), and leaving your gear at your hotel.
One last thing: The Cinque Terre is actually a national park, a protected waterway and a Unesco World Heritage site. Most vehicle traffic is restricted inside the villages. This explains why the area is preserved so well and has a way of transporting you to a simpler time… a time before neon McDonald’s signs and other eyesores of modern life.
Step One: Pick a village.
The first thing you gotta do to plan your Cinque Terre stay is to choose one of the villages as your home base.
Don’t get overly caught up in which village to stay in — they are all wonderful, and I’ll explain them better below.
As I mentioned before, all the villages are close. Like really close. It takes between three and twenty-five minutes by train to travel between them. There are also walking trails that connect them. See my Hiking Cinque Terre Trail Tips.
The five Cinque Terre villages from south to north:
Riomaggiore has one main street, a harbor, a rocky beach, a castle, a church, a pharmacy, and a dozen restaurants. It also has good train connections and is the closest to the main city of La Spezia. I met my husband here a decade ago, and some of my best friends live here, so I’m completely biased when I say this: It’s my favorite village.
Heading north from Riomaggiore is the second village called Manarola. It’s also a one-street town, with a small harbor where you can swim. It has an incredible spit of land where the most famous Cinque Terre photos are taken from. It’s very similar to Riomaggiore, but has a more grown-up, chill vibe.
The baby of the family and smallest village is Corniglia. She’s a rebel. She’s built far above the ocean on the cliffs. To arrive in Corniglia you gotta hoof it up the 365 steps (one for each day of the year) to reach the center of town. If you have excessive luggage don’t stay here. But saying that, it’s where to go to get away from it all.
The beauty queen of the Cinque Terre is named Vernazza. This village is the most popular girl at school; everyone wants to hang out with her and be her friend. She’s incredibly photogenic. Vernazza is a one-street town with a church built on the water. She has a castle, the remains of the old wall that protected against pirates, a gorgeous waterfront piazza and a harbor with a spit of sand I would even call a beach. A bigger beach was carved out by the floods in 2011 too — one of the only positive things to come from that disaster.
The northernmost village is called Monterosso al Mare. She’s the biggest kid in the family, and has many streets and even (gasp) a few cars driving around there. Her landscape isn’t as vertical as her other sisters’ — you could spend the entire day not climbing hills and stairs here. Monterosso is made up of an old town, a new town, lots of sandy beaches, some larger hotels and a long seaside promenade suitable for strollers too. If you want to avoid stairs and have a more “resort” feel to your vacation, then you should stay here.
Step Two: How long are you staying?
The second thing you gotta do to plan your Cinque Terre stay is decide how long you’re staying.
I recommend two nights minimum. My itinerary below is for four days and three nights.
If you’re traveling in the winter or really short on time, read my article, Should I Go to the Cinque Terre?
If you’re just doing a day trip, read my article, One Day in Cinque Terre.
When I take people on my tours to the Cinque Terre, we stay for six nights. And no one ever wants to leave.
Step Three: Choose where to sleep.
The fanciest hotels are in Monterosso. A great option in the region is taking advantage of the many private apartments for rent. There are also B&Bs and hostels. You can rent an apartment for 60-120 euro a night. Truly, it’s amazing what you can get for 80 euros a night here, but book ahead. At the bottom of this article, you’ll see my recommended accommodations.
Steal this: Your 3-night, 4-day itinerary for the Cinque Terre.
- This is designed for sunny weather. If you’re traveling in the cold season, read my article, Should I Go to the Cinque Terre?
- It’s based out of the village of Riomaggiore.
- The best way to travel between the five villages is with the train; traveling between each station takes mere minutes.
- You can’t see it all and do it all in three nights. I’ve given you my favorite highlights, something that I would tell a friend to do. If you’re like me, and like to relax and soak up the environment, then you’ll dig this itinerary. If you like to be active then add my optional extras (listed at the bottom) to your stay.
Arrival Day. Check in to your hotel. Maybe you’ve had a big travel day, so go stare at the ocean and drink a glass of local wine at:
- A Pie’ de Ma’ (Via dell’Amore, Riomaggiore — take the stairs at the train station, and you’ll find it after a 3-minute walk.)
This is my favorite drink spot in the whole world and a visit here is a mandatory part of your Cinque Terre experience. My recommended tipple is either local white wine, prosecco or the specialty from this area called sciacchetrà, a fortified wine made from dry grapes from the hillsides you’re surrounded by.
After that I would cruise down to the marina. Gather at the agave plant and watch the sunset over the harbor. Then head back up to the main street for dinner at:
- Il Grottino (Via Colombo, Riomaggiore, the second restaurant on your right).
You’ll love the beautiful stone interior and the Ligurian comfort food it serves.
Rise and shine because it’s a beautiful day and you have nothing to do except enjoy it. Head down to the village and catch the morning action. Drink a coffee on the main (and only!) street. Then head to the beach in Riomaggiore for a morning swim.
- To find Riomaggiore’s beach, go down to the marina (take the steps you’ll find on the left at the bottom of Via Colombo). When you reach the marina take the stairs to the left all the way around past the ferry dock. Just past there, you’ll find a beach. The beach is rocky, not sandy. At first, the rocks look uncomfortable, but you can arrange them to create a nice little nest. I love that beach ’cause it’s mellow. If you need pure relaxation, just spend the day there. But but if you want to be active, hike up to the Santuario di Montenero. It’s about three hours round-trip. Directions are in my Hiking Cinque Terre Trails post.
- Another swimming spot is in the next village over. Take the train to Manarola and head down to the harbor. You can cliff jump, or just join the Italians who set up camp on the boat launch. If you keep walking north along the walking path jutting out to the point, you’ll be rewarded with village views fit for a postcard. There’s also a playground if you’re traveling with children. And a killer cocktail spot, called Nessun Dorma. (If you’re traveling with children you’ll definitely need a cocktail right about now.)
For dinner, I recommend staying in Manarola and eating at Da Billy. Bring your walking legs cause it’s up the hill, but the reward is a great view. They serve seafood.
- Restaurant: Da Billy, Via Aldo Rollandi 122, Manarola Phone: +39 0187 920628
Another Manarola option is on the main drag, with no stairs.
- Trattoria il Porticciolo, Via Renato Birolli 92, Manaraola. Phone: +39 0187 920083
After dinner head down to the local hangout where they have live music most nights:
- Cantina dello Zio Bramante, Via Renato Birolli 110, Manarola. Phone: +39 0187 920442
Train home. The walking path called Via dell’Amore is still closed as of now (current as of May, 2016) and is unlikely to re-open for the next couple of years.
If you haven’t heard, the Cinque Terre is famous for its walking paths. Hiking the Cinque Terre trails is a wonderful thing to do, and there are trails weaving all over the region. Some are paid trails (a day pass costs 7.50), and some are not.
My favorite trails are: Riomaggiore to Portovenere (free but long) and Monterosso to Levanto (free). My other faves are Monterosso to Vernazza and Vernazza to Corniglia, but you’ll need a trail pass for these. They are both suited to beginners and lazy hikers, though promise me you’ll not wear flip flops on the trail. As the signs also say, don’t wear high heels. Glad they pointed that out.
If you just want a taste of the trails, I would suggest the section from Monterosso to Vernazza.
You can train it from Riomaggiore to Monterosso, visit the village of Monterosso, and then hike the trail to the next village of Vernazza. In Monterosso you can swim at the beach and visit the old and new parts of town. Bring a backpack and water for your hike. Live like a local and grab a piece of focaccia for lunch — try my favorite, focaccia di recco. Try the farinata too (it’s gluten-free).
Spend your hike afterglow in the village of Vernazza. It’s another one-street town, and it’s pretty interesting as it’s been under extensive repairs after a landslide and flood in 2011. It’s a lovely place to spend the afternoon.
For dinner, eat at my favorite seaside restaurant in all of the villages. You’ll find it down at the marina. If they have a spot on the lower balcony, take it. If not, there’s a higher one too. If the sea is rough you’ll be cooled off with sea spray.
- Ristorante Belforte, Via G. Guidoni, Vernazza. (Follow these very Italian directions: Go to where the boats are tied up, and you’ll spot the stairs on the left.) Phone: +39 0187 812222
Parting is such sweet sorrow.
If you’re traveling today, a great idea is to buy your train ticket the day before. That way, when you show up to the train, it won’t matter if there’s a long line-up at the ticket office, you won’t miss it! Be sure to validate your ticket by inserting it into one of the machines on the platform on your day of travel, or you could risk a fine.
If your travels take you north, to Milan, Turin , Genoa or into France, then you should get off the train at Bonassola. It has an amazing beach and is an adorable town. I love spending an entire afternoon here; you can rent a beach umbrella and beach chair and love summer like the rest of the Italians. It is the most underrated town of the area and worth a visit.
Options and extras:
If you have more time to spend in the Cinque Terre my other suggestions are:
- Go to the market in La Spezia, on Fridays (cheapo clothes and shoes).
- Go to the market at Forte Dei Marmi on Wednesdays (designer discount clothes).
- Go to the market in Levanto, on Wednesdays (food and clothes).
- Day trip to Portovenere on the ferry.
- Day trip to Sestri Levante on the train.
- Drive to Lerici and Tellaro (if you have a car).
- Day trip to Bonassola on the train.
My accommodation recommendations.
In Riomaggiore, you can stay at a lovely sea-view property with incredible views from your own private patio at Christina and Alessandro’s place, I Limoni di Thule. If you’d like more of a traditional hotel that serves breakfast, then stay with Carla and family at Cinque Terre Residences. If you’d like to rent an apartment, contact Amy at Riomaggiore Reservations.
How I can help you go to the Cinque Terre.
- You can join one of my group trips. It’s a week of heaven with zero stress and I plan the whole shebang. Click here to read more.
- Check out Gigi Guides, my new digital guidebook. It’s chock-full of insider recommendations for the Cinque Terre, as well as for Venice, Rome and Florence. (More cities coming soon too!)
- Ask me a question in the comments below and I’ll help you out.
Feel free to steal* this itinerary, share it with your friends, re-post it to your blog or print it out.
* Steal my itinerary for your own personal use. If you want to reprint this itinerary on your blog, awesome, but please link to this original. Grazie
Do you have a question or comment about the Cinque Terre? What is your favorite thing to do here?
Leave a comment below.
Baci + beaches,
images by Leela Cyd