When I first came to the Cinque Terre fifteen years ago, it was the kind of place that you could show up to without a reservation. You found out about it by word of mouth, usually from another backpacker.
“Chin-kweh. Trust me, you have to go.”
You were as likely then to end up chatting on the stone steps down at the marina with a new Italian friend, drinking some home-brewed vino out of plastic cups, than you were another traveler. Everyone who came here felt like they were stumbling into a little pocket of undisturbed Italian realness.
Things have changed since then. A lot. The Cinque Terre are written up in the most popular travel mags and zillions of travelers have shared their “this place is amazing” thoughts online.
The result? More people on the streets. Especially in the high season, which typically runs from Easter all the way to the end of October. Try to show up now without a reservation and there’s a good chance you’ll be stuck without a place to sleep.
Planning to travel to the Cinque Terre in 2020?
As Cinque Terre experts, we want to distill what modern travelers need to know now.
Ta-da! Here are 10 things to know before you go.
1. Embrace the high.
No, not an illegal one. We’re talkin’ high-season travel.
Look, Italy is just a hectic, bustling place during the spring and summer months. This is when most people travel here, and the packed trains, restaurants, sights and streets are part of the high-season atmosphere. It is what it is, so why get yo’ panties in a twist about it? Soak up that Euro-energy. Ignite the fun, playful and carefree part of yourself (remember when you were 10?) instead of grumbling about it. You’re in Italy! Life is good, so don’t sweat the shizzle you can’t control (like line-ups).
Very boring acronym for a very important point — don’t do day trips.
When you travel all the way to the Cinque Terre expecting to cover it in a few hours, you’ll def leave wondering why you ever thought that might be a good idea. Not only will you end up just being swept along the main routes with other daytrippers, ticking the villages off your list and checking your watch the whole time, you’ll have to deal with congested trains too. Those trains can be lame if you aren’t with someone who knows how to deal with them (check out tip #6, below). And because of the way the Cinque Terre villages are laid out, you need to invest time into finding the nooks and crannies that make this place so magical. And so that you can take advantage of the best times of the day — early morning and evening.
We always recommend staying in one of the villages for at least two or three nights. On our Cinque Terre tour, we stay for 7 nights. (And that’s still not enough time! Even I haven’t done everything there is to see and do in the region, 15 years later.)
If you’re not sure where to start, consider joining us on one (or more!) of our day tours — our guides will give you a great lay of the land and have you feeling like a local in no time.
3. The Cinque Terre is a perfect base.
Hunker down for 4-10 nights, and explore this beautiful coast while you’re at it.
Do you know you’re just a few hours from the French border and much less than that to Tuscany? And there are some perfectly precious little towns along the Ligurian Riviera that are only a very short train ride from the Cinque Terre. Camogli, Portofino, Chiavari, Framura, Lerici, Sestri Levante, Levanto, and Bonassola are just a few great places within an hour of Monterosso — close enough to venture out early and be back “home” by dinnertime in your Cinque Terre nest.
4. Don’t be a drag queen.
Meaning — get off the main drag.
Some of our team live in the Cinque Terre year-round, but never really feel overwhelmed by the visitors in their towns every summer. Why? They spend very little time on the main drag, which is the most congested area. And that’s a lot easier to do than you might expect. Most of the people who get off the train or ferry head straight to either the main street or the water and end up milling around in those two places. But there are gorgeous views and wide open spaces elsewhere in town that are practically empty most of the time.
In Riomaggiore, walk up Via Telemaco Signorini, the back street that winds up from the train station, instead of taking the tunnel to Via Colombo. Have a gelato at Old School, watch the kids play soccer by the big church, and double back and up towards the castle at the top of town. Or wander up Via di Loca (a street that juts off of Colombo back towards the sea just up the hill past Vertical Bar) towards the playground. I’m telling you, no one goes up here, and it’s seriously gorgeous!
In Manarola, instead of walking down towards the sea when you come out of the tunnel from the train station, walk all the way up to the top of town and get lost in the little residential laneways there.
When you get off the train in Vernazza, exit the station and walk down the hill about 10 steps. You’ll see a narrow street on the right-hand side. That carugio leads to a dirt path that takes you to a postcard-worthy view overlooking the church, village and boats in the harbor, completely avoiding the main-drag congestion. After blowing up your phone with new pics, take the steps down to the beach and the main piazza and you can check out the shops on your way back to the train station.
Corniglia gets the least amount of traffic since it’s the most inconvenient to get to. The bus (find the stop just outside the train station) will take you up the hill to the village. Or walk up the famous Corniglia steps — 10 minutes and you’ll be in one of the cutest little towns you ever laid eyes on.
Monterosso is bigger but if you’re there in the high season and want to get away from it all, you can take a page out of our tour guide Gina’s book (a Monterosso resident for over ten years) if you want some real alone time. She rents a paddle board from Samba (on the “Fegina” side of town) and floats way out into the bay to just lie there, enjoying the scenery and the silence. She says it’s like being on her own little private island.
5. Tattoo 10 and 4 on your wrist.
Your new “10/4” body ink will come in handy, as it’ll remind you NOT to plan lots of Cinque Terre train travel or main-street adventuring during that window.
This is when most people have sauntered out of their hotels and are in exploration mode — mostly on the main streets, by the water, and on the main hiking trail, the Sentiero Azzurro. Get up early and hit the trails, streets or trains in the morning, when there are very few other people on them. (Here are some tips for hiking the Cinque Terre trails.) Head to the beach in the late afternoon — in July and August, it’s still hot here until the sun sets.
Some ideas for alternative middle-of-the-day activities:
- Book a lingering lunch at an out-of-the-fray restaurant like Da Billy in Manarola, or at Ripa del Sole or Fuori Rotta in Riomaggiore. (We have a complete list of our favorite Cinque Terre eats in our guidebook, Gigi Guides.)
- Better yet, grab some bread, cheese, prosciutto, olives and a bottle of wine from one of the little grocery stores and have a picnic in one of these out-of-the-way spots:
- the cross overlooking the sea behind the castle in Riomaggiore
- the playground above Nessun Dorma in Manarola
- one of the santuari (sanctuaries) — each of the villages has a santuario, a secluded church perched in the hills above town, and each of them has jaw-dropping views. Again, very few people venture up here!
- Take a little trip out to surrounding towns like Portofino (via train) or Portovenere (via ferry). And make sure you walk up to the lighthouse in Portofino instead of getting stuck just wandering around the harbor.
- Spend the day on the beach in Bonassola.
- Do a major hike, but not the most popular one (called the Sentiero Azzurro or Blue Trail). Hit the trail from Riomaggiore to Portovenere (hard) or Monterosso to Levanto (less hard), or try an easier walk like the one through the abandoned train tunnels between Levanto and Bonassola. Here’re are some tips for hiking the Cinque Terre trails.
- Go to the market in Forte dei Marmi or Levanto.
The guests on our Cinque Terre tours for women love having this kind of insider access to the area. With a local guide who plans everything and knows where all the good stuff is, they get to just take it all in. No overthinking!
6. Get Cinque Terre train tutored.
Here’s a lesson in Cinque Terre train travel — you’ll need to know this if you’re catching a train during midday busyness. Move to the far ends of the train platforms, or into the tunnels themselves.
There isn’t a whole lot you can do when the platforms are truly packed, but most visitors don’t think to spread themselves out to the ends, or know that you can even wait right inside the tunnels themselves in certain towns. In Riomaggiore, for example, the platform actually extends into the tunnel on the northern end (pictured above). Waiting in here, instead of out in the heat with everyone else, can make a world of difference.
7. Get the Cinque Terre Card, or for long stays, a monthly train pass.
The Cinque Terre Card allows you unlimited access to the Sentiero Azzurro (the most popular hiking trail) as well as unlimited train travel, bus travel and WiFi at National Park hotspots for the period covered. Even if you aren’t planning to hike at all, it can be worth it just for the train travel PLUS the headaches you save not having to stand in line at the ticket counter every single time you want to take the train. If you consider that each train ride between the villages costs 4 euro and the Train Card costs 16 euro, you might save yourself some dough (and stress) if you plan on using the train a lot in a given day.
Another little-known option for people planning longer stays is to purchase a monthly train pass, which costs 33.50 euro for unlimited travel between Riomaggiore and Monterosso during any calendar month. That means that if you plan to take the train while you’re here more than 8 times, this pass is worth it. Just be aware that the pass is valid per calendar month, NOT for any 30-day period, so if your holiday straddles two calendar months, make sure to do some fancy math before you buy.
8. Avoid the Italian holiday weekends.
Holiday weekends in Italy are when the rest of the country comes to the coast. That means that not only are there lots of foreign tourists in the Cinque Terre at these times of the year, but all the Italian holidayers are here as well. If you can plan your trip for the weekdays instead of the weekends altogether, even better.
Holidays to keep your eyeballs peeled for and avoid, if possible:
April 25th — Italian Liberation Day
May 1st — Labor Day
June 2nd — Republic Day
August 15th — Ferragosto
Speaking of August — the entire week following August 15th is a good time to avoid the Cinque Terre if you can manage it, actually. Most Italians take their weeklong or two-week holidays at exactly the same time this month. Traveling to Italy this season? Make the most of the busiest times of the entire year with expert advice in Gigi Guides (our DIY online guide, packed with in-the-know advice).
9. Don’t drive in the Cinque Terre.
It’s not that you can’t drive — each of the towns has a parking area. But these areas are very small, and during the high season especially, you can find yourself frustrated or out of luck trying to find a spot. Also, once you arrive, a car is useless to you. The roads connecting the villages are winding and vomit inducing, and take much, much longer than the train takes, which speeds right through tunnels carved out of the hillside. If you are traveling with a car through Italy, a good idea is to leave it in one of the parking lots in La Spezia or in Levanto and take the train in, or book a hotel or apartment that includes parking.
10. Travel with a Cinque Terre local — someone who does all the work and knows the best spots.
Not to toot our own horns (ok, we will a little), but if you want to make the most of the Cinque Terre, give yourself the gift of coming on an Italian Fix tour. All the connections we’ve gained over years living, working and traveling in the Cinque Terre, are now yours. We know this place inside and out, so all you need to do is enjoy. It’s our signature trip for women and our most popular. We’ve announced our 2019 dates (yay!), so make sure you check here for the latest updates.
Are you interested in travelling to the Cinque Terre with us, but for a shorter period of time?
(We’ve also got tours in Florence)
We’d love to see you in Italy!
And if you can’t travel with us, the next best thing is Gigi Guides. It’s a DIY solution — all our expert advice, itineraries and suggestions packed into one online guide.
Please comment! What are your Cinque Terre travel plans — when are you traveling and what’s the thing you’re most looking forward to? We want to hear!
Image Credit: Caroline White for Italian Fix