The more we travel, the more we realize how much we enjoy spending a few days of our vacation in a harder-to-reach, more secluded location. In addition to enjoying the destination itself, there is some added satisfaction knowing we had to work to get there, and that we’re enjoying a place that many tourists never make time for or get to see. While it’s a short train ride from Pisa, and also reachable from Turin or Nice, the small, authentic fishing villages that make up Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera are comparatively difficult to reach. There aren’t places you can just drive up to, park, and take a look, but they are worth the effort.
We flew into Nice specifically so we could make a short stop in Eze for lunch. We love exploring medieval towns, and we are always looking for a memorable viewpoint. Eze does not disappoint, as its narrow passageways are movie-set ready and the expansive, panoramic views of the Mediterranean are as postcard as it gets. It’s seriously spectacular.
After a mediocre pizza we set-off on the 3-hour drive from Eze to Levanto, the town immediately to the north of the northern most of the five cliff-hugging towns that make up Cinque Terre. The drive was incredible, with a very well-maintained but winding road that traced the coastline while periodically ducking through tunnels and working its way through a few enticing waterfront towns. I wish I remembered it better, but it was about 5-6am Texas time and since I didn’t sleep on the flight, I was fading…fast. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been that exhausted, even stopping a few times to walk around and buying some snacks to munch on in hopes of keeping myself awake. It was brutal, but we arrived safely at our hotel just up the hill from Levanto around 3pm.
We stayed at the Costa di Faraggiana, which is a five-star, boutique, farm property with wonderful amenities, renovated rooms with a French country feel, and peaceful views of the Italian countryside. We stayed in the Marina room, which we highly recommend due to the private balcony and view. From the hotel, it’s only a 5 minute drive to the Levanto train station, which has plenty of parking, and trains depart about every 15-20 minutes into Monterosso al Mare, the northernmost of the Cinque Terre villages.
Monterosso al Mare is also the largest of the towns, and is the only one with a true, expansive beach area – two in fact. The beach on the north side of town is larger with lots of seating for those wanting to relax with a drink while soaking up the atmosphere. The beach on the southern side also has a nice central street that runs perpendicular to the water, full of restaurant options and, of course, tourist shops and cafés.
One of our favorite activities when we travel is to take day hikes. We rarely embark on anything longer than a few hours, but we love being invigorated by the scenery and ideally our course winds up at a memorable final viewpoint as a payoff for our effort. Cinque Terre has hiking paths between all the towns, with the most famous one being between Riomaggiore and Manarola, nicknamed “The Way of Love”, or “Via del Amore”. Unfortunately, at least we thought at the time, this path was closed due to recent floods. So, we opted for the Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza path, which was actually ranked higher on TripAdvisor.
Hiking between these towns is one of, if not the most, popular and well-reviewed things to do in the area. The emphasis here is on the word “hike”, as this is not a “walk”. Just a few steps past the edge of Monterosso al Mare the stairs begin, and then it’s straight up for as far as the eye can see.
The effort is quickly rewarded though, as the newly gained higher perch affords unobstructed panoramic views of the stunning coastline and the picturesque beach at Monterosso al Mare. After the initial climb, the at times narrow trail continues to wind its way through the trees, over bridges, and around staircase wineries, with plenty of stopping points to either catch your breath, soak in the scenery, or both.
Eventually, the path begins to slant slightly in the downhill direction and as if unveiled during a magic show you will come around a bend and see the first glimpse of Vernazza. It’s hard to describe, the tiny colorful homes clinging to the side of the cliffs with the dramatic, Medieval tower front and center, all engulfed in ocean, mountains and sky as you look down from high above. It really is a bucket list view.
In contrast to Monterosso al Mare, where the town sits back away from the crescent shaped beaches, Vernazza stacks homes almost inconceivably onto a tiny peninsula that juts out into the ocean. Right up against the water is a small town square of sorts, with one side composed of a boat dock, one side mountain and rock, one side with a few shops, restaurants and cafés, and then a very small beach that doubles as a loading space for the local fishing boats. While Cinque Terre has certainly enjoyed a large influx of tourist dollars and increased popularity over the past few years, probably due in no small part to its exceptional Instagram appeal, this area is still a very active fishing community. The small, mostly bright blue boats are lined along the docks and tied together and left right in the center of town.
Another thing you’ll notice about Cinque Terre is the color of the sunset, almost a yellow hue. I would’ve guessed we just got lucky during the two days we were there, but I’ve seen many other pictures of Cinque Terre online with similar lighting. If you want the absolutely perfect vantage point to enjoy a memorable sunset in Cinque Terre, I highly recommend Bar “La Torre” in Vernazza. While neither the food nor the service received bad reviews, we chose not to have dinner here as there were other, higher rated restaurants we wanted to try. However, all you need to do is see the picture to understand why it’s worth the hike from central Vernazza up to “La Torre” for a glass of wine during sunset.
While our hike from Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza was spectacular, and will no doubt be presented again when I finish my blog entry of top day hikes in Europe, we didn’t have the time nor the energy to hike to the rest of the villages. Fortunately, there is an amazing, cheap, and fast train service that connects the towns. The trains run frequently and it’s literally only 4-5 minutes to hop from one town to the next – very convenient. As we were visiting in October, we had little to no tourist crowd, which was nice, but it was too late in the year for us to take the boat service. Depending on when you visit, look up the boat schedule as well as I’m sure the views as you sail along the cliffs to the next village are amazing.
Working from north to south, the next village we had to explore was Corniglia. Corniglia is unique among the five villages because it’s the only one that doesn’t have direct ocean access, as it’s built up high on a cliff. As a result, it requires yet more stairs in order to reach…lots…and lots…of stairs. Maybe it’s having to climb all the stairs just to reach it, maybe it’s the size of Corniglia (it’s the smallest village), or maybe we were still high after our hike, but we found Corniglia to be the most authentic, least crowded and, to us, by far the most romantic and atmospheric of all the villages. There is a tiny town square with a slightly disturbing statue we tried to ignore, and if you walk through the entire town you’re met by a viewing platform with an exceptional look onward to Manarola. Again, it was early October, but we had the entire viewing platform and the entire square to ourselves, and we saw only a few other tourists during our time in Corniglia. It was charming, relaxing, picturesque and just all-around lovely.
Manarola has a cute main street with a nice viewing platform about halfway between the train station and the waterfront. There are more boats lining the streets than shops or restaurants, but as you reach the end of the street there are a few nice restaurants with ocean views. However, for us, we stopped at Manarola for one reason…for the picture looking back at the village from the northern viewpoint. This is one of the two main pictures of Cinque Terre you see when you Google Image search or as the cover shot on travel review sites about this area of Italy. This is one of those images that, no matter how spectacular it looks on your computer or phone, is far more mesmerizing and amazing in person. You have to see it. Simply walk through the town and follow the path to the right when you get to the water. There are benches so you can sit and soak in the view, but please don’t leave without walking around the bend and then up the staircase. In addition to finding olive trees and even more postcard views from all directions, you’ll find Nessun Dorma, which is a perfect lunch spot or place to enjoy a wonderful charcuterie plate with some local wine.
Speaking of wine, despite being so close to Tuscany and despite many restaurants and shops having plenty of Tuscan options, I highly encourage you to drink even more locally. Look up while in any town in Cinque Terre, except for Corniglia, and you’ll see the impossibly steep, terraced wine fields where locals produce very small quantities of local wine. While you might expect some similarities given the close geographical proximity of each town, the wine and even the food vary greatly from town to town. Most of the wines are light and dry, perfect for sipping while enjoying the views and sunshine. You’ll also find Sciacchetra, which is sweet and dates back hundreds of years. While sardines aren’t my favorite, they are known to be exceptional throughout Cinque Terre. However, I recommend one of their other specialties…pesto. Be sure to have pesto for at least one meal while you’re visiting!
One other food recommendation before moving on to the final town in our journey: Cannoli. There is a restaurant in Vernazza named Il Pirata delle 5 Terre. While it doesn’t have a view, and it’s a bit of a walk from the main, touristy area in Vernazza, it’s worth a visit simply for the cannoli. We enjoyed our entire dinner here, with wonderful eggplant parmesan, a fresh seafood plate in local olive oil, and lemoncello like you can only find in Italy, but the owners of Il Pirata are Sicilian, and they are a multi-generational family of Sicilian bakers, which should be all you need to know. We didn’t have a reservation, but they were nice enough to seat us outside, and the passion of our waiter about their cannoli was contagious. Seriously, it was contagious, to the point that we ended up stopping a family of 5 people walking by and buying them cannoli so they could try them and share in our amazement.
The final of the five villages is the one that probably is the most famous, at least from a photographic perspective. In addition to the picture of Manarola mentioned earlier, the picture looking back toward the tiny town square in Riomaggiore is how most travelers are introduced to Cinque Terre. While it is an excellent picture, it certainly wasn’t one of our top five or maybe even top ten photo moments of our time in Cinque Terre. We had a nice lunch at Dau Cila, but the food was secondary to the location. Dau Cila has a terrace with about a dozen tables in what feels like a valley with the colorful homes raising on each side, all overlooking the boat ramp just steps from the Mediterranean.
For us, the highlights of the trip were, of course, the hike, the quaintness and serenity of Corniglia, the view looking back at Manarola, the passion and corresponding cannoli at Il Pirata, the sunset view of Vernazza, trying the local wines that we knew we’d never find anywhere in the states, and the authentic, lived in aesthetics of each town’s main avenue. Like siblings growing up in the same house, the five villages of Cinque Terre all have some similarities but are each largely unique and even competitive in a number of areas. Each are worth visiting and can be seen in a couple of hours, or you could easily spend a relaxing day soaking in the views and enjoying some of that always exceptional Italian food, wine and hospitality.
Summary of recommendations:
– Vernazza: Cannoli at Il Pirata della Terre: Go!Go!Go!
– Hike between Monterosso al Mare and Vernazza
– Vernazza: Bar “La Torre” for a drink during sunset
– Hotel Agriturismo Costa di Faraggiana – Maria Room
– Manarola: Nessun Dorma
– Vernazza: Gelateria Il Porticciolo:
– Town square and lookout point in Corniglia
– Lookout point up the stairs in Manarola
(C) All pictures and content by Abram Gordon, all rights reserved.