If you follow me on Instagram, or elsewhere in this blog, you may have read my griping about the crowds in the Cinque Terre. Well, it’s true: we visited in the third week of September and it felt like all the world had the same idea, especially when we rode the train to commute between villages. But does this mean that if I were to re-do the itinerary for our first visit to Italy, I would scratch the Cinque Terre from our list of places to visit? Not for a nanosecond! I’d still go, but I would use every recommended strategy to avoid the crowds.
The Cinque Terre (literally, the five lands) are impossibly beautiful little coastal villages on the Ligurian Coast of Italy. Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare…their very names spell romance.
Colorful little houses tumble down steep hillsides to the azure of the Ligurian Sea below. Neat fields are cut into the emerald green hills above, where locals grow olives and grapes. The result? Picture postcards so perfect that you have to pinch yourself to make sure the scenes before you are real. Corniglia alone, of these five villages, is not on the water but instead perched high in the hills above the water.
The whole area — the coastline, the five villages, and the surrounding lands, make up the Cinque Terre National Park, and it is designated a UNESCO world heritage site.
Exploring the Cinque Terre
Our first stop was Riomaggiore. Because we explored it early in the day, the streets were less crowded and we had a wonderful time wandering around, admiring the colorful houses and browsing the little shops lining the main street, which is in the upper agricultural section of the village.
The lower fishing section of Riomaggiore can be accessed from the main street via an underpass, but we visited this part on our second day, when we came to the Cinque Terre by boat ferry instead of the train.
Monterosso is the only Cinque Terre that boasts an official beach. The new and old parts of the village are connected by a tunnel. The walk up to the monastery on top of the San Cristoforo hill was quiet and peaceful, and we had gorgeous views of the coastline.
The Church of San Giovanni Battista in the center of the old town is beautiful, its facade striped in white marble and green serpentine.
Corniglia is the smallest of the Cinque Terre. It was much less crowded than the rest when we visited. From here you have wonderful views of the water and the other villages.
Vernazza is arguably the most photo-worthy village in this region of photo-worthy villages. It tends to get very crowded during the day, so try and visit either early in the morning or late in the day. The main street leads to the Piazza Marconi, where there is a tiny beach and a harbor. From the top of the round tower of the Doria Castle, you get wonderful views of the village and the harbor.
My memories of Vernazza are color and chaos everywhere! There were boats piled up on the side of the main street and little cafes were spilling over with visitors.
Manarola is a close second to Vernazza in terms of beauty. It is the second smallest in size and is probably the oldest of the Cinque Terre. We accessed Manarola from the water, on the second day of our visit.
Must-Try Regional Foods…and Wine!
In Riomaggiore, my husband got an order of fritto misto di mare…fried bite-sized assorted seafood. You select the types you want from the displays in the little friggitoria (fish shop), and the assortment is deep fried and served to you in a paper cone, hot and crisp. When my husband and I reminisce about our trip to Italy, he never fails to mention that this seafood was so good he’d go back to Riomaggiore just to enjoy those delectable morsels again!
This is the region where Genovese pesto originated. We had the pesto every chance we got, and it was delicious every time. We enjoyed it in the trofie pasta of this region, spread lavishly on top of a foccacia, and on its own with just a little crusty bread and olive oil. The flavor, the texture, the aroma…yum!
In Monterosso al Mare, we tried farinata, a chickpea pancake, infused with rosemary. It was fresh from the oven and tasted delicious and moist.
We aren’t big wine drinkers but in Vernazza we had a taste of sciacchetrà, the local sweet dessert wine. It was delicious! We learned that sciacchetrà is made from the choicest grapes, grown in vineyards nearest to the sea, and in very small batches. The entire grape growing process in the Cinque Terre happens by hand, because the vineyards are narrow and located in the steep hills.
Our gelato artigianale break in the Cinque Terre was at Alberto Gelateria in Corniglia, which offers flavors that include local products. I had one scoop of the local basil and one of the local honey, and both were superb. My husband had the Nutella. He pronounced it decadence at its tastiest best and went back for seconds.
Hiking between the villages is a popular activity in the Cinque Terre. The area suffered a lot of damage from floods a few years ago, and parts of the trail network have been closed for an extended period. Obtain information on what’s open before you set out on your hike. The Sentiero Azzuro (Blue Trail) is the most popular, and for that reason, also the most crowded. If you enjoy solitude when hiking, search out some lesser known trails that offer equally stunning views. We didn’t hike in the Cinque Terre during our visit except for the climb to Corniglia, because we did our walking in less crowded places on the Ligurian Coast.
Getting In and Around
The village centers are closed to automobiles. If you have a car, you would have to park it in designated parking lots in Riomaggiore, Manarola or Monterosso al Mare, or further away in La Spezia or in Levanto. The train is the most convenient option for getting in, from either La Spezia or Levanto.
To travel between the villages, you can hike the trails that connect them, take the train that runs between La Spezia and Levanto and connects the Cinque Terre through a chain of tunnels (you can buy an all-day pass), or use the boat ferry for all the villages except Corniglia. The boat ferry runs from the end of March to the beginning of November, weather permitting, and you can buy a day ticket for the ferry as well.
We stayed in Lerici, a coastal village on the Bay of Poets a short distance from the Cinque Terre, and arrived by train from La Spezia on the first day. To get to Corniglia, we climbed up the 350+ brick steps from the train station to the village center. There is a bus that goes up to Corniglia from the train station, and you can also walk up the paved road to the village. On the second day, we toured Portovenere and then arrived in the Cinque Terre on the boat ferry.
Beating the Crowds
Be warned: everything you’ve read about the Cinque Terre being mobbed by visitors, millions of them, is true, and then some. We visited in the third week of September, technically shoulder season, but it was still way too crowded.
If you are visiting for only a couple of days, like we did, the options for beating the crowds are not extensive. I would suggest planning your visit for the outermost fringes of times with acceptable weather, so mid to late April or late September to early October. Be aware though that at these times, the water may be too cold for swimming.
Plan to do a lot of your exploring of the congested areas (the main streets and harbor/beach areas) earlier or later in the day and spend the interim time exploring some of the narrow side streets (which also tend to be shaded) or hiking on trails that are less frequented.
Explore hiking trails other than the Sentiero Azzuro, which tends to be the one everyone does.
Try not to use the train during the day (between 10 am and 4 pm). We found the trains and train stations the worst in terms of crowds. At one point, when we had just boarded at Verazza, I felt I was going to faint from the closeness of people in the carriage. Walk or use the boat ferry. You can also rent your own boat with captain! I only discovered this after our visit, but this would be a wonderful way to commute between the villages, even if somewhat more expensive than the train or ferry.
Avoid weekends (especially long weekends) and holidays.
We stayed in the nearby town of Lerici so that we could get a taste of more laid back parts of the Ligurian Coast while visiting the Cinque Terre. The very early mornings and evenings in lovely Lerici helped us recover from the chaos and crowds at the Cinque Terre, while still enjoying their beauty and vibrance. Read about our visit to Lerici and Portovenere here.
We had a wonderful time exploring the Ligurian Coast of Italy and its pretty coastal villages, in between our visit to Venice and our stay in Florence. This is a beautiful region to experience on your first visit to Italy, especially as an interlude between two great centers of art, architecture and history. I hope you include it in your itinerary!
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