Cinque Terre, Italy – No Cars, No Stress, it’s Pure Peace

My first visit to Cinque Terre, Italy found me arriving in early June.  This proved to be a perfect time to visit.  I rode into town by train which is the most preferred of the two ways to access Cinque Terre.  The other method of access would be on foot and this approach, while bold, was less than appealing to me.  Actually you can (sometimes) drive into Monterosso or Riomaggiore, but must park your car there as the roads are typically closed.  That is if you can find a parking spot.  Do not chance it, take the train.  The train will work out nicely and the length of time you ride the train between any two of the five towns in Cinque Terre will range from 2 to 9 minutes – that’s pretty quick.  With the exception of a couple emergency vehicles, taxis and some local’s cars here and there there are no cars allowed in Cinque Terre as the entire region is tightly packed and there just isn’t room for it.  All of Cinque Terre is perched on the side of a mountain range that fall steeply into the Mediterranean Ocean offering breathtaking views and provides an amazing backdrop to any Italian Riviera visit.

Vernazza - the harbor is steps from the city center

Vernazza – the harbor is steps from the city center

This unique corner of the globe is really an area, not a specific town.  In fact, Cinque Terre, or The Cinque Terre is a series of five towns location on the Mediterranean coast of Italy just north of Pissa and south of the port city of Genoa.  It’s not overly modern and it certainly isn’t posh – but it is beautiful. The Cinque Terre is a rather simple place and to be honest, there isn’t that much to do there.  No cars, no clubs, no museums and no massive cathedrals.  But, if your idea of a great time is drinking Italian wine, sitting by the crashing water of the Mediterranean, wandering through old rock alleyways that wind through the towns on the side of the mountain and staying up late sitting at a quiet cafe overlooking all the amazing scenery the Italian Riviera has to offer, then this is your place.  Cinque Terre is a place of relaxation, a place to slow down and chill.

Vernazza - typical street scene

Vernazza – typical street scene

The Cinque Terre secret is out so you will definitely have crowds to deal with and that can be a little bit of a bother, but the crowds aren’t the same as you’ll find in Paris, Rome or even Munich.  These crowds tend to be European, they’re older and they tend to be sound asleep by 11:00PM.  If you’re like me and you enjoy spending the late evening listening to music in a small pub or cafe while you mingle with the locals and other 20-40 somethings then you’ll be right at home in Cinque Terre.

The five towns of The Cinque Terre are (from north to south):

  • Monterosso al Mare (Monterosso)
  • Vernazza
  • Corniglia
  • Manarola
  • Riomaggiore

Monterosso

This town has an amazing beach and is the largest of the five towns in Cinque Terre.  Not surprisingly, there is a younger crowd here and it is usually filled with Europeans and young people from all over the world who are living in Italy for work.  It’s a very cool town, easy going and you’re guaranteed to run into some fun people here.  You’ll have plenty to do and the nightlife here is better than any of the other towns in Cinque Terre.  If you’re single and looking or just traveling with a young crowd of friends, this should be your Cinque Terre town of choice.

Corniglia - on the hiking trail

Corniglia – on the hiking trail from Vernazza

Vernazza

My personal favorite, Vernazza has a pretty bustling crowd during the day but it quiets down a lot at sundown.  The train drops you off right in the heart of town, a very short walk to anywhere you want to go.  The city is in a great location and there is a really nice, calm harbor within 50 yards of the main city square.  There is also a large hole in the mountain that allows you to walk (within about 60 seconds) to a great “hidden” beach where you can play in the surf or chill out in the sun.  All of this lies in the shadow of the ruins of an old castle that sets the scene like something out of a movie.  I like this town a lot because the hotel accommodations are very unique and are well situated for great photography from your balcony.  I used AirBnB to find a hotel and it proved quite useful here.  Vernazza is my home when visiting Cinque Terre and I highly recommend it to you.

Helpful tip:  Read my article on how to backpack Europe like a pro!

Corniglia with Manarola in the distance - from the hiking trail between Vernazza and Corniglia

Corniglia with Manarola in the distance – from the hiking trail between Vernazza and Corniglia

Corniglia

This town isn’t on the beach, it’s on a cliff overlooking the sea.  It’s very pretty, but by far the least tourist-centric of the five towns in Cinque Terre.  Unless you love wine!  Wine is the heart of Corniglia and if you’re going to Cinque Terre, please don’t leave without stopping in for some of Corniglia’s famous local wine.  It’s true that this is the least popular of the towns and other than hikers who are on the trails that connect the towns, Corniglia isn’t a prime place to stop for long.  It’s pretty from a distance, but rather run down up close and you will quickly find that there isn’t much in this town for a visitor to do.  Getting to the train from the town center is a major hike down dozens of flights of stairs, so make sure you give yourself plenty of time if you’re catching the train here.  Believe me, the wine is worth it!

Manarola - Tired of this view yet?  Not me!

Manarola – Tired of this view yet? Not me!

Manarola

This is the place where the famous picture is taken.  You know, the one you see to the right.  Minus my face of course.  I took this photo and about a million more like it quite easily.  This high point overlooking the town is easily accessed by walking up a steep ramp and although there are plenty of people trying to get that perfect photograph, there is plenty of time and everyone is rather courteous in letting each other take turns.  The food and wine here are great and it’s a beautiful place to spend an evening.  There is a great little pub in the city center where I met some really cool people and had a night of adventures I will never forget.  It’s that kind of place, you’re going to go here and enjoy it.

Helpful Tip:  The absolute best view of this photo angle can be had by climbing up and standing on a cannon.  Yes a cannon.  Be careful!

Riomaggiore - view from the train track.  This town is impressive and quaint.

Riomaggiore – view from the train track. This town is impressive and quaint.

Riomaggiore

This town is impressive to trek.  It is situated on a steep part of the mountain that drops into the ocean.  The views are awesome!  The train tracks run right along the edge of the cliff and is something you’ll want to experience.  There are a lot of good hotels here and it’s a cool place to hang out and wander around.  If I were traveling with a group, or my family, I’d probably try to get lodging here because it’s a nice town and while it is a little less “lively” than the other beach towns, it’s a great place to relax while having everything else just a 5-15 minutes train ride away.  It’s steep so your legs will get a workout and this is the worst town for anyone who may have trouble walking up steep hills.

Important Things to Know

  • reserve lodging months in advance
  • lodging is almost 100% unique, original buildings, not chains
  • Lovanto is a nice town north of Cinque Terre with plenty of hotels
  • La Spezia is a town south of Cinque Terre with hotels too
  • trains run once an hour in each of the 5 towns
  • trains stop running at midnight (on the typical schedule)
  • trains begin running at 5:00AM (on the typical schedule)
  • most restaurants and cafes close rather early
  • keep a European phone charger with you at all times
  • the hiking trails connecting the towns are often closed
  • a ferry is available to access four towns by boat, but not Corniglia
Vernazza - from the entrance to the path to my favorite hotel near the harbor

Vernazza – from the entrance to the path to my favorite hotel near the harbor

The beautiful Italian Riviera gets no better than Cinque Terre.  This is a must see experience for any globe trotter wanting to see amazing parts of the world that have yet to be adulterated by industry and commerce.  You’ll enjoy your experience and you’ll love the people.  For a relaxing, unplugged type of Italian experience, get lost in Cinque Terre.

Dio ti benedica!  That’s “God bless you” in Italian.

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