Last updated on April 25, 2018
Colorful houses drip from cliffs and hang over the sea. Sunlight sparkles in the ocean and across the gentle curve of sandy white beaches. The five towns comprising Cinque Terre are among the most photogenic of Italy’s coastal cities. Even more, Cinque Terre is one of the most popular and iconic of Italy’s towns. While Rome and Venice are known the world over for ancient history and modern culture, Cinque Terre is among the next most popular destinations travelers consider when planning a trip to Italy. And for good reason — the region is stunning. It’s worthy of the acclaim. Years ago, I intended to visit while living and studying in Italy. Life got in the way during that last visit, so I was determined to see this region for myself.
When my best friend Jenn decided to join my round the world trip, we planned to meet in Italy and then cross into Croatia. She arrived in Milan and we plotted a route across Italy that would take in Pisa, Cinque Terre, Florence, and Assisi. From there we took the ferry to Croatia to switch our exploration mode from Renaissance history to gorgeous national parks and waterfalls.
The signature activity in Cinque Terre is a five-hour hike that hugs the coastline. It starts at the water’s edge, scales the side of mountains to reach cliffs hanging over the sea, and then drops back to sea level. Throughout the hike, you pass through five small towns — hence the name, which translates to five lands. Cinque Terre is unapologetically spectacular. I met a backpacker at one of the hostels who scoffed at our plans because it’s so touristy. And yet, they are the one that deserves scorn because there is just no reason to skip something that beautiful just because others also recognize the beauty and want to visit, too.
There are many ways to do the hike, we found budget accommodation in Riomaggiore, so we started there. No matter which section you choose, there just isn’t a poor choice — the entire hike is stunning. The path snakes along the edge of the cliffs. Each time you round a bend, a new vista awaits, with views that leave your mouth agape for a love of the beauty.
While the natural beauty is one reason to do the hike, the towns are also beyond charming. Suddenly the hiking paths veer from the trees and coastline and weave into one of the five towns. We would emerge from the path, panting, and suddenly the trees cleared and we found a tightly-packed Italian town filled with colorful, stacked houses. Being on the coast, the towns also had tiny harbors and inlets for sunbathing and for docking the small boats that bobbed gently.
There is just something compelling about Italian architecture — it’s not so much the style of the houses, but rather the colors. It’s exactly what you imagine the Mediterranean looks like from the photos! And while cookie-cutter suburbs in the U.S. attempt to replicate the aesthetic, there is no contest to see the architecture and culture woven into the landscape. Without the sparkling blue sea, the rolling grape fields, and the lilt of the Italian language, it loses that je ne sais quoi.
And although I have a love/hate relationship with hiking in general, Cinque Terre is so beautiful and compelling throughout the hike that I easily forgot that some sections were a bit strenuous. Once we made it through to the fourth town, we had the last and hardest part of the hike ahead of us. It would take an hour and fifteen minutes to hike between Vernazza and Monterosso. To fortify ourselves for the hike — and even though it was only 10:30am — we stopped for gelato in Vernazza.
It was the best gelato of my life.
And what’s funny is that it wasn’t even one of my favorite flavors! The day already scorching hot, so my bestie, my cousin, and I opted for an icy gelato rather than a creamy one. The limone was so divine. In fact, let’s take a moment of silence in my memory of that exquisite flavor. If you’re planning your own hike through Cinque Terre, hunt down the gelato shop in Vernazza. It’s unmissable when you first step into town. It’s directly in front of you as you when you leave the the south trail and enter town.
Fortified by the gelato, the three of us tackled the vertical part of the hike that connects Vernazza to Monterosso. This section is by far the hardest part of the hike. Jenn is very fit and even she was huffing and puffing along the route. About 40 minutes into the steep climb, I nearly lost the will to continue (it was hot!). Then, a fellow hiker from the other direction noticed my delightfully attractive splotchy red face and gave me the best news of the day — it was all downhill from there!
We nearly skipped the rest of the rest of the way. And when walking into Monterosso Bay, with its white sandy beach, we sent up squeals of glee. We stripped down to our bathing suits and jumped into the icy cold waters of the Ligurian Sea. After a hike like, that we rewarded ourselves with another gelato (nocciola, hazelnut, this time!)
With the hike finished, and having relaxed and recuperated on the beach, we used the local train to return to Riomaggiore. Thinking back on the beauty, I can’t help but just smile at the happy memories. In the years since I visited, Cinque Terre has seen untenable tourism surges. For that reason, the government plans to cut tourist numbers by more than a million annually. Research the current restrictions ahead of time, and be prepared for serious crowds, especially if there is a group tour coming through. You can buy a ticket for the hiking trail, the Cinque Terre Card, from the National Parks Service.
Quick Tips: Visiting Cinque Terre, Italy
How to Visit: This is a fast-changing situation, so research ahead of time to see if the government has yet implemented the tourism restrictions — when that happens you will have to apply months in advance for entrance to the towns.
Getting Around: The five towns are made for walking — be prepared! There are buses and the Cinque Terre Express train to connect the towns as well. These towns are built into cliffs and seaside, so expect that you will be hauling your own luggage to your accommodation! Pack wisely.
What to Do: The hike is gorgeous and some sections are very gentle inclines, others are steep. Plan on hiking, but match the sections to your fitness level. The coastal trail requires the Cinque Terre Card, and it offers free WiFi too, which is good because data is not guaranteed and internet can be pricey! There is also snorkeling and other water activities on offer, I highly recommend the kayaking as it would be my choice when/if I return! And if you aren’t up for the walk physically, there is a minibus tour with pretty views too, and allows you to still see the magical five towns.
Plan Your Trip: Although I usually use the Lonely Planet guides all over the world (and the Lonely Planet Italy could work if you prefer it), in Europe I find that the Rick Steves guides have a great mix of suggested routes and detailed culture and history sections to accompany them. For that reason, consider using the Rick Steves Italy to plan your route around Italy. Besides that, I recommend using Booking.com or Airbnb to research for affordable accommodation (both of those links offer ALA readers $25 off your first booking!).