“It’s almost unfair how much intense beauty, great cuisine and amazing aromas are jam-packed into such a compact space.” Ariel Foxman, New York Times
If you happen to be traveling in Liguria and only have a couple of days to visit the eastern side of the region in the province of La Spezia, chances are you have planned to visit the Cinque Terre. And if you haven’t, you should!
Here are some top tips for making the most out of your time, to savor and admire the world-renowned area without rushing, while also discovering unexpected places.
Cinque Terre, Italy’s famous five
The five villages are located along a 16-km (10-mile) stretch of rugged coastline, and none is more than a two-hour walk from the other. Whether you explore them on foot (trail paths may be closed during some months of the year), ferryboat or train, you should be able to see all of them in 1 day and a half, or even in just one day, depending on your visiting/walking/photographing/eating/sleeping habits!
It is hard to say which of the Cinque Terre is the most beautiful because, as the quote goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and each village is truly amazing in its own way. The Tripadvisor community has hailed Vernazza as the top destination, although many prefer the underdog – quiet Corniglia- because it is huddled on a hilltop and more secluded. Manarola is great for photographs. Monterosso is the liveliest of the villages. And Riomaggiore features a picturesque and colorful harbor.
Here is a brief description of each village by italylogue.com:
- Monterosso al Mare, known simply as Monterosso, is the largest of the five, and the most heavily visited – especially by young people. It’s the only village with a nice long span of beach right in town (the others either require a hike or are very small and/or rocky).
- Vernazza has perhaps the most charming central square, as it is right on the water and there is a lovely church tower on one side. The ruins of a castle are on one of the hills overlooking the village.
- Corniglia is the only town not immediately on the water – it’s on top of its cliff, and so either direction you walk from requires a steep hike uphill. Because of this, it is usually less crowded that the others.
- Manarola is a confection of pastel houses that climb up the side of black cliff, next to the region’s most productive vineyards. The part of the path between Manarola and Riomaggiore is the easiest, and it’s called the Via dell’Amore – the road of love.
- Riomaggiore rises away from the water at a dramatic angle, so you can get away from the water and feel like you’re in another town entirely.
Top tips for visiting the Cinque Terre:
- Spring or early fall are the ideal times to visit because the weather is pleasant and there are less tourists, while summer tends to be overcrowded and quite hot
- Certain trails may be closed due to landslides, so check with the local tourist offices before setting out
- Use comfortable shoes and be ready for brutal uphill treks, whether on rugged nature trails or on steep flights of steps.
Portovenere: the sixth land, away from the crowds
The charming sea village of Portovenere is not one of the Cinque Terre. But it enjoys a strategic and panoramic position on the Gulf of Poets, just 30 minutes away by boat from Riomaggiore and about 70 minutes from Monterosso, respectively the nearest and farthest of the Cinque Terre.
Local sights here include the Churches of San Pietro and San Lorenzo, the Doria Castle and the typical narrow carugio street. Make sure to walk on the pier to admire Palmaria Island in front of you, the Gulf of Poets surrounding you, and the picturesque and colorful set of thin and tall buildings behind you! Immersed in the Portovenere Nature Park, the whole scenery is simply mesmerizing, and you can soak it in by visiting the village in half a day. You can learn more about local attractions in the article Portovenere 101: the basics.
Portovenere is a little gem waiting to be discovered, still hidden from most of the tourists’ radars. Booking a hotel here allows you to escape from mass tourism and explore a place that is off the beaten track, adding something extra to your Italian break!
How to move around
There is a ferryboat service to and from the Cinque Terre that departs or arrives almost hourly from/to Portovenere. You can also rent your private boat with a skipper.
Assuming you are staying in a hotel in Portovenere, should the ferryboat service be suspended due to weather conditions or rough waters, you can reach La Spezia in 20 minutes by car or by bus. At Spezia Centrale station, you can catch one of the frequent trains that depart for the Cinque Terre, about 5-10 minutes away from each other.
Whether you use the ferryboat or the train, you can buy single tickets or all-day tickets, which allow you to hop on and off and visit all of the Five Lands at your own pace. The Cinque Terre Train Card can be bought at any train station at the cost of 12 euro for 1 day (as of April 2015), and gives you access to the national park and its hiking paths, free access to some museums, unlimited train and bus rides within the 5 towns. If you cannot wait to share your exploratory expedition on Instagram or Facebook, you also get your own password to access the free wi-fi network!
If you are feeling sporty, and depending on the season of the year, you can also hike through the Cinque Terre. It takes about 5 hours to hike the entire path between the five villages. To experience the wild nature and save time, you can hike one direction, then take the train or ferryboat back!
Road access is limited in the Cinque Terre, which means that each town is gloriously car-free! Portovenere, instead, does offer some parking options right next to the historic center and harbor.
Where and what to eat
The best way to try to avoid tourist traps and to really get authentic, great food is by using Tripadvisor or other online review sites – and checking the reviews written in Italian. Italians know what they want and how they want it, so their reviews will be harsher than those left by foreign tourists. Even if you do not understand what is written, you can get a feel by looking at the star rating, or enable the translation in your language.
The typical gastronomy from the province of La Spezia, where the Cinque Terre and Portovenere are located, includes trofie pasta, pesto sauce, focaccia bread, anchovies with salt and oil. Whether it’s hot or fresh weather, you surely won’t resist the temptation to slurp Italian homemade gelato perched on local piers and rocks.
Finally, don’t miss the two specialty wines the area is known for: the Cinque Terre white wine and the Sciacchetrà dessert wine. And with all those lemon trees you will notice around you… make sure you sip some of that delicious local Limoncello lemon liqueur too!
Have you been to the Cinque Terre and/or Portovenere? What was your favorite village? Share your experience and tips below!