A colorful coastal paradise, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an heirloom of Italian tradition; visiting Cinque Terre offers a body of five villages that bleeds old-world charm, untouched by modernization.
You won’t find busy highways or gas stations here… The Ligurian region of Western Italy offers a myriad of vividly colored homes and the best pesto you’ll ever eat. Pesto is a Ligurian specialty that comes in many forms, most notably: troffi pesto, and I indulged in my fair share of it.
The authentic cuisine, the lively marinas, that potent mediterranean aroma and passionate Italian rapport. Throw the great outdoors in the mix with its National Park hiking trails and it’s easy to see why tourists flock to Cinque Terre.
There are five villages, each full of its own virtuous charm, but on a quick getaway from Florence, we set our sights on savoring three rather than rushing in all five. To me, a sure-fire way to spoil paradise is to spread yourself too thin and end up too exhausted to enjoy yourself.
Instead, enjoy the moment and let yourself be seduced by the charming world that surrounds you.
Riomaggiore was our first stop for two reasons: as the Southernmost village we anchored here and worked our way North from our hub… and it was the only village that had a hostel available to book 24 hours prior to arriving, (it was a spontaneous trip!).
From Florence, it’s about a three-hour train ride to La Spezia, which connects to the coastal villages of Cinque Terre. The train station in Riomaggiore is recessed from the village and a short walk through a blue tunnel affixed with pretty mosaics takes you into town.
The scenery upon arrival is overwhelmingly charming. Colorful little fishing boats float in the tiny marina and the steep hills slope upward from the coast as the vertical houses that line them cascade back downward, reaching for the Ligurian Sea.
We made our way to a humid little office and checked into Hostel Liljana. About 30 minutes and 25,000 steps later we reached the summit of a mountainous hillside and from our hostel we enticed in sweeping views of the sloping countryside and mediterranean sea splashing onto the rock wall of the marina.
Consistent to the atmosphere of Riomaggiore, Hostel Liljana was full of character. Our room had violet walls covered in old photographs and paintings of European landmarks. It was embellished with ornamental fixtures and had a lovely patio with, you guessed it, another amazing view of the village below and green as far as the eye could see. The bathrooms were neat and tidy and overall this hostel felt like a homey hotel rather than a hostel. With all of the virtuous qualities of Hostel Liljana, the vigorous hike getting there felt well worth it.
Tip: If your accommodation is high up in the hills, be sure to pack everything you need for the entire day and night because popping in and out is really not an option unless if you’re a stair master or triathlete… Or you could take a note from our book and share a bottle of wine before you make your hike up!
What to do in Riomaggiore
Stroll – Explore the village, pop into the souvenir shops to find local goods like pesto and art, smell the scent of freshly caught seafood and tuck down the tiny alleyways to admire the hidden gems that lie within the crevices of the village. Let the town imbue its contagious intimacy upon you.
Marina – Settle onto one of the large rocks and let your feet dance in the cold but refreshing water. Watch the festivity of people sunbathing, swimming and floating. The floor of the marina is covered in slippery algae and the current ceaselessly drifts you back and forth with little concern for your equilibrium, therefore I recommend wearing water shoes or bringing a floaty.
Beach – If you want to lay out, follow the rocky steps that lead you away from the marina and along a narrow pathway which takes you to the “beach” of Riomaggiore, which is really just a small and pebbly stretch of land, not exactly optimal for laying out, but still makes for a fun experience.
What I learned from Riomaggiore
If you want the reward, you’ve got to work for it. Be flexible, the beaches might not be what you’re expecting, but they’re fun and refreshing! Many of the hostels may require an intense climb to reach, but the views from the top are incomparable.
If the heart of Cinque Terre is character, then Vernazza is it. With its tiny beach, streets stacked densely with old homes, colorful umbrellas sprouted in the main square accompanying vibrant cafe’s… it’s no wonder why Vernazza is known as the “beauty queen” of Cinque Terre.
We got to Vernazza by train, for prices and timetables click here. There is a bus and hiking trails that connect the towns, but if you plan according to the timetable, the train makes it quick and easy to navigate between villages.
In the early morning the vacant city was inhabited by a hazy sky and a damp and foggy morning air. No this is not an intro to a Stephen King novel… it was actually quite welcoming! The tourists had not yet funneled into town, shopkeepers were opening their stores and we strolled through the quiet streets and enjoyed our warm cappuccinos at a cafe overlooking Cinque Terre’s only natural harbor.
What to do in Vernazza
Santa Margherita di Antiochia – Vernazza’s gothic church is nestled right by the water in the main square. Inside the small church you’ll find candle-lit offerings to Mary and Jesus, arriving early meant we got to enjoy the place nearly to ourselves.
Castello Doria – What is left of Vernazza’s fortification from the 13th century is a cylindrical watch tower which offers breathtaking panoramic views of the region. 360 degrees of uninterrupted Italian sea and landscape makes for an utterly intoxicating visual experience that does a great job of summarizing just how beautiful Vernazza truly is.
Souvenirs – Vernazza has a lovely array of souvenir shops selling everything from limoncello to brightly hand painted kitchenware to gorgeous silk scarves and locally painted watercolors that encapsulate the romance of the village.
What I learned from Vernazza
Beauty is subjective, but Vernazza is indisputably one of the most gorgeous places in the world. The complex layers of color, the sweeping views, the small, sleepy, beach-town atmosphere all blend together to create a sweep-you-off-your-feet kind of beauty.
The largest of the five villages, Monterosso’s beach scene is straight out of a film or painting; it’s iconic and picturesque. The warm water from the Ligurian Sea washes ashore, caressing the yellow sand like a feather gently flowing in the wind. The water is calm and soothing. The sandy beaches are dotted with brightly patterned umbrellas and crowded with people. The strand is lined with delicious restaurants specializing in seafood and pesto.
Monterosso al Mare is seemingly perfect. Although the beaches are crowded, it’s part of the vibe of the European beach scene and escaping into the water offers immediate serenity and refreshment.
What to do in Monterosso
Go to the beach! Swim peacefully in the waveless water, float on your back and bask in the sun, duck under the water and swim in the clear, aqua-blue ocean. Revel in that Mediterranean because who knows when you’ll be back.
What I learned from Monterosso
My spirit animal is a fish that lives off the coast of Monterosso. I’m obsessed with the Mediterranean water. Also, if you’re looking for a strong cocktail… you’ll find it here.
Keep in mind
One thing I regret is not hiking the infamous National Park trails that connect the villages together. This time around we didn’t allot enough time to make the excursion, but when I return to Cinque Terre it will be a top priority.
Cinque Terre is protected by UNESCO, and in coming seasons may begin monitoring the number of tourist access in order to preserve the site, according to an article by Condé Naste.
Cinque Terre train schedule and information.
Like Italian beaches? Check out Napoli, a bustling city on the coast of Southern Italy!