Wrapping your head around Italy’s Cinque Terre National Park can be a little daunting. It actually covers a fairly large region, and there isn’t a great deal of practical information on how to make the most out of it.
I spent five days in the Cinque Terre, hiking through hillside vineyards and taking in sunsets with a glass of wine in-hand. Here’s what you need to know.
What is the Cinque Terre?
I’m offering this explanation because when you first start researching about the Cinque Terre, things can get confusing fast.
When people refer to the Cinque Terre, they mean the collection of five towns inside Cinque Terre National Park: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso.
You’ve likely seen jaw-dropping images of the Cinque Terre plastered all over the Internet: brightly painted houses and buildings jumbled together along on the Liguria Coast, magnified in colour by the turquoise sea. You’ve probably pinned a few of them to Pinterest. I’m here to make the planning process a little bit easier.
Which town should I stay in?
Each town has its different characteristics. They’re all beautiful.
Riomaggiore: This is a busy town, despite only having one street. There’s a rocky beach area, and some lovely dining options. It’s the closest stop from La Spezia city (where many people enter the Cinque Terre).
Manarola: Like Riomaggiore, this is a one-street town with a small beachfront area. It’s a little quieter than Riomaggiore.
Corniglia: This one is smack dab in the middle of the towns, and is the smallest of them all. It’s probably the only village that isn’t overrun with tourists, and is much quieter than the others. I stayed at a hostel here and actually loved the hell out of it. Be warned though, if you’re carrying a lot of luggage, there are 365-steps from the train platform to the top of the village. This is the only town without a beachfront.
Vernazza: Vernazza is arguably the most popular and beautiful of all the towns. There’s a castle, and a beautiful church, and a small waterfront area with lots of outdoor dining (that comes with a price).
Monterosso al Mare: This is the Cinque Terre’s ritzy town, with some gorgeous stretches of sandy beaches. There’s a long seaside promenade and it kinda feels like a resort town. I don’t really think a beach vacation is the reason to visit the Cinque Terre, but if you want a day of relaxation, come here.
For convenience’s sake, I stayed in Corniglia. I liked that I was in the middle of everything, and food and accommodations were cheaper.
But if you decide to set yourself up in a town like La Spezia or Levanto on the outskirts of the park, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to navigate to and from the park. Trains are fairly frequent, and they run late.
I spent two nights in Levanto because I found a cheap-ish hotel option and I desperately need a private room to sleep. I had no problem getting back and forth, and I appreciated the mild refuge from the crowds in other places. Levanto also has a beautiful beach – arguably better than Monterosso’s beaches.
How much time should I spend in the Cinque Terre?
You’d be doing yourself a great disservice if you didn’t stay in the Cinque Terre for at least three full days.
I mean, I guess it kinda depends on what you plan on doing while there. If you want to hike between the towns, break it up into at least two days (if you’re going over the mountains, it’s a brutal walk at times). But if your goal is to just sunbathe and sightsee, two days would be semi-okay.
Buying a park pass
You don’t actually need a park pass to access Cinque Terre National Park. If you are walking the blue paths (the coastal route – the easiest route) you’ll need to present a Cinque Terre Card at certain checkpoints. This card starts at 5 EUR, and is also used for buses and trains. (There are a few other perks too, like access to some museums, and free WiFi in certain areas.)
What should I do there?
The easy coastal walks were mostly closed when I came to the Cinque Terre in mid-May. I’m not sure why; I know there was some avalanche issues awhile back, or maybe it’s just too early in the season. All the hikes over the hills were absolutely outstanding, though, with the best views and without any checkpoints to pay for the trails.
(Dizzying heights from Levanto to Monterosso. This trail was actually my favourite.)
The mountainous routes involve a lot of stairs. A LOT of stairs. Proper footwear is absolutely required.
Other than that, enjoy the sun and beach time. Grab a bottle of wine at Terra Terza in Corniglia overlooking the Ligurian Sea, and watch the sunset. Appreciate “la dolce far niente” – the art of doing nothing. I assure you this solitude is rare to find in touristic Italy.
Getting around the Cinque Terre
There are trains that run between La Spezia and Levanto (and all the park towns in between) all day. If you don’t have the Cinque Terre Card, it’ll cost you a whopping 4 EUR per run.
Don’t rent a car. Parking is expensive, and the roads are slightly terrifying. I can’t imagine trying to parallel park on the edge of a cliff dropping into the sea. There’s really no reason to not take a train or bus (although I used the train the whole time – there was never a need for the bus).
How much should I budget?
Cheap it ain’t. My bunk in an eight person female dorm (Ostello di Corniglia – great place) was 25 EUR a night. They served a breakfast for 5 EUR, but you could easily pop around the corner to a bakery to grab a croissant and some coffee for 3 EUR.
If you plan on not hiking much and seeing all the towns in one shot, a Cinque Terre Card is totally worth it. Train journeys are 4 EUR each! But since I always walked one way and took the train back, I didn’t really need it.
You could grab a decent meal (with a glass of wine and dessert) for less than 25 EUR, for sure. I didn’t have any super memorable dining experiences, but the seafood was good, and so was the focaccia – the bread typical for the region.