I don’t even know where I got the idea from, but some time in the last few years Cinque Terre somehow got onto my must go list in Italy. Probably anecdotally from friends.
Anyway, after I figured out where to base ourselves while we visited Cinque Terre, I initially thought we could just decide where to go when we got there. You know, be spontaneous! It is just 5 very small fish villages afterall. But then I started talking to friends and they recommended restaurants that we simply must try. Then I read about the different difficulties of the various hiking trails, and plans inevitably started to form in my head. Besides left to spontaneity, one may end up wasting 2 hours just to find a nice casual bistro to eat at.
Cinque Terre is famous for scenic hikes. But because of floods etc. many of the hiking trails are closed for maintenance. This is something that you will need to find out from the hotel or tourist centers when you are on the ground. Once you do the next thing you need to know is the order and geography of the 5 villages, as well as the difficulties of the hikes:
Monterosso al Mare –> Vernazza –> Corniglia (up cliff!) –> Manarola –> Riomaggiore
Since Corniglia is up on a cliff, expect that any hiking trails TO Corniglia will be uphill, and any trails FROM Corniglia is downhill. The easiest trails are apparently:
- Riomaggiore to Manarola: apparently a pleasant scenic and paved 20 minute walk, passing by the very romantic sounding Lover’s Lock. This walk is also known as the Lover’s Walk. Sadly when we were there, the walk was closed due to maintenance. We tried walking from Manarola in the hopes of at least seeing the Lover’s Lock, but alas it was blocked.
- Manarola to Corniglia: apparently a pleasant flat 20 minute walk until you get to the base of Cornilglia, whereby you can supposedly take a bus or climb up 300 steps. This walk was again closed for us, but we tried to walk as far as we could from Manarola and it was paved and looked flat enough.
The “medium” difficulty one is apparently:
- Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza to Corniglia: One of the few trails that were actually opened while we were there. But by all reports, it takes about 2-3 hours and is quite steep and unpaved. We decided that it was not for novice hikers like us.
These are the main trails. There are more trails, and you can find out about it on the official Cinque Terre National Park website which is mostly in Italian, but you will get the gist. This article was also very helpful in learning more about the different hikes.
Since most of the easy trails were closed, we ended up taking the train between villages…. which turned out to be a traumatizing experience over Easter. There really wasn’t any other options besides maybe the ferry, but it was way too cold for that.
But anyway the most economical way to get around is to get the Cinque Terre Train Multi-Service Card, which allows you to take all the local trains, buses and permits you to hike certain trails. This is available at the tourist center at every train station. We bought a 2-day pass at the La Spezia train station (at the shop that faces the train station!) for about 23 euros each. Don’t forget to validate your tickets at the little machine around the corner!
We do note that the only time we were checked was when we went on the bus to Gruppo. We were never checked on the trains (maybe there was just too many people?). It really was a mostly honors system.
NOTE: While it sounds very easy to hop from one village to the next by train, in reality it is a pain. I WISHED we could’ve walked. The trains were constantly delayed. During peak hours (which seems like all the time) the trains are PACKED. And trains are NOT as frequent in certain stations. On our second morning, we had to literally elbow and squeeze our way onto the train while other passengers tried to physically push us off. Both nights out trains were delayed by 20-30 minutes.
I’m not a foodie, but since it was Easter weekend I figured it was safer to make some bookings ahead of time for key meals. We ended up trying out the below:
- Gastronomia San Martino, Monterosso al Mare: After wandering around the village for 15 minutes looking for a place to lunch we were starving. We finally ended up here because we thought the storefront of lemon ice looked pretty. Turns out it was #2 on the Tripadvisor list of restaurants in the village, and they serve THE most amazing bruschetta I’ve ever had (it was really more pizza like). They also have good free wifi! It was not all great though. The sandwiches and tiramisu were so so. The store also sells lots of souvineers, and we picked up some pasta and pesto sauce with us after.
- Belforte, Vernazza: I booked this place mostly for the view. I wanted to go somewhere where I can sit and watch the sunset and the Belforte sounded like a good option. I even looked up sunset times to make sure we caught it! Turns out restaurants in the area don’t get open until 7pm anyway. We got there at exactly 7pm and selected a prime table outside on the cliff overlooking the sea. Alas sunset that day was somewhat cloudy and it turns out that sitting outdoors was a very very bad idea. There were no heat lamps and we were literally FREEZING. The food was also SO SLOW to come that when it finally did we all just gulped it down as fast as possible and immediately ordered dessert. Even though we were one of the first sittings, there was only 1 tiramisu left! We gulped that down too, and immediately jumped out of our seats and went inside to settle the bill (we asked, there were no tables available inside for us to switch to). From what I remember, the food was average. The price however was NOT cheap. Oh and they do NOT serve tea here. We had to go to another cafe near the train station afterwards to warm ourselves up!
- Cappun Magru in casa di Marin, Gruppo: This came highly recommended by a friend and is apparently a Michelin named family restaurant in the middle of nowhere Gruppo, which is halfway up the hill from Manarola. You have to take a bus up there from Manarola. Except it is NOT a regular bus stop, so remind your driver to stop! When you get there, you will be like what? You see a carpark and a very quiet and rundown looking row of old houses (turns out it is a village of 40 people). Just go up the stairs and turn left. Walk for about a minute or so and look up. The restaurant itself is located inside a surprisingly sunny 2 storey house. There are only a few tables. It was all empty when we got there, but it quickly filled up. We got the set lunch menu and drank some cinque terre wine. They served mainly seafood, and every dish was fancy and painstakingly put together – which is probably why it took so long.. we got there at 12:30pm and left a little before 3pm! Maybe because I am Chinese and I think we already make the best fish, but I was frankly not that wow-ed by the whole experience. I guess I was just looking for something more wholesome and traditional. I can tell that the other guests (all locals!) were immensely enjoying themselves though. And this IS legit fine dining that one wouldn’t have expected to find in Cinque Terre. We were wow-ed by however was Trattoria dal Billy later that evening.
- Trattoria dal Billy, Manarola: It is also not easy to find. You have to climb up the hill from the train station all the way to church where you will see a sign saying Trattoria dal Billy. But that’s not it either, and you have to follow the sign into the alleyways between buildings for a few minutes before you see the 2 store restaurant that is Trattoria dal Billy. We determined then that we will eat super fast and head to the train station before dark! Regardless of the speed, it was one of my favorite meals in Italy. They served very traditional Italian food, and everything was heartily proportioned and absolutely delicious! In between courses, we also enjoyed one of the most gorgoeus sunsets. The service was excellent too. Once we explained that we wanted to catch the upcoming train, they were fast and efficient. It was a perfect meal!
Taking into account distance, restaurant locations, opening times and the weather, I came up with the following order:
- Day 1 (Monterosso al Mare –> Vernazza): Since we arrived from Turin in the afternoon, I decided we should tackle the 2 further (and less picturesque) villages first and work our way back.
- Day 2 (Riomaggiore –> Manarola –> Corniglia –> Manarola): Then the next day we can tackle the rest of the prettier villages at leisure. In reality, we skipped Corniglia and just stayed at Manarola most of day 2. The train ride from Riomaggiore to Manarola was so traumatizing that morning that we decided to skip Corniglia to keep our train activity to a minimum.
THE 5 VILLAGES
Monterosso al Mare
This is the biggest of all the villages and where the “bigger” hotels are supposedly located (I looked but didn’t see anything remotely hotel like). It has a new side and an old side. There is a big beach area, probably very popular in warmer weather. Turn left from the train station to get to the old side. Frankly this village did not leave much of an impression on me in terms of views besides having amazing bruschettas. There just wasn’t that picture perfect spot that the other villages had.
So they were not kidding when they said that Vernazza is the smallest village of the Cinque Terre. It is SMALL. After you get off the train, there is literally just one main street that leads you to the water front where the postcard picture spot is (which is absolutely gorgoeus!!). The Belforte restaurant is at the end, squeezed on top of a cliff. Apparently further up, there is the remains of a castle (we opted to enjoy gelato and beer by the water instead and never found out). And that’s all there really is to Vernazza. You don’t need too much time here, but definitely worth a quick stop.
We arrived first thing in the morning to Riomaggiore, and managed to beat the day trip crowd to the postcard spot to get some good pictures (the ledge is very narrow). I was initially somewhat disappointed because the reality just didn’t look as good as the postcard due to the lighting at the time. But this village grew on me as we walked around – especially when we discovered the path up towards the church and walked along the hills. The view looking back into the village was simply stunning! I believe this is part of the same path that goes all the way to Manarola (Lover’s walk), and from what I could see it is super scenic. I wish we had actually spent more time in this town. I would’ve liked to have a drink and chill at that cute little cafe overlooking the village, and explore the parts of Lover’s walk that IS opened.
I would say that Manarola is smaller than Riomaggiore but bigger than Vernazza. And it is more vertical. There is the more touristy section below the train station, and there is the quieter more residential parts above the train station. Because we skipped Corniglia, we had a LOT of time in this village. We went up and down the village many times. We walked down to the postcard spot by the waterfront (there’s a lovely cafe above the path for drinks). We walked back up to get gelato and along what we can of the Lover’s trail. We walked up some more to the church and watched kids play football for a while. We walked down again to sit by the waterfront as the tourists dissipated somewhat and literally checked out every store in town. We then finally made our last walk back up again for dinner at Billy’s. It is all very good leg exercise and I feel like we know the village very very well now.
Conclusion: The 5 fishing villages of Cinque Terre was much smaller than I had imagined, and at some point as I walked through the villages I couldn’t help but think to myself “Is this it?” The villages also felt both commercial and poor at the same time. A little like visiting an Universal Studio film set. As you look at the colorfully painted buildings around you with its deep dark interiors, you wonder ]if any “locals” actually lived there.
Having said that, the Cinque Terre villages did have its charms and definitely delivered in terms of postcard perfect views. Will I come back again? Maybe. It is not a place I want to go back to immediately, but a place I wouldn’t mind revisiting again in the future. If only to finally walk along the Lover’s Walk and to see Corniglia. I hope they build better accommodations by then…
Read more about my trip to italy here!