Visited Rome and Venice and looking for your next Italian destination?
Between Florence and Genoa lies a string of five fishing villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, each connected by its own scenic trail. The Cinque Terre, translated as ‘five lands,’ dates back to the early medieval period and is considered by many as the most romantic stretch of the Italian Riviera.
These pretty-as-a-postcard towns are dotted along old cobbled streets overlooking crystal clear waters and are no more than a two-hour walk from each other. What’s great about Cinque Terre is that it takes you away from the commercialism of some of Italy’s busier cities, each with its own heritage and dialect and surrounded by a ruggedly stunning stretch of coastline. And, importantly, even if you’re only in Italy for a week or so, the area is still super easy to visit! (Check out this guide to find out how.)
Until the 1960s, Cinque Terre was virtually unknown to tourists, populated mainly by fisherman and farmers, and only accessible by boat, making the area beautifully isolated. Now, thanks to its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, tourism has boomed, making it Cinque Terre’s biggest employer. The area can now be easily accessed by local train, or by a system of ancient footpaths.
But, don’t worry, there are still plenty of hidden locations which take you away from the crowds. Below, we share our top recommendations for experiencing this beautiful area in your own private paradise.
One of the main reasons people love Cinque Terre so much is for its limited road access. Admittedly this makes it a little less convenient to get around, but it does mean that the area is totally traffic-free. If you’d rather not travel by train on a hot day, hiking is a popular alternative, and the Sentiero Rosso, also known as the ‘red trail,’ is a great choice.
Despite being almost three times the length of the well-traveled ‘blue trail,’ hiking the Sentiero Rosso offers expansive views and near-complete solitude, with hardly a single tourist in sight (unless you count yourself of course). A ridge-top path hovering several hundred meters above Cinque Terre’s five villages, the Sentiero Rosso stretches 38 kilometers between Portovenere and Levanto, making it only just shy of a full marathon.
If you want to complete the entire trail, you’ll be looking at around nine to 12 hours of solid walking (but with plenty of shortcuts to make it as long or short as you like). The Sentiero Rosso also has the added advantage of being far flatter and more tree-covered than the blue trail, so you don’t need to worry about sweating up a storm. Bars and restaurants dotted along the route also provide a host of welcome refreshments to help you cool down.
When tourists come to Cinque Terre, it’s unsurprising that they expect to see Italians populating its streets. But being the tourist mecca that it is, this isn’t always the case.
Lerici differs from Cinque Terre’s five main towns in that it doesn’t appear to be inundated with tourists. Why? Because it remains less well-known and is not connected by the train line, making it more difficult to access.
A lack of tourists means it has been lucky enough to maintain its status as an active fishing village, populated by, you guessed it, fisherman! Lerici prides itself on being home to a bunch of authentic Italian restaurants, a community of local boat owners, and its own traditional medieval castle offering a beautiful view over the harbor and an opportunity to watch the sun go down.
Although not technically classed as one of Cinque Terre’s five towns, here you will still find a pretty array of candy-colored houses to admire. Lerici is also home to one of the area’s best outdoor markets, selling everything from fine Italian meats and cheeses to fresh fish straight from the harbor. (And if you love Italian food, you’ll love this guide to unique Italian dishes to try, by region!)
If you are hoping to visit this quaint little town, there is not a direct train that goes to Lerici, but you can easily take the L or S bus from La Spezia.
Hidden in one of Cinque Terre’s five villages, Monterosso, lies one of the nicest little vineyards you will find in this part of Italy. Buranco Agriturismo, which is just a short walk from the Monterosso Old Town, allows visitors to escape from the hustle and bustle of the tourist hub, considered by many for its size and location, as the capital of the Cinque Terre.
The vineyard has a delightful tasting area with an inviting outdoor patio where you can sip on a variety of delicious wines, many of which are local to Cinque Terre, including Sciacchetrà, Magiöa DOC, and Cinque Terre DOC. Appetizers consisting of local delicacies are also served alongside for your tasting pleasure.
As well as being lucky enough to experience all of this from the vineyard’s private location, guests also receive the full Italian experience, complete with Italian music and a backdrop of beautiful lemon and olive gardens. The vineyard also produces grappa, olive oil, Limoncino, and honey, in addition to wine which are all available to purchase.
The starting point of the Sentiero Rosso (red trail), Porto Venere is a pretty harbor town situated near the southern border of Liguria and, like Cinque Terre, has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage list. As with Lerici, this little town has no railway access, instead linked by bus to La Spezia, making it a peaceful alternative to Cinque Terre’s five main villages.
The area is, however, fairly popular with daytrippers. Being a fairly tiny town, most of the tourist attractions can be seen in a day.
A popular site is the Chiesa di S. Pietro, an old church built in 1277. The building sits on the remains of a sixth-century chapel, of which traces can still be seen. The island of Palmaria, located just off the coast of Portovenere, is a marine reserve and is also popular with tourists, particularly those who are nature-lovers or swimmers.
Since Portovenere guards the mouth of the Golfo dei Poeti (Gulf of Poets), many locations also provide excellent water views, including the Genoese fortress, part of the Castello Doria, which is home to a gorgeous terrace and popular for lunchtime picnics.
And speaking of picnics, food enthusiasts should be sure to hunt down one of Liguria’s specialties, focaccia, which you can find at various restaurants, waterfront cafes and markets dotted throughout the town. I would personally recommend the focaccia at Il Timone. Delightful.
Interested in visiting the stunning Cinque Terre? Check out our range of small group adventures to Italy.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, iStock x5)