Experiencing Cinque Terre has been on my bucket list since my first trip to Italy in 2011. Cinque Terre is made up of five scenic seaside towns nestled in the Italian Riviera Coastline. I quickly learned that getting around Cinque Terre is not as simple as one might imagine. Certainly, it’s not as simple as the perfectly polished Instagram photos make it seem. Here’s everything I wish I knew about getting around Cinque Terre.
The name, Cinque Terre, translates to “five lands” (my Italian is like, really good) and makes up a UNESCO World Heritage site. But how does one get around these five lands? As someone who likes to plan my vacations in advance, I turned to Google and Instagram to get an idea of what to expect when visiting the region. But the more I investigated, the more confused I became as to how exactly Cinque Terre works.
NAVIGATING CINQUE TERRE WITHOUT CARS
It’s widely known that cars are not allowed in Cinque Terre and the best way to get around is by foot. Hiking trails connect each village and provide unbelievable views of the Mediterranean coastline. Most trails are moderately difficult with some steep, rocky inclines.
But wait — how do the girls on Instagram look so polished in flowy sundresses and platform sandals, with perfect hair and flawless makeup? Am I supposed to believe they just did a four mile, uphill hike over rocky terrain to get that shot in front of the Vernazza harbor? Have I been hiking wrong my whole life? Is hiking the only way to get to each town?
On a serious note, in 2011 there was a fatal landslide affecting the trails to Monterosso. Then, in 2016, another landslide closed the trail from Riomaggiore to Manarola. Without the hiking trails, is it possible to even get to each village? Now that I’ve experienced it myself and learned there are trails and ferries that connect each town, I can share my knowledge about getting around.
My group only had about seven hours to make the most of our time here, so we ended up using two of the three modes of transportation — hiking and ferry. I’ll discuss each of those below. Even though I’m a sucker for a beautifully curated Instagram photo, I decided to be practical and dress for hiking and let the stunning scenery speak for itself in my pictures.
GETTING AROUND CINQUE TERRE BY FERRY
If you’re not interested in hiking, or if you’re short on time, the ferry is the best mode of transportation around Cinque Terre. Not only is it quick, but it’ll give you some beautiful views of the mountains from the sea. And if you’re at all like me, a boat trip is always a fun experience!
1) WHERE TO START AND WHERE TO STOP
We arrived by car in Portovenere. Although this isn’t included in the five towns, it’s a very cute Italian village that you should check out on your trip to the area. It’s also a good base, because you are able to take the ferry to each of the towns from here.
The first stop from Portovenere on the ferry is Riomaggiore. You’ll be cruisin’ down the Mediterranean for 45 minutes to reach Riomaggiore, while getting a different perspective of the cliffs. I was lucky enough to snag a spot outside right at the back of the ferry to get stunning views approaching the villages.
Due to time limitations, we skipped Riomaggiore and continued on to Manarola which took about 10 minutes (so much quicker than hiking). We spent about 45 minutes exploring Manarola and indulging in gelato from 5Terre (when in Italy!). We next took the ferry from Manarola over to Vernazza — once again, only about 10 minutes.
I will point out here, the ferry ride was windy and I was having salt water rain down on me by sitting on the edge of the boat. But if you want to look flawless in your pictures, the ferry does have an indoor area.
2) MY FAVORITE STOP: VERNAZZA
Upon getting off in Vernazza, we dined along the seaside at Gambero Rosso. It happened to be lunch time and Vernazza is perhaps the most crowded of the five towns, so we had to wait a few minutes to get seated. I ordered the pasta with pesto as Cinque Terre is known for pesto, so be sure to eat this when you’re here! Of course, we also had to order a carafe of vino as it is cheaper than water in Italy. Whoever said wine before hiking is a bad idea is seriously disturbed!
GETTING AROUND CINQUE TERRE BY FOOT
Time permitting, hiking the trails around Cinque Terre is a great way to explore the area. Even without being physically fit, most trails are doable and pleasant, so long as you come prepared. Plus, there’s always a treat waiting for you at the end, like a delicious limoncello overlooking the ocean.
1) TIPS TO PREPARE FOR THE HIKE
The hike we did was moderate — there were some steep parts but also some nice, flat stretches. This is typical of the trails around Cinque Terre. When you come across the shack with the security guard, you do indeed have to pay the €7.50 to hike. The money goes to preserving and maintaining the trails. No, you are not getting swindled by a random Italian man as the native New Yorker in me initially thought.
A lot of it is rocky so definitely watch your step and try not to get too distracted by the gorgeous cliffs and the blue Mediterranean Sea (yes I did take one fall, but no, it was not because of all the wine.).
When we hiked in midday July, it was hot, so don’t forget the water and sunscreen. Dressing in shorts, a tank top and sneakers were perfect. I don’t recommend doing this hike in a bathing suit, sandals, or a sundress as I saw some people doing. But be sure to bring a swim suit as there are ample opportunities to take a dip in each of the villages. I also tip my hat to the determined family with the stroller — but really, please leave the stroller at home!
2) MY FAVORITE HIKE: VERNAZZA TO CORNIGLIA
The only hike that fit in our schedule was the one from Vernazza to Corniglia. The distance is just about four miles and we were told it would take about two hours. To be honest, after the lunchtime vino the 10-minute ferry ride, this actually sounded quite lovely. It only took us about an hour and twenty minutes to hike, even with my seven-year-old cousin with us. We took plenty of time to stop for photos as well as water breaks.
The trail to Corniglia is absolutely breathtaking, and I wish I had more time to do some of the others. But if you’re short on time, I can’t recommend the Corniglia hike enough. It is the only town situated above sea level. As you approach it, you’ll see the colorful buildings pop from the rocky cliffs. It truly is jaw-dropping. After you finish your hike, cool down with a frozen limoncello with vodka – you will have for sure earned it! Unfortunately, this time around we were not able to make it to Montorosso; however, this is the perfect excuse to come back!
Cinque Terra was one of my favorite trips and really is as stunning as the photos show it to be. However, it’s important to know what to really expect when visiting, because all of those perfectly polished Instagram photos don’t really show the whole picture. Whether you decide to hike or ferry, be prepared with the proper clothing, proper expectations, and proper appetite for delicious food and drink and incredible views!
Have you been to Cinque Terre? If you have any additional tips for our readers or questions please leave these in the comments below.
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