Years ago, Ted and I traveled to Cinque Terre for the first time. Back then, we only stayed for one night, and by the time we left, we knew we would be back one day. Therefore, months ago, we returned for a two-night stay as a family. Although there were more crowds this time around, Cinque Terre still ranks as one of our favorite places to visit. We love their delicious, fresh seafood, relaxed atmosphere, gorgeous views from hiking trails, refreshing local wine, and more.
Cinque Terre, which means Five Lands, is made up of five Italian villages built into the steep hillside of the Ligurian coast. Squeezed by the Mediterranean on one side and rugged mountains on the other, these colorful towns were strategically planned to avoid invaders. For centuries, the only way to travel between them was by walking on narrow mule trails or by boat.
Although evidence shows that the area was already inhabited in the Bronze Age, only in the 15th century did locals start to use the name Cinque Terre. The Roman Empire occupied the area by taking it from the Ligurian inhabitants. Nowadays, the villages, renowned for their beauty, are among one the most visited places in Italy.
Going to Cinque Terre for the first time but wondering where to start your planning? This Cinque Terre two-day itinerary will not only answer all questions you may have but also give you tips to make the most of your visit.
Cinque Terre: day trip or stay overnight?
If one colorful village perched high above the sea is a big reason to visit the Italian Riviera, imagine five of them. Although you can have a taste of it taking a day trip from Pisa, Florence, or any other nearby Italian city, you will certainly miss a lot of what these five picturesque towns have to offer. Don’t be afraid to extend your stay. You won’t regret it.
During the two times we visited Cinque Terre, we noticed the villages had a different feeling once the crowds left. At the end of the day, the streets got much quieter, and we felt more relaxed. The next day, we’d wake up early before the crowds arrived.
While enjoying our breakfast in an outdoor setting, we watched locals hanging their laundry on clotheslines outside upper floor windows. We saw locals rolling in through the main street to drop off fresh produce while others swept a small section of the cobbled streets in front of their shops getting ready for the day. Small conversations popped up here and there between neighbors. The scene was delightful! Just then, we had a real perception of what it looks like to live in these fishing villages.
The five villages
The five villages that make up the Cinque Terre, from north to south are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. In 1997, Cinque Terre became a UNESCO World Heritage site, and in 1999, Cinque Terre National Park.
Neither pictures nor words can precisely describe the beauty of these five villages that have been standing for centuries. Although all of them have their own church and feature a plethora of colors ranging from oranges and yellows to blues and greens, each one has its own character and nuances. All five towns are worth a visit.
Here is a short synopsis of each one.
Monterosso al Mare
Monterosso is the largest of the five coastal villages. Years ago, when we visited Cinque Terre for the first time, we stayed here. I highly recommend it. Monterosso has the only long and sandy beach in the area. Chairs and umbrellas are available for rent.
The village is divided into two parts: Fegina, the new section, is full of life. Several hotels and restaurants can be found there. The old town, Loreto, is dominated by the ruins of a castle and characterized by typical, narrow, medieval streets and multi-colored terraced houses occupied by small shops, restaurants, and Airbnb.
In my humble opinion, Vernazza is the most beautiful village. With that in mind, we stayed there on our second trip to Cinque Terre.
Vernazza has only two beaches. The small one is surrounded by a tiny port on one side and a small piazza filled with seafood restaurants on another. Locals and visitors jump off from the rocks near the harbor into the crystal-clear Mediterranean water. The second beach, slightly larger, can be reached through a passage through a rock near the village center. The city center was bustling until all day-trippers stopped coming.
Corniglia is the smallest and the central village in Cinque Terre. Sitting on a small cape, about 330 feet above the sea, it is the only town without access from the sea. Although we have seen this cute town only from the water, I have always been fascinated by the dramatic scenery that surrounds the village.
Considering that Corniglia sits on top of the hill, visitors must climb a footpath known as Lardarina (377 steps) from the train station to reach the village.
Manarola is amazingly beautiful! The colorful buildings seem to be melting from the top of the hill into the blue water like a Salvador Dali piece of art. Although it has no real beach, this charming town is well-known for its deep, clear water. Visitors and locals gather on top of big rocks from where they jump off.
The village features several restaurants and a tiny harbor from where boats load and unload passengers.
Riomaggiore is the southern-most village, between La Spezia and Manarola. It has a small harbor and is the quietest town of the Cinque Terre. Similar to the others, Riomaggiore features houses with colored façades, clustered vertically on the steep shoreline. It is distinguished by its castle ruins and bell towers. Restaurants, bars, cafes, and gelato shops fill the main Street.
We highly recommend a short hike to the top of the rocks from where we had fabulous views of the village and the Mediterranean Sea.
Reaching Cinque Terre by car from South of France
Due to its unique landscape and limited space, the best way to visit Cinque Terre is by train. The first time we were there, we traveled on a high-speed train from Florence to La Spezia, and from there we caught a local train to Monterosso. However, this time, it was an extension of a wonderful road trip through The 9 most beautiful towns in South of France. Aware that parking is pretty much unavailable in the five villages, we had to find a place to park.
Parking in Cinque Terre
Local trains run frequently between Levanto (northwest of Cinque Terre) and La Spezia (southeast of Cinque Terre) making stops in all five villages.
Levanto (about seven miles north of Monterosso) is a charming town along the Italian Riviera that offers two main parking areas, one near the railway station, the other one near the waterfront. From Levanto, we had the option to reach Cinque Terre by train or by boat. We chose the train.
La Spezia (about 20 miles southeast of Cinque Terre) is a major stop for Mediterranean cruise ships and passengers who often travel to other cities in the Liguria region. In La Spezia, you can make a reservation in a private garage ahead of time. Nevertheless, only a limited number of spaces can be booked in advance. The rest are first-come, first-served. Alternatively, there are two other underground public parking garages: Park Kennedy and Europa Park.
Note: If you still decide to arrive by car, know that of all the Cinque Terre villages, Monterosso is the only one that has a parking area (limited) closer to the center. The other towns offer parking areas which can be not only extremely limited but also quite expensive. Furthermore, it will require walking uphill while carrying your luggage.
Where to stay in Cinque Terre
It is up to you which village you stay in Cinque Terre but choosing lodging can be tricky. Cinque Terre is not known for luxury resorts and there aren’t many places to stay. Besides that, some accommodations can be expensive and unremarkable. If you want to spend a night or two in Cinque Terre, book far in advance.
Alternatively, more affordable hotels are available in La Spezia and Levanto. Both cities are a short train or boat ride to the five villages.
Here are some suggestions for lodging in Monterosso al Mare.
Top-notch: Hotel Porto Roca
Mid-range: Come Eravamo Apartment
Check Booking.com for more information about accommodation.
Exploring Cinque Terre by trail and train
Whether you decided to stay in Cinque Terre or outside of the National Park, you will likely be traveling to see all the villages. During our stay, we bought a two-day Cinque Terre Train Card, which covered unlimited travel between Levanto and La Spezia, plus hiking trail fees and other benefits.
We bought our card from bright red booths located inside the station in Levanto. However, travelers have the option to buy online. Trains run to and from La Spezia two to three times an hour from dawn to midnight.
Note: It is crucial that you validate your Cinque Terre Card before taking the first train ride. At the train station, look for Trenitalia’s machines that will stamp the date and time on it. It will be effective immediately. Be aware that a 1-day ticket is not valid for 24 hours, but until midnight of that day.
What to see and do in Cinque Terre
Hang out on the beaches
Since we were on the Mediterranean coast, spending some time on the beach was a reasonable thing to do. Although the Cinque Terre National Park offers a limited number of small beaches, they are stunning. Whether we rented a chair and an umbrella in Monterosso or relaxed on a towel in Vernazza, either was a great way to spend a few hours of our day.
Cinque Terre National Park is known for some of the best coastal hiking trails in the world. These trails are divided into two groups: 1) Blue Trail, a 7.5-mile pathway that connects Riomaggiore to Monterosso al Mare but allows hikers to explore only sections from one village to the next. 2) Red Trails, recommended for experienced walkers, is a 24-mile stretch from Portovenere to Levanto.
We only hiked between Monterosso and Vernazza (1.8 miles), which is considered the hardest section of the Blue Path. The track varied from easy to steep steps, which sometimes we climbed down; other times, we climbed up. Often, we walked along sheer cliffs with spectacular landscapes dominated by the Mediterranean Sea below and vineyards and olive groves on the other side. Near Vernazza, seen from above, the village looks like a scene out of a postcard.
Note: We saw several kids zooming through this trail. Nevertheless, make sure to wear appropriate shoes and bring water, especially during the hot summer months.
We didn’t plan for sightseeing in Cinque Terre. However, as we strolled along the ancient streets, we realized that quite a few historic sites can be found throughout the five villages.
I highly recommend Saint Francisco Church and Convent of the Capuchin Friars in Monterosso. Built in the 17th century on top of the hill, the Church of San Francisco is also known as the Convento dei Cappuccini e Chiesa di San Francesco and the Capuchin Friars Monastery. It contains fine art, including the Crucifixion by Anthony van Dyck.
As we climbed up from one side and descended on the other, we walked by the statue of St. Francesco. From there, we had incredible views of the village and the sea. In the same village, we also visited the Church of San Giovanni Battista. Dating back to 1307, it is one of the oldest churches in Cinque Terre. The church features a striped façade made of white and dark green marble.
In Vernazza, we saw the Church of St. Margaret of Antioch. Built in 1318, this gothic-style church – found in the main square – stands on a rock in front of the sea. Still intact, it has an impressive, 130 foot belfry adorned by a pointed dome. Last but not least, Doria Castle, built on top of the hill, offers incredible views of the village and beyond. It requires a short, steep hike, but worth it. A small fee applies to visit the castle.
Take a boat ride for a coastal view of the villages.
There is something special about taking a stroll in the narrow lanes of the villages. Yet, staring at them from the water felt like looking at a finished puzzle. Everything we saw came together as a big picture. It was an exceptional picture!
We booked our two-hour tour from NordEst Boat Tour, down by the harbor in Vernazza. Together with a small group, we departed from the port, leaving Vernazza behind us. We traveled north to see Monterosso, then turned back around and cruised along the coast to see the other towns. It was before sunset. Along the way, we enjoyed Italian appetizers and a glass of prosecco, while the golden light added extra beauty to the villages.
That is not all. Experiencing warm temperatures during the summer, the captain stopped the boat, and we all jumped into the crystal-clear waters of the Mediterranean. What a fun adventure!
Enjoy water activities
Besides boat rides along the coast, Cinque Terre offers an array of water activities. It not only gave us the opportunity of stepping away from the crowds for a little bit but also to see the villages from the sea one more time. We rented a kayak for only an hour, but other activities such as snorkeling and paddling boards are available.
Taste Cinque Terre cuisine with a sea view
Regardless of the village in which we decided to grab a meal, we always got an outside table on one of the cobblestone streets. Having a sea view, while we tasted all their mouthwatering flavors, was indispensable for us.
Cinque Terre is five fishing villages facing the deep blue Ligurian Sea, so it is expected that seafood there is excellent. Let’s not forget the traditional Italian food. We particularly enjoyed antipasti ai frutti di mare paired with a glass of the local white wine. Although some dishes were quite simple, with few ingredients, the flavors were delightful. The pesto pasta was a winner for our family, and especially for our daughter.
Even though I have never been a big fan of anchovies, we decided to try them after our waiter repeatedly declared they were fresh. According to him, they taste better when caught the same day. They were definitely better than the ones I have tried before.
We had more gelatos than we could count. Several gelaterias found on the narrow streets of each village serve a wide variety of flavors from salted caramel and peanut butter to seasonal fruits and local honey. After receiving a cone filled with one or two scoops, we would walk to a quiet spot and enjoy the view while we enjoyed each bite of the gelato.