Terraced, multicoloured villages spilling into the Gulf of Genova are what we picture of the Cinque Terre but there's so much than this - to truly experience Italy's glorious destination, pack your walking boots and purchase a Cinque Terre Hiking Card.
Once only accessible by sea, the Cinque Terre /chin-que teh-reh/ UNESCO site ('five lands' of Monterosso - Vernazza - Corniglia - Manarola - Riomaggiore) are connected by walking trails trod over centuries between these five iconic villages. Over time the dusty, rugged paths have been officially marked and mapped, resulting in 48 trails covering 120km of the Cinque Terre National Park.
The most popular, but not necessarily the most scenic, seem frustratingly those that regularly close for renovation and maintenance. Yes, they're used by millions of visitors a year and were understandably never intended for the high traffic they endure, but somehow landslides seem to love these paths more than we do.
Sentiero Azzurro, Footpath #2, is the most well-known, for which you need your hiking pass. It winds 12.5km from Monterosso to Riomaggiore through lemon trees, cultivated vines and olive groves with unreal panoramas over the romantically jagged coastline. Sadly, after a devasting landslide in 2012, the scenic stretch named Via dell'Amore (Walk of Love) from Manarola to Riomaggiore is closed for construction until 2024. For now let's make do with what's open as of the writing of this blog post in March 2022.
Sentiero Azzuro - The Blue Trail
The well-trod trail from Monterosso to Corniglia is split in two by Vernazza, a beauty to behold especially from the path leading in from Monterosso. You can start at either end but expect a steep climb of steps immediately once on the red/white signposted path starting from Monterosso's eastern side. From there, it's a leisurely 3.5km elevated walk through olives, vineyards and citrus groves with incredible seascape views until you stumble upon quaint Vernazza and it takes your breath away.
Wind down through narrow back streets until you're smack bang in the tiny town harbour with cliffs and hills tucking you in on both sides and the gulf stretching out before you.
From Vernazza, 4km of gentle ups and downs takes you through meadows, vineyards and olive groves gazing down on beaches beneath until you reach Corniglia, the smallest of the five wonders. What Corniglia lacks in sea-front access, she makes up in charm; perched 100m above sea level, this is iconic Cinque Terre photo-geniality. Seen from sea, she's truly a little gem.
Depending on your time-schedule, here are two options:
- Walk the entire path con calma
Start at Monterosso and walk the length of Sentiero Azzuro all the way to Riomaggiore. Stop in each town for a night and revel in everything they have to offer. The paths aren't long which gives you ample time to swim, taste local delights and unwind in true Italian hospitality. If you don't have a week to spare or carry more luggage than a backpack, base yourself in one village, say Manarola, and do a piece (or two) a day using the train as your handy Plan B. Check which parts of the path are open, if the Via dell'Amore is still closed, you can climb the tricky but beautiful Via Beccara between Manarola and Riomaggiore, be prepared, it's demanding.
- Explore the reserve
Most visitors come for postcard-perfect views of the five tumbling villages perched on the jagged cliffs of a dramatic Ligurian coast but the official reserve stretches over 120km of trails, both coastal and inland, and is truly magnificent to explore. Some trails run close to the sea like the 35km long Footpath #1, High Path AV5T. For serious fundis this cliff-ridged path is a challenging must.
12km of trail continues beyond the fifth official land, Riomaggiore, east to Portovenere. 5 hours and a steep climb of 45 minutes makes this a tough one but worth it! Cliff-side paths feature awe-inspiring views across the sea to the islands of Elba and Corsica before descending into busy Portovenere.
Similarly 8km of a lesser-known trail extends west from Monterosso to Levanto. 3 hours of straightforward hiking on an ancient donkey trail past ruins of a castle and chapel will reward you with stunning coastal views across all five UNESCO villages. Expect an abundance of steps out of Monterosso.
When to visit
The Sentiero Azzurro is free to walk from November to Easter for a reason. Rainy weather makes the narrow path a little treacherous to climb. The last thing you want is to trip on a slippery step and ruin your day, or even your holiday, so plan to visit in Spring - May/June or Autumn - September/October. It goes without saying that if serious trail hiking is your cup of tea you'll know exactly what you're signing up for and can choose whichever season your itchy feet desire.
What to see
All five villages are uniquely delightful. Feel like you're in a movie set with every quaint seaside setting or elevated amongst terraced vineyards with views over rocky coastlines of haphazardly charming dwellings and fishing boats bobbing in tiny harbours. You may actually stumble upon a real movie set like we did once in Vernazza
But do see our travel tips below for options around the Cinque Terre. Overlooked neighbouring villages, like stylish riviera Levanto or bustling harbour-town Portovenere are also beautiful gems to behold and well worth a visit.
What to taste
Liguria packs a punch on the flavourful foods menu. This is the home of pesto genovese. Decisive flavours of ancient olive groves, local seafood and strong cheeses make this local cuisine a must if you love bold Italian food. Coastal vineyards produce wines of rounded, deep notes, complimenting Liguria's love of strong tastes and lemons grown here feature in Limoncino - Cinque Terre's limoncello.
Order pesto pasta and expect masses of vivid sauce with green beans chopped into your trofie - twisted, handmade pasta.
We stumbled upon il Fornaio bakery in Monterosso and went to heaven with our first bite of soft, focaccia genovese. They know good food here and are proud of it.
We loved these restaurants with stunning views:
Vernazza - Belforte (the most incredible setting perched above a cliff for seafood and classic Ligurian food, gaze over the bay of Genova)
Manarola - Nessun Dorma (another stunning cliff-top setting, tricky on a windy day but worth it - no table service, no pasta - these are platters of Ligurian cheeses and meats with beautiful breads and wines - truly stunning local foods)
Manarola - Marina Piccola (watch children swim in the cove below as you sip on cold Vermentino wine and tuck into fresh seasonal seafood, try the pesto!)
Wear good shoes
There are notices stating sandals and open shoes are forbidden with potential fines for wearing inappropriate footwear but the amount of slow-treading flip-flop-wearers on the rocky paths remains a scary sight to be seen.
Check the weather
Rainy days mean slippery rocks. If you're an experienced hiker and well equipped you'll be fine but check the weather report nonetheless.
Purchase a Cinque Terre Hiking Card for the Blue Trail/Sentiero Azzuro
Purchase your card in advance online here or at the very helpful tourist offices in every train station. Checkpoints are placed at entrance and exit points to the villages on the blue trail where from 9am, a guard will check your pass. A day pass costs €7.50 in cash. In summer months, pre-purchasing means skipping the queues. From November until Easter the blue trail is free to walk.
Time it well
Even if the checkpoints open at 9am, the footpaths are always open for walkers so if you'd like to get some peaceful ambling in, head out early and avoid the scorching midday sun, remember temperatures top 30°C in July and August.
Use the Train
The train runs the length of the park and is a godsend for weary legs, lazy afternoons and early morning starts. Easy to use with instructions in English and bus journeys included, keep this in mind as a handy Plan B.
And the Ferry
As plan C, a regular ferry hops from one village to the next, except for Corniglia which lies 100m above sea level on a small peninsula. Tickets can be purchased online here or at tickets counters on the docks. On a clear day, it's lovely to venture out for unforgettable long-distance views of Cinque Terre's cliff villages and a fresh, sea-swept perspective.
Bring your swimming costume
At Manarola, a path winds down amongst dark, boulders to a rocky cove beneath the village. There's a ladder into the water and after a hot day's walking, a jump into sparkling Mediterranean sea is exactly what you need, followed by a hearty Ligurian lunch on one of the trattoria terraces overlooking the cove.
If you prefer sandy, Monterosso is the place to go for beach chairs and umbrellas, the biggest of beaches, there are bars, shops and restaurants galore. If, however, you love a little seclusion and don't mind stripping off completely, there are gorgeous little coves under Corniglia and even an exclusively intriguing nudist beach, Guvano, marked on the trail. Tragically, after the earthquake in 2012 it's too dangerous to access unless you can rent a boat!
Our advice? Shove your cozzie in your backpack with a towel. There are too many tempting opportunities to dip into cool Mediterranean waters along your travels, opportunities you'll not want to miss!
Go the old route if la via dell amore is closed.
The original link between Manarola and Riomaggiore, Via Beccara, is a steep climb up and steep climb down. The towns are close in distance but a mountain ridge lies between them. 1.5km is divided between first up, then down, with uneven steps and unsure footage, so take your time (1hour), be sure of your abilities and check with tourist information first. Otherwise plan B - train it.
Ask at Tourist information
Every train station has a fabulously well-informed tourist office offering handy paper maps and sage advice. It's worth checking in for up-to-date information on trail closures and risks before venturing out.
The bustling harbour town of Portovenere just east of the Cinque Terre Park is splendid to visit for some sea spray and space, it's nothing like our popular, haphazard cliff-top villages; this is a regal harbour dominated by a strong fortress with an abundance of seafood restaurants and a wide sunny beach promenade. If you feel like a breather, catch the ferry from Riomaggiore, or depending on how much hiking you're up to, walk the beautiful 12 km trail, lunch for a couple of hours and catch the ferry back.
Spread out west to Levanto, a gloriously relaxed medieval town with a long beach promenade and lots going on. Levanto is merely 10 minutes by train to the Cinque Terre so makes a fabulously un-touristy base away from the madding crowds.
You can't really go wrong in this highly sought-after Italian destination. Thriving on tourism, everywhere is well-equipped and ready for visitors. We particularly adore Agriturismo hospitality - family-run accommodation with a true love of their land and produce, we always search for genuine places with heart and soul. Wanting to explore the surrounding area, we found a farm in the hills just outside of the reserve as a base. Our first meal on Ligurian soil is one I'll never forget! I never thought deep-fried pizza dough could taste that good...
Finally, here is a handy map of the expanse of trails within the reserve but honestly, I'm more of a paper map kind of lady, plus you never know when your 4G will go, so I'd always suggest you stop by tourist information (and pick up a free paper map) before setting off. Trail conditions change continuously, along with weather risks and it's worth making the most of your holiday and staying safe.
We hope you find our travel tips useful and enjoy the bounty these beautiful lands have to offer...