Cinque Terre is the jewel of the Italian Riviera. Rugged mountains plunge to the Ligurian Sea where five medieval coastal villages, each with its own dialect and identity, enchant visitors. Come for the swimming, the sun, the wine, and for hiking.
The car-free villages are connected by a web of trails. They are close enough for hiking to multiple villages in a day and returning to your base by ferry or rail. We chose to take it slow, to connect to this land in an intimate way, to hike from south to north, staying overnight in each village along the way.
Summer along this coast can be sweltering and crowded. April, May, September, and October are prime months for a relaxing visit. We hiked Cinque Terre in October. While sipping a latte at a sidewalk café, we were able to book our rooms on-line a day or two in advance. (For lodging and transportation information, see below.)
Riomaggiore is Cinque Terre’s southernmost town. Arriving by train from La Spezia, we walked to the harbor down the ravine that forms the main street. Ancient pastel multi-storied houses, built into steep hillsides, line the street. Small fishing boats were stacked in the piazza at the base of the harbor.
After checking into our hotel, we headed to the rocky beach for an afternoon swim in the warm, aquamarine sea. That evening we explored the town, stopping at a sidewalk cafés where we were introduced to Cinque Terre wine – white, crisp, and dry. We dined, as we did every night on this journey, on the fresh catch-of-the-day.
Hiking Day #1 Riomaggiore to Manarola
The coastal trail, Via dell’Amore, is closed due to landslides. When it was open, the paved and flat walk from Riomaggiore to Manarola took 20 minutes. Ladies strolled it in high heels! It is projected to reopen in 2018.
The route now takes trail 531 by walking up through town, past the train station. Climb Via Signorini around a hairpin turn and follow the sign for “Manarola” leading you along a narrow road. The trailhead marker is on the left. It is always easy to find the trailheads by asking at the tourist office where you can also pick up a map. Or you can ask a local. Even if you don’t speak Italian, they will see that you are a hiker and point you in the right direction.
This is the most challenging of all the trails we hiked in Cinque Terre. It starts with a long, steep ascent. For me, this is the most difficult type of trail – tall stone steps, 12-18 inches high. It is good to wear hiking boots, and we were grateful to have our hiking poles.
The climb is worth the effort. The trail ascends through land cultivated for centuries. These venerable trails were originated by farmers in Roman times who climbed to their terraced gardens and vineyards. Farmers still use them today. The autumn plots were dense with lettuce, onions, and huge squash. Lemons ripened and the grape harvest was winding up.
As you ascend, beautiful views unfold of forested mountains, the undulating coastline, villages clinging to the cliffs, and the Ligurian Sea. Not a good trail for those with vertigo, at times the narrow path is wedged between a stone wall and a precipitous cliff. Descend into Manarola on steep stairs. The hike should take 1.5-3 hours.
The brightly colored houses of Manarola wind down a narrow ravine and extend to a rocky promontory overlooking the sea. Small fishing boats line the street near the harbor. The concrete pier and adjacent rocks are a great place to swim.
A peaceful fishing village famous for its wine, it has several wine shops and restaurants. Tourists come in for short visits by train or ferry, but it is quiet and serene after sunset.
We took an evening stroll and stopped at a wine shop. Antonio was behind the bar of the shop his grandfather opened in 1958. He served us a selection from nearby vineyards along with the typical snacks – olives, capers, and nuts. Somehow the wine was even more delicious knowing it might have come from the vineyards we had hiked through that day.
Hiking Day #2 Manarola to Corniglia
The low coastal trail from Manarola to Corniglia is also closed due to landslides, so our trail heads for the hills. The ascent is steep, but easier than the first day because the steps are shorter.
It climbs to Volastra, passing through vineyards on timeworn terraced paths. The grapes had been harvested, and the vines were turning to yellow. Olive groves were leaden, and olives dropped into nets below the trees.
You can stop at a restaurant in Volastra for refreshments. The trail then winds for a long flat stretch in and out of the woods. There are spectacular views of the coastline north and south where you can spot all five villages. The hike is 3.2km and should take 1.5 - 2.5 hours.
The smallest of the five villages, Corniglia has a unique non-touristed quality. Set on cliffs, 100 meters above the sea, it is the only Cinque Terre village where the ferry doesn’t stop.
A deep ravine divides the town. It has a central square and one main street with shops and restaurants. Corniglia’s wine was the most celebrated during Roman times, and it is still delicious 2,000 years later. After sunset, the village has a quiet, timeless feel.
Hiking Day #3 Corniglia to Vernazza
Take the main street north out of town. The trail climbs, but it is a gradual ascent with breathtaking views looking back to Corniglia and Manarola. It passes through vineyards and groves of scrub oaks. Prickly pear cactus and century plants with long flower stalks cling to steep mountainsides.
We took a break near the top of the trail at a little shop that serves snacks and cold drinks with a deck overlooking the beautiful coastline. Hikers from Europe and the Americas had also stopped. We lingered, sharing stories of European hiking adventures.
The trail descends steeply into Vernazza with a series of sharp switchbacks. Rock steps on the trail were slippery from the last night’s rain. It required more mindful hiking. The hike is 3.6km and should take 1.5 – 2.5 hours.
Like other Cinque Terre villages, Vernazza is built along a ravine where mountain runoff flows to the sea. Yellow and rose houses climb the hillside. Shops and restaurants line the main street that is built over the ravine. On October 25, 2011 a freak torrential downpour brought rivers of mud flooding the streets of Vernazza, wiping out the railroad tracks and burying shops and houses under 13 feet of muck and debris.
It took months to dig out, but the village has recovered. Vernazza’s rocky peninsula, topped by a castle, extends into the sea. A concrete and rock breakwater forms a tranquil harbor. High seas pounded the rocks during our visit, and most of the fishing boats were pulled up onto the piazza.
We explored the town, climbing to the old cemetery. Walls of vaults held the remains of loved ones with photographs of those who had died in more recent decades. They give a sense of village and family life over the years.
After a walk on the rocky beach, we watched the sunset from a sidewalk café on the harbor piazza. Waves crashed on the rocks and cascaded over the seawall. Then we climbed stairs of the peninsula to a restaurant overlooking the sea where we dined Italian style, a two hour feast of salad, pasta, clams, sea bass, and Cinque Terre wine.
Hiking Day #4 Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare
This may be the most popular section of the Cinque Terre trails and for good reason. The trail ascends steep steps then winds along the mountainside with the most awe-inspiring views of all five villages and the coast. There are segments of the trail only wide enough for one person. Hikers are traveling in both directions, so there may be periodic traffic jams.
Monterosso al Mare comes into view, set in a picturesque cove with a crescent coastline leading to a monolithic rocky peninsula. Enter the fifth village on a walkway built into the cliff face, a dramatic finale to a hike along the Italian Riviera.
Monterosso al Mare
Arriving in Monterosso al Mare after hiking Cinque Terre feels like leaving an ancient world and reentering the 21st Century, although a very pleasant version of it. A resort town with large hotels and a long sandy beach, it is the most visited of the five villages.
The old and new sections of town are linked by a pedestrian tunnel. Explore Monterosso al Mare with a visit to the partially ruined Genoese castle and the church of San Francesco, built in 1622, which houses a painting of the crucifixion attributed to Van Dyke. Then enjoy the beach and nightlife.
Driving the winding roads of Cinque Terre can be thrilling if you are not subject to carsickness. The towns are car-free, but each has parking on the outskirts. You may pay a hefty fee to park within 1 km of your inn or you might find a free spot further away. Park once and then get around by train, ferry, or on foot.
Take the train from La Spezia or Genova. Each village has a train station, and local trains run 1-2 times an hour in each direction. Tickets cost 1.5 – 3 euros.
Travel by ferry between all the villages except Croniglia. It is a spectacular way to explore the coast. Hike to one or two villages, and return to your home base by train or ferry.
We hiked Cinque Terre in October, and we were able to book a room one or two days in advance. If you are traveling during the busy summer season, make your bookings several weeks ahead. The most popular methods are Booking.com, Airbnb, or the recommendations of Rick Steves and Lonely Planet.