Walking the Cinque Terre - What's it Like?
Cinque Terre. The Five Lands. You’ve probably heard of this magical-sounding place, almost certainly seen the photos of the rainbow-like villages, and now you want to visit? This guide will provide all the inspiration and advice required for a walking holiday along the Italian Riviera.
It is the wild nature of the environment that makes the region quite so remarkable. Historically, locals have survived by fishing from the sea, even though only one village has a natural harbour, and from the land even though the steep mountains which cascade to the Mediterranean Sea required intense labour to be tamed into stepped fields. 7,000 kilometres of dry-stone wall fortify these terraces – that’s equal to the length of the Great Wall of China! Additionally, this coastline was routinely plundered by pirate for centuries.
Despite these harsh conditions, locals still survive, thrive and live La Dolce Vita! Their seafood rivals that found anywhere in the world and fresh wine and olives pour and roll down from the mountains. The villages tucked into coastal clefts appear like an intricate Roman mosaic with each colourful house seemingly-random but complimenting all others. In fact, there is nothing random about it; locals require approval to change their house colour.
As the villages are mostly car-less, walking remains the best way to experience the Cinque Terre UNESCO site. It always feels to me that the footpath winds lazily between viewpoints as if its sole purpose is to showcase the best of Cinque Terre for tourists. This couldn’t be further from the truth. You are actually walking on footpaths and mule tracks that have connected the villages for centuries. No matter how much the villages bustle with throngs of tourists, walking is the surest way to escape the crowds and enjoy the peaceful views.
The Five Villages of Cinque Terre (Plus Two Bonuses!)
Monterosso al Mare
As the largest village and the only one with a sandy beach and a car park, Monterosso al Mare is often the most crowded village. This just adds extra incentive to get lost in the labyrinthine old town, which was historically walled for protection from pirate sea raids.
Vernazza, mentioned as early as 1080AD, is the quintessential Cinque Terre village; it is totally car-less and cradled by steep mountain slopes. It is the only village with a natural port; be sure to dodge the crashing waves to reach the end of the marina arm and earn a mesmerising viewpoint.
Corniglia is unique. Instead of being pressed into the rocky coastline, it more closely resembles a bird’s nest as it straddles a rocky spur a hundred metres high. It is the smallest village with a population of just 150, it has no port and the architecture more closely resembles that found in the hinterland than along the coast. From Corniglia you can see all of the Cinque Terre villages, two on either side. Documents from the 13th century mention a castle but its ruins and location remain elusive and much-debated.
Manarola climbs up the steep mountain in the same style as the terraced fields. The harbour is so tiny that the fishing boats must be pulled onto land whenever rough sea threatens. It has been renowned for its wine for millennia; even Roman writings refer it!
Riomaggiore is thought to date to the 8th century, and its earliest inhabitants were wine-makers in search of a milder climate.
Bonus Villages - Portofino and Porto Venere
Two bookends on either side of Cinque Terre are Portofino to the north-west and Porto Venere to the south-east. Neither village has a train station so they maintain an element of remoteness that rewards the intrepid visitor who journeys there – especially the walker who arrives on foot!
Glamorous Portofino has attracted the rich and famous since the 1950’s. Even today, mingled amongst the quaint gelato shops and seafood restaurants you’ll also spot the eye-watering prices of Gucci and Louis Vuitton stores. As well as fishing boats gliding in and out of the harbour, you’ll also spot pristine yachts.
Porto Venere is a medieval fishing village. There are several things to see here, including the 13th century Church of San Pietro, the fortified Castle Doria and the rocky area where the poet Byron liked to swim.
Best time of year to visit Cinque Terre
The Mediterranean climate allows a long season to visit Cinque Terre. It is rarely too hot or too cold but the best time to visit is March to October, although bear in mind that August will be the hottest and busiest month.
Be prepared for rain at any time of year, and if you are keen sea swimmer, be aware that the sea temperature increases throughout the year.
How long is the hiking trail? How much time do I need?
The most direct route between Cinque Terre’s five villages is only 11 kilometres and could be tackled in a single day… but that does not do the region justice.
There are 48 hiking trails totaling 120 kilometres of possible walking. The trails are often steep and swing up and down between the mountains and the coast with hundreds of metres of elevation change.
Macs Adventure recommends staying in the area for a week to fully appreciate the Cinque Terre villages and to complete a rich variety of walks. We also urge that you visit Porto Venere and Portofino as these villages complement any trip to the region. To really experience the best of the Italian Riviera, you could travel from Portofino to Porto Venere over eight days.
It is a testament to the wildness of the area that landslides often close the trails, sometimes for several years at a time. There are normally longer hiking routes that navigate around the closures, or you can use the train or boat to visit all five villages. Up to date info on path closures can be found here.
How to get to Cinque Terre?
The closest large cities are Genoa and Pisa. All five villages can be reached by train although express trains skip all but Monterosso al Mare and La Spezia. From these, you can use a slower train to reach each village.
Portofino can be reached via a bus from Santa Margherita Ligure train station. Porto Venere can be reached via a bus from La Spezia train station.
What to pack for a hiking trip in Cinque Terre?
Bring sturdy, comfortable walking shoes. Flip flops and sandals are forbidden from the trails. Walking poles may be useful on the uneven ground and especially on the steeper ascents and descents.
Bring sun cream, a sun hat and plenty of water (approximately 0.75 litres per 1 hour of hiking). Bring swimming clothes and a towel, if you wish to swim.
For the two most popular hiking trails (Monterosso – Vernazza and Vernazza – Corniglia) a Cinque Terre Trekking Card is required. This costs 7.50 euro per day for adults and can be bought from each train station or online here.
What to eat and drink?
Italy is world-famous for its food and drink, but there are some delicacies for which Cinque Terre is particularly renowned. Monterosso Anchovies are granted Protected Designation of Origin status. If you like your seafood, be sure to stop at a Friggitoria to buy a paper cone of fried seafood morsels.
After working up a sweat climbing to the highest village, Corniglia, treat yourself to an ice cream made with local honey; Miele di Corniglia. Other regional specialities include mouth-watering pesto, seafood, limoncello, focaccia and farinata – a crispy pancake made from chickpea flour. There are a variety of DOC quality wines produced locally.