The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Cinque Terre, Italy: Anna Merulla and Emanuela Raggio of BeautifuLiguria.
Italy’s northwestern region of Liguria is best known for the picturesque villages of the Cinque Terre, star-studded Portofino, and the port city of Genoa. What many travelers don’t know about—but should—are Liguria’s colorful hilltop towns, its hiking trails with breathtaking coastal views, and its family-run agriturismos. That’s where Anna and Emanuela, who are based in Genoa, come in. They make sure that their travelers visit the Cinque Terre in the opposite direction than the cruise-ship day-trippers do, to avoid the crowds. In the hills above Portofino, they can introduce you to artisanal producers of wine, olive oil, honey, and beer. And to help you work off all those calories, they’re ready with plans for biking, kayaking, snorkeling, and other active pursuits. Given the winding roads and lack of parking in Liguria, they typically utilize private drivers and local trains. Anna and Emanuela can assist with arrangements in select other parts of northern Italy—Lombardy, Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany—but not the Dolomites.
Things to Do and See
Early-morning and late-afternoon walks. These are the best times to explore the five small seaside colorful villages that make up the Cinque Terre (which is a UNESCO World Heritage site)—Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggore—and to hike in the national park between the coastline and the terraced vineyards up in the hills. With all the steep climbs and descents, hiking here is not always easy, but the effort is worth it, because from above you have the most striking views away from the crowds!
Seeing the region by boat, which gives you both a new perspective and a feeling of solitude. Spend half a day motoring along this beautiful coastline with its rugged cliffs and turquoise water, stopping in one or two of the villages to go for a stroll.
Renting a car. Driving is forbidden inside the villages, and most of them can’t even be reached by car (locals mostly use trains and ferries). The smartest way to get around is by train; distances between the villages are very short. You can buy a Cinque Terre Card, which allows unlimited train travel for one or two days, as well as access to the trekking paths.
Most Overrated Place
Monterosso is the largest of the five villages and where most of the hotels are concentrated, so it is also the most crowded at night.
Most Underrated Places
Among the Cinque Terre, Corniglia is certainly the quaintest and most secluded of all. But there’s so much more to the region of Liguria than just Cinque Terre, and many lesser-known coastal villages have maintained their authenticity. Have you ever heard of Camogli village, or San Fruttuoso’s tiny bay? What about the fishing village of Boccadasse, or Genoa’s medieval town? Right next to Cinque Terre there is also a bay that was loved by writers of the Romantic era—Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, D.H. Lawrence—and is known as the Gulf of Poets. On this bay, the village of Tellaro is particularly beautiful. Farther west along the Italian Riviera, you have medieval villages such as Noli or Varigotti. With all these riches, it would be a shame to limit your time in Liguria to just the Cinque Terre.
Cinque Terre’s vineyards. These small plots are scattered around the hills, demarcated by dry-stone walls that transform them into terraces and require continuous maintenance. Being a winemaker here takes huge physical effort to produce just a few high-quality bottles of wine. These terraces date back to the first settlements of the area in 800 AD, when monks began to cultivate the land. The villages by the sea came later, as shelters for boats (which were the only way to move around and trade).
Imagine reaching a gorgeous wine estate nestled in a beautiful natural amphitheater in the heart of Cinque Terre—an oasis of peace and tranquility with vineyards, olive trees, lemon groves, and a view to the sea, where you are the only guests. Enjoy a lunch of local specialties paired with the excellent Cinque Terre wines produced at the estate. Relax on the lawn sipping a Limoncino prepared with the lemons you see around you while conversing with the winemaker.
How to spend a lazy Sunday
There are beautiful beaches all along the Cinque Terre; relax at whichever one is closest to you.
In Genoa, stroll Via Garibaldi, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and stop into the Musei di Strada Nuova, which includes three palazzos that hold everything from Rubens paintings to Paganini violins to 15th-century table décor.
Or just do as the locals do, and sit down at any of the numerous trattorias along the coast for a leisurely Sunday lunch.
Where to Stay and What to Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotels
La Torretta is one of the best boutique hotels in the area, with a highly curated decor; it’s built inside an ancient tower, so most of the rooms have terraces with beautiful sea views.
L’Uliveto nel Parco. Though this family-run agroturismo is just a ten-minute walk from Monterosso, it has the feel of a country estate with olive groves, lemon trees, and grapevines. It’s a place to get away from the crowds but still enjoy water views.
In Levanto, which is a five- to ten-minute train ride from Monterosso, the Palazzo Vannoni is a 16th-century palace renovated to become a small hotel. Most of the 11 rooms have original ceiling frescoes; all have air-conditioning.
Restaurants the locals love
An ancient Roman tower in Vernazza today houses Belforte, which has been open for more than 50 years; book well in advance for a table on the terrace with a breathtaking view of the water. Order the mussels, farmed in the Gulf of La Spezia, stuffed with breadcrumbs and aromatic herbs.
Also in Vernazza for more than half a century, Trattoria Gianni Franzi is famous among locals for its traditional Ligurian recipes such as pasta with Genovese pesto or walnut sauce. Their fish ravioli is also wonderful. Book an outdoor table on Piazza Marconi, a great spot for people-watching.
Dish to try
Anchovies of Monterosso: The silver-bright acciughe of Cinque Terre are delicious. Even if you are not normally a fan of this type of fish, you should try them here.
Locals love to enjoy them raw with a trickle of olive oil and lemon; raw with oregano, parsley and garlic; stuffed; fried; or cooked with potatoes. They’re on the menu in many of the small restaurants of Vernazza, Manarola, and Monterosso.
April through June and September through October are the best to enjoy both the blue Mediterranean sea and the mountains that plunge into them; it’s not as hot as the summer and less crowded.
July and August are the busiest months, and the heat makes hiking unpleasant.
November through February can be rainy, making Cinque Terre’s steep trails quite slippery. Most hotels and restaurants also close for the winter.
Trying to see the region in just one day, as a shore excursion from a cruise or a day trip from Florence. Quickly hopping on and off a train from one town to the other won’t reveal the real spirit of Cinque Terre. For that, you must take your time, adapt to the slower local rhythm, wander side alleys, climb to a gorgeous view from terraced vineyards, and sip a glass of wine at sunset.
Similarly, unless you are extremely fit and willing to walk nonstop for eight hours, you cannot hike the path that touches five villages in a single day—and even then you wouldn’t have time to stop and visit them.
Vernazza from above: Start hiking along the path from Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare, and in less than 15 minutes the village will come into view. Set out in the early morning for better light and the chance of having this spot all to yourself.
The closest airport is Genoa (60-90 minutes away), but you can also fly into Milan, Pisa (both two hours away), or Nice (three-and-a-half hours away).
Shoes suitable for hiking—at a minimum, sneakers with a rugged sole.