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Cinque Terre

5t1The Cinque Terre (pronounced CHEEN|kweh TEHR|reh) consists of five small villages (“cinque terre” means “five lands” in Italian) which cling to the Ligurian cliffs along Italy’s western coast. They are usually thought of and visited collectively, mostly because they’re so close to one another that you can walk from the first to the fifth in a matter of hours, but there are five different towns and each does have its own personality.

Once peaceful fishing villages whose clever residents even managed to devise a way to grow wine grapes on almost vertical slopes, the Cinque Terre now relies almost entirely on tourism. The tiny towns are incredibly popular with American backpackers/budget travelers and German holiday makers, and are getting increasingly popular with people outside those groups as well.

The point is that it’s getting to be nearly impossible to visit the Cinque Terre when it’s not crowded. You could go in the middle of winter, but the weather might keep you indoors, and the primary attraction of the area is the hike along the cliffs from village to village. As long as you’re aware that the area is almost always fuller than you might expect it to be, you should be prepared for whatever you find. And if you’ve already done the hike and are looking for a picturesque place to relax in Feburary, you might find the perfect room in the Cinque Terre when it’s not completely overrun.

>> For kicks, find out why I think the Cinque Terre should consider letting people in by permit, like they do at the Grand Canyon.

Quick links to Cinque Terre travel resources:

Where to Stay in the Cinque Terre

There was a time when guidebooks would recommend that you not even bother to make reservations in advance of visiting the Cinque Terre, because you could get better deals by just showing up and chatting with any of the women who would hang out in the train stations with signs advertising rooms for rent. Those days are, sadly, mostly gone – at least in the high season. Anyone who’s visiting during the busy season and knows when they’re planning to be in the Cinque Terre is advised to book ahead of time so as to avoid the disappointment of having to take the train from town to town searching for a bed. In the off-season, you’re more likely to be able to score a room on the spur of the moment.

Many of the accommodation options in the Cinque Terre aren’t available for booking online in the same manner that hotels and hostels in big cities are, especially because many of the rooms in the villages are either rooms in someone’s house or entire small apartments for short-term rentals. They’re getting better about having websites (or at least email addresses) in more recent years, but sometimes all you’ll find is a phone number listed in a guidebook.

One thing you need to be careful about is that since the Cinque Terre is a region and not a specific town name, it’s easier for hotels and hostels that aren’t really in one of the Cinque Terre towns to say they’re in the Cinque Terre. You think everything’s fine until you get there and realize you’re a short train ride from any of the five villages. As long as you know that in advance that’s fine, and you can often find great deals on accommodation if you base yourself in a town that’s not a Cinque Terre town, but if you don’t know in advance that’s what you’re booking it’s a bit of an unpleasant feeling.

The closest sizable city is La Spezia (just south of Riomaggiore), and it’s a quick train ride from there to the Cinque Terre. If you’re looking at places that are anywhere other than the five Cinque Terre towns or La Spezia, check their locations on a map before you book – don’t just trust that “Cinque Terre” means the same thing to everyone.

Also note that some places that are really apartments or rooms in someone’s house list themselves under “hostels” in order to get in front of the eyes of budget travelers. It’s a good idea to search in a few places – for a few different labels of accommodation – to find all your options.

Some links to help you get started browsing:

Description of the Towns in the Cinque Terre

As mentioned, each town in the Cinque Terre does have its own personality. If you’ve got your heart set on staying in a particular village, that’s fine – but if not, don’t worry about it. You can get from one to the other so easily on the train that you can rightly consider them five neighborhoods of one city. The five individual villages are listed here, starting with the northernmost town and working down the coast.

  • 5t2Monterosso al Mare, sometimes known simply as Monterosso, is the largest of the five, and the most heavily visited – especially by young people. It’s the only village with a nice long span of beach right in town (the others either require a hike or are very small and/or rocky).
  • 5t3Vernazza has perhaps the most charming central square, as it’s right on the water and there’s a lovely church tower on one side. The ruins of a castle are on one of the hills overlooking Vernazza. This is the town that tends to be most visited by people carrying Rick Steves’ guidebooks.
  • 5t4Corniglia is the only town not immediately on the water – it’s on top of its cliff, and so either direction you walk from requires a steep hike uphill. It’s certainly not dead – no town in the Cinque Terre is – but being on top of the cliff makes it a little harder to reach and, especially in the evenings when the hikers have all passed through, it quiets down quite a bit.
  • 5t5Manarola feels a bit more rustic and less polished than its northern neighbors; for this reason some find it a bit more charming and less populated with tourists. The part of the path between Manarola and Riomaggiore is the easiest. It’s paved, so you can even make the “trek” with a baby in a stroller, and it’s called the Via dell’Amore – the road of love.
  • 5t6Riomaggiore rises away from the water at a dramatic angle (don’t let go of your wheeled suitcase as you haul it uphill or it’ll end up in the sea), so you can get away from the water and feel like you’re in another town entirely. This town seems to be most popular with German tourists.

Wherever you decide to land, don’t be disappointed if you don’t get the quiet Italian beach getaway you were hoping for. The Cinque Terre has been discovered by pretty much everyone now, and although they’re no longer quiet, they’re still charming and beautiful and well worth a visit on any Italy itinerary.

Things to Do in the Cinque Terre

The number one thing people who visit the Cinque Terre are there to do is hike – there are fantastic hiking trails that connect all five towns, mostly right along the cliffs. There are also less-famous hikes higher up in the hills above the Cinque Terre, if you’re staying for a few days and want to get away from the crowds hiking the main trails.

In addition to tourists, what you’ll find in the Cinque Terre is beautiful scenery, a deliciously sweet dessert wine called Sciacchetr√† (pronounced shah|keh|TRAH; try it with biscotti), a few nice sunbathing beaches, and excellent seafood (you’ve never tried anchovies until you’ve had them fresh from the sea).

photos, from top to bottom, by: trixnbooze, trozbo, chasingdaylightphotography, tonyduckles, Rob Inh00d, OaklandNative