Cinque Terre, Italy Has Its Own Magic That Can't Be Missed
One of the last places in Earth one would think to end up is on the Ligurian region of Italy, but here the land feels somewhat familiar—sand, the sea and the ever-present sun. And yet Cinque Terre has its own magic that can’t be missed. This is where you can live out your Italian Riviera fantasies in these centuries-old seaside towns, and fall in love with the pastel buildings against the deep blue sea. So slap on the sunscreen, bring your bathing suit and get ready to explore this beautiful national park in the next forty-eight hours.
A few things to note on our travels: Cinque Terre is a large national park composed of the five seaside villages alluded to in its name—Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. Outside of these, Portovenere and La Spezia are also worth a visit. The are three ways to get around the villages. The first is to take the train, which goes across all the towns for 4€ each stop, regardless of distance (we recommend you get the Cinque Terre Pass). The second is to take the boat, which has its own schedule, and finally, to hike across each town.
While Cinque Terre isn’t on everyone's travel must-see list, it is still a major tourist destination. As such, restaurants like to charge cover—they call it ‘bread fees’—that can range anywhere from 1-3€ per person. Make sure you check that before ducking in to a restaurant.
Explore La Spezia and Portovenere
Arrive at your home base of La Spezia and start your adventure. La Spezia is usually considered just a landing point at the edge of the five towns, but trust us when we say that this lovely place shouldn’t be overlooked. We stayed at an AirBnb above Murphy’s Pub, a fun little spot that serves delicious Italian fare with a mug of draft beer. The pub is also walking distance to the palm tree-lined port on Viale Italia, a gorgeous place to walk along with a park on the opposite side. Make sure you try the shakerato at the cafe on the port!
For a good meal, we highly recommend Bif la Florentina for a bit of change from the regular Italian fare, or visit the bakery on Via del Prione forfoccacia pizza, a specialty of the Ligurian regions.
Once you’ve had your fill of the culinary delights of La Spezia, board a boat and take a lovely afternoon cruise on the Liguirian sea to Portovenere, the closest village to La Spezia. The fun thing about Portovenere is that they still have a lot of medieval buildings standing strong. Make sure you take pictures from the sea, where you can see the grey stone of the buildings against the gorgeous terrace houses, or Palazzata. These houses in particular weren’t just about being pretty—they were used to defend the town against invaders.
When you’ve finished exploring the lower towns, make sure you head up towards the edge of Portovenere, to the Gothic Church of San Lorenzo at the tip, and the Church of San Pietro with a gorgeous view of the sea.
Bathe under the sun in Monterosso Al Mare
Get ready to spend your entire day under the heat of the sun. From La Spezia, take the boat (or the train!) to Monterosso Al Mare, the first of Cinque Terre’s five towns, and perhaps its biggest. The boat lands on the right side of the town with the clock tower, which is fun to explore. We recommend purchasing pasalubong here, as the small boutiques sell the most unique items among the five cities. Sit under gorgeous magnolias and other flowering trees as you order Trofie Al Pesto from the seaside trattorias. These twisty pastas bathed in pesto are another Ligurian staple, so please don’t be that person who orders it with gnocchi or something (we saw someone do it and were promptly told off).
Once you’re done enjoying the pesto, walk around to order a granite di limoni locali, a sweet/sour lemon slushie which you can drink while you take the slight trek towards the other side of Monterosso. You know you’re in the right place when you go through the tunnel and see the green and orange striped umbrellas facing the sea.
The long boardwalk is fun to walk through, look to the left to see the gorgeous sea, look to the right to see wild flowers in deep pinks and purples against pastel buildings. You can choose to go down to the rocky beach, rent an umbrella and have a swim (which we highly recommend, as the sea is irresistible!) or walk to the edge of the boardwalk towards the public beaches, lay down a towel and enjoy. The difference would be in the facilities—most of the umbrella-clad beachfronts have lockers available, and bathrooms to shower, bathe or change in. Take as many photos as your heart desires, but keep in mind that some people have no qualms about being topless on the beach, but may have issues with you taking photos nearby.
If you feel like you’ve done all you can on the beach, head back up to the street level to have gelato. The servings may be smaller than we’re used to, but even that small serving is enough to fill you up. Whittle the time away by waiting for the sunset as you sit al fresco in one of the many trattorias.
Eat, trek and play in Vernazza and Manarola
Just when you feel like you’re all sunned out in Monterosso, remember there are still four other villages to visit. Start your day in Vernazza, best known for its central piazza that opens out to the small beach. Take some time to sit under the magnolia trees, or maybe play a little foosbal in the free-for-all table in the piazza. It’s best known for being the least populated of the five towns, with no more than 600 people living there. It only has the only working harbor in the parkland, with the people who live there parking their boats on the port. There is also the church of Santa Margherita d'Antiochia from 1340, where you can say a little prayer and make a wish. Make sure you stop by the Gelateria Vernazza for more delicious gelato, or if you were feeling a little adventurous, their lemon yogurt with honey.
Hop on the train to Manarola, where everyone takes that Instagram photo of themselves with the pastel buildings in the background. Manarola is our second favorite of the five towns, after Monterosso. After a short walk through a tunnel, you find yourself close to piazza deck that has a view of the village’s main thoroughfare to the sea, with buskers playing a tune. Looking up you see more of the iconic pastel houses famous in this region, with its own entrances from the piazza, and a dizzying number of stairs. Heading down towards the edge of the village shows you a mountain path off to the right, which is a great place to build up an appetite all while taking photos of Manarola as it gets smaller and smaller. It’s certainly one of the most photogenic of the five cities.
Cap off the end of your trip with a delicious meal at Il Porticciolo, the one with a closed off terrace on the main road. This sit-down restaurant offers amazing fried seafood, fresh bruschetta and the best tiramisu you’ll ever taste on this side of the Ligurian sea.