They say half the fun of a holiday is planning it and I completely agree. Pondering destinations, gushing at hotels and restaurants, weighing up attractions… all against the backdrop of counting down to your departure date. But the excitement can wane when you hit a logistical glitch. Something you thought would be simple becomes a Rubix cube of combinations, dead-ends and frustration. My boyfriend and I had a five week trip to Europe earlier this year, and Italy’s Cinque Terre and the Greek island of Santorini were both essential destinations. We planned to visit them as late as possible into our holiday to try get the warmest weather. How hard could it be to get from one Mediterranean paradise to another? We were about to discover it could, quite frankly, be hell.
We’d mapped out a rough itinerary while in Australia that would take in the UK, Scotland, France and Cinque Terre so it made sense Santorini would follow. But a few quick Google searches revealed there was no easy route between the two places. Cinque Terre’s nearest airport is Pisa (150 kilometres/93 miles) but the airlines are limited. My boyfriend and I broadened our search to Florence (200km/125mi) and Venice (270km/168mi) airports without any luck. We reluctantly looked at backtracking to Nice, France but didn’t work either . Not a single airport had a direct flight to Santorini. In fact, we couldn’t even find connecting flights with a journey time under 12 hours or costing less than AU$500. At one stage, we even considered flying to Santorini via Barcelona, Spain and spending the six hour layover in the airport lounge.
A month before our holiday was due to start, it was time to tackle this dilemma. My boyfriend and I sat in our kitchen, post-gym on a Sunday morning armed with laptops, notepads, smartphones and pens. We were like a pair of code breakers during World War II, trying different combinations of trains and planes from Italy to anywhere in Greece. Blogs and travel forums didn’t have any answers. While we could theoretically stop in Athens or Milan, they were significant detours that would cost us precious nights in Santorini. But tea, toast and and three hours later I yelled out “I’ve cracked the DaVinci code!”
The breakthrough was discovering a direct train from Florence to Rome’s Fiumicino International Airport. From there, you could catch a direct flight to Santorini which took just over two hours. The fares were reasonable. The times worked with our itinerary, and in fact, we’d get a night in Florence which I’d never been to before. We booked everything in the following hour and a few months later, we made our way from one paradise to another.
This route isn’t the quickest way to get from Cinque Terre to Santorini, but it gives you maximum sightseeing with minimal transfers and backtracking.
Here are the full details:
1. Cinque Terre – Florence
We were staying in Monterosso, the biggest of Cinque Terre’s towns, so we looked for trains departing here. Using the excellent ticketing website Loco2, we booked:
Monterosso to Pisa Centrale (Intercity train 651): departing 9.07am, arriving 10.17am (1 hour, 10 mins)
Pisa Centrale to Firenze S.M (Regional Veloce 3114): departing 10.32am, arriving 11.32am (1 hour)
Total time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Cost: €18.30 each (Monterosso to Pisa €9.90, Pisa to Florence, €8.40)
Unfortunately our first train was delayed 15 minutes, meaning we missed our connection. However, we caught the next Pisa to Firenze train which left 20 minutes later. Our tickets were still valid and conveniently, we didn’t have to change platforms.
2. Overnight in Florence
I considered any sightseeing in Florence a bonus, but this walk-friendly city was easy to get around and lots of attractions were open until 9pm or later. We reached our hotel around 2pm and stayed out past midnight. Check out my post One Night in Florence for full details.
3. Florence – Rome Airport
Our late-night sightseeing in Florence meant we slept five hours before our early train to Italy’s capital Rome. As mentioned, we found a direct, high speed train from Florence to Fiumicino Airport which arrived three hours before our flight. Again, we booked using Loco2:
Firenze S.M. to Fiumicino Aeroporto (Frecciargento 8401): departing 7.38am, arriving 9.55am
Total time: 2 hours, 16 minutes
Cost: €27.50 each
If you need breakfast at Firenze station, Moka Cafe has healthy and allergy-friendly options including vegan croissants and paninis, quinoa salads, fruit salad (“macedonia” in Italian), yogurt and rice/soy milk drinks. There’s an impressive bookstore open from 7am too with English books and magazines, plus a busy cafe. Click here for the station’s website.
4. Rome – Santorini
Spanish airline Iberia (in partnership with Vueling, pronounced ‘velling’) was the only carrier we could find offering direct flights from Italy to Santorini. Vueling is a budget airline, so the usual precautions of checking baggage limits and bringing your own food apply. If you’re particularly tall, consider booking extra legroom. My boyfriend is 175cm (5′ 9″) and his knees hit the seat in front of him. We booked directly with Iberia:
Cost: €125 each, which included 23kg checked baggage per person.
Looking for lunch options at Rome airport? I had a delicious, make your own salad (“insalate”) for €11 with quinoa, chick peas, tomatoes, carrot, dill seeds and olives at Bistrot (Terminal 3, section C) . They also sell focaccia by the kilo. Seriously.
We boarded our flight and the plane took off on time. We were both tired but couldn’t wait for four nights of Greek island luxury! I actually wrote most of this post on the flight and then the plane began to descend. I could see Santorini from my window. The ocean looked incredible!
But clearly, the travel gods had never intended our journey from Cinque Terre to Santorini to be easy. I could practically taste the olives when the plane suddenly shot up, making my stomach lurch. My boyfriend and I looked at each other worryingly. It wasn’t a good sign.
The pilot announced it was too windy to land in Santorini, so we were diverting to the capital Athens. It was already 3pm so even if the weather improved, our chances of a Greek island sunset that night were gone. Our hearts sunk. We’d worked so hard to avoid having a layover. Where would we stay that night? How would we get to Santorini? Would we get there at all? We’d been in transit for nine hours on five hours sleep. All that planning. All that pride. Pointless.
Our plane finally landed in Athens and we sat on the runway for at least an hour. Then, the pilot made a jawdropping announcement. We were going back to Rome.
I’ve shared My Guide to Cinque Terre and my Tips for Hiking in the region, but the final post in this series covers exactly where my boyfriend and I trekked over three days. We were staying in Monterosso, the biggest of Cinque Terre’s five villages, and our approach was to start with easier hikes and finish with a full day trek. This was both to ease into hiking after three weeks of holiday indulgence as well as familiarise ourselves with the terrain, signage and how accurate estimated times were.
We did four hikes in three days and each one was impressive but in different ways. They were:
Day One: Monterosso to Vernazza
Day Two: Vernazza to Corniglia, then Riomaggiore to Manarola
Day Three: Riomaggiore to Portovenere, via Pass of Telegrafo and Campiglia.
I recommend reading my Tips for Hiking Cinque Terre for an overview of the different trails (Blue Path versus High Path), along with general advice on what to wear and what to pack. As I’ve said in earlier posts, my boyfriend and I are two active people in our early 30s and didn’t do any training for these hikes. We do occasional leisure hikes around our home city, but nothing wild. There were easy sections and challenges in Cinque Terre, but nothing was impossible.
Here’s what we did:
Monterosso to Vernazza
Time: 2 hours (moderate pace but stopping for photos)
Distance: 3.5km (2.2mi)
Difficulty: The easiest you’ll find, but there are still steps!
Path name: Blue Path, 2d.
This is the most popular with tourists and for good reason: the coastal views are stunning, the track is obvious and it connects two beautiful villages. We started in Monterosso, simply because it’s where we were staying. The path begins at the base of Old Town, just a minute or two from the waterfront.
Going from Monterosso towards Vernazza, your hike begins with a steep staircase but it only takes five or 10 minutes. It’s a good warm up! You’ll get your first ‘wow’ moment soon after, looking back at Monterosso.
There’ll be some flat sections and you’ll reach a checkpoint, where you can buy a one or two day trekking pass (€7.50/€14.50 adult), with an optional train pass. I suggest buying a one day, hiking only pass as this path was the only one with checkpoints. Payment is cash only and you definitely don’t want to go back down that initial staircase!
The trail continues to hug the coastline and there are plenty of photo opportunities. This is the busiest path, so you may have to go slow or wait at times. Occasionally we got a section to ourselves for a few minutes. Continuing towards Vernazza, you’ll encounter more steps but none of them last too long. After about 90 minutes, you’ll get your first glimpse of your destination. Seeing a town for the first time is the most magical moment in Cinque Terre!
We continued towards Vernazza and encountered loose rock and mud. I was grateful I was wearing good quality sneakers. We passed the Vernazza checkpoint and arrived in the village about noon. My legs were a little jelly as we descended into the town centre, but I felt okay. There wasn’t any signage pointing to the main square, but we just followed our instincts through the narrow laneways in between tall buildings. We grabbed lunch at the perilously perched Al Castello and would’ve hiked again that afternoon if it hadn’t rained heavily an hour later. Instead, we chatted with an American couple as we finished our wine, enjoyed limoncello and explored the town.
When in town
Check out Vernazza’s castle for a unique view of the coastline. Relax on rocks by the pier, eat gelato (ask for ‘senza latte’ if you want dairy-free options) or fuel up at any of the restaurants around the harbour or higher up. Read more in My Guide to Cinque Terre.
There’s a train station in both Monterosso and Vernazza, with the fare only €4 to or from any other village in Cinque Terre. Trains are fast, just five minutes between each town and fairly frequent (every 20 minutes or so). Alternatively, you could turn around and just walk back or catch the ferry (see ‘resources’ below).
Vernazza to Corniglia
Time: 2 hours
Distance: 3.2km (2mi)
Difficulty: Still easy, but slightly harder than Monterosso to Vernazza due to longer ascents.
Path name: Blue Path, 2c.
We caught the train to Vernazza to start this hike around 9am but realised we didn’t know exactly where the trail started. Thankfully there was a map at the station which pointed us in the right direction (which was away from the town centre). We walked up the main road past the post office and soon saw the iconic red and white symbol painted on a wall, letting us know we were on the right path.
My legs were resisting the steps, even though the path was just gently winding upwards through people’s backyards. After 5 or 10 minutes we reached a cafe we’d seen the day before from Vernazza’s castle. You could stop here for a picturesque breakfast but we’d hardly earned a break so early on.
Soon we were surrounded by forest instead of coastal views, still making our way up. There were some awkward stone staircases, sometimes steep, sometimes uneven and often both – but you just have to keep going. At one point it was my turn to carry the backpack “for this hill” but my boyfriend and I kept laughing as we’d finish one section, go around the corner and realise another round of steps awaited us. I carried that sweaty bag uphill for at least 20 minutes! Only twice did I see people give up and turn around, which I don’t understand as you can go slow or rest at any time.
What I liked about this trail was that it was less busy than Monterosso to Vernazza. There were still congestion points, but we more regularly had the path to ourselves. That said, more of the trail is set back from the sea so there are less coastal views.
The last quarter of the path is a gentle descent into Corniglia and we were lucky to have a man playing accordion as we approached the town. The sound carried through the trail and while it was totally for tourists, I loved it. Trek two completed!
When in town
Corniglia is the smallest of Cinque Terre’s villages but you’ll still find a range of lunch options. We were famished and walked past several restaurants before finding Bar Terza Terra, which had endless views of the dramatic coastline! I almost felt like I was in Greece.
I’ve said this my two previous Cinque Terre posts but it’s worth repeating. Corniglia is on top of a hill and its train station is at the bottom. There’s a long set of cement stairs, and going down took us about 10 minutes. I did see a sign for a shuttle bus at the bottom with a few people waiting, but it was unclear whether this was a public or private service. Corniglia is also the only town not serviced by the ferry, as it’s on top of a hill.
Riomaggiore to Manarolo
Time: 50 minutes
Distance: 1.35km (0.8mi)
Difficulty: Intense but short. You’ll climb non-stop, steep steps for 25 minutes and then go down the other side.
Path name: 531.
With the Blue Path closed between Corniglia and Manarola until 2019, we looked at alternate routes. We chose a one hour, intense hike figuring that like the other trails, we were moderately fit and could stop rest or go slower at any time if needed.
Fuelled by a few Aperol Spritzes and foccacia, we caught the train from Corniglia to Riomaggiore to begin our second walk of the day. There were others doing the same hike so we just followed the path but soon saw our steep ascent. You are literally walking directly up and over a mountain! Maybe it’s just a big hill. Either way, it’s steep.
As our research had warned, you walk up steps non-stop for 30 minutes. They’re uneven and many were so high, I was practically lifting my knee to my chin to climb up them! I’m 163cm (5′ 3″) but it was easier for my boyfriend.
It was on this path I told myself that pain quickly gives way to numbness and it’s true. My quads were tired but we kept going. After 25 minutes, we were at the peak! It was a great feeling and we were rewarded with the below view of Riogmaggiore.
Going downhill was easier but still not easy. The steps were still uneven, but with much more loose rock. Occasionally my boyfriend would help by holding my hand, and I helped a few hikers going uphill too. I felt going from Riomaggiore towards Manarola rather than Manarola to Riomaggiore was a wise choice, as there was a lot of downhill rubble. We got closer to Manarola and the scenery went from backyards to buildings. We’d reached our destination! As usual, we headed towards the waterfront and grabbed a cocktail.
When in town
Put Nessun Dorma at the top of your list! This outdoor cafe is perfectly placed to admire Manarola all day long. Food and drink prices are also very reasonable given the view. A few people were swimming at the waterfront, although it’s entirely rock. For those who are lactose-intolerant, I found a small store by the train station selling soy milk.
You can easily reach both Riomaggiore and Manarola by the regionale train (€4) or by ferry. See ‘resources’ below for links to timetables.
Riomaggiore to Portovenere
Time: 4.5 hours (not including our 1 hour lunch break)
Distance: 12 km (7.45mi)
Difficulty: Moderate. The path isn’t always clear, and I scaled a few boulders.
Path names: 593V (ex. 3a). Riomaggiore – Pass of Telegrafo & 1/a Pass of Telegrafo – Portovenere
My boyfriend and I wanted to end our three days of hiking in Cinque Terre with a big one. We’d read reviews from other hikers and travel websites, and chose to do Riomaggiore to Portovenere. It would take us along more of the Ligurian coastline and beyond Cinque Terre, and we could enjoy an hour-long ferry ride back to Monterosso. We allowed six hours for the hike, as the last ferry left Portovenere at 5pm but we wanted a few hours to explore the town beforehand. If we missed the ferry, we’d need to catch a bus to La Spezia and then a train to Monterosso. We set off at 9am at a steady pace.
Riomaggiore – Pass of Telegrafo
We arrived in Riomaggiore by train and looked for the red and white painted symbol. There are a few trails out of the town centre, so it’s important to get the right one. The Cinque Terre hiking app was really helpful, as was an elderly Italian woman who pointed up at a huge staircase and said “Portovenere.”
Whether it was my exhausted quads, mild hunger or the deadline of the last ferry, I didn’t enjoy this section. It was the first time in three days the trek felt like a chore, despite being so privileged for what we were experiencing. My boyfriend and I walked up steps, more steps, crossed a road and saw cars for the first time in three days, and then went up more steps. My legs were crying out for relief.
After about 45 minutes, we reached the Sanctuary of Montenero. Other hikers were resting but we didn’t stop. I didn’t feel the view or ordinary building was photo worthy either. I had a granola bar and my spirits lifted as the path went from steep steps to an even, but still ascending trail.
We reached a large tour group about 15 minutes later but there was no room for overtaking as there were vineyards and shrubs on both sides of the narrow path. It turns out they’d missed a turn off and they turned around anyway. A little further on, our path became a paved road and we continued the uphill walk. We didn’t see another soul.
After about 90 minutes into our hike, I finally got the relief I’d wanted. A beautiful wide, flat path where we simply walked in the forest. Mindful we needed to catch the last ferry, our pace quickened and I almost began trail running because my legs were so liberated! We reached the Pass of Telegrafo (marked only by a sign and cafe) and felt a sense of achievement. But on we hiked! We passed a military exercise area too.
Pass of Telegrafo – Campiglia – Portovenere
As much as we wanted to hike Cinque Terre, my boyfriend and I didn’t want to miss the chance to see a new town either. Campiglia is a bit over than halfway between Riomaggiore and Portovenere so it was a natural stopping point for lunch. Our goal was to get there by 12.30pm and break for an hour maximum. We continued on the forest path before beginning our descent into the town.
You’ll get your first glimpse of greater La Spezia on the left as you approach Campiglia. There are a few picnic benches and we saw a couple in hiking gear taking foccacias out of their bags to enjoy the view. We weren’t that organised. We continued into Campiglia and saw an open air restaurant, but staff were sitting outside smoking and didn’t look enthusiastic. I’d read about Campiglia’s oldest restaurant La Lampara, which had opened in the 1800s. I soon saw a sign for it.
The venue was empty, silent and straight out of the 1980s. An older man wearing a full suit appeared us and showed us to a table inside. I apologised for our hiking attire and sweaty appearance. My boyfriend ordered the saffron gnocchi and a beer, while I ordered the fish (view the menu here). Bread quickly arrived and about 15 minutes later, a whole fish was placed before me! Our waiter offered to fillet it and he took four to five minutes to painstakingly but skillfully debone the fish with just a fork and spoon. It was art in motion. We ate our food in the silent venue and took in the view. After using the restrooms and applying more suncream, we continued our trek.
As we left Campiglia, the open air restaurant we’d seen earlier was now bustling with diners and further along the path was a venue with hammocks and bean bags, possibly a beer garden. I slightly regretted our lunch choice but also felt we’d had an authentic, if not bizarre, experience.
The next section became coastal and rocky. A magical moment was when we reached a lookout, seeing what I think was the island of Palmaria. We stopped and chatted with a group of Norweigan hikers and they were kind enough to take our photograph! I think the selfie best captures how happy we were though.
The path will then take you back in the woods, where you’ll see La Spezia again. This time, the view is much less obstructed than the one from Campiglia. You’ll continue slightly downhill, seeing rocky ruins that may have been homes or shelters, and then it’s the home stretch. I was shocked and thrilled to suddenly see a castle!
We were ecstatic once we reached the outskirts of Portovenere, although after three days my toes were starting to hurt in my sneakers. We navigated our way down the rocks and found a path alongside the castle. The downward steps were an awkward height and length, but after five or 10 minutes we were spat into the centre of Portovenere. We high fived each other and were so proud that we’d finished, hadn’t gotten lost, and we had 90 minutes before the final ferry left! We bought our ferry tickets back to Monterosso, and then walked to the waterfront to grab a cocktail.
When in town
I was struck by how touristy and developed Portovenere seemed to Cinque Terre’s villages. The crowd was much older and I suspect the town is popular with cruises and day trippers. Portovenere is much flatter and better paved than Cinque Terre, so it’s probably more attractive to less mobile visitors.
We chose Bar Gelataria Doria for its prime waterfront location. Our waiter was grumpy and birds tried to eat our snacks, but for €24 we had two Aperol spritzes each and complimentary chips and nuts. If we’d had more time, I would’ve toured the castle and walked the entire waterfront. You can also catch a ferry to three nearby islands, which along with Cinque Terre and Portovenere, are UNESCO Heritage Listed.
There’s no train station in Portovenere, hence our need to catch the ferry back to Monterosso (€18). You can buy tickets from a booth at ferry. Alternatively, buses run between Portovenere and La Spezia (30 minutes) and then you can catch a train to Monterosso (22 minutes). You can plan your journey with Google Maps, but remember Italian trains are often delayed.
I highly recommend the website In Cinque Terre for a detailed description of all routes in the area along with trail statuses. We found the estimated hiking times more or less correct too.
Download the smartphone app Trails of Cinque Terre (AU$4.49) if you attempt the Riomaggiore to Portovenere route. It uses GPS to track and guide your journey, and is helpful at points where you wonder if you took the correct path or have missed a turn off.
My boyfriend and I left Cinque Terre feeling lucky to have explored such an unspoilt part of the world. The feeling of reaching a lookout or town after hours of walking is magical, and we had several moments where we stood in awe of the spectacular scenery. While Monterosso to Vernazza is stunning, hiking from Riomaggiore to Portovenere was especially rewarding as it was longer, more physical and far less crowded. Our legs shuddered on staircases for days afterwards (I’m looking at you, Florence!), but nothing was unbearable.
If you have the chance, hike Cinque Terre at least once in your lifetime. It’s perfect for anyone seeking an active holiday, looking to jump start a fitness program or just wanting to explore nature among quaint, coastal villages. Next, my boyfriend and I head to China and we have plenty of hikes planned! Just 40 days until we fly.
Hiking is something I never thought I’d enjoy. Walking up a hill all day in chunky boots and unattractive attire had as much appeal to me as rolling in grass during hayfever season. But I like running outdoors and I believe in mixing things up fitness-wise, so I gradually succumbed to the idea. My boyfriend and I went on a few hikes around our home city last year and while I didn’t love them, I did feel a sense of calm from the nature hit and absence of protein-smashing weight lifters.
When my boyfriend suggested we visit Italy’s Cinque Terre during our trip to Europe earlier this year, I jumped at the chance. Not only is it jawdroppingly beautiful, but hiking is one of its key attractions. Again, I wasn’t wooed by the long steep hills. I just wanted to keep fit on a five week vacation. Thankfully, Cinque Terre isn’t the hardcore GPS, water filtering and pants with 15 pockets kind of hiking. Advanced routes exist but mostly, you’ll find stunning, centuries old footpaths that should satisfy anyone who likes to move.
This post covers my general tips for hiking in Cinque Terre and I’ll bring you a detailed guide to specific trails we hiked in coming weeks. For advice on where to stay, eat and how to get to the region, check out My Guide: Italy’s Incredible Cinque Terre.
The most popular trail is the Blue Path. These are the four scenic, relatively easy paths connecting each of Cinque Terre’s five towns which (in order from north to south) are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. The total path stretches 12 kilometres (7.5 miles). Unfortunately, the Corniglia-Manarola and Manarola-Riomaggiore sections were closed during our visit and won’t reopen until 2019. Don’t let that stop you. We found alternatives!
There’s also the High Path, which as the name suggests is higher and more inland than the Blue Path. It’s far longer than the Cinque Terre, stretching 40km (25mi) from Levanto in the north (shown in map below) to Portovenere in the south (not shown).
There are plenty more paths, but the above details should suffice for first-timers to the region and beginner hikers.
Choosing a path
With hundreds of trails to choose from, where should you start? Firstly, check the status of the paths here or ask at a local tourist bureau or railway station. As mentioned, two sections on the Blue Path were closed during our visit (Corniglia-Manarola and Manarola-Riomaggiore) but we found an alternate, intense 50 minute hike over a mountain from Riomaggiore to Manarola. Also, check the weather. You don’t want to hike during or after rain so plan accordingly.
If you have one day: Do the Monterosso-Vernazza Blue Path (2 hours) and if you enjoy that, continue with Vernazza-Corniglia (2 hours). You’ll be more than satisfied.
If you have three days: You can easily do all of the Blue Path (depending on trail statuses) and an extra hike on the High Path. We did four hikes in three days, including Riomaggiore to Portovenere. This post is coming soon.
If you have a week: You lucky thing. You’re spoilt for choice! You can explore Cinque Terre and beyond (such as Levanto, La Spezia or Portovenere) and have a day’s rest at Monterosso’s beaches too.
If you’re a serious hiker, you’ll nail the entire Cinque Terre in a day but who wants to rush on vacation?
How fit do I need to be?
I run, cycle and do strength training six days a week but I still found Cinque Terre challenging. This could be because a) I have shorts legs b) I don’t normally hike and c) I’d been eating out and drinking for three weeks before I reached Cinque Terre. If you’re reasonably active, you’ll be fine.
You control the pace, you can take a break anytime, you’ll be stopping for photographs anyway and there’ll be plenty of struggling seniors (there’ll be lots who’ll kick your ass too). I tried to find yoga classes to stretch out without luck. These are small fishing villages!
How sore will I get?
Neither my boyfriend or I were sore after our Monterosso-Vernazza hike but that’s only two hours. You’re bound to get jelly legs at some point on your walk and be prepared to groan when you stand up after lunch. Our accommodation was up two flights of stairs which was painful, and the steps up to train station platforms weren’t pleasant either. By day three, my legs instantly stiffened with the first step. However, I say hiking is like getting a tattoo – it hurts at first but you’ll quickly go numb. For the remaining two weeks of our Europe holiday, my quads seized whenever we went up stairs. Again, we’re two active people in our early 30s who didn’t do any training. We survived.
Should I do a tour?
Absolutely not. The Blue Path sections are clearly marked and each part only takes a few hours. There are people everywhere. You will NOT get lost! If you’re travelling solo and plan to hit the High Path for a week, then an organised tour might be an option as these trails are less busy and can get a little confusing. My boyfriend and I saw a few tour groups, both on the popular Blue Path and on the High Path. The group on the High Path looked quite professional but even then, their tour leader turned them around after we’d been tailing them for 10 minutes because they’d missed a turn off.
We hiked four paths in three days and only had to pay an entrance fee on the most popular route, which is Monterosso-Vernazza. We paid at the Monterosso checkpoint and there was also a checkpoint on the outskirts of Vernazza. A one day adult pass cost €7.50 (cash only – and your nearest ATM is a good 15 minutes hike down a staircase).
We didn’t bother with a train pass as we weren’t sure of our plans and it’s only €4 per ride anyway. We didn’t see any other checkpoints during our four days of hiking.
What to wear
If you’re in Cinque Terre without athletic gear, you could walk the Monterosso-Vernazza path in shorts and a t-shirt, with casual sneakers or tennis shoes. Your shoes will get dirty, dusty and possibly muddy. Some people say flip flops are fine, but I’d say they’re a last resort and only on the Monterosso-Vernazza path as it’s the most sturdy. You’ll still encounter uneven terrain, dirt, loose rocks, and possibly mud.
I was very comfortable in my Lululemon crops, Lulu tank and Asics sneakers although my toes were a little sore after day three, even with orthotics. My boyfriend wore board shorts and a t-shirt or singlet, also with sneakers. We sweated like crazy but even in May, I still wore a puffer vest as the sun went down. Both our shoes looked a little worse for wear after Cinque Terre, but were fine once we’d cleaned them.
I was concerned about going to the villages restaurants and cafes in my hiking gear, but it was perfectly fine. There were hikers everywhere and no-one blinked when we turned up to venues with white tablecloths and suited waiters, despite us being in singlets and sports shoes. This was true at night too. One bar in Monterosso felt like I’d stepped into a North Face catalogue!
What to bring
The obvious stuff – water, a hat, suncream and your phone or camera. On the short Blue Path hikes we had a 500ml (16 oz.) bottle each, and on the longer High Path hike (Riomaggiore – Portovenere) we had two bottles each. We also brought a small towel and a sweater/puffer vest each, as it did cool in the afternoons. My boyfriend brought a spare t-shirt to change into after hiking as he’d sweat through the first one. I saw people carrying their dogs on the path and people with baby hiking frames too.
There were no restrooms on any of the routes we did, except for the 12km (7.5mi) Riomaggiore-Portovenere path which had a cafe at Pass of Telegrafo and you can also break in Campiglia. I stay really hydrated and was concerned I’d need a bathroom break, even on the two hour hikes. But we sweated so much it wasn’t an issue. Don’t assume you can run into trees if nature calls – the trails are busy, they’re mostly exposed and there’s a cliff face below so it’s not always safe or possible to deviate.
I didn’t see any water available despite signage on the Riomaggiore-Portovenere route, but there were occasionally picnic tables or flat rocks where you could have a nice break.
When to go
We were in the Cinque Terre in mid-May and temperatures were around 17-18°C (62-65°F). It was fresh in the morning so I wore a puffer vest at first but quickly shed it. I love the heat and I don’t sweat much – but boy, did we sweat on those tracks! You’re walking uphill and there’s only occasional shade. I told myself I wouldn’t want to visit any later, even if the nights were cool enough to warrant a jacket. The crowds were also noticeable at this time, and multiple times we had to wait at narrow sections or go slowly upstairs because of people ahead. Thinking back, I’d possibly go a few weeks later but only so I could ditch the coat at night.
Do NOT hike in the rain or immediately after. Even in dry conditions, I came close to slipping several times wearing my reliable, $200 cross-trainers. There are loose rocks too. It must have rained in the days before our visit as the paths were also muddy in some parts.
There are a few ways to reach your starting point or return to your accommodation:
Train: There’s a station in every village and services are frequent (every 20 minutes), fast (5 minutes or less between each town) and affordable (€4 per journey). If travelling to or from Corniglia, be aware the village is on a hilltop and the train station is at sea level, with about 15 flights of stairs connecting them! I did see a sign for a shuttle bus but didn’t use it.
Ferry: The ferry is much slower but a nice way to sightsee and appreciate the terrain you’ve covered at the end of the day. A one-way adult ticket from Portovenere to Monterosso is €18, with services approximately every 30-90 minutes. The ferry doesn’t stop at Corniglia. Click here for the 2017 timetable.
Walk: If your trail is a loop or you’re feeling energetic, you can get home on foot. I guarantee this is less attractive after a few aperitifs!
The website In Cinque Terre is excellent. We used this extensively to plan our hikes and found the information both detailed and accurate. The estimated hiking times were more or less correct too.
My boyfriend downloaded the app Trails of Cinque Terre (AU$4.49) which I highly recommend if you’re doing the Riomaggiore-Portovenere route. I liked that we could track the distance we covered – 12 km (7.5mi) in less than five hours! It was also helpful when the path reached a fork or wasn’t obvious. Every step is valuable and you don’t want to go uphill unnecessarily!
Want to see the four hikes we did on our trip? Stay tuned – that post will be up shortly! As mentioned, you can also check out my guide Italy’s Incredible Cinque Terre for general tips on the area, such as where to stay, language and where to eat.
The Cinque Terre trails have been the most memorable hikes of my life and inspired me to find more treks around the world. Monterosso to Vernazza is a walk everyone should do once in a lifetime, and the region’s National Park and UNESCO Heritage Listing statuses make it some of the most pristine yet tourist friendly paths you can find. The scenery was breathtaking and jawdropping, and I’m forever grateful my boyfriend suggested we visit Cinque Terre.
QUESTION: Where’s your favourite hiking spot in the world?
About a year ago, my boyfriend and I sat down with a giant piece of cardboard, a handful of Sharpies and our laptops. We’d booked return flights to London to see one of my best friends get married and we had month afterwards to explore Europe! My dream was to cycle through French vineyards while my boyfriend wanted to visit Cinque Terre. I’d never heard of it. “It’s in Italy. It looks cool!” he said. He showed me some photos on Instagram. It looked incredible so it went onto our list.
Our plans progressed and in May this year, we boarded a train in Nice, France and five hours later arrived in Cinque Terre. It was a surreal moment, disembarking at Monterosso’s small train station at sunset and towing our suitcases along the beach path to our guest house. The days that ensued were absolutely magical.
If you’re looking for spectacular scenery, dramatic architecture and a relaxed village vibe, Cinque Terre delivers it all. Bonus: Italian food and wine!
Cinque Terre (“Five Lands”) is on the northern Italian coastline, about two hours north-west of Florence and 450 kilometres (280 miles) north-west of Rome. It comprises a string of five coastal towns, each a few kilometres apart. Cinque Terre is a national park and was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997 for its outstanding cultural value, along with nearby Portovenere and several islands.
From north to south, Cinque Terre’s towns are:
Monterosso: the biggest, made up of Old Town and New Town (about 10 minutes walk between them). It has a large beach area.
Vernazza: arguably the second most popular village, and rivalling Maranola for most beautiful. Probably the most photographed, thanks to being an easy hike from Monterosso. Vernazza has an iconic pier and castle.
Corniglia: the only town without direct beach access, it’s instead perched high on a hill. For that reason, it has the least number of tourists. Considered the most quant and peaceful.
Manarolo (shown in the cover photo): another popular choice, often considered the most beautiful.
Riomaggiore: the most southern village in Cinque Terre, so the first one you’ll reach if travelling north along the coast.
It’s worth noting the nearby towns, as they’re important for getting your direction right on train travel: Levanto is north of Monterosso and you’ll find La Spezia and Portovenere south/south-east of Riomaggiore.
where to stay
My boyfriend and I found this one of the most difficult things to decide when planning our visit. Thankfully, a colleague had just been to Cinque Terre and recommended we stay in Monterosso’s Old Town. He said it was beautiful, and the only village big enough to handle the influx of tourists without feeling too crowded. He was spot on! Make sure you book accommodation as soon as you can. We were travelling in the shoulder-season and had limited options when trying to book three months in advance!
We got a double room at the perfectly located Affittacamere Irene for 4 nights (Via XX Settembre 16, Monterosso | €130/night). It was one of four rooms at the family-run guesthouse and very spacious, just a minute or two from Monterosso’s bars, restaurants and bakeries. Our host was running the guesthouse for her mother and personally showed us to our room, along giving us an introduction to the region. She provided some great dining recommendations too! The complimentary snacks, tea and coffee were enough for a light breakfast before hiking and the small fridge was handy too.
If you’re struggling to pick a town, consider these factors:
1. How much luggage do you have?
Make no mistake – Cinque Terre is steep. While the main street may be wide and comparatively flat, guesthouses may be several flights of uneven steps so taking a cab (if available) isn’t an option. We had a 23kg (50 lb.) suitcase each but thankfully our accommodation was a 10 minute, flat walk from the train station. Corniglia is on top of a hill but the train station is at sea level. It’ll take you at least 10 minutes to go down the stairs, let alone going up with a bag! If you’ve just got a weekend duffel, you’ve got more options.
2. How many bar/dining options do you want?
Monterosso is the biggest of the towns, so if you like to explore different venues over a few nights, this is a good bet. We didn’t actually make it to the New Town area during our four night stay because we had so many local choices! We spent less time in Vernazza and Manarola, but there were multiple dining spots on offer too, both by the water and at higher lookouts. Corniglia is the smallest town although one of our favourite bars was here (see “drinks” below). Riomaggiore is the only village we didn’t eat or drink in, but only because it didn’t work with our hikes.
3. Will you spend more time hiking or beaching?
Monterosso has the biggest beach area, made up of public and private facilities. Vernazza and Manarola have small harbours to swim in. As Corniglia is perched on a hill, beach access is possible but not easy. The town to train station stairs would be torture after a day of hiking and there’s no ferry access. Riomaggiore has a rocky, pebbly beach but the town is an excellent base for hiking, as you can continue further south to Portovenere.
The best advice I can give is that ultimately, it doesn’t matter where you stay. None of the villages are particularly big, they all have similar facilities and the Regionale trains between them are cheap (€4), fast and frequent. If you like bigger towns and have a heavy suitcase, go for Monterosso. If you want the most quant and least touristy village, head to Corniglia. I felt Vernazza was overcrowded with tourists, but this may change at night once daytrippers have left. Manarola was a magnet for Instagrammers but honestly, most of Cinque Terre is selfie-central. It’s shame we only transitted through Riomaggiore! I’d possibly stay there or in Manarola next time, mostly to explore alternate hiking routes. My boyfriend said he’d happily return to Monterosso.
what to do
If you’re mildly active, you’ve got to do at least one hike in Cinque Terre. There are popular hikes, each 1-3 hours, connecting each of the villages as well as more challenging, professional paths. These footpaths have actually connected the villages for centuries. The most popular walk is the simple, two-hour hike between Monterosso and Vernazza. It’s a perfect introduction to the region and one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
My boyfriend and I were keen to hike as much as we could, and we did four journeys in three days (each one harder than the last!). The scenery was jaw-dropping and breathtaking at almost every step and meeting travellers from all around the world was a bonus. Our daily routine became a morning hike, leisurely lunch, an afternoon hike and apertifs (see “drinks” below) before returning to Monterosso for dinner. I’ll do a separate, detailed post about our hikes shortly but in the interim, this website has detailed, accurate advice: www.incinqueterre.com/en/trails-advice.
Make your Cinque Terre trip a real vacation by spending a day at the beach. As mentioned, Monterosso has the biggest beach area (both private and public facilities) but you can reach the water from any of the villages with varying levels of difficulty. We spent an hour or so sunbaking on rocks at Vernazza, but in Manarola it was too chilly to swim in the small harbour. The beaches are more rock than sand, so bring a towel.
Whether it’s a sanctuary, monument or plain old church, each village has at least one place of worship. I saw two – a church in Vernazza we awkwardly walked through to get to a beach and another on our hike between Riomaggiore and Portovenere. I’ve seen enough churches and temples in my travels for a lifetime, but if this is your thing you’ll some options in each town.
I love taking cooking classes abroad and Cinque Terre would’ve been exceptional! I looked into local schools and found most classes were around €130. When researching this post, I did see the cafe Nessun Dorma (see “where to eat” below) offered a pesto making course for €35. Amazing! If you offer or have taken a cooking class in Cinque Terre, please comment below.
where to eat
Cinque Terre is in Italy’s Liguria region which is famous for its pesto! You’ll find the short, twisted trofie pasta on most menus, as the shape is apparently well-suited to the famous basil sauce. Sadly, pesto contains parmesan so I couldn’t try any but I ate a lot of other food! Spaghetti pomodoro, minestrone, salads, bruschetta, focaccia and dairy-free gelato! The menus were seafood heavy too, with anchovies a local specialty. The meat dishes are a great option if you need a break from carbs.
You won’t find McDonalds or sushi anywhere, and pizza is only occasionally on menus. I chuckled at the number of restaurants with signs saying “NO EGGS!,” referring to Americans’ love of a cooked breakfast. You’ll receive a bread basket everywhere – it’s included as part of the €2-3 per person service charge.
Our favourite places were:
Monterosso: Ristorante Ciak (Piazza Don Minzoni 6) served the most gobsmackingly delicious meal I had during my entire visit. I couldn’t finish my gnocchi (€14) so staff kindly packed it to go. Local white wine was €19 a bottle. You MUST eat here!
Vernazza: We had a post-hike lunch at Al Castello, perched high near the iconic castle overlooking the town and sea. The food was fine, but it was the views and value that were impressive. We paid €14 for a bottle of house white and €8 for spaghetti pomodoro.
Corniglia: We walked past half a dozen restaurants before reaching the exquisitely locatedBar Terza Terra. It was like we were on a private island, tucked around a corner with only a dozen other people taking in the incredible scenery. We had multiple Aperol spritzes (€6) paired with assorted bruschetta (€7) and focaccia (from €2.50). A real highlight!
Manarola: I’d go back to Nessun Dorma in a heartbeat! This entirely outdoor venue is exceptionally popular due to its stunning views of the town. It was full of Instagrammers but was surprisingly good value given the setting. They had a range of drink and platters combinations from €11-20, focaccias at €6-7 and of course Aperol spritzes. This venue alone is worth a day trip to Manarola.
We arrived in Cinque Terre after four days in France’s best vineyards but that didn’t stop us from guzzling Italian vino. While you can’t compare Grand Cru with the local Cinque Terre wine, we truly enjoyed everything we drank. My boyfriend and I ordered mostly local white wines, which were around €15-20 for a bottle and €4-8 for a glass. On one occasion we tried an €8 bottle of house white, which surprisingly good too. Beer lovers, there’s options for you too.
Aperitif is something I’d heard of but not experienced. Consider it Italy’s cocktail hour, enjoyed pre-dinner with snacks such as chips, nuts or crackers.
Monterosso: La Balena Blue (or “the Blue Whale”). Our host suggested this place but it took us a while to find because the signage was quite small. I liked that Italians were drinking here, and people would simply drop in and say hello. A few people had their dogs with them.
Corniglia: We had lunch at Bar Terza Terra, but I’d return just for drinks. And the scenery!
Mararola: I’m repeating myself, but go to Nessun Dorma. You could stare at Manarola all day.
The Regionale train is by the far the easiest way to get between towns. The services are fast, frequent and only €4 per trip. Be sure to check the last train times (around midnight) to avoid being stranded after dinner. Click here for the timetable.
A ferry also connects all the towns except Corniglia, and goes further south to Portovenere. The ferries are less frequent, every hour or so, and more expensive (€18 one way Portovenere to Monterosso) but it’s a nice way to see the villages from the water. Click here for the 2017 timetable.
Of course, you can walk between the towns too with each only 1.5 – 4km (0.9 – 2.5mi) apart. The villages themselves are best explored on foot due to their small size and steep inclines.
The nearest major cities are Milan (220km/135mi) and Genoa (130km/80mi) in the north, and to the south-east Pisa (100km/62mi) and Florence (170km/105mi). As mentioned, Italy’s capital Rome is about 450km south-east of Cinque Terre (or a five hour train ride). The simplest way to reach Cinque Terre is to fly or catch a train to one of these cities, and then catch another train.
We travelled from Nice, France to Genoa (3 hours) and then onto Monterosso (1 h, 15 mins) which was €24.90 each, for both journeys. We pre-booked our tickets using the excellent website Loco2. Italian trains are frequently delayed so be generous with connection times. We were delayed by 20 minutes a few times and saw others delayed by 40 minutes. You could also hire a car but we found the train services were more than adequate.
You’ll need Euros (€) for Cinque Terre, as it’s part of Italy. I was surprised at how affordable the area was, given it’s touristy and somewhat remote. For example, a basic pasta was often €8-10 and focaccias at a bar started from €2.50. Be warned: there’s only a couple of ATMs in each town, and they were frequently out of service. You can pay for trains and maybe half the restaurants by credit card, but smaller grocers and hiking fees for example were cash only.
I used our train ride to Monterosso to brush up on my Italian (learnt in Rome, 2006 while backpacking). English was widely spoken in Cinque Terre but to varying degrees. Either way, it’s polite to know the basics. Download the free app Duolingo to learn Italian, otherwise here are some essentials:
Hello/bye = ciao (“chow”)
Thank you = grazie
Please = per favoure
Excuse me/pardon = scusi
Do you have a table for two? = Avete un tavolo per due?
May I have..? = Vorrei..?
White/red wine = bianco/rosso vini
Don’t buy stamps from postcard vendors. They’ll cost you €3 each (on top of the card) and are actually part of some private courier service. Instead, search for a post office here.
I left Cinque Terre feeling I’d had a once in a lifetime experience. The walks were spectacular and the villages, although touristy, were as unspoilt as the scenery. It was a fantastic way to stay fit while travelling and inspired me to explore much more of Italy and its regional cruises. To my boyfriend – thank you for choosing such a stunning, memorable destination!