Italy’s Incredible Cinque Terre: My Guide

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! 

Orientation

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.

 Corniglia: the only hilltop village in Cinque Terre. 
Corniglia: the only hilltop village in Cinque Terre. 

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.
 Vernazza: the village has an iconic castle (top right) and pier.
Vernazza: the village has an iconic castle (top right) and pier.

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!

 Affittacamere Irene: view looking left from our window.
Affittacamere Irene: view looking left from our window.

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. 

 Corniglia: perched on a hilltop but the train station is at sea level, via a lot of stairs! 
Corniglia: perched on a hilltop but the train station is at sea level, via a lot of stairs! 
  • 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.

 Riomaggiore: the southern-most village, photo taken from the ferry at dusk.
Riomaggiore: the southern-most village, photo taken from the ferry at dusk.

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

Hiking

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. 

 Vernazza (with Monterosso in the background): you'll get this view when hiking to Corniglia! 
Vernazza (with Monterosso in the background): you’ll get this view when hiking to Corniglia! 

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.

Beach

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. 

 Vernazza: the view from the castle tower.
Vernazza: the view from the castle tower.

Churches

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.

Cooking classes

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

 Ristorante Ciak: the best meal I had in Cinque Terre!
Ristorante Ciak: the best meal I had in Cinque Terre!

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: 

 Bar Terza Terra: lunch & drinks with a view! 
Bar Terza Terra: lunch & drinks with a view! 
  • 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 located Bar 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. 

drink

 Nessun Dorma: Aperitifs overlooking Manarola.
Nessun Dorma: Aperitifs overlooking 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. 

Recommended bars: 

  • 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.
 Corniglia: Post-hike Aperol spritz at Bar Terza Terra!
Corniglia: Post-hike Aperol spritz at Bar Terza Terra!
 Wine list: a sample of local wines and prices (click to enlarge).
Wine list: a sample of local wines and prices (click to enlarge).

getting around

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.

 Ferry from Portovenere to Montorosso (€18): it stops at all towns except Corniglia and takes about an hour.
Ferry from Portovenere to Montorosso (€18): it stops at all towns except Corniglia and takes about an hour.

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. 

getting there

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.

 Train: I became obsessed with photographing Cinque Terre's railway tunnels. So beautiful! 
Train: I became obsessed with photographing Cinque Terre’s railway tunnels. So beautiful! 

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.

 Manarola: the main street between the station and seafront.
Manarola: the main street between the station and seafront.

money

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. 

language  

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

other tips

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! 

QUESTION: Where’s your favourite place in Italy?

My Perth Italian Food Bender

If you had to eat just one cuisine for the rest of your life, what would it be? Mexican immediately jumps to my mind. So does Asian, specifically Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and dumplings. Does Indian count as Asian? And I couldn’t live without hummus! What cuisine does avocado on toast come under?

Needless to say, Italian is a little further down the list. Excuse the sweeping stereotype, but pasta doesn’t woo me. It’s just so… heavy. I’d fall asleep if I had spaghetti at lunch and risotto to me is just nutritionally unappealing. I know many of you are finding this blasphemous but I didn’t grow up with an Italian nonna and a basil-scented kitchen (rather, my Polish grandmother cooked cabbage and meatballs). I did have a life-changing moment at Unravelled in Perth’s western suburbs, when a simple tomato and basil spaghetti took my breath away. But the venue closed a few years ago so my love for Italian was once again sidelined. 

Given this background, it was with some surprise I realised I’ve been on an Italian food bender lately. Not one, not two, but four restaurants across Perth in rapid succession. And you know what? I’d return to to all of them! From creative plates to classic dishes, put on your best white shirt and check out these inner-city Italian eats:

1. Solo Pasta, Mt Lawley

Confession: one of my all-time favourite Instagram searches is #noodlelift. If you go to Solo Pasta on Beaufort St, you can compete in the noodle lift Olympics! This venue opened a few months ago and has a simple but delicious concept: choose your pasta flavour (classic/spinach/beetroot), choose your length (3 metres is standard) and pick from one of the 19 sauces, neatly divided into tomato, cream and olive oil bases.

 Solo Pasta: My beautiful beetroot ribbons.
Solo Pasta: My beautiful beetroot ribbons.
 Solo Pasta: Because I love #noodlelift!
Solo Pasta: Because I love #noodlelift!

I ordered the tomato and eggplant sauce with spinach pasta ($18) and sipped my BYO chardonnay ($5 corkage per person). The wide tagliatelle-style noodles were like diving headfirst into a basket of ribbons. The sauce to pasta ratio was perfect: every bite had a rich, glorious coating with a few bonus spoonfuls at the bottom. The chicken coconut curry ($21) and WA beef fillet with mushrooms ($22) ordered by my friends were also met with applause. 

In a rare move, I went back a week later with my sister and ordered the same dish except this time with beetroot pasta. I thought the spinach was a better match, but it was still tasty. We also had bread, butter and olive oil ($6), which we agreed was wholesome and delicious. Will there be a third visit? Absolutely!

  • Food: creative takes on classic noodles.
  • Price: entrees & sides $6-14, standard size pasta $18-$23. Quite the bargain.
  • Atmosphere: casual, light and airy.
  • Perfect for: relaxed catch ups, carb loading, creativity, fussy eaters.

Allergies? Any of the sauces can have ingredients omitted, except the seafood. Solo’s is vegetarian heaven, although the pasta by the metre contains eggs. They offer gluten-free pasta which is also vegan, and GF and nut dishes are clearly marked on the menu. Buon appetito!

Address: 628 Beaufort St, Mt Lawley | http://solopasta.com.au

2. No Mafia, Northbridge

The word “sharing” makes some people shudder. Not me! Tapas is like creating a personalised buffet at your table, having precise control over dishes, portions and price. It also lasts longer than your typical one-course affair. When I saw No Mafia had a Chef’s Selection Menu ($45 a head), I was keen to check it out. We booked a table for five on a Thursday night and were seated in a cosy booth at the rear. With no need to choose our dishes, we could get straight into the wine (No Mafia Sauvignon Blanc Semillon $42). The chef was happy to accommodate for a vegan in our group.

 No Mafia: I remembered to take a #flatlay halfway through our meal (I was more than halfway through my wine). 
No Mafia: I remembered to take a #flatlay halfway through our meal (I was more than halfway through my wine). 
 No Mafia: House white in their custom glasses! $42/bottle.
No Mafia: House white in their custom glasses! $42/bottle.

An array of dishes were brought to us over an hour or so. A bowl of Bread in Common sourdough was the first to arrive, followed by Sicilian olives, gnocchi, several meat dishes, salads and some banging crispy, triple baked potatoes. Our table was covered in plates! I’ll be honest, we ordered a second bottle of wine… and a third… and there was beer too. I can’t remember if we had dessert. I do remember struggling at my 6am gym class the next day.

The food was absolutely delicious, although I couldn’t try the gnocchi as it contained dairy. My carnivore comrades were grinning with their options. When the plates stopped arriving and we’d cleared their contents, we agreed we could’ve eaten a little more. However, I suspect a few hearty dishes were replaced with vegetable dishes to cater for the vegan. Definitely give the Chef’s Selection option a go!

  • Food: modern, stylish and beautifully presented. 
  • Price: antipasti, cheese & salads/sides $3-25, seafood & meat $24-39, desserts $12-13.
  • Atmosphere: casual but classy, mostly thanks to the high quality of dishes. 
  • Perfect for: date night, double dates, light bites, sharing and pre-theatre. 

Address: 189 William St, Northbridge | http://www.nomafia.com.au

3. julio’s, west perth

Julio’s is no newcomer to West Perth but it had a serious makeover in 2016 with the arrival of Sage Hotel. I walk past this Hay St venue almost daily on my way to the gym and I’ve been keen to check it out for months. My sister craving Italian and we hadn’t caught up in ages, so I booked a table for 7pm on a Friday. 

 Julio's: vegan gnocchi and cocoa tagliatelle in cosy but classy surroundings.
Julio’s: vegan gnocchi and cocoa tagliatelle in cosy but classy surroundings.

The restored heritage building has a stunning interior. Think wooden floorboards, exposed brick and several connected but open rooms that make you feel like you’re at a friend’s home. Our waitress was patient as we were too busy talking to actually look at our menus! I eventually ordered the hand rolled vegan gnocchi ($25) while my sister chose the cocoa tagliatelle with venison ragu ($26). I was envious when her meal arrived – wide, chocolate coloured noodles topped with crumbled hazelnut and asparagus. Mine arrived without any garnish. The tomato sauce was very light, too light for my tastebuds, but the gnocchi was firm and satisfying. Neither of us finished our meals, possibly because we had homemade focaccia ($8) too. It was an elegant two hours of wining and dining. I immediately told my boyfriend we had to go there!

  • Food: generous plates, minus the cliches. 
  • Price: entrees $8-19, cheese/dessert boards $21-41, mains & pasta $25-39, desserts $15.
  • Atmosphere: warm and romantic, with a hint of history. 
  • Perfect for: date night, after work drinks, wine and cheese platters.

Allergies? They do vegan gnocchi! Gluten-free and vegetarian options are marked on menu. 

Address: 1309 Hay St, West Perth | http://www.juliosrestaurant.com.au

4. Pappagallo, Leederville

This venue isn’t in the heart of Leederville but that’s a good thing, otherwise it would have people lining up at its doors! Pappagallo is a sizable restaurant a little further up Oxford St with indoor and outdoor seating. I went here for a dinner with colleagues on a cold, windy weeknight but our al fresco table was sheltered by large, clear blinds and gas heaters. The menu was extensive in addition to the day’s specials of osso bucco, truffled beef ravioli and mushroom risotto. The smoky scent of woodfired pizzas was tormenting me, but I chose gnocchi ($19) because it was dairy-free. The wine list was dominated by Italian varieties, and I went with a Pecorino ($8) as my first choice had sold out. Others had brought BYO, $8 for corkage. 

 Pappagallo: my dairy-free gnocchi ($19) with fresh basil, but I was jealous of my colleagues' pizzas. 
Pappagallo: my dairy-free gnocchi ($19) with fresh basil, but I was jealous of my colleagues’ pizzas. 

The pasta arrived first. The truffled ravioli looked and smelt sensational – three flat but giant pillows covered in cheese. My dish was a bowl of rich red, but I instantly regretted my choice when I saw the pizzas. Enormous plates were placed in front of the lucky individuals, creating a halo of woodfired aromas above our table. Pizza is clearly where Pappagallo shines! I put my food envy aside and got stuck into my pasta. The tomato sauce was luscious and rich, exactly as I like it, but the gnocchi was in a dead zone of neither firm or fluffy. I’d asked for my dish without parmesan, and suspect it played a vital role in breaking the dish up.

I still ate most of my meal, which was another amateur move. No room for dessert! The Italian donuts had sold out but the affogatos, tiramisu and even the biscotti my colleagues ordered looked incredible. I’ll be returning for Pappagallo’s pizza very soon and will be sampling more of that wine list too!

  • Food: the menu has something for everyone! Italian classics of every kind. 
  • Price: antipasti $4-18, pizza $14-26, pasta $19-24, mains $26 – market price.
  • Atmosphere: a vibrant Italian eatery, family-friendly. 
  • Perfect for: groups and crowd pleasing. 

Allergies? The gnocchi is dairy-free if you ask for no cheese, likewise with the pizza! Gluten-free pasta is available too, with all mains available gluten-free too. 

Address: 1/250 Oxford St, Leederville | http://www.pappagallo.com.au

honourable mentions…

While I did declare my indifference to Italian food earlier, I should state Il Lido in Cottesloe is one exception. I didn’t visit this beachside venue on my current Italian bender but it’s consistently outstanding. Jamie’s Italian is also worthy of mention for its excellent CBD location and good value for money. I’m yet to visit Lulu La Delizia, but this small Subiaco eatery was just named one of Australia’s Top 100 Restaurants (read more here). Also on my list are Lalla Rookh in the CBD and Mt Lawley’s ThreeCoins. It looks like my Italian bender is going to have a sequel! 

QUESTION: Where’s the best Italian you’ve had in Perth?