Last Updated on January 8, 2024
As a former resident of Southern Italy, I have long held the opinion that there is no more spectacular coastline in all of Italy than the magnificent and famous Amalfi Coast. But truth be told, the Amalfi has an Italian rival to the north that is in every way worthy to challenge that claim.
Move over Amalfi and make room for the Italian Riviera with its stunningly picturesque Cinque Terre.
Like its French rival, the Italian Riviera is full of luxurious Mediterranean charm attracting sun-worshipping visitors in droves. It also sports dramatic coastal landscapes peppered with a painter’s palette of colorful villages perching precariously to cliffs overlooking the azure waters of the Ligurian Sea. Nowhere is this more evident than in Cinque Terre.
I used to think that Cinque Terre was the name of the most postcard-perfect coastal village on the Italian Riviera, much like Positano in the south. However, the name Cinque Terre means “five lands” and actually refers to a stunning strip of coastline that is comprised of five picturesque fishing villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.
Each of these charming villages has its own unique character, offering visitors a chance to explore narrow winding streets, visit local markets, and enjoy the local cuisine in an almost fairy-tale setting
The stunning combination of steep cliffs, crystal-clear sea, vineyards, and colorful houses in lovely pastel shades creates a stunning visual masterpiece. Add in the rich cultural experiences of these Italian fishing villages almost frozen in time and you have an unforgettably enchanting experience you will cherish for the rest of your life.
Not surprisingly, Cinque Terre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for its cultural and natural significance. This designation reflects the ongoing commitment to preserving the unique character of the region.
Here are some not-to-be-missed sights and the best things to do while visiting Cinque Terre.
Monterosso al Mare
This northernmost and westernmost of the five towns, Monterosso al Mare is also the most accessible. More open and less steep, it is the most populous town in the Cinque Terre offering a wider range of clubs, bars and restaurants.
Be sure to spend time in Monterosso Old Town exploring the historic center with its narrow streets, colorful buildings and lively atmosphere. Later, on Monterosso Beach, you can relax on this beautiful and sizable stretch of sand, a rare gem on Cinque Terre’s rugged coast.
Vernazza features a snug little harbor accessible by small tourist boats and ferries that connect the various villages of Cinque Terre. This small harbor is iconic, with colorful buildings lining the waterfront. It’s a great place to relax and enjoy the stunning views.
Vernazza is still a true fishing village where local fishermen head out each morning and return with freshly caught fish, many to be served that evening in the local restaurants.
Visitors can also climb up to Doria Castle, a fascinating medieval fortress with a tower standing atop a rocky, rugged promontory. Here you’ll enjoy stunning panoramic views of the village and the sea.
Unlike the other localities of the Cinque Terre, Corniglia does not sit immediately adjacent to the sea. Instead, this tight cluster of multi-storied, multi-hued structures occupies the top of a 100-meter-high promontory. Surrounded on three sides by vineyards and terraces, the hamlet’s fourth side descends vertically to the sea.
Getting to Corniglia is half the fun, for to reach this tiny village of 150 souls, it’s necessary to climb the Lardarina, a long brick staircase composed of 33 flights and 383 steps. The less intrepid can follow a vehicular road leading to the village from the train station and on occasion, a small bus sometimes runs.
From the town’s Terrazza di Corniglia overlooking the village, you can enjoy breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape.
Manarola is perhaps the oldest of the towns in the Cinque Terre as its San Lorenzo Church’s cornerstone dates back to 1338. The town’s name is derived from “magna roea” which means large wheel, referring to the village’s large mill wheel.
This small village of about 350 inhabitants is known primarily for fishing and wine-making. The local wine, called Sciacchetrà, is renowned for its excellence since Roman times.
Particularly popular in the summer months is the Via dell’Amore, a famous walking trail between Manarola and Riomaggiore along with the hiking trails in the hills and vineyards above the town.
During the Christmas season, Manarola features a beautiful illuminated nativity scene set up on the hill overlooking the village. Thousands of lights give the precipe a magical, moving charm, now considered the largest nativity scene in the world.
Lovely and picturesque Manarola Harbor provides spectacular photographic opportunities, especially at sunset.
This southernmost hamlet of Cinque Terre also dates from the early thirteenth century and is known for its local wine produced by the town’s vineyards. The town possesses a small beach and a narrow wharf area framed by tall tower houses.
Riomaggiore is linked to Manarola by the Via dell’Amore path. The adjacent water and mountainside areas have been declared national parks.
Riomaggiore’s main street features numerous restaurants, bars, and shops. The picturesque harbor area is accented with colorful houses and numerous small boats.
Other attractions include the Castello di Riomaggiore, a stone castle perched above the sea. Built in 1260, more additions were added in the 15th and 16th centuries. Another highly visited site is the Church of San Giovanni which dates back to the 14th century and features magnificent Gothic architecture.
Getting Around Cinque Terre
All five villages of Cinque Terre are well-connected by a train line running along the coast that makes exploring each of them easy in a short amount of time. This accessibility adds to the appeal for travelers.
Boat tours and small ferries likewise connect these charming Mediterranean gems. Exploring Cinque Terre from the sea provides a unique perspective of the villages nestled against the coastline along with the opportunity to capture photos of their colorful beauty from the water.
Lastly, hiking trails along the Sentiero Azzurro connect all five villages. Popular with younger hikers and backpackers, this trail offers innumerable spectacular views of the coastline and stunning landscapes.
Where to Stay
Despite their small size, the five villages that make up Cinque Terre have no shortage of places to stay. Forget the mega-resorts, these quaint lodgings are small to medium-sized size mainly family-run hotels that blend perfectly into the local ambiance.
Many of these establishments have incredible coastal and sea views or views of the vineyards and cliffs. Vacation rentals also offer an amazing array of accommodations from small houses to large multi-room abodes for groups or families.
Cinque Terre is a veritable paradise for hikers with a network of scenic trails connecting all five villages.
The most famous trail, of course, is the already mentioned Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Trail) offering stunning views of the coastline. The numerous trails also lead through terraced vineyards and olive groves allowing hikers to enjoy the serene bucolic beauty of the region.
Cinque Terre Vineyards
Perhaps second only to the marvelous sea views are the impressive terraced Cinque Terre vineyards that cling precariously to the steep slopes of the hills. The scenic vineyards are not just for looks as their grapes produce the region’s excellent local wines.
Cinque Terre is the place to savor delicious Ligurian cuisine, including fresh seafood, various pesto dishes, and locally produced wines.
These small hamlets provide a surprising number of local restaurants and cafes to fully sample the many flavors of the Cinque Terre region.
There are so many places along the Cinque Terre coast to catch spectacular sunsets be it from a boat, along the beach, a hiking trail, a hotel balcony or a promontory terrace. None is more impressive than the sunset views from Nessun Dorma, a popular terrace bar in Manarola.
This is the place to stop, enjoy a drink with a friend or loved one, and just take in the magical and unforgettable beauty of Cinque Terre, queen of the Italian Riviera.
Exploring the Charming Hamlets
Perhaps the best aspect of visiting Cinque Terre is exploring each of these fascinating hamlets, wandering through the narrow streets, drinking in the local atmosphere, and discovering hidden treasures all on your own. Each of the five enchanting villages has its own distinct character, special charm, and authenticity.
No need to rush here. Savor the moment. Take time to explore each quaint hamlet at a relaxed and leisurely pace.
Yes, Cinque Terre has become an immensely popular tourist destination. Yet these five coastal gems continue to maintain a sense of intimacy and charm that has long disappeared from most high-demand destinations. This makes it among the world’s best as a great place to stop and smell the roses in a place of unparalleled beauty and timeless allure.