Crystalline waters and colorful houses: see the most popular destination on the Italian Riviera away from the crowds.
The Cinque Terre along the Italian Riviera is one of those places on everyone’s bucket list. It might be the candy-colored houses, the dramatic coastline between vine-covered hills and the shimmering Ligurian sea, or the narrow streets with sleepy cats and flower-covered balconies. The fact is, everyone wants to visit these five villages, and in high season you’ll find them packed to the brim with day trippers.
Rather than face the crowds, you might wonder: should you remove the Cinque Terre from your Italy itinerary? Absolutely not. Here are some tips on how to avoid crowds and experience Cinque Terre off the beaten path – enjoying it all with a glass of local wine at hand, of course! But first, let’s take a look at this dreamy Ligurian destination.
Cinque Terre guide: the villages at a glance
Traveling from northwest to southeast along the coast, Monterosso is the first Cinque Terre village you’ll see. It is also the largest village of the five, as well as being the only one with an actual beach and not a rocky cove – unsurprisingly, it also tends to be very crowded, especially with families. Monterosso is probably the least picturesque village, but it’s still worth a stop to tour the historic center with the pretty Romanesque church dedicated to St. John the Baptist, and to have a look at Nettuno, a Poseidon statue carved from the rocks that used to decorate a now-destroyed villa.
Further west from Monterosso is the town of Levanto. It’s not actually part of Cinque Terre, but it offers good accommodation at affordable prices and easy access to the five villages.
This village is the postcard image of Cinque Terre, reproduced on thousands of guidebook covers and magazines all over the world: a cluster of houses with pastel façades on a promontory around a castle, hemmed in by mountains and sea. Vernazza’s beauty is also in its fragile position; unfortunately, the village has been badly damaged by floods multiple times over the years, most recently in 2011. Make sure you support local businesses, as repair work is still ongoing, and don’t miss visiting Castello Doria, the only castle in the Cinque Terre villages. All proceeds from ticket sales is used to support the local emergency service.
Most tour groups skip Corniglia, the only Cinque Terre village that’s not right on the sea, as getting to the village itself is a bit of a hike from the train station. If you brave the fifteen-minute walk uphill, you’ll be rewarded with a truly local atmosphere, few tourists and stunning sights on the coastline below. You can also take a bus from the train station if the walk is too much for you.
If Vernazza is the prettiest Cinque Terre village, then Manarola is a close second. The colorful houses are built atop a cliff, and the village’s piazza is uphill from the coastline, with narrow streets (locally called carrugi) snaking down to the water. There’s no beach to speak of but Manarola has two coves where it’s possible to swim, with clear water and cliffs where local daredevils like to show off their diving skills.
The south-easternmost of all Cinque Terre villages, Riomaggiore used to be linked to Manarola with Via dell’Amore, a cliffside path damaged in the 2011 landslides that is now being restored. Riomaggiore is the second largest village after Monterosso and also tends to be quite busy – yet, it’s an excellent option for lunch and dinner, as there is a vast selection of restaurants. Walk away from the village and down to the tiny marina to get a lovely view of Riomaggiore clinging to the rocks.
Cinque Terre away from the crowds
When to go
If you want to have a space of your own while in the Cinque Terre, the best option is to avoid the high season, June through August. Crowds increase steadily from Easter onwards, before dying down in late August. The best time to visit is in the spring, September, or early October, and avoid weekends if possible. A winter visit, too, presents its own unique merits. The villages have a definite “off season” vibe, allowing you to appreciate them at their most authentic.
Late autumn is not an ideal time to visit the Cinque Terre. While there are fewer tourists, the bulk of rainfall happens during this season. Because of the villages’ precarious position between mountains and sea, they are prone to floods and landslides, and visiting this time of year can range from annoying to downright dangerous.
If you’re road tripping, leave your car in Bonassola, Levanto, or La Spezia and move between the Cinque Terre villages by train. And though the clear waters may beckon, consider avoiding boat tours, as they put further strain on the fragile marine environment.
Hiking Cinque Terre
Another great way to avoid crowds is hiking between one village and the next instead of driving. Allow two to three days to make the most of your visit; unless you’re a very serious hiker, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to visit all five villages in one day, and even then, it doesn’t give you time to savor your beautiful surroundings.
There are two trail choices that connect the villages: the Alta Via, or High Road, goes through the mountains and reaches a height of around 800 meters above sea level; or the coastal trail, called the Sentiero Azzurro, or Blue Path.
The total length of the Alta Via is around 40 km. It doesn’t lead you through the villages themselves, but offers stunning views over the Cinque Terre and the coast around every corner. It’s a very demanding walk, fit for the serious hiker, which guarantees peace and fewer fellow tourists.
The coastal trail is an easier option, and connects all the villages from Monterosso to Manarola. It takes between one and two hours to walk between one village and the next. Be sure to wear hiking shoes and bring plenty of water, especially in the summer. Even though it is not as demanding as the Alta Via, hiking the coastal path can still be challenging in the heat.
You’ll need a ticket to access the coastal trails. You can purchase the Cinque Terre Card at any Cinque Terre Info Point, as well as at Levanto and La Spezia train stations. The card costs €16 for one day, €29 for two and €41 for three, and it offers free bus and train travel, access to the trails, free guided tours, and access to local museums.
The vineyard terraces of the Cinque Terre
If you hike between the Cinque Terre villages, you’ll pass by row after row of a stunning vineyard landscape whose vines are planted on impossibly steep, terraced hills.
The Cinque Terre has been a winemaking region ever since ancient Roman times, particularly around Corniglia. Wine has remained an important source of revenue for the five villages through the centuries, especially during the time of the Republic of Genoa.
The vineyards cultivated on the mountainsides today were first planted over a thousand years ago by painstakingly digging and hewing the mountainsides to carve terraces out of the steep inclines. Work is still done by hand, as it is too steep for machines to access the terraces. During harvest, crates are filled to the brim with grapes and carried up and down the vineyards by workers, with the help of monorails built for this express purpose.
While hiking through the Cinque Terre, the vineyards at your feet will mostly be cultivated to make the white Cinque Terre DOC and the sweet passito, Cinque Terre Sciacchetrà DOC. But reaching up and around the Cinque Terre and southeast towards La Spezia is the larger and perhaps better-known winemaking area of Colli di Luni. In these hills, kissed by the sea breeze, white vermentino reigns supreme, making Colli di Luni DOC, an elegant wine with floral, fruity, and spicy notes. It is capable of great structure that makes it particularly suitable for Liguria’s more substantial cuisine, such as poultry, soups, and fish. But try it with the area’s famous pesto genovese, and you won’t be disappointed.