The stunning cluster of villages known as the Cinque Terre (five lands) is the crown jewel of Italy’s Ligurian coast, and, one of the world’s most singular national parks.
Clinging to the Ligurian cliffs, on the west coast of Italy in the country’s La Spezia province, these pastel-coloured villages are, altogether, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a national park, but individually Manarola, Riomaggiore, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare are singular in their striking beauty. Even more attractive, is the fact that they are all easily accessible by train.
Because the villages are perched on hilly, rugged terrain, cars are mostly cut off from accessing them. This means travelling by train to the Cinque Terre is the easiest way to explore the region. Because the Cinque Terre area is also a national park, hiking is another great way to take in the region’s breathtaking sights (see below for further hiking details). Here are some top tips on when best to visit the Cinque Terre and how to get there by rail.
How to get to the Cinque Terre
Trains are best suited to handle travelling between the tricky terrain of the five Terre. Board the Cinque Terre Express (buy locally), a speedy regional service, to navigate easily and swiftly between La Spezia Centrale, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, Monterosso and Levanto. To find out more about travelling between La Spezia and Levanto, stopping at the Cinque Terre along the way, read our blog on scenic Italian train journeys.
If you’re planning on flying into Italy, the nearest airport to the Cinque Terre is Genoa Airport (Aeroporto di Genova), also known as Cristoforo Colombo Airport. From there, you can take a 30 mins bus ride (buy locally) to Genova Brignole train station where the Cinque Terre Express will pick you up and stop at all the villages in the area.
The train ride between Monterosso and Vernazza is 3 mins.
The train ride between Vernazza and Corniglia is 3 mins.
The train ride between Corniglia and Manarola is 2 mins.
The train ride between Manarola and Riomaggiore is 2 mins.
Travelling from Florence to the Cinque Terre by train
From Florence’s main train station, Santa Maria Novella, you catch a direct Trenitalia train to La Spezia Centrale in just over 2 hrs. From La Spezia, board the Cinque Terre Express to explore the national park.
Travelling from Rome to the Cinque Terre by train
Travelling from Milan to the Cinque Terre by train
It’s possible to travel by direct train from Milan to Monterosso train station in the Cinque Terre. This journey takes just under 3hrs, and from Monterosso you can catch the Cinque Terre Express to visit the other four coastal villages.
Best time to visit the Cinque Terre
Deciding on the best time to go to the Cinque Terre is a careful balance between avoiding the almost Disney World-like crowds in summer and getting as much atmosphere as possible in these lovely villages without the winter rains.
The Cinque Terre’s main season spans from May to October thanks to its mild Mediterranean climate. It’s best to try to avoid July and August, not only because of the soaring daytime temperatures, but also because of school holiday and cruise ship crowds. The Cinque Terre are very quiet in winter with many of the villages’ shops and restaurants closed for business during the off-season. The best time to go to the Cinque Terre is therefore just before the busy season begins, in late April, or just after in late October.
Things to see and do in the Cinque Terre
Hiking around the Cinque Terre
Aside from taking the train around each of the five coastal villages, it is also possible to explore the Cinque Terre on foot. The most popular walking trail is Trail #2 (the Sentiero Azzuro, or Blue Trail), made up of four paths that wind along the coast. Tackling the entire route takes around six hours, but keen walkers can also spread the trail over a few days.
Hikers can begin the Sentiero Azzuro from Monterosso, going south, or from Riomaggiore, going north. However, for less experienced or less able walkers, beginning the trail from Riomaggiore allows for an easier start, with better paved sections of the trail leading to more challenging ones. It’s also good to keep in mind that from any of the five villages, visitors can always break up the walk by taking the Cinque Terre express instead.
Sitting atop a 100m-high cliff surrounded by vineyards, Corniglia is often seen as the “quiet” middle village of the five. The only Cinque Terre town without a harbour or direct sea access, Corniglia is often overlooked for the coasts of the other villages. However, what Corniglia lacks in seascapes, it more than makes up for with a quieter, more secluded feel. The only way to access Corniglia from its train station is by climbing 380 steps, but once at the top, the burst of colours from its characteristic case-torri (tower-houses) and their surrounding views will make the ascent more than worth it.
Boasting more grapevines than any other Cinque Terre town, Manarola is known for its sweet Sciacchetrà wine. It is also believed to be the oldest of the five villages, its warren of cobblestone alleys awash with signs of its Roman past. Manarola is also seen as the most typical Cinque Terre town, its tumble of brightly painted houses climbing up towards medieval watchtowers and balconies jostling with geraniums. Follow the town’s rocky path down its small jetty to catch a ferry to neighbouring Vernazza.
Monterosso al Mare
The largest of the Cinque Terre, Monterosso al Mare is also the only Cinque Terre village with a proper stretch of beach. The village is divided in two, its new and old halves linked together by an underground tunnel beneath the San Cristoforo hill, upon which sits the church of St. Francis. Climb to the top of the blustery promontory for stunning views of the sea and the hillsides dotted with lemon groves.
Riomaggiore is the first of the five Terre visitors reach when coming from La Spezia, and as such, acts as the Cinque Terre’s unofficial main hub. Lively and bustling, this picture-perfect pastel village is most characteristic of the colourful Ligurian houses seen in postcards of the region. Riomaggiore’s main street, Via Colombo, stretches out towards the top of the town and is lined with restaurants, shops and bars. The famous Via dell’Amore (Lover’s Lane) trail begins here, a scenic path leading to neighbouring Manarola. The Via dell’Amore is one of the easiest sections of the Trail #2 as it is wide, flat and paved. Famed for its kissing statue, the trail is 2km and takes around 40 mins to walk.
The steepest and quaintest of the five villages, Vernazza is best known for its natural harbour and colourful houses. It has often been named one of the most beautiful towns in Italy, which is saying something, considering the stiff competition from its Cinque Terre neighbours. Stroll down its main street, Via Roma, for cafes and prime people-watching spots, then get lost amid Vernazza’s caruggi (narrow streets) for surprise views of the sea at every turn.
Image credits top to bottom: Vernazza and ocean coast iStock ©MartinM303, Cinque Terre National Park, near Manarola village iStock ©Janoka82, Terraced vineyard in Cinque Terre Flickr Commons ©Sergio Boscaino (cropped), Woman hiking on the path in vineyard near Manarola village iStock ©ellobo1 Corniglia Manarola (resized) Flickr Commons ©stevkc, (resized) Flickr Commons ©Oliver Kratzke, Monterosso al Mare (resized) Flickr Commons ©Nikky, Via Dell'Amore (Love Walk), Cinque Terre, Italy (resized) Flickr Commons ©Bo&Ko, Vernazza Flickr Commons ©Fred Bigio