This post was most recently updated on January 12th, 2022
Cinque Terre — Italian Riviera…ten years ago, I hadn’t even heard of this place. But a few years ago, we bought a Garmin GPS for use on road trips. The home screen had a beautiful photo of a colorful village with homes precariously perched on a cliff above the ocean. It was awhile before I realized this town was one of the jewels in the Italian Riviera chain of five villages called Cinque Terre. Without even knowing the name of the village, I put it on my bucket list of places to visit.
Finally, in the spring of 2014, Italy was my destination, and Cinque Terre was on the itinerary. Rick Steves calls Cinque Terre “one of God’s great gifts to tourism“. I have to agree. It is very unique and simply beautiful. Cinque Terre is a 6-mile stretch of five villages, connected only by a walking path and a local train that hugs the cliffs and coastline. From north to south, the villages are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.
Our schedule allowed only two days in Cinque Terre. Because we had a rental car, we decided not to try to overnight in any of the Cinque Terre villages (you can’t drive to them). Instead we searched on Airbnb for a vacation rental close to the train station in La Spezia. “Casa Lili” was a perfect match for us! We had the entire downstairs of a two-level home, with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, comfortable furnishings, a stocked refrigerator, beautiful garden, and free parking. The owner, Liliana, was very helpful and kind.
The Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre (Cinque Terre National Park) is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and you must purchase a Parco Cinque Terre (National Park pass) to walk any of the trails connecting the villages. There are 1-day or 2-day passes, and you can purchase a pass that includes unlimited use of the trains. We purchased the 2-day train pass; it was 92 euros for four adults–my husband and I, my daughter, and my son-in-law.
We really wanted to walk the one-mile Via Dell’Amore (walk of love) between Riomaggiore and Manarola, but when we arrived, it was closed due to spring flooding. The only portion of the path between all of the villages that was open was a small section between Manarola and Corniglia. With only two days to explore Cinque Terre, we decided to omit Corniglia, (not that I needed an excuse to go back).
Our first day was a Sunday, and we attended church first in La Spezia. Even though it was all in Italian, I understood a little, and it was nice to feel the spirit of the meeting before setting off to explore Riomaggiore and Manarola.
13th century Riomaggiore is known for its history and vineyards. It is the most rugged and least commercialized village of Cinque Terre. The striking Church of St. John the Baptist in Riomaggiore was built in 1340 and renovated in 1870.
As it turns out, Manarola was the village I’d seen many times on my GPS screen. SO. MUCH. BETTER. IN PERSON! Pastel colors, rugged coastline, deep swimming holes, mosaics, and beautiful views. A lovely place to stroll and hike around a bit! As we hiked, we watched the waves crash on the rocks below. We found a path that wound up the hillside and ended at a scenic park. There was a statue at the park that was beautifully silhouetted against the backdrop of ocean and cliff.
We sure appreciated the warmth and sunshine of Cinque Terre, especially after the rain we had experienced in Venice, Milan, and Florence! It was such a peaceful way to spend our day. After Manarola, we returned to our “home away from home” in La Spezia and cooked a wonderful meal of pasta, salad, and cheese-topped bread! Our family dinner was a time for resting and bonding. We capped off the evening with card games, emails to family, journal entries, and planning what to do for our last day in Cinque Terre.
Looking back now, I can’t believe we fit so much into the next day! We awoke early and left in time to catch a 7:55 am train to Monterosso. (Another reason to wake up early on vacation!) After exploring the town, which is perched on both sides of a craggy hill with a tunnel running through it, we walked along the beach. This is the most resort-y village of Cinque Terre; during the summer, the beach is packed with lounging chairs! Next, we walked around the craggy hill and up a steep path to check out a 17th-century convent (Convento dei Cappuccini E S. Francesco) and church halfway up the “mountain”.
There were lots of paved switchbacks and several flights of stairs. By the time we reached the church, it was a perfect place to rest from the sun and climbing! When we headed into town, it was on a “back-door” path, and I’m sure we surprised a few residents, as we were definitely off of the beaten path. After browsing a few shops, picking up some souvenirs, and enjoying local gelato, we made our way back to the train station to go to Vernazza.
Vernazza, as a fortified town, dates back to 1080 AD. It has a beautiful man-made harbor and an old stone church,Santa Margherita di Antiochia, sitting just above the harbor that was built in the 1300’s or earlier. It’s also a fishing village, and is well known for its seafood specialties. There is a castle tower, call the Doria Castle, which you can climb for a fee of 1,50 euros. And yes, we counted all the stairs to the top–there are 66. The view is well worth it!
Before we left Vernazza, we had to try their famous “frutti di mare” (seafood spaghetti). We went to a restaurant with bright-colored umbrellas right on the harbor walkway, called Gianni Franzi. It was a bit of a challenge to get our lunch within the hour we had scheduled. We had forgotten to consider that Italians don’t believe in rushing a meal! And since the view was so fantastic, it was a shame we had to. (We had to get to Rome by evening.) But they did accommodate us, and it was fun to try a new food. It was, however, difficult to wrap my head around spaghetti noodles with muscles, octopus, shrimp, and clams instead of meatballs! We caught our train with enough time to grab another gelato too!
After Cinque Terre, we hit the road for Rome. I can tell you we were not prepared for the traffic, and we arrived quite late. If you want to know what we did there, be sure to click here. My tales of Cinque Terre would not be complete without thanking my husband (for being my favorite travel partner through life!), my daughter (for taking some incredibly gorgeous pictures), and my son-in-law (for being our Italian interpreter)! It was an amazing experience to travel to Italy.
I’d love to hear what you did in Cinque Terre…or what’s on your travel Bucket List! And if you got to see Corniglia, please fill me in on what I missed.
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