Perched above one of the most dramatic coastlines in the world, these five medieval fishing villages add brilliant bursts of colour to the coast of the Italian Riviera. Earning its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, Cinque Terre hosts an array of Italian clichés. Beautifully rustic homes that line steep and winding streets, fresh pasta, pizza and pesto around every corner and the chaos that comes with the high season; a true Italian summer.
Carefully built terraces tumble over the steep and rugged landscape, producing local wines and fresh fruit and vegetables for the many trattorias in the towns below. Since these hills were the birthplace of the beloved pesto sauce, it is absolutely mandatory to eat it with everything. From your pasta and pizza to your breadsticks and bruschetta, a dollop of fresh pesto won’t go amiss on pretty much anything in these Italian seaside villages.
So, here’s how to do (most of) Cinque Terre in just three days!
This was where I called home for my three-day stay in Cinque Terre, and fortunately it was the quietest and most mellow out of the four villages I visited. As the most northern of the five coastal towns, Monterosso is the ideal place to start if you’re planning on hiking all the way along the wine trail down to Riomaggiore. If you aren’t up for such a long walk, then you can easily catch a train from the station to any of the five villages. But make sure you explore the charming churches, shops and restaurants of this mellow town first before rushing off to the others – it’s my favourite one!
As an avid pesto aficionado, you can trust me when I say that the best pesto I have ever tasted was the mouth-watering red pesto tagliatelle at Ristorante Al Pozzo, one of the popular restaurants that line the main street of Monterosso. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a post-hike mountain of pasta without the guilt!
Find a spot on the beach in the late afternoon sun to rest your weary feet after a long hike (or your sluggish stomach after a long lunch). However, be aware that most of the sunbeds have been rented out all summer by Italians, so expect to be ushered onto a rock by the beach-guard.
As evening rolls in, look out for Ciak wine and tapas bar for pre-dinner cocktails and snacks, tucked away in a back street with a couple of tables outside. Then head over to Da Eraldo for an authentic Italian meal at cosy wooden tables and benches, complete with kitschy red and white gingham tablecloths. The food can take some time to arrive (there was only one cook in the small kitchen when we visited), but it was so worth the wait. With over ten varieties of spaghetti, this was definitely my favourite place to eat in Monterosso. The pappardelle verdure was to die for, and the antipasti boards looked pretty tasty too. It was incredible value for money, so make sure you put your name down on the waiting list to bag yourself a table at the cutest restaurant in town.
Afterwards, take a wander along the waterfront (gelato in hand, of course) to walk off your dinner, and watch the fishing boats bob up and down on the water against a dusty pink sky.
Start off your day with a morning hike to colourful Vernazza, a bright and cheerful town that juts out into the sea and is flanked either side by rocky beaches. The walk from Monterosso to Vernazza is not for the faint-hearted, especially in the 30 degree heat of mid-August, so be sure to bring plenty of water and comfortable shoes! The hike boasts stunning views all the way, through luscious vineyards and pine forests all with the sparkling blue Mediterranean as your backdrop. There’s also an old Italian man who makes fresh orange juice on the trail if you need a pick-me-up! It took us just under two hours to hike the 3km trail (and we made the mistake of heading off under the midday sun), but the picture-perfect views of the colourful coastal village make it worth it in the end.
As you descend into the town, navigate your way through the heaving streets of tourists to the pizzeria that sits above the harbour. Reward yourself for getting this far with an obligatory pesto pizza (trust me, pizza will never taste so good) and find a place in the shade to bask in this heavenly indulgence.
On our last day, we caught the train from Monterosso to Manarola, a charming little town which spills over the rocky cliffs and into a small harbour. Make your way along the main street that leads down to the water, and take a quick dip in the brilliant blue sea to freshen up, before climbing the hill up to the cemetery for stunning views of the colour block houses.
Whilst you’re up there, take refuge from the blazing sun in the beautifully shaded Nessun Dorma, a food and wine bar with all the classic Italian bites you can think of. Juicy melon and salty prosciutto, tomato bruschetta topped with a sprig of locally grown basil, all washed down beautifully with a fresh fruit juice or a glass of Sciacchetrà, a white wine that is produced in the local vineyards in the surrounding hills. Perfetto!
HOW TO GET THERE
The national park is a pedestrian paradise, preserving the authenticity of the quaint villages in its car-free environment (dodging mopeds and tourists is hard enough – I can’t imagine throwing Italian drivers into the mix). Due to the rugged and rocky coastline, the villages of Cinque Terre are therefore pretty much impossible to reach by car, so most visitors come by train, boat or foot. You can fly to Genoa or Pisa airport and then catch a train from there, or go from La Spezia station which also has a ferry port. However, I warn you to take heed whenever you are travelling on Italian time; the trains proved to be very unreliable when we visited so leave PLENTY of time to get back to the airport to make your flight home on time.
For a little perspective… we left Monterosso at 10am for a 4pm flight from Genoa, our train was delayed half an hour, then broke down halfway through the journey, at which point we had to race across the station to jump onto the replacement train, which then proceeded to stop at every single station until it got to Genova Brignole, where we then had to get an hour-long bus to the airport. Thankfully we got to the airport on time, but it certainly was a long day of travelling!
WHEN TO VISIT
If you want to enjoy the five villages at a more relaxed pace, then you’ll have to get there before the boatloads of tourists do. The summer season lasts from June until August, and it’s actually got so crowded that a daily limit on visitor numbers has been suggested. So the best time to go would be during the early off season in May or October, when there are far less people but most of the hotels and restaurants will still be open.