Cinque Terre, Italy is a collection of small fishing villages set alongside the Italian Riviera coastline. These five historical villages provide some of the most amazing food, hiking trails, and beautiful coastal scenery on the planet. This article “36 Hours in Cinque Terre, Italy” was written by Ingrid K. Williams and originally published by the NY Times on September 1, 2016.
This wildly rugged slice of Ligurian coast with its five tiny towns is a delight for hikers, foodies and wine enthusiasts.
A century ago the Cinque Terre were simply five fishing villages on an unforgiving stretch of the Ligurian coast in northwestern Italy. With trains came tourism, and now throngs arrive daily to see it all: the startlingly vibrant color of the Mediterranean, the wildly rugged coastline sliced by scenic hiking trails, and the tiny towns tucked like puzzle pieces into the cliffs. The region has recovered from the mudslides and flooding of 2011 that devastated the towns of Monterosso and Vernazza, and that decommissioned trails along the famous coastal path between the other villages: Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. But another threat still looms: over-tourism. Possible remedies? Widen the scope of your itinerary to include neighboring towns (Levanto to the north and Portovenere to the south), seek out lesser-known trails and travel off-season when crowds are thinner. The viability of this magnificent but fragile area may depend on such decisions.
36 Hours in the Cinque Terre, Italy
1. THE PATH LESS TRAVELED, 3 P.M.
More than just five towns, Cinque Terre is also a national park of nearly 10,000 acres whose natural grandeur is best experienced on a hike. More than 75 miles of trails crisscross this stunning territory, so there’s no reason to add to the congestion along the Sentiero Azzurro, the popular coastal path that formerly linked all five villages. Instead, start from Corniglia and follow the red-and-white trail markers into the hills on path 587, where dazzling panoramas await along a less-trodden route. After a sweaty ascent involving a series of steep stone staircases, the path levels off along a ridge where up-in-the-clouds views span the sparkling sea and shrinking town below. When the trail splits, continue toward the hilltop town of Volastra — path 586 to 506 — passing through shady groves and terraced vineyards before eventually descending into the streets of Manarola. The hike takes about two and a half hours.
2. CLIFFSIDE COCKTAILS, 6 P.M.
A strenuous hike ought to culminate with rest and a reward, both of which can be procured at Nessun Dorma. This casual outdoor bar, which opened in 2014, occupies a landscaped terrace on a promontory overlooking Manarola’s timeless vista: pastel houses perched on a cliff, fishing boats in a small harbor, tanned teenagers diving off the breakwater into the indigo sea. Claim a table in the gardenlike seating area and order a limoncino spritz, a refreshing riff on the classic that mixes the local lemon liqueur with prosecco and mint in a glass jam jar (8 euros, or about $9).
3. FRESH CATCH, 9 P.M.
While most visitors are vying for seats at the same dozen restaurants touted by seemingly every guidebook, shake the crowds by dining at a worthy newcomer in Riomaggiore. Opened last summer, Rio Bistrot is a modern osteria nestled above the village’s minuscule harbor serving dishes that showcase the bounty of the local sea. At a table on the stone terrace, watch fishermen haul in the day’s catch while savoring buttered toasts topped with plump anchovies from Monterosso (13 euros) and paccheri with fresh mussels from Riomaggiore (15 euros). And book in advance; this spot won’t remain undiscovered for long.
4. GOOD MORNING, VERNAZZA, 9 A.M.
Vernazza is arguably the most photogenic — and popular — village, so arrive early before it’s overrun with day-trippers. Pop into Batti Batti’, a hole-in-the-wall focacceria, for a take-away breakfast of cheesy focaccia di Recco or pesto-slathered pizza (4 euros each). Then head to the quay to picnic while admiring the lemon-hued church, bobbing boats in the harbor and the pretty main piazza slowly coming to life.
5. FANTASTIC VOYAGE, 10 A.M.
The Cinque Terre has fewer historical sites worth exploring than its southerly neighbor, Portovenere, a coastal town so closely related that it falls under the same Unesco World Heritage site designation. From Vernazza, hop on the first Consorzio Marittimo Turistico ferry heading south (30 euros round-trip), and after an hour of marveling at the cinematic coastline from the sea, alight in Portovenere’s picturesque marina. Then stroll past colorful houses crammed shoulder-to-shoulder along the waterfront en route to the Chiesa di San Pietro. This striped 12th-century church appears to have grown organically from the rocky peninsula where the crashing waves of the Mediterranean meet the Gulf of La Spezia. Afterward investigate Byron’s Grotto, a natural cove nearby named for the 19th-century English poet who, according to local lore, swam from here to San Terenzo across the gulf, over four miles away.
6. ISLAND LUNCH, 1 P.M.
There might be no more glamorous way to travel in Italy than by Venetian water taxi, which is precisely the polished vessel that will be waiting in Portovenere’s harbor when you reserve a table for lunch at Locanda Lorena. This seaside inn and restaurant, just a few minutes away on the sparsely populated island of Palmaria, has a large covered terrace where well-heeled locals gather at tables draped in white linens to dine on fritto misto, lobster-stuffed ravioli and overflowing platters of grilled fish and crustaceans. Lunch for two, about 120 euros.
7. PORTOVENERE PRODUCTS, 4 P.M.
Before the last ferry departs for Cinque Terre, spend an hour in the shops lining the narrow alleys and steep staircases of Portovenere’s historic center. Start on Via Capellini, a stone-paved pedestrian lane where you’ll find Olioteca Bansigo, a specialty store celebrating the olive in various forms, from oils and tapenades to beautiful olive-wood serving spoons and cutting boards. Across the street, fragrant basil plants flank the entrance to Bajeicò, a pesto shop selling the local basil-based sauce and related products like fresh pasta. And up a nearby staircase, the tiny ceramics workshop La Bottega di Rena produces pretty handcrafted pieces such as glazed bowls shaped like fishing boats.
8. SEASIDE SIPS, 6 P.M.
Return to Riomaggiore and follow signs for the Via dell’Amore. This romantic cliff-top path, part of the Sentiero Azzurro, is closed indefinitely, but similar views can be found at A Piè de Mà, a cafe and bar in a magnificent location near the trailhead. At a table on the terrace, high above the churning sea, try a glass of Cinque Terre wine from Walter de Battè, a small artisanal producer of the region’s floral white blend (6 euros).
9. LIGURIAN KITCHEN, 9 P.M.
Prefer eating among Italians rather than in a polyglot dining room? Then reserve a table at L’Articiocca, a cozy restaurant that opened in 2013 on a quiet side street in Levanto, one train stop north of Monterosso. Once seated on the patio, start with the Levanto specialty gattafin, pastalike fritters stuffed with spinach and wild herbs. Then order the trofie al pesto, twisted Ligurian pasta served in the traditional manner, with potatoes and green beans. The aromatic green sauce is prepared tableside with a well-worn mortar and pestle — a fun flourish that doubles as a free cooking lesson. Service is extremely genial but slow, so use the time between courses to sample rare craft beers produced by small Ligurian breweries, like Birra del Bracco and Genova’s Maltus Faber. Dinner for two, about 70 euros.
10. BEACH BLISS, 9 A.M.
This may be the Italian Riviera, but the only Cinque Terre town with a wide swath of beach is Monterosso. In high season, rows of umbrellas in a rainbow of colors line the town’s spiaggia di Fegina, each hue demarcating a different beach club. Arrive early to claim a spot on the free public beach, or pay for a sun-lounger to spend the morning relaxing in the shade of an umbrella between dips in the turquoise sea.
11. LOCAL LUNCH, NOON
Hundreds of steps separate the train station from the center of Corniglia, but the ascent is worth it for a truly local lunch. At Km 0, a small panino shop that opened in 2013, sandwiches and salads are composed of hyperlocal ingredients, like the Pignone panino with Ligurian sausage and fresh stracchino cheese from nearby Brugnato (5 euros). For dessert, walk down the street to Alberto Gelateria, an artisanal gelato shop where Corniglia’s own products, like honey and basil, are used to create sensational flavors.
12. TASTE TEST, 2 P.M.
Maybe it’s the short uphill walk, or the lack of ostentatious signage, but few seem to find their way to the tranquil Buranco winery in Monterosso. Hidden amid terraced vineyards and lemon groves, this idyllic estate operates as an agriturismo — a working farm that rents rooms, or in this case, cottages — but impromptu wine tastings are also arranged on the picturesque patio. Glasses of the vineyard’s syrah and Cinque Terre white (from 6 euros) are served alongside platters of the property’s olives, cheese and pesto crostini. On a wooden lounge chair surrounded by nothing but beatific calm and views of the vines, finish with a pour of sciacchetrà, the Cinque Terre’s sweet passito.
On a hill near the historic center of Monterosso, Agriturismo Buranco (Via Buranco 72, Monterosso; burancocinqueterre.it; from 280 euros) is a winery and agriturismo with three cottages outfitted with kitchens and terraces set amid the peaceful property’s olive trees, lemon groves and terraced vineyards.
The small towns of the Cinque Terre have few worthwhile hotels but plenty of rooms available to rent, which is the best way to base yourself in the heart of a village and experience a slice of daily life in the evenings and early mornings. Most reliable listings can be found on Airbnb or Booking.com.