tips on exploring any travel destination in 3 days or less

3 Days In….Cinque Terre, Italy!

Manarola, Italy

When you hear the name “Cinque Terre”, the mind conjures up images of a fairytale land of brightly colored houses perched on cliffs overlooking the sea. This fairytale can become your reality by taking a quick train ride from Florence! Upon arrival in Cinque Terre (“five villages”), you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. After the hustle and bustle of a few days spent in Florence or another Italian city, the easygoing vibe of this region and its many opportunities to explore nature should be a welcome reprieve. I spent three days in this area and thought that was a good amount of time, but I know people who have done day trips here from Florence. While I think this beautiful region warrants more than one day, it would certainly be worthwhile to do a day trip if that was your only option!

  • Day 1: Check-in, explore, dinner cruise
  • Day 2: Hike between Corniglia and Vernazza
  • Day 3: Manarola swimming hole & Monterosso beaches

Where to stay: There are five villages that make up Cinque Terre; each is charming in its own right but there are some attributes that may make them more or less desirable based on your situation. The first question to answer is: will you have a car? If the answer is yes, Monterosso is your best option as they allow some vehicles; the other four villages do not. That said, it’s unnecessary to have a car in Cinque Terre, so even if you have one for your travels, it may be best to park it in the nearby town of La Spezia and take the local train into the 5 Terre. There are several AirBnB options in the area. Hotels are less common but can be found, especially in Monterosso.

Here’s a quick rundown of each town’s unique characteristics – this list goes from south to north:

  • Riomaggiore – has a beautiful harbor area, a few bars and restaurants on the main street, easily accessible from the train stop, quiet and less crowded than the other towns, hiking trail from here to Manarola is closed
  • Manarola – also has a beautiful harbor area complete with a popular swimming hole, easily accessible from the train stop, more lively than Riomaggiore, the prettiest of the towns in my opinion, hiking trail from here to Corniglia is closed
  • Corniglia – this is the only town not directly on the water, from the train it’s many stairs to get to the town, great views from the town and trail to Vernazza, small and windy streets, very cute town
  • Vernazza – on a peninsula so surrounded by water on both sides, the harbor area is picturesque and very lively with restaurants/bars, very crowded, can hike from here to Monterosso
  • Monterosso – the only town with sandy beaches, more of a resort-town feel but still very charming, good amount of places to eat and drink

DAY 1

You’ve arrived in Cinque Terre! Perhaps you’re just starting out your Italian vacation and are eager to explore or maybe you’ve been traveling through Italy’s bustling cities and are ready for some relaxation. Either way, Cinque Terre offers a wide range of activities that will cater to those seeking adventure or a quiet respite. Check into your AirBnb or hotel and get settled, then head into the town center. You’ll likely be ready for some sustenance after lugging your bags up Cinque Terre’s steep hills and steps! The region is known for its seafood; you will come across several restaurants in any of the towns that offer to-go cones filled with various fried seafood (sardines, shrimp, clams, etc.) If seafood isn’t your cup of tea, another regional specialty is focaccia bread pizza. One of our favorites was Batti Batti in the town of Vernazza. Be sure to try the pesto focaccia pizza if you go here!

 

Main street of Riomaggiore, Italy

After lunch, take some time to explore the village you are staying in. If you’re in one of the waterfront towns (all but Corniglia), take a walk down to the harbor for some great photo opportunities and people watching. Pictured below are is a photo taken from the harbor of the village of Riomaggiore.

Riomaggiore, Italy harbor

After the harbor, perhaps stop at one of the several cafes or bars in the area to sip on an Aperol spritz or a mojito. The latter is not an Italian drink, but for some reason, we found them everywhere in Cinque Terre! Before heading back to your accommodations to get ready for the evening, stop into a few of the souvenir shops found in each of the towns. Some great things to bring back are jars of pesto (another specialty of the region), soaps made from olive oil, and decorative porcelain dishes made in Cinque Terre.

For the evening, book a sunset tapas cruise here. My sister-in-law planned to do this on their honeymoon; we were in Cinque Terre at the same time following their Tuscan wedding and considered joining them (we were invited, I promise!) but the tour was cancelled due to rough waters. Though it didn’t work out this time around, definitely let me know if you’ve done this boat tour or another in the comments, as I’d love to do one next time I’m in Cinque Terre!

DAY 2

Break out those hiking boots! In all honesty, I hiked in comfortable sandals, not flip flops, and was totally fine (I also drank a mojito in Corniglia before we hiked, but we’ll save that story for another time!) Sneakers or hiking boots may be a better choice if you’re looking to do multiple trails or go off trail. I would recommend packing a backpack for the day with a water bottle, some snacks and a bathing suit and towel in case you decide to go for a swim after your hike.

One important item to note is that not all of the trails between the towns are open. The trails between Riomaggiore and Manarola and Manarola and Corniglia were damaged in landslides, so you will have to take the train between those cities or find alternate trails, which I do not recommend as they are not maintained as part of the Cinque Terre National Park. We attempted to find one of these trails between Riomaggiore and Manarola and ended up at a dead-end on someone’s private property; oops! Here is a site that you can visit to check the trail status. Hopefully, the trails between Riomaggiore and Corniglia will reopen at some point in the near future.

We opted to hike the trail between Corniglia and Vernazza which offers incredible views of the sea and towns. We snapped the photo below on the trail looking back at Corniglia with Manarola also visible in the background.

The trail was well-maintained, and felt safe despite being on a cliff edge for the majority of the hike as there was railing in most spots. That said, it was still a challenging hike with a lot of elevation climbs. All-in-all, on the day of the hike, we walked about 10 miles and climbed 289 floors per my iPhone’s pedometer, so based on your fitness level (and motivation to work out on vacation!), you will need to determine if this hike is appropriate for you. Below is a photo of Vernazza taken as we reached the end of the trail and before we descended into the town (where we found more mojitos!)

Cinque Terre and its trails are part of a national park and therefore, you must pay to access the trails. This site does a great job of breaking down all of the pricing options to access the trails, as well as a combination trail and train pass which may be the most economical option if you plan to visit multiple towns via the hiking paths and trains. There are 1 day and 2 day options available, and passes are available at the info points at each town’s train station.

Upon arrival in Vernazza, grab some lunch at one of the many restaurants near the harbor. There’s a small sandy beach on the waterfront if you fancy a swim, as well as some kayak rental services if you aren’t completely tuckered out after your hike!

DAY 3

Today is all about some much-deserved relaxation! Take the train to Manarola and walk into town. Grab a bite to eat and a cappuccino at one of the cafes in the area and perhaps spend a little time exploring the shops in town. When you’re ready, head down to the swimming hole at the harbor and take a dip in the chilly, but refreshing Ligurian Sea. As you can see in the photo below, the swimming hole was fairly crowded when we visited it, but it didn’t take away from the experience or the beautiful surroundings in my opinion. There are some opportunities to climb up the rocks and jump into the sea for the more adventurous!

After your swim, get your camera ready for some wonderful views! If you were to face the swimming hole and do a 180 degree turn, you will see a path that heads up and winds to the left. From it, you can see some incredible views, like the image at the top of this post, as well as the photo below.

If you continue on the path for a short distance, you will see some alternate swimming holes that are less crowded than the main one in town, like this beauty pictured below. We didn’t get a chance to hike down to it which I regret!

After you’ve gotten your Instagram photo fix, walk back to Manarola’s train station and hop on the train to Monterosso al Mare. We didn’t get a chance to spend time on the beach here, but my sister-in-law, Kayla and her husband, Max, stayed in this town and rented an umbrella and chairs during one of their days in Monterosso. I believe a bucket of margaritas was also involved. A photo taken by them is pictured below.

After your day on the beach, wander into town where there are several charming restaurants with outdoor seating among Monterosso’s windy streets. Make sure you choose a place with pesto pasta on the menu, a specialty of the region!

A few last notes:

  • Getting there: From most major Italian cities, you will be able to take a direct or connecting train to La Spezia, which is a larger town located inland from Cinque Terre. From there, you can take the local train to any of the five towns. This is the same train line that runs between the towns.
  • Transportation: Within the towns, the best way to get around is on foot. Between the towns, the train is your easiest option. Other options include hiking and a boat shuttle that runs between the two end towns, Riomaggiore and Monterosso al Mare, weather permitting.
  • Money: Italy uses the Euro. Credit cards are widely accepted in Cinque Terre (try to find one with low or no foreign transaction fees). It’s always good to have some cash for small purchases (like gelato!) – my preferred method to withdraw cash is via bank ATM.


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