Five Lands in Two Days: Making the Most of Your Weekend in Cinque Terre
Tucked away along the Ligurian Riviera, the Cinque Terre National Park continues to entice and enchant visitors with the rugged beauty of its landscapes and the natural charm of its villages. The UNESCO World Heritage site is made up of five distinct villages – Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. And despite their relative proximity to one another, it’s not hard to see why, since the 15th century, locals have differentiated the villages by calling them Le Cinque Terre – or “the five lands”.
Each of the villages is utterly unique, whether in terms of its language, its culture, or even its cuisine. But they’re not the only draw for travelers along the Riviera. Dozens of hidden beaches, reachable from the park’s many hiking trails, offer a retreat from the bustle of the villages, particularly during high season. This no doubt explains the park’s universal appeal – whatever your ideal of an Italian getaway, there’s something here for you.
Cinque Terre may be brimming with beauty. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say you can do it in a weekend. After all, even the most ardent pleasure seekers amongst us can only spend so many days drinking in the sun, the sights, and – of course – the Sciacchetra (the region’s famous sweet wine), before they’ve had their fill.
Here, at Roman Candle Tours, we’ve prepared a short guide to your perfect weekend in Cinque Terre. If you want to know how to get there, where to stay and how to get around the park, keep reading through the next few sections. If you’ve got it all planned out and want specific ideas for each of the villages, you can skip the next sections and start at Riomaggiore.
How to get to Cinque Terre
|Cinque Terre By Dawn
You have several options when planning your arrival into Cinque Terre. Coming by car gives you the most flexibility, but because of the park’s prohibition of vehicles, don’t expect to use it when you arrive. If traveling from one of Italy’s major cities, I’d suggest coming by train (more info can be found on the Trenitaliawebsite). Or, for those looking to arrive in style, you can take the A-Lister approach and cruise in from the coast.
Where to stay in Cinque Terre
For those wanting to stay inside the park itself, limit your search to one of the five villages. Which one you pick isn’t too important. But let the nature of your visit inform your choice. If you’re looking for more of a beach holiday, for example, I’d suggest Monterosso on account of its vast beachfront. If, on the other hand, you’re serious about hiking – and don’t mind working up an appetite before gorging yourself on Ligurian delights – I’d go with Corniglia.
Then again, if it’s seclusion away from the crowds that you’re looking for you might want to set up base slightly outside the park, in either La Spezia or Levanto, and catch either a train or a bus in. With fast and reliable transport links – and numerous swim spots along the many trails – you can stay pretty much anywhere and still guarantee your fix of sand, sea, and sun.
Getting around the Cinque Terre Villages
The least strenuous and most scenic way to get around Cinque Terre is by boat. There are a variety of excursion types, from Netfish & Chill-type fishing trips to the ferry shuttle service that runs the length of the coast. I’d go out of my way to recommend the latter, not even because of the coastal views and convenience, but because of the utterly implacable, and really rather hilarious, accent of the automated guide. If you can identify it, please do let us know in the comments.
Having said that, boating around the Riviera isn’t the most economic option. And as you’re going to be in the park for the weekend, you’re going to want to use one of the many hiking trails, trains, or buses.
You do have the option to pay each fare individually, but the best way of getting around Cinque Terre is by investing in a 2- or 3-day Cinque Terre Train Card, on-sale at all train stations and tourist spots. It’ll give you a host of benefits – including access to all hiking trails, eco-friendly buses and trains between Levanto and La Spezia. And it’ll give you free admission to the park’s public toilets, which – with the amount of water you’ll be drinking – may come in handy.
The picture postcard village of Riomaggiore is perhaps the most crowded of the five, owing to the fact it closely borders the outside world. Nevertheless, its piled up pastel-colored houses and traditional vibe make it well worth a visit.
Arriving into the village from the main road, you’ll soon stumble upon Tutti Fritti; a fish and chip shop whose puns – live and let fry, fry me to the moon, I believe I can fry – are matched only by the fried delights they serve up. Their cone of fish and chips momentarily made me nostalgic for the UK (save the weather). And better still, it’s less than a five-minute walk from Riomaggiore’s harbor. So you can eat your fresh fish while looking out over their late habitat.
Any night owls amongst you might want to kick back at Vertical Bar. Always packed full of weary hikers and trendy youngsters, it’s located a stone’s throw from the port and promises generously poured cocktails, delicious local wines and a range of light bights and aperitivi.
From the port, you can always take the shuttle ferry to the next village, Manarola. Or, if you’ve come as a couple, why not walk the path of love (or as the Italians call it, the via dell’amore). It’s fittingly the least taxing of all the park’s trails, and will only take you around 20 minutes to reach Manarola (as long as you don’t get distracted along the way by seascapes and sunsets).
Manarola easily outdoes its eastern neighbor Riomaggiore, both for its impossible prettiness and for its antiquity. The 13thcentury village has a dramatic backdrop of cliffs and vineyards. And it’s precisely because of the latter that it’s home to the Museo dello Sciacchetra (the region’s famous dessert wine). Although tiny it’s definitely worth a prolonged visit, though it might be best to save it until the end of a long day’s hiking.
The village’s main attraction though is its hilltop bar Nessun Dorma, whose name will be recognizable to all through the late, great Pavarotti. Far from the typical “pizza pasta” combo that plagues most Italian restaurant blackboards, simple food and stunning scenery are the order of the day here. And both come in abundance.
For a light lunch, you can do no better than bruschette with fresh pesto cream and tomatoes, or a selection of supposedly cured – yet certainly dead – local meats, washed down with a selection of wines. And if you want to further immerse yourself in the local culture, and you have an hour to spare, why not enroll on their Homemade Pesto Course.
There’s no beach in Manarola. But a short walk northwest, along the headland away from the village, will take you to a harbor that’s either quaint or densely populated, depending on the time of year.
Perched atop a treacherous promontory 90 meters above sea level, and accessible only by a steep flight of stairs from the train station, Corniglia makes you work for its rewards. But they’re absolutely worth it. Aside from the breathtaking panoramas of the Riviera, it’s a village characterized by its quintessentially charming floral-lined streets and squares.
Corniglia has fewer dining options than the other villages on the Riviera. But one that really stands out is the Osteria a Cantina de Mananan. This local favorite is immensely popular and rather tiny, so booking in advance is a must. But if you can get a table, set yourself up for a rustic gastronomic treat of mouthwatering sea and land dishes.
One thing that separates this hilltop village from the rest is that it has a beach. Make your way down the southern side of its promontory and you’ll come upon the shingled spiaggione di corniglia – known otherwise as Guvano Beach. Its turquoise water is crystal clear, making it a popular (and somewhat overcrowded) swim spot in summer. But it’s popular for a reason, visited en masse by hikers coming along the footpath from Manarola.
Continue north along the coast towards Monterosso and you’ll eventually come across the most picturesque of the five villages, Vernazza. The port village has been shaped by a long and opulent history; the only village with a natural harbor, it’s been famed over the centuries for the seafaring prowess of its inhabitants. But they didn’t always put their talents to good use. The watchtower that imposes itself on the headland overlooking the village was built by the Genoese to keep the population – quite literally at bay – from piracy.
Fortunately for us, tourism rather than piracy is now Vernazza’s bread and butter. And it’s an industry in which the village excels. For its modest size, Vernazza has a surprising number of amazing bars and restaurants. On the harbor, the hotel-cum-restaurant Gianni Franzi is always conspicuous by the number of frazzled hikers congregating outside it’s worn exterior. If eating here, skip the pasta and go straight for the seafood. You won’t regret it.
Another must-visit if you’re stopping by Vernazza is the raved-about Gelateria Vernazza. Their huge portions will do nothing for your desire to carry on hiking, nevermind any plans you had to go swimming (lest you sink). But your taste buds will thank you, especially if you go for the dark chocolate.
Monterosso (or Monterosso al mare) is the largest and most tourist-friendly of the five villages. It’s always hopping during the summer months. And with its beautiful beachfront, lively promenade and wealth of restaurants serving up sumptuous seafood, it’s not hard to see why.
For art lovers who prefer artistic treasure to beachfront weather, there’s the stunningly situated Church of St. Francis, which houses as part of its collection a Van Dyck and a Cambiaso. You can, however, inject some artistic appreciation into your beach time; take a stroll up Fegina beach and see if you can spot the giant statue – which is, in fact, a statue of a giant – holding up a seashell. It was sculpted from concrete and iron in 1910. And despite the fact it was sculpted to depict the sea god Neptune, years of erosion and allied bombings during WW2, have reduced this statue so that it resembles more a chained, haggard Prometheus.
Other than its beachfront, the area in which the fifth and final village really outdoes itself is in its food. The chickpea flat bread (farinata di ceci) is typical Cinque Terre street food, and most reckon the best place to try it is Il Frantoio. If you fancy something a little more substantial though, why not try Ristorante Il Moretto. Fish soup, fresh pesto pasta and fried seafood abound in their reasonably priced and typically Ligurian menu. And their swordfish steaks are definitely worth a try – with many ranking them among Cinque Terre’s best.
|Admiring Cinque Terre’s Site
Despite the crowds that throng the villages and hiking trails, the best time to visit Cinque Terre is in the spring and summer months. But that’s not to say there’s nothing to do during the winter. If peace, quiet, and sublime views are your cup of tea, visiting off-season can be really rewarding. And because almost everywhere closes up shop from the end of October through to March, it’ll give you a taste of what the place was like before its meteoric rise to fame in the world of tourism. Just make sure to pack waterproofs!
Have you recently been to Cinque Terre? Were there any places we haven’t mentioned that really blew you away? Be sure to let us know by leaving a comment below!
Written by: Alex Meddings