The main attraction of the Cinque Terre is the landscape. Mediterranean herbs and trees grow spontaneously from the top of the hills down to the water level. Well embedded in this magnificent natural scenery, one can admire the intense human activity of the ancestors, when the wine terraces were built.
An enormous (and somehow crazy) work of transportation, carrying all the heavy stones on men's shoulders and women's heads. A work through the centuries, in fact it's estimated to have taken about 200 years to build the entire stone-wall network. Its total length has been calculated to be at least equal to the Great Wall of China.
Tourists can enjoy the scenery described above, walk through the towns (or between them) or hiking on the paths and enjoying the local atmosphere.
As of April 2016, the blue coastal routes of Riomaggiore to Manarolla and Manarola to Corniglia are closed and blocked with a high fence. The paths from Monterosso to Vernazza (2 hours) and Vernazza to Cornigli (90 minutes) are open. However the tourist offices will still sell the 16 Euro hiking and train pass. Unless you plan on spending the entire day on the train between the 5 towns, this may not be worth it given some of the walking routes are closed (NB. the red routes further inland do not require the hiking pass). A 75 minute train ticket is 2.10 Euros, so you are much better off buying a few of these to travel between the towns than the 16 Euro pass. The blue coastal trails from Monterosso through to Corniglia require a hiking pass. If you do not wish to buy the 16 Euro walking/train pass you can buy a one day walking only pass for 7.50 Euros at the toll booths on the trail. See the hiking times section for alternative walking routes between the villages. The hiking and train passes also include wifi access for the duration of the ticket at certain points in the villages.
The open blue walking routes follow the edge of the hills between the villages and involve some steep climbs up rough stone stairs and walking on loose rocky surfaces. Sensible footwear such as running shoes or hiking boots are a good idea.
All the towns slope down to sea-level except for Corniglia, which is perched on top of a tall cliff. Four of the towns possess an old-world charm (from North-to-South: Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore). The northern-most town, Monterosso, is completely different. It is very beachy-resorty, with not much to see beyond the boardwalk apart from modern apartment blocks and hotels—nothing like the narrow, crooked streets of the other towns, lined with colorful old houses stacked haphazardly on top of each other.
Riomaggiore is the southern-most of the 5 Terre. During the day you can hear bell towers chiming and at night the frogs are in frenetic chatter as small boats go night fishing for anchovies and other fish using lights to attract the fish. Riomaggiore also has an ancient stone castello, about which little has been written. An information sign outside explains that first mention of the castello appeared in a document from the mid-500s, which already described it as “ancient”. Its quadrangular walls with two circular towers were built to protect the citizens in case of an attack from the sea. In 800, the castello became a cemetery, and parts were destroyed to adapt it to its new function. Nowadays it is one of the monuments of the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre. Most of the action in Riomaggiore is on the main street, Via Colombo, where there is an assortment of cafes, bars, restaurants, and of course, gelaterie. There are also alimentari shops selling the typical yummy Italian fare: fresh fruit (strawberries, cherries, and nespole), an assortment of salumi (salami, mortadella and the like), cheeses, olives, etc. These are good places to stock up for the hikes into the hills, although all of them are not very far from a town. Bar & Vini, perched on the side of the mountain above the sea, is excellent place for a summer night. The place had the usual mix of tourists and local families with their kids, even well into the night.
Manarola is a town filled with boats, at least on the lower part of it. Covered boats of all kinds line the main street, but it is hard to say when they had last been out. There are many lovely places to eat and drink in Manarola. La Cantina Dello Zio Bramante serves acciughe (anchovies) fresh from the sea, with lemon, olive oil, and fresh, crusty bread. Aristide Café had the cheapest espressi macchiatti (70 cents), the first bar encountered if walking from Riomaggiore (a paved, easy, path that goes by the sea, and takes about 15 minutes or so). Manarola also has a nice little swimming area. It’s a little cement pier next to some big rocks that you can wade out from, into the blue blue waters. It gets deep fast, so it's possible to dive off the end of the pier. Plenty of caves and coastline to explore, and underwater rocks. There are also a few more swimming holes farther on, accessible from the Blue Trail, not far from the gate beyond which the trail pass is required. There are stairs going all the way down to sea level, and a small little terrace about half-way down with picnic tables where you can see locals enjoying a simple lunch. There are lots of sharp mussels and barnacles down by the rocks, but otherwise the swimming is fantastic here too, without many people.
Corniglia, farther along the Blue Trail there is a stone beach that offers much easier access to the water, and also more people. At the Corniglia train station, the path gains height to reach the town, which sits 300 feet above the Ligurian Sea, the only one not near sea-level. The road passes lemon trees, vines, lilies and vegetation of all kinds, and in May the air is full of the perfume of flowers.
Corniglia feels smaller and quieter, but just as quaint as the other towns. Bar Nunzio serves 2 euro glasses of local wine—with a complementary bowl of local olives— under some yellow umbrellas near the statue of Corniglia himself. There is a little piazza with a communal olive press where you can sit and pass the time. There is also a tower, but it is not very high.
As Corniglia is atop a large hill, it is only reachable from the train station by either climbing the 365 steps up the hill ("one for each day of the year") or also there is a bus run by the Cinque Terre National park that takes people up to Corniglia and back down again. This is a must if you are carrying suitcases. The bus only runs from 7am - 8pm, and starts at 8am on the weekends.
The Blue Trail from Corniglia to Vernazza, the next town to the north, is a dirt path that starts off in an olive grove above the town. It keeps climbing and things get a bit sweaty and steep in some places, with many stone steps and a few switchbacks. Nothing too strenuous though. The trail along the sea affords great backwards views of both Corniglia and Manarola. In half way between Corniglia and Vernazza you meet Prevo, a tiny hamlet of Vernazza, the most high and most impressive spot of Sentiero Azzurro at 208 meters above sea level, that overlooking on the famous Guvano Beach. Vernazza is approached from above and its two ancient towers are in prominent view (they close at 19:00). The town itself has a maze of tiny streets that eventually lead down to the main street. At first sight, Vernazza seems a little rundown. The paint on the buildings around the beach area is peeling off in large sections, but don’t let that put you off. Vernazza is lively and boisterous and has a great night scene, two clock towers, a beach, boats, and a large public space with umbrellas and tables. The beach area is a small sandy strip that is not the best swim spot (there is only a small section of water roped off for swimming, beyond which are boats and then the open sea), but it is safe for kids and free of sharp bivalves.
You can spend the evening having wine along the main street below the train station, lounging on a quiet bench above the town beside hotel Gianni overlooking the sea, or by the sea, watching the mountainous coastline zigzag in and out, hiding Monterosso.
Monterosso is actually two towns, connected by a short road tunnel (used by pedestrians also): 'old' Monterosso and the new town (originally called Fegila) developed from the 50s onwards,which has a number of large, modern apartments and hotels. The new town has a quite large sandy beach with lots of colourful umbrellas, and of course, beach-side restaurants and cafes. The old town is similar to the other Cinque Terre towns, though bigger and not quite as steep and has a number of boutiques and other shops. Not to be missed at the end of the beach is a big statue holding a terrace.
It is important to bear in mind that, with the exception of the new part of Monterosso, the streets in all the towns rise steeply from the the harbours/train stations and are quite a challenge if you are carrying baggage. Also, while all the towns have railway stations, mainline trains travelling through the Cinque Terre only stop in Monterosso station. Ticket offices are only open during peak times and some ticket machines only accept chip and pin credit cards so plan accordingly.
Writing by WikiTravel | Photos by Amy Cherry