Discovering the towns of the Cinque Terre

There are so many amazing places in Italy to explore, but few manage to generate as much excitement in the imagination as the enchanting Cinque Terre, or Five Lands. This was mine and Dave’s first visit to Liguria, the province where Cinque Terre resides, and we were looking forward to seeing this wonderland of colorful hillside homes and cobalt seas.

The five towns that make up the Cinque Terre (from this point forward I will refer to as 5T) are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterossa. Dave and I decided to make Riomaggiore our home base for the week. It’s a 10-minute train from La Spezia, and an easy train ride to the other towns in the 5T. Our apartment was perfectly situated; we had a terrace overlooking the marina, but access to town and the station did not involve a lot of steps, which is a blessing with luggage.

If you decide to visit 5T, you have a couple of arrival options. The closest airports are Genoa and Pisa. From Pisa, you can take the train to La Spezia then switch to the local regional train to the town you’ll be staying in. From Genoa there is a train that goes through the 5T but doesn’t stop at each town so be careful to note the train you need to take. Dave and I took the train from Rome and changed in La Spezia. You do not need to buy the regional tickets in advance; you can buy them at the station in La Spezia. The regional train tickets do not have an assigned seat or really an assigned time. You can pretty much take any of the regional trains (just make sure it stops in your town!). The one-way fare is €4 per person.

We visited four of the five towns in 5T, only skipping Corniglia which is harder to reach because the town is much higher up and requires a 500+ step hike, or you can take a bus. We also checked out Levanto and Portovenere, two towns that bookend the 5T. To help you decide where to stay, I’ve summarized our experience and impression of each location visited. Many people come to 5T to hike between each of the towns. Dave and I intended to hike some, but found that some of the coastal trails have been closed since 2012.

The trains are so easy and fast that we opted to spend more time exploring the towns and less time getting to them. One more thing regarding the train… each leg of your trip is €4 per person. For example, if you start in Riomaggiore, then stop in Manarola and Vernazza, your entire one-way journey will cost €8 per person. There is a €33 monthly unlimited regional train pass, but they are only valid for the calendar month. We tried to buy one on Sept. 26 but only Oct 1 – 31 was available. Before you invest in a monthly unlimited pass, calculate the number of trips you’ll take each way and decide the best, cheapest option for you. Also, the tickets for the ferry are separate.

As previously mentioned, this was our home base and it felt perfect for us. The town and marina are lively with lots of bars, cafes and restaurants, but we never found it to be overwhelmed with tourists. There is a rocky beach in Rio as well as a ferry dock. Although small, the marina has three restaurants that serve lunch and dinner (one is at the top of the cliff and on the way to the beach and ferry). Also in Rio, there is easy access to a self-laundry service and three small grocery markets which come in handy if you’re renting a self-catering apartment.

There are also a number of options for boat and kayak rentals, and we rented a boat one afternoon (3.5 hours for €100). There were a LOT of rules about where we could take the boat (no beaches, can only tie to a small number of moors, etc.). In hindsight, I probably would not do that again, although Dave very much enjoyed driving the boat and taking a dip in the cold, blue water.

When in Rio, be sure to go to the northern end of the town to see the Chiesa di San Giovanni Catholic church, then take the stairs to the ancient Castello di Riomaggiore and the Oratorio San Rocco. The views are amazing and you can enjoy some of the ancient ruins of Riomaggiore.

Because we were staying here, we ate at quite a few restaurants:

Rio Bistrot: This seafood restaurant is probably considered the best restaurant in Rio and you will likely need a reservation for dinner. We had a nice meal here of braised short rib and frito misto. It was steps from our apartment (as were all the restaurants). We met a nice couple here from Canada and talking to them made our night extra special.

La Grotta: Offering seafood and more traditional Italian food, we had fried cod filets and stuffed anchovies for starters, and fresh whole fish and pasta Bolognese for dinner. This was our favorite meal in 5T…everything had abundant flavor, the outdoor patio was beautiful, and our server was very friendly.

Veciu Muin: We ended up here on our first night because nothing else was open or had an available table. We were skeptical because Yelp only gives it 3.5 stars, and we were seated in an underground dining room. We were pleasantly surprised to find this place much better than expected and the server was incredibly friendly and kind. We shared a Greek salad which consisted of bright tomatoes, onions, olives, and feta cheese (no lettuce), as well as a large pizza and lasagna. The lasagna was a little too crisp around the edges, but had a great flavor. This place was a bargain and our entire meal (with four beers) was under €40.

This is the most popular town in the 5T and you will realize it the moment you get off the train. We were there the last week of September and the crowds were immense… I cannot imagine how they would be in the summer during peak season.

The station is just steps from the main square and marina; along the way you will pass lots of shops for souvenirs and gelato. Once you find your way to the Centro and Piazza Marconi, there are lots of outdoor dining options, as well as a small sandy beach should you decide to wade in to the water or sunbathe (check the signs to see if swimming is permitted). There are also docks here for boats but again, check the rules and fees before tying up. In Vernazza, one of the loveliest, most picturesque villages in 5T, be sure to visit the Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, c. 1318. located in the town’s main square Piazza Marconi. Other sights include the Doria Castle, built in the 15th century as a lookout tower to protect the village from pirates, the Sanctuary of Madonna di Reggio Santuario di Nostra Signora di Reggio, about an hour’s steep walk above Vernazza and the Chapel of Santa Marta, a tiny stone chapel along Vernazza’s main street, Via Roma.

Vernazza hosts a very popular restaurant called Ristorante Bar le Torre, that boasts some of the most spectacular views in all of the 5T. Getting to the restaurant is not for the faint of heart – we had to stop numerous times to catch our breath, and many times weren’t sure we were even on the right path, which is treacherous as you get closer to the top. At last we reached our destination and as promised, the views were killer. We were given a table overlooking the cliff and hunkered down to enjoy this hard earned meal. We had a bottle of delicious white wine, crisp and minerally and cold. Our appetizer of bruschetta five ways was delicious and we couldn’t wait for the rest of our meal.

Unfortunately, things went downhill (no pun intended) from that point. We were told the chef would not make our curry shrimp risotto because it would take too long. We told our server we didn’t mind waiting; after all, we had a million-dollar view and a bottle of cold wine. Regardless, we were made to change our orders. Dave’s squid ink pasta with shrimp was absolutely delicious – one of the most flavorful we’ve had. My tagliatelle with lobster, although flavorful, was so gritty I couldn’t eat it. Our server had been rather unpleasant to us since we arrived so we didn’t complain (our bad). Dave choked down my gritty food and I ate most of his – he’s the best!

This is the second smallest town of the 5T and largely considered to be the oldest. With a narrow, quaint path from the station to the marina and main square you’ll find a couple of restaurants for seaside dining, but don’t expect to sit for just a cocktail. Despite being nearly empty, the restaurants here will only let you sit for food which was a disappointment. One of the things we liked most about this town was the swimming area. The rocks make a sort of swimming hole / grotto where visitors were sunbathing and swimming. It looked really inviting and we both wished we had our swim suits with us. If you visit Manarolo, definitely come to swim!

The marina at Manarolo offers a great opportunity to swim and sunbathe

This town has the largest sand beach as well as resort-style hotels. It also has a really beautiful old town about .5 mile from the train station (riders will get off the train at the beach). We stopped here for lunch at a fabulous restaurant called Ristorante Miky and ate al fresco with the sound of the waves to accompany us. We had an unusual starter of seafood baked with cheese and breadcrumbs, and fresh fish and homemade ravioli entrees. This was one of the most expensive meals of our trip but the quality of the food was very high and the view of the ocean was an added bonus.

After lunch we walked along the coast through a tunnel to the old town, which we fell in love with. This medieval village delights with narrow cobblestone alleys, ancient churches, and cafes. We spent the better part of the afternoon exploring this engaging village, churches and of course partaking in gelato. Of all the towns in the 5T, Monterosso was our favorite, maybe because our expectations were low. Regardless, this is a town we’d consider making home base should be visit 5T again.

Levanto is not technically part of 5T but it’s just a stop up from Monterosso and was recommended by a friend, so we gave it a try. The walk to town from the station was longer than the other towns (.5 mile) but if you have luggage you can find a taxi at the station with no problem. We walked to the beach for lunch at Pizzeria Ristorante Bagni Nettuno where we had salad and pizza and a couple of cold beers, all in view of the nearly empty beach-a stark contrast from Monterosso. After lunch we walked the new promenade along the ocean, then hiked to the Chiesa di Sant’Andrea and walked along the ruins of the old fortress (which is privately owned).

If you want to visit 5T but find the accommodations too expensive (or scarce) in the main towns, consider Levanto. The beach here is as nice as Monterosso but with far fewer people. There are very few tourists here, but the proximity to 5T is easy and accessible.

Also outside of the 5T, but no less lovely, don’t miss the chance to take a ferry to Portovenere to enjoy a seaside meal, stroll through the ancient lanes, and explore the medieval church of San Pietro. You can take your pick of waterfront dining; all the restaurants get similar reviews and offer menus of seafood and pasta. The highlight of Portovenere (in addition to its absolute charm) is the Chiesa di San Pietro, a 12th century church complex that includes Byron’s Grotto and a very well preserved presbytery divided in to three chapels. You can climb to the roof to observe a stunning view of the coast and Ligurian sea. Just 20 minutes from Riomaggiore, Portovenere should not be skipped.

Wherever you decide to visit in the Cinque Terre, I’m confident the colorful buildings, azure sea and friendly people will more than exceed your expectations.

Next Stop: Lake Como!


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