I try to restrict my dramatic superlative statements to only those moments that absolutely deserve them. Italy is one of them.
Ben and I just returned from what I can only describe as 10 of the happiest days of my life.
We hiked through tiny, rainbow-colored towns clinging to the sides of cliffs (Cinque Terre—that’s the part of the trip this post is about).
We took in priceless art and ate gelato twice (or thrice) a day in Florence. (I have a post for that part of the trip right here: Best of Florence.)
We meandered the Tuscan countryside, stopping for wine and panoramic views at every possible opportunity. (Yep! I have a post for that part of the trip in the works too.)
And at every turn, we laughed. We ate pasta. We poured more wine and ordered more pasta. It was truly la dolce vita.
In case you will be heading to any of our locations or are looking for some trip inspiration, I’ll be sharing our adventures in a series of three posts. I put a rather exhaustive amount of research into every vacation we take (especially where we eat!), so I hope this information is helpful to others planning Italy escapes of their own.
I also have this post, What to Pack for Europe, that contains an overview of my travel essentials, tips for electronic devices abroad, and what clothes I pack for Europe (they fit in a carry on!).
Recommendations aside, I also adore sharing my adventures with you. Writing these travel posts makes me feel a little like we are chatting over dinner (how about pasta and wine?) instead of on opposite sides of the computer screen. Pour a round of Chianti and let’s begin!
Best of Cinque Terre: Itinerary Overview
The Cinque Terre is a series of five tiny, postcard-perfect towns that run along Italy’s northwest Mediterranean coast. It’s an area that is easily reachable by train. We flew into Pisa. Genoa is also a good option; Florence is doable too, but the ride is longer.
Hiking paths connect the five towns and offer jaw-dropping views. I highly recommend doing at least one of the hikes if you are in good shape. Note that the paths can close due to flooding, so be sure to check before you embark. We hiked Town #4 to Town #5; see more in our itinerary below.
You can also take a train from town to town without advance tickets. They run often, and the ride between each town is a quick 5 to 10 minutes. We used the train most of the time.
Number of Days to Spend. We arrived late afternoon, stayed for two nights, then departed early in the morning on the third day. This is the minimum amount of time I’d recommend. It was enough for us to feel like we had a good sense of the place, though if you are looking for a beach vacation or want to more deeply explore each town, you could easily stay for longer.
The Towns. Cinque Terre’s five towns each have their own personality. For ease, I like to think of them by number in order from south to north, which is how we reached them. This is also how Rick Steves, my #1 go-to for any European country references them in a book I HIGHLY recommend for planning any trip to Italy: Rick Steves Italy.
- TOWN #1: Riomaggiore. Tiny and charming. We had an amazing, memorable lunch here with a Mediterranean view. See my suggested restaurant in the itinerary below.
- TOWN #2: Manarola. Oozing with romance. We had one of our favorite dinners of the trip here, and if I were to go back, this is the town I’d pick for variety’s sake (though for a first-time stay, I loved Vernazza, Town #4). Again, more detail below.
- TOWN #3: Corniglia. This is the only town we didn’t visit. We wanted to take our time versus rush from town to town for the sake of checking off a list, and since Corniglia is the only town not on the water, we decided to skip it. I still feel like I got an excellent Cinque Terre experience.
- TOWN #4: Vernazza. We picked to stay in Vernazza because it has a great mix of harbor dining and old-city charm. If you’re looking to combine the ultimate postcard aesthetic with great eating and drinking options, Vernazza is a good choice. It’s also well positioned for hiking, because the paths both north and south of it are open.
- TOWN #5: Monterosso. If you are looking for a more resort feel or just want to lie on a beach and not be disturbed, Monterosso is the spot for you.
Best of Cinque Terre: Day-by-Day Itinerary
Including the Best Cinque Terre Restaurants, Cinque Terre Hikes, and Cinque Terre Trip Planning Tips
- Purchase the Cinque Terre Pass.
- Wine and Dinner with an Unforgettable View.
Arrive at your town of choice (ours was Vernazza—see town description above) via train.
If during your stay you plan to hike at least once and take three trains in the same day, purchase the Cinque Terre Multi-Service Card from the Cinque Terre train station when you arrive. For the date it’s valid, this pass gets you unlimited train rides, access to the hiking trains, and a few other perks like free bathrooms at the train station. You can buy the pass for one or two days (one was enough for us). Wait to validate the pass until you take your first train the day you plan to use it.
Check in. We stayed in a tiny, charming Airbnb steps from the harbor. It was perfect. Freshen up and (if you aren’t already staying there) head to VERNAZZA. Plan on arriving by 4:40 p.m. At 5 p.m., you want to be grabbing a table along the edges or the terrace at the…
Vernazza Wine Experience
The Vernazza Wine Experience is a gem and is one of the most unique, beautiful places I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit.
Picture an airy, intimate terrace with an epic seaside view, fine wines, and delicious snack boards to match. It’s a little tricky to find, but persevere. WORTH it!
Vernazza Wine Experience’s owner, Alessandro (whom I’ve officially named my new best friend—shhhhh he doesn’t know), spends his winters tasting, selecting, and purchasing the wines he serves for the upcoming season. Order a flight along with a snack board (I highly recommend the anchovies, which are a Cinque Terre specialty). Then look around, soak in the moment, sip, and ask yourself, IS THIS REAL LIFE?
This will be expensive but completely worth it. We went two nights in a row.
From here, head to dinner in Vernazza. We selected…
Reservations at Ristorante Belforte are essential (and to be honest, I recommend them for anywhere you plan to eat dinner in Italy). Call or email at least two weeks in advance and request an outdoor table with a seaside view.
Our verdict: The food is good but felt a little overpriced for what it is. What you are paying for is the stunning view and ocean breeze, which I would not trade for a moment. Ristorante Belforte does have incredible online reviews, so we might just be picky or have hit them on an off night. I recommend the seafood pasta and anything with pesto. Avoid the caprese salad.
Another restaurant we considered based on reviews is Nessun Dorma, so that’s an option too.
After dinner, grab gelato at Gelateria Vernazza on the town’s main road. It’s supposed to be one of the best in town. We ate there twice and were very happy we did!
- Seaside Lunch
- More Wine, Dinner, and Seaside Views
Cinque Terre Breakfast
Our first morning, we grabbed coffee and pastries at a cafe by the harbor. Most Italians eat little beyond bread and espresso for breakfast, but you’ll find a few places in Vernazza with heartier options like eggs, which I assume are on offer for the sake of hungry tourists. Enjoy a cappuccino and whatever looks yummy to you.
Cinque Terre Hike: Vernazza to Monterosso
From here, we hiked Vernazza to Monterosso, which was an easy choice from our Vernazza home base. You could do this same hike (take the train to Vernazza if you are staying in a different town) or pick your hike of choice for the morning. Don’t forget your Cinque Terre pass, which you so expertly purchased the day before. A guard will check it when you enter the park.
The Vernazza–Monterosso hike takes 1.5 to 2 hours and is known for being the most difficult hike but also the most beautiful. The hike involved a lot of stairs, but otherwise it was straightforward and absolutely worth it. We both wore basic tennis shoes, and I probably could have done it in my trusty Tevas.
After reaching Monterosso, we relaxed and wandered the square a bit, then hopped on the train for…
A Memorable Lunch in Riomaggiore
Grab lunch at the simple but special Bar e Vini a Piè de Mà. When you arrive, head upstairs (ignore the restaurant downstairs), place your order at the counter, then grab one of their tables overlooking the Mediterranean. Sip a glass of wine made from the grapes growing in the hills around you.
Ben and I ordered the pesto tasting (pesto is another Cinque Terre specialty), matching mozzarella and prosciutto sandwiches, and a delicious dry white wine the staff recommended. Please go here. It will be a highlight of your time in Cinque Terre!
After a leisurely lunch, stroll around Riomaggiore. If you still have room, grab a cone of fried seafood that was just caught that morning.
Hike #2…or More Wine
We originally planned to do a second hike (Corniglia to Vernazza) but decided that we were feeling too full and happy and what we really needed was a second visit to Vernazza Wine Experience. No regrets.
After our little happy hour, we grabbed the train to Manarola for my favorite meal in Cinque Terre.
Trattoria dal Billy
If you know what nights you’ll be in Cinque Terre, call Trattoria dal Billy and reserve right this second. Ask for the 7 p.m. seating and an ocean view. We loved every bite of our meal, and the views were unforgettable. Great service. Great pasta. Great seafood. I don’t have any photos of the food, because this a meal where you away your phone and appreciate the wonderfulness that is your life at this moment.
End with more gelato. Because ITALY.
If you’ll be departing the next day, consider buying your train tickets at the station in advance.
We’d originally planned to linger but decided to hop our train to Florence early instead. We purchased our train tickets at the station the day before, but you could easily do it in the morning too. Just be sure you check the schedule so that you know your departure options.
Cinque Terre has been on my bucket list for years, and although our visit was a short one, I feel incredibly lucky to have seen this treasure. While touristy, Cinque Terre doesn’t feel tacky. I hope you have as wonderful a time as we did!
ESSENTIAL INFORMATION & TIPS FOR VISITING CINQUE TERRE
- Even if you don’t plan to hike, the Cinque Terre towns would be challenging to navigate if you aren’t in decent physical shape or have issues walking. Stairs (a lot of them) are unavoidable, and many are steep.
- The trains between the towns come often (every 15 to 20 minutes during the morning and afternoon, less often into the evening), so you don’t need to be obsessive about the schedule. They taper off later in the day, so if you are having dinner in a different town than where you are staying, be sure to check the schedule at the station to make sure you know when the last train leaves.
- Cinque Terre Multi-Service Card. See my note on Day #1.
- Make Dinner Reservations in Advance. I did this by calling via Skype. Don’t stress if you don’t speak Italian. Say buongiorno and then ask politely if the person on the phone speaks English (they will know enough to take your reservation). Skype is suuuuper affordable for international calls. Our whole trip to Italy cost me less $2 in phone calls, and I made a lot of them. I also have the app on my phone, so I could use it to make calls while I was in Italy too.
- EAT ANCHOVIES! They are a specialty of the area and sooooooo yummy. They do not taste like the bad tinned anchovies of your nightmares, I promise.
- Pack in a Carry-On or Similar Sized Suitcase. You are going to be climbing a lot of stairs and hauling your bag on and off of trains. Elevators are not a thing. Do yourself a favor and pack as light as possible. See my What to Pack for Europe to help you plan your wardrobe.
THE QUICK AND DIRTY RECAP—CINQUE TERRE NOT TO MISS EXPERIENCES
- Dinner at Trattoria dal Billy in Manarola (Town #2)
- Wine flight at Vernazza Wine Experience (Town #4)
- Lunch at Bar e Vini a Piè de Mà (Town #1)
- Your hike of choice (ours was Vernazza to Monterosso)
- Anchovies and pesto (two regional specialities)
WHAT TO PACK FOR ITALY
If you’re planning to head to Italy or anywhere in Europe, don’t miss my list of European Trip Packing Essentials. It has some of my favorite travel items for both U.S. travel and travel abroad. I’m a travel junkie and have definitely tried and tested items over time.
MORE ITALY TRAVEL POSTS
- Wine Tour in Tuscany (with a bonus end note for Siena)—coming soon!
Have you been to Cinque Terre? Any favorites I missed or tips to share for others planning their own vacation? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!