Hiking Cinque Terre, Italy
There’s something rather intoxicating about the notion of hiking the Cinque Terre. For many people – perhaps for you – it’s an Italian dream.
Walking along the cliffs, amongst the green forests and vineyards; stopping at the small coastal towns with their multicoloured buildings; sipping an aperetivo by the sea with the afternoon sun reflecting off the crests of the caves.
But how can you turn this dream into a reality? How do you plan a trip to Cinque Terre?
When I first started looking into it myself, I was a bit confused about the best way to approach a visit to the area. There seem to be a lot of options and I wasn’t sure where to start.
I had seen lots of photos of the cute villages on the rocks by the coastline but I had never really thought through the practicalities of seeing them myself.
Well, the good news is that it’s actually quite simple once you have a basic understanding of how it all works. Let me talk you through it and make some suggestions for the best way for you to plan your own visit to Cinque Terre.
What is Cinque Terre?
The first thing is to understand what Cinque Terre is. It is a national park that stretches along about 20 kilometres of the western Italian coast, south of Genoa. Cinque Terre translates into English as ‘Five Lands’ and it gets its name because of the five main villages along the coast.
However, it’s important to realise that there are more than five villages in the national park and that the famous five make up just a small part of the park. You’ll probably want to use your time (especially if it’s limited) to focus on the well-known areas – but it’s good to know how they fit into the surroundings.
Accommodation around Cinque Terre
One of the first things you’ll need to decide is where to stay. This may surprise you but I’m actually going to suggest you don’t stay in the Cinque Terre National Park itself. There’s a nearby city called La Spezia and it is a much more convenient base to use for your visit.
But let me explain my logic for suggesting La Spezia.
Firstly, there’s a much larger range of hotels and accommodation options here so you’re more likely to find something that fits your needs (and it will certainly be more affordable).
Secondly, it will be more convenient with your luggage. For any of the Cinque Terre towns, you’ll need to change onto a train at La Spezia and, when you get there, potentially carry your bags up steep hills.
In La Spezia, you can just wheel them a short distance to where you’re staying. If you’re driving, you won’t really be able to take the car into Cinque Terre so you’ll probably need to park it in La Spezia anyway.
And, thirdly, La Spezia is a lovely city in itself and more convenient to explore other parts of the region from.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN SPEZIA
It may make sense to stay either near the train station or the ferry port, if you’re going to be using one mode of transport more than the other.
I think the best hostel, which is right near the train station, is the 5 Terre Backpackers City.
For a good value room, La Branda Brin Guest House is clean and safe with a homely atmosphere.
With a very cool design, The Poet Hotel brings a bit of boutique hip to the city.
And for relaxing luxury, Miramare Apartments & Suites has an incredible pool and view.
Hiking in Cinque Terre
Most people spend their time in Cinque Terre exploring the different towns. There are a few ways to get between them – including bus, train and ferry.
However, for the purpose of this guide, I’m going to focus on walking. I presume if you’re a regular reader of this site, you’ll know that’s my favourite way to explore an area (and it’s also what Cinque Terre is famous for).
The first thing to understand is that you can walk between all five towns within a single day. There is no need to hike with your bag and stay for a night somewhere along the way. I’ve seen a few people doing that and I think it’s completely unnecessary (although possible if you really want to).
There are well-marked trails between each of the towns. I’ve included a map here so you can see the route that I’m going to talk about.
You’ll notice that the two trails between Monterosso – Vernazza and Vernazza – Corniglia are along the coast and the other two between Corniglia – Manarola and Manarola – Riomaggiore go inland.
That’s because landslides in recent years have led to the closure of the coastal options for those last two legs and there’s no indication they’ll open again soon.
Some people like to do the hike as a guided tour. The advantages are that someone does all the planning for you, a local will give you lots of useful information, and you’ll meet some other travellers.
I would recommend this guided hike, but there are some other options to consider here:
If you’re planning it yourself, I would suggest starting at Monterosso and walking towards Riomaggiore.
This is partly because it means you’ll be getting closer to your accommodation at La Spezia. But it’s also because the legs between the villages will get harder each time, so if you get tired or run out of time, you’ll skip the stretches that are best skipped.
Monterosso to Vernazza
This is the longest of the legs by distance but is one of the easiest to walk. For quite a lot of the time you’ll be amongst quite dense foliage and you won’t be able to see much. But when you do get views of the coast, they are some of the best.
In particular, the view back to Monterosso give you a wonderful sense of the coast and the perspective you get of Vernazza as you arrive is one of the most iconic images of the region.
Vernazza to Corniglia
This is also quite a long leg but is also quite an easy one to walk. You get a lot of wonderful views of the coastline as you go along this path. About halfway along, there’s a lovely terrace serving drinks and food, if you need a break.
Corniglia to Manarola
The inland path between these two villages has steep sections at both ends of it. Anyone with moderate fitness should be able to cope, though, because the steps are quite good.
The middle section is relatively flat and is some of the nicest terrain you’ll go through because the path cuts through gorgeous terraces of grape and olive plantations (passing through the small town of Volastra).
Manarola to Riomaggiore
This final stretch is really tough and you might want to consider skipping it. You will basically go up a very steep hill on one side and then go down another steep slope on the other side. There are steps the whole way but they are not all easy.
The view along the way are no better then anything else on the coast. The good news, though, is that it’s not a very long hike if you can handle the inclines!
Keep reading for some information on how you can skip sections of the hike.
Hiking passes for Cinque Terre
You need to buy a pass to be able to hike the trails of Cinque Terre and there are control booths along the way to check you have one. A one day pass costs €7.50 and you can buy it at one of the tourist information centres or at one of the control booths.
The other option is to buy the combined train/hiking pass. This costs €16 and includes unlimited use of the trains. The trains go between La Spezia and Levanto and stop at each of the five towns.
If you’re staying in La Spezia, it is worth considering. A train ticket each way costs €4 so you would end up paying €15.50 anyway.
If all you do is catch the train to Monterosso, hike to Riomaggiore, and then catch the train back to La Spezia, you actually end up paying 50c more than needed. But it is much more convenient than having to buy train tickets individually (and there’s usually a line at the station at the end of the day).
It does also give you the option to skip a section or go back to your favourite one for an afternoon celebratory drink.
Other things near Cinque Terre
If you have time, I would suggest spending more than just one day in Cinque Terre. You can also buy a two day hiking pass and split the walk, giving yourself more time to explore – perhaps going on some of the lesser-used paths further into the park away from the coast.
But my top tip is to get the boat to Portovenere and have a look around the town and also do a hike on Palmaria Island. I have written a whole story about Portovenere and Palmaria Island, so you might like to read that to find out some more information.
Other than hiking, there are also some other ways to explore Cinque Terre and have some wonderful experiences on the Italian Riviera. Have a look at some of these options:
Cinque Terre is one of the most beautiful parts of Italy and has the wonderful combination of nature and culture. For this reason, it’s a popular place with visitors. It’s going to be busy during the peak summer periods and so try to come in the shoulder seasons, if possible.
Are there hiking tours in Cinque Terre?
As I’ve already mentioned, you don’t need a guide or a tour to hike along the main stretch of the Cinque Terre. The path is very well marked and relatively easy.
However, there are some options for guided tours that will help you appreciate the cultural landscape a lot more. Hiking with a local means you’ll hear all about the history, people and food of the Cinque Terre.
If you’re interested, I would suggest having a look at this hiking tour.
Why is Cinque Terre a World Heritage Site?
It’s not just about the nature, it’s also about the communities. Cinque Terre is partly a World Heritage Site because of the small towns along the coast and how they relate to the agriculture in the hills.
You might be interested in reading my story about Cinque Terre’s World Heritage Site status.
Regardless of when you visit, though, enjoy! I hope this guide has helped and please ask any questions you have in the comments section below.