What is it about five small villages on the Ligurian Riviera that is so special to make them feature on the cover of the Lonely Planet guidebook in English dedicated to Italy? There is something unique, magical and magnetic about the Cinque Terre… although the beaches are always crowded, and the prices are not very affordable. But, if anything, it is precisely this exclusivity that makes the area so coveted.
Of the dozens of experiences to enjoy in this little corner of Italy, choosing how to fill your days is tricky. However, there are some must-do activities, those that are sure to make your trip to Liguria unique.
Here are the five best.
- It may seem a trivial and silly piece of advice, but here, where the mountains drop into the sea, the quantity of hikes, easy or complicated trails is just infinite. Obviously starting with the classic of classics – and hence walking throughout the Cinque Terre, from Riomaggiore to Monterosso – one can vary: from walking among the vineyards to discovering historic villas and corners protected by the FAI, reaching cliffs and postcard landscapes that reveal inland villages forgotten by hit-and-run tourists.
While awaiting the reopening of Via dell’Amore (the paved stretch between Manarola and Riomaggiore that has been closed for a decade due to a landslide, and is due to reopen in the summer of 2024), one can cross the others on foot and of course, if too tired, take advantage of the train that crosses the Ligurian coast several times a day.
Learning how to make pesto according to tradition (while sipping a Cinque Terre DOC)
There is a magical place in the village of Levanto where you can sleep, immerse yourself in the historical culture of this part of Liguria and learn from the landlady how to make pesto. This magical place is called Oasi Hotel, and here, where every detail is carefully attended to with love and sustainability, you can learn how to make pesto the traditional way.
From the choice of basil (not all are good, only certain types are favoured so as not to add a bitter touch), to that of oil – Ligurian, naturally – and pine nuts, to how the mortar is used. A relaxing and beautiful ritual, which becomes a dressing for a canapé or (obviously) the perfect accompaniment for trofie or pasta.
Absolute rule that should never be broken? Pesto cannot be cooked. Never.
Watching the Cinque Terre from the sea (and discovering the little islands in the gulf)
At sunset or on a hot summer morning, there are plenty of tours to take you to the Grotta di Vernazza or to the waterfall near Monterosso. Palmaria Island (wild and full of footpaths, a Unesco heritage site since 1997) can be reached or simply stay offshore and enjoy the blue sea and the view of the colourful houses that make this corner of Italy unique.
And if you don’t want to go on a private tour, you can also choose to get a daily boat pass that connects four of the five villages of the Cinque Terre: Monterosso, Vernazza, Manarola and Riomaggiore (Corniglia does not have a port).
Collecting the ten most photographer-friendly places in the Cinque Terre
Making a snapshot collection that captures the splendour of these villages in ten shots is very difficult indeed, but some places are truly unmissable.
These are our tips:
- The striped church (Church of San Giovanni Battista) in the historic centre of Monterosso
- The central street of Manarola
- The view from the ruins of the hermitage of Sant’Antonio del Mesco (an incredibly romantic place, actually!)
- The port of Vernazza and its weathered, colourful houses
- The view from Nessun Dorma, the most famous restaurant in the Cinque Terre overlooking one of the most beautiful views of Manarola
- The Il Gabbiano café and its panoramic view of the sea, along the blue path between Vernazza and Corniglia, where you can quench your thirst after a long hike uphill.
- The narrow alleyways of Corniglia, full of pictoresque shops and stone brick walls
- The sunset from the Sanctuary of Montenero in Riomaggiore. It is exhausting to get there (passing by the cemetery and walking along path 593V), but the view pays off: on one side it overlooks all the Cinque Terre and Portovenere on the other. A definitely unique place.
- The Monterosso cliff (photographed from the benches near via Fegina), so you can also catch a glimpse of the beautiful, crystal-clear sea.
- The iconic view of Manarola with the sea, the cliffs and the village perched behind.
Cycling on an old, abandoned railway
Not far from the Cinque Terre, the MareMonti cycling and walking path starts in Levanto and connects the villages of Bonassola and Framura. A 6 km flat route that retraces the old single-track railway, abandoned in 1970. A long flat road, through tunnels and glimpses of the sea, in a muffled surreal silence. When you pop out after the tunnels, the sea looks even more beautiful.
Then you can continue to the other villages, but definitely finding it harder on the mountain roads.
There is so much to do in the Cinque Terre that one often forgets the beauty of its pebble beaches and everyone’s favourite sport: buying the many types of Ligurian focaccia (here is our version) in the different bakeries and then go to the beach and decide which is the best after a swim in the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Enjoying slowness, mixed with beauty, has a different intensity here.
When travelling in the Cinque Terre, it should also not be forgotten that this is a fragile territory, populated by few people and that is overcrowded with tourists in the summer: it is important to take simple precautions (do not go by car and use the train instead, take your litter home when possible), but useful for preserving this picture-postcard Italian wonder.