As a college student, I visited the Cinque Terre in the heat of the late summer in 2008 for a two-day trek over the coastline cliffs, visiting each city and taking in the spectacular views. We were on a tight budget, opting to camp for free along the trail versus finding a last-minute hotel option, and carrying all of our own food (minus the bottle of wine we picked up in Vernazza) it was a relatively cheap weekend trip. I was young, unprepared (my pack barely carried enough supplies for one night and we lacked a tent and sleeping bags, thus causing us to sleep under the stars), but it was in that trip that my love for the urban trails really came to be. It was a time when all I could do was say yes, and take in every moment on the journey.
After that initial trip, I swore I would return, this time with more money and more planning, and would spend my days hiking and writing from my Vernazza villa in the cliffs. Ten years later, I wouldn’t say I’ve achieved that level of awesomeness (yet!), but I was able to return to the region in 2011 to introduce good friends to a place I loved.
I wouldn’t advise travelers to take the same loose precautions as I did when planning a trip to the Cinque Terre, located on the northwestern coastline of Italy. Aptly named to represent the five fishing towns within this national park, the Cinque Terre is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and provides visitors of all ages and abilities to explore. For the avid hikers looking for a challenge, there are plenty of spur trails off the main route that bring you up into the cliffs, or, down to hidden beaches tucked along the craggy coast. For the more leisurely hiker, there are flat paths between some of the towns, passing through gardens and scenic overlooks. And for those of you who are not too much into the hiking part, but still looking to enjoy the Cinque Terre, there is a train that stops at each town, giving you chance to explore without climbing a mountain.
The journey starts by train in La Spezia, a coastline hub just south of the Cinque Terre. From there, buy your park and train passes from the ticket counter and take the 20-minute ride to Riomaggiore, the first town and the starting point for the 6.2-mile urban hike.
‘Via dell’Amore’ or ‘Lovers Lane’ includes sculptures and murals dedicated to that wonderful feeling we call love.
As you ride the train from La Spezia to Riomaggiore, you pass into a dark tunnel through the cliffs—encased in darkness for a few moments, your eyes adjust long enough to make the glimpse of the crashing waves down below seem like a dream—in a moment, you see a sight that takes your breath away, only to return to darkness, craving more of the scenery you are about to encounter. Once you arrive, you are greeted by the pastel homes that trademark the five towns, with colorful boats docked along the inlet, waiting to head out in to the Liguarian Sea. The trail connecting Riomaggiore and the next town is also the region’s most famous, called ‘Via dell’Amore’ (‘Lover’s Lane’). The walk is paved for the most part, and features sculptures and lookout points, and is perfect for hikers of all levels. Take a stroll for 1.2 miles, admiring the kissing statue and the murals dedicated to love.
Manarola’s church San Lorenzo dates back to 1338 and is the focal point of the village. Here, you can stroll down to the water to shop (look for the trademark painted potteryof the region) and try out some local cuisine (be sure to try Cinque Terre’s wine, as well as their white anchovies) before heading back onto the trail. While not as easy, the path between Manarola and Corniglia is a relatively flat 1.2 miles, and the last of the accessible trails before hikers have to head into the cliffs.
Unlike the other towns in Cinque Terre, Corniglia is set high into the mountain overlooking the sea, versus sitting on the coast. From the train station, you must climb over 300 steps to reach the town, so for the leisurely hikers, I recommend skipping this (if you are determined to see all five towns, but do not want to do the steps, there is an auto road with buses that will take you to the top. The hiking trail follows these steps up to the town, and brings you to the highest point in the park before you head back down a long, gradual descent to the fourth town (total mileage about 2 miles).
Vernazza is the most photogenic of the five towns.
My favorite town in Cinque Terre and one of the most picturesque, Vernazza features a stone fort and lookout tower you can climb, as well as a sleepy harbor perfect for lunch by the sea. I recommend setting aside some extra time to enjoy the town before continuing on your hike, or, even better, book a room in the town and spend the night. The final part of the trail leaving Vernazza is the most difficult, taking you high into the cliffs again, but at 1.8 miles, it gives you plenty of views to enjoy along the way.
5. Monterosso al Mare
Celebrate your accomplishment with a meal and some gelato, all while sitting along the beaches. With more flat terrain than the other towns, Monterosso has become more of a vacation spot than its sisters. Be sure to pack a swimsuit and grab a towel, because after a long hike you will need to cool off in the water!