Cinque Terre (meaning Five Lands) is a group of 5 colorful, picturesque towns off of the northwestern coast of Italy. This area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was made an Italian National Park in 1999. Cinque Terre can be explored over the course of a week, but you can hit the highlights in just 1 day.
These small fishing towns date back from the medieval period when the high cliffs made for good lookout points for pirates. Legends say that towns were painted different colors so that the fishermen could spot their homes as they were leaving or coming back home. I’ve also read that when fishing in the area declined, townspeople turned to tourism to keep their little isolated towns from dying. Tourists love colorful settings (this is Instagram heaven), so the houses were painted to encourage people to visit and spend their money. I like the fishermen story better, but regardless, Cinque Terre is one of the most unique places we have visited!
We recently spend 1 day in Cinque Terre as part of our summer Northern Italy trip. Although it was 3 hours away from our lodging base in Milan (Read How to Spend 2 Days in Milan), it was listed in so many travel guides as a “Must See in Italy” that we had to made time for this unique, cliffside place! To see how we spent a week traveling around Northwestern Italy read 5 Days in Northern Italy.
How to Spend 1 Day at Cinque Terre, Italy
Transportation in Cinque Terre
Getting There- Most travelers to Cinque Terre do not stay in Cinque Terre, but either arrive for a day trip by train, tour bus, or cruise boat excursion. We took the 6 am, 3-hour train from Milan (€28.90 each way per person). If coming from Milan by train, try to sit on the righthand side of the train for views of the sea from Genoa to Cinque Terre. Each of the 5 towns has a national park office at the train station which also acts as a tourism office and gift shop so make sure and stop here first.
When arriving by car, not try to drive into each town, but park in the designated lots on the outskirts of the Cinque Terre villages. If you are staying in a hotel (Monterosso is the best bet for hotel stays), have your reservation information available. During peak tourism times, police have been known to stop drivers coming into the cities to make sure they have a hotel in which to park their car.
My daughter took a bus tour from Florence while she was studying abroad. It also made for a very long day, but she said it was well worth the time on the bus (2 1/2-3 hours each way).
Getting Around by Hiking- Cinque Terre is a huge hiking destination, so many that arrive for the day hike from one town to the next as part of their traveling experience. In fact we saw people with hiking sticks everywhere! This was not our plan for the day, but if you want some great views, you can hike between all the towns, or pick and choose. Hike between a couple and take a bus or train between others. On my daughter’s day trip, she hiked between Monterosso and Vernazza. It is an 1 1/2 hour hike that she extended to 3 hours with all of the photo opportunity stops. She mainly remembers never ending stairs!
You can purchase a 1-day Trekking Card at any of the National Park offices for €7.50. This pass includes the use of the bus service. Since the devastating 2011 Cinque Terre mudslides, many of the trails have been closed for repairs. For updated trail information see Cinque Terre National Park Hiking Guide.
Getting Around by Train-We used the train system to get between each town. Trains run about twice an hour in both directions during peak season. These “in-between town” trains aren’t on as tight of a schedule as they trains in the larger Italian towns, but still were fairly reliable. The main thing that was confusing to me was knowing when to get off of the train. The trains are fairly long and the stations are small. A couple of times our car stopped in the tunnel, so we couldn’t see the town sign. We just had to trust our gut and get off inside the tunnel then walk towards the light.
The doors of the trains don’t aways automatically open, so an annoyed local had to tell me to pull on the lever to open the train door so everyone behind me could get off of the train! The good news that even if you make a mistake, you can always catch the next train and get back on track (literally!).
One use tickets for the trains are fairly expensive at €4 a person. It doesn’t matter if you’re traveling between 2 towns or more. We purchased the 1-day Treno Multiservizi Card (€16). It gave us unlimited train, bus, and trekking between the 5 towns with the convenience of not having to rebuy tickets at each destination. Make sure and validate your ticket or card before you get on the train (green and white machines). If you purchased tickets online, they are already pre-validated.
What to Eat in Cinque Terre
When you’re in Italy, of course eat the pasta, pizza, and ratatouille! But just like in other countries, each region has its own specialities. The area of Cinque Terre is primarily warm and sunny, and so lemons grow easily here. We saw lots and lots of limoncello for sell in the gift stores. One of the best drinks we had on our entire trip was a limoncello spritz that was made with prosecco, limoncello, and club soda. A waiter in Vernazza had recommended it to us. Lemon is one of my favorite flavors, so I was in heaven!
As you will see on the terraced hills surrounding the towns, Cinque Terre is wine country, primarily white wines. No trip to this area would be complete with sampling some of the local vintages. One of the biggest specialities is Sciacchetrà, a sweet wine that pairs well with cheeses and desserts.
Of course as former fishing villages, seafood is a staple in most homes and restaurants. I’m normally not anchovy lover, but one of our waiters convinced me to try their famous Tegame Vernazza (baked anchovies with pasta). I was skeptical, but I really liked it. The anchovies were more like a salty texture between the layers of pasta and not “fishy” at all!
Stop # 1 in Cinque Terre- Monterosso al Mare
For 1 day in Cinque Terre, it is not recommended that you try and visit all 5 villages. It can be done, but part of the appeal of Cinque Terre is the slow-paced, sit and soak in the atmosphere vibe. If you are hiking, seeing all 5 is definitely out of the question. We picked the 3 towns that were most highly rated by all of the guide books that I read- Monterosso, Vernazza, and Riomaggiore.
The train station in Monterosso, where we arrived from Milan, is right next to the beach. It is Cinque Terre’s only resort town and was the most recommended for hotel stays. It also has the most night action compared to the other 4 villages. At the train station, there are bathrooms where you can change into your swimsuit. At the beach, you can rent beach chairs and umbrellas. There are also plenty of restaurants nearby.
From the beach, to get to the old town center, head east (left from the beach area), following the well marked signs. You can pass through a tunnel or take a steep path to get there. You can easily walk from the train station to deep in the old town in less than 15 minutes. Along the way is lots of photo opportunities, the dock (where you can catch boats to the other towns), and historic attractions. Once you reach the old town, take some time to shop, wander the old streets (it’s not that big, so you won’t get lost), and sample the gelato!
Stop #2 in Cinque Terre- Vernazza
Vernazza is the next town southeast of Monterosso. It was my favorite of the 3 Cinque Terre villages that we visited. It is travel guru Rick Stevens’s favorite, too. That’s make me as much of an expert as Rick Steves, right?!? We traveled from Monterosso to Vernazza by train, a very quick 5-minute ride. Just like in Monterosso, there is a National Park/information office and restrooms at the train station. The train station is also right next to the town so that you’re immediately surrounded by old world charm!
There is one major street that leads from the bus/train station down to the harbor. The street is called Via Roma, then it turns into Via Viasconti as you wind around the natural harbor. The streets are flanked by tall, colored apartment houses with restaurants and shops on the bottom levels. Once you make it down to the harbor, hike a little ways in both directions on Blue Trail #2 (split up) to get excellent photo ops.
Stop #3 in Cinque Terre- Riomaggiore
From Vernazza, we took the train to reach Riomaggiore. Riomaggiore is the most southeastern of the 5 towns, so you’ll need to count your stops if taking the train. Plan for around a 10-minute train trip. Riomaggiore is the largest of the 5 villages and to me had the most picturesque homes. The buildings are so tall and seem to lean over the streets. I don’t see how they keep from toppling off of the cliffs!
From the train station, you can go straight for a bit. To me this area look very similar to Vernazza. From the train station, if you head right, you’ll see signs for the tunnel to the harbor. Take the tunnel! The harbor is where you’ll see some of the most iconic city scenes of Cinque Terre.
Have you been to the 5 towns of Cinque Terre in Italy before? We’d love for you to add your thoughts and recommendations. Have any questions? Please ask by commenting below! Keep up with all of our travel, camping, and cycling tips by following us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. Leave us your email (blue box at the bottom of the post) to subscribe to our weekly newsletter and never miss a post!
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