Cinque Terre. The Five Lands. How do I even begin to describe this place? It’s like a Meereen + Highgarden + Babylon. I still don’t believe that it’s a real place. But it is, and we were there for four magnificent days. Cinque Terre is a collection of five towns, cozied up along the northwest coast of Italy. All are connected by trains and hiking trails. It was the perfect vacation for us, with hiking, wine, the sea, and delicious food. They are known for their white wine, lemons, fresh pesto, and anchovies. (Yes we tried some, and they are absolutely delectable).
But first, the journey there…
We decided to take the cheapest route from Munich to Milan (then train to Cinque Terre). For frequent travelers, you would know that the cheapest is not always the smartest nor the fastest. I don’t recommend it. Pay the extra for a direct flight. ANYHOO, we ended up having a layover in Copenhagen for a few hours. Not enough time to explore, but too much time to not be a nuisance. It was where I first learned of a French Dog (hot dog stuffed in a French baguette. It looks “quite rude” according to my mother.) Finally, we boarded and landed in Milan.
Milano Centrale train station is beautiful, majestic, and a little bit confusing to find a bus ticket. Our AirBnB host told us to take the bus from Milano Centrale to her place, a 15 minute drive. Mila (our host’s name, Mila from Milan… I can’t even make that stuff up) said they were easy to find inside, but all we saw were Trenitalia machines, and no help desk. After about 40 minutes walking around the train station, I asked a man in a shop within the station and as it turns out, he sold tickets. PRO-TIP: Anytime you see a T sign outside of a shop or cafe, you can purchase bus tickets at that location. The T is for tabacchi stores.
We arrived at Mila’s apartment, which was our first and only shared AirBnB space. The other couple was from Hong Kong, and although we shared the bathroom with them, we never saw them. We grabbed some pizza, showered, and went to bed. I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve- bring on para-paradise (enter: Coldplay). Mila prepared a delicious Italian breakfast for us to enjoy in our room as we got ready for our early train out. The train station was a hell of a lot easier dealing with actual trains. WHEW. Then we were off– Cinque Terre or BUST!
The train ride was just over three hours, scheduled to arrive in La Spezia around 11:20 AM. We got to talking to some people on our train and realized we did not need to travel all the way to La Spezia, we can just hop off at Monterosso al Mare (the northernmost town of the five lands) and take the local train to Corniglia. We stepped off the train and were smacked in the face with the ocean’s scent and the most beautiful views our pupils had ever seen. As much as we wanted to keep engulfing the view with our seeing machines, we also really wanted to get rid of our crap and find our new home for the next few days. We purchased the 3-day Cinque Terre Card for €41 per person. The Cinque Terre card gives you unlimited train access from La Spezia to Levanto– the Five Towns sandwiched in between. This card also gives you trail access and bus access within those towns. We got onto the local train and were off to Corniglia, the middle town and our hometown.
Our place in Corniglia was owned by Lidia, a wonderful host who owned all apartments in the building. We had our own one bedroom apartment, kitchen, deck, and beautiful bathroom. All tenants shared the rooftop patio area. The views were like a painting come to life.
At this point, we started the exploration of the lands. We hopped around them in no particular order, traveling multiple times to a few of them. So from north to south, here is our take on the Five Lands of Cinque Terre.
Monterosso al Mare
Monterosso is the only true beach town of Cinque Terre. I say ‘beach’ with the all-teeth squinty emoji face. It may be a beach, but it is a small beach covered with bros trying to sell you beach blankets and knock-off Raybans. I’m a beach snob, deal with it. We laid out just to say we did, but the sun kept hiding behind the clouds. I felt as though my eyes couldn’t open wide enough to get in all I needed to see. To my right, private beaches, coastlines and cliffs, and to my left, two more towns peaking out over the ledge to say hello. The trains and ferry boats carried loads of humans to and from this busy town.
Monterosso felt the most ‘watered down’ of all of the towns. Tourism has taken over Monterosso to the point of almost feeling like I was well on my way to South Padre Island (okay, maybe not that bad). Souvenirs, big-time looking restaurants, and even some cars in the streets(?!). We purchased some shampoo and moved along after about four hours of trying to get a different feel for the place.
Vernazza was our northern next door neighbor with a scenic harbor and the cutest lil’ boats you’ve ever seen. Vernazza is very busy, as the ferry boats are always coming and going. It felt smaller, perhaps because of all of the people bustling around town. Vernazza is the home to Castello Doria, a fortress built in the 15th century as a lookout for pirates. If you can handle the very narrow spiral staircase, it is worth the €1.5 to get to the top.
We walked to Vernazza for a visit from Corniglia along the 4 km trail. That doesn’t seem long, but that was a rougher trail than we had anticipated! A fairly drastic change in elevation made for an unintended, but much needed workout to work off all the wine, cheese, and pizza we had consumed. Vernazza, like all the towns, has breathtaking views. Views that honestly look like a fairytale land. About ¾ of the way to Vernazza, we found a small cafe with freshly squeezed lemon vodka smoothies. How could we say no? We frequented a gelato shop more than once in town and indulged ourselves over some people watching on some steps. All in all, Vernazza was beautiful, but felt small and hurried – Like that pretty popular girl in school who doesn’t have time to listen to your petty stories.
Home sweet home. SPOILER: This is our favorite of the five. A summarized list of our favorites is at the end of this post, FYI. Corniglia is the only landlocked town, sitting up powerfully on a cliff. There is no ferry access to this town, leaving it a little quieter than its four sisters. Corniglia feels like a very well kept secret. It is the smallest of the five, but we still found ourselves getting lost wandering its many narrow pedestrian-only stone paths. At one point, we ended up in the middle of the valley, surrounded by grapevines and lemon trees, looking out to the endless sea.
Down several flights of steep stairs and over some large rocks, there is access to the Mediterranean Sea. Don’t get your hopes up- it isn’t a beach, but a rocky water entrance that MAY get some sea gunk on your bum as you slide in, but it is TOTALLY WORTH IT. Corniglia was quaint, yet lively in all the rights ways. We tried a different restaurant for each meal, buying our local Cinque Terre wine and snacks from the market. It still had its charm, and really felt like home.
AKA Rock City. This town, once again, has spectacular views. The town’s one main street aims down at the rocks off the coast. There, you will find brave cliff jumpers and sunbathers. If you are in for a thrill, feel free to jump, just know you’ll have a crowd.
The ferry is still picking up and dropping off, but there is enough room that it doesn’t feel too overpowering. The streets are full of boats, waiting to set sail. Up at the top of the town, in the church of course, the bell rang to let us know what time it is. Manarola still felt like it has its culture, even though it is busy. I kept having to remind myself that we did visit a beautiful country during tourist season…of course we’d be around people. I just wanted it all to myself. *hair flip*
This southernmost town had harbor access, beautiful views, and some cheap wine! Even though this is another one-road town, it felt large and in charge. We really enjoyed the feel of Riomaggiore, you can walk up to get lost in the lemon trees and unrealistically oversized succulents, or walk down to the rocky harbor. We found ourselves doing both, and ending up at a wine bar called Bar O’Netto Brasserie for €2.5 glasses of wine and a load off our feet.
Riomaggiore still felt like somewhere new and different from anywhere else we’d been. It had its own rhythm that we didn’t find in the other four towns. We got some take away from a restaurant named Mama Mia (because why wouldn’t I get take away from a restaurant named Mama Mia?) and enjoyed a tasty snack as we strolled through the towns, exploring the local shops.
SO THAT’S IT. Cinque Terre is absolutely, unbelievably, breathtakingly, stupidly beautiful. There is not a bad view to be seen. I want to make that well known before I rank the five towns, that they are all spectacular. I will be going back in my lifetime, hopefully sooner than later. It was the perfect union of adventure and relaxation.
5. Monterosso al Mare– too touristed out and busy, but a beach!
4. Vernazza- just never seemed to wow us, minus the views
3. Manarola- adorable, beautiful views
2. Riomaggiore- cultured, more slow paced
1. Corniglia- quiet, secluded, heaven like
So get out there, explore the world while you can, and keep cheesin’!