In the run up to what turned out to be one of the most unreal weekends of my life at Dimensions in August, I took advantage of the location of the Croatian music festival to explore a country that I’ve dreamed of travelling through ever since I was old enough to dream about travelling anywhere: Italy! First stop… the Cinque Terre.
Matt and I spent a week touring around a few of Italy’s northern highlights before hopping over the border to Croatia. Flying from London Stansted into Pisa for a measly £40, we took in the Leaning Tower within an hour, before beelining for the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Cinque Terre: a chain of five magical, colourful, hundred-year-old fishing villages scattered within a few kilometres of one another along the Mediterranean coastline. From north to south in order, Monterrosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore are surrounded by steep vineyards and lapped by waves, making for the perfect few days of eating, drinking, swimming and sighing at the perfect views.
Despite spending a weekend in Florence and fulfilling my lifelong dream of floating through the canals of Venice in a gondola in the same trip, it was this cluster of unique villages, with their romantic little churches, mysterious castles, amazing eateries, plentiful wine, lush, green surrounds and amazing swimming spots that completely stole the show.
So, in what I’m sure won’t be my last Italian blog instalment, I thought I’d create the closest thing I could to an ‘Ultimate Guide’ to the Cinque Terre for those on a budget… albeit a somewhat lazy person’s one, since we stuck to the villages and didn’t do any walks in the surrounding countryside. Partly due to timeframe, partly due to landslides, and mostly due to… well, holiday boozing. Regardless, I’d love to show you not only how bloody romantic this emerging part of Italy is, but also how accessible and affordable it can be too.
How to get to the Cinque Terre
If you’re flying in for a holiday or starting your trip through Italy in the Cinque Terre, Pisa is your best bet. Search hard enough on Skyscanner, and you’ll find some ridiculously cheap flights to here from the UK.
Pisa is only an hour’s drive away, or an hour and a half by train from La Spezia, the gateway town to the Cinque Terre. Make sure you book your train tickets from Pisa to La Spezia in advance before arriving, in order to bag the cheapest fares – Loco2 is a nifty Italian transport booking site run by an English team, and therefore a whole lot easier than its Italian counterparts.
Once in La Spezia, it’s a further ten minutes on the Cinque Terre train into the first of the villages, Riomaggiore. Semplice!
Alternatively, if you’re coming from Genoa airport, book an hour-long train to Levanto, the northern gateway to the Cinque Terre.
The national park is also just two hours away from Florence via road or train.
Getting around the Cinque Terre
Since the five villages are carved into steep coastal cliffs and fringed with vineyards, reaching them by road is impossible: which means no traffic, no coach trip hoards, and no annoying parked cars spoiling your snaps, woo!
The only way to hop from village to village is either by foot (hiking time between each village varies from an hour to two; all of the walks are scenic and well sign-posted, but might be closed due to landslides), or by the reliable train that spans the length of the Cinque Terre. This train runs all the way from La Spezia in the south, to Monterosso, then onto Levanto in the north. Despite the quaint and rustic charm the Cinque Terre exudes, this train line is about as quick and efficient as a city’s underground network. It takes mere minutes to get from one village to the next, meaning you’re granted absolute freedom over which villages you choose to explore, and in what order.
The train runs extremely frequently: you’ll never wait more than twenty minutes for one throughout the day, but they dwindle off towards midnight, meaning you’ll have to prepare your legs for a drunken run back to the station each evening to catch the last train back to your hotel.
The only downside? As always in Italy, the transport doesn’t come cheap.
Individual train rides, for example, a hop between villages will cost you €4. Meaning if you were to hop on and off at each village within a day, then ride back to your starting point at the end, you’d be spending between €16-26. So, there’s a Cinque Terre Train Card, purchasable at the information points in every village’s railway station.
A one day Train Card is € 16, two days will set you back €29, and three days, € 41, whereas for kids under 12, its a straight up tenner a day. This ticket covers unlimited travel as well as access to the hiking trails, and the shuttle bus in Corniglia, which runs from the station, up the steep, exhausting hill into town. It’s also supposed to grant you access to free wifi, but, pfft.
For more information, it’s best to click here.
What to eat
You’ll be spoiled for choice on what to stuff yourself with in the Cinque Terre. The gorgeous landscape is smothered in fresh basil, olive groves, wine vineyards and lime trees. In fact, the Cinque Terre is the birthplace of pesto. I don’t know about you, but this pretty much makes it my Mecca.
Regardless of what you decide to try for dinner, the best village to visit for food is undoubtedly Corniglia. This is where we found our favourite restaurant: Cantina da Mananan, a rustic family run trattoria serving good value seafood and pasta dishes. It’s essential to book a table if you’re calling in for dinner here, but if you haven’t managed to bag one, head next door to the equally as tiny Enoteca Il Pirun.
Corniglia’s main (only) street of Via Fieschi also houses the popular Alberto Gelateria, serving a rather remarkable basil gelato. Trust me – basil gelato really works, and I’ve been dreaming of it ever since.
Whilst exploring Vernazza, be sure to stop by Panifacio Focacceria on the main street for a melt-in-the-mouth focaccia sandwich (just look for the queues!).
Where to drink
Nessun Dorma, above Manarola’s harbour offers reasonably priced drinks (given the setting), enough free edibles to fill you for the entire evening (“Is it possible to suffer from olive oil poisoning?” was asked at one point), and the famous views that attract everyone to the Cinque Terre in the first place… see above. Sunset and wine is all I really need in a place as beautiful as Manarola, and I genuinely think we spent more time in this bar than we did anywhere else in the area during the three days we had here!
Corniglia’s colourful yet quiet Terra Rossa, around to the right as you make it up the hill is another little slice of magic, with great wine, ethereal decor, amazing views of the valley below and an evening breeze that sweeps in from the sea.
Alternatively, you can buy a €9 bottle of local wine or a few cans of beer and take them down to the harbour in Manarola to sunbathe with!
Where to stay
Apparently, there’s some great hostels and hotels in Riomaggiore and Monterosso, the furthest south and furthest north on the Cinque Terre chain respectively.
However we stayed a ten minute train ride outside of the national park in La Spezia, on Via Milano. Just a two minute walk to the station platform where we boarded the train to the the ‘Terre each day, Anna’s beautiful Airbnb apartment above a huge old church was filled with character, and home to a beautiful flat faced cat called Amore and a wheezy old Bolognese dog. Comment below if you’d like me to recommend you via Airbnb; it’s probably the best one we’ve ever stayed in!
How much does it cost?
The room in an Airbnb in La Spezia set us back £50 a night, and was worth every penny.
As detailed in the ‘Getting Around’ part of this post, we each paid €30 for a two day travel card. Considering a single journey regardless of length on the Cinque Terre line cost €4, we definitely got our money’s worth out of it… but we never spotted a single conductor, or came upon any ticket barriers, meaning ticket checks must be rare. Ahem.
Pasta dishes in local trattorias average at around €10. But a cheap bottle of local wine comes in at under €10, and a tasty focaccia will cost you around €3… meaning you can enjoy a boozy sunset picnic on Manarola’s harbour, followed by a dip!
So all in all, despite this absolutely stunning part of Italy looking expensive, it has somehow managed to evade the extortionate inflation cities like Rome and Venice, and the more popular costal destination of Sorrento, have seen.
With cheap flights operating in and out of Pisa, which is a £20, 1.5 hour train ride away from the Cinque Terre, the national park is perfect for a 5 day weekend… and you could easily do it on a few hundred euros.
How long do I need to explore the Cinque Terre?
This was a question that plagued me for months in the run up to our visit, and one which I couldn’t find the answer to anywhere online! The answer is, you can easily see the best of it in two days, like we did. Of course, the place is so beautiful it warrants a week!
If you’ve only one day to explore the entire coast, do not fear. It’s still so doable! Since the villages are only minutes apart by train, you’ll be able to visit them all, but make sure you hone in mainly on Corniglia and Manarola, by far the most picturesque. Consider skipping Monterosso, which is more of a standard beach resort than the dreamy hotchpotch pile of colourful houses we see on Instagram. Set off early.
So there we have it. The Cinque Terre was every bit my Italian dream! Sun, sea, amazing food, better wine, rustic charm and so much colour. Stay tuned to find out what we nailed in Florence, and what we failed at in the blistering heat and mental crowds in Venice…
Have I missed anything important? Let me know in the comments!