Cinque Terre is one of those places in Italy that you hear about a lot, but not as much as Rome or Florence. You sort of know what there is to do there, but not really. And then once you really find out about Cinque Terre, and you start Googling pictures of what it looks like, you have to go there. There is no turning back.
But somehow, we've lived in Italy for almost two years now and had not made the short 3.5 hour drive down to Cinque Terre. There was just something really intimidating and overwhelming about the trip. Cinque Terre — literally meaning "five lands" — is five very small towns located on the precarious cliffsides along the Italian Riviera. And right after you find out about the magic of Cinque Terre, you start hearing about how overrun the cities have become with tourists, overwhelming the infrastructure of each individual town where literally 500 people may live during the offseason. It's gotten so bad that the government has proposed putting limits on the amount of tourists that can visit during peak season (though, knowing the Italian government, we'll see how long that takes to implement).
So we knew that if we were going to go to this magical national park of colorful houses, with its sea breezes, beautiful ocean views, plethora of lemon trees, and breathtaking hikes, we were going in the offseason. Because nothing gets me more curmudgeon-y than being crowded on a train with a bunch of white socks-wearing, sweaty, mouth breathing tourists, whether I'm one of them or not.
So, it was decided. Easter weekend — early enough to be the offseason, warm enough to stand by the beach and not hate ourselves. And boy, was it perfect. We could not have asked for better weather to walk among the paved seaside paths, sip iced coffee at cafes overlooking the water, or to sweat under while I cursed at my husband for not even getting winded while we literally climbed a mountain while I'm huffing and puffing and asking for water breaks even though we're 20 minutes in.
And it wasn't so crowded, either. There were a few times when we were like, "Where the hell did all these people come from?" which mostly happened on the trains or during the 45-minute wait we had to start our hike. We talked about wanting to bring our families back when they visited, but both agreed that it would be a nightmare during the summer, especially fighting for space on the hiking trails.
But enough about how fortunate we were that we didn't have to suffer the crowds in Cinque Terre — we loved the place. I was surprised at how much I loved it. I'd heard how tourist-y it could be, and how small it was, and how there were no cars, and really was not expecting to love Cinque Terre as much as I did. But really — I was so blown away. It was not touristy (especially not like many of the cities most folks visit when they're in Italy). It reminded my husband and I a lot of our trip to the Italian Amalfi Coast, but smaller and not as southern, and, most importantly, without the driving.
But I would go back to Cinque Terre in a heartbeat (did I mention it would be in the offseason?). I wish we had had an extra day there, really (we did two nights only) — to just do nothing. Because that's kind of what you do in Cinque Terre. You walk around and look at shit. And then you eat a little bit. And then you look at more gorgeous nonsense. And then you grab a drink while staring at more beauty and just remain in awe. Cinque Terre is for starers. And picture takers. And for me. We'll be back.
THINGS WE LIKED:
- Snacks with a view at Nessun Dorma: It's definitely worth the trip to Manarola just to go to this cafe — it's situated along the mountain with cafe seating and they serve fantastic small plates and drinks that come in adorable glasses. I ordered a sangria that came in a jar with a cork top and Tyler grabbed a caffe shakerato — the Italian version of an iced coffee, and one of my favorite drinks. It's a great, relaxing place to chat, grab a leisurely drink and enjoy the seaside views.
- Seafood dinner at Trattoria da Billy: It was Tyler's birthday while we were in Cinque Terre, and all I knew was that he wanted a seafood dinner. Luckily, we were in the right place for it, and Trattoria da Billy did not disappoint. Though I was expecting a bit more from their outdoor seating (it was covered because, obviously, it was cold at night in March), we got the mixed seafood appetizer and for an entrée, the lobster with red pasta. They did not disappoint. I think the appetizer was our favorite part of the meal — something like 8 dishes that were basically tapas with fantastic seafood I would've never thought I'd like. It was a bit on the pricey side, but we came prepared and left drunk on good seafood.
- Breakfast like back home at Aristide: For some reason, this restaurant in Manarola is listed as $$$$ on TripAdvisor, but we found the prices very normal and very reasonable, and were a huge fan of their American-like breakfast. They have omelettes and scrambled eggs and bacon, which are hard to come by in Italy, plus yogurt, museli, and, of course, the usual pastry selection. The decor is cute and modern and the waitresses are sweet, quick and patient. We went back a second time for breakfast before we left!
- Sweating for views on the trails: Hiking is one of the reasons people come to the five cities, and boy, there's plenty of it! Before you head out on your trek, though, make sure to stop in a tourist information office (there's one in each city, usually located by the train station) to see which trails are open, as they're often closed due to mudslides or other weather conditions. We tried to do the easy paved path, Via Dell'Amore, between Manarola and Riomaggiore, which was unfortunately closed, and had to take the train instead. We did end up taking the train to Monterosso and then hiking from there to Vernazza (we heard this direction had the best views). We had to wait in line for about 30 minutes, even in the off season, to begin, but if you buy your tickets ahead of time, it seems that you can skip this line. The hike has a lot of uphill hiking and is difficult in certain sections, especially in the beginning, and take about 2-3 hours depending on your pace. We packed a lunch and ate with an insane view of Vernazza, and were really glad that we picked this one hike to do in our abbreviated time in Cinque Terre. It was stunning.
- Planes, trains and automobiles: More like boats, trains and no cars at all, though. There are very few cars allowed in the five cities — for most folks, you park at the top and walk about 5 minutes down, which can take up a lot of time if you're trying to visit them all. There are a few different ways to get between each of the five cities. You can hike, of course, if you want to go the leisurely route, but one of the most popular ways is to just take the train, which stops in the middle of each city. We also enjoyed the tourist ferry, which stops in every city except for Corniglia (which is not at sea level), and provides great views of the colorful houses.
A quick overview of the five cities:
- Riomaggiore: The first of the cities, we loved Riomaggiore most for it's hidden alleys, great view from the church overlooking the city, and the iconic boats you can walk along down near the harbor. The city had a pretty high concentration of fried seafood to-go restaurants, which I highly regret never popping into, but really smelled wonderful. Riomaggiore has probably the least seafront space, but it's got a ton of alleys to explore until your legs give out.
- Manarola: We made this our home base during our time in Cinque Terre, and I'm very glad we did stay inside the five cities instead of outside them like we had previously discussed doing. Perhaps we were biased, but it was one of our favorites, as it was pretty quiet during our stay, seemed the least tourist-y and had some lovely, easy hikes up to the top of the mountains to get some great views and great pictures. There are a lot of small restaurants where you can pop in and grab a drink or a bite to eat to go, and a wonderful garden up the mountain that's easily accessible by a paved path. It's also apparently a pretty great spot for cliffjumping into the water if you're into that sort of thing!
- Corniglia: Corniglia was the only city that we didn't get to properly visit. We tried to take the train there from Vernazza, but it was after our long afternoon hike, and once we saw that you had to walk up the mountain to get to the city, our tired legs refused. If you've been, share your opinions in the comments!
- Vernazza: We ended up going to Vernazza on the Saturday before Easter, and it was definitely the most congested of the five cities during our stay, leading us to not linger long. I also felt it was the most touristy, with many of the shop selling silly touristy T-shirts and other Italian items that weren't really specific to the region. However, if you can make it during a not-so-crazy time, it had the biggest selection of waterfront dining, plus some great rocks to lay out on and soak up the sun. We had a stunning view of the city, which I think has the most iconic representation of the colorful houses, coming in from our hike as the church bells rang, and it was wonderful to look down upon until we got swept up in the madness!
- Monterosso al Mare: I thought this was one of the most beautiful and clean of the five cities. It's the largest, as it's the most spread out, since it includes the old city and the new, more resort-y side of the city. It's also the only one of the five cities that has proper (pebble) beaches. Monterosso is nice because it doesn't get as congested as the others beacuse of it's size, but it definitely has a more updated look and doesn't resemble the other four as much, with that old, Italian charm. Take a walk on the boardwalk with some gelato and overlook those beautiful blue waters and laugh at tourist trying to climb the large rock on the beach.
Photos and text © Katie Currid, 2016. All rights reserved.