The Cinque Terre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a group of five towns perched on the dramatic coastline of Italy, just north of Pisa. The towns are easily recognizable, with their pastel buildings stacked on top of one another, overlooking the harbors below. Each town offers something a little bit different than the others, and part of the fun of visiting the Cinque Terre is picking your favorite one. Hiking the Cinque Terre is one of the best ways to explore these five towns.
Hiking the Cinque Terre
About the Trail
The towns can be visited by bus, boat, train, or by hiking trail. We chose the hiking option.
There is a 11 km trail (called the Blue Trail) connecting Riomaggiore to Monterosso al Mare. Some portions of the trail are very easy to walk, such as the paved section connecting Riomaggiore to Manarola, and other sections climb up and over hillsides with spectacular views along the coast. It takes about 5 hours to hike the entire distance, not counting the time to explore and linger in each town.
In order to hike the trail we had to purchase tickets. There are various options for this, but the ticket is absolutely necessary. At every town we had to pass a checkpoint and show our tickets. We purchased the Treno Cinque Terre Card, which gave us unlimited trips on the trains for the day.
Distances and Difficulty Levels on the Blue Trail:
- Riomaggiore to Manarola: 1.5 km, easy, 30 minutes, also called “Lover’s Lane”
- Manarola to Corniglia: 3 km, easy, 1 hour
- Corniglia to Vernazza: 4 km, moderate, 1.5 hours
- Vernazza to Monterosso: 3.5 km, moderate, 1.5 hours
Important Update: One of our readers just informed us that the trail between Riomaggiore and Corniglia is permanently closed until 2021 for restoration.
Town #1: Riomaggiore
Our day started off very warm, without a cloud in the sky. We chose to start in Riomaggiore, because we wanted to end with a swim in the ocean at Monterosso’s beach. Unfortunately, the first section of trail, the easiest section to Manarola, was closed because of a recent rock slide. This was not a good start to our day.
We had the option to take the train to Manarola or hike a much more difficult trail (not the Blue Trail) to the next town. Anxious to get started and not thrilled about having to wait 45 minutes for the next train, we chose to hoof it over the mountain.
After some difficulty finding the trailhead, our hike finally started. The trail took us up a succession of stone staircases and steep hill climbs. Within minutes we were out of breath and very hot. Who’s idea was this?
The trail on top of the mountain took us through vineyards. We were rewarded for our hard work with great views over Riomaggiore and the coastline. Since we were one of the only crazy ones who decided to make this climb we were almost on our own.
During the descent into Manarola Tim had a wipeout. He turned to look back at Tyler, who was stumbling, and in the process Tim’s foot slipped off of the trail. His weight pitched him off the trail, he fell through some brush and landed on the hillside five feet below the level of the trail. Tim somehow emerged from this without a scratch on him, giving us all a good laugh.
Town #2: Manarola
We safely finished the rest of the hike into Manarola. It was still early in the day and already we were hot and tired.
We bought breakfast at a grocery store, spent a little time exploring the town, and then had to decide what to do about getting to the third town, Corniglia.
Again, the trail was closed. Would we ever get to hike the main Cinque Terre trail? Once again, we had the option to either hike up and over another mountain, this hike being twice as long as the first one we did, or take the train to Corniglia. We chose the train. We still had a long, hot day in front of us and Kara was already beginning to run out of steam.
Town #3: Corniglia
To get from the train station into Corniglia you have to climb this long series of wide steps into town. It still felt like we were hiking even though we had just taken the train!
In Corniglia, we only spent a little bit of time before hiking to the next town, Vernazza.
Town #4: Vernazza
Finally, the trail was open. By now it was over 90 degrees and the sun was incredibly hot.
To get from Corniglia to Vernazza we hiked on dusty, rocky paths, up and down endless stone steps, and through many more vineyards. The views were spectacular. This would have been much more enjoyable if it weren’t so crazy hot. Towards the end of this portion of the hike Kara kept warning us that her feet were going to explode.
Finally, we made it to the most beautiful town of the Cinque Terre, Vernazza (with all feet intact).
Vernazza is beautiful, and it was extremely crowded during the brief period of time we spent there. All of these towns can be explored in less than a half an hour, but be prepared to walk up and down some steep inclines.
We wandered away from the main street through Vernazza and went to Alberto Gelateria for a much needed break. This was the best gelato we had so far, and it was so good that we went back for seconds.
Town #5: Monterosso al Mar
Finally, it was time for the final hike to Monterosso. This is the most strenuous stretch of the Cinque Terre, another mountainous hike lasting 3 km. Fortunately, Kara got her second wind. Two hours later, a very sweaty, tired family of four arrived in Monterosso. It was time for that much deserved swim!
Once in Monterosso we plopped down at the beach for a much needed swim in the ocean. This was the perfect way to end our hike.
Thoughts About the Hike
So, what do we think about the hike now that it is over? It was a great experience, the views were incredible, and there was something very cool about hiking through the hillside vineyards. Cooler temperatures would have made the hike more enjoyable, but it was July, so it was going to be hot. The heat just made the gelato and the swimming that much more enjoyable.
For anyone who wants to see the Cinque Terre and have an active, adventurous day, hiking the trail is a great option.
As for our favorite town, Monterosso was the winner. Monterosso is the largest of the five towns, and with its two beaches, multitude of water sports, and its wonderful energy, we loved it here. In fact, we spent our second day in Cinque Terre relaxing on the beach and renting the paddle boat/slide that Tyler and Kara loved so much.
Vernazza was the prettiest, Corniglia was the quietest, Manarola had a great harbor, and Riomaggiore was the best place to sit and watch the sunset.
In the past few years, the Cinque Terre has become one of Italy’s most visited destinations. From May through September, the cities and the hiking trails can get very crowded. If you visited or hiked the Cinque Terre during the summer months in 2019 or 2020, how was your experience? We would love to hear about your experience and it would help future readers know what to expect during their visit. Let us know in the comment section at the end of this article.
Tips on Hiking the Cinque Terre
For information on visiting Cinque Terre on a budget, read our post The Cinque Terre for Budget Travelers. We give tips and advice how to keep costs low but still enjoy the best that the Cinque Terre has to offer.
The hike can be done in either direction. To get the hardest hiking over with first, start in Monterosso. Once you reach Corniglia, and assuming all of the trails are open, the easier sections will be at the end.
For those who are very ambitious, there are trails that go even higher into the mountains for some of the best views of the area. The Cinque Terre information points in each town have maps of these trails.
There are different options for buying the Cinque Terre Park Card. For €7.50 per person you can hike the trails and take the buses connecting the 5 towns, and for €16 per person or € 42 euros for a family of four, you can hike, take the bus, and take the trains from Levanto to La Spezia. There are also multi-day passes available. For more information click here.
Water bottles can be refilled at the public water fountains in each town. As long as the fountain does not say “non-potable” the water is safe to drink. We drank gallons of water out of the public fountains all throughout Italy.
As with our experience, trails close frequently. The day before our hike the trail from Riomaggiore to Manarola was open. There was a rockslide during the night which covered part of the trail, making it inaccessible. Check with the information offices before starting any hike for trail closures.
Sections of the trail are true hiking. Make sure you wear appropriate footwear (sturdy walking shoes are sufficient and hiking shoes are ideal), bring sunscreen, and don’t forget those water bottles.
And don’t forget your swimsuit! What better way to cool off than a swim in the Mediterranean Sea!
Where We Stayed: We were traveling on a budget so we stayed in La Spezia at Hotel Birillo. This is a small, budget hotel. It was very basic, with small rooms, an interesting bathroom (you actually had to walk through the shower to get into the bathroom), but it was only a five minute walk to the train station. If you are traveling on a budget, consider staying in La Spezia to save money.
More Information for Your Trip to Italy:
- Itinerary: 10 Days in Italy: 3 Amazing Itineraries
- Lake Como: 8 Amazing Things to do in Bellagio
- Best of Italy: 15 of the Best Places to Visit in Italy
- Dolomites: Hiking the Puez-Odle Altopiano in the Dolomites
- Florence: 10 Things to do on Your First Visit to Florence
- Pisa: Day Trip to the Leaning Tower of Pisa
- Capri: Is the Blue Grotto Really Worth It?
- Amalfi Coast: Positano, Our Favorite Town on the Amalfi Coast
Planning a trip to Italy? Read all of our articles in our Italy Travel Guide.
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