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
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 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.
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 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. Tyler and Kara coined a new term from Tim’s mishap, “doing the Daddy.”
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.
Town #3: 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.
Steps from the train station into Corniglia.
Town #4: Vernazza
After spending a very short time in Corniglia, we hiked to Vernazza, the fourth town of the day. Finally, the trail was open. By now it was over 90 degrees and the sun was incredibly hot.
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, we had the last section to hike to Monterosso. This is the most strenuous stretch of the Cinque Terre, with 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. It wasn’t terrible, and 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.
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 5Terre 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, 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!
Post updated June 2017.
Continue the Journey:
- The Cinque Terre for Budget Travelers
- Milan in One Day
- Venice in Pictures
- Hiking the Lagazuoi Tunnels in the Dolomites
- Hiking the Puez-Odle Altopiano in the Dolomites
- How We Spent One Week in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
Want to learn more about traveling in Italy? Check out our Italy Travel Guide.