On a recent trip to Riomaggiore in the Cinque Terre, I discovered that I love this famous place as much as many tourists do. But I set out to do it right, without the crowds, and with the help of an expert. I asked Bianca Gignac and Kiiri Sandy of Italian Fix and the Gigi Guides for advice, and thanks to them, it was a great experience. I’ve asked them to write this guest post about Cinque Terre in Winter, when certainly the crowds thin out, but the area remains surprisingly a good option for visitors.
“I’m dying to see the Cinque Terre, but the only time I can go is in the winter. Is going then really such a bad idea?”
We get this question A LOT. And frankly, most of the time we recommend against going in the off-season if you can help it. The weather can be unpredictable and the towns all but shut down, so there’s not nearly as much to do. If you’ve been saving your vacation time and money all year for this one holiday, we’d hate for you to spend it all there only to find it rainy and deserted when you were expecting sunny and alive.
But a really bad idea? Not at all. In fact, with the right expectations and perspective, the off-season can be the perfect time to visit the Cinque Terre.
You’ll love Cinque Terre in winter if…
- You want to experience the Cinque Terre as it might have been before becoming popular.
- The idea of hiking all day long and not seeing another soul sounds like heaven to you.
- You love peace and quiet.
- You’re ok with calling it a night after a cozy dinner out.
- You appreciate the beauty in things like rough seas, rainy days, and ghost towns.
- You own waterproof hiking gear
- For you, getting to know the locals is what traveling is all about.
You’ll hate it in the winter if…
- For you, an Italian holiday is all about baking in the sun and floating in the sea — between Bellinis enjoyed on bustling cobblestone streets, of course.
- You love nightlife and want to be where the action is.
- The idea of hiking all day long and not seeing another soul sounds nightmarish to you.
- You need your days to be filled with activities.
- Rough seas and rainy days… um, depressing much?
Hate-it people, do yourselves a favor and save your Cinque Terre trip for July or August. (If you want a summer itinerary, grab this great one.) Hit up a city like Florence or Rome in the winter, where there are loads of indoor museums and art galleries to keep you busy and where restaurants and bars are all open year-round. Or try a place that’s meant to be enjoyed in cold weather, like a ski village in the Italian Alps or one of the Christmas market towns like Bolzano.
Love-it people, let’s talk about how to make your off-season Cinque Terre trip a dream vacay.
Cinque Terre in Winter: Travel tips
It’s all about rolling with it. And cheap accommodations. Yeah, it rains here sometimes. Sometimes for days at a time. And that usually happens during the off-season. But instead of getting frustrated by what you can’t do, go in with a sunny-side-up outlook and some advance prep-work.
Not all hotels and room rentals stay open throughout the off-season, but many do, so this is your chance to get the pick of the litter for peanuts compared to what you would normally pay — rooms in the off-season often cost less than half what they do in the summer. You know you might be hit with some crappy weather, so invest more time into choosing accommodations you really love, ideally with a kitchen. That way if it does rain, you’ll have a cozy little retreat to hole up in with a good book, a bottle of wine, and a load of fresh ingredients from the alimentari down the street, or better yet, the outdoor markets in La Spezia or Levanto. Strike up a conversation with your AirBnb host or the grocer or even the men hanging out at the bar about an Italian dish you want to try — everyone LOVES talking about food in Italy and how to make it best, so look at the rain as an opportunity to get some impromptu tutoring on how to whip up some genuine Italian fare.
The good news is that while it does rain more in the low-season, clear days far outnumber wet ones — on average there are about eight rainy days per month throughout the winter compared to five in the summer. So odds are good that you won’t get wet, but if your holiday does happen to run into bad weather, having a flexible, let’s-make-the-best-of-it attitude will make all the difference.
Does everything close in Cinque Terre in winter?
The truth is, the Cinque Terre does all but close up shop when the season ends at the end of October. The people who live here have just spent eight months catering to the millions who descend on these five towns every summer, and they’re tired. So most of the stores close, and the restaurants and bars take turns shutting their doors too. With the exception of Corniglia though (the smallest, least accessible, and therefore least visited of the towns), you should always find at least one restaurant, one bar and one grocery store open in each of the villages (except on Sundays when everything closes). So while you won’t be spoiled for choice, you won’t be totally stranded either when it comes to food and drink.
In the dead of winter, you won’t see a lot of people out and about. The locals tend to hibernate during the cold months, but you will run into them in the grocery stores, and definitely at the bar — even if there doesn’t seem to be another living soul on the streets of town, you’re almost always guaranteed to find a handful of men watching the game or just keeping each other company there. And the bar’s a great place to strike up a conversation with a local, who tend to be much more enthusiastic about talking to tourists in the low-season than when the place is overrun by them. It’s not unheard of for these conversations to lead to an invitation to visit someone’s private vineyard or cantina, a motorboat ride along the coast, or dinner at the home of your new friends. And those can be the experiences that really take a trip to the next level.
Will the trails be open?
It depends. They don’t close just because it’s winter, but they will close because of landslides and unsafe conditions, usually caused by rain. And there tends to be more of that in the off-season. But again, odds are better that there won’t be rain than that there will be, and if one trail is closed, there are always a dozen others to choose from.
Cinque Terre in Winter: things to do
Last year it was warm and sunny until the end of October, so people were still on the beach and in the water just before Halloween. Even the ferries extended their run — they usually stop at the beginning of the month. Don’t expect to be swimming from November on though, and not until around May or June in the spring. But don’t despair either — sometimes having to get a little creative about your activities can generate some of the most memorable experiences. Here are a few ideas for things to do broken down by season.
- September in the Cinque Terre is still very much the high season, but because autumn officially begins on the 21st, it’s worth mentioning that this month is vendemmia time, or the grape harvest. Keep your eyes peeled for open cantina doors (follow the smell of fermenting grapes) and stacked crates of grapes lining the laneways — you never know, you might be invited in for an impromptu lesson on winemaking. It’s the busiest time of the year for small wineries so they may not have time for official tours and tastings, but it’s worth getting in touch in October and November. You can get really up close and personal visiting a tiny operation like the one run by Riccardo Fino in Riomaggiore, where they make a white wine called I Magnati as well as the sweet wine exclusive to the Cinque Terre, sciacchetrà. Drop him an email at email@example.com and ask if he’s available for a tour of his small cliffside vineyards or for a tasting at his cantina in town.
- If you’re in the Cinque Terre in November, head to Monterosso on the 11th to witness a peculiar tradition there called La Festa dei Becchi (also known as La Festa dei Cornuti), which translates to The Cuckold Festival. Up until the 1980s, the townsfolk used to gather under the houses of people who were being cheated on by their significant other to call them out with bawdy songs and verses on this day. Now they dress up (everyone wears horns) and march around town with a statue of a woman with horns, stopping in San Martino square where they do a little show in dialect. They still call people out (usually using titles like “the baker” or “a certain insurance broker” instead of names), but will roast them for anything — their political views, an embarrassing episode, a bad reputation — or joke about local issues in general. At the end everyone heads out for dinner together — for a meal of horned animals, of course!
- What better time than the fall to try Italy’s version of hot chocolate — it’s essentially warmed-up chocolate pudding… um, yum! — or a glass of golden sciacchetrà with a side of crunchy biscotti. La Cantina dello Zio Bramante in Manarola is a great place for cozying up on a rainy day — they have awesome live music most nights too.
- We love lazily floating in the Mediterranean on a hot day as much as the next gal, but believe us when we say that the magnificence of a rough winter sea in the Cinque Terre can give summertime a serious run for its money. Giant waves crashing over the breakwater in Riomaggiore and Vernazza or onto the beach in Monterosso can be a spectacular sight to behold. Just don’t get too close — the sea can be as dangerous as it is awesome. The blazing sunsets this time of year too are on a whole different level.
- Bet you didn’t expect the world’s biggest nativity scene to be right here in the Cinque Terre, did you? Begun in 1961, Mario Andreoli’s masterwork is a collection of 300 characters made of recycled materials representing the nativity, distributed across the hillside descending into Manarola. If you’re in the Cinque Terre between the 8th of December and the end of January, it’s worth staying in town (or at least visiting in the evening) so that you can see it in all its glory — lit up by 15,000 solar-powered lights.
- Runners, if you’re in the Cinque Terre on the afternoon of December 10th, consider taking part in the SciaccheTrail Vertical Race in Manarola. It’s a 700-meter timed sprint that starts at sea level and weaves its way up ancient stone steps, steep inclines and vineyard trails to a point 165 meters high up in the hills. Once everyone has crossed the finish line, Manarola’s famous presepe (the nativity scene I mention above) will be lit up in celebration. Registration costs 25 euro and proceeds go to protecting Manarola’s culture and landscape. Check out this video to get revved up about it.
- You may feel like only a handful of people live in the Cinque Terre in December judging by the human beings you actually lay eyes on when you’re out and about, but if you’re in town at the end of the month you’ll see them emerge en masse to ring in the New Year. Most of the restaurants open up the week between Christmas and the 31st to accommodate the yuletide tourists (usually Italians from other parts of the boot). They generally will have fixed-price menus, so ask around and make a reservation. This is where the locals will be spending the evening too, and it can get pretty festive. They do fireworks at midnight too!
- If you happen to be in town during Carnevale, then you’ll see the streets suddenly populated by a parade of little kids in costume, confetti, and candy everywhere. It can happen anytime between the beginning of February and the beginning of March, because its date is 40 days before Easter, and Easter’s date changes every year.
- Spring is when the Cinque Terre begin to wake up after feeling a bit deserted through the worst of the winter months. High season is generally considered to start at Easter, which can sometimes be in March, sometimes in April. If it’s in very early March, the villages will come alive for that weekend to welcome the (mostly Italian) tourists who come to the coast for their holiday, and will then go back into hibernation until the weather gets nicer.
- The water isn’t usually warm enough for swimming until late May or June, but the Cinque Terre are otherwise mostly open for business for much of this season.
- Hiking is great in spring because it’s neither too crowded nor too hot yet.
- Take advantage of the striking scenery here on a sunny day by picking up a picnic lunch at the grocery store and eating it on an empty beach or on the rocks or anywhere really — the view is pretty much amazing wherever you are in the Cinque Terre, let’s face it. Grab some olives, some focaccia, some cheese and a bottle of wine, and you’re good to go.
- On the third Sunday in May, Monterosso holds a lemon festival called the Sagra del Limone, celebrating all kinds of uses for their beloved fruit, decorating the town with lemon displays too. There’s an open-air market along the boardwalk in Fegina that features various artisans, and there are booths selling sweets and products made with the town’s lemons. Locals compete for awards for the best lemon display and the biggest lemon too. Try the limoncino and the lemon pie!
- Monterosso also celebrates Corpus Christi every year by decorating its streets with thousands of flowers and petals. In the evening, a procession crosses through the historic center of town. Like Easter, the date of this rite changes every year — in 2016 it was on May 26th, and in 2017 it will be on June 5th.
The bottom line when considering a trip to the Cinque Terre during the low-season is that you have to be true to what a good time means to you. It’s definitely not for all temperaments — even the locals can’t seem to agree. Some complain about how triste the place becomes, while others wait all year for the few months when the towns belong to them and them alone again.
If seeing these five villages during the off-season sounds like your kind of holiday, check out Gigi Guides. It’s full of our top picks for places to stay, places to eat, the lay of the land, how to get around and more — basically everything you need to travel this area like an insider.
With love and cioccolata calda,
Some of the photos in this article have been kindly provided by Miriam Rossignoli, a photographer and resident of Monterosso whose family goes back to the 14th century – check out her works at www.miriamrossignoli.it
This post is part of the Italy Roundtable discussion of “Italy in the Winter”, so if you’re thinking of visiting the Cinque Terre at this time, you might also find the following articles helpful!