I’m not a big fan of using the word “hack” to indicate anything not involving screwdrivers and saws, however in the travel world, if a destination ever needed hacking, the Cinque Terre would be it. Recently more famed for its dense crowds than for its beautiful scenery, the management of the Cinque Terre National Park declared last year they’d be limiting the number of people who could access it. Perhaps a good idea, but I interviewed the director of the park soon after for Travel+Leisure and he admitted it was “just a provocation”. Both he and the mayor of Riomaggiore agree that something has to be done before people start staying away entirely, but as of yet, no changes have been implemented. So it’s crowded. The towns are small, and they’ve partially succumbed to the demands of mass tourism. And yet, recently, I’ve fallen in love with the place. Follow my top Cinque Terre travel hacks to make sure you have a good experience.
Be mentally prepared for crowds
Knowing that it’s going to be super crazy crowded is a good start. I don’t like crowds one bit, but if I prepare myself for it, I can stay calm and just shuffle my way along – for a while. Getting out of the train stations is undoubtedly the worst part, and there is pretty much nothing you can do about it, unless you want to hang back a bit until everyone else has left the station (which you could technically do!).
The closer you get to the harbour of any town, it’s more crowded, and also packed with touristy restaurants and people eating on the ground. I also spotted some ladies tanning topless at the harbour of Manarola, where there is pavement and a small funnel that gives access to the water. There is no accounting for good manners when one ends up in these spots! The worst town for crowds is probably Vernazza, I was quite beside myself when I arrived there around noon on a Monday (via a hiking trail) and saw the scene below.
Get the Cinque Terre train card
The Cinque Terre card in its combo-train incarnation is not cheap, though if you’re staying in the area you get a bit of a discount. You have to take the Cinque Terre Express train (that runs between the towns) 4 times in a day to make it pay off, and you might not do so. However, if you do have it, you’ll think less about taking the train… And what it does save you is time: there are serious line ups at the ticket machines in the station, sometimes to the point of blocking stairways and entrances. So with the card, you don’t have to stamp a ticket (only just the first time you use it!) and you can push your way past all those people who are about to miss the train as they wait in line for the machine. Now you feel smart! Plus: proceeds from the card go to the Cinque Terre National Park, which runs various important projects to protect and restore the territory.
Take the most direct train from Florence
If you’re traveling from Florence to Cinque Terre by train, not all trains are created equal. Most of the trains involve this route: Florence – Pisa (change) – La Spezia (change) + the local Cinque Terre Express. Some of the Pisa-La Spezia trains are actually Intercity trains which are more comfortable than the regional ones and have assigned seating, which isn’t a bad thing on the weekends, when it gets pretty packed. On the other hand, it’s nice to know that a few times a day there is a direct regional train from Florence to La Spezia, which means no changes – bonus. However, I took this with my parents on a Saturday, figuring it would be easier with luggage, and the train used was a small commuter one that packs people on two two levels, with zero luggage space. People were standing and sitting in the aisles, and luggage was… wherever you could shove it. Conclusion: avoid weekends if possible. PS – if trains mystify you, read my post about everything you wanted to know about train travel in Italy.
Get real hiking shoes
You might have heard that the famed via dell’Amore hiking trail from Riomaggiore to Manarola is closed. That path is called SVA and it actually continues along the whole coast, but the first section is the easiest one – a paved, half-hour stroll rather than a hike. Section two, between Manarola and Corniglia, is also closed. If hiking between the towns, you can hike from Corniglia to Vernazza and from there to Monterosso along what is still the SVA, but is much more challenging. If you are not the kind of person who regularly walks up 250 stairs or hikes 5km, you won’t want to do these paths.
If you’re reasonably fit and want to try, however, please please wear hiking shoes, or at least sturdy trail running shoes. Fashion sneakers won’t cut it. And neither will silver strappy sandals (yup, saw that, I was quite livid). I’ve done it in good running shoes before but I was so much happier this time on the uneven ground in my good shoes (I have these). Also, do carry at least a liter of water per person, per section of the trail. If you’re out all day, consider a small CamelBak – I have one that I use year round for sport!
Stay in one of the towns
Things get less crowded once day trippers leave. MUCH less crowded. There are only about 3000 beds in the area, so make yourself feel special and stay over! When the sun sets, the towns look magical, and other than the buzz of voices and the clinks of glasses, it’s really quiet. This is the best time to be here.
You’ll want to start looking for a room as early as possible. Most accommodation providers are just one or two rooms or small apartments. In this article I wrote for Travel + Leisure I recommend my favourite places to stay in the area, but they book up quickly. Failing that, I have to honestly suggest you look on airbnb – I did that last time and was very satisfied with the place I got. I like being able to see on a map where the room is. The further up you go in any of the towns, the quieter it is. We were at the very top of Manarola and the main noise was a rooster from a farm across the hill.
Or… Don’t stay in one of the towns
Georgette of Girl in Florence recently wrote a post that highlights the shoulder towns of the 5T such as Levanto, Bonassola and Framura. Staying in these towns allows you to explore a similar but lesser-known Liguria, with the possibility of visiting a few towns of the actual 5T by train one day.
If you’re traveling by car, the Cinque Terre is a problem since you pretty much have to leave the car before entering, or stay in a B&B just above one of the towns, so an option I recently suggested to a friend is to stay in Portovenere’s top hotel, the Grand Hotel Portovenere. This is a great way to explore the Gulf of Poets (linking to another article by Georgette here before I get to go myself!), but the hotel provides a swanky boat that takes you in to the 5T if you want.
Check out the “other” hiking trails
The Cinque Terre card gives you access to the SVA (where open), and that’s what most people do when walking between towns. In some cases, it’s the only viable option unless you want to take the reaaaallllly long way around. In other cases, there are more than one ways to hike. I’m not a major expert on the trails, but ask a local and they’ll be happy to help. One great resource while you’re planning is the blog Cinque Terre Insider – check her Instagram too as she’s been walking a lot lately. While you’re there, stop at the store Cinque Terre Trekking in Manarola and ask owners Christine and Nicola for route suggestions – especially if you’re a trail runner (also check out their excellent range of colourful trail running shoes!).
Hire a guide
If you’re a family who wants to hike, or if it’s your first time hiking in the area, hiring a guide is a great idea. When I came last Fall, I worked with Pall aka TrekGuyd and he took me on a super path that I repeated with Tommaso on my latest visit. I felt like such a local, knowing my way around these lesser known trails. He told me that especially when he’s with families, he chooses paths that have a few points where you can stop and take the bus back, and he also always carries a first aid kit. You never know when these trails might become too much. One misplaced step and there goes your ankle – again, see the part about good boots above!
Drink the local wine
This travel hack’s a real hardship. The Cinque Terre produces some lovely white wine on the beautiful terraced landscape that the area is famous for. Cinque Terre would not be what it is if it weren’t for the hardworking land owners who have cultivated these terraces for hundreds of years. If you’ve hiked up any path, you see how hard it is to access these little scraps of land, and yes, the winemakers also have to walk up, and down with baskets of grapes during harvest. A bottle of local white wine will cost just upwards of 20 euros and you should buy it. Drink it here, and buy some to bring home. Why? Because as long as there is a market for it, they’ll keep making it. And the roots of those vines are what’s holding the hillside together. Oh and, it’s really good. You can taste the minerality of the land and the saltiness of the air in a good exemplar. My favourite lately is by Capellini. Delicious with anchovies.
Book your dinner
Every town has at least one good restaurant, and numerous bad ones. Ask your host where to eat and stick with that choice at all costs. Call, swing by, and beg your way into a table reservation: the good ones book up quickly. If they have inside seating as well as outside, take either. There is NO excuse for a bad meal in Italy.
That’s all for now… Do you have any tips to add? I hope these “hacks” make your trip to the Cinque Terre a wonderful one!
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