Have you been to the colorful Cinque Terre in Italy’s north central Liguria coast? It’s a stunning part of the country and uber popular with tourists. If you’ve been there, you might also think that last sentence is a gross understatement: the Cinque Terre can be very crowded depending on where and what time of year you go. Yes, it’s one of the most visited places in all of Italy and the entire world. But traveling here doesn’t have to mean you’re stuck in the tourist trap.
Why Hike the Cinque Terre?
There are ways to get off-the-beaten-path and see the quieter side of the Cinque Terre. How?
By getting on the path and hiking the Cinque Terre National Park, between the 5 towns. The quiet space between the towns is as natural as the locals who tend their vineyards and gardens here. This region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and gives you a much different, more authentic view of what the Cinque Terre is all about. Each of the Cinque Terre villages - Riomaggiore, Manarola (our favorite place to stay), Corniglia, Vernazza, and Montorosso al Mare - are uniquely quaint and colorful but there's a lot to see outside the villages from high up in the hills overlooking them. Most visitors stick to the scenic hotspots in the towns then head back to the bus - don’t be that tourist. Get out and explore! Even if you’re here on a day trip from Florence or Tuscany, you can still hike (or walk) one of the shorter trails then take the train back to where you started. Trains are always a great back-up plan for getting around the five towns quickly. Here's more on using the Cinque Terre Pass.
Before You Go
- Hiking Map - If you don’t have a hiking map of the Cinque Terre hiking trails before you arrive, no worries. You can pick one up at trekking shops or tourist information offices around town. Or download an excellent map here.
- What Condition Your Condition Is In - You may be wondering about whether you have what it takes to hike the Cinque Terre. Before we went the first time, it was hard to imagine what the Cinque Terre was like let alone how the hiking was. Only you know how physically fit you are, but here's our middle-aged opinion: we're not hardcore trekkers, but we do love hiking. We thought the trails were moderately challenging in places, easy in others, and left our knees wobbly. But nothing that some gelato and an hour's rest couldn't cure!
Cinque Terre Hiking Trails
There are basically two trails which connect the 5 towns of Cinque Terre. Most tourists hike the Blue Trail, or the Sentiero Azzurro. It runs along the sea, it’s easy and doesn’t take very long between towns. But - and there’s a big “but” here - several sections of this trail are closed.
- The trail from Riomaggiore to Manarola, the Via dell’Amore or Lover’s Lane, has been closed since 2012 due to landslides.
- The section from Manarola to Corniglia is closed as well since 2011, also due to landslides.
Manarola to Vernazza
Time: 2-3 hours on average
We decided to enter the Blue Trail in Manarola, bypass Corniglia, and go as far as we could before making our way along the many transverse paths on the hillsides to reach the high path to Vernazza.
This wasn’t at all bad when we started out in the morning, some inclines here and there but that was it. Vineyards cut into the steep hillsides along with olive orchards made us wonder how all this gets farmed. Stone walls and small stone outbuildings for tools and overnighting by farmers are here and there and it all looks very old. The views along the trail are so breathtaking you can see the town you just came from and the one you're hiking to in the same view.
Early October there gave us crystal clear but very warm days and endless views. We were well heated up when a lone cafe appeared out of nowhere on the trail, just in the nick of time. You literally won't miss it as you have to walk right by it. We had been following the trail markings and signs for Vernazza and there was no indication of a juice cafe. Or maybe there was and we just missed it. Stop here for some fresh squeezed lorange juice and to take in the view over Corniglia and the sea! We topped off our water bottles to finish the trek to Vernazza.
Even with the stop at the cafe, it took us longer than the indicated hour and forty-five minutes to get to Vernazza. It was closer to two and a half hours. But we made it in good shape and it was time to get something to eat. After a late lunch and some wine we had no intention of hiking back to Manarola. That Cinque Terre train card we bought for our trip meant an easy 10 minute train ride back to Manarola.
Manarola to Corniglia via Volastra (Upper Trail)
TIme: 3 hours on average
We hiked the upper trail from Manarola to Volastra to Corniglia in the spring, entering the trailhead along the Vineyard Trail that skirts the top of Manarola, where we went up the steep stone stairs that go straight up to the top of the hill. This vineyard is unique with its many Christmas themed displays created by an elderly local named Mario Andreoli. I’d love to see it lit up at Christmastime. At the top, now overlooking Manarola, we turned right and started onto Path 6 toward Volastra as noted on the hiking map. This trail was more challenging than the Manarola to Vernazza hike.
Olive orchards dotted the woodlands overlooking the sea and the climbing became steep, though the trail was well-groomed and marked. Part of this trail winds through the SciaccheTrail, an organized foot race through the hills held annually in the Cinque Terre.
Volastra is a quaint and charming town at the top of the mountain although following the trail would lead you to believe there isn’t much there. Where the trail comes to a T there is a small market on the corner selling cold drinks, water, fresh fruit and sandwiches. And there's a beautiful church where you can stop and sit on the bench for a nice break.
We filled our water bottles and picked up Path 6d. The short walk through that part of the town meanders past small stone houses with gardens and bright flowers everywhere. This part of the trail proved to be equally as challenging as the first but there were narrow flat stretches through vineyards looking directly down at the sea with spectacular views. In places we were over 1000 feet above sea level. Path 6d actually turns away from the coast for a bit taking you up and down through some hardwood forests. It’s all well-marked.
From Path 6d we turned onto Path 7a to Corniglia, at last. Other hikers coming our way warned us about the downhill section of the trail with loose rocks and eventually, some very uneven steps. It was a long downhill and footing was tough in places. Talk about finishing-off our already tired legs.
Just like that, the trail ended and we arrived in Corniglia, rubber legged and hungry. It had taken us three hours and we were beat. Following the sidewalks down took us right into the center of town, where there are public restrooms, cafes and souvenir shops lining the narrow streets. We found a nice place with outside seating under some very welcome shade trees for a well deserved lunch. We were exhausted and sitting there was sooo relaxing. Of course we had to stop for a gelato as we made our way to the train station - how could we not? We reached the stairs to the train station - there are nearly 400 steps down, though at least there are actual steps this time - much easier than the uneven rocks along the trail!
- What to Bring: Take plenty of water, camera gear, sunscreen, and an insect bite stick. We came across a spider nest along the trail I wouldn't have wanted to step on!
- Footwear: If you are hiking and not doing a dedicated trek, a good pair of cross-trainers or tennis shoes will be fine. Flip flops or street shoes are a very bad idea.
- Hiking poles aren't necessary but may help save your knees.
- Check to make sure trails are open before you go.
- Heavy rain can cause some trails to be closed due to slippery conditions.