Italy's Cinque Terre is one of the world's beautiful places - and popular tourist destinations. The “5 Lands” or towns that make up the Cinque Terre are isolated - they’re difficult to get to, but it’s the very reason everyone wants to. These small colorful cliffside villages retain so much of the charm that’s existed here for centuries.
The 5 towns of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare still have a small town feel about them despite the onslaught of mass tourism the past 40 years, and there's a cool vibe in its simplicity. The fishing boats, called gozzo, still leave the harbor each morning for the day’s catch. Neighbors still catch up with conversations that stretch across several backyards and many ears in between. Vineyards are still tended by many locals in the hills overlooking the sea.
Off-the-Beaten-Path Cinque Terre
But even with so many tourists cramming the narrow streets each day, life as the locals know it goes on. Some of the fishing boats may also run a Cinque Terre boat tour here and there, and sunsets along the rock walkways have a ton more onlookers. But that hasn’t seemed to diminish any of the luster shining brightly from these 5 towns. At least not for me. There are ways to escape the crowds and still experience the charm of the Ligurian coast, like exploring lesser-known towns like Lerici and Portovenere south of the 5 towns, or Sestri Levante to the north. Hiking the Cinque Terre is another amazing way to see the unique and tranquil parts of the coast. But we escaped just as nicely one evening on a small wooden boat from Manarola.
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Cinque Terre Boat Tour
Taking a boat tour in Cinque Terre on one of the small gozzo boats is an experience you shouldn't miss if you visit. You might think a boat tour would be just another tourist experience like the daily busloads of people taking tours of Cinque Terre, but believe it or not this tour helped me see a side of the Cinque Terre that’s not so easy for tourists to find. We found the same to be true of another one of our favorite spots in Italy - on Capri - where seeing the island from the water is equally magical and a lot less crowded.
Among the 12 of us in the small boat were two blended families (the patriarch of one was celebrating his 70th birthday), two friends, a single woman traveling alone, and our Captain Daniele, who along with his new bride calls Manarola home.
Enjoy Cinque Terre Boat Tours
Daniele of Enjoy Cinque Terre Boat Tours ferried us from town to town on his Sunset Boat Tour, regaling us with stories of the Cinque Terre and his upbringing in Manarola in between our sips of beer and wine. He told tales about his childhood, how he took a small boat to elementary school each morning in Riomaggiore, and other stories we could only imagine. He shared traditions of life here and what it was like growing up in a place like this. The reason behind the colorful cliffside houses? It’s so fishermen could easily find their house from the water (and also look for signals to see who was coming and going from their house while they were gone).
Today, the colorful towns are instantly recognizable the world over. The terrain of the Cinque Terre makes life challenging, but also completely unique, and Daniele’s wit and charm had us enthralled and laughing for the entire 3 hour tour.
We left Manarola and cruised past Corniglia first, perched high up on the cliff, then past Vernazza, the glitzy jewel of the Cinque Terre and the only town with a protected harbor. After Vernazza, we headed to the northernmost town Monterosso al Mare, where Daniele dropped us off to explore a bit and grab a bite to eat. Thirty minutes later, we boarded the boat again, uncorked more wine, and Daniele streamed a perfect sunset mix tape from his phone.
It was the golden hour and everything around us blushed soft pink hues, and the sun was setting as we pulled out of the harbor. The mood was light and everyone on the boat seemed to bask in the glow. We headed to Riomaggiore, the last town on our tour and the southernmost town in the Cinque Terre. The view was so clear we could see right down the coast to the beach in Pisa. We stopped here for a while to float by and take pictures of the Via dell’Amore - or Lovers Lane - the cliffside walkway between Manarola and Riomaggiore that’s been closed for years.
I looked around at everyone enjoying the sunset glow and warm breeze on their face, laughing with friends and family, taking pictures and selfies to remember the moment forever. It was a beautiful slice of life out there on the water with Daniele and there was a lot to celebrate. Not just a 70th birthday or a new marriage, but new life chapters for us all to write, and friendships to enjoy. This was much more than a boat tour. It was just what I was hoping to find - a celebration of life - and no better place to celebrate it than on a gozzo in the Cinque Terre.
Where to Stay in the Cinque Terre
The Cinque Terre is like no place else in the world, and can be challenging to find the right place to stay. The 5 towns of Cinque Terre have narrow streets and don't allow car traffic, so other than taking trains between the towns, plan on walking wherever you want to go. The towns are also very hilly, so if you want to take the train and not walk up steep hills to get to your hotel or room, plan on staying within a block or two of the train station.
Here are a few recommendations for where to stay in Manarola, our favorite and the most quiet of all the 5 towns:
Excellent Sea View (code for high on the hill): La Linea D'Acqua - this is really a lovely stay, if you're strong-kneed. It's comfortable and simply furnished, with great wifi and even more awesome views! Easily walkable to the center of town. Check rates and availability.
Luxury Seaview Apartments Manarola (above) - we stayed here last year, and while it was a slow 15-minute walk up the hill from the train station, we have to admit, it was so great coming home to this beautiful outdoor terrace, big enough for four of us to hang out and enjoy dinner at the table and the amazing sunsets. It was simple and comfortable, and had a nice fully-stocked kitchen to cook in. The beds were super comfy and each had their own spacious bathroom and shower. Check availability and more details.
If you'd rather not have to deal with climbing hills but still have great views, the luxurious Hotel Marina Piccola is hard to beat. It's located down near the water's edge in the center of town, so you get easy access to shops and restaurants without the steps and hills to climb every time you want to leave. Check rates and availability.
If You Go
Enjoy Cinque Terre Boat Tour - Daniele, Captain and Owner, firstname.lastname@example.org
Tours meet in Manarola at Il Porticciolo restaurant. We highly recommend Daniele's Cinque Terre boat tour. As far as Cinque Terre tours go, I would go again in a heartbeat.
- Cinque Terre from the Sea - 2.5 hrs includes swimming/snorkeling, drinks, 60€ /person
- Sunset Cruise - 2.5 hrs includes drinks, 60€ /person