The pastel gems of the Italian Riviera and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cinque Terre is one of Europe's can't-miss destinations. With five towns, each as magnificent as the next, miles of unspoiled Mediterranean Coastline and no cars, Cinque Terre lives up to the hype.
Upon arriving in the Cinque Terre town of Riomaggiore, I was blown away by the seemingly impossible verticality of the hillside architecture. The tiny town's lone train station emerges from a tunnel and is surrounded by steep cliffs. To the west, the hillsides drop off sharply to the Mediterranean below. To the east, the town rises up improbably in an endless maze of narrow streets, pastel homes and lush vineyards.
Going into the trip we were really stoked about experiencing Cinque Terre, and splurged a little bit on our Airbnb. Located on the main drag in Riomaggiore, it cost $180 per night, and actually featured multiple bedrooms and a full kitchen.
The three open windows of the red building in the photo above are where we stayed. Bar Centrale, pictured in the bottom right, quickly became a go-to spot for food. The restaurant also conveniently offered free WiFi, which our Airbnb did not. And luckily, the WiFi signal was strong enough to reach across the street, so we could still connect in our place.
Down the street from Bar Centrale and our Airbnb is Riomaggiore's Mediterranean harbor. The streets are steep and winding (and in some spots become only a staircase). Lining the harbor are a couple dozen traditional fishing boats, a few restaurants, and the southern end of Cinque Terre's Coast Trail.
On the first night in Cinque Terre, we were exploring the town and encountered a local fisherman carrying a bag of his fresh catch. In extremely broken Italian, we asked the man if we could buy some, as well as how to cook them.
He seemed eager to share his recipe with us, and after negotiating a €2 price, he provided us with several of the fresh fish. That night we attempted to cook this local fish recipe, as well as cooking pasta with fresh pesto from a market down the street. The home-cooked meal was one of the most delicious (and least expensive) of the entire trip. Washing it down with a €1.50 bottle of red wine, and no restaurant in the United States could have possibly topped it.
One of the most spectacular ways to experience Cinque Terre is by hiking between the towns. The area offers two great options for this: the Coast Trail, and the ancient goat paths that climb the hillsides and cross over the ridges that separate each village. Most visitors opt for the Coast Trail, and it's hard to blame them. Hugging the Mediterranean coastline and providing numerous swimming and cliff-diving opportunities, the Coast Trail is among the most scenic walking paths in all of Europe. But it might not quite be considered a hike - it's flat, easy, and crowded. The other option is to trek up the hillside, through vineyards and past ancient churches. A dozen or so different routes will get you there, and are all the remnants of traditional pathways utilized before the Coast Trail or the railroad were constructed. It's a much harder hike, but is well worth it. From above, you can look down on the towns below, as well as the Mediterranean, while discovering the lesser-known villages of Cinque Terre. Most of the trail is cobblestone, but long stretches run through terraced vineyards far up in the hills.
The furthest north of the five Cinque Terre towns in Monterosso al Mare. Perhaps the most touristy of the five, Monterosso features Cinque Terre's only sandy beach. Like most European beaches, Monterosso's is lined with private clubs which charge a small fee for access, but provide lounge chairs and umbrellas. At the far north end of the beach, there is a small public section. This is mostly full of locals, as well as the few tourists who are too frugal to pay for a lounge chair. One warning about swimming in Cinque Terre: there are jellyfish in the water.
For anyone visiting Italy, Cinque Terre is certainly a must-do. With all the charm of traditional Italian villages, and the stunning natural beauty of the Mediterranean and surrounding hillsides, few places will blow you away the same way Cinque Terre will. Though not as pristine and authentic as it once was, Cinque Terre remains one of Italy's true gems, with vineyards and fishing boats that are there for more than just show. Without a doubt, it 's one of our favorite spots in Italy. Explore it yourself and you'll see why.