4 Things You Should Know Before Visiting Cinque Terre

Recently, on the way home from Florence, we stopped for lunch in Vernazza, a small town in the province of La Spezia. Vernazza is one of the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre. Contrary to popular assumption, Cinque Terre is not the name of a city, but in fact, a string of five seaside villages along the Italian RivieraEdouard has been to Riomaggiore (the southernmost town) awhile ago for an afternoon and I had never been. But, we arrived by car which was our first misstep. If we return, there are several things I’d do differently. Below are the 4 things you should know before visiting Cinque Terre.

1. Go by train.

Whatever you do, do not drive. I’m talking hours of winding roads through the mountains that are only wide enough for one car to pass in some places. There was lots of backing up (in a manual car) on cliffs (some without guardrails) to let cars pass. This not for the faint of heart. To top it off you’re sharing the road with Italian drivers – Italian drivers who live there. Capisce? Parking is limited, not close to the center and the towns are pedestrian only.

To do a proper tour of all the towns, start on either end – Monterosso or Riomaggiore. You can choose to hike the entire route in one day (it takes around 6 hours) and then take the train back when you reach the last town. Or, stay overnight in a town or two along the way to break up the hike and take it all in.

If you prefer not to hike at all, you can easily see each town by train. Time between towns by train is only 5 minutes. Just hop on and hop off. As a popular day trip from Florence, you can see all of the 5 towns for as little as $20. Depart from station Santa Maria Novella to La Spezia Centrale and board the Cinque Terre Express. Piece of cake. The train system in Italy is pretty inexpensive and reliable. Read more here on how to get around by train.

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2. Eat somewhere with a view (but consult TripAdvisor first).

You’re hungry, it’s warm, pesky waiters outside restaurants are beckoning for your business. But how do you choose a place that isn’t a total tourist trap? When you’re cranky and your stomach is yelling at you it’s already too late. You’re about to become a victim to what I refer to as ‘wasting a meal.’ Nothing gets me more upset than a crappy meal in a country that boasts the best food in the world (ask Edouard). Sometimes it’s a gut instinct, other times you get lucky, but why leave it up to chance? Do I need to remind you that you’re in ITALY?!  If you don’t do any of the aforementioned hiking, enjoy at least one meal someplace with a view – you’ll be glad you did.
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Ristorante Belforte, Vernazza
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Ristorante Belforte, Vernazza

3. Don’t go in the middle of summer.

The last time I saw so many people in one place I was in line at Disney. The sweltering heat and shoulder to shoulder crowds made it difficult to take in the majesty of the town. Between mid-April and early June are the sweet spots for enjoying a swim and a hike. Crowds will be at their worst June through August. Mid-September to early October is less crowded, but not all trails may be open and the rainy season begins. Staying in a town overnight is a great way to enjoy the town after the day trippers go home. However “high season” runs April-October, so book a room at least three months in advance.

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4. Be prepared to walk.

Although we came by car, the parking closest to the town is reserved for residents. The descent into the town by foot took around 15 minutes. Plan to encounter lots of inclines and stairs. Even if you aren’t hiking, due to the vertical nature of these towns you will be walking uphill a lot. Other than the regional train system there are no taxis or other forms of transportation – so keep that in mind when you’re packing! But, despite all the hiking or walking you’ll do, I think you’ll agree that the breathtaking scenery is so worth the effort. Not unlike the satisfaction of winning over an elusive mate, the beauty of the Cinque Terre is awarded to those who are the most determined to see it.

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