view of Vernazza's harbor (google images)
Coming up from La Spezia (from the South) you first come to Riomaggiore, one of the less notable towns in my opinion...Riomaggiore is connected to Manarola by the via dell' Amore (path of love)...a paved, easily walkable trail that is famous for its locks. Lovers come from all over to stroll across the trail and leave a lock - a symbol of their never-ending love. Locks are EVERYWHERE on this pathway - gates, fences, barbed wire, netting that hold boulders back, sculptures - everywhere! Mark and I, of course, joined in this tradition and planned ahead by purchasing a large heart shaped lock with two skeleton keys. If you forget to purchase your lock ahead of time, you can also buy basic little locks in the gift shop at the Cinque Terre visitor's station in Manarola (just off the train station).
The next town is the town of Manarola. This is where we chose to stay. Manarola is a beautiful little town perched high up on a cliff, but does also have water access (although no beach). Manarola has a very steep vertical rise, so if you choose to stay here make sure you're A) carrying fairly light luggage and B) in pretty good shape. The town is comprised of a church, a central square, several restaurants and cafes, pretty terraced farmland and people's homes (with of course, some small inns and apartments for rent). One of the most notable places in Manarola is Billy's. It's a restaurant that's well known in the Cinque Terre and highly regarded on Trip Advisor. Our apartment - Locanda Giuilana # 2 - was literally right across the calle (tiny narrow street) from Billy's. We'd highly recommend Billy's - they serve extremely fresh fish and are very accommodating - my husband wrote a review of the restaurant here....you'll see why I pointed out how accommodating they are ;) Locanda Giuliana was nice enough - basic necessities were there as well as a nice (but TINY!) balcony that overlooked the town and the ocean. You can read our Trip Advisor review here. We enjoyed Manarola, but decided that Vernazza or Monterosso probably would have fit us better. Manarola is very nice, but basically everything (other than Billy's) closes at around 8pm. It's a very sleepy little town. Monterosso seems to have more action and a little more to do - not that we were looking to go clubbing or anything (not our style!), but we would like to sit at a cafe with a drink and listen to some live music....and that was non-existent in Manarola.
just outside our room in Manarola
The next town you come to is Corniglia. This is the only town in the Cinque Terre without water access - it sits high up on a hill. In fact, there are around 300 steps you have to walk up from the train station in order to get to the town. I don't have much to say about the town itself. It's small....no notable restaurants that I was aware of...in fact, our only reason for visiting the town was 1) to visit all of the town in the Cinque Terre and 2) to start our hike of the Cinque Terre trail here. The Cinque Terre trail is a GORGEOUS stretch of trails that connects all 5 towns. Portions of the trail are shut down frequently due to mud slides or work on the trails so make sure you check which sections are open before you go. When we visited, the section between Manarola and Corniglia was closed. We chose to hike from Corniglia to Vernazza. This portion of the hike was pretty steep and unpaved, it was hot and pretty tiresome to be honest, but the views were absolutely worth it. One of my favorite parts of visiting Cinque Terre was our hike - by far.
coming into Vernazza after our hike from Corniglia
Vernazza is the next town after Corniglia - it's an extremely picturesque town....and extremely popular as well, thanks in part to Rick Steves, I'm sure. He makes it crystal clear that Vernazza is his favorite town.....and I could see why. The harbor is gorgeous...there are plenty of places to lounge while overlooking it, including a nice little beach (sand/pebble mix, of course). There are also numerous cafes and restaurants at the waterfront and plenty little shops to stop in and purchase some limoncello (or whatever you'd like...but limoncello was our libation of choice!). There's a lovely little stream that runs down the mountain, through town, and out to the ocean as well as a charming Castle at the top of the hill. There's also a gorgeous church that sits on the corner of the square at the harbor. We spent part of an afternoon eating lunch and taking in the sites here....an absolutely perfect way to spend an afternoon.
From Vernazza we took the train to Monterosso, where we decided to have some beach time in "new town" in Monterosso. The largest beach in the Cinque Terre is in new town Monterosso. The beach is a mix of sand and little pebbles, but for around 3 euro you can buy a bamboo beach mat (which we actually bought while we were in Malcesine) and enjoy the beach without sitting on what is essentially rocks (if you're back far enough from the ocean, it's more sandy as well). You can also rent a beach chair and umbrella here from one of the many cabana boys at the "private" beaches (basically, you just had to pay the chair rental fee for entry to the private beach). I'm not sure what that cost, as we decided not to pay extra to sit on the beach. New Town Monterosso is essentially a beach town, complete with a boardwalk and lots and lots and lots of shops, cafes, gelaterie, and restaurants. We chose to eat in old town Monterosso one evening at a lovely little (and I mean tiny) restaurant that was family owned and operated (as in the wife was the chef and the husband was the server - that's it, no more staff...although they could have used at least one more person!) The food was excellent; although I think our meal lasted over 3 hours...but that's basically the way it goes in Italy!
beach in Monterosso
We loved Cinque Terre, but our overall feeling was that it was, unfortunately, quite touristy. Walking around, you would hear English being spoken pretty frequently, which for some, I'm sure, would be great...but for us, it wasn't incredibly desirable. When we travel we really like to immerse ourselves into the culture and try to adapt ourselves to our surroundings....not force our surroundings to adapt to us. So hearing English being spoken so frequently was quite jarring - especially after coming from Lake Garda and Malcesine...where many of the locals we encountered spoke very little English and the tourists, while present, where at a minimum and all very respectful of the Italian culture.
Cinque Terre is a beautiful area of the country and the small towns are very quaint and lovely, but it definitely is not an undiscovered part of Italy. Visit, but keep your expectations in check. Mark and I were expecting quaint little fishing villages with fresh seafood, lovely scenery and beautiful beaches....which Cinque Terre definitely delivers on. What we were not expecting was a crowded tourist area. We actually chose Cinque Terre over the Amalfi Coast because we believed it would be more "authentic"and less crowded. I would just say: Don't choose it for the reasons we did. Choose it, instead, for the reasons I listed above that it delivers on in spades.
Oh - and I should point out that a couple weeks after we arrived home from Italy we heard of the devastating flood that hit the Cinque Terre. Vernazza and Monterosso were hit the hardest and from my understanding, Vernazza is still struggling to recover. Many shops/cafes/restaurants were buried under many feet of mud and the town is still working on cleaning up and digging out. If you'd like to read more about the flood or contribute to the efforts to rebuild, Rick Steves can point you in the right direction: check it out here.
The Indecisive Wife