Perched high atop the steep, rocky coastline of the Ligurian Sea lie the Cinque Terre, five breathtaking colorful Italian fishing villages dating back to the 11th Century. Established as a national park and UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, the Cinque Terre National Park may be the smallest park in Italy but is perhaps the most unique. For centuries, its inhabitants have used its dramatic landscape to survive by working with it to create a unique system of terrace-based agriculture among its steep slopes which tumble to the sea. Cinque Terre can be visited in a variety of ways: via train, boat, and best of all, on foot exploring its network of footpaths linking the cliff-hanging villages together all while affording dazzling views of the sea. It is an unforgettable experience that can be done as a long but worth it day trip from Florence, Pisa, or other towns in Tuscany.
A Day Trip Exploring Cinque Terre from Florence: Getting there
Since cars are not allowed inside the heart of Cinque Terre, getting there is half the fun. You need to either take the train, drive, or a bus to the town of La Spezia (about 2 hours), where you can catch a ten-minute train ride to the entrance to the park. From there, you can either continue via train or else on foot along the 120 kilometers of trails meandering along the coast.
Most people begin their visit in Riomaggiore, the southernmost town which is the first stop from La Spezia via train. We chose not to start our day here as we had hoped to take the ferry back to Riomaggiore at the end of the day and finish there. Instead, we continued on to the next town, Manarola, which is less than 2 minutes away via train (you can see the stop from the first town!).
As you get off the train and enter into tiny, picturesque Manarola, the smell of fried calamari tickles your nose. It is a smell you will find all throughout the five villages that make up Cinque Terre National Park. Tiny boutiques, cafes, and restaurants line the street beckoning your curiosity for a visit. Beautiful, colorful houses seem to rise up from the sea into the terraced landscape of olive and lemon trees, vineyards, and gardens. While each village has a similarity to it, each one remains unique and continues to amaze, dazzle and surprise visitors even to this day.
To get a bird’s eye view of Manarola and the stunning surroundings, step away from the busy street and get up high. Climb up the stairs to discover the real true beauty of the Cinque Terre.
Looking out over the vast Cinque Terre National Park you can easily see why this place is so strikingly beautiful and unique. The Apennine Mountains stretch for over 1200 kilometers from north to south forming the backbone of Italy, resulting in the dramatic landscape you see today.
For centuries, the hard-working, hearty inhabitants worked the land to shape it and fit their needs. Villages like Manarola -which translates into “working with hands” – were named after this fact. Farmers built an extensive network of dry stone walls- which are beautiful in their own right- supporting steep terraces to cultivate lemons, oranges, olives, grapes, and more. Farming such a steep, vicious landscape was extremely hard work and eventually, the farmers even built a monorail system to help out. It was shut down in the early 1900s given its dangerous nature however you can still see the path today.
During our tour, our young Italian guide Guido explained a little bit about the structure and history of the villages. As we looked out over Manarola, Guido pointed out that while each village is unique all five are structured the same way with a pier at the bottom, and a train station and church in the middle. Back in the day, the houses were painted according to your identification and not a single thing has changed since the Cinque Terre became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. Changing the color of your home is impossible and even a lamppost cannot be moved in order to preserve the rapidly disappearing way of life, culture, and charm of the Cinque Terre.
The last two decades have seen a lot of change as more locals move out of the villages, leaving farming behind for the more profitable business of renting their homes as Airbnbs. The massive influx of tourists and cruise ship visitors (sometimes the crowds are so large you can hardly walk the narrow streets) has also dramatically changed the feel of this magical place unfortunately taking away from its charm. Yet, tourism also helps provide much-needed income to ensure these tiny communities will survive. As with many UNESCO World Heritage sites, tourism can be both a blessing and a curse. The park is seeing an estimated 2.5 million visitors a year and it is only getting worse.
The third village, Corniglia, sits high atop a cliff commanding stunning views of the sea. It is a three-minute train ride from Manarola or a 1.2 mile/2 kilometer relatively easy walk taking a little over an hour. Regardless of whether you walk or take the train, reaching the town itself requires a bit of effort as you must climb up the Lardarina, the 377 steps leading up to the village. The walk up can be hot and tiring yet the panoramic views along the way are unforgettable. (For those who prefer not to face the Lardarina, there is also a shuttle service leaving directly from the train station).
We decided to have lunch in Corniglia as it is a good midpoint for a break before moving onwards via an hour and a half hike to the next village Vernazza.
There are plenty of lovely restaurants in Corniglia to sample the local specialties such as fried calamari and fried anchovies wrapped in ham and cheese, homemade Pesto alla Genovese with potatoes and beans, and of course a glass of local Cinque Terre wine. It is best of course to grab a table with a view which thankfully there are plenty to choose from.
If you have one hike in you during a day trip to Cinque Terre, the hike from Corniglia to Vernazza is the one for you. Listed as a medium-level hike, this stunning 2-mile hike takes you to some of the most spectacular scenery in Cinque Terre affording glorious views of the sea, the cliffs, and villages.
Be prepared as the hike is very hot in the summertime. However, the good news is there is a wonderful stop about halfway along the hike at the highest point in Cinque Terre. There is a tiny village of only four homes and of course a church, where you can replenish your soul with an extraordinarily refreshing ice-cold lemon smoothie that will hit the spot.
After a short break, continue hiking down to the lovely village of Vernazza where you can grab a gelato at one of three gelato shops in town. Local lore says that they are owned by competing brothers trying to invent the best and most unique flavors in town. Ricotta and basil gelato are some of the rivaling flavors.
Vernazza has a lovely beach yet is very touristy. I imagine it calms down at night when many of the tourists leave. Just as expected, the gelato was cold, creamy and delightful.
Monterosso al Mare
Trendy Monterosso al Mare is the last town in Cinque Terre. It is a short three minutes on the train or else a 1.5-2 hour hike. If you are jamming all five villages in during a single day, then the train is the way to go. Monterosso is the only village that has a new and an old town. It also has a large promenade that spans between two castles bookending the beachfront. There are both public and private beaches and plenty of places to dine, enjoy a glass of wine, and watch the world go by.
From Monterosso, our plan was to take a boat back to Riomaggiore to get the famous view of Cinque Terre by sea. However, unfortunately, the weather was not in our favor and it was too windy. Disappointed, we had to take the train back which took less than ten minutes but didn’t give us the view we were hoping for.
Atlas, at 6 pm we made it to our last town of the tour (yet the first town of five in the Cinque Terre) Riomaggiore. I confess that by this time of day, I was hot, tired, and ready to go back to Florence yet Riomaggiore is a lovely town. It is set upon a steep valley awash with colorful houses gracing the steep, terraced landscape raising from the base of the sea.
Day Trip to the Cinque Terre from Florence: How to see all Five Villages in a Day
The most popular way to see Cinque Terre is on foot, and it can all be done (but not recommended) in a little over six hours. However, you would miss half of the fun and beauty of stopping along the way to linger in these extraordinary towns. I think two days would be perfect as it would give you a chance to enjoy the incredible dining, and check out the beaches, vineyards, and towns themselves.
It is possible to experience the Cinque Terre all in one day which we did through an organized tour from Florence, two hours away. It is a long, exhilarating day but looking back I’m glad we did it the way we did as at least we got to see it.
We took a guided tour with Get Your Guide which I was hesitant about doing as I’m not a big tour kind of gal. However, all in all, I was immensely impressed as it would have been almost impossible to see all we did in one day, in such an organized way, on our own. Combined with the clever knowledge and wit of our two Florence-based guides, we had a blast. Despite being in a group of over 30 people, it worked out like clockwork which was even more impressive in my book.
Our Tour provided us with the essential Cinque Terre Card which allows you access to the park, train transportation between them, and even the bathrooms at the train stations. For more information, check out the Cinque Terre Trekking Card and Cinque Terre Train Card.
Looking back, I loved our experience at the Cinque Terre. It was just as beautiful as I expected yet it was very crowded. If I come back, I’d try as best as possible to go off-season to avoid the huge crowds. Some do trickle out during the night. But be prepared for a lot of people crammed into very narrow streets in peak season, especially when the cruise ships visit! It is a stunning place worth seeing.
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