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The coast of Cinque Terre is everything you love about Big Sur and the European Riviera rolled into one place. The towering cliffs are as impressive as the ones lining the Pacific Coast Highway south of San Francisco. But the atmosphere of Cinque Terre also aligns with the mood felt along the Meditteranean Sea; Riomaggiore and Corniglia remind me of sleepy, coastal towns in Provence, while Monterosso al Mare gives off more of an Amalfi vibe.
All this to say that Cinque Terre is a destination that truly lives up to its hype. In the province of La Spezia, along the Lingurian sea, Cinque Terre is just a short train ride from Genoa. The five towns that make up Cinque Terre are, from north to south, Monterosso al Marre, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.
Cinque Terre’s beauty draws quite a tourist crowd, but you can avoid the masses by visiting mid-week in the spring, fall, or winter. The weather is slightly cooler, but on a Cinque Terre hike, you’ll be grateful for the cooling breeze. The hiking trails really are the best way to see Cinque Terre and the surrounding coastal towns. Not only are the paths a simple way to navigate between the five towns, they allow hikers to take in the magnificent coastline from on high. While not every Cinque Terre hike is open year-round, you can always take the train between the five towns as well. When I was in Cinque Terre, I hiked every open trail but used the train to fill in the gaps of the closed walking paths. I’d highly recommend that approach, though only to travelers who brought good walking shoes, because the trails were more challenging than I originally expected. That said, when planning out your Cinque Terre hikes, these are the walking paths you can’t miss:
Corniglia to Manarola
The trail connecting Corniglia and Manarola is currently open (as of January 2020). A three-mile hike, it’s a moderate trail but remains relatively low impact if you start in Corniglia. Because Corniglia is situated well above sea level, the trail incline is much less intense. The hike should take about two and a half hours because you’ll want to break for water and views regularly. If you choose to start in Manarola, the path starts with a significant incline—and 1,200 steps. The trail is lined with olive and grape trees just to fully reinforce that you are, in fact, in Italy. The views are consistently stunning on this trail, though the coveted photo op is the bird’s eye view of Manarola before descending on the town. Volastra, mid-way between the two towns, is a small village of 200 residents. While not one of the five official towns of Cinque Terre, it’s a charming stop off. And if you’re coming from Manarola but don’t want to climb the 1,200 steps, you can take a bus to Volastra and then start the hike to Corniglia.
Monterosso al Marre to Vernazza
The walking path from Monterosso al Marre to Vernazza has overwhelming views, particularly when descending into Vernazza. Monterosso al Marre and Vernazza tend to be the most populated towns, and as a result, this Cinque Terre hike sees high foot traffic. Hiking it in the winter, spring, or fall will help you avoid the crowds. Nicknamed the Azure Trail, it’s about two miles and takes an hour and a half to hike. The hike is slightly easier if you start from Vernazza, whereas the trail from Monterosso al Marre starts with 500 steps. If you’re hiking from Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare in the summer, bring a bathing suit—the town has a great swimming beach.
Levanto to Monterosso al Marre
While not one of the famed Cinque Terre towns, Levanto is a gorgeous coastal enclave north of Monterosso al Marre. This incredibly scenic Cinque Terre hike is slightly more removed from the crowds. The four-mile coastal trail takes about three hours, and you’ll want to stop off at Podere Case Lovara, an old farmhouse overlooking the sea, and Punta Mesco for the panoramic views. If you don’t want to hike both ways, you can take a seven-minute train ride between Levanto and Monterosso al Marre after hiking one way.
Riomaggiore to Santuario di Montenero
This hike stays entirely within Riomaggiore, the southernmost town of Cinque Terre. The short but relatively steep hike to the Sanctuary of Montenero takes about an hour and a half (up and back), offering peaceful and too-often-skipped views. The sanctuary itself dates back to the 14th century, and the trail is one of the most tranquil you’ll find in Cinque Terre. The view from the top makes the trek up worthwhile. From the heightened Riomaggiore vantage point, hikers can see the entire Cinque Terre expanse to the north.