Hiking Cinque Terre | A personal account of what to expect in the summer
Updated: Mar 1
Cinque Terre National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, runs along the north west coast of Italy and is made up of five centuries old fishing villages. Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola & Riomaggiore. All of the villages are famed for their colourful houses, vineyards clinging to the cliff edges, harbours filled with fishing boats waiting to fuel the plentiful trattorias that line the streets. The Italian Riviera isn't short of pictureque villages tucked into rugged coastline but these 5 are the most iconic without a doubt!
There is accommodation in the villages, and you can travel between them by boat (except Corniglia as it is on the top of a hill) and train as cars have been banned there for over a decade. We visited in our campervan during high season in July 22 and opted to explore some of the walking trails between the villages, using the train to get back to our van at night.
Table of contents
1. What Villages make up Cinque Terre
Monterosso is the largest of the five and has the biggest beach; although not a lot of it is classed as free ‘public beach’, the majority is set out with multicoloured umbrellas and sun loungers that you can hire for the day. We didn’t investigate ourselves but we did see one sign advertising two beds & an umbrella for €35, so they are not cheap! It will be quieter out of season but even in high season we were able to nab a spot to take a dip. The town boasts beach bars along the promenade and souvenir shops and restaurants set back within the town. We can recommend La Cantina del Pescatore if you fancy a cheese and/or meat platter, washed down with a nice glass of wine.
A very quaint picturesque town. The beach here is more of a small harbour beach – all public space and again, although busy when we were there, we were able to grab a small spot. It’s not the kind of place people spend all day on the beach so you will be able to find somewhere to take a dip. The town itself is smaller and quainter and alongside the restaurants, there are plenty of takeaway options too. We grabbed a take away pizza and a couple of beers from a ‘Coop’ shop and sat on the harbour.
This is the town we explored the least so am not able to give any words of wisdom I’m afraid. What I will point out is that the town is on the top of a hill so there is no beach, and the train comes in at the bottom of said hill! I believe there is a local bus that runs from the station up into town; although we didn’t see it running; otherwise, you have 384 steps (yes, we counted!) to climb up to the town. Other than grabbing a coffee and a focaccia from a café before starting a walk, we didn’t spend much time here but appeared just as lovely as the other towns.
Along with Vernazza, I think Manarola was our favourite(s). A lot of the town is built up into the hillside, the station is half way up the town and the restaurants are focused towards the sea. The main swimming area here wasn’t off a beach, you took some steps down onto the rocks and were able to swim in a deep natural swimming pool that was protected from open sea by the harbour. The more daring among us were jumping off the rocks into the sea. We had lunch at La Scogliera & enjoyed seafood pasta and pesto pasta. As you would expect, the prices in these towns are on the higher side but again there are lots of takeaway options for a cheaper eat.
The smallest of the towns and to be honest not overly exciting! From the station you can go up a small street of restaurants and take out places, or you can head down to the harbour, which is nicer, albeit very small.
2. Where to stay in a campervan to hike Cinque Terre
As mentioned, all the towns have some accommodation but if you are in a campervan like us you will need to stay either north of the villages in Lavento or south in La Spezia and use the train to access Cinque Terre. We stayed in Levanto, in a campsite called Collina San Michele. It’s a nice site and has everything you need, the bathrooms are not overly special but not too bad. We paid €41.50 a night in July (you get a 10% discount if you stay 3 or more nights – which we did so would have been €46+ a night if you are staying for less). It was a 20 min walk from the site to the train station which wasn’t too bad but there was a killer uphill track through the undergrowth on the way back.
3. Trains linking Cinque Terre
Trenitalia services run along the coast stopping at the villages in turn. The journey between each is only 5 mins or less and in high season a single journey ticket costs €5 whether you are going one stop or three. (I understand that during low season, 1st November – 31st March, the trains are half price.) Trains are very regular during the day; about 3 an hour; and run until about midnight; although become less frequent as the evening goes on.
4. Walking trails of Cinque Terre
The majority of the walking trails are free all year round but during high season the coastal trails between Monterosso and Corniglia and Corniglia and Vernazza have an entry fee. You can purchase a single day trekking card for €7.50 to access these paths. Or you can opt for the Cinque Terre card, which is what we did. You have the option to purchase a Cinque Terre card for one (€18.20), two (€33) or three days (€47) which gives you access to the paid trails & unlimited rail travel. There are no public toilets in any of the villages, so this card also gives you free access to the toilets at each station (without the card they are €1 a go).
Every blog we read and the signage in the National Park itself only reports on the time taken for each trail, not the distance. At first we found this quite frustrating as everyone has different walking speeds and so we were not sure whether the time shown would match our pace. However, we think this is because the distances are actually very short (only a few kms) but the trails are not to be underestimated. The climbs are steep and long, and particularly during the summer months, they will take you much longer than you may have anticipated based on the length. Make sure you carry enough water and sun cream as some of the paths are quite exposed. There are water fountains in each town and their location is marked on the official map you are given when purchasing a Cinque Terre card. It is also worth noting that flip flops and other open toe shoes are strictly forbidden on the walking trails. If caught you stand to pay a large fine of up to €2,500! (Yes, they are certainly serious about you not wearing flip flops!)
Sometimes some of the trails are closed, the main trail from Corniglia to Vernazza and Vernazza to Riomaggoire were closed for maintenance when we were there. You can check the current condition of the trails here. As a general rule the trails take a steep, constant uphill climb out of the town, plateau for a while and then come steeply down into the next town. Whilst none of the trails are particularly long, the ground is uneven and so supportive shoes (we wore our hiking boots but we did see lots of others in trainers) and a decent level of fitness are required.
5. A personal account hiking Cinque Terre
Day 1, Levanto to Monterosso
We arrived at midday & so we decided not to waste the afternoon and do a walk that day. We walked from Levanto to Monterosso. A lot of people wouldn’t class this as being part of the Cinque Terre walk as Levanto is not one of the five towns, but it is within the National Park and it made sense for us as we were staying in Levanto. If you are staying somewhere south of Cinque Terre you probably wouldn’t end up walking this section. Whilst we survived the walk and had some nice views of the coast and the town below, I can’t say it was overly enjoyable due to the heat and would not advise attempting to walk during the hottest part of the day in July, in about 35 degrees! The ‘advertised’ time was 2 hours but it took us slightly more than this, about 2 hours 20 mins. After dinner in Monterosso we took the train back to Levanto, paying the single train fare of €5 each.
Day 2, from Levanto to Monterosso & Corniglia to Vernazza
we got up reasonably early to avoid walking in the heat of the day and caught the train from Levanto to Monterosso. We purchased the two day Cinque Terre card for €33 this morning at the station, as this worked out the cheapest option for our plans. We set off walking from Monterosso at 9.30am and walked the coastal path to Vernazza. The advertised time for this walk was 2 hours 20 mins but it actually only took us 1.5 hours. Walking at this time of the morning was much easier and more enjoyable. I would say we weren’t the fastest on the trail, but we did overtake others, so I would plan for the maximum time and then if you are faster that’s a bonus.
From Vernazza we planned to continue walking to Corniglia but as there isn’t access to the sea at Corniglia we decided to hop on the train there instead and walk back to Vernazza. This way we still covered both routes but were able to have a cooling dip in the sea on completion. This, however, is why we didn’t do much exploring in Corniglia; we were keen to keep walking whilst the temperature was slightly cooler than it was going to be that afternoon.
The trail time was advertised to be an 1 hour 30 mins. We did it in 1 hour 10 mins. There was a lovely café/bar half way along the trail, on the plateau section, so whichever direction you did this walk from you could stop here safe in the knowledge that you have completed your ascent and you will soon be making your way down into the town. We enjoyed a delicious, homemade, lemon granita (slushy).
After exploring Vernazza and a bite to eat we jumped back on the train home to Levanto.
Day 3, Corniglia to Manarola
Again an early start in an attempt to walk in the coolest part of the day. We took the train to Corniglia (& had to tackle those 384 steps for a second time!) and walked to Manarola. The main coastal path was closed for maintenance so we took a higher route ‘over the top’ via Volastra, through the vineyards. It was beautiful and whilst we cannot compare it to the main route, would highly recommend it. As always the start of the walk is a steep climb. The path was up through the forest which offered lots of shade at that time of day, which was good. There was then a long plateau through the vineyards. Apparently, if you do the walk during the evening before sunset there is sometimes the option to try the wines. We did see one vineyard had a little bar with stools set up amongst the vines looking out to sea. The walk down was endless steps, starting off quite uniform and consistent and then becoming quite uneven as we approached the town. By the time we were descending, about 11am, this part of the trail was in full sun so it was a little warm and tough going on the knees but manageable. We felt very sorry for the people coming up that way and think we may have unknowingly chosen the best direction to do this walk in. Advertised time was 2 hours and we pretty much did it in that time (not including the steps up from Corniglia station up to the town).
Of course we had a dip in the sea here followed by lunch and then got the train to Riomaggiole, to explore the last of the 5 villages. We then took the train all the way back to Levanto.
6. Top tips for walking Cinque Terre
· Calculate the cost of the multi day Cinque Terre card vs the single trekking card and individual train journey costs, to work out the best deal for your plans.
· If walking during the summer months try to avoid walking in the heat of the day – not fun!
· Make sure you take your swim wear to each town to make the most of the beaches.
· I (Becca) actually walked in my bikini top to try and keep cool, as did lots of other women we passed.
· Take at least 1.5 litres of water per person for each trail. Remember you can use the public water fountains in each town to refill.
· Some parts of the trails are quite exposed so make sure you have sun cream & a sun hat with you.
· Remember, no flip flops or open toes shoes!
· However, we took our flip flops in our backpacks for the beach & to relieve our hot feet from our walking boots whilst exploring the towns.
· Don’t forget your camera, the views are stunning.