We went to Cinque Terre to do three things. Eat as much Italian cuisine as we could stomach (a lot it turns out), relax, and celebrate my milestone birthday. For once I hadn’t actually done a lot of forward planning, and I was content to get there and just see how the holiday went. Well, it turns out Cinque Terre is one of those places where you can do very little of anything or everything you can possibly cram into your holiday and in both instances walk away feeling satisfied! There are plenty of things to do in Cinque Terre (at least 31, I would say), but before we jump into that, what exactly is Cinque Terre?
Cinque Terre is an area of the Italian Riveria made up of five distinct villages (cinque = five and Terre = land in Italian). It’s on the west coast of Italy just above Tuscany, within easy travelling distance from Florence or Pisa. The area is a designated national park, with the five villages mostly hugging the Mediterranean coastline and the surrounding lands comprising of agricultural terraced lands and forests. From north to south, the towns are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Each has its own character and charm, and they are known for different aspects.
Around 4000 people live in Cinque Terre, but 2.4 million people visit per year! Many of these people do arrive on cruise ships and Cinque Terre can get very busy during the high season from April to October. However, many people also only come for a day, so if you do stay in one of the five villages, or Levanto or La Spezia, which are the towns closest to the north and south, then you’ll find that the crowds dissipate later in the day.
I first heard of it when my parents travelled there back in 2004, and I’ve wanted to go ever since! With my 30th birthday looming and cheap flights to Italy beckoning, we decided to indulge ourselves with a visit to these picturesque, mostly carless, brightly painted villages.
Despite my assurance now that no matter how you spend your time there you’ll leave feeling like it was right, I know that I was frantically searching things to do in Cinque Terre before we left, to make sure we didn’t miss out on any must-see sites. So just in case that’s you, or you just want to know what all the fuss about these particular villages is, here’s a list of things to do in Cinque Terre, plus some of my favourite photos!
Table of Contents
Things to do in Riomaggiore
We made Riomaggiore our base while staying in Cinque Terre, renting an Airbnb from a local couple that had an epic view over one side of the village and the sea. The town rises steeply from the sea so expect a lot of hills and steps if you spend much time here. It doesn’t look it, but it’s actually the most populous of the villages at around 1700, although a hill splits it into half. On the older side, there’s one main street down to the harbour and a rocky beach in an alcove just around the corner. There are quite a few bars and restaurants, although tables can get full in peak season so book ahead or expect to wait. The further you go from the ocean the more chance of getting a table at short notice! So what is there to see in Riomaggiore?
Watch the sunset
I loved watching the sunset here, and you have several options. If you want to see the sun setting and the village at the same time then there’s a small square that you walk through on the way to the ferry or the rocky beach, and it gets very popular as the sun goes down. You can also watch from the rocks just below it.
On the opposite side of the harbour (the righthand side if you’re facing the ocean), you can look back on the village and out to sea. On that side, you can also climb some stairs towards where the coastal path to Manarola used to be (it’s currently closed) and there’s a bit of a platform on an outcrop that gives you a lovely view of Riomaggiore with the sun setting on it. Grab some takeaway pizza or seafood (more on that to come) and set yourself up for the show!
Swim at the rocky beach
Cinque Terre has more rocky beaches than sand, but when you’ve spent all day walking around in the hot Italian sun you’ll take whatever beach you can get! The water was crystal clear and we were able to swim comfortably, even in late September.
Eat seafood in a cone
There are several shops in Riomaggiore where you can get takeaway calamari in a cone (we loved Mamma Mia!). It’s delicious and well priced, making it a great snack or even part of a takeaway meal.
Watch out for where the locals do this and follow suit if you dare! You can also do this in the next village along…
Things to do in Manarola
Manarola is the favourite of many who visit Cinque Terre. The iconic often featured view looking back at the pastel coloured houses perfectly perched on a rock above the sea has long drawn visitors to this beautiful area. Only around 450 people live here, so accommodation options are much more limited, but during the day it’s teaming with visitors. So what is there to see in Manarola?
Practice your photography
I think I turned to EB at least 5 times while we were in Manarola and told him that I had taken “the best photo ever”. It seriously looks like something out of a fairytale. Head away from the harbour towards the cliffs opposite and you’ll be rewarded with the best view of Manarola. However, you might want to try and visit later in the day when the sunlight won’t be as harsh.
Enjoy a meal or drinks with a view
We had my birthday lunch here, in one of the many restaurants overlooking the harbour. You can watch people swimming and sunbathing on the rocks below, and try to guess where other people are from, what kind of holiday they’re here for. Watch for the serious hikers, the honeymooners, the elderly couple and the backpackers.
Walk up to the vineyards
Cinque Terre is famous for its wine, with many of the vines growing on ancient terraces above the villages. You can actually visit some of the vineyards and do wine tasting, often accompanied by delicious food like bruschetta or locally caught anchovies.
Things to do in Corniglia
Corniglia is unique amongst the villages, in that rather than being next to the sea it’s built on a cliff high above the sea. It’s smaller and quieter than the other villages, even during peak season. The narrow streets amongst the multi-story colourful buildings hide tiny shops selling delicious food and boutique items. Many people pass through when they’re hiking in Cinque Terre, but it’s worth spending some time here as a refuge from the other busier villages. So what is there to see in Corniglia?
Climb the stairs
There are more steps from the train station to the village than there are people living there 382 steps versus 240 people in fact. Don’t let that put you off, it’s worth the climb to see another side of Cinque Terre, and if you’re STILL put off, there is a shuttle bus for a small fee.
Visit the churches
All of the villages in Cinque Terre have a different patron saint and their own churches. However, the ones in Corniglia are another reason to visit. The Church of St Peter was built in 1334 over a pre-existing building and has elements of the Baroque style, and also Gothic and Ligurian design.
Eat and shop local
Sample some of the fresh produce on offer from the small local shops, or see what other treasures you can find. The views from the height of the village are beautiful, and there are several terraces overlooking the ocean, often surrounded by vineyards or beautiful flowers.
Walk to Vernazza
Hiking in Cinque Terre is one of the most popular things to do. It used to be relatively easy to walk between Riomaggiore and Manarola along a coastal path, and you could even continue further along the coast as well. However, after severe storms and heavy flooding several years ago the coastal paths were damaged, and have unfortunately been in a state of disrepair ever since.
That doesn’t mean that hiking in Cinque Terre isn’t possible though, it just means you have the tougher paths between Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso to contend with! On local advice, we went from Corniglia towards Monterosso, and I have to say I think we got the better end of the deal when it came to the ups and downs! While still fairly challenging, the walk between Corniglia and Vernazza was lovely, and I enjoyed starting at a higher point and coming down to Vernazza at the end (not to say there weren’t other ups in between!).
Things to do in Vernazza
Vernazza is probably the most popular village in Cinque Terre, ahead of Manarola even, and you’d certainly notice it in the summer with the number of tourists around. The numbers don’t hide the beauty of Vernazza though! You’ll be walking all over to look at the pastel coloured buildings from every angle, or people watching in the piazza. the village is flatter than Riomaggiore or Manarola, but any accommodation will likely involve some stairs!
Enjoy the views
Vernazza is definitely not lacking in views. From the pier to the small sandy beach to the hills on either side, each and every spot offers a new and unforgettable view of Vernazza.
There’s a tiny sand beach at Vernazza, as well as some smoother rocks around the bay that provide a sheltered area for swimming and sunbathing.
People watch in the piazza
Grab a gelato and watch the world go by in Vernazza. We sat down to rest for a bit before continuing our walk to Monterosso and ended up in a conversation with a Canadian man for quite awhile! You never know who you might meet, but at the very least you can amuse yourself by watching those around you.
Climb the tower at Doria Castle
The tower dates back to the 11th century and provides panoramic views of the ocean and cliffs on one side and Vernazza on the other. A ticket is €2 and it’s open every day from 9-7pm.
Hike to Monterosso
The hike from Vernazza to Monterosso or vice versa is meant to take around 2 hours, but we did it in maybe an hour and a half. It really depends on your level of fitness and how many times you want to stop. Just after you leave Vernazza and climb a LOT of stairs you’ll have some amazing views looking back at the village. We found that hiking from Vernazza to Monterosso seemed to give us the better end of the deal when it came to ups and downs! Either direction has a fairly steep ascent at the beginning/descent at the end. Just remember to take water with you, and keep an eye out for the man making fresh orange juice!
Things to do in Monterosso
Monterosso is the largest town in Cinque Terre by size, with an Old Town, a New Town, two sandy beaches and a long promenade, giving it more of a resort feel to it than the others. There are even hotels with swimming pools! It’s the best option accessibility wise, as its much flatter so lacking in stairs. You’ll find the most accommodation options here, but I didn’t think it was as charming as the other villages in Cinque Terre. So what is there to do in Monterosso?
Paragliding from the top of the hill behind Monterosso and landing on the beach is definitely a unique experience to have in Cinque Terre. I didn’t get to experience it, as it’s only available from October to April when there are fewer people on the beach, although you can travel to some other areas close by if you really want to try it!
Shop for souvenirs
There are many more shopping options here, so if you like to collect souvenirs or just want to browse and see what’s on offer then this is the place.
Grab an umbrella at the beach
Nothing about spending a day at the beach on the Italian Riveria sounds bad to me, and with Monterosso providing the umbrellas and loungers to make it happen, why not?
Visit the churches
I’d never seen striped churches until I stepped into Monterosso. The Church of San Giovanni Battista has a striking facade made of white and green marble that makes it appear black and white striped, and a beautiful rosette window.
If you’ve walked all the way from Corniglia then surely you should reward yourself with a pizza?! And even if you haven’t then the pizza is too good to pass up. We found a great little spot with a HUGE menu of pizzas, including a “surprise pizza” that will leave you at the mercy of the chef.
Other things to do in Cinque Terre
Many of the above things are specific to each town, although some things to do in Cinque Terre can be found in many towns. Here are some more options to look out for!
Take a boat tour
One of the best ways to see Cinque Terre is from the ocean, where you’ll be able to more clearly see how the colourful houses have been built into the steep hills around them. Venture out during the day, or for something a little more special take a boat tour of Cinque Terre at sunset, and watch how the light changes these already stunning villages.
Join a cooking class
Cinque Terre is famous for many types of cuisine, and you can take a cooking class to learn more about how to cook Italian food and the different cuisines on offer. There’s everything from lessons in how to make pesto, which originated here, to vegetarian cooking classes and learning the art of traditional Italian cooking methods.
Visit Levanto or La Spezia
Many people choose to stay in Levanto or La Spezia, rather than in the villages of Cinque Terre themselves. There are more accommodation options and the prices can vary widely. Even if you don’t stay in either one if you have the time they might a nice place to visit to see what Italian life is like just outside of the more touristy area.
Eat your body weight in gelato
This should really go without saying! I love gelato, and all of the gelato I had in Cinque Terre was so good! Gelato isn’t just Italian ice cream, it’s actually made differently to ice cream as we know it elsewhere. It’s lower in fat, which means you can taste the intensity of the flavours more, plus it contains more air and isn’t kept as frozen as ice cream. Basically, it’s even more delicious and you should eat as much of it as possible while you can.
Sample the local seafood
Being on the coast, Cinque Terre has some great seafood restaurants. Be sure to try some things you might not normally have, like the squid ink pasta (deliciously salty), as well as other locally caught seafood options. Anchovies are a typical staple and can be found cooked in a variety of ways, like fried and marinated, so don’t be put off if you’ve only tried the salted kind!
We found that choosing a seafood pasta option or one type of seafood was usually better than a platter as it seemed to be more worth the money and you don’t always know what you’ll be getting when you order a platter. Take a look around the restaurant and see what everyone else has first!
Taste the local wine
The primary wine is Cinque Terre is a white wine made from the grapes grown on the surrounding rocky hills. Many restaurants will sell wine by the carafe that they have purchased directly from a local vineyard, or you can pick up a bottle from the local shops.
However, there is also a special white wine made in Cinque Terre called Sciacchetrà. It’s more of a liquored dessert wine made with 18% alcohol. The white grapes are specially selected and dried on rocks in shady areas, and sometimes further ripened with a piece of Gorgonzola cheese. therefore, it goes great with cheese or with some biscotti!
Kayaking and Paddle Boarding
Several of the villages have options for kayaking and Paddle Boarding, with either hourly hire charges or guided tours. It takes around half an hour to paddle between the villages, although you shouldn’t attempt to do so without a guide unless you’re more experienced!
Try focaccia bread
Focaccia bread originated in Liguria, the area in which Cinque Terre resides. You’ll find entire bakeries devoted to this fluffy bread, with all sorts of toppings. It makes a great snack or something to buy and then eat on the beach.
Take a boat to Porto Venere
Porto Venere is a town to the south of Cinque Terre, comprised of several villages and islands. It’s every bit as beautiful as the towns in Cinque Terre and also a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site. The picture-perfect harbour makes visiting by boat a great option. Enter the historical city centre through the gate and explore the medieval streets.
After waiting so long to visit Cinque Terre, and not really planning exactly what we would be doing there other than seeing it, I was pleasantly surprised by all the options available. Visiting Cinque Terre could be as relaxing or as active as you like, and you could definitely spend more than the usual several days that people spend there, uncovering it’s secrets and lesser-known spots. I had to turn 30 somewhere, and I couldn’t have asked for a better place!
If you liked it, pin it!