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Cinque Terre: what you need to know before visiting

The Cinque Terre, a picturesque series of villages on the sea in Liguria, is now one of Italy’s top destinations, to the point of overcrowding. Use our guide to plan your trip: learn what five towns make up this area, a bit about each one, what to eat and what wine to drink, and most of all, find out how to visit the Cinque Terre sustainably.

Why is it called Cinque Terre?

The Cinque Terre is the name of five (cinque) towns on the coast of Liguria, between La Spezia and Levanto: from North to South, they are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. On a map, you’ll see a green area that defines the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre.

The area has been inhabited since Medieval times, though it doesn’t boast many historical sites; the southernmost town of Riomaggiore boasts some 14th-century oratories and churches, but for the most part, this was a poor and isolated fishing and agricultural community. Rather, the landscape and how it has been “carved up” by humans is the historical thing to behold here. What we now enjoy as recreational hiking paths were, until recently, important roads used by residents to get between the towns, or to access their plots of land. In fact, farmers and winemakers still have to use these paths to reach their terraces where you can see vines and vegetables grow.

When you visit, you’ll find that each town is subtly different from the other. Riomaggiore is the most bustling, and a nice place to live due to its schools. Manarola is my personal favourite town to stay in, a bit quieter than Riomaggiore and with a great view onto terraced vineyards. Corniglia is the only town that isn’t directly on the water, so there’s quite a walk uphill from the train station, and the town attracts fewer tourists than the others. Vernazza may be the most picturesque due to its pretty harbour, while Monterosso, the northernmost town, is the flattest and is the only one with sandy beach.

Vernazza, Cinque Terra, Italy | Ph. Diana Robertson

How to get to the Cinque Terre

Due to the challenging landscape, the area is still rather isolated. The towns of the Cinque Terre are pedestrian-only, which makes them super charming to visit, and brilliant exercise for our glutes. Although there are a few resident parking spots, visitors are advised to arrive by train. There is a local train called the Cinque Terre Express that runs between the larger stations of La Spezia and Levanto, stopping at each small town. To get to the Cinque Terre from anywhere in Italy, you should take an intercity train to La Spezia and then change trains. Or, if you’re already traveling by car, park at the large car park in La Spezia. Another way to get to the Cinque Terre is by ferry: in the summertime there are daily ferry connections to the towns from La Spezia, Lerici, Levanto and Portovenere.

Sustainability and the Cinque Terre

In 1997 UNESCO included the Cinque Terre in the World Heritage List as a “cultural landscape”, recognizing that “it represents the harmonious interaction between people and nature to produce a landscape of exceptional scenic quality.” In particular, due to the way the hillside plunges towards the sea, homes and agricultural lands are built on terraces. These terraces are difficult to cultivate, but the people of this area have adapted to the territory; in recent years, the rise in tourism has led to a partial abandonment of the terraced vineyards and vegetable gardens, which has caused the degradation of the hillside and makes it susceptible to landslides. The National Park, established in 1998, helps protect the landscape and is trying to encourage a return to the land to ensure the area’s preservation.

When visiting the Cinque Terrre, we strongly believe that it is important to treat the area’s nature with particular care and do our best to support local businesses that contribute to the delicate balance between nature and humans. What does this mean, specifically, for this region? Here are four things to consider if you wish to travel sustainably to the Cinque Terre.

Hiking in the Cinque Terre | ph. Mike Norton
  • Tread lightly. The hiking paths are historic roads that take the parks service a lot of time and energy to upkeep. Using Nordic walking poles on these paths tends to loosen stones and cause parts of the path to crumble away, so please avoid using them. The drystone walls that delimit the trails and terraces are hand built and are an art unto themselves, please respect them. While not specifically related to being sustainable, for your own health, wear hiking boots or at least running shoes with good support and treads when approaching these paths.
  • Drink the wine. This is good news for us! The Cinque Terre region grows primarily white grapes: bosco, vermentino and arbarola. These go into a dry white Cinque Terre DOC, but also make up Schiacchetrà, a sweet wine made from grapes laid to dry on stacked mats, open to the sea air and pressed no earlier than November 1st each year. These wines are expensive, and rightly so due to the heroic efforts of the winemakers working exclusively by hand in this rugged area. So seriously, drinking this wine is a way to support local wine production, and that’s important because if people won’t buy the wine, they will stop making it, and hence stop upkeeping these lands. Lands that make the landscape as beautiful as it is, and that literally hold together the mountainside.
  • Local food. The same can be said for local production of fruit and vegetables, though to a lesser account. Park authorities have established an environmental quality label and are educating local restauranteurs about the importance of growing locally; those that pass are awarded a certificate and listed on the official website. Beyond that list, feel free to ask restauranteurs if the fish is locally fished rather than frozen and imported, and choose places with limited, seasonal menus.
  • Stay a while. Although it is possible to visit the Cinque Terre on a day trip from Florence, personally I think it is important to find a bed and breakfast in one of the towns and stay there for a few nights. While tourists swell in on bus tours and cruises during the day, early morning and evening become extremely pleasant and magically quiet. Staying over supports the local economy and lets you properly get to know the area.

Main photo credit: Adobe Stock