Upon arriving in Italy I had originally had no plans to visit the famous Cinque Terre, although I had heard of it and seen the stunning photos of Riomaggiore and Manarola in travel mags and on calendars. One Thursday night while my two friends/roommates and I were sitting around in our apartment in Verona, we found ourselves devoid of weekend plans and decided to book a spontaneous, yet poorly planned weekend trip to Cinque Terre.
We really had no idea where we should stay, prior to planning this trip, I hadn’t even realized that Cinque Terre which literally means Five Lands, was actually comprised of five villages along the Coast of Liguria.
To say the least, this trip was a major learning experience, for visiting the area and all that it has to offer but also just for traveling in general.
Here is what I learned on my recent trip to La Spezia and Cinque Terre, hopefully it will help anyone planning to visit in the future:
Since we were booking last minute La Spezia ended up being the easiest place for us to find a hotel room, as most hotels in the five villages were booked well in advance for this time of the year.
After frantically booking a room at a sketchy hotel without even reading the reviews, and then cancelling that booking once we read horrifying reviews from guests couldn’t sleep due to rats scratching at their door, we found a room at Hotel Il Gabbiano, a hotel in La Spezia which turned out to be just fine.
Il Gabbiano had much better reviews, averaging 4 stars, the rates ranged from 45-110 Euro per night and it turned out to be a very simple but clean hotel with friendly and helpful staff.
We originally wrote La Spezia off, hoping to exclusively spend our time exploring Cinque Terre, but like I said, this trip was a huge learning experience. Let me share this knowledge with you: don’t exclude Cinque Terre’s neighboring towns of Lerici, La Spezia or Porto Venere. They all have rich histories and traditions, beautiful scenery and are definitely worth your time.
La Spezia in particular has plenty of its own restaurants, bars and shops for you to explore.
More notable is The Gulf of La Spezia which is more commonly referred to as Il Golfo dei Poeti (The Gulf of Poets.)
This name comes from the many poets, painters, writers and other artists who have and continue to be drawn to the beautiful Gulf of La Spezia and surrounding towns.
A couple of the most famous poets to have been inspired by the gulf were romantic British poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Legends that were born out of the romantic literary era involving the two men include that of Lord Byron residing in a cave which is now called “Grotta Byron.”
He reportedly swam the 7.5 Kilo distance from his grotta in Portovenere to Lerici where Shelley was staying.
Another legend involves the factual death of Shelley in which he drowned off his sunken sailboat in the gulf. Once his body had washed up on shore near Viareggio, he was cremated in front of his friends on the shore. It is said that his heart would not burn and was plucked from the embers either by Lord Byron or another friend, Edward Trelawny, only to be found years later wrapped in a page from Shelley’s Adonaïs.
Apart from romantic views from the esplanade and its legends, La Spezia has served as an important military port since the time of Napoleon, who had referred to it as “the finest port in the world.”
Getting to Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre consists of the five villages, in order of their placement from La Spezia: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso.
Once you get to Riomaggiore there is a trail, called Via Dell’Amore, which connects all of the five villages of Cinque Terre and is a unique but somewhat physically demanding way to view the five lands. I would definitely recommend doing some research on hiking the area before committing to this route.
on our second and last day in La Spezia we decided to utilize the ferry to get to Monterosso al Mare.
The easiest way to reach the five villages from La Spezia is by train, but some of the best views can only be
viewed from the sea itself.
If we hadn’t booked last minute we would have liked to find a private boat tour, however, since we hadn’t planned ahead we ended up taking a ferry with the Consorzio Marittimo Turistico out of La Spezia.
This ferry took us one way from La Spezia to Monterosso al Mare for 20 euro per person, pulling in close to each village for photos and a stop to get on or off at Portovenere and all villages except Corniglia.
If you’re going to go the ferry route, set aside and hour to two hours to get where you’re going, depending on the village you decide to get off at.
We stayed on all the way until Monterosso, which took nearly two hours in total. However, the ride included photo ops and history/explanation of our surroundings (in Italian.) So the extra time was worth it.
Portovenere may not belong to the Cinque Terre but it is just as much a tourist attraction.
This is a charming seaside village that dates back to roman times. Coming from La Spezia, this may be your first glimpse of the colorful tower houses that the area is known for.
Among the colorful buildings are humbling cliffs on which Portovenere’s Castle and the church of San Lorenzo sit on. The church seemingly carved out of the very stone that it is perched on. This area can be explored by foot, but viewing it from down below in the sea is truly breathtaking, especially when the church bells ring and echo through out the gulf.
A simple search of “Cinque Terre” in google images and you will find hundreds of photos of the iconic colorful tower houses that line Riomaggiores marina.
This is the first village of the Cinque Terre that you will meet coming from La Spezia. It is well known for the photos of lit up houses at night or by sunset, and although it is an extremely photogenic destination, Riomaggiore is even more beautiful in person.
This is where we spent our first night out once we had checked into our hotel in La Spezia. Again this trip
was a learning experience, and if you’re looking for a big night life Riomaggiore isn’t exactly the place to go.
However it is an amazing place to explore during the day and relax in the evening viewing a spectacular sunset from one of the Marina bars or sampling some of Cinque Terre’s fresh seafood.
We decided to check out Via Colombo, which is the villages main road and is filled with restaurants, bars,
markets and shops before heading down to the Marina to catch the sunset.
Of course it was filled with tourists as the whole of Cinque Terre inevitably is, however Riomaggiore retains
a sense of small quaint fishing village as well. If you get the chance to slip away to some of the side streets you will find locals socializing and enjoying a glass of wine outside of their homes and gardens, among an abundance of lemon trees and gorgeous seaside views.
You can sense the everyday lives that exist among the bustle of tourists. You can see it in the laundry
strung up from window to window, in the idle boats of the Marina and in the small shrines carefully placed around the hills of Riomaggiore.
Manarola is another source of iconic Cinque Terre photos. It is the second village you will reach and is also the second smallest out of the five.
Manarola is known for their Manarolese dialect, which is quite different from surrounding dialects, but also their local wine and seafood.
I was fortunate enough to be able to view Manarola from the ferry but didn’t have quite enough time to stop off and explore the village.
Corniglia is the smallest of the five villages with less than 300 permanent residents.
The main difference of this village is that it does not have an easily acessible beach front like the others. Instead the homes are set higher up on the hill and are surrounded by vineyards and terraces.
To reach the village there is the Lardarina, which is a steep construction of 33 flights of around 380 steps. There is also a vehicular road from the train station up to the village, for those who aren’t willing to take on the Lardarina.
Not far from the Lardarina is a tunnel leading down to Corniglia’s beach “Guvano.” This may be a nude beach, although I’m not completely sure as I didn’t have the pleasure of visiting it. I would say a pretty good rule to go by while traveling in Europe, is to expect to stumble upon a few surprise nude beaches along the way.
Vernazza is the fourth village of the Cinque Terre. The rocks in this village are uniquely carved by the sea which has created a decent sized slab of rock that is perfect for sunbathing or for accessing the Ligurian sea.
Vernazza is known to be one of the truest fishing villages still remaining in the area and would definitely be worth visiting to enjoy the sun, sea and local cuisine.
Monterosso al Mare
Monterosso is the end of the line as far as the Cinque Terre goes. It is the largest of the villages and is actually split up into two parts now, known as the old town and the new town.
We disembarked the ferry in old Monterosso and were greeted by a decent sized sand beach lined with umbrellas. Most of Monterosso’s beaches are owned by local resorts and you have to rent a spot on the beach from them. On the old side there are a few shops and restaurants, here you can get a Piña Colada and enjoy it with a view of the sea.
The old is connected to the new by a walkway which has a great view of both the old and new town. As you approach the new town it gets progressively more crowded, although both parts of Monterosso are pretty overrun by tourists during the summer months.
What Monterosso lacks in the quaint local feeling akin to Riomaggiore, it makes up for in things to do. Monterosso has the most extensive sand beaches of the five lands, which makes this the perfect place to go if you enjoy laying out on the beach all day and bathing in the sea.
Monterosso is also the place to go if you are looking for more of a nightlife. The new town is crammed with shops, restaurants and bars.
While I was there “The Fast Bar” was playing American country and pop and had a line out to the street of people looking to get Piña Coladas, Margaritas, or a 5 euro “spritz to go” among many other choices. This is the closest thing to an American style beach bar I’ve seen while in Italy.
New Monterosso is also where the train station is and it ended up costing us only 4 euro to get back to La Spezia by train.
If I could do it all over again…
I absolutely would and plan to in the future for more than just one weekend. Next time I’ll do it all differently and hope you can learn from my mistakes!
Here are some things I would make sure not to miss if I had planned ahead:
- Visit Lerici, La Spezia and Portovenere: each has their own historical sites, castles, churches and much more to explore.
- Make use of “Via Dell’Amore” and/or the railway to visit all five of the villages.
- Try the local wines that Cinque Terre is known for: Sciacchetrà is a sweet wine that goes best with certain cheese and desserts and Cinque Terre which is a small DOC white wine which pairs well with the fresh local seafood.
- Spend a couple nights in Monterosso to experience a couple perfect beach days and the local nightlife.
- Spend some time at sea either on the ferry or a private boat tour.
La Spezia and Cinque Terre are beautiful and unique parts of northern Italy that I think everyone should make a point to visit at one point in their lives.
I’ve definitely learned from my mistakes of not planning ahead or doing my research but still had fun along the way!
If just one person can learn from my travel mistakes and can avoid making them during their trip I’ll be happy enough, Cinque Terre is to much of an amazing place to miss out on anything it has to offer!
If this blog post helped you out or inspired you to visit the beautiful Cinque Terre please feel free to share it!
Also feel free to leave a comment if you’ve been to La Spezia/Cinque Terre and have anything to add that could help future visitors, me included!
Thanks so much for reading!