Let’s begin with a few general world of advice.
Don’t Bring a Car
There is very limited parking and the villages are all completely pedestrianized. It is much easier to walk, take the train or ferry between each of the towns. Make sure you check the train and boat schedules before you set out, so you don’t get stuck with a long walk back after diner.
Rethink Your Idea of Beach
There is plenty of gorgeous and inviting water. There are no empty stretches of sand. Most of the “beaches” are small coves with pebbles, like in Riomaggiore or enormous rocks with flat spots for lounging and deep water for diving in Vernazza. Monterosso has the most traditional beach, most of which is filled with private beach clubs that charge admission, rent chairs and umbrellas.
Don’t Expect Luxury Hotels
Until quite recently, these were simple fishing villages and not a jet set destination. Most of the available accommodation are private rooms in family owned buildings. This does not necessarily mean inexpensive.
There are a lot of stairs. Where you stay will probably not have an elevator and getting there from the train station will also likely mean at least a few flights of stairs or a climb up a steep slope. The smaller and lighter your suitcase is, the happier you will be.
Expand Your Horizons
You might want to look beyond the borders of the five towns and stay nearby. La Spezia is less than 10 minutes by train and is much more lively after dark than the Cinque Terre villages. Just to the north, Levanto is considered the gateway to the Cinque Terre, but is remarkable different with flat bike trails and sandy beaches.
Riomaggiore is the first of the five seaside towns that make up Cinque Terre starting from the south, and the second largest in size. The railway line town divides the town into two parts. Down next to the water is the borgo dei pescatori (fisherman’s village), where you will find painted wooded fishing boats bobbing in the clear green-blue water. There is also a small rocky beach. On the other side of the train tracks is the borgo dei contadini (farmer’s village), which rises steeply with terraced gardens and vineyards.
Manarola is the oldest town and the one with the strongest ties to the land. There are references to Volastra whic is a hamlet above Manarola that dates back to the Roman era. The steep terraced land above the town are planted with lemon and olives trees and grape vines. Climb up the path towards Corniglia for a view down on the harbor and the fishing boat, rocks and water below. This is a great pick for the foodie traveler with excellent places for a seafood meal and a gelato snack.
It is 33 flights or almost 400 steps up to this hilltop village, the only one of the Cinque Terre villages that is not on the water. The cool thing about Corniglia is that it is only from this height that you can can get a view of the four other towns. Come here if you are looking for peace and quiet and don’t mind the trek uphill.
This is the town you have seen on a postcard or an Instagram post. The one that probably got you thinking about a trip to Italy. It is even designated as one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. The only village of the five to have a natural harbor brought security and wealth here centuries ago. There is a castle built on the hill, which you can visit. The heart of the town, Piazza Marconi, is full cafes, locals catching up and tourists perfecting their own Instagram posts to inspire.
Monterosso is the last of the towns, the largest and the business. There is a strip of sandy beach here, dotted with colorful umbrellas and a seafront promenade lined on one side with bars and restaurants. You can shop in the small shops in the historic center and gather in the Piazza Garibaldi. This town is a great choice for families with small children or travelers who can’t climb a lot of steps, as it is accessible by car.