It was only a few decades ago that the five fishing villages of the Cinque Terre were just that – fishing villages. Today, they are extremely popular tourist destinations where some fishing still happens to take place.
In those decades past, the rough trail winding along the cliffs between the villages was used primarily for farmers transporting crops – olives, grapes, and nuts, mostly – and pilgrims making their way to churches. Today, tourists come in by the hundreds each day to hike the trail before hopping on a train out by evening.
Basically, the Cinque Terre today is a far cry from the sleepy, quiet area it was in the past. It’s a tourist attraction now, with good reason. There are pastel-colored buildings that appear to grow out of the rocks just above a turquoise sea, and fishing boats bob in the waves just offshore. It’s relaxed and picturesque, just as you hope it’ll be – only now, it’s often pretty crowded.
Hiking in the Cinque Terre is one of the things almost everyone has on their must-do list when visiting, so here’s what you need to know before you get there to make sure your hike is enjoyable.
Learn more about the five towns of the Cinque Terre
Most people who are familiar with the Cinque Terre know that there is a hike between the five towns – Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare. The trail that links the towns is known as the Blue Trail, or “Sentiero Azzurro” in Italian, and also “Trail No. 2” in the trail network. You can hike through all five towns in a day, or just a few, or split the hike between a few days – it’s up to you.
Since 1999, the Blue Trail has been part of the Cinque Terre National Park, which means there’s now an entrance fee to hike the trail. It’s a perfectly reasonable fee, in my opinion, and it helps them maintain the trails (which get a lot of constant use). Plus, there are park passes you can get that include train rides, so if you’re staying in the Cinque Terre for two days or more that’s a great deal. There’s more information on entrance fees and pass options at the end of this article.
Weather conditions can sometimes cause closures of certain parts of the trail, either because it’s deemed too dangerous to hike during a storm (for instance) or because a landslide has damaged part of the trail. You can try to keep track of this stuff before you get to the Cinque Terre (this page of the official park website shows which trails are closed in black on the map), but honestly whatever you learn then might be moot by the time you arrive. Plan to stop into a tourist information office when you get there to find out what trails (if any) are closed and plan your hiking excursions from there.
Personally, I like hiking from Riomaggiore to Monterosso, which is the order of the towns I’ve listed below. This makes the last leg the hardest one, so if you’d rather start with the tough part and finish on the easiest stretch, go in the reverse order that I’ve listed.
Note: After the major landslides of October 2011 that closed portions of the Cinque Terre trail, the Via dell’Amore has still not opened completely as of summer 2015. Parts of the trail are open, but the rest is still being repaired. Other parts are still occasionally closed for repair work as a result of the 2011 storm. You can learn more about rebuilding efforts on the Save Vernazza site, which also has a reasonably-updated list of what trails are open.
The part of the Cinque Terre trail is commonly called the “Via dell’Amore,” or “lover’s lane.” There’s a piece of trail art not far from Riomaggiore depicting two lovers kissing, and plenty of humans follow suit (especially in the evening).
It’s flat and it’s paved – you’ll see people pushing strollers on it – so it’s not exactly what you’d picture when you hear the word “trail,” but it is part of the larger trail linking the five towns. Even if you’re not a hiker or interested in the more up and down portions of the trail, this is one portion you’ll be able to do with ease.
Time needed for this hike: Roughly 20-30 minutes, unless you’re doing more than your fair share of lolly-gagging, dilly-dallying, or – let’s be honest – smooching.
As you leave Manarola, you’re going to be walking more or less along the train tracks that snake along the coast. You’re going to think that this part of the trail is basically the same as the one from Riomaggiore, and you’re going to wonder why anyone wouldn’t just keep going, stroller and all. That is, until you get to the stairs.
Cornigia is the one Cinque Terre town not right on the water – it sits high on the cliff above – so that means you’ve got to climb a whole mess of stairs to get up there from the trail level on the Manarola side. According to one source I found ages ago online, there are more than 360 steps on a staircase full of switchbacks, at the top of which you’ll be in pretty Corniglia. You can, if you’re not interested in the stair-master approach, take the shuttle bus that departs near the station at the base of the stairs.
Time needed for this hike: Roughly an hour, unless you need lots of catch-your-breath breaks on the stairs.
Hilltop Corniglia requires a climb no matter whether you approach from Manarola or Vernazza, and – conversely – it also requires a descent on the way out of town. Unlike the steep vertical of the staircase from Manarola, the descent from Corniglia toward Vernazza is mostly gradual.
There are a few steep sections of stone steps cut into the ground in this section, and if you start in Riomaggiore this is the first inclination you’ll have of how narrow and close-to-the-edge the trail can get. There are typically wider spots in the trail at semi-regular intervals at which you can “pull over” for any hikers coming in the opposite direction (which you’ll need to do, as hiking this trail is a popular tourist attraction).
You’ll spot Vernazza in the distance, but you’ll still have a series of steep switchback stairs (some between buildings) to negotiate before you’re in the town itself.
Time needed for this hike: Between 1.5-2 hours, depending on your pace and how many times you need to step aside for oncoming traffic.
While the ascent to Corniglia seems tough, the trail from Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare is the hardest of the four between villages because there are both ascents and descents that are steep. On some of the trails, there’s a distinct advantage to hiking in one direction or the other. In this case, there are frequent ups and downs no matter which way you go.
This is also the part where the trail is its narrowest. You’ll be glad you left your flip-flops in your room and opted for something with sure footing on this section. There are rare points with railing protecting hikers from slipping down the cliff side of the trail, but for the most part you’re on your own. And with the increased crowds on the trail in recent years, you’re going to want to be even more careful about stopping for hikers coming toward you.
Time needed for this hike: 2 hours or so, depending on your pace and how many times you need to step aside for oncoming traffic.
Yes, there are other trails in the Cinque Terre that are great for hiking besides the ones that connect the five towns! Most people head into the Cinque Terre for a day trip or a quick overnight, buzzing through the trails listed above (or a couple of them) and heading back out again. If you’d like a bit of different scenery from what nearly every other hiker gets in this area – and especially if you’re a more experienced hiker who’d like a more challenging trail – check out these two options.
Note that it’s recommended you get either a hiking guide for these trails or pick up a very detailed hiking map of the area. These trails are not as well-marked as the trails listed above, so it can be much easier to get lost.
As you might guess from the name, this trail is higher up on the cliffside above the towns. It actually stretches from Portovenere to the south of the Cinque Terre all the way to Levanto north of the villages. Along the way, there are trails that connect the High Trail to the Blue Trail, so you can do a bit of a hybrid version combining the two trails if you know where you’re going.
Time needed for this hike: Reports vary, indicating 6-10 hours to complete the whole hike.
Again, the name of this trail gives you a hint about it. There are churches or shrines – sanctuaries – high in the hills above each of the five Cinque Terre towns, and there is a trail that links each of these. There are trails directly up to each sanctuary, as well as trails from the Blue Trail and High Trail to the Sanctuary Trail, so you can get a little turned around if you don’t know the area. Here’s a page (in Italian) on the official park website about the Sanctuary Trail.
Time needed for this hike: Roughly 5 hours or so, not including the time spent visiting each sanctuary (listed below).
You can get Cinque Terre Cards for hiking only, or you can get what is basically a card for trails plus trains that also allows you to hop on the slow trains that connect the five towns. This is handy if you’re in the area for a few days and want to explore each town at a different time than when you hike through them, and can also be good if you get tired partway through the hike and just want to take the train back to your starting point.
The trails-only cards are called Carta Parco, and they come in 1- or 2-day versions for adults, children, seniors, or families. Prices range from €7.50 for a 1-day adult pass to €31.50 for a two-day family pass.
The trails-plus-trains cards are called Cinque Terre Treno MS, and they also come in 1- or 2-day versions for adults, children, seniors, or families. Prices range from €12 for a 1-day adult pass to €31.50 for a 1-day family pass.
A complete breakdown of ticket prices is available on this page of the official park website. Scroll to the bottom for all your Cinque Terre Card options.
Cinque Terre National Park Website: Here’s the official park website; parts are in English, but not everything.
Other Cinque Terre Resources: My friend James at Wandering Italy has put together a good collection of Cinque Terre hiking information on his site, and the folks at Slow Travel Italy have listed the times needed for the various hikes (even breaking down the High Trail and Sanctuary Trail hikes). This hiking map to Cinque Terre and Portofino is an option if you want to have something paper in hand before you leave home, and this one even says it’s GPS-compatible. Otherwise, if you plan to stray from the Blue Trail, pick up a good hiking map when you get to the Cinque Terre.