January 17, 2024
Oh, the Cinque Terre! These five charming villages—Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore—are perched along the rugged Italian Riviera coastline overlooking the Ligurian Sea. All together, the villages form a picturesque string of colorful buildings, vineyards, and cliffside trails. Each village boasts its unique charm, between stunning seaside views, quaint alleyways, delicious local cuisine, and not to mention, hiking the scenic paths that connect these villages offers unforgettable views of the Mediterranean Sea. It's a place that captures the heart and soul of Italy's coastal beauty and what it is like to live a slow coastal life.
Easily reachable by train from all major Italian cities, the Cinque Terre makes the perfect getaway all year round, from long summer months spent at sea to chillier, blue-skied winter days. If you're planning a trip or simply curious, let's look at what each sleepy village has to offer.
Monterosso al Mare
Monterosso al Mare is the largest of the five villages in the Cinque Terre, and is known for its crystal clear beaches, medieval towers, and quaint streets lined with colorful houses. Divided into two parts, the old town and the new town, Monterosso al Mare offers a unique blend of history and modernity. The old town, also called Monterosso Vecchio, is characterized by its ancient buildings and narrow streets, while the newer section has more boutique hotels, shops, and restaurants catering to tourists. Monterosso al Mare boasts stunning beaches, making it a popular destination for sun-seekers during the warmer months. One of the defining landmarks of Monterosso al Mare is the Aurora Tower, which stands near the beach. Visitors can explore the historical and cultural heritage of the village through its churches, such as the Church of San Giovanni Battista, and enjoy local specialties like the famous Monterosso lemon trees that produce Limoncino liqueur.
It's a lovely place to relax, enjoy coastal views, and experience the charm of the Cinque Terre, but be warned, it is also the busiest of the five villages, being the first stop on the train line with the most extensive beaches, so exploring Monterosso al Mare is always recommended before or after peak summer months.
Vernazza is often considered one of the most photogenic of the five villages. This coastal town is characterized by its pastel buildings cascading down the cliffs toward a small harbor. At the heart of Vernazza is the Piazza Marconi, a popular square by the waterfront lined with cafes and restaurants. If swimming isn't your thing, there are plenty of cultural landmarks. The Doria Castle, perched high above the village, offers breathtaking panoramic views of the sea and the surrounding landscape. With its striking bell tower, the Church of Santa Margherita di Antiochia stands as a prominent landmark and showcases the village's historical and architectural significance. Vernazza also serves as a starting point or endpoint for many hiking trails in the Cinque Terre, including the famous Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Trail) that connects all five villages.
The third village of the Cinque Terre is Corniglia, perched on a promontory around 100 meters above sea level. Unlike the other four villages, Corniglia is not directly on the waterfront but is surrounded by vineyards and terraces. Corniglia's elevated location and more rural, quieter atmosphere make it unique.
The main square, Piazza Largo Taragio, is the heart of town, where explorers can find cozy cafes, small shops, and the Church of San Pietro. The church is worth a visit for its simplicity and the stunning views it offers from the terrace. Surrounded by vineyards, Corniglia is also known for its wine production. The terraced hillsides are cultivated with grapevines, and the local white wine, Vernaccia, is a specialty worth tasting. While Corniglia may lack direct beach access like some other villages, its unique position offers breathtaking panoramic views of the coastline and the Mediterranean Sea, making it a peaceful and scenic stop if you want to relax, unwind, and breathe in Mother Nature.
Manarola, the second smallest of the Cinque Terre, with a population of nearly 400 residents, offers postcard-worthy views perched atop dramatic cliffs overlooking the crystal-clear waters of the Ligurian Sea. The village retains authentic charm with its narrow lanes, traditional fishing boats, and vineyard-covered hillsides. At the heart of Manarola lies a picturesque harbor where you can watch fishermen at work and soak in the atmosphere. The village is also famous for its Sciacchetrà, a sweet dessert wine from local grapes. One of the most popular activities in Manarola is hiking the scenic trails that connect it to neighboring villages like Riomaggiore and Corniglia. If you stay past dusk, the sunset views from Manarola are enchanting, painting the sky and sea with a mesmerizing palette of colors.
Last on the stop and my favorite, Riomaggiore is the southernmost of the five villages. Riomaggiore is a bustling harbor area where fishing boats rest against the backdrop of the Mediterranean sea. It is famous for its local wine, particularly the Sciacchetrà dessert wine, produced from the terraced vineyards that cling to the cliffs. Riomaggiore's main street, Via Colombo, is lined with shops, cafes, and restaurants, and the village's historical landmarks include the 13th-century Church of San Giovanni Battista, which stands tall in the center of the town and offers panoramic views from its hilltop location.
Like the other Cinque Terre villages, Riomaggiore is a starting or ending point for several hiking trails, including the renowned Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Trail) that connects all five villages.
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Words by Gabriela R. Proietti