Even if you don’t know much about Cinque Terre, you’ve probably seen some of the iconic shots of these five fabled hillside towns on Instagram. Colourful homes on cliffs cascading into the water, adorable ports and beautiful views – who wouldn’t want to spend one day in Cinque Terre?
We visited on our moms trip in September, and got to spend two nights and one day in Cinque Terre. If we had the time, another day might have been nice, but you can cover a lot of ground in just one day in Cinque Terre.
Without further ado, here’s how to make the most of just one day in Cinque Terre!
What is Cinque Terre?
First things first, what the hell is this place? If you don’t already know, Cinque Terre (meaning five towns) is a string of five seaside towns in north-western Italy on the Italian Riviera. The five villages (from south to north) are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare.
They’re most well-known for being absolutely beautiful with colourful homes, steep cliff sides and cute harbours. Visitors flock to Cinque Terre to take in the views from the hills and water, explore the small towns, hike between the villages, and enjoy delicious seafood.
When to go
Cinque Terre is one of the busiest areas in Italy, probably thanks to Instagram. Not only are these beautiful towns popular, but they’re also quite small which makes them feel even more cramped. We visited in mid-September, and it was still a bit too crowded and warm for my liking, despite being after the peak of summer. I would prefer visiting in October, and saw friends on Twitter who shared that it was much less crowded a month after we left.
For even fewer crowds, you can visit in the winter. But beware, a lot of the restaurants and shops will be closed and you may not be able to hike, as some of the trails close for bad weather. It also won’t be warm enough to hit the beach. So if you’re looking for a lively visit where you can swim and hike, you may have to deal with the crowds of summer.
I think the best time to go to Cinque Terre would be shoulder season – spring or fall – when the weather isn’t awful and the crowds aren’t at their peak. But since we’ve been travelling more in Europe this fall, it appears that shoulder season is getting shorter and high season is getting longer – so expect crowds no matter when you go.
The easiest way to get to Cinque Terre is by train. All of the towns are connected by a small local train, which connects to larger cities throughout Italy.
La Spezia is the main train station before Cinque Terre, and has rail connections to cities all over Italy. When we visited, we drove to La Spezia from our Tuscan villa, but you can also train there from Venice, Florence, Milan, Rome, etc. From La Spezia, you’re less than 10 minutes by train to the first town of Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore. From there, each town is just a few minutes on the train away from each other.
About your day in Cinque Terre
There are three things to note about the below route for spending a day in Cinque Terre:
- This route does not go in order from south to north or north to south. I know, it makes no sense! But actually, it makes a lot of sense. Instead of visiting the villages in geographical order, this route prioritizes visiting popular places in non-peak times. Because the villages are all so close (only a few minutes on the train away from each other) and the train comes so often, it’s not a big deal to do the towns out of order.
- For this route, I’m going to stick to taking the train between villages since it’s the fastest way to get around, the same price as hiking (see more on that in my tips at the bottom of the post) and I’m just not a hiker. But you can hike between the towns or alternate between hiking and taking the train to get from place to place. You can rework this route to add in enough time for hiking if you’re into that. Or you can also take a boat!
- This itinerary skips the middle village, Corniglia. With only one day in Cinque Terre, there’s just not enough time. Sorry, Corniglia!
Rise and shine so you can get an early start on your Cinque Terre day. My suggestion is to start your day in Manarola, as this place will be full of crowds by mid-day. In my opinion, Manarola has the most beautiful view and the most quintessential look of Cinque Terre. If you Google Cinque Terre, it’s likely a shot from Manarola that comes up first.
So hop on the train and head to this village. From the train, follow the path down to the harbour and take your time enjoying the view from down below. Next, walk up the pathway on the right side of the harbour for the iconic view looking back at the cliffside houses and marina. Take it all in!
After you’ve taken all the pictures you want, you can continue exploring the little shops as you make your way back to the train. You’re now going to the farthest north town of Cinque Terre, Monterosso al Mare.
Monterosso al Mare is unique amongst the five villages. It doesn’t quite have the same look of colourful houses coming down a cliff. But it does have the only sandy beach. If you want to get in the water, this is the place.
For beach time with water temperatures warm enough that you can swim, you’ll likely need to visit Cinque Terre in the summer. If so, you’ll want to get to Monterosso al Mare before noon. When we visited, we arrived before lunch and were able to snag some beach chairs and umbrellas in prime spots right by the water. But as we were leaving for late lunch, most of the chairs were full.
So beat the crowds and head to the beach before noon. And make sure you come prepared. If you want a beach chair and umbrella, it will cost you. I believe it was 20 euro per person! So it’s not cheap, but you do get the chairs and umbrellas for the entire day, so you could stay a while and get your money’s worth. Alternatively, there are some free stretches of beach where you can lay down your towel for free.
For lunch, we decided on one of the beachside eateries in Monterosso. Expect the restaurants to be crowded and a little overpriced, but still tasty. I find I can almost never go wrong with seafood pasta in this part of Italy!
After lunch, head over to Vernazza, the next village on your one day in Cinque Terre itinerary. Vernazza is another village that has a beautiful harbour view and can get very busy as the day goes on. Some people advise visiting it in the morning. But in my opinion, the view from Manarola is better, so I’d prioritize that village for early morning sight-seeing.
But Vernazza is still worth a stop. I found the Vernazza harbour to be more spread out, meaning there was more to explore and different views to take in. There’s a small beach and lots of boat companies ready to take you out on the water. We stopped at a great little cafe, marked with a pirate sign and run by a very funny owner, on the path towards the village and would recommend it.
Your last stop for today is Riomaggiore. This is a great town to spend your evening in as it’s a bit larger, so the crowds are more dispersed. It also has a bit of nightlife going on, if you want to duck into a pub, bar or restaurant. And it’s the closest town to La Spezia and connections to the rest of Italy; if you are visiting Cinque Terre on a day trip and need to leave, it’s easiest to leave from Riomaggiore.
Head down to the marina and enjoy beautiful sunset views. Riomaggiore also has a gorgeous harbour with colourful homes (though it’s not quite as pretty as Manarola). It’s a little bit more rustic, but I really liked it.
From there, head up the path towards the main village and you’ll find lots of shops and restaurants. If you need some souvenirs, you’ll have no problem getting them here. For dinner, I recommend La Cantina Del Macellaio, one of the best restaurants in Riomaggiore. This place is small and very popular, so be sure to call ahead for a table. The food is delicious, the service is great and the ambiance is very cool. It’s the perfect place to end your one day in Cinque Terre!
Should you stay overnight?
A lot of people do Cinque Terre as a day trip from Tuscany or Florence or elsewhere in Italy. And yes, this is totally do-able. If you get on a fast train, you could be in Cinque Terre in just a couple of hours. However, I would recommend staying overnight.
The best time to be in Cinque Terre is early morning and late at night. That’s when all of the day trippers clear out and the towns settle down. If you stay the night, you’ll be able to explore in the morning before the crowds arrive and enjoy a relaxing night in one of the villages, after the big crowds leave.
If you want to do it on a budget, you could stay in La Spezia, since it’s less than 10 minutes from Cinque Terre on the train. However, La Spezia has a very different vibe from Cinque Terre (read: it’s kind of ugly and dirty). So if you can afford it or find a great deal, it definitely is worth it to stay right in one of the towns, preferably with a beautiful harbour view!
Extra tips for one day in Cinque Terre
- Whether you stay overnight or arrive on a day trip, you’ll want to get an early start. You only have one day in Cinque Terre, after all! So set your alarm, get up early, and make the most of those crowd-free hours.
- Whatever you do, do not plan to drive to or in Cinque Terre. When they say driving is hard in Italy, they’re talking about Cinque Terre. These villages are very small, very hilly and completely packed with people most of the time. Roads are practically impossible for locals to drive, let alone visitors. And parking is a nightmare. So do yourself a favour and forget the car. If you have a car during your time in Italy, park it in La Spezia and take the train in.
- Book your train/trekking ticket ahead of time. In order to travel between the five villages of Cinque Terre, you can take the train or you can hike (you can also take a boat, but it’s more expensive and tickets are bought separately). Whether you train or hike, you need to have a ticket (it’s the same ticket for both the train and hiking trails). Tickets can be purchased online and bought for 24 hour periods. So you can buy one 24 hour ticket for your one day in Cinque Terre and use it all day long to ride the train or hike the trails. (Check the link for the most up to date ticket information and pricing.)
- As I mentioned, you can also take a boat between the villages. We didn’t do this while we were in Cinque Terre, but I’ve heard it’s very scenic. We decided not to, as we had already paid for our one-day train tickets, and the boats are more expensive. Plus, they looked very crowded when we were there. Another option if you want to get on the water is the many boat vendors in the harbours ready to take you out to see the sights.
- If you do plan to hike between the villages, you need to come prepared. Dress appropriately, as you’re not allowed to hike in flip flops. You should also check the weather. The hiking trails are prone to closure as mudslides and other weather effects deem them unsafe. So plan ahead if you want to hike and check for alerts on the trails. If they do close, you can always hop on the train!
- Have more than just one day in Cinque Terre? Awesome! I think it would be super fun to dedicate more time, like a half day or even a full day, to each village to really discover every nook and cranny. With more time, you could certainly visit the often-skipped Corniglia and make time to do one of the hikes or take a boat ride. You could spend an entire day on the beach in Monterosso al Mare, getting the most bang for your buck out of those chair and umbrella rentals. And I would advise visiting both Manarola and Vernazza on early mornings, so you can enjoy them without the crowds.
- Speaking of: Prepare for crowds. Unless you’re visiting in the dead of winter, expect Cinque Terre to be full of visitors. Pack your patience!
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