|Riomaggiore from the narrow highway that connects all five towns.|
The best ways to get to the Cinque Terre is by boat or by train. The road linking these 5 towns is narrow and windy and there is little to no parking available for tourists in the towns themselves. This is especially true during the tourist season.
Levanto and La Spezia are the closer train stations to start at, but we found La Spezia to be nearly impossible to get to. The train station is blocked in by closed off streets and parking is nearly impossible to find. We ended up driving past Riomaggiore and onto Manarolo which has a tiny parking lot for tourists and then two larger ones and a garage that are for residents only. If you are a tourist you may only park in the small paid lot. Even parking on the side of the road is for residents only.
Train travel is inexpensive here. You’ll be using the La Spezia-Genoa line, but for Cinque Terre it will cost you just a few euros for the day to hop on and off as much as you’d like along the route of 5 towns.
The train runs regularly, but sometimes only each hour, so it is difficult to see all five towns by train with the limited daylight of winter. We only saw three and I didn’t get nearly enough time in any of them. Take care to know the schedule well to maximize your time in each place. You can buy your ticket on the train with the conductor. If you buy it outside the train, be sure and stamp it before boarding. There’s a machine inside.
The toilets at the stations are holes in the ground. If you are squeamish about this, I suggest planning ahead and finding one at a restaurant or coffee shop before it’s crucial.
I have heard enough hype about the Cinque Terre to plan an entire trip around it, but after staying there one day in January, I’ve come to know that this town needs some nice weather.
The setting is beautiful, but the colors of the sea, colorful homes, and vine terraced hills need the sun to make them pop. Without the sun, it all lies flat.
In the winter the crowds dwindle to a handful of people at each train platform with no lines anywhere, but the downside is that much of the energy that comes with people is gone and many shop owners use this quiet season as vacation time to the choices of restaurants and shops is less.
In summer the beaches are packed. In the autumn, it’s the harvest and probably the most beautiful time for photographers.
Riomaggiore: A local told me that Riomaggiore and Manarolo aren’t worth stopping in; however if you enjoy a nice walk, there’s a trail that links them. The Via dell’ Amore, or Lover’s Lane, is a 15 minute walk. You can find it behind the train station in Manarolo. It is closed occasionally in foul weather and does require a ticket for use.
Manarolo has a small parking lot for tourists which is easy to access though turning around on the steep hill can be tricky if there is a lot of traffic. The train station is at the bottom of the main road to the left through a tunnel. There’s a small shop and information booth and a bathroom (not recommended). You can get train tickets from the conductor while on the train.
Manarolo is a quiet town without a lot to do, but during the Christmas season they put on a beautiful lit nativity display that covers the wide expanse of terraced vineyards on the hill above the town. It’s worth a stop to see after dark, but is visible as well during the day.
Corniglici: Even from a distance Corniglici is beautiful. I wasn’t able to see it up close, but locals told me that this is a village to see. Quiet, but beautiful.
Vernazza: My favorite village, Vernazza is smaller than its northerly neighbor, but still full of charming restaurants and shops down the wide street that leads from the train station down to the cove and the open square filled partially with boats. The colorful painted buildings, rustic doorways, and abundant wall art will make photographers happy. This is where you can wander off the main street up narrow alleyways of stairs leading up the steep streets in and around tall apartments connected with arches at various heights. To the right lies what little remains of an old castle on the hill where for a small fee you have a really nice view of the town and can climb to the top of the tower.
On the left as you walk back towards the train station is a great little gelato place here with a simple pink sign that says “Gelateria Artigianale.” There isn’t any seating with just room enough to order, but the gelatos are consistently delicious.
If you walk under the train tracks towards the hills you’ll find a small children’s playground and a narrow road along a stream with tiny waterfalls. It’s a nice place to play with kids if you’re waiting for a train.
Another reason to love Vernazza? Cliff jumping. In the summertime you can swim from the pier to the left to a group of large rocks that jut out of the sea. This is where the young people will climb up the rocks and take turns jumping into the turquoise water below.
Monterosso al Mare: Monterroso al Mare is the northernmost town of the five, the largest, and perhaps the most popular due to its wide expanse of sandy beach that is full in the warmer months and completely empty in the cold.
Divided into two parts, the train station will bring you to the northern half with the longest stretch of sandy beach and a restaurant lined boardwalk along it. Walk along the boardwalk south and you can either walk through the tunnel or walk around by an old bunker to the other half of Monterosso where you’ll find a smaller beach and a colorful maze of streets with rustic shops and tiny restaurants. This is the more picturesque half for picture taking and has two black and white striped churches and a fenced playground.
It’s in the southern half that you’ll find the Ristorante Al Pozzo serving luke warm food in tiny portions at the some of the highest prices of our trip. I don’t recommend it. The appearance is nice with pretty linens and nice stemware. The service is average and we were the only ones in the restaurant. The food tasted good, but was served barely warm and neither the flavor nor the portions warranted the price.