Clinging to the rugged cliffs like a quintet of colorful limpets, the isolated villages of the Cinque Terre give you the exquisite impression of a coastline forgotten by time. For centuries, the only way between the achingly picturesque fishing settlements of Riomaggiore, Manorola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Montorosso was on undulating footpaths across the steep foothills that shelter them from the outside world. Their relative seclusion, coupled with the scenic beauty of the coastline, make them an unforgettable hiking destination.
Today, the Cinque Terre coast is a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite the railway that links the five villages, they retain the charm of a bygone age, yet have become wonderfully accessible to visitors. You’ll need your best hiking boots, as there’s over 120km of ancient footpaths to explore and 48 named trails, from strenuous hill walks to romantic strolls above the sea.
The food is as sensational as the walking, with the bounty of the Ligurian Sea at your fingertips in the many fish restaurants. The narrow cobbled streets are a riot of color where you’ll find classic architecture; pottery shops; piazzas adorned by geraniums, roses and verbena; and plenty of places to try the local vino or gelato. On the trails, you zigzag between terraced farms, olive groves and vineyards, and enjoy simply massive sea views.
So, grab your day pack and head for the coastal trails. Here’s our selection of the finest Cinque Terre Hikes:
Cinque Terre Hikes: Sentiero Azzuro
Sentiero Azzuro is the classic trail connecting the five famous villages. It is 12km in length and follows the ancient paths that meander across the lower slopes of the hills. While you might choose to hike it all in one go, far better is to pick it off in short sections and take time to imbibe the character of each little settlement. Sections of the trail are sometimes closed for maintenance or due to landslides, so it’s worth checking ahead.
Here are a few of the most lovely sections:
Sentiero Azzuro short hikes: Coniglia to Vernazza
Get your trekking poles at the ready... Corniglia, the central village of the Cinque Terre, is the most isolated, requiring a steep hike up even from its train station. Perched high on a rocky promontory above the sea, it luxuriates in its secluded position. It steep, narrow streets have a slower pace than some of its counterparts. From its grand terrace, all five villages can be seen with a yoga-esque swivel of the neck; it's a grand panorama dominated by the blue below.
From Corniglia, the trail takes you upwards to Sentiero Azzuro’s highest point at Punta Palma, some 208 meters above the sea. Unsurprisingly the views to the west are glorious, while inland you pass meadows in bloom and terraced vineyards. The village of Vernazza is arguably the most picturesque of all: seemingly clinging to a dramatic headland and often silhouetted by the lazy, afternoon sun. It’s a steep descent down to its tight lanes and the wonderful Piazza Marconi, which faces out to sea and is the perfect spot to watch the sunset with a glass of wine in hand.
Sentiero Azzuro short hikes: Monterosso to Vernazza
Monterosso spreads out in a more languid fashion that the other villages of the Cinque Terre. If the other four were rock climbers, impressively hanging on in unlikely surroundings, then Monterosso is a surfer, kicking back after a morning riding the waves. It has a popular strip of sandy beach and many places to grab a bite before you hit the trail.
A series of steps get your heart pumping on the ascent from Monterosso but before long you are striding out on level trails through vineyards and orchards. The path is narrow at times and skirts precariously close to some sizeable drops to the sea. You reach a high point of 142 meters, which rewards you with superb views back towards Monterosso and the headland beyond. Before you drop into Vernazza, enjoy gazing down on its tranquil harbour and the pastel-coloured scrum of its tightly packed four-storey homesteads.
Sentiero Azzuro short hikes: Riomaggiore to Manarola on the Via dell’Amore (Lover’s Way)
This is the most famous section of the Sentiero Azzuro, excavated from the rocks to provide a stunning route that winds along the cliff edge. It was originally built as an amenity for the workers labouring on the Genoa to La Spezia railway but now has much more romantic connotations. It is shorter and flatter than the routes between the other villages but its situation makes it just as spectacular.
It connects Riomaggiore – a classic sheltered inlet, with pastel-hued houses rising in steps on either side of a steep ravine – to Manarola, famed for its Sciacchetrà wine and boasting a bustling waterfront. Enjoy the sight of daring young Italians diving and performing acrobatics from the small sea stacks or indulge in a pizza on one of the side streets and watch the world go by.
At the time of writing, the Via dell’Amore has been closed for reconstruction and is expected to reopen in 2024.
Cinque Terre Hikes: Sentiero Rosso
For more experienced hikers and those who revel in a bit of elevation gain, Sentiero Rosso is a spectacular alternative to the Azzuro. It follows an ancient mule-track across the crest of the hills that form the barrier between the Cinque Terre and the rest of the world. A grand, shallow arc, it begins in Levanto and ends at Porto Venere around 40 km later. With a total elevation gain of 1,300 meters, it’s not one to underestimate, particularly in the height of summer (see: Hiking in hot weather).
However, the hills are well sheltered by trees and vegetation, which give respite from the sun. Less undulating than the Sentiero Azzuro, it’s pretty much uphill to the high point of Monte Malpertuso at 812 meters and then downhill from there, plus there are plenty of flatter sections to break up both the ascent and the descent. You can expect relative solitude compared to the trails several hundred metres below, however there are still bars and restaurants dotted along the route to provide refreshment and fortification. The advantage of height means that the views along the coast are extensive and unforgettable – don't forget your binoculars.
Cinque Terre hikes: the practicalities
When to go: Arguably the best months to head for the Cinque Terre are May and September, when the trails are quieter and the climate is mild. The summer months see rocketing temperatures and the lion’s share of tourists – you’ll be lucky to bag a sun lounger on the beach in Montorosso come August! November to February is colder and constitutes the off season; many amenities will be closed.
What to bring: Make no mistake, the Cinque Terre is a serious hiking destination and the trails are rugged. In fact, flip-flops, sandals and pumps are strictly prohibited on the trails and you could risk a fine by ignoring these rules. With this in mind, proper hiking boots or lighter hiking shoes are an absolute must.
The strenuous nature of the trails coupled with the unflinching sun can and does catch many visitors out. Sunglasses, a sun hat and sun cream should all be on your checklist. Using a hydration pack is a great idea, or you should at least carry a large bottle in your backpack. You can refill from the water fountains in each village. Carrying food is less essential, as you’re never too far from the next shop or restaurant. The coast sees its fair share of rain, though you’d be unlucky to get wet in summer. October is usually the wettest month, so it's worth bringing a waterproof along.
How to get there: There are “roads” that somehow twist and turn their way through the craggy hillsides above the Cinque Terre but, even if you survive the vertiginous journey, parking in the villages is extortionate. A calmer and more romantic option is by boat, which gives you a whole new vantage of the coastline and a sense of what the fishing life would have been like here.
The most practical option is the train line that runs beneath the cliffs and alongside the trails. It links to nearby Levanto and La Spezia, as well as to the stations in Genoa, Pisa and even Rome. Get yourself the great value Cinque Terre Card, which covers all your rail travel between the five villages, as well as to Levanto in the north west and La Spezia to the east. The Cinque Terre card also gives you free access to the trails between Monterosso and Corniglia, which you need to buy a trekking card for otherwise.
Where to stay: Of course, the best way to experience the timeless, pastel-hued villages of the Cinque Terre is to stay in one of them. However, popularity has pushed prices through the charmingly tiled roofs, so the cost won’t be relative to the luxury you’ll receive. Another option is making use of the Cinque Terre Card and using the vibrant port city of La Spezia as a base, where there are plenty of excellent restaurants and lively bars. From here, the villages of the Cinque Terre are only a short train journey away.
The state of the trails: It is worth checking the national park website or in the tourist information offices about which trails are open before you set out. Landslides can occur after persistent rainfall and render some routes impassable. The famous Via dell’Amore (Lover’s Way) between Riomaggiore and Manarola is currently closed for reconstruction work and is expected to open again for the 2024 season. The short way between Manarola and Corniglia is also currently closed and is due to reopen in April 2025.
Alex is a freelance adventure writer and content creator with an insatiable passion for the mountains. A Cumbrian born and bred, his native English Lake District has a special place in his heart, though he is at least equally happy in North Wales, the Scottish Highlands or the European Alps. Through his hiking, mountaineering, climbing and trail running adventures, Alex aims to inspire others to get outdoors. He is currently training to become a qualified mountain leader, looking to finally finish bagging all the Wainwright fells of the Lake District and hoping to scale more Alpine 4000ers when circumstances allow. Find out more at www.alexlangfield.com
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