Article written by the contributor Giulia Minguzzi
You can read this article in Italian here
Having been born in La Spezia (province of the Cinque Terre) and having visited these wonderful places all throughout my childhood, I consider myself a true local of the Cinque Terre – someone who lived her childhood along the cliffs of the Ligurian coast and the narrow beaches of the Levante, growing up on pasta al pesto and focaccia “dunked” in cappuccino (a true Ligurian breakfast). That’s why I decided to write an article about these enchantingly beautiful seaside villages, to give you some tips on how best to get around, starting from Milan, and where to eat without ending up in the usual tourist traps.
Did you know that the Cinque Terre National Park was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997? The coast of the Riviera Ligure di Levante, which stretches about 15 km between Cinque Terre and Portovenere, is a protected area both for its exceptional natural and cultural landscape, unique in the world, and for its geological-territorial formation. The seaside park manages to generate international tourism not only in the summer months but also during the rest of the year.
Coming from Milan, you’ll come across the villages in this order: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore. Obviously the order is opposite if you start visiting them from La Spezia.
How to get to the Cinque Terre from Milan?
My advice if you want to make a weekend trip to the Cinque Terre is to come by train from Milan’s Central Station (there is usually the Intercity or Frecciabianca that will take you there directly without having to change trains somewhere else) and stay in La Spezia, maybe in a B&B that is less expensive than a hotel, and then travel by train with the Cinque Terre Card.
Should you buy the Cinque Terre Card, yes or no? In high tourism season yes, in low season no. The Cinque Terre Train Card allows access to the only two trails you need to pay to access (from Monterosso to Vernazza and from Vernazza to Corniglia – the other trails are all free), which I recommend only with hiking gear, as well as unlimited second-class travel on the Levanto – Cinque Terre – La Spezia train route. It costs 18.20 euros (adult 1 day), 33 euros (adult 2 days) or 47 euros (adult 3 days – prices updated to summer 2022). Purchasing the Cinque Terre Train Card pays off if you make at least two train trips and you want to access the paid trails. The daily train card for an adult costs 18.20 euros while the train ticket for a single trip costs 5 euros. In low season (early November to late March) the trails are free and it is not worth buying a Cinque Terre Card Train, and it’s better to pay for a single ride train ticket, which during winter costs from 2.10 euro to 2.70 euro depending on the route. Cinque Terre Cards can be purchased at La Spezia Centrale station or online.
In my opinion, one day is enough to visit them all, also because the distance from each other is really a few minutes by train, it takes very little time to reach each village. Ideally, you should arrive late Friday night or very early Saturday morning by taking the first train from Milan’s Central Station, and then devote the whole day to touring the five towns, taking the Cinque Terre Card for just one day. Otherwise, those who want to take it slower can buy the two-day card, with the option of keeping an extra half day in Monterosso to swim and enjoy some sea (Monterosso is the only one in the Cinque Terre that has beaches and beach clubs with chairs and umbrellas – I’ll tell you more about that further on).
Riomaggiore: breakfast at Rosi Bakery
Let’s go in order: the first village you’ll encounter when departing from La Spezia is Riomaggiore, perhaps one of the most photographed when arriving by boat. It’s striking for its small, colorful houses that stretch lengthwise, perched over the sea and seem to almost overlap one another.
The alleys of these villages are narrow, space is a hot commodity. If you are uncomfortable in the midst of throngs of tourists in cramped, rocky spaces, this may not be the ideal vacation for you, or at least I don’t recommend visiting in July and August. Trust me, the breathtaking views, pastel-colored houses and restaurants of the Cinque Terre aren’t going anywhere, they are still open even in September and October – the perfect time to visit because the sweltering heat of the summer months has faded away and the suffocating mass of tourists has disappeared.
As soon as you arrive at Riomaggiore station, you will have to walk through a mosaic tunnel to get to the center of the town and you will immediately come out onto the main street. Following the road downhill, you will find yourself choosing from a number of local stores and bars where you can have breakfast or buy typical products to take home. I recommend stopping by Panificio Rosi for a proper Ligurian breakfast: a nice piece of focaccia to go. I’d suggest the classic focaccia or the one with pesto, a real treat. If you’re in the mood for dessert, they also make local sweets, brioche and artisanal bomboloncini, all made by them. In my opinion, you can find the best focaccia in the Cinque Terre here!
Continuing to the end of the village you will find a detour: to the marina, that is, where the boats dock, or to return to the station. Otherwise you can go back up the main road, up a few stairs and head into the alleys of the village to explore the castle of Riomaggiore and the small church of San Giovanni Battista. Once you finish your visit, you can head back toward the station and continue on to the second stop: Manarola.
Manarola: aperitif or snack at Nessun Dorma
Undoubtedly my favorite of the five villages of the Cinque Terre, especially because of the view once you get to the end of the promenade that runs along the cliffside, where you’ll find the famous and super Instagrammable “Nessun Dorma” bar. Here you’ll enjoy a breathtaking view and a delicious aperitif or snack of burrata, pesto, prosciutto and melon or crostini with anchovies, all accompanied by classical music and opera. Tourists come from all over the world to take a picture at their little table filled with delicacies directly overlooking the sea. And it’s easy to see why.
Prices are in line with the average for Milanese aperitifs, but there is no fixed price: it depends a lot on how many of you there are and what you order. The largest charcuterie board (“Paradiso”) is for 5/6 people and costs 50 euros, while the smallest is for 2 people and comes out to be 18 euros. A bruschetta board, on the other hand, costs about 9/10 euros. Drinks are separate (around 7/8 euros per cocktail). The quality is very high and so is the freshness of the ingredients; the only downside is that you cannot make reservations and there is always a bit of a line at 12 noon as soon as it opens.
In the morning, the venue is reserved for the Pesto Experience (also done a few years ago by the full Ferragni family) that you can book by phone or online.
In Manarola you can swim from the rocks, if you’re skilled enough to walk on them. The water is truly spectacular; it’s worth it to stop for half an hour to take a dip in these crystal-clear waters.
If, on the other hand, you find yourself in Manarola in the afternoon and are in the mood for a nice ice cream or a refreshing granita, I recommend going to the Gelateria – Sorbetteria Cinque Terre: it feels like entering the laboratory of a mad scientist, but trust me, you will not be disappointed. It overlooks along the main little street of Manarola, near the exit of the tunnel that leads to the train station.
Corniglia: the village overlooking the sea
Corniglia, the central village of the Cinque Terre, is the only one not in contact with the sea that stands on a rocky cliffside about 100 meters high and can only be reached by train and then by a bus that takes you to the top of the village, by car or on foot (walking up a lot of steps and getting a good sweat in).
In all honesty, I admit that I’ve only been to Corniglia a few times, since it’s more difficult to reach than the others and because of its distance from the sea. One place I feel I can recommend is A Caneva, a beautiful café with a relaxing garden where you can have great breakfasts, snacks or an aperitif with local products.
A typical restaurant in the center of Corniglia that is not very touristy and offers traditional Ligurian dishes, not just seafood, is the Osteria A Cantina de Mananan: here, in addition to the catch of the day and other fresh fish dishes, you will find traditional testaroli al pesto, pansotti with walnut sauce, and rabbit stew Ligurian style. Prices are in line with other places in the area.
Vernazza: postcard views
The second to last village when coming from La Spezia is Vernazza, the most elegant of all, a pearl to be treasured and admired: the small square with the bell tower overlooking the sea is truly a sight to behold, even more so when seen from above. You can get a panoramic view by climbing a little path that marks the directions to the village sanctuary, and as you climb, you can also see the terraces that are typical of the Cinque Terre area, where grapes are grown to make wine.
The bars and restaurants in the main square are very touristy, so I recommend finding a slightly more local alternative inside the village or in the other villages. I tried Gianni Franzi once but would not recommend it. For a quick lunch break and street food, I would suggest trying “Pippo a Vernazza” for delicious and hearty portions of take-away trofie with pesto or focaccia with fresh fish.
There is also a very good ice cream shop in Vernazza that bears the same name and also has 3 locations in La Spezia, where I recommend you try Crema del Pastore and Crema Vernazza. Now we come to the end of the route with the last stop on our itinerary: Monterosso.
Monterosso: where to swim at the Cinque Terre
It is the largest village of them all and consists of two parts: the old town part, with small restaurants and places to stop for a delicious typical lunch, and the waterfront part, where there is the largest beach and equipped establishments.
Aside from a few spots on the cliffs of Manarola, where you can take a dip in the sea if you’re confident in your mobility, the most convenient alternative where you can go to relax on the beach is that of Monterosso: the most famous of Monterosso’s beaches is located just beyond the pedestrian tunnel, just below the train station, and is called Fegina beach. It’s the only one in the Cinque Terre that has beach clubs with equipment that can be rented for the day (only if you arrive early enough on the busiest days, otherwise you will find everything fully booked).
The free beach is always very full of tourists and a few locals who decide to take a dip to cool off after lunch. I recommend arriving early in the morning if you want to make sure you get a good spot for the whole day. If you are in Monterosso during the more chaotic months, be prepared for throngs of tourists to arrive during the hottest hours. If you want, you can opt for the rocky areas, which are located at the end of the beach, where you may be able to find a little more tranquility. As for yours truly, as a good Ligurian, I always prefer the rocks to the beach: they are more practical and allow you to have a minimum of living space, which is very often impossible to find on narrow, crowded beaches.
Here, in this part of the town, there are many cafes overlooking the promenade, ice cream parlors, and focaccerias, but as far as restaurants are concerned, I recommend that you stay in the old town.
For a nice typical lunch, I recommend Tosca Bistrot, a good compromise between quality, price and generous portions that will fully satisfy your craving for Ligurian dishes. A special mention for the owner, very sweet and kind in serving us and recommending dishes to order.
In the photos below you can see homemade pesto gnocchi in all their beauty and sublime fresh tagliolini with mussels and zucchini, framed by beautiful ceramic plates. For dessert, a pineapple carpaccio marinated in limoncino delle cinque terre (a real delicacy!).
Finally, if you are in Monterosso, one thing you CANNOT miss are the anchovies of Monterosso! An alternative lunch break that is a bit easier, but will allow you to eat this delicacy accompanied by excellent wines is the Enoteca Internazionale Monterosso. Here the location is a bit more austere, the menu is written on the blackboard, and a lot of importance is given to the choice of wine (rightly so, it is a wine shop); but I assure you that the menu is not lacking. The choices are mainly bruschetta with local produce and anchovies, or typical specials like cod or anchovies (pictured). Do yourself a favor and have a nice plate of anchovies – even if you think you don’t like them, they will amaze you.
A typical dinner in La Spezia
If you want to dine in downtown La Spezia in the evening, perhaps near to where you’re staying, you have plenty of opportunities for typical dining. I recommend “Acronia, La Cantina” (Via Felice Cavallotti, 82) to eat XXL boards of focaccia topped to your liking: the price is 18 euros per board of Ligurian focaccia that takes up the entire length of the table, with 3 toppings of your choice on top from those on the menu (I recommend these 3: lard and cherry tomatoes, squash blossoms and anchovies, and pesto). Otherwise, Osteria All’inferno (Via Lorenzo Costa, 3) is ideal for trying old-fashioned La Spezia dishes and good fish cooked the traditional way (try the tagliolini al nero di seppia with “muscoli” or mussels and stewed stockfish, a local specialty).
Trattoria Bellavista (Via Urbano Rattazzi, 54) is a slightly more upscale little restaurant but with a seafood menu at the right value for money. If, on the other hand, you want a breathtaking view of the Gulf of La Spezia (also called the Gulf of Poets, thanks to Lord Byron, Shelley and others who wrote about our lands) you’ll have to push a little out of the center, into the hills of La Spezia, and get as far as the Vecchia Osteria San Rocco (Via Costa di Santa Lucia, 25), a real treat for lovers of both fish and meat. The food here is really good, plentiful dishes at an honest price. I recommend getting the sea bass ravioli with scampi sauce and as a second course the muscoli ripieni (stuffed mussels done our way) or the mixed grill of fish.
So how much do you spend for a weekend in Cinque Terre?
The cost of a vacation of a couple of days to the Cinque Terre starting from Milan and buying tickets a bit in advance (at least 3 weeks in advance if it is July or August, even just 2 weeks in advance if you visit them in low season) is not so high. Take into account that the round-trip Milano Centrale – La Spezia Centrale ticket will cost you almost 40 euros (one way 19.90), plus about 18 euros if you decide to buy the Cinque Terre Card, plus the cost of lodging, which in La Spezia costs much less than a B&B in one of the Cinque Terre. The extras are all the lunches and dinners out that you will have (which, as far as I am concerned, are always the most expensive part of the vacation).
In general, I’ll reiterate my advice on not visiting the Cinque Terre during the hottest and most tourist-crowded summer months, but to wait until September or spring to enjoy these pearls of the Levant, so you’re more relaxed, and better able to admire carefree the beauty of these landscapes.
I’ve suggested the cheapest alternative for visiting all of the Cinque Terre, but there are also options for guided tours by sea, such as the Cinque Terre Ferries company that organizes mini-cruises between Porto Venere and the Cinque Terre at a competitive price for adults and children, with the choice of visiting accompanied by guides or not. The tours leave in the morning at about 10 a.m. from the pier in La Spezia and return to the same place in the evening at about 6 p.m. It is up to you to decide whether to be lulled by the waves of the sea and have a view of the most picturesque villages or to experience the villages by train, step by step in a faster and cheaper way.
Article written by the contributor Giulia Minguzzi
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