Perched high above the sea, the Cinque Terre National Park, Unesco World Heritage Site, is a Mediterranean jewel.
Located north of Tuscany and south of Genoa on the rugged Ligurian coast known as the Italian Riviera, the five fishing villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare offer a relaxed alternative to the more cosmopolitan French Riviera.
With steep, terraced slopes overlooking pebble beaches and the sea, the Cinque Terre is a paradise for hikers, sun worshipers and those looking for miles of unspoiled natural beauty. After a day’s touring—on foot, as the villages largely don’t allow cars—visitors are rewarded with the region’s fresh seafood and cool, crisp white wine.
Where to Stay
The villages are very close together, so choose one as your home base to explore the entire area. Monterosso al Mare, the largest of the five villages and the only one that offers resort amenities, boasts the most accommodation options, but there are a number of bed and breakfasts and rental homes in the four smaller villages. Even though Monterosso al Mare allows cars on some of its streets, most hotels are only accessible by foot.
For dazzling views, stay at the cliffside Hotel Porto Roca, which boasts unobstructed vistas from its many balconies and terraces. Located just minutes from Monterosso al Mare’s historic center, the hotel offers free shuttle service from the nearest parking lot or the local train station for guests.
Hotel Pasquale is located in the center of the town, across from the main beach. The rooms aren’t very large, but the views and location are exceptional. Bed and breakfasts in the Cinque Terre villages range from ultra-modest to downright chic, like La Malà (pictured), overlooking the sea in Vernazza. For lists of rentals, check out cinqueterreriviera.com.
Where to Dine
Dining tends to be rather informal, but many unassuming trattorias serve up excellent dishes showcasing regional ingredients. In Riomaggiore, dine at Enoteca Dau Cila (pictured) near the harbor, but be sure to reserve outside seating. Besides the fresh seafood, including pasta topped with anchovies and sea bass, they also offer a great selection of local wines.
For authentic dishes in tiny Manarola, including black pasta heaped with local shellfish or hearty stuffed mussels, the hike up to Trattoria dal Billy is well worth it.
Osteria a Cantina de Mananan in Corniglia is usually packed with locals and tourists winding down with a plate of anchovies or the poached sea bream and a glass of wine, so make reservations.
In dazzling Vernazza, Ristorante Belforte is a must, both for its stunning location hanging over the sea and for its classic Ligurian cuisine like the Marinara Mussels sautéed in garlic, parsley and white wine.
In Monterosso al Mare, the informal San Martino Gastronomia serves excellent local dishes that can be ordered to go for picnics on the beach. For more formal dining, try Ristorante Miky for its fresh fish, handmade pastas and exquisite chocolate soufflé.
What to Do
Hiking the paths between the villages or trekking down to the wild beaches are the biggest attractions. But beware: Some paths are gently winding, while others are steep and rugged, including narrow stretches and sections with many stairs.
Recent storm damage has closed sections of the most famous trail network, the Blue Trail (Sentierro Azzurro), but renovations are under way. Also called Trail 2, the approximately six-mile route takes about six hours, depending on your pace. Stopping often to tour the villages is part of the fun. Start in Riomaggiore, where the trails are gentler. The short, easy walk leads north to Manarola. After this, the terrain starts to get steeper. The final leg of the tour, Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare, is the most scenic, but also the most physically demanding. It remains open, as does a maze of internal trails.
Looking for a break from walking? No problem. There’s a train every hour or two between the villages. Mountain biking is another great way to tour Cinque Terre, and the park has paths dedicated to two-wheel adventurers. The area offers great scuba diving, and both Riomaggiore and Monterosso al Mare have diving centers. Full access to the trails requires a Cinque Terre Card that costs approximately $9 for a day card, and $14 includes unlimited train service. For tourist info, visit cinque-terre-tourism.com.
The Local Wines
Cinque Terre’s namesake wine is a white made primarily from the native grapes Bosco and Albarola, although some producers include Vermentino.
Grown in narrow, steeply terraced vineyards that weave along cliffs jutting out over the Ligurian coast, winemaking here is defined as heroic viticulture because of the difficulty to work the rocky, craggy terrain. Everything from vineyard maintenance to harvesting is done by hand.
Styles range from crisp, light-bodied whites with heady aromas of wild flower and citrus flavors, like those made at the Cantina Cinque Terre cooperative cellar, to vibrant, full-bodied, complex wines boasting sage, citrus zest and intense mineral notes.
Walter De Battè’s savory wine, which he doesn’t label as Cinque Terre, has the structure of a red wine, thanks to extended skin contact during fermentation. “The soul of any wine is in the skins,” he says. “We have a pristine growing environment, and the minerals and briny notes from the sea accumulate on yeasts found on the skins.”
Celebrated Barolo producer Elio Altare has fallen in love with the Cinque Terre, and turns out mineral-driven wines with depth and structure under his Cinqueterre Campogrande label.
The real jewel of Cinque Terre is the dessert wine, Sciacchetrà, pronounced shahk-eh-TRA. Made with the same blend as Cinque Terre, this rare nectar is made from the best grapes grown closest to the sea. After harvesting, the berries dry out on mats for several months. Made in tiny amounts, the top bottles offer sensations of honey, dried apricot, pastry cream, candied tangerine, hazelnut and dried sage.