Summer is around the corner and some of you are beginning to plan your trips to Italy. Many of my friends and family that come to visit during the summer months usually have one thing in mind: the beach. Excellent plan. While there is lots of “coastline” to choose from in Italy, Cinque Terre (chink-way ter-re), or the five earths (aka towns), has risen to the top of the popular spots for tourists. This is an especially great escape from Florence (which can be very hot during the summer) and can easily be done in a day!
Recently, while writing to a friend who is planning just such a day trip, I was trying to remember all the ins and outs and I realized that there were maybe a few more than the average person can just “pick up,” especially if the Italian is limited. So I thought, why not make it easy (for me and for others) and put it all in one place. Below you will find all the need-to-know info from how to get there for less to what you can skip to save time and from where to hike to where not to. Of course we’ll tackle the food, I mean, the cuisine is worth the trip in itself, but we’ll also be sure you know how to make it home without getting stranded there (unless that is part of the plan). Enjoy and see you there this summer!
First things first.
1. How to get there and things to know about taking the train
Cinque Terre is in the Liguria region of Italy, which is a very narrow region that runs up towards France on the left side of the boot. It is directly north of Tuscany but also abuts parts of the Emilia-Romagna and Piedmont regions.
The easiest way to get there from Florence (and most other locations) is by train. Grab a train to a city called La Spezia, which is just east of the main towns of Cinque Terre. Depending on where you are arriving from, you may be able to grab a Eurostar, but from Florence these are rather few and far between as La Spezia Centrale is a rather small station. The regional (also intercity) trains will be cheaper, though you should compare to see just how much of a difference it makes, as there are a couple downsides to grabbing that super cheap regional train. The main caveat is that these slower trains can get very crowded on popular days. They also do not usually have seat assignments, which means you may be in for a train ride sitting on the floor or leaning against a wall. If you can, try and not go on a weekend or pick an odd train time (super early or super late) to avoid some of the crowds.
2. Getting the Cinque Terre Card and saving yourself a headache!
Once you arrive at La Spezia Centrale (make sure you don’t get off at the other stops called La Spezia + something else) you will need to change trains. The train you switch to will be the one that takes you to the coast and through all five of the towns in Cinque Terre (sit on the left side for the best view).
Now, you could buy your original train ticket from Firenze all the way to say, Monterosso (the last town in the chain), and just hop off your first train at La Spezia and hop on the next one heading out to the Cinque Terre towns to get there asap. However, I would recommend getting a ticket just to La Spezia Central and then taking a moment to find the tourist office in the train station (it faces right onto to track 1). It is from this tourist office that you can buy the Cinque Terre card, a kind of all day pass that covers all the trains and hikes you want to take throughout the five towns of the Cinque Terre. You could even sit on the train riding it back and forth all day if you wanted. Though you wouldn’t. It’s much too beautiful outside.
It is a big plus to buy the ticket here since it saves you paying extra for that first train ride into the towns and since many people wait until they arrive to the first town (Riomaggiore) to buy it, you can take advantage of the much less crowded ticket office at La Spezia (keep in mind on a Saturday in July, this is all relative!). When you walk up to the entrance for the Lover’s Walk (Via dell’Amore) in Riomaggiore, you can just bypass that long line and walk right through to the views.
FYI: remember to stamp the ticket using the stamp boxes near the tracks before you hop that train!
This card will also come with a train schedule, which is, admittedly, a little hard to read so be sure to ask them to show you how to read it and (super helpful) to mark the LAST TRAIN you can catch to make your connection in La Spezia to head back to Florence (or wherever). Missing this can be a little complicated so have that train memorized so you know when it leaves from all five of the towns if you don’t know where you will end up last. The best deal, if you want to see the most in the least amount of time, is the 12Euro all day hiking pass + train rides. Here is the site that basically runs down the options and costs.The other very important thing to check with the tourist office at La Spezia, especially if you are planning to do some hiking, is which hiking paths are closed. Each town is (technically) connected via a hiking route. Some are easier than others and some are open less often than others. There are almost always a few that won’t be accessible as the cliffs can erode easily and often after heavy rain they suffer from run-off damage for months. Knowing this sooner rather than later will help you plan your day.
Ready to Roll
3. So much to do, so little time.
Almost everyone gets off at the first town, Riomaggiore, and does the Lovers’ Walk (Via dell’Amore) and while we hate crowds, we recommend that too. It’s easy and enjoyable and gives you a taste for the lovely scenery (which is gorgeous and if you are NOT planning on hiking, this is a low impact way to take it in.)
From the second town over, Manarola, where the Via dell’Amore ends, you can either keep hiking (if that option is available) or take the train again (or have lunch, see below). I would recommend jumping over to Vernazza, which is, in our humble opinions, the most beautiful of the towns. From here you can enjoy a quick lunch (see below for food recs if you believe “quick” and “lunch” are not two things that ever should be put together), a coffee, and the gorgeous view.
For those of you interested in hiking, one of my favorite hikes is from Vernazza to the last and largest town, Monterosso. I highly recommend this hike for those of you who are fine with 2+ hours of uphill walking in the heat (I have done it in Toms so it can’t be all that bad and the views are killer!!). However, if you are not a “hiker,” this could be a bit much. I also strongly advise everyone, hiker or not, to take this route ONLY leaving from Vernazza. The hike going from Monterosso to Vernazza is much harder. The first hour is just climbing a steep set of stairs and most people give up (or at least enjoy it less). Also, if you are coming from Vernazza, it’s right at the top of those stairs, the home stretch, that you find a guy in a lemon bush (yes, literally) selling drinks etc. to help push you homeward.
Once you arrive in Monterosso (this can be done by curving around the street that the hiking trail leads into or also by jumping off the cliffs into the water with the local Italians – though the latter is not recommended unless you still have that youthful immortality thing going) you have a few options:
You can wonder around the (albeit small) town and do some shopping, some lunch or gelato.
Or, you can hit the beach.
Monterosso is the biggest town (again, all relative in Cinque Terre) so there are free beaches and private beaches.
FYI: Monterosso stretches rather far along the coastline and arriving via the hiking path you are on the side farthest from the Monterosso train station. Take a look at your map so you are sure you know where that is if you get a bit “distracted” by all the eating and swimming and suddenly realize it is time to go.
4. Beach life in Italy
When I say “private” beach, what I mean is that there are rows of chairs and umbrellas set out across a certain section of the sand (see photo) and these chairs can be rented for the day and give you access to a whole complex, including bathrooms, changing rooms, food, lifeguard, and, as in the case with Monterosso, a sand (as opposed to rock) beach.
This is really a personal preference. The public beaches get pretty crowded, they tend to lose sun first because of their position against the cliffs, and they are rockier than the “private” sections. But they are, well, free. The pay-for beach, which is common across all of Italy, is a nice convenience. If you are going to be there for just an hour, perhaps it’s not worth it. But allllll day, it makes for a pretty reasonable expense. Two chairs and an umbrella, plus people to keep an eye on your stuff and ready access to freshly squeezed lemonade (and a bathroom!) are pretty nice perks, if you ask me. But again, it depends on what you want out of your trip.
I often stay there all day until it’s time to eat again. And that brings us to…5. Food!
There are so many delicious things to eat I am always overwhelmed. I try and make sure I have one thing for lunch and something different for dinner to be sure I try a variety of what Cinque Terre has to offer.
FYI: Keep in mind that in these smaller towns many of the restaurants will not stay open all day as they tend to in the bigger cities. For example, make sure you get lunch before 2pm or it may be hard to find anything open. Also try and make a reservation for dinner, as the more popular places (and their outdoor seating) will fill up fast.
What to eat??
Well the seafood is amazing. Obviously. Eat as much of it as you can. It is served on pasta and on pizza, and I recommend both. If you are a seafood lover, memorize these delicious dishes for you trip and try them all!:
• Pasta (any kind really, but typically spaghetti) alle vongole: clams, usually with a wine sauce and some parsley, simple and scrumptious.
• Pasta (see above) con le cozze: mussels, sometimes in shell and sometimes not, also sometimes in a white sauce and sometimes in a red sauce.
• Pasta allo scoglio: basically all kinds of seafood mixed together, one of my favorites as it is very beautiful as well as delicious (and allows me to not have to decide between all the different kinds of shell fish I want to eat). You can find a similar assortment on a seafood pizza.
• Pasta al nero di seppia: this is pasta with black squid ink. It sounds a bit more intense than it is and the ink it really just a kind of exciting salty sauce. This sometimes comes with more seafood on top and is one of those things you may never get to eat again, so go for it!
Not so into fish? Not to worry…
• Pasta al pesto: Holy green magic.
This is served on pasta, pizza, and toasted bread (called a crostone) and it is just so excellent. You’d never know a little basil, pine nuts, and olive oil could pack such a delicious punch.
• Lemons: The coasts are often where the best lemons are found so look for lemon sorbet (fresh only of course), limoncello (for adults only, hint hint) or anything really with a little of this amazing fruit in it.
Some of our favorite places to eat these things include:
Trattoria da Billy
Up a hill so it has a killer view and some stupendous versions of all the above seafood dishes.
I have never eaten a proper sit down meal here because I find all the pizza-by-the-slice places so tantalizing. They are all pretty good and almost always have a pesto pizza waiting for me to devour, which does the trick right before we hit the hike.
Ristorante Pizzeria da Ely
This place is great for pasta and pizza. Both the food photos above were taken here. It has a pretty big interior but if you want to sit outside, make a reservation or come early.
Cantina du Sciacchetra
This is actually not a restaurant but a little tasting store (but think tasting store from your dreams). The people that run it are just so nice and let you taste everything. I mean, EVERYTHING. They have some amazing pesto, garlic sauces, olive pestos, lots of liquors, and some incredible lemon candies. My favorites are the lemon/chocolate-covered almonds. Out of this world (in fact so much so that they are often out of them!).
Time to go.
6.If you can manage to leave, here’s how to get home.
This is just a quick final note about the train home, basically to be sure no one misses it! I have found that these trains can be a little bit more confusing than at other stations so be sure, as I said above, to know when the last train is and to be there with time to spare! Then be sure you are on the right platform. Ask people and ideally ask someone who works there (though there are not many, especially at the end of the day). If a train pulls up before the scheduled time of your train, ask them where they are going and what train number they are, etc. Some of the trains that pass through may stop at your desired location, but are not technically covered by your Cinque Terre card. If the conductor comes to check tickets, you may have to pay a fine. You can risk it, but just be warned. Also be sure that last train out gives you plenty of time to catch your connection at La Spezia, though there are few more hotel and train options there than in the Cinque Terre should something go wrong.
Ok. Now you are as ready as you will ever be. Go forth and tan.