West of Florence and La Spezia, the scenic Cinque Terre region is best known for five coastal villages linked only by walking path, subterranean train and ferry boat. Most visitors to the region come to hike the infamous Sentiero Azzurro, or Blue Trail, the gently meanders along the Ligurian coastline from village to village. Lying with the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre (pronounced CHING-kway TAY-ray), the five picturesque villages from north to south include Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. While those villages are along the popular Sentiero Azzurro walking path terraced above the sea, there are also hiking trails up into the hills that link the five villages and also can extend the trip to Levanto in the north and down to Porto Venere in the south. All the hiking paths wind along terraced hillsides and descend medieval staircases to secluded coves.
Built over the centuries for agriculture and commerce, the ancient pathways are showing their age and are susceptible to weather. There have been heavy winter rains over the past decade producing rock and mud slides that have intermittently closed sections of the Cinque Terre coastal trail, but the mountainous by-pass trails have stayed open. Even as of summer 2017, the walking section from Riomaggiore to Manarola called the Via dell’Amore (Lovers Lane) has been closed for a couple years and is not planned to reopen until 2019 at the earliest. In addition, there are some sections that can be preventatively closed due to Meteo Alerts for heavy rain due to safety. When a trail is marked closed, trespassing is strictly forbidden and is considered a legal ticketed offense. So, you will want to check with the Cinque Terre National Park before hiking any section to confirm it’s status, and possibly plan for a lengthy coastal bypass by climbing up and over into the mountains, which offers scenic views and historic chapels.
As mentioned, the winter weather tends to bring rains and cooler temperatures. While there are significantly fewer tourists, the best time of year to experience the Cinque Terre is during the warmer months from mid-April through September, especially from mid-April to the end of May. Over the past few years, the villages have been “discovered” by cruise ship tours from La Spezia which disgorge huge numbers of day-tripping tourists simultaneously. In light of this, you’ll want to start hiking early in the morning or late in the afternoon to enjoy some peace. The National Park operates mini-buses from the fishing villages that head up to the ridgeline hiking trails leading to scenic sanctuaries, and from there you can hike back down to a village. This is a great way to escape the daily crush of the crowds.
All of the trails are maintained within the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre. Recently, the national park has averaged 2.5 million visitors annually. To help maintain the heavily travelled Sentiero Azzurro, there is a daily trail pass required for hiking the coastal pathway. It must be purchased in-advance with cash-only. With the advent of the cruise ship tourists, there has been talk of limiting the day trippers by setting daily pass limits, but this would not affect multi-day hikers.
In addition to the hiking trails criss-crossing the region, there is an underground train with stations in each of the villages. In addition, the train continues to the outlying towns of Levanto in the north and La Spezia inland to the southeast. By train, its only about 5 minutes between each of the coastal villages, and the Cinque Terre Express train service in the warmer months runs every 30 minutes. There are either per ride tickets or unlimited day passes. Some hikers choose to carry packs and spend a couple days exploring the entire route, while other trekkers pick a village as a base and use the train to shuttle to a starting point for a hike. If you plan to hike the Sentiero Azzurro and use trains, the National Park offers the Cinque Terre Card which cover the daily trail pass fee and allows unlimited usage of the trains and buses within the villages.
There is also a ferry boat service that links the five coastal villages. Provided by Consorzio Marittimo Turistico, the ferry operates from mid-April thru September during daylight on about an hourly basis. The tickets can be purchased per ride or per day unlimited.
While some hotels in the Cinque Terre do take credit cards, most restaurants and shops only accept cash. Also, the daily trail pass can only be purchased with cash. Since there are few if any banks to be found in these remote villages, don’t expect to find bank ATM machines. Beware that there has been a growing proliferation of stand-alone ATM kiosks in the Cinque Terre, which may or may not work and charge exorbitant use-fees up to 70 euros!
Overall, Cinque Terre is the 11th most popular hiking trail of all 12 hikes in Italy.