The pretty, gelato coloured villages stacked above the sparkling Ligurian Sea aren’t the only attraction of Italy’s Cinque Terre. Thousands of people visit the area every year to walk the trails through the Cinque Terre National Park that link the five villages. I was fortunate to be amongst them this year.
In case you’re not familiar with the Cinque Terre, let me explain the reason for its popularity. Five small fishing villages – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore – make up the Cinque Terre, a photographer’s paradise. The brightly painted buildings of the villages appear to tumble down the cliff faces into the sea, and whilst the villages are tourist meccas, you can still get a sense of how life used to be here – before the tourists arrived.
Most visitors to the villages arrive by train (I wrote in detail about reaching the Cinque Terre by train previously in my Cinque Terre Travel Guide) or ferry but to really appreciate the natural beauty of this area, perhaps the best way to arrive is on foot.
Before I hiked the Cinque Terre trails myself I’d heard lots of stories from friends and other travellers who said the walks were very strenuous. With the villages built at sea level, the trails climb up and along the hillside, through the National Park and alongside vineyards planted precariously on the steep slopes, before descending again at the next village. It was with a little apprehension, then, that I committed to hitting the trails myself, but I was pleasantly surprised.
You certainly need a reasonable amount of fitness to walk the two longer paths as the start and finish of these trails is very steep, but you definitely don’t need to be a seasoned hiker.
We arrived at the Cinque Terre three weeks into our European holiday and until then, hadn’t really done any exercise to speak of on the trip. I was worried that I might struggle on the trails but in fact, apart from the climb at the start (and a few steep inclines on the Monterosso to Vernazza trail), I found the walks quite easy. The walks were nowhere near as hard as I had imagined. Mind you, I was wearing good, sturdy shoes unlike some of the other hikers I saw who were wearing high heels and thongs (flip flops)!
It is possible to complete all four walks in one day (when they are all open) if you are dedicated, but with only two trails open when we visited, we decided to just hike one trail per day. We walked in the mornings before it got too hot and could then enjoy a relaxing lunch at our destination. We then caught the train to return to our accommodation.
Whilst it is very do-able to walk the Cinque Terre paths on your own - and that's what most people do - it is possible to do a Cinque Terre Hike and Bike Tour with a Local. The four hour tour includes a guided walk from Manarola to Corniglia and includes tastings of local food and drink.
The four paths that link the Cinque Terre villages are:
Monterosso to Vernazza walk
This trail covers a distance of 3.6 kilometres with two hours recommended as the time to allow to walk between Monterosso and Vernazza (or vice versa). We stopped numerous times to take photos and videos and covered the distance in an hour and a quarter.
Want tips on budgeting for your trip? This Cinque Terre Travel Planning Guide will help.
The Monterosso to Vernazza path is the longest of the four walks. From Monterosso, the path starts with a reasonable incline and then there’s a fairly steep climb before the path levels out. The track is mostly wide enough for two people to pass but occasionally you need to stop and let an oncoming walker go by.
Along the path there are numerous spots to sit and rest or just enjoy the view – and it’s stunning. But nothing will prepare you for the view as you round a corner and catch a glimpse of Vernazza and her little harbour below you. It really is something you have to see to believe.
Vernazza to Corniglia walk
The second Cinque Terre walk we did was the 3.45 kilometre trail from Vernazza to Corniglia. The recommended time for this walk is 1.5 hours but we covered the distance in one hour. Even if you don’t plan to walk the whole trail, it’s worth covering the first 500 metres or so from Vernazza as you get spectacular views over the village.
If you do walk the entire trail, it’s a steady incline to the halfway point (which is signposted and has a café!) and then a steady decline to Corniglia. As you approach Corniglia, the views of the village, with vineyards hemming it to the cliff side, are fantastic.
Corniglia is the only Cinque Terre village that isn’t at sea level. It hugs the top of a steep cliff and almost appears to hover above the sea as you approach on foot.
Corniglia to Manarola walk
Unfortunately when we visited in July 2015, the Corniglia to Manarola trail was closed due to recent landslides. This trail is 2.9 kilometres in length and it’s recommended that you allow 1 hour 15 minutes to complete the walk, which is very flat.
Manarola to Riomaggiore walks – via dell‘Amore (the Lover’s Walk)
Possibly the most famous of the Cinque Terre walks is the via dell’Amore, the Lover’s Walk, between Manarola and Riomaggiore. It is only 1.1 kilometres in length and is popular as it only takes 25 minutes to walk along the flat path between the villages – the perfect amount of time for a romantic stroll apparently!
Note: Heavy rain and other factors can cause the closure of the paths. Please refer to this website for up-to-date information.
TIP: If you're looking to escape the Cinque Terre crowds for a day, why not enjoy a day trip to Porto Venere? In my opinion it is just as pretty as the Cinque Terre villages and is easy to reach by ferry.
Need to know about the Cinque Terre walking trails
- A ticket booth is set up at the start of each trail where walkers are requested to show their entry pass to the National Park (see details below about the Cinque Terre Trekking Card).
- All the trails are well signposted.
- Walking trails are mostly dirt paths (there are some concrete/sealed sections leading into/out of the villages). Some steep sections have steps made of stone. Barriers are not always in place so extra care should be taken on exposed points of the paths – at some points the path runs right alongside the cliff edge.
- The Cinque Terre walking paths are very popular and are particularly busy during June, July and August. I recommend setting off early to avoid the main crowds and the heat of the day if you’re visiting during the months.
- Wear sturdy shoes and a hat and carry plenty of water.
- Bring your camera.
- This is a National Park – always be mindful of the environment and dispose of your rubbish properly.
We purchased the Cinque Terre Trekking Card Treno Multiservizi which includes travel on trains on the Levanto to La Spezia line (including trains between each of the five villages) and entry to the Cinque Terre National Park and access to the walking trails.
A 2-day pass costs around €25 per adult. (Read my tips about buying your Cinque Terre Trekking Card here.) You can also purchase a Cinque Terre Trekking Card which doesn’t include train travel. Passes come with a handy map/information brochure.
Have you hiked any of the Cinque Terre trails? Please share your experiences in the comments below.