Know before you go: The Cinque Terre
High up north on Italy’s Mediterranean coast lies the Cinque Terre. With it’s pastel homes perched delicately over the seaside cliffs, it’s quite possibly the country’s most photogenic coastal destination. It can also be, at times, it’s most overrated. Now if you have holiday plans to visit, don’t freak out just yet. Experiencing this part of Italy is completely worth it, so long as you can adjust your expectations a bit.
The five towns are what some would call a tourist trap, and for good reason. It’s beautiful, everyone wants to visit, and the locals figured it out. The area thrives when it’s warmest, with tourist season peaking July through early September. The guidebook you just bought likely doesn’t communicate the true volume of visitors that flock to this region during the summer months.
If you’re looking for an authentic Italian holiday, this isn’t the spot. If you want beachside relaxation, you may be out of luck. If you’re planning to stick to any sort of a budget, start mentally preparing now. A stay overnight means spending a pretty penny on accommodations and food. If you don’t care about any of that and just want amazing pictures, go right now.
That said, we still loved our stay. Here’s what we learned whilst there.
The secret is out
By now, most everyone knows about Cinque Terre. A visit during the shoulder season, four to six weeks before and after peak season, is your best bet to balance the beach crowds with beach temperatures. Late September or early October, when the water and weather are still warm, is the consensus prime time to visit. For many though, especially those with children in school, that’s just not possible.
We visited in the first week of July, and I wouldn’t exactly call the trip relaxing. When we arrived, the streets and trains were already shoulder to shoulder. We couldn’t realistically anticipate how crowded it would get. Many Europeans go on holiday in August, and Italy is a relatively inexpensive destination, so it gets mighty full at this time.
The five towns weren’t designed for such an influx in traffic. On top of the overnight and workaday visitors, there are cruise ships that dump literally thousands of people in the nearby ports on any given day. In our opinion, this is completely irresponsible, but it happens regardless.
Crowd size directly correlates to the time of year you visit. Try visiting during shoulder season, April through May or September through October.
The closer you are to the water, the more unbearable the crowds can get. Escape the madness by heading up the steep hills. The further up the cliffside you go, the less people there are, and the better the views.
Town hopping? Wake up and head to the train early. You’ll be fighting anxious tourists for a seat. Around 10 you’ll notice a significant increase in foot traffic.
Tuesday through Thursday are the best days to visit the Cinque Terre. We noticed a significant decrease in visitors on Wednesday, especially
Small towns, smaller stores
While it certainly adds to the community’s quaint charm, take into consideration that each town center is tinier than you think. Even Riomaggiore and Monterosso al Mare, the area’s two largest, only house only a few hundred locals.
Grocery stores are limited not only in number, but also in hours of operation and item selection. Especially in smaller communities, like Manarola and Corniglia, stores are limited and they close at 20:00 or earlier every evening. This may seem like no big deal to travelers without children, but to parents this is important to note.
At every location we stay, we visit the grocery store and pick up breakfast and lunch items to save money. When we arrived in Riomaggiore on our first day, though, we ran into some issues. Our train came in after lunch, so we were famished. After unloading our gear in our flat, we searched for a meal. We headed toward the harbor first, only to find every restaurant had closed for the typical Italian late afternoon lunch break. We settled for a small, crowded, and underwhelming snack bar at the top of the hill. We hung around until sunset, but misjudged the timing before the grocery stores closed, too. We all, toddler included, skipped lunch and dinner that evening. There were a few hangry people in our apartment the next morning.
Hit the grocery store immediately upon off-loading your luggage. You’ll be tempted to explore, but it’s best to take care of this first.
Most grocery stores close around lunch time then reopen by 14:30. All stores close around 20:00 daily and some don’t open at all on Sundays.
Super steep streets
Unfortunately, the steep streets and many steps make it nearly impossible to navigate the area with any sort of wheels, canes, or crutches. There aren’t many strollers to be found, and we saw only one person with limited-mobility in our four days in the five towns. (She deserves some sort of medal, by the way.) That said, carefully consider the circumstances before going with young children.
Although it’s really not the best place for toddlers to run around, it is manageable. We opted not to hike the cliffside paths, which are one of the main attractions of the area. Locals and tourists alike warned us about our wild child running all over the trails. We decided we would be too focused on keeping her from diving over the edge instead of enjoying the walk, which at many points is treacherous. We opted for climbing the streets to the top of each town for panoramic views, which is a lot more feasible with a toddler.
With a young child, we suggest not hiking the cliffside trails. There are plenty of other ways to get breathtaking views of the Cinque Terre.
In certain towns, leave the stroller behind. We found ours to be useless in Riomaggiore, our home base. We wanted to climb to the top of Monterosso al Mare and Manarola, so we didn’t bring it then. A stroller is manageable in Vernazza and on the seaside boardwalk of Monterosso.
If your kid is young enough to stay in the ergo, this is your best bet.
Tourist trap through and through
If you’re expecting to experience authentic Italy in these towns, think again. The streets consist mostly of souvenir shops and some uninspiring restaurants, unless you want to pay. You won’t find the butcher shops, wine bars, or an aperitivo spread you get in other Italian destinations.
There is delicious local fare, such as fried anchovies and sea bass, served in a select few fabulous establishments. But in general, many restaurants just aren’t up to snuff unless you’re paying at least 50 a head. Do your research ahead of time, call for a reservation the day before, and don’t get stuck paying for overpriced food that misses the mark.
Each town makes boatloads of money off the limited options, so the prices are truly high. It is to be expected when you visit a place like this. We went from Florence to Lucca to the Cinque Terre. Not knowing any better, we thought Lucca was an anomaly in an oasis of expensive food. Turns out the prices in Lucca jive better with authentic Italy.
Don’t expect authenticity here. Towns are filled with souvenir shops and the local restaurants cater to tourism.
Budget for high priced meals, or hit up the grocery store for breakfast and lunch.
Research restaurants and make reservations a day or two in advance.
We found a great meal at an unassuming down home restaurant called Trattoria Via Della’Amore, next to the Riomaggiore train station.
Our favorite spot is Nessun Dorma-- an affordable restaurant serving small plates, delicious cocktails and healthy portions with a spectacular view of Manarola.
High tourism, high tensions
We’ve come to realize that Italian towns with higher crowds tend to have locals that just aren’t as friendly to tourists. We found this to be especially true in Cinque Terre. Of course, not everyone we met was rude - there were quite a few servers we had and locals we met who were extremely pleasant. Unfortunately, there were also a few instances we were appalled at our “service.”
With a lot of experience in the service industry, I know first hand it can be frustrating waiting tables through crowds of people. We didn’t take any of our bad experiences personally, because we know Italians are generally lovely people who genuinely love interacting with visitors. However, we do want to advise our readers that if you mentally brace yourself for slow or subpar service (especially during peak tourism season), then you will be better off.
We’re spoiled because we’re used to California and Outer Banks beaches, with vast swaths of soft sand. The best beach in the five towns is Monterosso al Mare, although it’s narrow and slightly rocky. I wouldn’t even call it sandy. There’s a beach in Riomaggiore that’s entirely too rocky unless you’re wearing heavy duty water shoes. But don’t worry, it’s worth a quick look because you’ll get a good laugh watching all the people trying to make their way to the water over the rocky terrain. At Manarola and Vernazza, people like to sunbathe on the rocks by the water. This is great if you are without a toddler, but won’t do it otherwise.
We saw tons of kids playing in the water at Vernazza Bay. I highly recommend not doing this. The town’s drainage runoff flows directly into the water here and you can see the poor water quality when you’re standing on the docks.
Head to Bonassola (north of the Cinque Terre) on the train and rent an umbrella for a beach day. It’s sandy and non-touristy. The only downside is there are many vendors trying to sell knick-knacks while you sunbathe.
The best beach in the 5 Terre region is by far Monterosso al Mare. It is certainly beautiful but umbrellas are expensive to rent. Though the beach does not have soft sand, the water is aquamarine and the views are picturesque.
You may not want to swim in Vernazza Bay. To us, it seemed dirty. We opted to lay out by the ferry dock while our toddler napped in her stroller. Here, it’s entertaining to watch people jump from the high rocks.
Vernazza has a cool hidden beach, only accessible by a precarious hole beneath huge boulders, located in the center of town. Though the beach is extremely rocky, it is also uncrowded and unique. Not advisable with toddlers or young kids.
Manarola and Corniglia do not have accessible beaches anymore.
Now that you’ve read through our tips, you’re probably thinking “What a bunch of Negative Nancies! Who doesn’t love the Cinque Terre?” Truthfully, we had a fabulous time thereafter we modified our expectations. With a toddler in tow and a low budget, we experienced some sticker shock at first.
We climbed to sweet views, took thousands of pictures and even enjoyed a a private boat tour of all 5 towns. We certainly enjoyed ourselves and made memories that will last a lifetime. And you will too, if you go in knowing what to expect.