Cinque Terre, meaning five lands, is a cluster of five small fishing villages hanging on the dramatic Italian Riviera. Each village has its own distinct character and charm, but which is the best to stay in?
The Cinque Terre Villages
The Cinque Terre villages are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso, in order from closest to La Spezia - the main train station connecting Cinque Terre to the rest of the country. The towns are so close together that it makes it easy to hop from one to the other and could be seen in one day. Depending on how much time you spend in Cinque Terre, you can travel between each by hiking trail, train or by sea. The best way to explore all five is by picking one as your home base and traveling to the others from there. The Cinque Terre villages are built into rugged and steep cliffs - many of which have no car access, therefore its best to avoid carrying luggage between them.
As the pastel painted villages perch on these jagged cliffs, it makes little room for large hotels in the Cinque Terre. Instead, there are small quaint apartments, rooms, and bed & breakfasts - many offering outstanding views for your eyes to feast on. As the Cinque Terre gets very busy with Italian and foreign tourists alike, accommodation books up fast, so it's recommended to making bookings in advance.
Riomaggiore is the southernmost village of the Cinque Terre, and is considered to be one of the more tranquil villages with its small town feel. Riomaggiore is neatly packed into a steep valley with tall buildings transformed into hotels and restaurants on either side of the main road, Via Colombo. The road leads to a tiny harbor carved between rocks, with colorfully stacked houses cascading above. On the other side of the road, at the top of the village is a car park; Riomaggiore is one of the villages accessible by car, therefore making it more busier.
Via Colombo is lined with multiple lively cafes, bars and restaurants, as well as gift and wine shops. There are more restaurants by the harbor, two of which are listed in the Michelin guide - Rio Bistrot and Dau Cila, drawing in a more mature and sophisticated crowd in the evenings. There are also no hostels in Riomaggiore which adds to this. Within Riomaggiore, there is a castle offering beautiful views and The Church of San Giovanni Battista standing proudly in the centre.
Riomaggiore is on an incline so it is not ideal for those with mobility issues. To reach the harbour, you need to use stairs and so it can be troublesome with a stroller or wheelchair. There is no beach in Riomaggiore, however, there is a sunbathing area amidst the large rocks to the left of the harbour.
Riomaggiore is ideal for a romantic getaway with its small town feel. At night, once the day tour groups leave, the village is so peaceful, especially around the harbour - making it the perfect place to stay and enjoy a bottle of Italian wine. It's excellent for fine dining and good food options.
I may be biased because we stayed there, but I loved Riomaggiore - it was my favorite village of the five and we stayed there with our friends who were visiting from LA. We rented a sea facing apartment with two rooms, which really couldn't have been better. The location was perfect and the view of the harbor and vast sea from our window was simply breathtaking. We got bottles of wine from the wine shop nearby, and watched the sunset on a bench outside our front door until the moonlight illuminated the sky. The sound of the waves do get loud through the night, so ear plugs were provided by the apartment we stayed in.
North from Riomaggiore is the picturesque and idyllic village of Manarola, a short 2 minutes ride away by train, or 20 minutes by hiking path. Manarola huddles on a rocky spur, with tall pastel painted houses trickling down to a small harbor and piazza at the foot. It is home to the iconic Cinque Terre viewpoint and therefore very popular with photographers who claim their spot hours in advance for sunset and blue hour.
Manarola has fewer restaurants and bars than Riomaggiore, however is home to the famous Nessun Dorma restaurant that arguably has the best view in the Cinque Terre. Manarola has no nightlife so is ideal for quiet travelers. Like Riomaggiore, Manarola has a sophisticated feel and sees calm evening hours once the daytrippers leave. It's popular for its renowned path called Sentiero dell’Amore (the Pathway of Love) and is ideal for hiking with many of the trails taking you into vineyards and olive groves.
Manarola, like Riomaggiore is on an incline, albeit not as steep. It does not have a beach but loungers hang out by the boat ramps to catch their dose of vitamin sea.
Manarola is a good option for couples and families seeking a slower pace and scenic views, without a hike.
Corniglia is the quiet heart of the Cinque Terre, raised on a rocky promontory in the middle of the five villages. It is 3 minutes by train from Manarola and is the only village that is not built on the sea. This means its only accessible by train or footpath. It is the smallest village and is challenging to reach even by train as you need to climb almost four hundred steps up. There is, however, a bus service that runs from the station to the centre of the village, although has large queues. The village itself is mainly flat and is surrounded by beautiful vineyards.
With Corniglia being the hardest to reach, it is evidently the least crowded village in the Cinque Terre, and undeniably has the most authentic and local feel to it. Corniglia is scattered with little bars and restaurants pleated into cobbled alleys. There are a handful of charming wine bars, but the village is definitely on the quieter side where by the late afternoon, the village slows down completely. Other than the restaurants and bars, Corniglia is home to The Church of Saint Peter.
Corniglia is suitable for those without mobility issues, seeking a more peaceful experience away from large crowds. Corniglia, like them all, is romantic but lacks sea access so rooms tend to be cheaper.
Vernazza has been named one of the most beautiful towns of Italy. It is the fourth town from the south in the Cinque Terre, with no car access, and is a four minute train ride from Corniglia. However, the most stunning way to arrive is by water, where you can see the nestled pastel Ligurian houses in a cleft between rocky cliffs in striking contrast with the deep green sea. It is one of the most crowded and popular villages, having two (smaller) beaches. Vernazza is surrounded by steeply terraced olive groves that produce high quality olive oil for the country, making the landscape stunning for hiking. It has a natural oval shaped pier and harbor, and home to the Church of Santa Margherita di Antiochia.
Vernazza's bustling seaside piazza is filled with many bars and restaurants. Steep staircases from the piazza lead you to more restaurants and bars with delightful sea views, but overall Vernazza is more flat. Situated at the top of Vernazza is Doria Castle, a medieval defensive structure with a round tower and old Genoese fortification walls that you can visit and take in the view from. Opposite the tower side, there are stairs that lead you to one of the most alluring trails that offer magical views over Vernazza. With its popularity, accommodation is best booked in advance.
Vernazza is ideal for those looking for a busier village, harbor views, and multiple dining options.
Monterosso is the largest village in Cinque Terre, and is last from the south, or first from the north, taking four minutes by train from Vernazza. It's perched on hills cultivated with lemons, grape vines and olives, and is known for the biggest beach on the coast. With this, it offers the widest variety of hotel options from luxury hotels to private rooms, as well as many more activities.
The beach paves way for activities such as paddle boats and kayaks, as well as more boat trips. The beach is embellished with its famous green and red umbrellas and lounge chairs that are available for rent, so is ideal for the beach seeker. It is also good to note that Monterosso has the only sandy beach in the Cinque Terre. It also has the most restaurants, hotels and nightlife, as well as parking, making it very desirable for families and large groups. The village is made up of two sections - the old and new town, connected by a small tunnel. Although Monterosso is rather different in character from its neighboring villages as it doesn't have the dramatic postcard view, it's charming old town is very captivating with its narrow alleys and typical Italian architecture.
Monterosso is by far the most ideal for those with children and with mobility issues. It is flat, spacious and open. There are multiple playgrounds for children, as well as many dining options to cater to all needs. Its the village for luxury travelers opting for larger hotels, beach bums and those interested in water activities.
You can't really go wrong when choosing which village to stay in Cinque Terre, as they are all inviting in their own way. I recommend going based on what kind of atmosphere you would like in the early morning and evenings, as it'sstraightforward to travel between each of the villages during the day. For me, a sea view was the most important as I enjoy early morning wake ups and sunsets. Quality restaurants versus tourist traps was also a huge factor in my decision, as I did not want to travel between villages in the dark. The last train gets very crowded and hiking in the dark is not recommended. Whether you choose Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza or Monterosso, your trip to the Cinque Terre will be a travel memory that will be remembered forever.