An Introduction to the Five Towns of the Cinque Terre

November 19, 2013 by

Travel Tips

The Cinque Terre town of Manarola

The Cinque Terre town of Manarola. Creative commons photo by evocateur via Flickr.

The name “Cinque Terre” actually means “five lands” in Italian. So although most people use the name to refer to an area as if it was its own address, it’s a good idea to know the names of the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre – not to mention learning a bit about each one. Here’s an introduction to the five towns in the Cinque Terre.

One of the main reasons it makes sense to learn the names of the Cinque Terre’s five towns is that when you’re looking for a place to stay in the Cinque Terre you can get easily led astray by hotels and other accommodation advertising itself as being in the Cinque Terre when it’s actually in a nearby city like La Spezia. There’s nothing wrong with staying in La Spezia, but if you think you’re booking a room in the Cinque Terre and then arrive to find out you’ve got to take a train to actually reach the villages, that’s disappointing. So pay particular attention to the locations of any accommodation you’re considering.

We’ll go from top to bottom, working from the northernmost town to the southernmost, although the coastline actually runs at an angle from northwest to southeast.

Monterosso al Mare

When you’re in Liguria and near the Cinque Terre, Monterosso al Mare is often simply referred to as Monterosso, although there are other towns called Monterosso elsewhere in Italy. Monterosso al Mare is the largest of the five villages, with the most traditional lodging options (i.e. hotels and hostels), more shops and restaurants, and arguably the best (and biggest) beach in the Cinque Terre. Some of the faster trains only stop in Monterosso and zip through the other Cinque Terre stations, so if you’re departing by train for day trips from the Cinque Terre or onward to your next destination that’s a good thing to keep in mind.

Vernazza

Vernazza has what is probably the most beautiful main square in the Cinque Terre. It’s a small piazza with multi-colored buildings on two sides, a petite and pretty church on one side, and the beach on the fourth side. Most of the lodging options in Vernazza (as with the rest of the Cinque Terre towns) are apartments or rooms for rent rather than traditional hotels. Vernazza is the favorite Cinque Terre town of Rick Steves, which means you’ll often find his tour groups (or at least tourists toting his guidebooks) staying there in the high season.

Corniglia

Corniglia is the anomaly in the Cinque Terre, as the town center is actually high up on a cliff overlooking the water rather than right on the water itself. If you’re arriving by train, note that the station is located far below the level of the town – you can walk up a staircase of many switchbacks or on the gradually inclined road. Or you can wait for the periodic shuttle. Corniglia tends to be a bit quieter than the other four towns, particularly in the evenings, when the day hikers have come and gone and the only people left are those who are staying overnight in Corniglia or those who actually live there.

Manarola

Manarola is right on the water, but there’s no beach here at all – people sunbathe lying right on the rocky outcrops, or jump from the rocks into the water below. The colors here are a bit more faded than those in the more popular Vernazza, but the jumble of buildings climbing the cliffs upward from the sea are no less charming.

Riomaggiore

The southernmost village is Riomaggiore, which – like Manarola – runs right up to the water but has no beach. The town itself is also angled steeply away from the water, so if the room you’re renting isn’t right near the water you’ll be getting a good workout walking uphill after dinner. Riomaggiore is slightly bigger than some of the towns in the middle of the Cinque Terre, and some of the trains that come through the region will stop here as well as Monterosso – but not in the towns between.

It’s easy to visit the Cinque Terre on a day trip from Florence and other nearby cities like Pisa or Genoa, but to really get to know the distinct personalities of the five towns, you’ll want to spend a few days.

- Jessica Spiegel

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