Sure Rome, Florence and Milan are cool in that historic and oh-so-important to Western Civilization kind of way, but a trip to Italy has to include some quality time on its coasts to make your journey truly epic.
And the quintessential spot where the Mediterranean meets Italy is Cinque Terre, the stupendous stretch of Ligurian coast where five small villages – beautiful, tangled and centuries old – are tucked in among the coves and cliffs overlooking the Gulf of Genoa.
Cinque Terre translates as Five Lands, a reference to this beguiling quintet of fishing villages. And beguiling they are—couples and families of all ages come here to hike from one to the next, feast on authentic, fresh-caught cuisine and absorb the deeply picturesque views.
Whether you visit on a scenic drive or hike the entire route with the sea by your side, anyone who visits the UNESCO-listed Cinque Terre National Park will come away utterly entranced.
The largest of the villages, Monterosso is also the easiest to reach by car for those brave enough to drive the winding, coastal roads. Plus it has a large, sweeping beach that beckons you to stay for a while. If you do stay, don’t pass up the chance to kayak along the rugged cliffs and secret coves that embrace the village. The village itself is split into two distinct sections, old and new, and in the former you’ll find medieval gems such as the early 14th-century church of San Giovanni Battista.
Oh, Vernazza. With its cliff-clustered location complemented by a stout old watchtower, a sheltered natural harbor and tall, pastel-colored houses, you’ll either start planning to film a movie or simply move here. It’s a favorite with modern-day visitors, but has been drawing attention for centuries. In fact, the wealthy Republic of Genoa took control here back in 1276, leaving a legacy of ancient and awesome buildings. Getting lost in its narrow, winding alleys is a pure delight, as the vibrant blue sea greets you at seemingly every turn.
This is the place, the one you’ve seen in countless pictures and will be seen in countless more depending on how many you take. Manarola has a powerful effect on the senses, with its vividly colored homes squeezed into improbable formations on a high rocky bluff. The grapevines that produce Sciacchetrà, Cinque Terre’s regional wine, hug the village. The best spot to taste this local vintage is Punta Bonfiglio, a spot that’s visited so often by travelers wanting to take photos of Manarola that the locals built a playground and a bar here, making everyone happy.
The unofficial capital of the region, Riomaggiore’s narrow harbor and steep-stacked houses make it arguably the quintessential Cinque Terre destination. Venture into the town’s two 14th-century churches, along with the crag-perched Castle of Riomaggiore with its breathtaking view across the water. For those tired of yet another historic building, you can rent snorkels and kayaks down at the harbor – a wonderful way to work up an appetite before sitting down to calamari or lobster ravioli at one of the village’s sea-facing eateries.
When a flight of stairs has an official name, you know it means serious business. Meet the Lardarina, 370 steps that elevate you from the rocky beach to the main town of Corniglia, the tiniest, highest and most remote of the villages. Needless to say, every step is well worth the effort. Tranquil streets take you to a wide and windy sea-facing terrace where you can see all five villages, as well as a tangled vineyard surrounding the village. From this spot, you’ll find out just how good your phone’s camera is.