Three Days in Cinque Terre (via Genoa)
We love Italy and we love the outdoors so we have been looking forward to visiting the Cinque Terre, the famous Italian “five towns” on the Mediterranean. We tried to go a few years ago while we were visiting Siena, but the weather was awful and our hostess recommended we avoid the area when it was raining.
When planning our most recent Italy trip, Cinque Terre was our first priority. Looking at the map, we decided it would be better to fly into Milan and take the train to the Mediterranean. Milan has so many options for trains it was easy to find a fast train to Genoa.
We could have easily connected in Genoa and just kept going to the Cinque Terre. But after reading about Genoa in Lonely Planet and learning a bit about the history, we decided to spend one night there on our way.
Genoa: History and Waterfront
Genoa is on the Mediterranean and has a busy seaport and long history as the hometown of Christopher Columbus. Arriving at the train station we could see the waterfront and the sea. The city is still mostly industrial but has been making an effort to clean up. There is a new aquarium and a thriving restaurant and bar district.
Unfortunately for us, it rained almost all of the one day we had in Genoa so we retreated to our beautiful boutique hotel restored impeccably from an old palazzo. The Hotel Palazzo Grillo was one of the nicer places we stayed during our trip, and reasonably priced as well. The decor was a mix of historic antiques and elegant modern design. We enjoyed breakfast on the top floor with a view of the old town and hanging out in the elegant living room, relaxing and listening to the rain. While we had to move on quickly, we would recommend a night or two in Genoa as a great gateway city before moving down the Italian Riviera.
Bonassola – a great base for Cinque Terre
After Genoa, we took the train to Bonassola, our home base for our three nights in Cinque Terre. Our good friend Federica recommended the town and we are so glad she did. Bonassola was a little more than an hour’s train ride from Genoa and a quaint little town about two train stops from the first city in Cinque Terre – Monterosso al Mare.
Bonassola attracts a lot of walking and hiking tourists who come to trek the various trails in the area, so the town was really quiet during the day, with a few restaurants opening up in the evening to cater to the hungry walkers. In the late fall time of our visit, it was a wonderful, calm respite at the end of the day after the chaos and crowds of the five Cinque Terre towns. Bonassola is one train stop or about a 30 minute walk on the paved path to Levanto, one of the more common gateway towns to the Cinque Terre.
Bonassola has a lovely beach at the end of town and a paved bike/walking path that connects it to Levanto to the south and Framura to the north. Framura offers five small hamlets: Framura, Anzo, Setta, Costa and Castagnola, a much smaller and less busy alternative to the Cinque Terre itself.
We stayed at the Hotel Delle Rose in Bonassola, a family-run hotel in the center, with clean, comfortable rooms, outstanding personal service, and the most beautiful top floor breakfast/happy hour room overlooking the ocean.
e-Biking Cinque Terre: A great start
We started our Cinque Terre adventure with an e-biking tour from Levanto with Ebikein. When we booked our Last Supper visit with Viator through their call center, the agent asked where else we were going and suggested this tour. It turned out to be one of the best experiences of our trip. Since it was late autumn, we were the only two on the tour with our guide Mateo, so we could spend the whole day at our own pace.
Cinque Terre is known for walking and for hills, and seeing the first few towns this way was a great start. We left Levanto and rode up into the hills behind the busy town centers, with sweeping sea views and lush vegetation. Since we were riding e-bikes, the hills were relatively easy and Mateo could tell us all about what we were seeing as we rode. We stopped for a coffee at a former monastery and for wine and focaccia at a one of the oldest churches in the area, before making our way down to Corniglia and boarding the train back to Levanto.
From Levanto, we were able to take a leisurely level walk back to Bonassola, taking in even more beautiful sea views and dozens of pictures. This route was built on the former train line includes the old tunnels, a nice break from the scorching sun.
Cinque Terre Walking: Footpath #2
The next day, we set out to do part of the most popular walking treks between towns, sentieri (footpath) #2, which is supposed to be one of the “average” paths and attracts the most tourists. It used to be that if you were reasonably fit, you could walk sentieri #2 between all five towns, but the amount of tourists, the flooding and erosion have made that much harder. The easiest path between Manarola and Riomaggiore has been closed since flooding took it down a few years ago, so the path between Monterosso al Mare and Vernazza is now the busiest. We decided that doing just one bit of the trail would work just fine for us.
You can choose to walk the trail in either direction, and the majority of tourists seem to walk from Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare. Either way, you need to go up and down quite a bit, so we chose to start in Monterroso and take advantage of the 700 or so stairs that take you up into the hills. We were happy with our choice since it was less crowded and much easier to go up stairs than walk up a steep dirt trail.
We’re not sure how they decided this trail was average, compared to hiking we he have done in the Sierras we would definitely classify this path as moderate to difficult at times. We saw lots of tourists with questionable shoes and no water as well as fully-equipped hikers with backpacks and poles. We were surprised that even in the shoulder season of mid-October the trail was packed with people from all over the world. We can’t imagine what it would be like in the summer and how hot and crowded it must get.
If you are not comfortable hiking up hills for two to three hours, this walk is not something we would recommend. You can do some of the shorter walks or walk part way up from each of the towns and see similar views, or take a boat ride around the towns instead.
As crowded, sweaty and difficult our hike was, the stunning views and a delicious lunch and gelato afterward made the whole trip worth it. There is a reason the view down to Vernazza from the trail made the cover of the Lonely Planet guidebook on Italy. Around every corner was another breathtaking view.
After our long hike, we took the local train to the other two Cinque Terre towns we missed, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Riomaggiore is the gateway town from the south, and is small and quaint. It used to have the famous Riomaggiore to Manarola Trail which has been partially restored and is worth doing a quick walk up, but ends fast. We then went to Manarola by train and grabbed a spot to sit by the waterfront and watch the magical sunset, a perfect end to our day exploring four out of five towns.
Logistically, there are a few ways to get between the five towns: Monterosso Al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. You can take the train from town to town, which runs frequently between Levanto in the north and La Spezia to the south. You can walk between the towns – but you need to check the paths and look for any trail closures before you leave. You can also take a boat from place to place. We didn’t try the boat but it looked like a great option, especially in the warmer weather.
To get between the towns on the train and walk on the primary paths, you need to buy a Cinque Terre card. It’s best to avoid the lines and buy online before you arrive, though you can also buy it onsite. Ticket checkers will ask to see your card at various locations throughout the trails. The area does a really good job of catering to tourists with lots of information kiosks, safe and well-staffed train stations including clean, monitored restrooms.
When we planned our trip, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. We knew that Cinque Terre would be touristy and crowded and we hesitated to spend too many nights there, stuck with overpriced hotels and food. As it turned out, we had perfect weather, a beautiful, quiet and reasonably priced hotel, nice restaurants to choose from and probably could have spent at least five nights exploring more of the area. We hope we get to go back someday.
Be sure to pick up some travel guides before you go, in paper or ebooks.