Travel In Italy
The Most Beautiful Hike You’re Crazy To Do
Let’s get past the romance for a minute and get right to the bottom line: Cinque Terre is the most beautiful hike ever. And trust me, you have zero interest in doing it if you think through this rationally. No way, no how. I know. I’ve done it. Twice. As my podcast co-host Riccardo says with the true genius of a native Italian, “why kill yourself on a hike when you can take a train or boat and enjoy love and food… it makes no sense to me.”
He couldn’t be more correct.
And yet this hike is amazing. Seriously the most beautiful hike ever. I will probably end up doing it again, taking one of my friends who come to visit and insist on this magic, most beautiful hike ever. It’s like pregnancy I’m guessing (I have five kids, but can’t claim to have birthed anyone, so I’m a passive observer here… must making observations) where you swear you’re never having another kid, but somehow end up with a bunch of ’em.
So why not go on the most beautiful hike ever?
Well for starters, the most beautiful hike ever is hard. And long! And really, really hard. The Cinque Terre hike goes through all five of these magical UNESCO-protected villages, carved impossibly into the steep cliffs along the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a dream vacation, as you can read all about here, so long as you stay away from the hike. The one part of the hike that made perfect sense was the via dell’ amore, between the first town Riomaggiore and the second in Manarola. The only problem is the quaint, beautiful, less than 1 km stroll along the oceanside was washed out and doesn’t re-open until 2024. That is a significant problem if you’re determined to hike all five towns. The easiest connection is now, not only the hardest, but the most obnoxious as you tromp through steep hillsides and weeds only to be purged onto a noisy highway to finish the not-so-romantic trek.
The other reason why not to go on the most beautiful hike ever is because the only way you get to all five of these amazingly, beautiful, impossible to imagine why the even exist towns, is by going UP, UP, UP every time you leave one of them and then DOWN, DOWN, DOWN, to enter them. Think about that. Straight up… across… straight down. FIVE times. Five towns. That is what Cinque means by the way, Five and the only link between them not on a train or a boat is Up, Up, Up and Down, Down, Down.
So right now, all you adventurers are thinking, “come on you baby.. this is the most beautiful hike ever! Sure, it’s hard. But that only makes it better!” I know. It’s school of Jimmy Dugan. “It’s the hard that makes it great!” Except, consider that this hard is not brief. It’s roughly 29 KM. This is one hell of a “day” hike.
And finally, and trust me, this is the most important reason why you never want to do the most beautiful hike ever: If you don’t do the hike you can enjoy the magestic, romatic, awe-inspiring beauty of the Cinque Terre without ever breaking a sweat! When you compare the dirty, grungy, exhausted way you’ll feel at the end of the hike to the most elegant, sophisticated bathing in luxury way you’ll feel if you skip the hike altogether, there really is no comparison. The Cinque Terre is meant to be savored, not trekked.
So… have I convinced you? Or are you really crazy enough to do this most beautiful hike ever? The moment of truth. Stop here, or proceed at your peril. Because from now on I’m going to explain exactly how to do this hike and never regret a single moment!
Hike the Cinque Terre in true Italian style
Yes, you can have it both ways. You can do this crazy, hard, impossible and yet stunningly beautiful hike, and still enjoy every ounce of great food and majestic scenery and romance that this amazing set of villages along the Italian Riviera has to offer. You can have it all.
First, arrive the afternoon before. You can go either direction, but I prefer to start at the far end, in Monterosso del Mare. See my travel like a local tips below to know how to get there.
Once you arrive, luxuriate! Tomorrow is going to be a different kind of day, so enjoy this day to the fullest! In the center of town is an amazing restaurant with outside seating and inside a see-through glass wine cellar. There are many other choices, but the Pasta di Pesto is authentic Ligurian. You can stroll down by the sea in the moonlight and truly enjoy the dolce fa niente… the sweetness of doing nothing. Again, do nothing and enjoy it, because tomorrow is going to be anything but nothing!
Non c’e fretta. The pain awaits!
Now I could sleep to 11 easily on any day in Italia after a beautiful night of wine, food and views. But 11 may be just a tad late. Roll put around 9, saunter to the city center, have an espresso and cornetti and get ready to walk. Now, trust me, don’t be all American. You need some water and an i-phone to take some great pics. Wallet. Good shoes. I recommend low-rise hiking shoes, or hiking boots. Not tennis shoes and definitely not flip flops (they’re not even letting you on the trail in flip flops!). And just head on out. The signs are obvious. Basically go to the beach and head south. And then up! You’ll stop at a ranger station where you’ll pay a fee and then away you go.
At this point, let’s say around 10 am, you’ll feel like Thor! Strong and powerful. Watching the sea and taking way too many pictures of its amazing views. You’ll find the rock strewn trails almost magical as you wander you way up, and up and up. It won’t even bother you … yet. Then you’ll descend into the second of the five towns, Vernazza, and you’ll think you found the most beautiful hike ever! Vernazza is simply stunning. The historic center down by the ocean is beautiful. Stop and grab a second coffee and soak it all in.
Because here we go.
You’ll leave Vernazza and head up. And Up and Up and Up and none of it is quite as beautiful or magical or majestic as you thought an hour earlier. Its just a trail and it’s up and it’s hard. But ok, we’re ready, right? We signed on for this! We’re adventurers!
Perfectly timed as you’re really wearing out, you’ll across .. of all things.. a bar! With a sign that tells you, somewhat deceptively and optimistically, that you’re at the highest point along the trail. Trust me… stop. ENJOY. Buy you first drink of the day, right here:
Because it’s really going to get hard after this, and the views from this bar overlook are stunning. STUNNING! You’ll sit there thinking to yourself, who in the hell puts a bar in the middle of a trek in the middle of nowhere? But you’ll quickly stop worrying about it and say thanks to Mary, Joseph and Jesus that they did. It’s exactly the reason Italians are do different than American. OF COURSE there is a bar at this point on a really hard trek between historic towns. Of course.
Allora. Reluctantly you push on and rather quickly descend into town three of five, Corniglia, the one town that doesn’t have beach access. This my friends is the perfect time for lunch. Right about now, you’ve convinced yourself that this trek, while a little hard, is nothing! I got this! Let’s have lunch! Or at least, I did. We found a great restaurant in the center of town, ate well, drank some wine and relaxed in the Ligurian sun until finally at last we headed back out to the trail.
Good thing you enjoyed that morning espresso, the cocktail with amazing views and the lunch with typical Italian style. Because now you’re going to pay for it.
You take a turn and head up. I simply can’t describe the up. It’s up to the 10th degree. You go straight up. And Up. To the point of praying the rosary that a flat is coming. Up and up. Trust me, you won’t enjoy this part. And when you sort of get to the top, there is a great chance you’ll get lost which will add even more to the torture. Pay close attention to the two red spray paint lines and try the best you can to follow the trail, because the afternoon sun is hot and the drinks and food have kicked in a bit and now you’re just doing step by step, up and up until suddenly you reach heaven on Earth. You arrive at vineyards impossibly cut into the hillside where they have been growing wine the same way for centuries. You transverse them, feeling wobbly like one misstep you may plummet down the impossibly steep hillside while thinking both this is the most beautiful hike in the world,” and “holy mother of God, I’m going to trip and fall and end up a carcass amid the vines. Both are reasonably true, so watch your step, until finally, mercilessly, you go down and down until you arrive to town four, Manrolla.
And this is when your mind starts playing trick on you on this most beautiful hike ever. You think you’re almost done. And you would be if the via dell’amore was open! Less than a kilometer, flat along a beautiful seascape you and celebrate your arrival having conquered all five towns of the historic Cinque Terre. But.. its washed out remember? So … turn around and head back UP AND UP AND UP for a final tortuous trek into the final town of Riamaggiore. There really isn’t much to say about this. It sucks. Frankly, I don’t know why everyone doesn’t just hop the train until the Via Dell’Amore is re-opened, but there’s that thing in us Americans that need to finish! The half Italian side of me thinks its ridiculous both both times I trudged back up, up and up and then down and down and down again to somehow victoriously claim I had conquered all five towns. This is my best tip: Skip the last town. Nobody cares! Hop the train into the final town and celebrate! Take a dirty dive into the ocean at the center of Riamaggiore, bask in the beautiful water and dry off just in time for celebratory Aperol Spritz at a seaside bar.
You’ve done it. The most beautiful hike ever and did it fine style!
So before I go, the absolutely necessary…
Travel like a local tips
- Don’t go in summer. It’s a zoo. Literally, it’s the only beach I have ever visited (and I’ve been on beached in about a dozen different bodies of water) that I could not find a spot to sit. April, May, Sept. or October. Perfect!
- Don’t drive! There is just no reason to ever drive to the Cinque Terre. The trains make it easy. They deal with millions of tourists and they aren’t that hard to navigate. Just look at the board in the station for your train number and the number it departs from. Pay not attention to the destination. I’ll explain more in a different post about how to take the trains, but if you match train number and binario, train number platform, you won’t get lost. If you’re on the train, grab a seat on seaside of the train. While the train carves through rock tunnels, you’ll get brief stunning previews of the sea and its mystical waves. Enjoy.
- Don’t rush. Make your bucket list hike of the most beautiful trail in the world, but enjoy drinks and food and places to stay while you’re there to grab the best of both the adventurer and romantic lifestyles.
- Take a boat! If you’re in Toscana, you can get to the Cinque Terre by boat leaving Viareggio. It’s a wonderful tour and a great way to make your travel to Cinque Terre as beautiful as when you arrive.