Cinque terre hiking

Cinque Terre Hiking

The Cinque Terre are five picturesque towns that appear to cling to the rocks along a short stretch of Ligurian coastline in northern Italy, and are famous for the former mule tracks that connect them and today attract thousands of hikers each year. 

Though the area is striking, it’s also very fragile; overtourism has strained both the villages and surrounding countryside to the limit. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit, of course, but there are a few things you should know before you go: 

Cinque Terre Trails

You can no longer hike the famous Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Trail) that runs directly along the coastline between the five Cinque Terre towns

When I guided in this area about 20 years ago, we used to stay in the nearby town of Sestri Levante, get on the train in the morning, and arrive in Monterosso al Mare—the northernmost of the five towns—about 9.30 am. From there, we’d set off along the Sentiero Azzurro and walk from Monterosso to Vernazza, then to Corniglia, then to Manarola, and finally to Riomaggiore in a single day. You could take the Sentiero Azzurro right at the water’s edge and the hiking was largely level (except for the climb up to clifftop Corniglia).

Today, much of that trail is closed. You can walk from Monterosso to Vernazza, and from Vernazza to Corniglia, but the stretch between Corniglia and Manarola is closed indefinitely and the final stretch—the famed Via d’Amore between Manarola and Riomaggiore—has been closed since 2012. It is expected to reopen in the summer of 2024, but a definitive date has not been set. 

There are alternative trails that are equally scenic, but be prepared for rigorous hikes that require proper footwear and a medium to high fitness level.

There are three networks of trails that run parallel to the coast in the Cinque Terre. The first, the Sentiero Azzurro, is the most famous but also partially closed. Even the open stretches are often closed with little or no forewarning due to landslides (plus are closed most winters for maintenance work). 

About halfway up the slope, the Path of the Sanctuaries is a panoramic alternative, but be prepared for a much more rigorous route. As the name suggests, this route connects a series of historic sanctuaries high in the hills, so runs along the coastline far above the towns. Secondary trails run downhill into each town from the main trail, so you can use this route to get from town to town if you are an avid hiker. Be sure to wear sturdy hiking shoes and a sun hat and bring plenty of water.

At the very top of the slope, the Alta Via (or High Path) is exactly that: a high-altitude route that skirts the top of the ridge that runs behind the villages of the Cinque Terre and runs from Levanto all the way to Portovenere. This challenging route is only suitable for experienced, skilled hikers who really want to focus on hiking rather than visiting the Cinque Terre towns.

The Cinque Terre hiking trails (and trains, and towns) are busy

The Sentiero Azzurro was once pleasantly trafficked, in the sense that you would meet other hikers on the trail but could also enjoy the peace of getting away from the crowds. That is no longer so on the stretches that are still open—in high season, the trails can get so crowded that the park imposes a one-way direction from Monterosso to Vernazza to avoid “traffic jams”.

In addition, expect crowds on the trains that run from town to town. Though trains run frequently, they can sometimes not keep up with demand so you will have to squeeze into the cars to get from one town to the next. This is especially true on the weekends and holidays; be sure to buy a Cinque Terre Card that includes unlimited train rides so you can bypass the line at the ticket machines and hop onto any train that you choose.

And, of course, the five towns in the Cinque Terre themselves fill to overflowing in the summer months. Most of the villages—with the exception of Monterosso—are tiny hamlets with one main street and a couple of tiny pedestrian side alleys. The lion’s share of visitors stick to the main road and waterfront, so those areas of the towns get clogged with people during high season.

trails on the cinque terre

Though the Cinque Terre is busy, it’s easy to get off the beaten path

Visiting the Cinque Terre on your own can be underwhelming, with the crowds, the tricky logistics, and the lack of context to understand why this stretch of coastline is important enough to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site (hint: it isn’t because of the trails, views, or towns). That said, you can skirt the crowds and really appreciate the history and landscape of this area by exploring the ring route itineraries with a guide as an “urban trekking” experience. 

This type of itinerary begins in one of the five towns—Manarola, for example—so the guide can explain the unique evolution of each farming (that’s right, not fishing) village. Afterwards, you walk out of town along a short and relatively accessible trail to get a close-up look at the terraced hillside and take in the views over the coast for about an hour. Then, you hop on the train together to discover another town in the same way, and so on…you can cover all five towns this way or, better, focus on two or three by land and end your day with a boat tour to admire the remaining towns and coastline by sea. 

If you do explore on your own, keep in mind that the Cinque Terre hiking trails often close

The coastline is prone to landslides, as you might imagine in an area where towns seem to be precariously clinging to the sides of rocky cliffs. There have been some significant landslides in the past, one of which did some major damage to the towns of Monterosso and Vernazza in 2012. But even small floods or landslides mean that trails need to be repaired or closed for safety issues. Before you head out, check that the trails are open. The trails marked in black are closed; those in blue, green, and red are open and color-coded by difficulty. Trails also close when heavy rains and storms are forecast; if there is an orange or red weather warning, boats are taken ashore and trails are closed until the warning is lifted.

You need to purchase a Cinque Terre Card to access the trails

The Cinque Terre is a national park, and the Cinque Terre Card serves as a “ticket” to access a number of services, including trails, trains and buses, and services like public restrooms and Wi-Fi. Non-hikes do not need to purchase a Cinque Terre Card, but you may want to consider buying it anyway since it includes unlimited train rides without the need to stand in line at the machine to buy a ticket each time you take the train. Passes do not include boat rides—either ferries or boat tours—but you should take a ride between at least two of the towns to see the coastline from the sea. 

walking in the cinque terre

You can’t really visit the Cinque Terre as a day trip from Florence

I get this question so often that I thought I’d include it here. If you absolutely must visit as a day trip from Florence, be prepared for a very long day. It’s 2.5 – 3 hours each way by train, depending on which train you get. Arriving by train? Yes, absolutely. Arriving from Florence? Sure. As a day trip? Not ideal. Stay somewhere nearby – either in one of the five towns themselves or one of the pretty towns up the coast like Sestri Levante, Santa Margherita Ligure, or Camogli…all less than an hour away by train. 

A couple Beyond the Obvious Cinque Terre suggestions

Did you know there is a secret nude beach? Shhh. It’s a secret.

And finally, if you are interested in local culture and history or sustainable tourism, I recommend the movie Vendemmia. It’s about the local wine, Schiaccetra’, but also about the locals who are trying to maintain the traditions of their ancestors while dealing with mass tourism and the effects it’s had on local politics. Vendemmia asks the essential question: is it possible to preserve the future without sacrificing the past?

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