The Cinque Terre are five towns that appear to cling to the rocks along a small section of northern Italy’s Mediterranean coastline, and are famous for the mule trails that connect them: paths which attract thousands of hikers each year. I worked as a hiking guide in and around the Cinque Terre, and if you’ve seen photos of the area and are thinking about hiking the trails, here are the things you should know.
When I guided in this area, 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. We’d walk all four trails and visit all five towns, including stops for lunch and snacks and shopping, and we’d be done by late afternoon.
“Exactly how busy are the trails?”, asked one of my Italy trip planning clients the other day. “Like Park Avenue in New York during the week before Christmas?”. The trails are busy, but not Christmas-in-New-York busy. You won’t be walking shoulder-to-shoulder with other hikers; on the other hand, you won’t have the trails to yourselves. An added bonus: this is probably the only trail in all of Italy that I would say: you really don’t need a map because there are enough people on the trails that I cannot fathom anyone getting lost. However, if you’re looking for a great hike in the wilderness, don’t despair! There are many other trails nearby.
There are lots – lots! – of nearby wonderful hiking trails. Do the famous mule trails on one day, because they’re famous for a reason. Then, get a hiking map, and go explore. Read about other trails in the area on the Cinque Terre hiking website, or start with some of my favorite hikes near the Cinque Terre.
The area 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 – but not to worry, everything has been rebuilt and is once again visitor friendly. However, every now and then the trails need to be repaired or there is flooding or there are small landslides and the trails close. So check that the trails are open first. The red colored dots to the right of the trail indicate trails that are closed. Then, green or yellow or blue dots indicate the difficulty of the hike, but all of those colors mean the trail is open.
There are five towns connected by four trails. The two northernmost trails are the most difficult, so I prefer hiking the trails from north to south, and get the more difficult trails done before lunch time. If you are not dressed for hiking – like wearing flip flops or carrying a very heavy backpack, you can walk the two southernmost “trails” which I would describe as more of an easy amble rather than a hike.
If you are a hiker but traveling with non-hikers, they can take trains or boats or buses between the towns and meet you at the other end. As the Cinque Terre is a national park, you’ll need to buy a park pass to use the trails, which you can do as soon as you get off the train. Your hiking pass also includes bus transfers between towns, or you can get the train card that includes train travel between the towns. I also recommend taking at least one boat ride, to see the views from off the coast. Non-hikers who are not using the trails do not need to buy a parks pass.
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 in La Spezia or in one of the pretty towns up the coast like Levanto or Camogli.
Did you know there is a secret nude beach? Shhh. It’s 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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