About 20% of our clients kick off our first call by telling us that they’d like to see two of the “Big Three” (Rome, Florence, and Venice—and they usually know which two) but they’d like advice on the final piece of their trip. For this part of their trip, they usually either want to go somewhere with fewer tourists or do something specific like hiking or biking or visit wineries or cheesemakers. The Amalfi Coast is often discussed, but frequently the conversation becomes “tell us about whether we should go to the Cinque Terre or The Lakes.”
This conversation has been repeated so many times that we thought it might be time to share a basic this-vs-that overview to help other travelers choose between these two blockbuster destinations. To keep things simple, we’ll use Lake Como and Lake Maggiore to represent “The Lakes”, since that’s what most people mean. That said, we regularly get into a longer discussion with clients about Lake Como vs. Lake Maggiore vs. Lake Lugano vs. Lake Garda, so you do have options beyond the two most famous northern lakes in Italy.
We understand why this question comes up, and why so many clients struggle to choose between the two. Both feature crystalline water, scenic views, excellent hiking, and fabulous local food. There are some significant differences, however, so here’s a handy guide to help you decide:
The Lakes are set against the backdrop of the Alps, so if you like mountain scenery, you will love the Lakes. Lots of boats crisscrossing the lakes, of course, so it’s often more convenient to get from one lake town to another by boat rather than car or bus (there aren’t many trains). The scenery from the water is gorgeous: you see the mountains and the lake towns, as well as get a glimpse of the many sumptuous private villas along the shore that are hidden from view by land.
In the Cinque Terre, the headliner is the sea (though the steep coastal cliffs can also scratch the mountain itch, but don’t expect alpine peaks). Boat rides between the Cinque Terre towns are short hops along the coast, though if the sea is choppy, the boats stop running.
Neither The Lakes nor the Cinque Terre would be our first recommendation for a beach vacation as The Lakes have few beaches (though there are some) and the Cinque Terre beaches are mostly rocky (though, again, there are some).
The famous Cinque Terre mule track that connects all five villages is usually what people think about when they think of hiking the Cinque Terre. It’s a busy path and is not free to hike (you need to purchase a trail admission ticket via the National Park), but is almost completely flat so even a child can take it on and you can’t get lost. That said, there are many other beautiful hikes in the area with coastal views that are “medium” difficulty and less trafficked.
There are more hiking options on The Lakes, including cable cars, lakeside promenades, and hikes of every length and difficulty imaginable. Trails here are not busy (unless it’s Sunday, but even then they don’t come close to the traffic the Cinque Terre gets) and are free to hike, but you definitely need a map or a guide since they can be confusing to follow.
The Cinque Terre and surrounding area is in Liguria, famous for its pesto. It’s also well-known for its focaccia and for local white wine. Lemons, olive oil, gelato, and fish, fish, fish—especially anchovies and clams. This stretch of coastline is located in central Italy and along the Mediterranean, so the local cuisine reflects the temperate climate
As you might expect, The Lakes are known for lake fish: trout and carp. But they are also surrounded by mountains which means hearty food like meats, stews, cheeses, and bolder red wines are common as well. The cuisine here reflects the close proximity to the Alps and the heartier food of northern Italy.
In addition to feasting on local dishes, enjoying the views, and walking or hiking along the coast or up a mountain overlooking the lake, you can visit charming small towns and villages on the water in both places.
The Cinque Terre towns are built right on the cliffside so the towns are steeper compared to those of The Lakes, which are more spread out along the level lakeshore in general. This means that The Lakes also feature gorgeous flower gardens and villas with sprawling parks (many open to the public for visits). There are miles and miles of lakeside promenades for a stroll, something not as common in the Cinque Terre. And, there are islands.
Since they are surrounded by mountains and located further north in Italy, The Lakes are generally cooler than the Cinque Terre, so offer a nice respite during the heat of the summer. The Cinque Terre get sea breezes but are definitely warmer during the summer months.
Both places get a lot of tourists between May and September, but since there’s less room to spread out along the Cinque Terre coastline, it can seem more oppressive. If you’re looking for somewhere with fewer crowds, you may find it easier to accomplish this in The Lakes.
The Cinque Terre is not as convenient to get to as the Lakes. Both Lake Como and Lake Maggiore are just an hour from Milan via direct train, though once you’ve arrived at The Lakes, you’ll need to get around either by boat, bus, or car.
On the other hand, the Cinque Terre are not as easy to get to—usually you need to take a train through Pisa or La Spezia and then transfer to a local train from there, making it about a 4-hour trip from Milan and 2-3 hours from Florence. But once you’re there, it’s easy to travel between the towns and get around by train. A car is absolutely not recommended in the Cinque Terre.
There is really no perfect solution to the Cinque Terre vs. The Lakes conundrum…both destinations have their pros and cons and neither is a perfect fit for everyone. Regardless of which you end up settling on, you’ll be sure to love your time there!
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