Part Four: the Classic Cinque Terre Coast Walk
This is one of the top walks in the Cinque Terre.
From Riomaggiore to Manarola on the Coast
If you have only one day to discover Liguria’s Cinque Terre, for sheer hiking pleasure nothing beats the seven-mile coast trail linking all five villages.
Here’s a tip: to avoid having the sun in your eyes as you walk, start in the morning in Riomaggiore, the southernmost of the five villages, and walk north toward Monterosso, the northernmost of the Cinque Terre.
The first leg of this hike is easy, a 20-minute stroll from Riomaggiore to Manarola on the so-called Via dell’Amore (the Love Walk). This wide, level seaside promenade is a favorite not only of lovers but of walkers and hikers of all ages and abilities. Note: the Via dell’Amore is currently closed although it may reopen soon
The dozens of stone benches strategically sited along the Via dell’Amore are as popular with romantic couples as they are with young families and seniors. They’re so popular, in fact, that if you take this hike in high season you might well not get to sit on a bench, no matter how enamored or awestruck by the scenery you are.
On all sides of Manarola rise towering century plants—cactuses with sword-like leaves—and prickly pears clinging to wafer-like sandstone rock faces. The cliffs twist and plunge into the sea. These striated promontories thrusting into the Mediterranean are colonized in summer by swimmers, sun lovers, scuba divers and fishermen. Like the locals, the seagulls return at night and in low season.
Manarola is the smallest of the Cinque Terre villages. It spills its houses down a ravine into the sea. Like Riomaggiore it has been a popular summer resort since the 1920s. Manarola claims its very own quarter-mile stretch of the Via dell’Amore.
Best walks, Cinque Terre: Manarola to Corniglia on the Coast
The hour-long hiking route from Manarola to Corniglia is markedly different from the Via dell’Amore. It’s more a Goat Walk than a Love Walk, following the coast for a few hundred yards and then crossing a promontory before dipping down to the former bed of the first railroad line to reach the area. It was built in the 1870s and abandoned about forty years ago.
Crowning the north end of the mile-long beach flanking this trail is Corniglia, the third of the Cinque Terre (counting from either direction) and the only one with no proper fishing port.
The jumble of Corniglia’s slate-roofed houses stands on a spur about 300 feet above the sea. The ancient Ligurians founded Corniglia, but its winding alleys and shadowy mood are evocative of the Middle Ages. There’s a 1,000-year-old Romanesque church (Saint Peter’s) and a view-point above the main square. Once you’ve scrambled up to Corniglia’s panoramic overlook, you can retrace with a single glance your hike so far. You can also prepare yourself for what’s to come: the most challenging section of all.
Best walks, Cinque Terre: Corniglia to Vernazza
The most exciting sections of the coast walk await you north of Corniglia. The three-mile path to Vernazza and the two-mile section from Vernazza to Monterosso, become even steeper, rougher and narrower than anything you will have encountered elsewhere in the Cinque Terre.
These trails roller-coaster through more vineyards, plus olive and lemon groves, that seem to hover over the waves. Growing thick and fast wherever terraces are no longer tended is the so-called “macchia mediterranea.” This is what the French call “le maquis,” and for some reason the French version is better known than the Italian one. In the Cinque Terre, this heady, perfumed undergrowth is composed mainly of rock rose, broom, wild thyme and rosemary, arbutus (strawberry trees) and heather.
Every turn of the trail from Corniglia to Vernazza and Monterosso seems to offer an even more spectacular see-forever prospect of nearby villages, terraced vineyards and craggy coastline.
Vernazza: the Most Attractive of the Cinque Terre
To my mind, the pick of the Cinque Terre pack is Vernazza. For centuries this was the richest of the five villages because it has a perfect natural harbor and so flourished as a fishing and trading center in the Middle Ages.
You come upon Vernazza’s cubist jumble about two miles north of Corniglia. Its miniature castle, round stone watchtower and 14th-century church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia are unmistakable landmarks greeting you as you spiral in on the footpath from above.
Below you, picturesque fishing boats and leisure craft bob in the port. The main square facing the church is always lively, with a mix of locals and foreign hikers.
Despite the crowds, Vernazza’s many trattorias serve remarkably good seafood, pesto, focaccia and other Ligurian specialties. It’s still hard to get a bad meal here.
Even the most case-hardened visitor will crack a smile at the beauty of the site.
Spend the night in Vernazza and the village becomes even more enchanting: when the day-trippers leave the blissful isolation of pre-tourism days steals back.
Monterosso: Lively and Real, the Cinque Terre’s main resort village
From Vernazza, the larger village of Monterosso is another hour and a half’s hike north on the coast trail. Monterosso spreads along two sandy coves separated by a castle-crowned promontory.
The hulk of Punta Mesco, a mountain jutting into the sea at the far northwestern end of Monterosso, seals off this popular beach resort from Levanto and other Italian Riviera villages further north.
Monterosso is the biggest, most sophisticated of the Cinque Terre, with a dozen or more restaurants, countless caffè and wine bars, and the area’s most comfortable hotels.
After a satisfying hike among the Cinque Terre’s villages there’s nothing better than sitting at one of Monterosso’s seaside spots, watching the sun set over Punta Mesco while sipping a cool glass of Cinque Terre wine pressed from the encircling hills.
More on the Hike
To hike the entire Cinque Terre, we’ve put together a series starting with your arrival in Vernazza (this page, part 1) and continuing. Just use the navigation bar below: