All aboard the Cinque Terre Express.
Published on 3/29/2023 at 12:26 PM
The deep blue of the Ligurian sea. Sunlight shimmering behind Mediterranean pines. Pastel-colored villas clinging to sheer coastline. These are the sights of the Italian Riviera, a stretch of seaside Liguria where stunning architecture meets chaotic modern living against a backdrop of rugged natural beauty.
Not quite as popular as Italy’s Amalfi Coast further south (though still rightfully beloved by travelers), this stretch of coastline is every bit as mesmerizing—and if you travel by train from the Ligurian capital of Genoa, you’ll have a chance to stop off at some of the most scenic fishing villages in the world. These are the five towns of the Cinque Terre—Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore—with an end point in the Tuscan jewel of Livorno.
Train offers the best way to see this marvelous destination, as the extreme topography of the land makes it a headache to reach the coast by car. Instead, grab a window seat and enjoy the view as the journey reveals one visual spectacle after another.
How to travel Cinque Terre by train
Bustling Genoa is your starting point, reachable by air to the Christopher Columbus Airport, or by train from Milan or any of northern Italy’s major urban centers. The Cinque Terre Express runs from mid-March to early November, with frequent departures. You can choose to buy a one-way ticket, which costs only five euros, or a 47-euro three-day train card, available at any train station on the route. Discounts apply to children under 11 years of age. Train travel in this area is cheap and practical, as it is the main mode of transport for locals traveling the coast. Remember to validate your ticket at the station (you’ll see the yellow printers on before you enter the platform), as failure to do so can result in a fine.
Ready for your Italian Riviera adventure? Here are all the stops to see along the way.
Wander the streets of Genoa
Known as “La Superba” by locals, Genoa was once the capital of the Genoese maritime empire. It is a port city in every fiber of its being—busy, diverse, and rife with faded aristocratic grandeur. Somewhat neglected in recent decades, the city is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, with huge investment in a redesign of the harbor. There are many impressive palazzi worth visiting here including the Palazzo Reale, former residence of the Savoy dynasty, which drips with gilded 17th-century art. The Aquarium of Genoa sits on the harbor and will capture the attention of younger visitors for a few hours, but for a real sense of Genoa, your time is best spent wandering narrow streets, drinking espresso at bars, and sampling Ligurian cuisine. This is the home of focaccia, after all, and pesto Genovese served with trofie pasta twists.
Once you’ve eaten your fill, the Cinque Terre Express leaves every 15 minutes or so from the city’s main train station, the centrally located Genoa Piazza Principe.
Have a beach day in Monterosso al Mare
You first stop in the Cinque Terre is Monterosso al Mare, the biggest of the five towns and the only one with a sandy beach. Accordingly, this is an ideal place to take a dip; the beach is stunningly bookended by the Statua del Gigante, a damaged representation of Neptune by Arrigo Minerbi. If you want to do any shopping, Monterosso is also the place to do it. Consider picking up a cheap pair of water shoes if you’d like to go to any other beaches, as the coastline is full of rocky beaches.
Other attractions in the town include the Church of San Giovanni Battista and the Sanctuary of Nostra Signora di Soviore, located about two miles outside the town and around 1,300 feet above sea level. Monterosso is a good place to take a boat trip or to rent a kayak to discover the rugged coastline by sea. For food, Miky on the seafront is highly recommended for its modern take on fresh seafood. Call ahead during high season.
Hike the Blue Trail from Vernazza
The second stop on your trip is picture-perfect Vernazza, where a dense cluster of colorful Ligurian-style buildings converge upon a tiny harbor. The Santa Margherita di Antiochia church, located right on the harbor, dates from the 14th century and is worth dropping into. Hikers who may not wish to see all of Cinque Terre by train should check out the Blue Trail, a trekking route that runs through Vernazza to the other five towns. The trails are part of Cinque Terre National Park, access to which is included with a Cinque Terre Card (available for 7.50 euros at any of the tourism offices in the towns) or a multi-day Cinque Terre Express pass. A short hike up the Blue Trail section that runs to Monterosso just before sunset will give you an unforgettable view of Vernazza.
Evade the crowds in Corniglia
A five minute train ride will bring you to clifftop Corniglia, which is perched on a rocky outcrop about 330 feet above the sea. It is one of the lesser-visited towns of the area, as the waterfront is only accessible via the nearly 400 steps of the Lardarina staircase, which can present a challenge to some travelers. This makes Corniglia a good place to avoid the crowds in the busy season while spending some romantic time over a long lunch, aperitivo, or pizza and gelato.
Sip local wine in Manarola
You can reach Manarola by train in just two minutes from Corniglia—or if you’re feeling more adventurous, you can take the rugged Blue Trail by foot. If you do decide to hike it, you can cool off from your adventures in the town’s beautiful harbor.
Manarola is probably the most beautiful town in the Cinque Terre, and you don’t need to do more than wander the streets and surrounding hills to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the views. However, wine lovers will find plenty to sip here, from local wine made from the native Bosco grape blended with Albarola and Vermentino, to the sweet dessert wine Sciacchetrà. The town is surrounded by centuries-old vineyards, and if you visit in September, you can witness the grape harvest. Pair your wine with seafood; try Trattoria dal Billy for lunch or dinner.
The easiest and romantic stretch of the Blue Trail, the Via dell’Amore, begins here, connecting Manarola to neighboring Riomaggiore. However, the path is currently closed due to a landslide, and won’t reopen until sometime in 2024.
Have an underwater adventure near Riomaggiore
Riomaggiore is the last town of the Cinque Terre, and perhaps the most modernized, though it still has plenty of charm. Relax and enjoy some gelato, then head down to the water. You can relax on the pebbled beach, or spend the day sunbathing and swimming from the scogli (rocky area) further down.
For those who prefer to snorkel or scuba dive, there is a dive center that can provide everything you need, whether you’re a beginner or an expert. The Cinque Terre is a protected marine area, and this is your last chance to see the underwater sights before you leave this region behind.
Try a taste of Tuscany in Livorno
Leave the Cinque Terre behind as you travel to Livorno, where you’ll officially find yourself in Tuscany. Here, you can tour the Quartiere Venezia, a 17th-century neighborhood criss-crossed with canals and known as “Venezia Nuova.” Stop by one of the many seafood shacks on the marina for incredible cacciucco, a local fish stew speciality. If you wish to travel on from Livorno, Pisa and its famed leaning tower are only 15 minutes away by train.
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Hugo McCafferty is a contributor for Thrillist.