After three trips in three years, I think it’s time to put together a comprehensive post about what to do in Cinque Terre. It’s no secret that I enjoy gelato and eat well while in Cinque Terre, but it’s through trial and error that I find my favorite places. I am fortunate to be able to return again and again, so if I can help other people understand why it’s important to stay and what to do in Cinque Terre on their first (or only!) trip, I want to do it.
The best way to enjoy Cinque Terre is to get out early, take a break during the mid-day, and head out in the late afternoon for a second round. We try to get out before 9:00 and come back to our hotel around 12:00. The cruise excursions start arriving around 11:00, so the villages tend to fill up quickly. Manarola and Vernazza feel the most crowded to me. Corniglia is the least crowded during the day. We rest (and enjoy the jacuzzi! Keep reading!) for a couple hours and head out between 4:30 and 5:00 for round two. I love to photograph blue hour so we make dinner reservations based on the sunset schedule. This schedule has significantly increased our enjoyment of traveling to tourist destination. (Real talk: When someone tells me they hate Cinque Terre, Venice, or Florence… I resist the urge to tell them that they are doing Italy wrong. You can’t be out during the middle/heat of the day and enjoy it as much!)
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Things to Do in Cinque Terre
Take Cooking Classes
Liguria is the birthplace of pesto. Take a pesto class while you’re in Liguria. Seriously, this short pesto class is one of my favorite mid-day breaks in Cinque Terre. Not only do you get the opportunity to try regional delicacies, but you also get to make (and enjoy!) your own pesto. It’s incredible to see the sauce come together.
Warning: Restaurant pesto will never be the same after you try fresh pesto. As long as you know that going in, you will be fine. If you are looking for more in-depth cooking classes (and not traveling in off-season), check out these cooking classes in Manarola.
Once you’re home, try your hand at this Italian focaccia recipe. Just add pesto!
Take a Self-Guided Walking Tour of Cinque Terre
I love the self-guided walks in the Rick Steves Cinque Terre book. These walks get you off the beaten path through the center of town and allow you to see views and vistas that are unparalleled if you just meander through the center of town. My two favorite walks are through the vineyards of Manarola and the backside of Riomaggiore. The Corniglia and Monterosso al Mare walks take you through the center of town. Vernazza is a combination of all five walks – it takes you up above the town and leads you back into the harbor. The book is a great buy for the walks alone; I don’t know that we would have found any of these paths otherwise.
If you want to try a local speciality, book a Cinque Terre wine tour, which includes a walk around the vineyards, as well as a wine tasting.
Go Hiking in Cinque Terre
I recommend purchasing the Cinque Terre Card. You can use it to get between the villages by foot or by train. You will want to check to see which trails are open before starting out on your hike. Many of the popular trails are closed from weather-related incidents. You will also want to start early in the day and pay attention to the time.
We followed the trail from Monterosso to Vernazza in the late afternoon and made it to Vernazza right before sunset. The trails are not lit so it can be pretty dark out there. More than once, I have had the great idea to scale the hills behind Vernazza after some wine…
Nothing in Cinque Terre is easy after wine. That is all I’m going to say about that. Just book a room with a terrace and enjoy the view from there.
Try Sciacchetra with a Cinque Terre Wine Tasting
I am all about trying the regional specialties, which includes trying Sciacchetrà, a dry white wine. One of my favorite mornings was spent wandering the wine terraces of Manarola with Alessandro. (Don’t worry, you come down the hill to try the wine.) As a local winemaker, Alessandro can give you the history of the region, recommend some of the best places to eat, and provide further insight into the rise of tourism in Cinque Terre. He is funny, fascinating, and a great host. His terraces also offer some of the most beautiful views of the Ligurian coastline, so there is guaranteed to be something for everyone to enjoy! You can also book a wine tasting tour from Riomaggiore, but I appreciate the Manarola wine tour if you’re looking to maximize a short visit.
Cinque Terre Restaurants
Where to Eat in Manarola
Late arrivals in Cinque Terre usually lead us to Trattoria dal Billy in Manarola. Thankfully, regardless of holidays and rain, they are usually open and willing to accommodate us after a short wait. The service here can be hit or miss. I assume its because the staff assumes that most patrons will never be back. That said, the food is always fresh.
I think that is the main draw of Billy’s for me. The pasta and sauces are always delicious. I never feel like I am getting reheated or old food. My favorite dishes here are the tagliolini al scarpara and the tagliolini al pesto.
Where to Eat in Vernazza
I am skeptical of most harbor-side restaurants, but my husband loves any table with a view. We found ourselves at Gianni Franzi, and when I’m overwhelmed, tired, or just need a mental break, I’ll picture our meal there. We grabbed a table with an umbrella during golden hour and stretched our meal into the evening.
The house wine might have been their wine that convinced me to scale the hills in the dark. Kids play soccer on the square. The waves gently crash against the shore. Delicious pesto reminds you that you’re in Liguria.
There is no more relaxing place for an evening meal.
If you are looking for a special occasion meal (or squid ink pasta), Belforte is your place. My husband believes that their squid ink pasta is best pasta dish he’s ever eaten. I opted for the trofie con pesto, which had a strong parmesan flavor. It was the cheesiest pesto I’ve ever eaten and it was tasty!
The weather wasn’t on our side (or maybe my clothes weren’t warm enough) so we opted for a table inside. It was perfectly cozy and romantic.
Side note: if you’re with a group, they have a HUGE flaming seafood risotto dish. The presentation is so impressive!
BONUS: I found my favorite cookie, occhi di bue, in Vernazza on this last trip. I was so excited I did not even remember to check where I was. Watch for him. He is filled with nutella and completely delicious.
Other Cinque Terre Restaurant Recommendations
Try Focaccia in Cinque Terre
Focaccia is another Ligurian speciality and it’s a great savory snack. (Yes, even I get tired of gelato.)
If you are looking for the best “plain” focaccia with salt and olive oil, look no further than Il Massimo della Foccacia in Monterosso al Mare. I’ve never been able to grab Massimo with olives or with pesto, but I would expect it’s just as tasty. My husband is known to hoard Massimo’s focaccia and take it to Florence (where it is still good, even after a few days). The second best focaccia is in Riomaggiore at Fugassa and Faina (AKA Focaccia e Faina AKA #62 Via Colombo?). I love their focaccia con olive, especially when it is fresh and warm. It is a bit more dense than Massimo’s focaccia, which makes it more filling. I could make a meal out of it (and probably have more than once). The third best focaccia is at Batti Batti in Vernazza. Again, it’s more dense than Massimo’s focaccia, but it does feel a bit more airy than Focaccia e Faina. The only reason I marked it a little lower is that the only time I’ve gotten a truly fresh piece is right when it opens.
Honorable mention goes to Wonderland Bakery (Monterosso al Mare) simply because we’ve only been able to try it once. It could be a true contender though.
Eat Gelato in Cinque Terre
After our last trip, the best gelato in Cinque Terre is updated. If you are short on time, head straight to Vernazza. All the best gelato is Vernazza. Between Il Porticciolo, Gelateria Vernazza, and Gelateria Stalin, it’s difficult to choose the best of Cinque Terre. They are all tasty. Porticciolo Gelateria is home to the elusive and hard-to-find anywhere canella (cinnamon). If you go to Gelateria Vernazza, I love the gandiolo. Gelateria Stalin offers the best noccicola (hazelnut). After falling in love with the fruity flavors of Tuscany, I expect my next trip to Cinque Terre will include trying new flavors.
If you find yourself in Corniglia, I recommend stopping by Gelateria Alberto. Whether in a cup or a cone, Alberto offers soft, creamy, subtle gelato with a delicious wafer to enjoy. Gelato Corniglia is across the way from Alberto and is a solid option, but Alberto wins out for fresh gelato in my book.
On previous trips, we never could time our trips to Monterosso al Mare to coincide with gelato stops. After three years, however, I can say that we were successful in finally picking up gelato at Golosone. (Did I mention we travel during shoulder season?) Golosone is rich, creamy gelato. I’ve never met a gelato I didn’t think I could finish but Golosone’s chocolate fondente (dark chocolate) made a valiant effort. I plan to return for fragola (strawberry) and limone (lemon).
Where to Stay in Cinque Terre
I think I have made it clear that I am not a budget backpacker. My days of hosteling are over. I have mixed feelings about the rise of AirBnB and similar services that are pushing locals out of housing markets. Good showers are a must, nice views are appreciated, and any other amenities are a bonus. Thus, for the foreseeable future, you will find us at La Torretta. My husband loves the wine terrace views so any room with a balcony serves our purposes. On our most recent trip, we discovered the beauty of a mid-day soak in the jacuzzi. Could there be anything more beautiful and peaceful than a wine terrace-sea view? I think not.
On our most recent trip, our flight was delayed 7+ hours. I knew that we would miss check-in hours at La Torretta, so I reached out to them via email and Facebook to update them and see what we needed to do. They kindly offered to stay late to accommodate our late arrival. It was pouring rain when we parked at the top of the hill, but as soon as they saw us approaching, they ran to help with our bags while ushering us into the dining room for prosecco and snacks. They ensured that the room was warm and cozy before escorting us down to it, carrying an umbrella over me the entire way. When we asked about late-evening dining options, they gave us a list of places that would be open, as well as the closing times.
What to Do in Cinque Terre: Stay & Relax
Enjoying the best of Cinque Terre requires a one-night itinerary. You will not experience to magic of this place on a day trip. Getting out early, resting during the crowded mid-day, and heading back out in the evening is the best way to enjoy Cinque Terre. I have yet to meet a blue hour I did not enjoy, whether I find myself in Monterosso, Vernzza, Riomaggiore, or Manarola. There are plenty of cities that you can enjoy at a frantic pace, but Cinque Terre remains my favorite place to start a trip to Italy. It forces you to disconnect from the modern world, slow down on your walk, and enjoy all the good things that life has to offer.