As a 40th birthday present, a group of my high school friends planned a reunion in Tuscany, including a hike of the famous Cinque Terre trail along the western coast of Italy, just north of La Spezia. Cinque Terre literally means "Five Lands," referring to the five coastal cliffside villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso Al Mare (from south to north, as we hiked the trail -- although you can easily hike all or a portion of this 12 kilometer trail in either direction). In total, expect around five hours of hiking (at an average pace) across varying up and down terrain, with spectacular seaside views every step of the way.
Before you begin your ascent, you first need to get to the trailhead by either ferry or train from La Spezia, as you cannot drive in this region. You'll need to purchase a Cinque Terre national park permit, which includes a daily train pass, for 8.50 euros. The park permit can easily be obtained at the La Spezia train station upon arrival. At the same time, they will provide you with a very detailed trail map, which makes this hike foolproof on a self-guided basis. Upon arriving in Riomaggiore, which a 10 minute train ride from La Spezia, your adventure begins.
After you collect your breath from the amazing first view of the Tyrrhenian Sea crashing into the rocky cliffs, here is what you can expect:
From Riomaggiore to Manarola: About 20 minutes. There are lots of other hikers and it's a largely paved flat trail for most of the way. Stunning seaside views in this section are known as "Lover's Lane." It is also the most touristy leg of the trail, as it's the easiest and most accessible portion. Manarola was a quaint town, but better towns await.
From Manarola to Cornigilia: Around 1 hour and 15 minutes. Lots of other hikers. Largely flat unpaved trail that ends with 300-350 uphill paved stairs. Corniglia was nice to experience, but the best is yet to come.
From Corniglia to Vernazza: Around 1 hour and 30 minutes. Fewer hikers. The first half goes up an unpaved trail through terraced wine vineyards, and second half is coming down an unpaved trail. The trail can be steep both ways. Significantly harder than the first two legs. Vernazza was my favorite of the towns in terms of beautiful setting and restaurants, so a great place to stop for lunch. There was also a small beach here making it a great place to take a midday break.
From Vernazza to Monterosso Al Mare: Around 1 hour and 30 minutes. The fewest hikers, and clearly the hardest section of the hike. This unpaved trail basically has four evenly split sections: up, down, up, down. Same experience as the last leg, except you do it twice in the same time frame, so the steepest part of the hike is going up and then going back down. The last section comes down 400-450 paved steps through vineyards before winding into Monterosso Al Mare. I was glad I was coming down these steps, instead of going up them, although many will tell you to take this hike in the opposite direction, from north to south, to get the hardest part out of the way first. But, Monterosso Al Mare had the most resort-like feel, with two large beaches, and plenty of restaurants and shopping. For this reason, I really liked ending here and hanging out on the beach with a celebratory gelato.
Monterosso Al Mare
From here you take a 30 minute train ride back out to La Spezia. Trains leave roughly every hour, so it is easy to go at your own pace and come back at your leisure. If you get tired at any point, the train stops at each of the middle villages, as well, if you need to abbreviate your hike.
Worth mentioning, it is best to start your hike early in the day, as the temperature can get pretty hot by the late afternoon. Plan accordingly and bring your sunglasses, sunscreen and lots of water and enjoy Italy's seaside paradise!