Cinque Terre, Italy: A practical guide for first-time visitors – where to stay, how to get there and what to expect

Cinque Terre, Italy: A practical guide for first-time visitors – where to stay, how to get there and what to expect

Cinque Terre is a group of five small coastal towns in the Liguria region on the western side of Italy. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage site, well known for its many colourful houses.

In this guide:

• Why visit

How to get to Cinque Terre + Is the Cinque Terre rail pass worth it

• Where to stay

• What to expect/things to know before you go (luggage and wheel accessibility) 

This guide is based on personal experience when I last visited in 2022 and extensive research. I did not visit the villages of the Cinque Terre national park, only the historical town center, but detailed information is provided for other methods of travel and arrival.

About Cinque Terre

Location and Geography

Cinque Terre, or “Five” (cinque) “lands” (terre) in Italian, is the name given to a string of five well-known small towns on the north-western mountainous coast of Italy facing south west over the Ligurian Sea. The entire area forms the Cinque Terre National Park and is in the Liguria region.

There are actually more than five towns here but Cinque Terre refers to just five of the most famous, namely: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. The other two are Porto Verne and Levanto.

The towns are connected by trains travelling across the coast and through mountains, a walking trail, and ferries visit four of the five towns (Corniglia is not accessible by boat due to the cliff top location), and there is also a walking trail which can be done in 3 hours if you are fit and fast.

Why visit Cinque Terre

Riomaggiore, Italy
Riomaggiore. Photo credit and copyright: Author

Cinque Terre National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is most famous for its small, car-free old/historical towns with cluster of colourful houses located on mountains and cliffs overlooking the water. There is also a nature trail visitors can walk along and a winding coastal road should you be brave enough to drive it.

Although it is a coastal area, for the most part, the beaches in the towns have coarse sand, and people make more use of the plentiful rocky areas.

Monterosso Beach, Italy.
Monterosso Beach, Italy. Photo Copyright and Credit: Author
People sunbaking on rocks in Riomaggiore, Italy
People on the rocks in Riomaggiore. Photo Copyright and Credit: Author

Each historical town is a small community, with restaurants and shops selling local products. There are no roads allowed in the historical town and no vehicles are allowed there (but are allowed in the village, where there are paved and sealed roads and buses). Visitors can wander around the small town on foot on cobblestone grounds. The towns are small enough to wander around by even slow walkers like me in enough time to see all 5 towns. 

Being a coastal town situated on cliffs, you get nice views of the ocean from up high. The old town has been well preserved with traditional local shops adorably squeezed together, the grounds paved with cobblestones. There are also farming terraces on the cliffs, which you can see from a distance or up close on the walking trail.

 

The smallness and compact quality of the old town gives a feel almost like that of a time capsule. You can explore the small local shops, hike up the mountain, go for a swim in the ocean, and walk along the coast and still get back to your hotel to the main city (if you are staying there), all in one day.

How to get to Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre is the name by which the cluster of coastal towns (particularly the five ones, below) on the north western side of Italy is known by, and the name of the national park the entire area forms. It is not the formal name of any one train station or town or any single location.

Thus, when arranging transport, you should use the town names instead.

 

The five towns part of Cinque Terre are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. Each town has a small train station with the same name as the town, and they lie in one continuous line along the mountainous coast.

 

To get to these towns, you first need to get to the town of La Spezia.

Closest Airport

The closest airport to Cinque Terre national park is Pisa International Airport (IATA: PSA, in Italian: Aeroporto Internazionale di Pisa, formally: Galileo Galilei Airport), 100 km away.

You can also fly to Florence International Airport (IATA: FLR, in Italian: “Aeroporto di Firenze-Peretola” and formally, “Amerigo Vespucci”) which is 175km from Cinque Terre national park.

Note for people arriving from outside of Europe: Although these are international airports, flights that serve it arrive from other European countries, (making it technically an ‘international’ airport), meaning if you are arriving from outside of Europe, you will have to transfer from another major European city/country such as Hamburg or Frankfurt in Germany or Zurich in Switzerland, or other Italian city.

Airport transfer:

Next, to get to Cinque Terre, first, you need to get to the town of La Spezia. La Spezia is the nearest major town center outside of the Cinque Terre national park area and the station you need is called “La Spezia Centrale”.

Given the distance, the easiest way to get there is by train. Use the official Italy train service “Trenitalia” (website or app).

 

From Pisa International Airport: Pisa International Airport has a shuttle train from the airport station (inside the airport) to Pisa Centrale.

If you want to go directly to La Spezia Centrale from Pisa International Airport, you can purchase a ticket from Trenitalia’s website or app (set departure point as “Pisa Aeroporto” and the destination as “La Spezia Centrale”). This train trip will involve a shuttle train called the ‘Pisa Mover’ that takes you from the airport to Pisa Centrale, then you need to change for a new train to La Spezia Centrale. Note: The airport shuttle is a private line. If you try to purchase a ticket using the Trenitalia website or app for just the airport to Pisa Centrale.

 

From the station of “Pisa Centrale“, get a train to “La Spezia Centrale”. You can get a train ticket for as little as 8,40€ with no changes and just over 1 hour in second class.

 

General prices vary between 8,40 – 15,50€, most are affordable at 8,40€ with no changes, or a few express services up to 20,00€. The time for the trip between Pisa International Airport and La Spezia Centrale is between 47 minutes to around 1 and half hour or up to 2 hours with a change.

From Florence: Duringmy visit, I did not travel from Florence airport as I did not fly into Florence. It seems that Florence International Airport does not have a train from the airport to the city, you must take a bus, taxi or tram instead.

 

But from Florence city, you can take a train from the station “Firenze Santa Maria Novella” (on Trenitalia website and app: “Firenze S. M. Novella“) to La Spezia Centrale. The trip takes between 2 to 3 hours and most services have one change, and cost 15,00€.

From La Spezia, there are three ways to arrive at Cinque Terre

Method 1: Train

A person sits on a chair at Corniglia train station, Italy
Corniglia train station, Italy. Photo Copyright and Credit: Author

Take a train from “La Spezia Centrale” train station to any of the five towns mentioned above. 

Since the five towns are in a line, the train stops at each town in the following order: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso.


How long does it take to get to Cinque Terre by train?

There are different services from La Spezia Centrale to the towns of Cinque Terre, not all trains stop at all stations, and prices vary depending on how many stations you travel, and the type of train. To see all possible trains and up to date prices, visit the official Trenitalia website or use their app. 

The train that stops at all 5 stations from La Spezia to Monterosso takes 23 minutes to get to Monterosso, including a one-minute stop at each of the 5 stations.


Operational Frequency:

The first train of the day from La Spezia Centrale towards the Cinque Terre stops on weekdays and weekends is at 5:23am, and the last train from Riomaggiore (the first stop from La Spezia in the direction of Cinque Terre and the most popular one) back to La Spezia is 11:49pm on weekdays and 12:41am on weekends so you can get there early or stay out late if you need to. Note: Riomaggiore is the first stop within the Cinque Terre stops from La Spezia. On the way back, it is the last stop, so the last train of the day departing the other 4 stations going back to Riomaggiore would naturally be earlier than the abovementioned time. Always check the time table on the official transport website for up to date schedules.


IMPORTANT: The vast majority of the trains from La Spezia to Riomaggiore and Manarola, two of the most popular towns of the five towns of Cinque Terre, depart once per hour at 15 minutes past the hour from 8am onwards (ie 8:15am, 9:15am, 10:15am etc. Trains before 8am depart at different times), with one express train to Manarola at 11:50am and one express train to Riomaggiore at 1:50pm. Miss the train and you’ll need to wait a whole hour for the next one in the same direction.

Check out the timetable on their website by doing a simple search for tickets with La Spezia Centrale as the departure station name.


How much does it cost to travel by train to Cinque Terre?

Always check the official site for up to date prices and times. Information below is a guide and accurate as of time of writing.


There are two ways to tour Cinque Terre by train, take the train from La Spezia to each of the five towns in order of arrival then get a train back to La Spezia from the last stop, Monterosso, or you can take the train all the way to Monterosso and then take the train one stop at a time back to La Spezia.

The regional (As indicated by a black R in the Trenitalia time tables) all stops train from La Spezia to Monterosso and express from La Spezia to Monterosso with a single stop at Riomaggiore costs 3,40€.


If you want to stop at each town along the way, the tickets currently cost the following, one way:

La Spezia to Riomaggiore: 2,70€

Riomaggiore to Manarola: 2,40€

Manarola to Corniglia: 2,40€

Corniglia to Vernazza: 2,40€

Vernazza to Monterosso: 2,40€

Monterosso all the way back to La Spezia: 3,40€

Total: 15,70€

What is the Cinque Terre Card?

The Cinque Terre card is a card offered to visitors by the Cinque Terre National Park that give the holders access and discounts to things in the area, including transport.

There are two time-limited Cinque Terre cards (although at the moment only one is available for purchase), the Cinque Terre Treno MS Card – which is what is many people refer to as the Cinque Terre rail pass, and the Cinque Terre Trekking Card (not on sale at the moment).

 

The Cinque Terre Treno MS “train pass” card

Cinque Terre Treno MS Card is a rail pass provided in partnership with Trenitalia, the main train service in Italy, that allows unlimited travel on the regional trains between La Spezia and Levanto in both directions. It is available as a 1-day pass or a 2-consecutive day pass, and can be purchased ahead of time online on the national park’s website or at various retailers in La Spezia, including La Spezia station, and train ticket machines.

 

What counts as “one day” on the Cinque Terre Treno MS rail pass?

One day is counted as the time you first use the ticket by tapping it at a card reader at a train station or bus, to 11:59pm on the same day, so you would obviously get more use if you start your day early.

 

What does the Cinque Terre Treno MS rail pass include?

Apart from unlimited train travel between La Spezia and Levanto, it also includes (as taken from the Cinque Terre website):

• Bus services in the villages themselves, should you choose to go there

• Free access to public toilets at each of the 5 Cinque Terre train stations (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, Monterosso) – without the pass it costs 1 Euro per access

• Reduced (by 1 or 1,5€ each, the exact discount depends on the individual museum) entry ticket prices to museums in La Spezia (Amedeo LiaCastello San GiorgioCAMeCSigilloPalazzina delle ArtiEtnograficoDiocesano*) *For ticket prices in English, click on “info e contatti”, scroll to the bottom of the page and click on “info and contacts”.

• Wifi at info points.

plus guided tours when available. See the full list of inclusions on their website here.

 

Is the Cinque Terre Treno MS Card worth it?

The price for a 1-day Adult Cinque Terre Treno MS Card recently changed on November 6th 2023 and dropped from 18,20€ to 14,80€ (although the Cinque Terre national park website still quotes it as 18,20€, the price of 14,80€ is updated at the checkout). A 2-day adult pass costs 26,50€. This new, lower price makes it worthwhile getting the Cinque Terre Treno MS Card if you intend to use the train for all 5 stations individually, for the 90 Euro cents savings on the train ticket alone, a small savings but nonetheless still a saving.

 

Unlimited train rides aside, it is highly unlikely that you will have enough time to utilise all the features of the card. Although you get unlimited travel between the stations, remember that the trains only come once per hour. Considering that there are probably only 8-10 functional hours in a summer day, that leaves just a maximum of 2 hours per town, not including transport time. Even though the towns are small, they are also compact, meaning, depending on what you want to see or do, you may end up spending quite a lot of time exploring the town, before you even get to the villages, let alone also spending time at the many museums in La Spezia. Plan ahead to decide whether the 1 or 2 day pass is worthwhile for you.

 

For a recommendation on a possible itinerary, check out what I did in Cinque Terre.

 

Where can I purchase the Cinque Terre Treno MS rail pass?

You can purchase the Cinque Terre Treno MS rail pass card on the Cinque Terre national park’s website here or at the train station upon arrival, from a machine or a station kiosk.

 

Card 2: Cinque Terre Trekking Card

Note: The Cinque Terre Trekking Card is currently not being sold and cannot be purchased onlineThe Trekking card offers exactly the same thing as the rail pass except the Trekking card does not give you any travel on the Cinque Terre rail network. Thus the only difference between the Cinque Terre Treno MS train pass and the Cinque Terre Trekking card is the Treno MS train pass gives you unlimited access to the trains on the Cinque Terre stations.

Method 2: Ferry

Ferry carrying passengers in the distance docks at Manarola, Italy.

La Spezia is a coastal town and has a wharf located about 1.5 to 2km from La Spezia Centrale train station depending on which end of the wharf you measure from.

 

There is a ferry that goes from the wharf in La Spezia to 4 of the 5 towns accessible by boat in the following order:

Porto Verne -> Riomaggiore -> Manarola -> Vernazza -> Monterosso (Corniglia cannot be reached by the ferry) and Levanto. The benefit of the ferry is that you can see the ocean view as you approach and depart each town, which you cannot see when travelling by train, since the train travels through the mountain tunnels. However, the major downside of the ferry is it is quite time consuming – the full trip from La Spezia to Monterosso is 2 hours give or take 5 minutes, and the trip from La Spezia to Porto Verne alone is 45 minutes.

 

The ferry service (Line 02) is run by “Consorzio Marittimo Turistico Cinque Terre – Golfo dei Poeti” and their boarding point at the wharf is about 1.5km on foot from La Spezia Centrale train station or a 5 minute bus ride and a 300m walk to the boarding point. Check google maps for a guide on up to date bus services.

 

You can purchase from a day pass ferry ticket that gives you unlimited hop on hop off rides on the ferry at their docking points between La Spezia and Levanto. The ticket can be purchased at La Spezia Centrale train station, there is a shop inside the station on one of the platforms. The ticket can be purchased from their shop desk from an attendant or via a QR code, and costs 30€ per person.

Note: There are no formally built ferry docks in Cinque Terre – instead, the ferry stops by the rock outcrops and cliffs where the town is, where stairs have been built. Passengers disembark and board with a modern roll out ramp, and you go either down or up a series of modern stairs to access the main town, but there is no signage, none that I saw, to indicate where the boarding point is. 

 

Operational Frequency:

From La Spezia:

The 2024 timetable is not available yet, however previously Line 2 of the ferry service mentioned above depart from La Spezia 6 times a day at following times: once per hour at quarter past the hour from 9:15am to 12:15pm, then at 2:05pm and 3:20pm from La Spezia wharf to the towns of Cinque Terre. On this line, the first stop is Porto Verne and the full trip from La Spezia to Monterosso takes 2 hours (give or take 5 minutes).

 

The order of the stops is:
La Spezia 
-> Porto Verne -> Riomaggiore -> Manarola -> Vernazza -> Monterosso (and Levanto, 2 services a day).

 

The same ferry departs more frequently from Porto Verne throughout the whole day, so there are hourly services (see below) from each of the rest of the towns moving in the direction of Monterosso, meaning if you take the earliest ferry service, you could spend two hours at each town before heading back to the ferry to go to the next stop, and see the all the towns in one day by ferry. 

 

From Porto Verne:

If you are catching this same ferry from Porto Verne, there are 10 (11 in summer) services a day and the ferry departs Porto Verne once per hour from 9am to 12pm, then from 12:50pm to 2:50pm, and again from 4-5pm and also 6pm during the summer months. The order of the stop is the same as above, meaning there are also 10 (11 in summer) services a day at the 4 towns of Cinque Terre.

Method 3: By Car/Road/Driving

You may have heard that no cars are allowed in Cinque Terre. Actually, while no cars are allowed in the historical old town (ie the town center) of Cinque Terre, you can drive to the (newer) villages there. I cannot claim to have driven the route but from my research, the road is a narrow coastal one that winds along the mountains. Some may find it beautiful, others may find it nerve-racking.

 

Once you get to Cinque Terre, the car will have to be left in the villages as there is no access for cars in the historic town center. Parking costs around 24€ per day.

Where to stay during a visit to Cinque Terre

La Spezia

You can choose to stay in the Cinque Terre national park area itself or outside the area in La Spezia. Here are some things to consider when choosing where to stay.

Staying in La Spezia during your visit to Cinque Terre would likely be cheaper than staying within the Cinque Terre area. Getting from La Spezia to Cinque Terre area by train is not difficult, the train ride is only 23 minutes to the last of the stop of Cinque Terre (Monterosso), and the last train of the night from Riomaggiore (the first stop from La Spezia to Cinque Terre) to La Spezia is 11:49pm on weekdays and 12:41am on weekends, so you can also stay out late if you need to.

So you could choose a hotel close to the station if you want to stay in La Spezia during your visit to Cinque Terre.

 

Besides cheaper accommodation, the benefit of staying in La Spezia is that it is in the town and more convenient, with access to shops for daily needs, restaurants, and facilities like bus stops and access to the main train station.

 

Check out my trip to Cinque Terre here.

 

[If location and convenience matters to you, then Hotel Mary is the best option – this is a 2-3 star hotel and although a little old, it is located less than 30 seconds directly across the road from La Spezia Centrale train station’s south west entry where there are lifts for luggage and wheel propelled transport devices. The hotel itself has a lift and is quite affordable and all the necessities including buffet breakfast (which may be at an extra cost). It even has parking spots available, although you cannot drive around the historical towns in Cinque Terre.

 

Porto Verne

Porto Verne is the first stop when travelling by ferry from La Spezia to Cinque Terre. It cannot be reached by train, but can be reached by bus. If you intend to visit Cinque Terre by boat only, Porto Verne is also an option for accommodation.

 

Cinque Terre

Staying in Cinque Terre is beneficial if you do not want to get up early to see the sights, or you want to experience living in the town, or you intend to go swimming in the water or picnicking on the rocks/beach and don’t want to carry around food/beach equipment on public transport. If you decide to stay in any of the towns of Cinque Terre, you should know that besides possibly being more expensive, the towns are hilly with many narrow stairs that go in every direction, so it would be very difficult to navigate with large and heavy luggage and wheel propelled transport devices.

Things to know before you go

Terrain

The historical town center of Vernazza is built on mountainous areas so involves many steps that go in all directions. The nature hiking trail has irregular steps carved into the path, and there are handrails. People with a reasonable level of independence and ability to climb some steps can do at least part of the trail in Vernazza. For the main square of the towns, the grounds are flat. Manarola is particularly accessible due to the flat ferry docking point and the flat grounds around the marina in general, plus the flat ramp that goes up to the viewing area around the cliffs.

Stairs in Vernazza.
Stairs in Vernazza. Photo Copyright and Credit: Author
Vernazza. Photo Copyright and Credit: Author
Tight spaces and steps in the 'streets' of Vernazza heading up to the nature trail. Photo Copyright and Credit: Author
View of Manarola from the viewing platform at dusk.
The flat path up to the viewing area in Manarola. Photo Copyright and Credit: Author
People looking at the sunset over the ocean on the lookout platform in Manarola.
People looking at the sunset over the ocean on the lookout platform in Manarola. Photo Copyright and Credit: Author

Luggage

Luggage can be brought on to the ferry service mentioned above at no extra cost as long as it doesn’t obstruct anyone, and of course on the trains. However, the towns of Cinque Terre are not so luggage friendly due to their many narrow and irregular stairs and tight spaces. The town itself is a small space with no vehicles allowed (nor the space for it) so taking large suitcases around the town to get to your accommodation could be a difficult thing to do.

Similarly, although the ferry service accepts luggage, you could have some difficulty getting large and heavy luggage from the ferry up and down the stairs to the town and to your accommodation.

 

Wheels – wheelchairs, prams, strollers and bicycles

The trains are modern and comfortable air conditioned trains that are wheels accessible and it is possible to go cycling in the village. The ferry service uses roll-out ramps at docking points but not all paths from the ferry to the town at all towns are wheels accessible, some places involve stairs.

If you are travelling with wheels, train is the best option to get to Cinque Terre. The stations are flat with lifts where applicable, or at least ramps. The main town is only a few hundred metres from the station and the public parts of the town is mostly flat (albeit cobblestone), some shops and restaurants are up a few steps or so but not all.

The rest of the area in general can be hilly with slopes – it is a coastal area perched on the cliffs in the mountains after all.

Alternatively you can take the ferry to the places that are accessible and use the train for the rest of the trip. The docking point at Manarola is flat and accessible.

 

Toilets

Each of the train stations in the towns have a toilet, which, like other parts of Europe, is charged, 1€ to use. In the town, people use the toilet facilities inside a restaurant – either you pay to use it (around 1-2€) or it is free to patrons, so you could dine at a place and use the toilet facilities there, since you will have to pay for it anyway. Expect any public toilets in the town to be charged as well. Tip: have lunch and/or dinner and use the toilet facilities there before you leave.

 

Public drinking water

Despite not having public toilets, there are free, public drinking water fountains across Italy and Cinque Terre is no exception. These fountains are wall mounted and ornately decorated stone or concrete and dispense cold fresh water. To find one, simply ask the locals, in Italian, “Fontana”.

 

Grocery facilities in Cinque Terre

There is a supermarket in Riomaggiorre and Manarola, within 200 and 80 metres of their train stations, respectively. Look or ask for “Coop 5”.

 

ATM and card payment facilities in Cinque Terre

There are ATMs in the towns and shops accept card payment (each shop has their own policies).

Things you can do in Cinque Terre

Here are some ideas of things you can do in Cinque Terre:

• Go swimming in the ocean

• Hire a boat/go on a private boat tour

• Hire a paddleboard or a kayak

• Picnic on the rocks

• Go window shopping in the town

• Go for a hike in the nature trail

• Visit the museums

Read about my trip to Cinque Terre here.

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