Cinque Terre means five lands, or five villages, and is one of the most iconic places in Italy behind the big cities of Rome, Florence and Venice. But choosing where to stay in Cinque Terre is difficult as most of the pictures you find online of the colourful houses piled up the hillsides don’t give you any indication of how easy it is to get there, whether it has lots of restaurants, what the shopping is like and most of all – does it have access to a sandy beach?
I’d seen so many amazing (heavily colourised) photos of Cinque Terre on Italy’s Mediterranean Sea, a riot of houses piled up hillsides, that I thought I would need to be a mountain goat to stay here. Wrong.
The village you want to stay in for all of the above is Monterosso al Mare. It’s the last of the five villages, depending on which way you look at it, and the best to stay at in my opinion.
Here is what I discovered staying here three fabulous nights and exploring as much as I had time for…
Why stay in Monterosso al Mare?
Monterosso is the only village with a sandy, easily accessible, swimmable beach and that’s a good enough reason right there! It’s also larger and spread out along the beach with an old and a new town (the new town is still older than New Zealand). The old town has some very cute shops and there is a plethora of dining options dotted between the two.
Where at stay in Monterosso?
We’re at Hotel Baia which is perfectly located across the little road lined with trattorias and the beach. It also has it’s own portion of the beach with blue umbrellas standing over double loungers which you can book for €15 for two chairs per day, or wander along to the slither of public beach and pay nothing – but prepare for it to be crowded and the lithe French tourists beside you will probably light up a ciggie.
All of the beach is pretty much taken up with paid sun loungers, so if you’re going to be here for a few hours (or a whole day) just pay the extra and enjoy the peace – and enjoy not being harangued by hawkers trying to sell you a beach towel.
Where to get laundry done in Monterosso?
You’ll find a Lavanderia about a block from the hotel and if you drop off your bag of washing in the morning they will deliver it, washed, dried and folded, back to your hotel late afternoon. We had two bags full which went into two baskets and paid €26 for the whole service. She also asked if we wanted medium or cold wash and hot or medium dry.
Is there a supermarket in Monterosso?
Why yes there is! It’s right beside the Laundry so you can stock up on your picnic items (buy your cheeses and oils and pesto from local boutiques stores up and down the Cinque Terre though). There are also pharmacies everywhere in Italy and it’s surprising how many times our little group of 11 have popped in and out for this and that (including antibiotics they’ll sell you over the counter!)
But there’s also a lovely deli along the waterfront too, near Michelin starred Miky restaurant, so grab your bright red vine tomatoes, lettuce and pesto from here and take it to the beach or back to your room.
How do you get around in Cinque Terre?
Despite what you might have heard about walking between towns, it’s waaaay too hard and in some cases nigh on impossible. Only the serious mountain goat tourists do it and even then only early in the morning before the heat gets up. Expect climbs of hundreds of steps up hillsides lined with grape vines and impossibly balanced houses. However, the best walk to do would be between Monterosso and Vernazza. It should take about an hour to two hours and while a good level of fitness is required, you’ll find lots of flat bits as you zig zag up and down the hills.
For the rest of us there are trains and ferries!
Trains – these are not picturesque but get you from A to B (or E) quickly and cheaply. You’ll spend most of the journey in tunnels. They are air conditioned and often crowded as it’s the same train to Florence (so don’t fall asleep!) and there are two levels and you can get a day pass to zip up and down and as many times as you like for about €16 (€13 if you’re over 70 or under 12 years).
Ferries – a day pass on the also very crowded ferries is €33 and while it’ll take you longer, it’s much more picturesque as you enter each harbour to pick up and drop off passengers in a very slick and efficient operation of a ladder being pulled out from the bow onto terra firms, the hordes filing off then on, ropes slung back on board and you’re off again.
What to do from Monterosso
Explore the Old Town (and where you take the ferry from) is located through a tunnel about a 5-10 minute walk from our hotel in the new town. It has lots of good shops for things like linen, leather bags, pottery and souvenirs. You’ll also find restaurants and bars. If you’re staying here you’ll probably find yourself popping in and out a few times!
Take a ferry ride all way past the official “five” Cinque Terre towns to Porto Venere. This is now the start of the Italian Riviera in the Gulf of Genoa. But it’s only an hour or so ferry ride away, so plan to shop, visit the old church on the head land (there was a wedding when we went so we watched everyone throw rice instead) and then you can work your way back to Monterosso hopping off at Riomaggiore, Manarola or Vernazza.
Porto Venere is a much larger town than any of the others and you can expect to see a few swanky luxury yachts the harbour and plenty of bikinis and speedos reclining on the rocks and onboard said vessels.
Swim in the sea! The Mediterranean Sea is at your doorstep so make sure you at least dip your toes in. If you’re really feeling energetic rent a peddle boat with a slide! I think from memory four people can peddle (yes peddle not paddle) and you can have turns sliding into the sea.
Go to Manarola for lunch at Nessum Dorma, a restaurant on the hillside looking down over the harbour. We lined up for opening at noon, but others were already seated having just completed a pesto making class up there – which would have been great fun! Cinque Terre is known for its yummy pesto as well as anchovies.