September 16, 2019

Where to stay in Cinque Terre, Italy

Cinque Terre means five lands, or five villages. It is made up of the five iconic coastal villages with brightly painted houses jumbled down the hillsides that you see in photos of the best places to visit in Italy.

But choosing where to stay in Cinque Terre is difficult as most of the pictures you find online of the little bays and buildings 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?

Map of Cinque Terre
You can see the 5 villages on this map: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore which you can hike between in just under 5 hours. Then add a ferry to get down to Porto Venere for lunch!
Map of Cinque Terre train stations
Or take the train between the 5 Cinque Terre villages

I’d seen so many amazing (heavily colourised – see the comparison of real life v filtered pics below) photos of Cinque Terre on Italy’s Mediterranean Sea, the riot of houses piled up the hillsides, that I thought I would need to be a mountain goat to stay here. Wrong.

You can actually hike between villages, but expect steep steps. Instead I tried out the train and the ferry. More on those below.

For me the village you want to stay in for all of the above (the dining, the shopping and the beach) is Monterosso al Mare. It’s the last of the five villages (or the first, depending on which way you look at it), and the best to stay at in my opinion.

But the next village along, Vernazza, is also very popular. You might like to read this post on the best hotels in Vernazza.

Vernazza harbour in the morning
Vernazza at about 10am
Vernazza in the afternoon
Vernazza at 3pm!

Here is what I discovered staying in Monterosso for 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.

Monterosso al Mare beach
The beautiful beach of Monterosso al Mare!
Gelateria in Monterosso
My hubby met a couple of American blokes having a beer outside a gelateria and sat down for a chat. That’s what you do here!

Where to 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 stay in Cinque Terre
Hotel Baia is a great location when staying in Monterosso al Mare
Monterosso beach Cinque Terre
All the beach umbrellas for the ocean front hotels in Monterosso al Mare and only a slither of public beach!

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 hiking between the villages of Cinque Terre, it’s waaaay too hard for me. 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!

Taking the train in Cinque Terre
On the train whizzing through tunnels with just a skerrick of a view!
Manarola train station in Cinque Terre
These are no little funiculars in Cinque Terre, in fact you can end up in Florence if you want to!

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.

Cinque terre by ferry
Popping into the villages of Cinque terre by ferry

What to do from Monterosso

Explore the Old Town of Monterosso (it’s also where you take the ferry from). The old part 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 here. 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 by ferry 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 swanky luxury yachts in the harbour and plenty of bikinis and speedos reclining on the rocks and onboard said vessels. One of the gorgeous ladies on my tour described the below shot as the “bikini line”!

Porto Venere harbour
Porto Venere harbour and bikini line!

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 (pics below), 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.

Porto Venere waterfront
Arriving by ferry into Porto Venere for a shop and lunch
Shopping in Porto Venere
Shopping in Porto Venere
We sat in the restaurant, Nessum Dorma, above and ate the dishes below
View from Nessum Dorma restaurant Manarola, Cinque Terre
Our view walking back down from Nessum Dorma
at Nessum Dorma restaurant in Manarola
Our amazing antipasto platter at Nessum Dorma in Manarola
Tomato bruschetta at Manarola
Actually this was my favourite dish at Nessum Dorma with the addition of the homemade pesto – delicious!
Anchovy painting Cinque Terre
You’ll find anchovies everywhere – even painted on the footpath!
Manarola no filter image
Manarola with no filter (admittedly the sun was too bright)
Manarola with filter image
Manarola with filter – the way every publisher shows it!
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About Megan Singleton

Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!

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