7 Can't-Miss Experiences in Cinque Terre

La Scogliera/Oyster

With over 2.4 million annual visitors, Cinque Terre is one of the most-visited regions in Italy. And that's really saying something, considering the high tourist competition of ancient architecture in Rome, wineries in Florence, and canals in Venice. Cinque Terre is truly special. The five candy-colored fishing villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare are built into cliffs over the sparkling Ligurian Sea and have a magical quality that isn't to be missed. Whether you're visiting the region for a few days or a few weeks, these are the seven experiences you should add to your itinerary. 

1. Take a scenic hike.

More than 75 miles of trails crisscross the Cinque Terre region, and it's relatively easy to visit each of the stunning villages on foot (hundreds of thousands of people do it every year). The most popular hike is the coastal path Sentiero Azzurro, which links all five villages and offers stunning vistas of the sea, architecture, and vineyards. It takes about six hours to traverse, with short breaks, but most people are going to want to stop in the villages for food and swimming. A shortened option is to hike from Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza. The walk takes about two hours, and there are a few strenuous steps, but views of Vernazza are worth the trek. Note that sections of the trails can open and close due to maintenance and weather -- watch for signs.

2. Try a new wine.

La Serra sul Mare/Oyster

Cinque Terre's wine isn't famous on the worldwide restaurant scene, but local winemakers and restauranteurs are proud of their homegrown vintages. Plus, it's fun to sip vino from the same grapes you'll see along the cliffs over the Ligurian coast. The grapes -- of Bosco, Albarola, and Vermentino -- are painstakingly grown and harvested by hand in small batches. Expect a wide variety of notes, from wildflower to citrus, with a mineral finish thanks to the sea air. Dessert wine, Sciacchetra, is intensely sweet and a favorite among locals. 

3. Eat seafood in a cone.

Dessert lovers might think that Italian gelato is the best thing to be served in a cone, but make room for seafood cones as well. Thanks to its coastal location, Cinque Terre is teeming with seafood restaurants, and you can sample all sorts of fish and crustaceans at most eateries. But seafood cone takeaway joints are an excellent pick for a tasty and cheap on-the-go lunch. Staff fries breaded mussels, calamari, octopus, and prawns, then piles them in a cone and drizzles the whole thing with a choice of ketchup or mayo. French fries can be added to the mix. 

4. Hit the beaches.

Hotel Baia/Oyster

Surprisingly, many visitors skip a swim while in Cinque Terre, and that's a big mistake given how clear and clean the water is. Each of the five villages of Cinque Terre, even the mountain-perched Corniglia, provides public access to the Ligurian Sea. For instance, Riomaggiore has a beach with big rocks and pebbles. Meanwhile, it's easy to jump off the pier in Vernazza. Access to the sea and small coves are ubiquitous along the coast, but if you want a wide sandy stretch with facilities and lifeguards, you'll have to take the train (or hike) to Monterosso al Mare. This village has a beach just in front of the train station, and another one south of town. For a fee, beach clubs provide sun loungers, umbrellas, lockers, and restaurants and bars. Bring your own snorkel gear and towels. 

5. Get on a boat.

If the weather cooperates, take the time to get out on the water, as the villages look exceptionally beautiful from a boat. The cheapest and easiest way is to jump on the public ferry from one of the villages to the next (with the exception of Corniglia), but these boats are often crowded. It's far more relaxing to take a private cruise, which departs from the docks in Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare. Options can include day-long sails with stops for swimming and snorkeling, or sunset cruises with cocktails and information about the villages' history.

6. Explore the villages by foot.

La Baia di Rio/Oyster

Hiking through the rugged countryside between the villages is one thing, but wandering around the ancient villages themselves is entirely different and not to be overlooked. The best villages for exploring are Monterosso al Mare and Riomaggiore, since they're a bit larger and have more winding pathways and roads than in Manarola and Vernazza. It's fun to follow footpaths to find unexpected views and peek at incredible architecture. Note that people still do live in the villages and it's important to respect their privacy. 

7. Take the train.

Cinque Terre's train system is one of the most scenic in Europe. The high-speed train powers through each of the five villages (note that you'll need to walk up hundreds of steps or take a shuttle to Corniglia from the train station) every 20 minutes or so. And the whole line is directly on the coast, offering lovely views of the Ligurian Sea and rocky cliffs. 

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