Cinque Terre is a UNESCO world heritage for a reason. The five villages are placed into the mountainous coastline in a very picturesque way. Imagine steep and narrow canyons reaching down to the sea and traditional Italian buildings cramped to the mountain flanks and around tiny natural harbors. The once brightly colored buildings fight a non-winnable battle against a bleaching summer sun, torrential rains, high humidity and stormy winds in winter.
The colors of the facades keep fading faster than you can paint them. Due to scarce space in the canyons room for streets is reduced to an absolute minimum, which was at times of construction defined by chariots and donkeys and nowadays barely suits a Fiat 500 and the three-wheeler, two-stroke engine “Apes”, invented by Piaggio in the fifties of the last century. And even these can only drive on the main “streets”.
Buildings are quite tall to make the maximum of the rare constructible surface of the ever-steep mountain flanks and they combine with the winding and steep alleys to a labyrinth where you can easily get lost. This might lead to some strenuous additional descends and ascends – often via steep staircases – but often is rewarded by small architectural gems, a nice piece of art and beautiful views. Needless to say, that there are some nice restaurants, bars and shops spread – albeit fairly thinly considering this is one of THE major tourist destinations in Italy – throughout the villages.
To explore this world heritage a certain fitness including strong legs is very helpful. Even when you take the easy way via train you won´t be able to avoid some – especially in summer – sudatory walks. Every single village has its own train station, mostly not too far above sea level. To get into the town centers and particularly to these picturesque little harbors you must cover some altitudes. And if you want to do the real thing, which is to walk at least from one village to the other along the narrow paths winding along the steep mountain flanks, prepare for some serous physical exercise. To do one of these hikes is very recommendable – as long as the paths are not closed due to landslides – as you will get great vistas on the villages and the coast while you travers a typical terrasse landscape with beautiful vegetation.
As mentioned before, access to the villages is best done via train. You can start these train rides – which are an experience by themselves as the track follows the coast closely with a mix of tunnels and exposed sections along the mountain flanks – in La Spezia or in Levanto. There are special Cinque Terre tickets available which allow you to go back and forth and stop at whatever village you want.
In the main tourist season Cinque Terre will be flooded by visitors to an extent that gets unbearable. In a desperate attempt to ease this situation local authorities have introduced something like an entrance ticket but that might not make much of a difference. Best time to visit Cinque Terre is definitely late autumn and early spring. Then – and in winter – some surprisingly good sized swells often add some extra attraction to the area.
For more visual impressions check this gallery