A photo in a glossy Condé Nast magazine first introduced me to Cinque Terre, or “Five Lands,” some years ago. I was hooked instantly by the sight of Manarola, one of the five colorful villages snuggled into almost vertical walls of rock. Catching the salty scent and listening to the Ligurian Sea assaulting the shore was possible at a mere glance. I couldn’t get that rocky coastline out of my mind and set out to visit.
And so can you. Here’s how to get to and around the Cinque Terre towns, hands down one of Italy’s most spectacular regions known as the Italian Riviera.
How to get to Cinque Terre from Milan
You can easily reach Cinque Terre from Milan. The Lombardian metropolis lies some 230 kilometers north of Cinque Terre in Northern Italy.
Since there is no “Cinque Terre” station, you need to know the Cinque Terre cities:
- Monterosso al Mare (the closest one from Milan)
Each has a train station, with regular connections among them and other parts in northern Italy.
If you hop on a direct train to Monterosso, whose appeal is the pretty little cliffside dwellings, the journey will take fewer than three hours. As you can’t reserve a seat, arrive early, or else you might find yourself standing in the corridor in the peak season. Only local commuter trains stop in Monterosso, and not all of them are direct. Make sure you don’t need to change the train along the way.
You can also ride a train to the Ligurian city of La Spezia, a significant naval base inhabited in Roman times, which sits at the head of the Golfo della Spezia southeast of Genoa. La Spezia is a transfer hub, so you’ll find more trains to this city than to Monterosso. Once in La Spezia – the fastest one from Milan takes three hours – you can jump on a regional train from La Spezia to Vernazza, La Spezia to Riomaggiore, La Spezia to Monterosso, or any of the five villages clinging to green hillsides and huddled among rocks. This will take no more than half an hour.
Train plus ferry
Traveling during spring or summer? The train on the first leg of your journey, plus the ferry on the second, will knock your socks off. Approaching the Ligurian coast on a ship, you’ll be gazing at terraced fields, colorful hamlets squeezed between rocky headlands, and steep slopes falling into the blue sea.
You can ride the train to La Spezia and then hop on a La Spezia to Monterosso ferry, or a La Spezia to Vernazza ferry. There’s also a ferry from La Spezia to Riomaggiore. Ferries from La Spezia to Cinque Terre run at least twice daily between April and early November, more in July and August. The boats drop you off at any of the five waterfront towns. As you can’t reserve ferry tickets in advance, it makes sense to arrive early.
You’ll find the Cinque Terre ferries schedule here.
If you like hiking but can’t be bothered to trek for hours, the bus from La Spezia is your friend. You can get to Portovenere by jumping on the bus 11/P. While the coastal path is scenic and well signposted, it’ll take you some four hours to walk from Portovenere to Riomaggiore, the first of the five villages if you’re coming from La Spezia.
Campiglia (bus 20) is nearer to Riomaggiore than Portovenere is, and Biassa (bus 19) is close to Riomaggiore. However, the seven-and-a-half-kilometer hike from there is less intriguing than from, say, Portovenere to Vernazza, as it’s not entirely along the coast. You can also ride bus 29 to Volastra, a stone’s throw from Manarola. Tickets only cost a few euros.
Cinque Terre flights aren’t available. The nearest airports are:
- Milan Airport (the primary international airport)
- Florence Airport
- Genoa’s Cristoforo Colombo International Airport
- Pisa’s Galileo Galilei International Airport
Travel time from La Spezia Centrale: 20 minutes to one hour, depending on your destination.
How to get to Cinque Terre from Genoa
You can also ride the train to Cinque Terre from Genoa. The easiest way is to head for La Spezia, then use the local train towards Levanto. The “Cinque Terre Express” stops in all villages that make up the Five Lands.
Travel time: Maximum one-and-a-half hours to La Spezia and another 20 to 30 minutes to Cinque Terre.
How to get to Cinque Terre from Florence
It’s a two-and-a-half-hour train ride from Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station to Cinque Terre. Tickets are available for €15 per person. Once you’ve arrived in La Spezia, you can either hop on a local train or bus.
How to travel around the Five Lands
While each village has its bus, you can’t Cinque Terre-hop from one town to the next. The very local buses run twice per hour from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. (7:30 p.m. in winter), but don’t bank on it. Drivers leave once the buses fill up, and you can find stops every 100 to 200 meters. The fare is €1.50. If you buy a Cinque Terre Card (€7.50) from the driver, you can use local buses for free.
Here’s where you can go using the village buses:
- Riomaggiore: From the village center to the cemetery. Buses from Riomaggiore to Biassa and the Pass of Telegrafo are available, but not to the other four Cinque Terre cities.
- Manarola: From the town center to the parking lot and to Volastra.
- Corniglia: From the center to the train station.
- Vernazza: The bus from this town connects Vernazza with its surrounding hamlets (e.g. San Bernardino), plus the Black Madonna and the Sanctuary of Reggio.
- Monterosso: This bus goes around the village and up to the Sanctuary of Soviore, Liguria’s oldest Marian sanctuary, which sits on a plateau overlooking the valley of Levanto to the west and Vernazza to the east.
Hiking through the Cinque Terre National Park is excellent to feed your adventurous side. If you come from Milan via train, you can walk from Monterosso to Vernazza, its neighboring town.
The coastal distance from Monterosso to Vernazza is only some three kilometers, but the trek is steep and challenging, as the nature trails along the shore meander through hills like slithering snakes. Also, some rocks are slippery, and you’ll have to climb 550 steps along the way. However, your reward is idyllic cliffside villages, sweet-scented pines, and panoramas of steep slopes tumbling into the ocean.
Whether you want to get from Monterosso to Riomaggiore or Riomaggiore to Vernazza, the best way to get around Cinque Terre is the Cinque Terre Express, a local train running every 15 minutes throughout the day from mid-March until November 1st. It only takes a few minutes for the train to reach the neighboring villages. Hop-on-hop-off travel cards are available at the stations and valid for the whole day.
Monterosso to Riomaggiore is also a popular ferry route. If you wonder how to get from Monterosso to Riomaggiore, or how to get from Monterosso to Vernazza, boat rides for 12 euros are the answer. The journey with the ferry from Monterosso to Riomaggiore takes about 80 minutes.
Is opting for private transportation worth it?
Not in the peak season. You may spend hours looking for a parking lot and likely end up squeezing your car into a super small gap between vehicles that already have a ticket on the windshield.
The best time to visit Cinque Terre
The Cinque Terre weather is pleasant from May until September, but ideally, you drop by in May or the first half of June before the masses arrive. September is also a good month. The crowds thin out, and it’s still warm. Rain becomes more frequent in October, resulting in closed trails due to mudslides.
While the five coastal towns are no longer secret, ghosts of the past still haunt Cinque Terre at night when the only buzz revolves around free concerts happening on the villages’ squares. Either way, you can do what I did: enjoy a prolonged Bar Nessun Dorma dinner at sunset, catch Manarola’s salty scent, and listen to the Ligurian Sea crashing ashore in thundering blows.