Visit One of Italy’s Most Beautiful and Beloved Spots—Without the Crowds

How one Afar editor managed to find seclusion in Cinque Terre.

Multicolored houses on the hillside by the ocean

Vernazza’s just one of the many places to get scenic views.

Photo by Chloe Arrojado

Auguri! I exclaim to a couple after stumbling upon their proposal by accident. The new bride-to-be acknowledges my congratulations with a nod, wiping tears from her eyes. In the distance, Vernazza’s colorful buildings sit beside a curved dock of small boats that float over aquamarine waters. It’s the kind of lookout made for tooth-achingly sweet, intimate moments. Yet in the beautiful spaces of Cinque Terre, finding seclusion can be rare.

I came to Cinque Terre (Italian for “five lands”) in May for a weekend trip with a friend to explore the famous villages for which it gets its name—Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore—as well as its some 70 miles of hiking trails. Vineyard terraces, pebbled beaches, and incredible Mediterranean views grace this part of northwestern Italy, which sits an hour and a half north of Pisa by train. It’s quite the bang-for-your-buck experience at this 15-square-mile national park, which is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The problem is that everybody knows it: While Cinque Terre is home to 4,000 residents, more than 2.4 million people visit the area per year. Like many travelers who come to well-loved spots like Venice and Greece, I was determined to explore while avoiding the crowds.

Finding Cinque Terre beyond the crowds

The first step to avoid rubbing shoulders with the hordes of hikers, especially when traversing the 7.5-mile Sentiero Azzurro is getting an early start. Also known as the “Blue Trail”, it’s the most popular hike in the area, connecting Cinque Terre’s five villages while offering views of the Mediterranean Sea below the Ligurian cliffside. If you want to beat the crowds, you’ll want to start walking by 7 a.m.

Commencing the hike in the early morning from the northernmost village of Monterosso secures us almost complete privacy. The silence—besides the rustle of our shoes—lulls us into an almost meditative state as we venture up steep inclines and over uneven trails (there’s a reason the national park banned flip-flops in 2019) and inspect the pink-hued flowers that grow along the path. By late morning, the reality of Cinque Terre’s popularity settles as ciaos between hikers become more frequent, and I constantly find myself maneuvering around families on the narrow pathway.

The liveliness extends to the villages as Cinque Terre Express trains bring a consistent stream of travelers excited to explore each hamlet’s personality: Riomaggiore, the southernmost village of the five, draws lively crowds to explore the water with boat and kayak rentals. Manorola leans on the romantic, offering many establishments that boast views of the Mediterranean to accompany a fresh seafood dinner (try Trattoria dal Billy—the layout spread over several floors maximizes the chances of a scenic evening).

If there were a “middle child” village, it would have to be the Corniglia, which also happens to be physically situated in the middle of the five. Its clifftop location gives a more isolated feel, and silence seems to be only a side street away from the main piazza. On the other hand, Vernazza’s beauty is loud and in your face: A boat dock frames the side of the village, creating an idyllic coastal landscape that can be admired from afar. Vernazza has even been named one of the country’s most beautiful villages. Monterosso, the northernmost town and our base for the weekend, is great for its options (it’s the largest of the five hamlets) and for beach access to the only sandy stretch in the five villages.

My friend’s comically large cappuccino—which looks more akin to soup—on a coffee break in Vernazza makes it clear how accustomed the villages are to foreign tourists and their large portion sizes. Overtourism has been an issue for years, and various efforts have been made to address it: One approximately half-mile-long stretch of the Sentiero Azzurro, the Via dell’Amore, is limiting the number of visitors upon its complete reopening in July, more than a decade after closing in 2012.

But surprisingly, finding quiet in Cinque Terre is easier than previously thought. A five-minute detour from the gift shops to Vernazza’s outskirts, and crowds disappear. Life moves blissfully slowly in these parts: Someone dusts off their carpet draped over a balcony; residents chat with one another as they lug a wheelbarrow down the hillside. The land feels intimate once again.

Left: Houses on a terrace with a view of the sea in the background. Right: A person walking down stone trail steps.

Hiking without the crowds means you can see gorgeous views—without bodies blocking them.

Photos by Chloe Arrojado

Tips for experiencing Cinque Terre without the crowds

1. Time your visit accordingly

Many sit-down restaurants don’t open until around noon, so work up an appetite by hiking earlier in the morning, which also helps you to avoid the crowds (they peak from the late morning to late afternoon). Just make sure you don’t hang around the villages for too long if you aren’t staying the night: The Cinque Terre Express trains between the villages only runs from 5 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. On the off hours, regional trains come every one or two hours, depending on the village.

Late spring, summer, and the early fall months are the busiest. Winter brings fewer crowds, and many restaurants and shops close during this time. Consider visiting during the shoulder season of April and October. Keep in mind that Cinque Terre is also popular for Italian travelers, so it’s crowded during national holidays like Easter and Italian Liberation Day (April 25).

2. Stay longer

You could just spend a day in Cinque Terre, and many do. But choosing a quick trip means weaving through groups of hikers and missing the quotidian beauty of life beyond the piazzas. If you really want to see everything in Cinque Terre without stress, stay in the area for at least two or three nights.

After the day-tripping visitors leave Cinque Terre and others retire to their hotel rooms, villages are left in arguably their most magical state. An evening walk in Monterosso reveals the warm glow emanating from apartment windows and the sounds of residents having dinner and washing dishes, allowing you the chance to relish in the vignettes of resident life.

3. Get off the beaten path

While hiking the Sentiero Azzuro is by far the most popular way to explore the trails of Cinque Terre, it’s certainly not the only one. For an uncrowded (albeit more difficult) hiking experience, consider the 13.5-mile La Via dei Santuari (which translates to “the way of the sanctuaries”); the more inland hike connects each of the village’s church sanctuaries. Cinque Terre’s trail network also extends to the lesser-visited, outer villages of Levanto (a four-mile hike north of Monterosso) and Portovenere (an eight-mile hike south of Riomaggiore).

Another option for avoiding the crowds is to book experiences. Cinque Terre is known for Sciacchetrà and other white wines made from local bosco, albarola, and vermentino grapes. Timing a tasting at wineries like Cheo in Vernazza during the extremely busy afternoon hours not only gets you away from the bustling streets but also saves you from hiking when the sun’s at its most intense.

Where to stay in Cinque Terre

While many travelers prefer to stay in the nearby city of La Spezia, as it offers more hotel options than any of the village, staying within one of the five hamlets is key to taking advantage of the emptiness in the early morning and late evenings.

For beach lovers, Monterosso is a great place to set up camp, as it’s the only outpost with access to a proper sandy beach. The village’s Hotel Porto Roca, located right by the starting point of the Sentiero Azzuro, offers expansive seaside views from the cliffside and includes local wine tastings and private jacuzzi bookings.

Chloe Arrojado is the associate editor of destinations at AFAR. She’s a big fan of cafés, dancing, and asking people on the street for restaurant recommendations.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR