The Cinque Terre’s largest village seems incredibly busy compared to its sleepier neighbors, but it’s not without its charms. Monterosso is actually two towns—a bustling, character-filled Old Town built behind the harbor, as well as a relaxed resort that stretches along the Cinque Terre’s only sand beach and is home to the train station and the tiny regional tourist office (upon exiting the station, turn left and head through the tunnel for the Old Town; turn right for the newer town).
The region’s most famous art treasure is here: Housed in the Convento dei Cappuccini, perched on a hillock in the center of the Old Town, is a “Crucifixion” by Anthony van Dyck, the Flemish master who worked for a time in nearby Genoa (you can visit the convent daily 9am–noon and 4–7pm). While you will find the most modern conveniences in Monterosso, you’ll have a more “rustic” experience if you stay in one of the other four villages.
Vernazza may just be the quintessential, postcard-perfect seaside village. Tall, colorful houses (known as terratetto) cluster around a natural harbor (where you can swim among the fishing boats) and beneath a castle built high atop a rocky promontory that juts into the sea (the castle, which is nothing special, is open Mar–Oct daily 10am–6:30pm; admission 1.50€). The center of town is waterside Piazza Marconi, itself a sea of cafe tables. The only Vernazza drawback is that too much good press has turned it into the Cinque Terre’s mecca for American tourists.
The quietest village in the Cinque Terre is isolated by its position midway down the coast, its hilltop location high above the open sea, and its hard-to-access harbor. Whether you arrive by boat, train, or the trail from the south, you’ll have to climb more than 300 steps to reach the village proper (arriving by trail from the north is the only way to avoid these stairs), which is an enticing maze of little walkways overshadowed by tall houses.
Once there, though, the views over the surrounding vineyards and up and down the coastline are stupendous—for the best outlook, walk to the end of the narrow main street to a belvedere that is perched between the sea and sky. Corniglia is the village most likely to offer a glimpse into life in the Cinque Terre the way it was decades ago.
Manarola is a near-vertical cluster of tall houses that seems to rise piggyback up the hills on either side of the harbor. In fact, in a region with no shortage of heart-stopping views, one of the most amazing sights is the descent into the town of Manarola on the path from Corniglia: From this perspective, the hill-climbing houses seem to merge into one another to form a row of skyscrapers. Despite these urban associations, Manarola is a delightfully rural village where fishing and winemaking are big business. The region’s major wine cooperative, Cooperativa Agricoltura di Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza e Monterosso, made up of 300 local producers, is here; call (tel) 0187-920-435 for information about tours of its modern (established 1982) facilities. Try to reserve at least 3 days before your visit.
Riomaggiore clings to the rustic ways of the Cinque Terre while making some (unfortunate) concessions to the modern world. The old fishing quarter has expanded in recent years, and Riomaggiore now has some sections of new houses and apartment blocks. This blend of the old and new is a bit of a shame as the village center stills seems like something of 50 years ago, bustling and prosperous in a charming setting, while the “new side” of town seems like a half-effort at maintaining the old mostly in color. A credit to both sides is that many of the lanes end in seaside belvederes.
From the parking garage, follow the main drag down; from the train station, exit and turn right to head through the tunnel for the main part of town (or, from the station, take off left up the brick stairs to walk the Via dell’Amore to Manarola). That tunnel and the main drag meet at the base of an elevated terrace that holds the train tracks. From here, a staircase leads down to a tiny fishing harbor, off the left of which heads a rambling path that, after a few hundred meters, leads to a pleasant little beach of large pebbles.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.