What to do in Cinque Terre

Portovenere – An Unexpected Bonus near the Cinque Terre

After a sunny picture-perfect first day, the weather turned a bit stormy during our 2nd day in the Cinque Terre. Since it wasn’t a good beach day, we decided we would visit the other Cinque Terre towns. Luckily, the weather was not so bad that the boat couldn’t run its route. As I mentioned in my previous post on the Cinque Terre, the small ferry boat is a great way to see four of the five Cinque Terre towns, and it includes a wonderful ‘bonus’ stop at the southern end of the route.

We purchased our tickets, got a copy of the schedule for timing our stops and hopped on the boat in Monterosso. We decided to go all the way to the end of the route first and work our way back, stopping in the towns we hadn’t visited yet on the return trip. The woman who sold us the tickets explained the ferry’s route and told us that Portovenere (the last stop) was quite a beautiful town, even though it’s not officially part of the Cinque Terre. She wasn’t joking. Portovenere (also spelled Porto Venere) became one of my favorite spots in this part of Italy. (You can also hike to Portovenere from Riomaggiore, the nearest Cinque Terre town, in about 2 hours).

The travel writer Rick Steves calls Portovenere “enchanting” and I would say that’s an accurate description. I was stunned with our first view of Porto Venere, an old medieval church perched on a rocky outcropping guarding the harbor entrance.

Church of Saint Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

Arriving by sea from the Cinque Terre, the 13th century Church of Saint Peter (La Chiesa di San Pietro) is your first sight.

As we cruised further into the harbor, I could also see remnants of a castle fortress on the hill behind the town and an old wall with towers extending down the hill to the harbor. We hopped off the boat and wandered the town for a couple hours, which gave us time to visit the Church of Saint Peter, Castle Doria and explore a few of the old town streets.

Porto Venere, Italy

A view of Portovenere from the inner harbor.

Portovenere was purchased by the city-state of Genoa in 1116, which ruled this part of the Italian peninsula and was a rival of Pisa [which is about 92 km (57 miles) further south with its famous Leaning Tower], and other Italian states at the time.

Church of Saint Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

Walking up the rocking outcropping to the Church of Saint Peter.

Cinque Terre Porto Venere18

Interior of the Church of Saint Peter, which is actually two churches – the older part dates from the 9th century and the “newer” church (above) is 13th century, from the Genoese era.

Castle Doria, Porto Venere, Italy

A view of the rugged coastline, cliffs and Castle Doria, taken near the Church of Saint Peter.

Castle Doria, Porto Venere, Italy

Taking the stairs up into Castle Doria. There is not too much of the castle itself remaining, but the views of the surrounding area from the grounds are remarkable.

Castle Doria, Porto Venere, Italy

A view of the castle grounds with the Church of Saint Peter in the distance. The castle was rebuilt in the 16th century as a coastal fortress.

Church of Saint Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

I love this view of the Church of Saint Peter with an old castle window in the foreground.

Porto Venere, Italy

Looking down on Portovenere’s harbor and the walls extending from the Castle, with the old town directly below.

After enjoying the great views from the castle grounds, we meandered through the old town on our way back down to the harbor. The Genoese left their mark on the town, including two churches from the 13th and 12th centuries, San Pietro (Saint Peter) and San Lorenzo.

Church of San Lorenzo, Porto Venere, Italy

The 12th century Church of San Lorenzo, another Genoese contribution to Portovenere. Over the main doorway (a little hard to see) is a sculpture of the martyrdom of San Lorenzo who was roasted alive on a grill. Yikes.

Porto Venere, Italy

A view of a residential area near the Church of San Lorenzo.

Porto Venere, Italy

A focacceria with some yummy pastries and pizza and a window covering made out pasta! I wonder how the pasta holds up in a heavy rain?

Porto Venere, Italy

A light rain doesn’t deter tourists and shoppers in the old streets of Portovenere.

Porto Venere, Italy

A typical street scene in old town Portovenere, looking toward the medieval gate.

Porto Venere, Italy

Just outside the walled portion of Portovenere.

Porto Venere, Italy

I always love exploring new places and Portovenere didn’t disappoint. If you get to Cinque Terre, be sure to visit this great town too!

 

Some Tips for Visiting Cinque Terre

Let’s state the obvious…the word on Cinque Terre is out. Many years ago this little corner of Italy would have been a unique find – five colorful quaint villages hugging the coast overlooking the clear turquoise waters of the Ligurian Sea, all connected by hiking trails. While all of the above still holds true, just be prepared to share this “secret” with thousands of your closest friends. We were there in May and it was pretty busy. I cannot imagine what it would be like in July and August, when many Europeans take their holidays. Since the towns are small, there are not many hotel or B&B rooms available (and there’s really no place to build more) and hence why the rates are rising and more people are visiting Cinque Terre as a day trip from either the north (Levanto) or the south (La Spezia). We’ll share a few tips for your visit in this post.

What to Do

Because the towns are small, the main attraction are the towns themselves. Things to do in each are similar: exploring the little streets and alleyways, the town squares and shops, people watching (you will find tourists from all over the world), taking a peek in a few old churches or other buildings, sunbathing, eating wonderful food and gelato, and of course enjoying the local (white) wines. This area has been a wine producing region since Roman times.

Cinque Terre Manarola19

All kinds of interesting pastas were available at a shop in Manarola.

Here is a little bit about each of the five towns, from north to south.

Monterosso al Mare

This is where we stayed and it was a good choice for us. It is the largest of the five towns and has the most hotel rooms, the best and biggest sandy beaches with easy access, including parking. We were able to drive our rental car down into the town since we had a confirmed hotel reservation and the hotel had a tiny car park garage a short walk away (see more info below on transportation).

Monterosso, Cinque Terre, Italy.

The beaches of Monterosso. The newer part of town is just in the distance.

There is a newer part of Monterosso (the north section, where our hotel was) and the older part (southern section) with more typical old world European ambience, separated from each other by a rocky point with a pedestrian tunnel (or you can hike up and around the point). Since we were only staying a couple nights the new section was fine for us and the hotel was very comfortable.

Monterosso, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of the rocky point that separates old Monterosso (show here) from the newer town (behind the point). An old convent sits above the town.

Monterosso, Cinque Terre, Italy

Street scene in old town Monterosso.

Cinque Terre, Italy

A view along the trail between Monterosso and Vernazza. The hike took about 1.5 hours with lots of stops for photos (and to catch my breath). This is probably the most popular section of the trail between the towns. The trail had a lot of up and down sections, so be prepared to burn some calories. Please note that a Parco Nationale della Cinque Terre pass is required to hike the trail. Better to pay the €7 fee than to pay a fine if caught without the Pass. There is a little booth right by the trail a short distance south of Monterosso to get your ticket and there are probably other locations on the trail or in the towns too.

Vernazza

Perhaps the most scenic village (a very difficult call), with a little castle and tower overlooking the bay and the town center. Vernazza is probably the second most popular location for staying in the Cinque Terre.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of Vernazza from the trail leading north to Monterosso.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of the little beach in Vernazza.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of Vernazza from Castle Doria.

Cinque Terre Vernazza31

Inside the church in Vernazza, which dates from 1318.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

An alleyway in Vernazza, with a cat checking things out!

Corniglia

We did not visit this town since it is more difficult to access (there is no boat connection) and my guess is for that reason it is the quietest of the five towns.

Corniglia, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of Corniglia.

With more time, we would have hiked to the Corniglia from Vernazza. You can also hike to other locations from Corniglia via a higher trail that connects town above the Cinque Terre. Because it is a bit more remote, Corniglia attracts more backpacker tourists.

Manarola

The best views of Manarola are from the northern side of the tiny bay, from a little park that overlooks the town and bay (Punta Bonfiglio).

Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of Manarola from Punta Bonfiglio.

Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of Manarola from the upper town looking towards the harbor.

Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy

Boats are parked like cars in Manarola.

I believe that the trail along the coast between Manarola and Corniglia is closed, as is the section between Manarola and Riomaggiore. This is a real bummer since the hike in both directions from Manarola would be pretty easy. The closures are due to slides and unsafe trail conditions. It is not clear when or if these trails will reopen.

Riomaggiore

Probably the third prettiest town after Vernazza, once again a very tough call. I thought the little harbor was so unique and scenic.

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Italy

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Italy

Another view of Riomaggiore from an upper street.

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Italy

Stairway in Riomaggiore.

Some Practical Advice about Transportation
There are three ways to get from town to town: 1) a “hop on, hop off” type of boat service, which I heartily recommend; 2) train service, which is fast, crowded, somewhat pricey and less scenic; 3) taking a hike between the towns (note the trail closures mentioned above). Hiking a least one section of the trail should be on your list of “to-do’s”.

Cinque Terre Manarola0

A view of the passenger unloading process at Manarola.

Cars are worthless here. The roads are extremely narrow, steep and curvy down into the towns. There is almost no place to park, and you will probably be stopped on the road above each town, with the police telling you not to attempt the drive down. Check with your hotel or B&B beforehand on what to do if you are traveling by car. The boat service allowed us to “hop on and hop off” all day long, and provides great views of the coastline along the way. Keep in mind that the boat service will not be operational in the winter. Also, the boat does not stop at Corniglia since there is no dock access. Keep your boat ticket in a safe place! We used the train once from Vernazza back to Monterosso. It is busy and is the main transportation method between the five towns and into and out of the Cinque Terre. In some cases you’ll have to hike a bit from the train stations into the towns – there is only so much room. It must have been a huge job to build the train tracks through these rugged hills and coastline.

The boat service did provide a ‘bonus’ stop (probably my favorite place in this region) that I will discuss in my next Italy post!