The Cinque Terre – or Five Lands – is home to one of Italy's most famous National Parks. It's one of the crown jewels of the Mediterranean, and anyone who hasn't been there should definitely plan a trip through the famed five fishing villages that make up the area. We decided to visit the Cinque Terre by car, instead of on foot or by boat or train, to bring you some of the best insider tips for foodies and wine lovers. The five fishing villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare are the main attractions, but we chose the Vendemmia (wine harvest) as the time to go and visit the countryside beyond.
We came off the main highway and exited at Deiva Marina, driving straight over to Corniglia. The drive brings you straight through the lush slopes and past the golden vineyards dotting the steep terraces that drop into the sea far below from rocky cliffs all along the Ligurian coast. Because of the challenges of growing grapes on the rocky, steep terrain of this area, winemaking is sometimes referred to as a 'heroic endeavor'. Expect the wines from this region to be a little more pricey, because the entire process is done by hand, from the vineyard to the bottle, which is fascinating in and of itself.
A tour of the vineyards of Cinque Terre
Despite the sometimes overwhelming tyranny of the elements, the region enjoys a relatively temperate climate, and the mountains offer a natural protection from the extreme cold of the north and the high-temperature readings coming from the south. The land on which Cinque Terre wines are cultivated has a unique mix of just the right elements: exposed to the salt of the sea, the sun's rays and abundant rainfall in equal measure. The roughly one-meter-high stone walls that surrounds wine terraces dotting the landscape deflect the sun's rays onto the dry wall running alongside the vines, hastening the ripening of the grapes to perfection.
A tour through Cinque Terre's vineyards is a visual feast between the steep cliffs, white beaches, and blue sea in the background. Early autumn is the best time to travel there by car because, especially on a quiet weekday, few locals will object to your desire to stop for photos at every turn, even if you slightly impede local traffic. The 25 km long road meanders from the Deiva Marina exit to Monterosso, the first settlement in Cinque Terre. But be forewarned: It's not something you will want to do when your backseat passengers have queasy stomachs! But on the plus side, there's a restaurant in every village where you can eat local fresh fish and sip from the locally produced white wine before heading off to your next destination.
The Cinque Terre National Park
Before descending to the overlook of the lovely tiny harbor of Levanto, the Strada Provinciale 41 takes you through sleepy Ligurian villages like Piazza, Passano, Castagnola, Foce, and Reggimonte. You can discover more of these hamlets in our Driving Itinerary that takes you along the entire Ligurian Coast. But to reach the Cinque Terre national park border, you will want to continue following the signage outside of the village to Vernazza. However, we decided to limit our excursion to the village of Corniglia, at which point we turned up toward the Santuario.
Cinque Terre local wines
Although some producers add a Vermentino grape, the Bosco and Albarola grapes make up the majority of the wines that are allowed to carry the Cinque Terre label.
At the Cantina Cinque Terre, the cooperative where Cinque Terre vineyards collaborate to promote their individual wines, you can find crisp and light wines with notes of wildflowers and citrus, as well as more robust varieties with complex combinations of herbs like sage, lemon peel, and intense minerals.
But it is the Sciacchetrà (pronounce shahk-eh-TRA), a dessert wine that the area is most proud of – made from the same grapes, but with select fruits from the vineyards nearest the ocean. To make this delicacy, after harvesting, the grapes are spread out on mats to dry, sometimes up to several months. Even though there is little output, the best bottles offer a flavor that is evocative of honey, dried apricots, whipped cream, and hazelnuts.
Tips for hotels in Cinque Terre
The villages are all close to one another, therefore I advise picking a location you can use as an easy starting point for your excursions. The largest of the five, Monterosso has most of the hotels. While some of the streets in the Centro Storico are accessible by car, the majority of the hotels are in a pedestrian area. There are a few B&Bs and rental units in the smaller communities.
Although it is located just outside of Monterosso's center, Hotel Porto Roca boasts unimpeded views from every one of its balconies and patios and offers a shuttle service to and from the train station and parking areas.
On the other hand, La Terrazza sul Mare is situated close to the center and the beach. The location and scenery more than make up for the small size of the rooms. The bed and breakfast accommodations in the Cinque Terre settlements range from very basic to quite upscale. Donna Barbara is located in the charming town of Vernazza, close to the harbor.
It is rare to have a bad experience eating in Cinque Terre, but that really goes for all of Italy. A catch of the day of fresh fish, as well as various regional pasta dishes and local delicacies, are always available on menus of the tiny, typical trattorias. In Riomaggiore, stop in at Enoteca Dau Cila near the harbor. It's best to make reservations if you wish to eat al fresco. Pasta with anchovies and sea bass is one of my favorite dishes, or try whatever they offer in the way of seafood on the menu. They have a fantastic wine list as well.
In Manarola, I suggest Trattoria del Billy for a heady dish of delicious black pasta with clams and stuffed mussels. Its well worth the walk down to the village. But don't worry, you can always work off your meal on the way back up!
Tourists and locals alike frequently purchase a platter of fried anchovies and a glass of local wine at Osteria a Cantina de Mananan in Corniglia. I advise making reservations in advance if you don't want to wait for a table, especially if traveling with a big group.
There is basically only one restaurant in Vernazza where you should eat: Ristorante Belforte. It lives up to its name, "Strong Beauty" because it happens to be set in the very best location in Cinque Terre, not because the food is better than in any of the other places, but because you cannot beat the view from its perch high above the water. The Ligurian cuisine offered is traditional fare, with their specialty, Marinara mussels cooked in garlic, parsley and white wine.
In Monterosso al Mare, I recommend the San Martino Gastronomia, which not only serves tasty regional fare, but can also provide food for a picnic on the beach if you prefer. You can also try the upmarket Ristorante Miky, which serves freshly caught seafood and handmade pasta, for a fancier dining experience. Don't miss out on their truly scrumptious chocolate dessert.
The Cantina Sociale di Cinque Terre for wine tasting
The wine tasting room is located in Groppo, located just above Manarola. To get there, you should leave the highway from the center of La Spezia, and then follow the signs for the Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore, Manarola.
Opening hours in summer
From April to October and during the month of December: Monday to Saturday from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday and public holidays from 9 to 12:30 and from 14:30 to 19 h.
Opening hours in winter
January, February, March and November: Monday 8am-6:30pm, Tuesday and Wednesday 8am-1:30pm and 2:30pm-6:30pm. Sunday and holidays CLOSED.
Book your tour at least three days in advance, indicating the time preferred and number of participants. Sunday tours are available by appointment.