One of the reasons we ended up in Pisa for a month, besides simply wanting to see more of Tuscany, was a big comic book festival in Lucca. I have no interest in stuff like that, but Andy really wanted to go. Pisa is relatively close to Cinque Terre, and since Andy had already been there but I had not, I planned a weekend solo trip while he was enjoying the comics. It was not my best solo trip ever.
I took the train from Pisa to Santa Margherita, which is west of Cinque Terre. My reason for this was that I wanted to see Portofino, which has no train station. I had some time to kill before the next bus, so I sat by the beach for awhile and had lunch. It looked like a cute town if you wanted to base yourself in a bigger town outside of Cinque Terre.
The fishing village of Portofino, even farther west of Cinque Terre, is now an escape for the rich and famous. It has a reputation for being incredibly gorgeous, so I wanted to see it. Unfortunately there wasn’t much to it. Yes, it’s beautiful, but it was basically a small cove with boats and a bunch of overpriced cafes with outdoor seating. There’s a castle somewhere up on the cliffs, but it was closed when I was there. Wandering around took all of 10 minutes since I didn’t want to shop at expensive boutiques or eat expensive food. I ended up reading on a bench near the water while waiting for the next bus back to Santa Margherita.
It was the first weekend in November, so the sun was setting pretty early, and by the time I got to Monterossa (the farthest west of the Cinque Terre villages) to find my hotel, it was almost dark. I was staying on the newer side of the village, which probably would’ve been fine during high season, but on the edge of low season, it felt dead. Most of the restaurants I looked at for dinner were empty. I forgot to bring my Kindle, so while I waited for my food to arrive, I had nothing better to do than eavesdrop on the large group of tourists at the next table. I didn’t forget my Kindle the next night.
The tourist offices in the train stations sell combo tickets that allow you to use the trains between the villages and hike the trails. Originally I thought I’d try walking one or two of the shorter and easier trails, but they were closed due to mudslides. My next option was a day ticket that allowed me to ride the trains all day in one direction, so I got two, one to go east and one to go west.
After realizing I should have just purchased one day ticket and one single to start at the farthest village east and work my way back, I decided to see the towns in a different order simply to take advantage of having the two tickets. I started my exploration of Cinque Terre in Manarola late in the morning and had lunch there.
The village of Corniglia is the only one of the five Cinque Terre villages that doesn’t have direct access to the sea. It’s located higher up on the cliffs, making it slightly harder to get to, so it felt quieter. I think it was my favorite because of this. There is a train station, but from there you either walk up a steep hill or take a shuttle. I chose the shuttle.
Next I went to Riomaggiore, the farthest east of the Cinque Terre villages. When I got off the train, I somehow walked right past an elevator that takes you up to the top of the steep town. I wandered around at the bottom, ate some mediocre gelato, and then started walking back to the train station. That’s when I noticed the elevator and realized I was supposed to go to the top and work my way down. I bought a round trip ticket for the elevator, checked out the town from the top, and rode back down to sea level.
This was the village where I really started thinking, there isn’t much to DO here. Sure, the villages and the coastline are gorgeous, but if you’re not hiking, there aren’t a lot of activities. I couldn’t even do a boat trip because most of them weren’t running that late in the season. I realized if I’m going to travel on my own, I had to lay down some solo travel rules. Sitting and relaxing is nice for a little while, but I need to keep busy when I’m traveling alone.
Towards the end of the day, I went to Vernazza, which is rather small. I walked around a little, but mostly I just sat by the water. I was running out of steam by that time. The sun went down pretty early, and I hung out long enough to watch before heading back to my hotel in Monterosso.
With the sun setting early at that time of year, I knew I wouldn’t have time for all five villages in one day. I saved Monterosso for my last day since that’s where my hotel was. The newer side could’ve been any random beach town, but once I walked through the tunnel, I came to the old part of the town. It fit with the rest of the group, but I thought it was the least impressive.
Visiting Cinque Terre
The trains between the villages run less frequently in the off season. Try May or September to avoid the busiest tourist season and the highest temperatures, but it’ll still mean better train schedules than what I dealt with.
Transport is not expensive in this area since it’s almost entirely local trains and buses. Almost every ticket I bought was less than 5€, whether it was the Cinque Terre train pass or the shuttle into Corniglia or the bus from Santa Margherita to Portofino.
This isn’t really a place for a beach vacation. The only village that has any sort of beach is Monterosso. If you’re looking for dramatic, colorful buildings clinging to cliffs plus gorgeous beaches, you’re better off going to the Amalfi Coast.
Check out Andy’s guide to towns that are near but not in Cinque Terre. These are towns that could be good as a base if you want to stay somewhere a little bigger (though still not huge) and a little less touristy while still having easy access to the five famous villages of Cinque Terre.
You might also enjoy:
- How Much I Spent Traveling in Cinque Terre
- Behind the Scenes at the Colosseum in Rome
- Exploring Syracuse, Sicily
- Learning About Gelato and Sorbet at Gelato University