Cinque Terre, beyond the ordinary

How to experience a magical place out of the mass tourism “black hole” , my favorite places plus a local recipe.

My approach to the Cinque Terre is definitely that of a local.

I must admit (how could one not?) that Cinque Terre are a slice of heaven. A cluster of colorful villages nestled in coves perched above the sea, surrounded by “heroic” vineyards, wild Mediterranean scrub, and the deep blue sea of Liguria.

Each time I see them, I’m still amazed, as it truly encapsulates the essence of Liguria: a land of steep mountains plunging into a tempestuous sea, tamed by men with dry stone walls and small ports hidden among the rocks. They are also a clear reflection of the rugged, stubborn, yet poetic character of the Ligurians.

However, sadly, Cinque Terre today struggle to be appreciated for what they truly are.

Mass tourism has engulfed and is slowly consuming them. For now (I remain optimistic, nothing is irreversible), it’s turning them into an “unreal-ideal,” “Instagrammable” (what an awful adjective) place, sadly soulless. If I say Disneyland?

The small village groceries, once the lifeline for the inhabitants of these isolated hamlets, have disappeared. The artisanal shops and traditional trattorias are gone too. All have given way to souvenir stores with loud t-shirts hanging outside and eateries catering mainly to hordes of tourists in tank tops disembarking from ferries or trains. Even the small fishermen’s houses have been transformed into Airbnb or bed & breakfasts, mostly furnished with IKEA and marketed at exorbitant prices.

If you wander through these small seaside villages at night in the peak of summer, after the last ferry has whisked away the last of the day-trippers, the streets are almost deserted. No elderly folks cooling off in the church square, no children playing ball, no women chatting at their doorsteps. You’ll only encounter tipsy, happy and carefree foreign couples staggering through the dark, silent alleys. The show is over, and the curtain reopens tomorrow morning.

Those working in tourism in the Cinque Terre shouldn’t take offense; this is just a heartfelt declaration of love. The situation is getting out of hand, and we Ligurians, who remember how it used to be, notice the difference. Much more so do the few residents who remain leaving in these villages, who in high season find themselves elbowing through tourists just to get home at lunch time.

So, what’s the best way nowadays to discover and savor these still enchanting Cinque Terre?

Jus one word: outside.

Outside the usual hours, outside the peak season, off the beaten path.

Just a small shift away from the space-time dimension of that “black hole” of mass tourism can let you experience the powerful charm of this corner of Liguria.

Outside the usual hours.

If you want to lose yourself in narrow alleys of stone arches, steep stairs, wooden doors, if you want to be surprised by terraces hanging over the sea, if you want to watch the small fish boats silently sway in the harbors, find a place to stay inside one village of the Cinque Terre (if you’re on a budget, settle for a dimly lit refurbished basement).

In the morning, after breakfast, hop on the first available ferry or train and leave, go visit the beautiful surroundings (Porto Venere, Levanto, Framura, Bonassola), then return in the evening.

Now is your moment: enjoy the sunset with an aperitif, enjoy the quiet, dark streets at night, enjoy a walk along the sea with your phone’s flashlight on so you don’t trip. And above all, enjoy the sunrise: wake up very early and roam the streets while everyone is still asleep, when you can still hear the sound of the sea lapping against the dock, when delivery carts bring fruits and vegetables to restaurants, when the bars are still closed (they open late, get used to it, your first coffee will be a bit delayed).

Outside the peak season.

Consider June, July, August, and September only for off-hours (as mentioned above), off-places (as below), and avoid weekends. May is semi-critical. Always check the holidays in neighboring Countries like France and Germany before leaving.

During this high season, prices are very high, free spots for drinking, eating, going to the beach, parking are scarce, and the number of people around is overwhelming (are you becoming a bit of a misanthrope like me?).

From October to April, the situation is much better. But be careful not to be too radical; in January, you’ll find almost everything closed for holidays. It’s a shame, though, because at the end of January, on the first sunny days, nature begins to bloom again, birds chirp, and it feels like paradise.

Off the beaten path.

Around the well-known “Cinque Terre” (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso), there are many enchanting places to stop: to admire the landscape, eat, sleep, walk. However, you can only discover them by car or on foot.

The car, however, is not the best way to visit villages (except Corniglia) that are by the sea, as parking there is really scarce and expensive.

For these, there’s the train or the ferry in the beautiful season… and  the hit-and-run tourist knows it well.

It’s a choice, but I recommend visiting the area by car, venturing into the roads that connect the villages from above, taking random detours, doing U-turns to go back, stopping along the road, getting out, and admiring the landscape.

By doing this, for example, I discovered the wonderful villages of Volastra and San Bernardino and the Sanctuaries of Nostra Signora di Soviore and Nostra Signora di Reggio.

If you enjoy walking, then you can truly savor the essence of the Cinque Terre thanks to the numerous trekking paths that cross it. They are cleaning many ancient paths in the last period. But always in good weather and always skipping the most popular ones in the peak season, otherwise, you risk encountering hefty foreign tourists struggling up the trails in high heels or flip-flops (depressing).

These are my general tips for planning a vacation, short or long, in the Cinque Terre area.

If you want to know my favorite places to eat, sleep and do experiences, and to get the recipe of the Monterosso Rice pie you can read the full article by subscribing to my English newsletter.

Ciao! I’m Enrica

a home cook, food researcher and experience curator born and bred in Liguria.
I study, tell, cook, share and teach Ligurian cuisine and the culture surrounding it.
Here we celebrate Liguria’s gastronomic diversity and richness through its recipes, producers, traditions and shops.

Discover my cookbook

Book an on-line
cooking class

Join my cooking
course on-demand

You may also like

Ligurian basil pesto, how old is this traditional recipe?

Ligurian basil pesto, how old is this traditional recipe?

A brief history of the most eaten green sauce in the world. Often, during cooking classes, my guests ask how old the pesto recipe is. In their imagination (and perhaps in that of many Ligurians too), pasta with pesto has always existed on Ligurian tables, perhaps they...

read more
VALLE IMPERO, where oil flows in rivers.

VALLE IMPERO, where oil flows in rivers.

A little-known corner of Liguria, inextricably linked to an essential product of Ligurian cuisine: extra-virgin olive oil. Plus what to see, eat, where and where to sleep. Today I take you to a little-known corner of Liguria, which however is inextricably linked to an...

read more
Liguria food guide | Ligurian cookies

Liguria food guide | Ligurian cookies

What would life be without a cookie to start the morning well, to pamper yourself at the end of the day or celebrate a special occasion? This is a timeless truth. what are those cookies that most often show off in Ligurian families, the result of countless attempts...

read more

Join me on my food journeys