I was almost finished putting the final touches on our itinerary for our big France/Spain/Italy trip in 2015 when the hubs came home and told me his friends, Tim and Claire, who had just had their own sweeping Italian adventure, insisted that we needed to go to Cinque Terre.
I may have frowned at him a little bit, because I had already spent hours “perfecting” our itinerary (and I had already had to rearrange it to include our cooking class with Accidental Tourist), but it’s damn near impossible for me to ignore such a raving review.
So I did what I do best: I played around with the itinerary some more and finagled a way to make it work. After doing a little bit of research on TripAdvisor, I landed on this full-day hiking excursion to Cinque Terre from Florence. Like I said, I can’t ignore a rave review, and with over 2,000 reviews and five stars, it was a no-brainer.
We lucked out a few times that day: We just barely made the bus before it left (we got lost trying to find out way to the train station), the weather forecast was calling for insane thunderstorms (we all bought ponchos at one of the rest stops on the way there), and yet—it didn’t rain, not even a little bit, though the clouds hovering around the hillsides shadowed the spectacular views the tiniest bit. But I would take that over gale-force winds and sideways rain any day!
Freddie was our guide in 2015, and he was, for one thing, hilarious, keeping up a steady stream of commentary on the drive out, telling us how he (an American) found his way to Italy, pointing out the mountains where Michelangelo mined the marble he used in his famous sculptures and where Napoleon established his naval base. Freddie was also super knowledgeable about the flora and fauna along the trails.
Freddie was also ultra-vigilant on the trains between towns in Cinque Terre, because they are frequented by pickpockets. Pickpockets are something to think about in general when you’re in super-touristy areas in Europe—a money belt or a cross-body purse with a zip-top or flap are the easiest ways to ensure you don’t get robbed—but apparently, they’re even more ruthless in Cinque Terre.
Nothing quite prepares you for the beauty that assaults you the minute you reach that first train platform (and pictures do not do it justice). The sunlight hits the blue-green Mediterranean so that it glitters, the brightly-colored houses stacked into the hills are magical, and the hillsides are the greenest you’ll ever see, layered into platforms and filled with grape vines.
It was beautiful in September 2015, and it was breathtaking when I took the ladies there this past May. Perhaps even more beautiful, because the day was a smidgen cooler, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and there was a delicious breeze coming off the water.
The hike itself isn’t difficult. You’re not mountain-climbing here, though you do have to go up 300 (shallow, level) stairs in the second town and the hike itself is halfway uphill. If you have bad knees, our guide, Angel, did not recommend doing the hike. There are a couple of areas where you have to lever yourself up a tall earthen stair, but aside from that, it’s the incline that gets you.
If you’re not so much into the hiking, I would recommend either: do a different tour, or take the train or a shuttle to the next town while the other chumps work up a sweat. That’s what my mom and auntie Sherry did; they sipped while at a seaside cafe while my friend Amanda and I trudged along the hiking trail (she was such a sport for not abandoning me and making me do it alone!).
I will say, though, if you can handle the hike, it is so worth your while. The views are unobstructed (seriously, don’t get too close to the edge because you will plummet to your death [cheery thought, I know, though if I’m being honest, I never felt unsafe whilst hiking]) and will take away whatever shallow breath is left after that hike!
Plus, at the top, there’s a frozen lemonade place that makes it even more worthwhile. I’ve never had a fresher or more refreshing frozen lemonade in my entire life—and that was partly due to the hella fresh lemons, and partly to do with being parched.
The hike down seems like a breeze in comparison, and at the end of it, Vernazza, where you will get the most amazing gelato of your life at Il Porticcolo, right on the water. If you go there, try their cinnamon gelato. Freddie recommended it this time around, and I regretted not getting cinnamon the second I tasted Auntie Sherry’s. It tasted just like a snickerdoodle. Heaven.
From Vernazza, you take the train to Monterosso, where you have free time to wander around, have a glass of wine at one of the many cafes, check out the many little shops (I got this ah-mazing lemon soap when I was there and a bottle of balsamic vinegar), grab a bite to eat, or just sit and people-watch.
From Monterosso, if you’re lucky, you get to take a boat ride to the first town: Riomaggiore. Because the water was too rough, the hubs and I weren’t able to take the boat ride in 2015, but I got lucky enough to do it this time around. If you think Cinque Terre is beautiful from land, it’s even more incredible to witness by sea.
I’d recommend getting to the boat a little earlier than your guide recommends so that you can pop a squat on top (sit on the left side, as that’ll be the side facing the towns).
To make things even better, we were just chilling, taking in the view while the wind whipped our hair, when I happened to look to my right and I spied FREAKING DOLPHINS playing right next to the boat. (I realize you probably don’t know this about me yet, but I FREAKING LOVE dolphins, so this dolphin sighting thrilled the crap out of me!) Plus, we were sailing at my favorite time of day, around four o’clock, when the sunlight dances upon the waves.
Riomaggiore is just as charming and quaint and rambling as the other four towns. By then, we were a smidgen exhausted, so we grabbed sandwiches and pizza slices, sat down on an open bench, and just watched the world go by.
A couple of weeks ago, I was talking about Florence with one of my co-workers, and she asked me, “If you only had two days in Florence, what would you do?”
The answer: Visit Cinque Terre, and do the cooking class with Accidental Tourist—two of the best experiences of my entire life (and I’ve been fortunate enough to experience them twice over)!
- italy travel tip: what to see, eat & buy in florence
- italy travel tip: take an inexpensive half-day trip to pisa from florence
- italy travel tip: take a cooking class in tuscany with accidental tourist
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