A Guide to Cinque Terre, Italy

Check out this stunning guide to Cinque Terre complete with mouth watering restaurant recommendations.

A Guide to Cinque Terre, Italy

Before leaving for Italy, I’d done tons of research and consulted multiple friends on their opinions of the cities we planned to visit. With Cinque Terre, along with a few other places, the reviews varied from “it’s the most amazing place in the world!” to “it’s super touristy and overcrowded.” But upon completion of our trip, I’ve determined that the 5 towns comprising the Cinque Terre can, yes, be absolutely touristy and overcrowded, but also the most amazing place I’ve ever been to in the world.

We rented a room through Airbnb in the smallest of all the towns, Manarola. Upon arrival, our first impressions of the town were that it was quaint, busy, and most of all, steep. In order to reach our room, we needed to first treck up a sharp vertical hill, followed by many, many stairs. We wondered if this room had been a smart choice, but then we arrived and opened the windows to see the view. Good. God. It was breathtaking.

A Guide to Cinque Terre, Italy

We took a few moments to get situated, then took off to explore the town. We were of course starving, so we ran into the first focaccia (a specialty of the region) shop we saw, called Pizzeria La Cambusa, and grabbed a slice with potatoes and rosemary, along with a piece of speck (smoked prosciutto) and radicchio pie. It hit the spot. From there, we ducked out of the touristy parts of town to find some isolated rocks to climb and take in the views.

The Cinque Terre is indeed very crowded with boatloads (literally- it’s a popular cruise ship port) of people from all over the world seeking a unique seaside holiday. But when you take the time to look around, you’ll find lots of little nooks, crannies and secret spots around every corner. When we were able to get away from the crowds, this place was overwhelmingly enchanting. While poking around the rocks, we noticed there were a few swimming holes below, and we couldn’t run over fast enough to jump in.

Basking in the Mediterranean sea might just be my favorite memory of the entire trip. And considering this was a trip all about eating, that’s really saying something. The water was warm, super salty, and practically empty. The seas we’re rather rough during our stay, so it kept the ferries from running (bummer), but also kept most people out of the water (score!).

That night we grabbed a bottle of Prosecco and sat on a bench to drink it while waiting to eat dinner at Trattoria Il Porticciolo. Our meal was good, though nothing spectacular, and highlights included a swordfish carpaccio, a cod stuffed ravioli and the most tender, perfectly cooked grilled octopus. Manarola, we discovered, was an entirely different place at night. All the tour groups and day trippers had virtually disappeared, leaving us with a quiet, almost completely private piece of paradise.

A Guide to Cinque Terre, Italy

The next day we hiked down to a little cafe called Aristide to have cappuccinos and incredible flaky cream filled pastries. Next, we boarded the jam-packed and claustrophobic (because the ferries weren’t running) train to Monterosso, the largest of all 5 towns, and also the furthest north. We grabbed a few pieces of focaccia from a nice bakery across from the beach, called Il Fornaio Di Monterosso and took a few minutes to walk around and see what this town was all about. One piece had tomato sauce and pesto and the other had fresh tomatoes and anchovies. Both were pillowy soft, fresh and really flavorful.

We quickly determined this town wasn’t really our cup of tea espresso. Because Monterosso is the largest of all the five towns, and the only town with actual beaches, it’s also the most touristy. It’s full of “shoobie” shops as we call them here, selling little chotchkies and key chains, along with a few Senior Frogs type “come and get drunk” establishments.

A Guide to Cinque Terre, Italy

We didn’t spend much time in town, and instead opted to take the hike from Monterosso to Vernazza, the next town over. The hike was quite steep and challenging. It took almost two hours to complete, but it was worth every sore muscle. The views of the ocean, cliffs, gardens, vineyards, and town below were just absolutely awe inspiring.

A Guide to Cinque Terre, Italy

When we reached Vernazza, we treated ourselves to lunch at Ristorante Belforte, a restaurant tucked away on a cliff with incredible views of the sea below. We ordered the mixed anchovy platter, seafood salad, and caprese salad. The anchovies were a mix of salted, marinated, and fried, and they we’re all to die for. The caprese salad was made with fresh mozzarella di buffala, and juicy ripe tomatoes, along with buttery Ligurian olive oil, caper berries and olives. The seafood salad had mussels, calamari, prawns and tomatoes, and was dressed so simply with lots of lemon and olive oil. Everything was top notch, and we gobbled it all up after being drained from our hike.

A Guide to Cinque Terre, Italy

Before heading back to Manarola, we stopped for a quick gelato at Gelateria Vernazza to take with us on the train. I ordered pistachio along with ricotta and fig, and they we’re up there with the best gelato I had on our entire trip. When we arrived back home, we ran straight to our favorite swimming hole for another dip.

Before dinner, we took a 2 minute train ride to the next (and furthest) town south, Rio Maggiore, to have a little apertivo at a spot called A Pié de Mà. This is yet another gem of a place, also perched on a cliff with insane views of crashing waves below. We sipped on spritzes and had a nibble while watching a glowing orange and pink sunset on the horizon. We rushed to hop back on the train to Manarola for dinner, where we had made a reservation at Trattoria Dal Billy, located cliffside just steps from our room. I’ll spare you the details of how the train skipped our stop and took us all the way to Monterosso, then we had to train it back to Rio Maggiore, then tried to hike our way back to Manarola, before realizing half way in that we couldn’t in the dark, and had to then sprint uphill to the train, and then sprint up another hill to get to our dinner 20 minutes late.

A Guide to Cinque Terre, Italy

The sprint was worth it, because this dinner was my favorite meal in all of Cinque Terre. Maybe it’s because I was absolutely famished after a day of intended and unintended hiking, or maybe it’s because the food was just that good. We ordered the marinated anchovies and bresaola di cavallo for appetizers. Cavallo, in case you’re wondering, means horse. Yep! We ate horse. It was salted, dried, sliced super thin and served with a simple salad of arugula, tomatoes, pine nuts and shaved parmesan. It was freaking delicious, and was only outdone by the platter of succulent anchovies. So fresh, so lemony, and so simple; they were just incredible. We ordered two pasta dishes as our entrees, both made with fresh homemade pasta. One was done simply with garlic, tomato sauce and hot chili flakes, and it was one of the best pastas I had in all of Italy. I found that more often than not, the simpler the dish, the better it was. We also had a pasta with swordfish and black summer truffles. It was also good, but not as good as the other.

For dessert, we ordered the regional specialty that is panna cotta – a simple cream pudding of sorts, thickened with gelatin and served with a sauce made from berries. The server plopped a bottle of limoncello on the table and told us it was a treat from the house and to drink as much of it as we wanted. We struck up a fun conversation with a couple from New Zealand at the table next to us when we all started snickering after hearing a girl from another table trying to describe the rough seas by saying in her southern accent, “the ocean was very, you know, like, bumpy!” We managed to make our way through about 1/3 of that bottle, and then took off for our, thankfully, very short walk home.

That night we drifted to sleep with open windows and the sound of waves crashing on the rocks below. The next day we’d leave paradise and head to Florence for a taste of fascinating ancient history, and the most delicious steak I’ve ever had in my life.

Nicole Gaffney

Chef, writer, music lover and second runner up on season 10 of Food Network Star. I live at the Jersey Shore and cook simple, seasonal full-flavored food.

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