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The beauty of the five tiny fishing villages that make up Italy’s Cinque Terre is nothing short of spectacular. After scenic hikes through terraced vineyards and olive groves, the Instagram-worthy panoramas are unrelenting: stacks of pastel-painted houses clinging to the craggy cliffs of the Ligurian coast below. A charming, miraculously unspoilt collective, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso each have their own distinct heritage and something to captivate everyone – whether it’s umbrella-lined beaches, cliff-jumping into turquoise seas, or a platter just-caught seafood rounded off with a glass of sweet sciacchetrà. It’s no wonder that this rugged, resolutely unmodernised coastal gem is rivalling Amalfi as one of Italy’s most sought-after holiday destinations.
A rugged spit of land with a rainbow-painted houses piled like puzzle pieces into the cliffs, Manarola is where some of the most iconic pictures of the Cinque Terre are taken. It’s the second smallest village, with its own local dialect, Manarolese, and more vineyards producing sciacchetrà grapes than any other Cinque Terre settlement. Life centres around the small harbour – though there is no beach, locals and tourists alike enjoy some of the best deep swimming around, diving into the sea from the rocks some 60 feet above…
Trattoria dal Billy is the jewel in the Cinque Terre’s crown when it comes to sea-view restaurants. Tucked away in a back street at the top of Manarola, it has three terraces with the most beautiful vistas of the shimmering sea, the jumble of colourful houses and neat rows of vines below. Run by three generations of fishermen, the restaurant naturally serves some superior seafood – like the fish carpaccio with amberjack and tuna. Watching the sun set from one of its windows encapsulates everything that is enchanting about the Italian Riviera.
Riomaggiore is a tumble of colourful buildings around a sharp gorge with a minuscule harbour – a pretty postcard view that has come to define the Cinque Terre region as a whole. Make your way down past the bobbing fishing boats and follow the narrow path that leads off from the picturesque marina – confounding all expectations of a dead end, it leads to La Fossala, a secluded rocky beach with enticing crystalline waters that only the locals seem to know about.
Opened in 2015, Rio Bistrot is a modern, elegant osteria that’s reaffirming and reinvigorating Riomaggiore’s culinary scene. The setting is idyllic, perched above the village’s tiny waterfront where you can watch local fishermen deliver the day’s haul. Showcasing the bounty of the sea is what the restaurant excels at, featuring outstanding dishes like paccheri with fresh mussels, clams and peppers and squid-ink spaghetti. Wash them down with the house white wine, a refreshing and tangy Campogrande from the area.
At the start of Via dell’Amore, the romantic cliff-top path that connects all five villages, you’ll find A Piè de Mà. This café and bar, high above the sparkling azure sea, is the perfect place to take an aperitivo. It’s self-service so you can admire the spectacular views without interruption.
Small but perfectly formed, Corniglia has a population of just 150 spread out over a 100m-high promontory encased by lush green vineyards. Unlike the other four villages, it has no access to the sea – just a series of precipitous steps that wind their way down past villagers’ open front doors to a rocky cove. If you take the train to Corniglia instead of hiking, you still have to tackle la Lardarina, a total of 377 steps, to reach the place proper. But all the dramatic ups and downs are worth it – with its narrow alleyways, lack of crowds and traditional terraced fields, or “fasce”, Corniglia offers a truly authentic experience.
Head to Il Pirun, a charming enoteca that showcases the wealth of Corniglian produce on its menu. Try trofie al pesto, twisted Ligurian pasta served traditionally with potatoes and green beans. Pesto is a specialty of the region and the sauce used in this dish is produced within an hour of harvesting the basil leaves that grow on the Corniolo coast between Riomaggiore and Manarola. Pair with one of the many local white wines available – the selection here is one of the widest in the Cinque Terre.
Cantina de Mananan takes its food very seriously – the front door is plastered with hundreds of award and endorsement stickers. The compact dining room is reservation only and open for just a few hours in the afternoon and evening. Most tables aren’t turned, so walk-ins are really not a thing here. If you manage to bag a table, then you must order seafood, caught by local fishermen the same day. Choose the antipasti platter piled high with anchovies, salt cod and smoked tuna, and move on to the whole grilled branzino stuffed with lemon. You also cannot leave without trying the restaurant’s famous panna cotta.
Gelato is a big deal in Corniglia. A fierce rivalry has emerged between two gelaterias directly opposite each other on the main street. If you want to take sides, go to Alberto, where the village’s legendary honey and basil star in some of the most delicious flavours.
With its lemon-coloured church, ruined castle and large port, Vernazza is arguably the most photogenic of the Cinque Terre villages. The phrase “la vita pigra di Vernazza” – the lazy life of Vernazza – is one to bear in mind. Locals are committed to the passeggiata, or evening stroll, meandering up and down the winding streets at a leisurely pace. Make like the residents and escape the midday throng of tourists with a visit to the hidden beach. It’s a humble pebbled cove that can only be accessed through a tunnel at low tide.
The bell tower of Santa Margherita is best appreciated from a table at Gambero Rosso. Located on the Piazza Marconi, this restaurant is held in high esteem by Vernazzans. Sample truly regional delicacies like stuffed mussels and paccheri with red mullet.
Another typical dish of Vernazza is tegame alla vernazzana, a layered, casserole-like meal of whole anchovies, potatoes, tomatoes, white wine and herbs. Gianni Franzi serves the best.
Monterosso is the only Cinque Terre village with a wide stretch of beach, lined with rows of multicoloured umbrellas. Access by car and daily trains that bring crowds of people from as far away as Milan can make it feel like the least characteristic of the Cinque Terre settlements. But, split into old and new halves, there is still a strong sense of tradition to Monterosso.
Focaccia originated in Liguria and is often treated as entire meal in itself. Monterosso’s Focacceria Antonio bakes the best, huge pillows of olive-soaked bread with a crisp salt crust. Go for breakfast and choose between a wide array of toppings – though the simplest of tomato and cheese always sells out before 11AM.
After a morning soaking up the sun on spiaggia di Fegina, head to Cantina di Miky for lunch. A laid-back restaurant on the promenade, it lures people off the beach for its homemade pasta dishes and fritto misto. Be sure to cool down with its limoncello spritz.
Family-run Miky is Cantina’s elegant parent restaurant, celebrated in the region for its sophisticated and theatrical service. Menu highlights are the pasta and seafood dishes wrapped in a paper-thin layer of puff pastry that steams and intensifies the flavours and textures within.
Built into the cliff side, L’Ancora della Tortuga doesn’t just rely on its unique setting and spectacular views of the sea – the food and wine here are just as stunning. Opt for the seven-course tasting menu to sample refined takes on classic Liguarian dishes like starters of salted, stuffed and lemon-marinated anchovies and mains such as pesto lasagna.
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