Part of what makes Cinque Terre so charming is what it lacks. There aren’t cars or chain restaurants, massive hotels or big box stores. Everything is quaint, small and impossibly beautiful, all signs of a world that was untouched for years. The villages are nestled between the sea and the mountains, climbing up steep cliffs adorned with terraced fields of lemon and olive trees. This dramatic geography provides stunning views and difficult transit links. For a thousand years the only link between the towns was via water or narrow footpaths through the hills.
Today, those footpaths form a network of trails throughout the Cinque Terre National Park. The “easiest” route, Trail 2, takes several hours to complete and is for fit hikers only. The section between Monterosso and Vernazza alone takes at least two hours and is very steep at times. Your reward is breathtaking scenery and amazing hiking. (Find more information about hiking in Cinque Terre.)
You can also catch a ferry between the towns (except Corniglia), but it is quite expensive and whether or not the boat can land at each town is weather dependent. We recommend taking the ferry from Monterosso to Porto Venere for a day trip to maximize your dollars and for a chance to see all of the villages from the sea. The boats run from April to September from 10am to 6:30pm.
The easiest way to get around is by train. The five towns each have their own train station and are connected by an (about) hourly train service. A train schedule is hanging up at each station, but this only makes things slightly easier. The schedule is easy to read if you design train schedules for a living. For everyone else, you will get the basic idea of it, but miss an important detail, like the fact that it is Sunday. Just remember that not all trains stop at all stations and that there is a different schedule for Sundays and holidays and that there is a last train for the day. Oh, and make sure you are on the right platform! Otherwise you’ll be heading to the wrong town. Sort these variables out first and you should be fine.
A train ticket between the towns costs €1.50 and is good for one hour traveling in one direction. Just like on every other form of public transportation it Italy, it needs to be validated at the little yellow box on the platform. Get caught without a ticket here and it will cost you €5. Tickets can be purchased at any of the stations from the ticket counter (often closed) or from a machine (often broken). It is best to buy all the tickets you will need for your time in Cinque Terre at once to minimize the chances of being on a train without a ticket because there was no place to buy one. (How do you think we know about the fine?)
Another option is buying the Cinque Terre trail pass that includes unlimited train travel. These passes are available from the ticket offices at the train stations and are worth it only if you plan on taking more than four train trips per day.
With the exception of Corniglia, whose train station is 300 steps below town, stations for each town are more or less located on or near the main drag, and the directions provided to you by your hosts will be from there.
Check the train schedule when you arrive in a town if you plan on taking it back to minimize your wait time at the station. Also, double-check (then triple-check) when the last train is and from which platform it departs.
The trains make for a quick and convenient way to visit the towns without having to hike the trails.