Travelling to Cinque Terre, Italy in the shadow of Rick Steves

Having entrusted much of the success of my recent trip across Europe to one man, it was of little surprise that I’d end up seeing his face almost everywhere that I went. No, I wasn’t being stalked by a mysterious stranger, nor was I being haunted by the ghost of tourists past.

But as I wandered out of the train station in Riomaggiore on Italy’s stunningly beautiful Cinque Terre, it took but mere minutes to catch a glimpse of his trademark glasses, modest haircut, and middle-aged dad fashion sensibilities.

Of course I am talking about US-based travel guru Rick Steves, whose Through the Back Door approach to European guidebooks has been offering American travellers words of wisdom and sage advice since the early 1980’s. It was him, of course, who had convinced me to plan a visit to the Cinque Terre after leafing through his most recent Italy guidebook. Skipping what Steves called “One of God’s greatest gifts to tourism” didn’t seem like a risk I was willing to take (and certainly no way to impress my girlfriend with my travel industry know-how and resourcefulness). 

Today the Cinque Terre is popular with Western Europeans, Canadians, and Americans in particular. It’s not every day that the success of a tourist destination can be accredited to the influence of one man, but aside from the introduction of a railway in the 1920’s, the fate of the Cinque Terre villages appears to be directly aligned with the praise that Steves has lavished upon on this rugged collection of five Italian Riviera villages. Thanks to Steves’ influence, today many young American backpackers choose to include some chill-out time on the Cinque Terre into their Italian itinerary after schlepping through the endless art galleries and regimented tourist traps of Rome, Venice and Florence.

The Five Lands

Cinque TerreSet along the Italian Rivera in Italy’s Liguria region, The Cinque Terre or “Five Lands” is a collection of 5 picturesque, brightly-coloured villages, nestled in rocky hills straddling the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.  

Each town offers visitors something slightly unique and all visitors will undoubtedly find a favourite. Located along a main Italian railway line, the villages are easily accessible from all points across Italy and further afield in Europe. The serenity of the villages is only ever interrupted by the thunder of high speed trains – filled with passengers who may be unaware of what they are missing as they whiz between Genoa and Rome. The villages themselves are served by slower regional trains that run between Genoa to La Spezia on hourly increments. Schedules are available online or in any of the village train stations, and act as an invaluable resource for those with tired legs from hiking between towns.

Olives in LiguriaFood and Drink

No tourist in their right mind would dare miss out on the local gastronomic specialities that a region of Italy may offer, and the Cinque Terre region of Liguria is certainly no exception to the rule. Terraced landscapes produces large and luscious grapes and olives, while the gravity-defying lemon orchards yield bushels of fresh lemons that give birth to the sweet, tart and warming local Lemoncello liquor. Other regional delicacies include rich, basil-infused pesto, crispy, sea-salt encrusted Focaccia bread, and loads of locally-caught seafood.

The Cooperative Agricoltura di Cinque Terre (“Cinque Terre Agricultural Cooperative” is the official wine region associated with the area. Local white wine is cheap and easy in the Cinque Terre, and the better stuff will be labelled  DOC – Denominazione di Origine Controllata. Sciacchetra is a local strong and sweet dessert wine made from dried grapes and is the perfect nightcap after indulging in a rich, savoury crock pot overflowing with creamy risotto.

TVia Dell'Amorehe Via Dell’Amore

For a taste of what Steves describes as “pure, unadulterated Italy,” stroll along the Via Dell’Amore or Love’s Trail: a hiking path that connects all five villages and offers breathtaking views along the coastline. Before the days of locomotives, this was the only way that villagers could reach neighbouring communities. While not akin to climbing Kilimanjaro, bring plenty of water and supplies with you on your journey. Proper shoes are required and the rocks and paths may be slick and dangerous due to weather. Visitors can hike the entire stretch from Riomaggiore to Monterosso in about five hours, or just hike a portion of the trail and ride the rails back home.

View of MonterossoMonterosso al Mare

Monterosso is the only real beach town on the Cinque Terre and was our home base for most of our stay. The sand and pebble beach located directly in front of the train station may not pass for Aruba, but it is as close to a resort ambiance as you’ll find in this small corner of the world. Beach chairs and umbrellas are available to rent if you’ve got the Euros. Throw in narrow, winding streets, a picture perfect piazza and numerous exceptional restaurants and you’ve got a perfectly mellow hideaway on the Mediterranean.

What makes Steves more than just a literary travel companion are the personal touches and great recommendations he offers up to his readers.  He has yet to lead me to a poor pizza or sub par bed and breakfast – without letting me know what to expect first.  Rick directed us to Manuel’s Guesthouse, which he harshly describes as “a ramshackle place run by a ramshackle artist and his nephew. . .” Accommodation is sparse and rustic, but the view of the town and sea below are unforgettable. Help yourself to Manuel’s honour-system beer and wine taps while you make new friends and play with the two friendly puppies that lounge around his courtyard.g

Fishing boats in VernazzaVernazza

Vernazza is the cover girl of the Five Lands, Rick’s top pick, and naturally the most touristic of the five towns. Vernazza is blessed with a natural, sheltered harbour, and is presided over by the crumbled ruins of a medieval castle. Arriving in the little harbour by ferry boat is an experience that no visitor should overlook.


From the sea, the brightly painted buildings of Riomaggiore appear to be collapsing in on themselves as they tumble toward a rocky little beach in the centre of town. This beautiful harbourside village is a great alternative to staying in more crowded Vernazza. La Baia di Rio is a small, family-run guesthouse and certainly worth the hike uphill from the harbour. It provides stunning views of the town and sea as well as your own private terrace so you can sit out and soak up the warm Italian sunshine or plan an afternoon picnic with local produce from the market.


Another seaside town that will not disappoint the legions of Steves’ supporters is Manarola. Thought to be the oldest of the five villages, the buildings of Manarola also appear to radiate from the hilltops down toward the sea and a small boat launch.  From the town’s church, one can stroll through hillside vineyards down toward a seaside park.


Windy, cool, and quiet, Corniglia is the only one of the five towns not located on the water. It is set high in the hills and is home to but a mere 240 residents. Most travellers simply pass though this little hamlet as they hike the Via Dell’Amore, but for those who choose to linger, they will be rewarded with some great wine and a true taste of la dolce vita.

Our time on the Cinque Terre came and went much too fast, and we would have happily stayed another week if  it were possible. The beauty of the hills, quaint villages, pleasant climate and slow pace of life creates an ambiance that is hard to find elsewhere along the Mediterranean. 

It is a place that I will surely visit again one day soon, and Rick will no doubt be there by my side – sharing his insider information on all the hits and misses in his own straight-forward, charming way. 

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