If you’ve not heard of Cinque Terre by now, I’m willing to bet you’ve at least seen the pictures.
You know, the one’s like this.
The picturesque seaside fishing villages. The colorful houses that cling to the hillsides. The Cinque Terre is a small area along the Italian Riviera that has exploded in popularity in recent years. The postcard views and easy access (thanks to a regional train connecting the Italian coastline) has brought in so many people, that it’s possible they may actually start restricting the number of tourists in the future.
I can’t say I blame them. Part of what we loved about the Cinque Terre was it’s charming little shops and quiet alleyways. Throw in a tour bus or train load of people every 20 minutes, and the whole vibe is quickly much less appealing.
That said, I’m not going to tell you to stay away. Because even with all of the tourists, we loved the Cinque Terre so very much, and I’d love for more families to experience how amazing (and kid-friendly!) this area is too!
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The 5 Towns of Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre literally means “five villages”, and the 5 unique fishing towns that make up the “cinque” (from north to south) are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Trying to decide where to stay can be a tough task, so here’s a break down of what to expect in each:
Monterosso al Mare
Monterosso is separated into two areas: Old Town and New Town. New Town, or nothern part of the village, is the most commercial of the whole area. Here you’ll find seaside eateries, a sidewalk playground, and more traditional hotel options.
You’ll also find a few private beach clubs where you can rent an umbrella and have drinks for a reasonable price (though on the far north part of town, there is a small stretch of free public beach as well). Monterosso is where you’ll find those classic views of the orange and green striped umbrellas all along the sand (unfortunately it was too early in the season during our visit, so we didn’t catch them).
Heading the opposite direction out of the train station, walk up the hill and through the tunnel to the Old Town area, and you’ll find another small marina/beach area, a lively market, and more local restaurants. The medieval Church of St. John the Baptist is also in Old Town.
One of our favorites, getting off the train in Vernazza drops you right into the heart of the village. Take the gentle stroll down to the water and you’ll find a nice open marina with a small, sandy beach.
We ate gelato for breakfast and people watched as the crowds swelled and subsided with each train and ferry boat’s arrival. You can’t go wrong with any of the restaurant’s surrounding the marina here.
The least visited of the 5 villages (but not for it’s lack of charm or beauty), Corniglia sits at the top of a hill and is the only village not directly accessed by train. Instead, you’ll have to hike up the 365 steps from the train station that lead up to the village or find a bus to take you up the mountainside.
Many people will tell you to not spend much time in Corniglia, but I quite liked the quiet atmosphere at the top of the hill. It’s especially worth visiting in the middle of the day when the rest of the villages are swarming with daytrippers. Get gelato or enjoy a leisurely lunch to reward your trek up the mountain.
Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful villages in Italy, we chose to base ourselves in the picturesque town of Manarola for our Cinque Terre stay.
Visitors must try the fresh seafood dishes at Marina Piccola‘s deck overlooking the marina or book an oceanview table at Trattoria dal Billy. And absolutely don’t miss our favorite spot for apertivo hour: Nessun Dorma at the top of the hill offers ridiculously affordable food and drink with an even more ridiculous view. Not to mention, there’s a playground around the corner at the top of the hill (is this place even real??).
Corniglia aside, Rio is probably the most underrated of the 5 villages. It’s a little bit of a walk from the train station to get to the center of town, and once you get there you’ll have the option to walk down towards the water or up the hill.
Down at the marina, there’s a small rocky beach beneath the crowd of boats, and a path along the hillside that leads to a perfect vantage point for photos. The whole marina generally has a much more closed in feel than Vernazza or Manarola.
Head up the hill and things will be a little quieter. You’ll find plenty of small restaurants, gelaterias, and shops. It’s no wonder Riomaggiore is a favorite of many for it’s slightly calmer vibe.
Additional Towns near Cinque Terre
While I would recommend staying in one of the 5 villages with kids (it just makes the logistics of getting around much easier), it’s still very doable to stay in La Spezia, Levanto, or even Portovenere if you’re looking for more affordable accommodations while still being easily connected to the rest of the area by train or ferry.
When to Go to Cinque Terre as a Family
Though I know it’s not always an option, I would personally avoid visiting in the dead of summer if at all possible. We saw how busy each village would get during the day, swelling with bus tours and daytrippers even in early April.
I can only imagine how arriving in the summer would be, and I’m afraid it would sour the quaint feel of each village. In mid- to late April or September, you’ll still find the weather plenty warm, ferries and train schedules running frequently, and you’ll have the area a little bit more to yourself.
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How to Get to Cinque Terre with Kids
The easiest way to get to the Cinque Terre is by train. We came from Milan and were able to make the trip in a little under 3 hours. You can find fairly direct routes from Florence as well that only require one train change in La Spezia. Buy your tickets in advance on Rail Europe‘s website.
How to Get Around Cinque Terre with Kids
There are lots of ways to get around the Cinque Terre, with the most popular (and easiest) way being by train. A regional train runs up and down the coastline between Levanto and La Spezia 1-2 times every hour, and a one-way ticket will run you 4 Euros as of the time of this posting. Children under 4 years ride free of charge.
You can also purchse a Cinque Terre card, which will allow you unlimited train travel plus access to the hiking trails (yes, they do check). The Cinque Terre card comes in 1 or 2 day passes and you can find the most current pricing here. Your card won’t go into effect until you validate the ticket before boarding the train on your first day.
Pro Tip: Keep this train schedule handy, and if you’re staying in Corniglia or Manarola, you’ll want to make note of which trains skip those villages!
While it’s not totally impossible to get around by car, it’s best to avoid it. You can enter any of the villages with a car, but you’ll have to park it on the outskirts (plus pay for parking) and then continue walking into the main part of the villages.
There have been frequent road closures and detours too in recent years, which can make navigating the mountain roads difficult if you’re already unfamiliar with the area. So unless you’ll be staying outside the 5 main villages, I’d recommend leaving the car behind and taking the train in.
From late March to early October, public ferry boats connect the coastline from Monterosso to Portonevere, giving you a fun way to experience the area and take in some great views while you travel from one village to another. You can find fare information and the ferry schedule here.
If the public boat is too crowded (which it likely will be in summer), there are plenty of private boat rental companies as well from which you can hire a tour. You’ll find them near the marinas in Vernazza and Manarola in particular, or you can book a tour ahead of time here. Want to toodle around the water in a boat on your own? You can do that too!
While it might not be the easiest with kids, the oldest and most scenic way to see Cinque Terre is on foot! The trails connecting the 5 villages were built far before the train ever existed as a way for fisherman and village dwellers to travel between the towns. In fact, the whole area has been designated a national park, and it’s protecting these trails that has caused Cinque Terre to explore ways of limiting tourists.
The Blue Path, or the coastal hiking trail that connects the villages, is the easiest to manage and most scenic. Unfortunately, due to wear and tear from so many visitors combined with falling rocks, many parts of the trails have been closed for a number of years until repairs can be made. This includes the most manageable sections for families from Manarola to Riomaggiore and Manarola to Corniligia (part of the reason we didn’t include any trail walks on our trip). Other sections including Monterosso to Vernazza and Vernazza to Corniglia are still open though, and worth adding to your itinerary.
Cinque Terre for Families: A Few More Tips
- Buy your Cinque Terre card straight away when you arrive during the day (we made the mistake of expecting the small ticket office in Manarola to be open at 8 am as the door says…). You can’t buy the Cinque Terre card from the train station kiosk, but you can find a list of offices where you can purchase the cards here.
- If you plan to only take a few train trips a day and not do any hiking, then buying one-way regional train tickets between the villages may actually be more affordable for you. You can buy these tickets from the Trenitalia kiosks at each train station. Again, don’t forget to validate your one-way ticket before you board the train (we were checked for tickets quite often).
- I expected to encounter some pretty crazy hills throughout the villages, but we surprisingly found getting around with our toddler to be really easy. Still, we skipped the stroller and opted to use a hipseat carrier exclusively, and I’m so glad we did. Having to push the stroller up all the hills or worrying about squeezing it onto the train during busy times would have not been too fun.
- Packing light is a must. You don’t want to be lugging massive suitcases onto the train and then pushing them all the way up the hill to get to your accommodations. We packed light and still got pretty winded getting to our hillside Airbnb in Manarola.
- There are a couple of different places where you can buy essentials for young kids right in the center of the villages. In Manarola, we picked up snacks like fruit, biscuits, squeeze pouch applesauce, etc. at the Mini Market, and a Coop in Vernazza will offer the same, if not more, variety as well. Each store will carry different products, so ask your hotel or rental host for recommendations on the best places to buy baby items before you arrive (I unfortunately don’t have a recommendation for diapers and such, as we bought those in Milan before we left).
- My ultimate tip? Just relax and enjoy. Slow your pace. Savor a long lunch while your kids run in the square. Eat gelato twice a day. You know, the essentials. You’re in Italy!
Cinque Terre for Families: 2 Day Itinerary
2-3 full days seems to be the ideal amount of time to see all of Cinque Terre with kids. Any less and you’ll be rushing, but any more and the kids might start to get bored. If your kids are old enough to do more of the hiking, then I’d add in an extra day or 2 and explore more of the trails.
Given the choice, I would select Manarola or Vernazza as a home base. Both are centrally located with lots of great dining options and shops in town. The itinerary below assumes staying in Manarola, though it could just as easily work for a stay in Vernazza.
Here’s how I would spend 2 full days in Cinque Terre with kids to discover a little bit of everything the area has to offer:
Day 1 | Monterosso, Vernazza, & Manarola
Start your day off on the beaches of Monterosso. Exiting the train station, you can head right (north) to find a section of public beach at the far north end of the new town. If you exit left, you’ll find plenty of private beach clubs that you can rent an umbrella from for a decent price.
Note: if you visit in early April like we did, the weather may be hit or miss on whether or not you can enjoy the beach. But don’t worry, you can just as easily have an espresso and play at the beachside children’s playground in new town to fill your time.
After soaking up some sun, walk through Monterosso to the Old Town area (up the hill and through the tunnel). Before you leave Monterosso, stop at the market here for some fresh goodies before heading out on your way.
Next, throw on a sturdy pair of shoes for a hike to Vernazza. The 2.0 mile trail from Monterosso to Vernazza will probably take a good 2 hours with kids. So take your time, enjoy the views and make a few stops for rest if you need to (this is where a good baby/toddler carrier will come in handy!). Along the hike you’ll get those beautiful views looking down on Vernazza as you approach the village.
Eat a late lunch along the marina in Vernazza (I enjoyed the trofie pesto pasta dish, a Lingurian regional specialty, at Gianni Franzi). After lunch, bask in the sun on the small sandy beach along the marina, or hire a boat to take you out on the water. And don’t leave Vernazza without rewarding yourself with a treat from Gelateria Vernazza. Return to your home base in Manarola via train or ferry boat and enjoy dinner of fresh seafood or pasta at Marina Piccola.
Day 2 | Corniglia, Riomaggiore, & Manarola
The next morning, take the train to Corniglia and hike the 365 steps up to the village. Make a few stops to enjoy the view and then meander the narrow passageways around town. Grab lunch at one of the many eateries at the center of the village.
After exploring Corniglia, take the train back south to Riomaggiore. Here you’ll want to take in the views of the marina, check out the shops, and grab some more gelato, of course!
Return to Manarola by train and walk the short path of Lover’s Lane that remains open. (You won’t get too far, but you’ll have a nice view overlooking the sea within a 5 minute walk of the train station). Then head back into Manarola and end your day with an early dinner of appetizers and drinks at Nessun Dorma. For the kids, stop at the playground on the hill behind Nessun Dorma either before or after (whatever it takes to keep the kids content!). Once thoroughly tuckered out, head back down the hill for a sunset view over Manarola to put the perfect cap on your Cinque Terre adventure!
Have you been to Cinque Terre? I’d love to hear your recommendations!