Helpline Question of the Month: Has Popularity Spoiled Italy's Cinque Terre?
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Rick Steves' Travelers Helpline is where we take a step back, and let travelers share information directly with one another.
A thread on our Travelers Helpline doesn't necessarily run in a straight line. In this month's example, a simple question about where to stay in Italy's Cinque Terre suddenly ignited (thanks to Bob from Seattle) into to a full-blown debate on whether success has spoiled this destination. Meander along this Cinque Terre thread and you'll find — hidden among the rants and raves — some good tips for getting the most out of any crowded place and how it helps to set your expectations realistically before you go there.
Tag along on Cinda's journey through our Travelers Helpline...
In late May I am planning on spending four nights in Cinque Terre, and wondering if I should stay in Vernazza or Monterrosso. There will be three couples traveling together, so finding an apartment that will accommodate all of us would be nice. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Grazie!
Monterosso if you are looking for more of a beach resort-like place; Vernazza if you are looking for more of a small Riviera village-like experience. Both will probably be fairly crowded at that time of year. Both are beautiful though; with the Cinque Terre, you really can't go wrong.
Sunny Mission Viejo, CA
Hi - we were just there in August - beautiful!!! We stayed in Monterosso, a lot more restaurants/ people/ action/ etc than Vernazza - we found it to be a good base for 5 Terre - you'll love it!!!!!!
More restaurants, some nightlife, and a little beach in Monterosso. Quieter and more scenic/picturesque in Vernazza. If you are looking for relaxation, Vernazza is great. If you want a nightlife or something resembling a sandy beach, Monterosso is the choice. Of course if you want nightlife and a beach, there are better choices than Monterosso outside of CT.
San Dimas, CA
Marc explained it well. We were there a week ago and spent two nights at each and loved both. We hiked from both and visited all 5 in CT. And while Vernazza is more quiet at night, remember you do not go to dinner till 8 or so and finish till 10 or 11 so not a problem for us.
I know I'm in the minority here, but I have no idea why anyone would go to the Cinque Terre anymore. We were just there a couple weeks ago and it was the only disappointing part of an otherwise magical trip.
I'm sure at one point in time the CT was a quaint, quiet, charming little out of the way gem. But let's face the uncomfortable truth: that time is long gone (thanks in large part to Mr. Steves).
In our 4 days there we were overrun by a hoard of marauding tourists. At one point we were near the water in Riomaggiore when the ferry was letting off. The resulting mob of people darn near trampled us underfoot! We seriously considered jumping into the bay to escape the danger.
We were packed into the trains and ferries like sardines with hundreds of other sweaty, frustrated tourists. We had to elbow our way through the crowded streets just to get a glimpse of the cheap, kitschy tourist trinkets that the shops were peddling. Walking the 'Walk of Love' felt like waiting in line for a ride at an amusement park – shuffling along slowly, elbow to elbow with hundreds of other tourists, with no hope of being able to truly take in the view or having any semblance of privacy or personal space.
We ate as several restaurants – a different one for every meal for every day we were there – and never found the food more than mediocre, and always way overpriced (why should the restaurants go through the expense and trouble to serve up fine dining when the great mass of tourists will eat anything you put in front of them?). It was the only place in Italy where the food was not as good as our local Italian restaurant here in Seattle.
It was so overrun with tourists it didn't even feel like we were in Italy anymore. We overheard more German than Italian, and the Australians seemed to outnumber everyone by 10 to 1 (no offense to my Aussie friends – I love 'em all – but I don't go to Italy to feel like I'm in Sidney).
The thought that we could've spent those 4 days in Parma, Siena, heck ANYWHERE in Italy, instead of that overcrowded Disneyland masquerading as Italy makes me sad.
Yes, there is no shortage of tourists in Italy. Venice, Rome, Florence, all draw a ton of tourists. But those places are also much, much larger than any of the 5 towns in the CT and therefore can handle the influx of people with relative ease. The tourists are spread out enough that the cities don't get overwhelmed. But that's not the case in the CT. The CT towns are so tiny (part of their former charm, to be sure) that there is simply not enough room for everyone who goes there.
I wish someone on this board would've warned us about the unbelievable tourist trap mess that is the CT. So, after reviewing our latest trip I'm going to make it point to speak my truth about this place in the hopes that I can save someone from the utter disappointment we went through.
My word of advice for anyone else reading this thread who is thinking of going to the Cinque Terre: Don't.
Bob, thank you for your candid Cinque Terre review. "Minority views" are as important as the so-called conventional wisdom, when it comes to picking destinations.
You might try finding a place in Levanto, the next town north of the CT. It is the northernmost end of the local train run and just a few minutes from Monterosso. The vibe there is a little different and crowding should be less.
I haven't been to the CT in the past few years. Crowding may be worse than I remember. I've always stayed in Monterosso; access to hotels is easier and the town is easier to walk in than the others.
I think April or October would be ideal months for travel in Italy generally, and the CT specifically.
For great views and casual dining or snacking, I like Riomaggiore. There is an elevator to the top of the town and you can walk down the steep main street from there.
Hit the trail early in the day. I've never found it crowded at 8-9am.
San Diego, CA
So for those of us who have been wanting to check it out since it first came onto Rick's radar a decade or so ago and might FINALLY be able to make it this Spring...
Go before it starts getting late fall chilly in the southern hemisphere. Stay away from the ferries at midday. Get a room with a view deck and picnic there as much as possible to avoid having a disappointing meal in a tourist-trap, sit-down, restaurant. And as Swan said, get on the hiking trails before anyone else has ordered their morning cappuccino.
That's what I do when I visit Yosemite. And I would never tell anyone to avoid Yosemite just because the throngs of intolerables will try to ruin a persons time there.
Does that sound survivable, Bob? Does anyone want to defend a trattoria in either of these towns, or Manarola? Does my description of that hotel picnic spot put anyone in mind of a quaint Locanda? Please let's get opinionated some more!
And sorry for hijacking your thread, Cinda.
Bill, I can really relate to your comments about Yosemite, a place with which I am very familiar (lived and worked there for a year when I was younger). It is the perfect example of a place that is "loved to death" but still worth a visit. You just have to go about it with good sense.
I was really torn about dedicating a few days of our precious vacation time to Cinque Terre when we took our daughters to Italy last summer. I know as many people in the "hate it, it has been ruined" camp as I do in the "so beautiful, don't miss it" camp. My son who lived in Italy as a student in 2000 and returned with his fiancé in 2008 is in the "it has been ruined" camp. I decided we should go and see for ourselves.
We absolutely loved Manarola and our balcony at La Torretta. The hotel is wonderful. We enjoyed lovely breakfasts on the balcony, walked uncrowded paths through the vineyards, swam in the deep water away from the town, and enjoyed a very good and properly prepared seafood dinner at Trattoria dal Billy (maybe because the reservation was made by our hotel host, and they look after his guests).
We hiked over to Vernazza and did not find that trail particularly crowded. But Vernazza at midday was horrible - so full of visitors we could hardly find a place to sit to eat the mediocre piadini we bought from a surly woman behind the counter in a small sandwich shop. We could not wait to get out of Vernazza. We caught the train back to Corniglia (not particularly crowded) and then hiked back to Manarola, stopping for another swim on the way.
This was in late June. Maybe we just got lucky, but we all really enjoyed our stay, apart from the Vernazza part. We never did walk the Via del Amore, so I cannot comment on that.
I know you said "a couple weeks ago", but just out of curiosity, can you tell us if this was early September or still late August? Curious...
"Since it first came onto Rick's radar a decade or so ago."
I think Rick's been promoting the CT for longer than that.
The CT is not what it used to be in the old days.
As The Master says, discover your own back doors!
I spent 4 nights in Monterosso this past summer and thought it was a great base. If you stay in the Centro Storico part of Monterosso it is very quaint and historic and has a lovely little beach. I hiked through all the towns and did not find Vernazza to have a lot more charm than the Centro Storico of Monterosso al Mare. The bonus is that the train station there is more of a major stop, it has more restaurants and more hotels. You can walk over to Fegina through a tunnel (the new part) and check out more restaurants, more beaches, etc. If I went back again I would do it the same after seeing all 5 villages.
CT is nice, but it's jam packed full of tourists and there's just really not much to do there. Been there once and that's plenty for me.
San Diego, CA
Oy vay Kent, was season two of 'Travels in Europe' that long ago? Please don't remind me (us?) how old I'm getting and how many possible trips have slipped away,... lost to less important things like a new roof, window treatment updates or major car repair. o_O
We were there late October, mid-week, and it was mostly empty and relaxing. If I went back, I would choose that time of year rather than summer. The weather was very comfortable but the water was a little too cold for swimming. We did wade a little at Monterosso. The beach chairs weren't set up and it was pretty quiet. We stayed at Vernazza, which was nice. The biggest downside was at dinner; the staff were often overly anxious for us to finish dinner so they could go home - forget finding a place for an after dinner glass of wine. I agree with the poster about food. It wasn't bad, but not cheap and nothing to write home about.
To answer a few questions:
We were there from September 9th through the 13th. We stayed in Manarola, which was supposed to be the "least visited", "quieter" town. We ended up adopting a similar strategy as the previous poster: we got up early, hit a trail or two and saw the town before any of the daytrippers decended upon it.
Around 10:30am - 11:00am or so, as the throngs of German tourists started trampling through, we would escape up to our apartment which thankfully was farther up the hill from the town and had a nice deck. We then had to wait out the tourist until about 5:30pm or 6:00pm before we could head back into town.
And it worked, for the most part. But that's a heck of a way to experience a place, isn't it? It takes a lot of time, effort and money to put together a vacation and we ended up spending half the daylight hours sequestered away in our apartment!
As for the CT being beautiful enough to make it worth the hassle, all I can say is: yes, it is beautiful, but I personally did not find it all that impressive. Remember, I live in Seattle so I'm used to being around water and mountains and scenic beauty. Someone from Nebraska, say, might have a different experience.
CT is very scenic. But is it beautiful enough to make it worth the hassle? In my opinion: no way.
Thank you Bob and Brad for taking the time to write candid reviews that make points not often made in many of the 2-line superficial reviews submitted here: For example, Bob makes the point that someone who hasn't seen the headlands and quaint villages in other parts of Italy, or the headlands (not quaint villages) of the Pacific Northwest, may have a different reaction to and experience of the CT. Part of it depends on what you've seen before. There are many headlands with small villages, in Italy and other countries. Sure the CT is beautiful, but is it beautiful enough to make it worth the hassle of having to go out at first light before the hordes arrive? Is that the way you want to experience a place? Well, it's your trip and you get to decide. But when there are many other choices? Has your trip research, or prior travels, made you aware of the other choices? Is the beauty of the CT enough to outweigh the hordes of tourist that have discovered it, thanks partly to Rick's promotion of it in the last 20 years? As You-Know-Who says: Discover your own back doors. (The CT hasn't been a back door for some time now.)
Visitors to the CT can spend daytimes visiting nearby towns such as Santa Margherita, La Spezia (yes), Levanto, Bonassola, Genoa, etc. Frequent trains run to all these places.
Tinton Falls, NJ
We stayed in Vernazza for three nights in the height of the summer (July 23, 24, 25th). We loved Vernazza in the evenings - we were lucky and had lovely weather with a pleasant breeze. Unfortunately, the ferry was not running and we had to take the horrible crowded train. We also found the food disappointing, with small portions and high prices; but we found that was the case everywhere we went in Italy (Rome, Venice, Positano). We were in Italy for four weeks. When we got home my 14-year-old son said he wanted to go to the Olive Garden for some good Italian food! He was not impressed. We find this rather sad. We did however enjoy pretty little Vernazza; it was very relaxing in the evenings even in July. We had no crowds walking with us on the Via del Amore. That was lovely.
I was in the Cinque Terre a few day ago, and spent some time in each of the villages except for Corniglia. I stayed four nights in Monterosso and quite honestly my stay there has been one of the highlights of the six countries I've visited this year. The Hotel I stayed at was in the "old town" and was wonderful! I will definitely stay there again on my next visit. I wished I had brought a swim suit, as the water on the small beach sure looked inviting on a hot afternoon.
While I did encounter a lot of tourists at times and had one or two uncomfortable trips on the local trains (especially with tour groups and their Umbrella toting Guides), I didn't find that to really be much of a problem. The trails were "busy" at times but not a huge problem.
My experience was the same as Lola mentioned with respect to Vernazza. I arrived at mid-day (perhaps about 13:00?) and the place was so packed I could barely move in the streets. Trying to find a place to get a quick lunch took me awhile. I checked the prices in some of the restaurants in the main piazza (by the water) and found they were somewhat more expensive than the same items at restaurants in Monterosso. To put it simply, I could hardly wait to get out of there and as soon as I had lunch I was on the next train!
Crowds can be a problem anywhere in Italy. I'm in Rome at the moment and travelled back from Piazza Navona on the #40 Bus about an hour ago. Passengers were packed in like Sardines, and it was hot, crowded and uncomfortable. Those conditions aren't unique to the Cinque Terre.
I may have a few more thoughts once I get home in a few days, and have time to "reflect" on my experiences here. It's midnight at the moment, so not focusing well.
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