Zach and I got married on September 30, 2017, but we chose to delay our honeymoon until May 2018—I couldn’t imagine planning our entire wedding and a two-week vacation to Italy at the same time. The Sunday after our wedding we flew to Charleston, SC for a quick minimoon, which I highly recommend. Charleston, where we’ve been before, is one of our favorite spots, so we didn’t feel the need to wake up early and sightsee. We were perfectly happy to sleep in, eat our fill of the city’s notoriously delicious BBQ and Lowcountry cuisine and relax. It was a much-needed refresh after 11 months of wedding planning.
Eight months after we married, we flew to Italy for our honeymoon, beginning in the postcard-perfect Cinque Terre. Read on for my guide for one of the most beautiful and can’t-miss spots in Italy!
The Cinque Terre was the ideal compromise for what we were looking for in a honeymoon. We both wanted some beach time (winter in NYC means you become seriously desperate for vitamin D come summer), but neither of us can spend more than two days on a beach before we get antsy. The Cinque Terre is the perfect in-between. Monterosso al Mare, the northern-most town in the five cities, is the only one with a natural beachfront. It is also easily accessible from Rome on Italy’s train system … you have to tack on another transfer to a local train in La Spezia Centrale to access the other towns.
On our first full day in Monterosso, we had booked a four-hour boat tour that departed from Monterosso at 11 AM. Instead, I checked my email at 9:30 AM to find that the tour had been canceled due to rain. We were bummed, especially as there was barely a drizzle and some haze, but quickly called an audible and set out in workout clothes to hike the five towns. After consulting our Rick Steves travel book, we packed a backpack of provisions and set out for the trailhead.
(PS: Zach makes fun of how obsessed with Rick Steves I am, but the guy has never led me astray. We used his Italy 2018 guide to plan our honeymoon, and borrowed the Pocket Italy’s Cinque Terre from our hotel as a light, travel-friendly hiking guide.)
The trailhead for the ~1.5-hour trek to Vernazza begins just past the Porto Roca Hotel, up a steep incline, and takes you up some quad-burning, crumbly stairs and past cliffside vineyards. I can’t overstate how stunning the views were. At 550 feet above the sea, the ocean stretched as far as the eye could see. The trail twisted and turned, providing the briefest of glimpses of Vernazza as we approached.
Oh and that fog and drizzle? It burned off about 45 minutes in and the rest of the day was clear and sunny. We couldn’t even be disappointed about the boat tour—frankly, the hike provided the best views of the Cinque Terre, plus a Cinque Terre Park Card (purchased on the trail) cost €15 total … the boat tour was a whopping €300. (It included lunch, but still!).
Once we made it into Vernazza, we explored the town and stopped for a bite of foccacia and ate facing the harbor.
Vernazza is the only town with a natural harbor, thanks to its curved shape. Above, you can see Monterosso—the flat “necklace” of structures in the distance. The promontory on the left features a stone tower that is actually a restaurant (more on that later).
After a rest, it was back to the trail toward Corniglia and yes, more stairs. As Rick Steves mentions, going from Vernazza to Corniglia is steeper … we definitely had to take more breaks on this ~1.5 hour hike, but we managed. The only of the five towns not directly on the water, Corniglia is much sleepier than its neighbor.
The trail from Corniglia to Manarola is closed indefinitely due to landslides, and its alternate route is a 2.5 hour challenging hike starting with a steep ascent from Corniglia. As we had just hiked for three hours, we opted out of the alternate. Instead, we climbed down the whopping 385 stairs from the town to the train station, and hopped on a local train stopping in Manarola.
Manarola is definitely the town that you Instagram—the view above is helpfully pointed out in Rick Steves as the “Best View.” To find it, walk from the harbor overlook up Via del Giovanni, and stop just before the road switches back right and you lose sight of town. Manarola earns its charm thanks to incredibly steep roads and switchbacks, so exploring becomes a workout all on its own.
In Manarola, we inhaled a giant scoop of gelato and a cone of fried calamari, before taking the local train back to Monterosso.
We were concerned about the weather, as it was predicting rain throughout our entire stop in Monterosso. But when we arrived at 3 PM to gorgeous sunshine and blue skies, we nixed our hiking plans to take advantage of the sun. We immediately changed into our swimsuits and went down to the old town beach visible from our hotel window (more on our lodging later!). After our strenuous hike on the first full day, we earned a full day of relaxing beachside.
Monterosso is split into two sections—old town (Centro Storico) and new town (Fegina). Connection between the two areas is accessed through a pedestrian tunnel, which from Centro Storico pops you out directly in front of the (above) sand beach with picturesque rocks. The rule of thumb in Monterosso is as long as there aren’t chairs in the vicinity, you’re free to lay your towel down to catch some rays.
After a few hours of tanning, we made our way down the beach to the distinctive orange and green umbrellas and bought two chairs. Chair prices vary and can be softer later in the afternoon, but a chair with an umbrella runs about €15 each, while no umbrella is about €8. We needed some shade, but luckily the €8 chairs come with adjustable sun shades so no need to pay the steeper price for the umbrella unless you are looking for complete sun blockage.
The other pro to shelling out for chairs? Use of nice and surprisingly clean restrooms and changing rooms are included in the price, and it provides easy to access to a beach bar. We promptly bought a liter of their house white wine and enjoyed it oceanside with a margherita pizza.
Lodging in Monterosso al Mare
Per Rick’s suggestion (are you surprised?) we stayed at Hotel Pasquale. Located just past the pedestrian tunnel in Centro Storico, the hotel features 15 tiny but tidy rooms—and every single one has an ocean view. Breakfast was included, and the hotel staff was incredibly friendly, spoke English and provided umbrellas and beach towels when they were needed.
Eating in the Cinque Terre
The Cinque Terre is known for its seafood, so why order anything else? Order anything with shrimp, clams, mussels or white fish and you won’t regret it. We aren’t really white wine drinkers, but thanks to some amazing suggestions from our sommelier friend Henry (thanks Henry!) we discovered a love of Vermentino.
Il Casello (above) has delicious food with a sea view, thanks to a terrace overlooking the beach in old town. We also ate the best (and biggest) seafood risotto at Ristorante al Pozzo, a locals-favorite located on a tiny and twisty side street off the main drag of Centro Storico.
The harbors of Vernazza and Manarola are dotted with signs advertising calamari cones—if you visit, get one. Everything is better fried, and I think it might taste better in a cone, spritzed with lemon and eaten with your fingers.
Our last night in the Cinque Terre, we visited the aforementioned tower restaurant in Vernazza, Ristorante Belforte. While tourist-y, it has the best views in town. Call ahead and make a reservation to ensure you have a table on the terrazza con visto (view terrace), located directly on the edge overlooking a steep drop to the ocean below with a front row seat to a gorgeous sunset.