Although it may come as a surprise to anyone who knows me (and my love of food over exercise), the Cinque Terre hike was the part of my trip to Florence that I was most looking forward to experiencing. Astounding ocean views, sprawling hilltop towns, ancient mule trails… what’s not to love?
I’m happy to report that this day trip with Walkabout Florence was everything I wanted it to be and more. I got the views and the satisfaction that comes with walking 12 miles in one day – but I wasn’t expecting such a wonderful human experience, too. I’ve never done this kind of tour as a single traveller before, and what really stands out in my memory about the Cinque Terre hike is the warmth and friendliness of the group and the guides.
If you’ve already booked onto this tour and want to find out more about it, or if you are wondering whether it’s the right option for you, read on for my thoughts and recommendations.
What’s the Itinerary?
The trip followed roughly this itinerary:
Meet outside Florence Santa Maria Novella train station at 7.45am
Yes, it’s an early start! The meeting point is easy to find – stand in the main entrance to the station facing outwards and turn right – but don’t be tricked into thinking you’re hopping on a train straightaway. The guides will lead the group round the back of the station to the coach bay.
Two and a half hour coach trip to the Cinque Terre
I didn’t actually realise that the Cinque Terre region isn’t in Tuscany – it’s in the neighbouring state of Liguria, and it’s quite a ride from Florence. However, the coach journey didn’t feel like a drag; the guides did an excellent job of structuring the introduction to the tour and the necessary admin to keep us all entertained, and then pointed out places of interest that we passed along the way.
First stop: Manarola
When we reached the Cinque Terre, our coach-full of people split into two groups of around 25. My tour guide was the amazing Stefano, whose enthusiasm, organisation and unflappable cool kept the whole group engaged and together throughout the entire day.
Although this trip is called a Cinque Terre hike the main mode of transport around the National Park for the day is the train, which gives you the chance to see multiple towns in the Cinque Terre. We were briefed on train travel and timings, and told to keep our tickets in hand to hop on and off throughout the day.
Top Tip: bring along a few Euro coins, as every toilet we came across had a charge. In some stations your train ticket allows you to go into the toilet for free.
I’ll elaborate more on Manarola later in this blog post.
Second stop: Corniglia
The second town on the itinerary is Corniglia, where you will have lunch. Lunch is an extra fee (€15 per person), which in my opinion is an excellent price for a two-course meal in such a lovely family-run restaurant. I had the seafood starter – who knew that fried anchovies were so tasty? – followed by a hearty portion of fresh pesto pasta.
The real Cinque Terre hike: Corniglia to Vernazza
This is the proper hiking portion of the trip, which again I will cover later.
Third stop: Vernazza
After the hike we had some free time in Vernazza. “Free time” on this trip normally equates to between 30 minutes and an hour, and in most cases it enables you to have a coffee in café, pick up a few souvenirs or buy a gelato to eat in the sunshine, but not a huge amount more. That suited me perfectly, as after all that walking I appreciated a sit down in the shade!
Top Tip: you can find free fresh water fountains in every town, so save the environment and your wallet by refilling your water bottle rather than buying bottled water.
Fourth stop: Monterosso
From Vernazza you will catch a train to Monterosso for some more free time. It has the most swim-friendly beach of all the towns (complete with toilets you can change in), so if you fancy a dip after your exertions there is more than enough time here for a swim and a quick change into some dry clothes. Personally I was content to sit by the harbour and watch the world go by for 45 minutes until it was time to meet again for the ferry.
A boat trip up the coast from Monterosso to Riomaggiore
We were lucky that the ferry was running for our tour, as apparently the tide/weather conditions regularly prevent it from leaving the harbour. I was expecting a nice, relaxing journey along the coast with plenty of opportunities to admire the views… although the views were lovely, they were somewhat overshadowed by the fact that those of us who were sitting at the bow were routinely soaked by sea spray!
Fifth stop: Riomaggiore
Our final stop was the picturesque town of Riomaggiore, and a final chance to grab a drink or any souvenirs before heading back to Manarola to start the journey home.
Return to the coach for the journey back to Florence
Unlike the journey out for the Cinque Terre hike, the two-and-a-half-hour journey back was a lot quieter, with a lot of people taking a well-deserved nap after all that walking. The coach deposited us back at Florence train station at around 9pm.
How Hard is the Hike?
I find that the problem with “walking” or “hiking” or “trekking” is that everyone’s idea of a walk/hike/trek is different. I would consider myself a relatively active young person; I have an office job so I’m sitting most days, but I do martial arts and Pilates in my free time, and I live in London so I do a lot of city walking. However, I am not a serious “hiker” and I wouldn’t say that my cardio is particularly impressive. In truth, I was slightly worried that I’d embarrass myself if the walking was too intense.
With that context in mind, I found the walking element of the Cinque Terre hike strenuous but rewarding. There were three serious hiking sections in the itinerary:
- A panoramic walk around the terraced vineyards of Manarola (short)
- 382 steps up the hillside to Corniglia (short)
- A longer walk from Corniglia to Vernazza (around 1 hour 30 mins)
All of these sections could be skipped if you didn’t feel that you were up to them, but in truth I don’t think it’s worth choosing this tour if you’re not going to do any walking – it’s called a Cinque Terre hike, after all, and walking is the best way to understand the geography, history and beauty of the National Park.
What to Wear
I was happy with my outfit choice: loose shorts and a cool cotton shirt with long sleeves and a collar so I didn’t have to keep reapplying sunscreen. It says on the tour details that proper walking shoes are recommended, and I would definitely agree – I was very glad that I had decided to bring my walking boots (even though I only flew with hand luggage). A number of people on the tour wore trainers, which were also fine. Sandals or flimsy shoes are definitely not appropriate – the park authorities won’t even let you enter the trails if you are wearing flip flops or fashion footwear rather than durable shoes.
The “Stroll” in Manarola
The first proper walking section of the day is in the town of Manarola. Unfortunately for our group, we had lost some time due to traffic on the way to the Cinque Terre, so we had half the time to complete this walk.
Stefano, our tour guide, informed us that he was still happy to lead the walk if we wanted to do it, but he made it quite clear that he would set a fast pace in order to be back at the station in time for the train to Corniglia. Stefano had told us earlier that he was a keen trail runner and ultra-marathon runner … so we were all well aware that it was going to be a challenge to complete the walk in fifteen minutes.
A couple of members of our group decided to take some free time in Manarola but the rest of us girded our loins and accepted the challenge. It was fast – we started power walking and finished at a jog. Rather than making people complain, it was actually a really great team bonding exercise for the group (believe me, I never thought I’d say that about a run in the heat of summer). It broke the ice between us – after all, those who sweat together can chat together without feeling awkward!
The Ascent to Corniglia
The next physical challenge is the climb from the train station at Corniglia to the town centre at the top of the hill. There are 382 steps that switchback up the hillside. The ascent made me puff, of course, but I actually didn’t find this section too hard. If you have knee problems it might be a challenge for you – there is a shuttle bus that runs from the station to the town centre if you don’t want to take the stairs. (However, when we reached the top we saw the shuttle go past and it was completely rammed with sweaty people … personally I’d rather have the fresh air and the steps!)
The Path to Vernazza
The real Cinque Terre hike comes after lunch, when you’ve had a chance to refuel and cool down. You walk from Corniglia along the ancient mule trails that encircle the hills to Vernazza, the next town along the coast. This section is around 3.5km (approximately 2 miles) and winds through olive groves, vineyards and hugs the coast. The paths are narrow and there is some two-way traffic, so you have to stay alert the entire time.
In my opinion this was the most physically challenging section, not only because of the distance but also because it takes place at the hottest time of the day. Most of the walking was either uphill or downhill, and although in theory you could go at your own pace there was a bit of a pack mentality in our group to keep up with Stefano at the front. By the end of this hike I definitely felt an amazing sense of achievement and a real appreciation for the landscape that is impossible to grasp from a train carriage.
Anything Else We Should Know?
Get to Know Your Group
The thing that surprised me the most about the Cinque Terre hike was how friendly everyone was – not just the tour guides but my fellow travellers too. I was doubtful that this would be the case on a group sightseeing tour, but the group is small enough that you quickly come to recognise faces and soon enough engage in conversation with each other.
In my opinion that’s one of the big benefits of travelling – not only do you get to explore a new landscape and culture different from your own, but you also get to swap stories and hear the opinions of other travellers with alternative viewpoints. On my trip I did a lot of my walking alongside a family from Mississippi, ate gelato with a single traveller from Brussels and shared a table at lunch with a retired couple from Liverpool. They are as much a part of the fond memories of my trip as the Cinque Terre hike was.
You’ve Got to Give it to the Guides
Of course, we all felt so comfortable around each other due to the incredible efforts of the Walkabout Florence guides. Stefano and Chris, who led the group we shared a coach with, are not only extremely knowledgeable tour guides and passionate speakers on the history of the area, but also genuinely lovely people. Their organisational skills are second none, especially when it comes to herding groups of wide-eyed travellers on and off trains. You couldn’t be in more capable hands on this trip.
You should book your spot on Walkabout Florence’s Cinque Terre hike if you:
- Are in decent physical shape and anticipate the desire to burn off all the pasta and pizza you will eat on your Italian holiday
- Are looking for an introduction to the sights and landscapes of the Cinque Terre rather than an in-depth study of its history and culture
- Love talking to other travellers and sharing your experiences
- Want to support a small, independent tour operator that does an absolutely stellar job of introducing people from all over the world to the beauty of Italy.
We Are Walkabout Florence
Walkabout Florence is consistently voted the best day trip operator by tens of thousands of reviewers on TripAdvisor. Whether you’re interested in learning how to cook like a real Tuscan “Nonna” in a farmhouse kitchen, discovering the vineyards of Chianti in a one-of-a-kind off-road vehicle or embarking on a Cinque Terre hike, Walkabout Florence has the experience for you.