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Explore Cinque Terre With the Family

by Kelly Magyarics

Jan 24, 2019

© Kelly Magyarics

Destinations / Europe

On paper, Cinque Terre with kids seems daunting. After all, the region is known for its grueling hikes that admittedly reward you with unbelievable views of the five villages and the Mediterranean Sea. But those can be difficult for adults to navigate, let alone the under 12 set.

Last year we debated whether or not to include this destination in the three-week France and Italy summer vacation we undertook with our kids (aged 14 and 11 at the time), because we wondered how doable it would actually be. (In other words, how much complaining would we hear if we embarked on a hike in the heat and the kids were over it after 10 minutes?). What we learned though, is you don’t have to hike to appreciate the region’s scenery, and it’s a can’t-miss in Italy. Here are some insider tips for a sojourn on this rugged spot on the Italian Riviera.

Orientation

Vernazza's one main street is only accessible by pedestrians

Vernazza’s one main street is only accessible by pedestrians © Kelly Magyarics

The Cinque Terre translates to “Five Lands,” a reference to the five villages that encompass this small region spanning 6 miles and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site where time seems to have stood still (in the best way.) Monterosso al Mare is the most “resort-like” town, with the biggest beach and largest (relatively speaking) concentration of shopping, restaurants and nightlife; Vernazza has the cutest harbor, a lively waterfront, small beach and castle on a high hill; Corniglia is the only village not on the water but instead perched on the hillside; Manarola is mellow and dotted with vineyards; and Riomaggiore is the largest.

Getting There/Getting Around

Don’t even think of driving to the Cinque Terre. Vernazza (where we stayed, more on that below) has one road running through the village which is only open to pedestrians. Ditto for some of the others, which means you’d have to find parking above the town and keep your car there for the duration. Much easier is to take the train. (If you do have a car, you can also choose to pay to park it in La Spezia during your stay.) The “milk train” line connects all five villages and links directly with Genoa, Pisa and Rome. If you plan on doing a lot of exploring of the five villages (and hiking), the Cinque Terre Pass covers all train travel between Levanto and La Spezia and all hiking fees; it can be purchased for one or two days and you can see the options on the website. If you don’t have a pass, a one-way train ticket costs €4 for adults and €2 for kids up to 12. The price is the same no matter if you take the train one stop to the next village or all the way to the end, so plan accordingly. We zipped over to Monterosso al Mare one afternoon to have drinks and snacks by the water and do a little shopping, the rest of the time we spent in Vernazza because we just couldn’t get enough of it.

Where to Stay

Each village has its own distinct personality, so it’s really a question of figuring out what fits your family’s lifestyle. There are no big hotels in Cinque Terre — it’s comprised mostly of small inns, apartments and Airbnbs, some of which only take cash for payment, so double-check before you go. We decided on the charm of Vernazza, and I highly recommend La Marina Rooms, run by the super helpful and affable Cristian Carro, who helped us before our trip via email with our questions and provided recommendations, met us at the train station to help us with our luggage, gave us an insider tour of the town on the way to the apartment and also helped us carry our bags when we departed. (His is one of the cash-only accommodations, by the way.) We stayed in the Apartment Piazza Marconi ($172/night), which has a window overlooking the harbor and a double bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. It was perfect for people watching and we still talk about our stay there. (Cristian does offer other rooms and another apartment with a terrace overlooking the sea, but that was booked.) Vernazza is one of those towns where people figure out what time it is by the church bells; it all just felt like one magical step back in time.

Our apartment at La Marina Rooms gave us a perfect view of Vernazza's beach and harbor

Our apartment at La Marina Rooms gave us a perfect view of Vernazza’s beach and harbor © Kelly Magyarics

Where to Eat

Since we had a kitchen, we went to the small market a two-minute walk away and stocked up on yogurt and fruit for breakfast and charcuterie, cheese and bread for lunch (or to snack on with wine in the late afternoon.) You can also grab a pizza at one of the shops in town and take it onto the sandy beach at the harbor (with Italian sodas for the kids and bottled Aperol Spritzes for the parents), or the rocky “secret beach” accessible through a rock formation formed during a flood a few years back. Sure there is a sign that says to Keep Out, but you’ll see by the throngs of people headed there it’s not enforced and kids will love doing something they think they shouldn’t.

Salt-crusted fish is a specialty of Ristorante Belforte

Salt-crusted fish is a specialty of Ristorante Belforte © Kelly Magyarics

The Liguria region is known for its pesto (it was invented here) as well as anchovies marinated in lemon and olive oil (or fried, which my family found to be unbelievably addictive), octopus and sea bream. For a casual dinner, grab a table outside at Trattoria da Sandro and order up some of the local favorites with a carafe of white or rosé house wine. For a special family evening (we saved it for our last night), book a table well in advance on the terrace overlooking the sea at Ristorante Belforte, accessible by a steep flight of stairs; we ordered the catch of the day baked in a salt crust, which the kids liked watching being carved tableside.

What to Do

Like I said, we are not really a “hiking family,” especially in the oppressive August heat. But we did want to see the five villages, so thanks to Cristian (once again), we discovered the Nord-Est rental boat company, responsible for our most favorite afternoon of the entire vacation. Head to the harbor and look for a table and umbrella set up with its sign out front; while you don’t need advance notice to rent one, it’s helpful, especially in busier months. My husband sails, but you don’t need any experience to rent these 19-foot boats, which have a canopy, outboard motor, oars and storage (the helpful Nord-Est attendant briefed him before our trip.) Renting it for two hours will cost $80, while four hours will be just more than $100, depending on how much gasoline you burn. We packed snacks, drinks and sunscreen, wore our bathing suits, and embarked on an unforgettable outing. We had to use the oars to navigate Vernazza’s harbor, but once we were outside of them we could zip around with the motor. We made it to all five villages, anchoring in deep water outside Riomaggiore for some swimming in the dark blue water.

Vernazza's secret beach was uncovered after a flood washed away the rock that used to block it

Vernazza’s secret beach was uncovered after a flood washed away the rock that used to block it © Kelly Magyarics

If you are feeling ambitious, you can try to dock at any open slips you find at any of the villages; we tried but between the language barrier, the swimmers who seemed nonplussed by the boats and a lack of open slips as it was a busy day, we decided to bail. Still, this was the way to see the Cinque Terre, in our opinion, and, like I said, the most memorable activity of everything we did the entire trip. (If you are a little nervous about commandeering your own vessel, the company also offers guided tours in the morning, afternoon, at sunset and at night.)

Nord-Est rents out 19 foot boats for 2 or 4 hours that are easy to navigate

Nord-Est rents out 19 foot boats for two or four hours that are easy to navigate © Kelly Magyarics

If your family isn’t up for a long hike but still wants to take in the view, hike to the top of Vernazza after 5 p.m., when you no longer need a pass and it’s a little less hot. It’s about a 20-minute walk with a lot of steps and steep hills, but it should be manageable with kids from age 8 on. It’s cool to see all of Vernazza from one vantage point, and spot your apartment at La Marina Rooms.

The author catches some rays during the boat trip around the Cinque Terre

The author catches some rays during the boat trip around the Cinque Terre © Kelly Magyarics

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