How to visit Cinque Terre, Italy on a budget
Cinque Terre remains one of the most tried and true vacation spots in Italy, and it’s easy to see why. From every angle, the view remains picturesque, and it is home to some of the best food and hiking in northern Italy. Another perk is that it is extremely easy to get from most major cities to the “Five Lands” (from the literal Italian translation).
You can make it a simple day trip from a center like Florence or you can plan to spend several days there without worrying about getting bored — there’s plenty to keep you interested. If in doubt, you can’t go wrong with a day on the beach. Even though the most popular tourist destinations in Italy are known for being molto caro (very expensive), you can often find some great free activities and some delicious places to eat without spending too much.
Cost of getting to Cinque Terre
If you are coming from Florence, you might have to expect that you will pay around €17 for a train ticket there.
Coming from Pisa or Bologna is a bit cheaper, you might end up spending around €12 to €15. Taking the slow train from Florence (Trenitalia) means that you will arrive there in around two and half hours. Also, sometimes (but not always, the Italian railway system is fickle), you can get a cheaper ticket on the day of your trip by visiting the train station.
Depending how planned your trip needs to be, it might save you a few extra euro to get to the station early and take some time looking at your options at the self-serve kiosks.
Getting from “Land to Land”
When you arrive at Cinque Terre, you will be arriving at La Spezia train station. To get from one town to the next, you will have to take another short train ride, with Riomaggiore being the first stop. You can buy tickets at the station, which cost around €6 one way to Riomaggiore and €8 to Monterosso.
The train runs the length of coastline, and you can also purchase tickets from La Spezia to locations like Turin, Milan, and others if you don’t come by way of Tuscany.
The Five Lands
The five different villages each have their own distinct feel and flavors — it might be difficult to see them all and try everything over a day or two.
However, if you have an idea of what you would like to see and do, you are more likely to find which village would be best for your visit and what you can afford.
Monterosso al Mare
Originally a village that was frequently attacked by pirates, Monterosso was briefly excluded from the historical trail of Cinque Terre in the late 1940s and then reintroduced a year later.
The castle is a popular tourist attraction, and it is the only one out of the five villages to offer a sand beach. The parish church devoted to St. John the Baptist is also something worth seeing.
Mostly famous for being one of the few original fishing villages, and still a major part of modern-day living in Vernazza, the small city offers some amazing seafood options.
If you are up for a hike, you can climb up to the Santuario di Nostra Signora di Reggio. This famous shrine also offers an amazing view and served as a place of worships at a crossroads in Roman times.
Corniglia is the only village that does not sit directly on the sea, but is more famous for its vineyards. You will have to walk up several flights of steps or wait for a small bus to take you up the side of the cliff. (Keep in mind that Italian transportation is never completely reliable.)
You will want to see the fortifications that kept the Medieval Roman family of Cornelia safe during raids from pirates.
It might be the oldest of the villages, and Manarola boasts its own dialect, which is lightly different from the other “lands.” You might want to have a taste of the wine, and the seafood is also excellent here.
If you are going with a significant other, taking a walk on the “Love’s Trail” is necessary (if open). It also connects Manarola to Riomaggiore. If you want something a little more challenging, there is also a hiking trail that leads up to some of the vineyards. Make sure you’re careful! It can get steep.
Maybe the most famous view you will see of Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore is a short train ride from La Spezia, so if you only have a day you will want to plan to see this village.
The surrounding mountains and waterfalls are considered national parks, and taking a stroll down Via Colombo will help you get your shopping done and you can also find some great food. After a hike, think about trying some of the Liguria wine—it’s exclusive to the region.
Staying In Cinque Terre
I stayed in Riomaggiore, which I felt was the best place to get a good view and a good deal. There are several inexpensive bed and breakfasts, and even the hostels available have a very homey feel.
I stayed two nights over the weekend, and they cost me about €22 a night. This was the cheapest rate I could find at a hostel—the bed and breakfast rates usually sat at around €40 a night.
You might want to think about looking into going when tourist season has not yet started — July and August can get a little crowded. However, camping sites begin to open up when the warm weather arrives and you can usually get a room with a friend for about €16 each.
If you are into roughing it in the national park, this can be a fun way to save some money. Tents also have free wi-fi and other amenities, so you won’t feel complete isolated from civilization.
Taking a tour of Cinque Terre
There are multiple tour companies available who can offer you day trips to and from either Siena or Florence. If you are thinking about only seeing the main sites and taking a short hike, this might be a better option.
Tours usually start at around €100, but you won’t have the cost of room and board and you have access to many of the activities Cinque Terre has to offer.
Booking a tour in advance in the summer is a good idea. Again, the villages start to get busy with tours beginning in late May, so taking the time to find the right tour for you beforehand can end up saving you some money later.
I wanted to spend more than a day visiting the area, but I would have considered a tour if I had a more limited budget and time.
Things to do in Cinque Terre
Because Cinque is considered a national park, there are a lot of activities that you can do for free. It is a hiker’s paradise, and there are plenty of different trails depending on your skill level and how much of a sweat you want to work up.
If you are up for a long walk, the Sentiero Azzurro, or Azure Trail can be a great way for you to get to one village from the other. You’ll see majestic views overlooking the sea, and the hike can easily take up an afternoon.
Checking beforehand to see which trails are open is important — since the landslides of 2012 some have been closed off and on for repair, especially the Love’s Trail.
You also might want to consider renting a kayak or a paddleboard. The cheapest I could find was €5 for an hour, but it’s worth spending in order to really appreciate the blue waters of the Mediterranean.
It’s also the best way to get to see the secret grottos and waterfalls that are hard to reach any other way. Renting a kayak for a few hours is worth the expense, and the picturesque sights are like very few you will see anywhere else.
For the ultimate free activity, one of the best things to do is take a day on the beach. You’ll probably want to bring your own towel and bathing suit if you want to save yourself some cash, but if you have forgotten them, they are available for purchase usually in some small shops right before the water.
Keep in mind that you will probably end up paying more than you would in a city like Florence or Bologna. There is a free section on every beach, so you don’t need to worry about paying unless you are looking into renting an umbrella, which prices seem to range from €15 to €24 depending on which beach you have decided on.
Each beach has its own feel, and Monterosso can become crowded early on because it has a sand beach. Depending on what kind of feel you want and where you are staying, you should think about getting up early and securing yourself a spot before too many people populate the area.
The churches in Monterosso and Manarola are also worth a visit, and they are free to visitors throughout the year. The church of San Francesco at Monterosso sits on top of a hill overlooking the village and offers incredible views.
The church itself might be a little run down (it is hundreds of years old, after all), but taking the morning or evening to make the hike is worth your time and is completely free.
Though it can cost you more than some of the other activities available at Cinque Terre, a sunset boat cruise is worth considering if you really want to gain the whole effect of Cinque Terre’s beauty.
Most tours usually cost €80 upward, so if this is something you want to make sure is on the agenda, you should think about budgeting accordingly. There are several different companies who offer these tours, but most can be found at Riomaggiore or Monterosso.
Eating and drinking on a budget in Cinque Terre
It would be a shame not to sample some of the amazing foods available from the Liguria region, and the seafood you find here will be some of the best you can get in Italy. The Cinque Terre were originally fishing villages, so the tradition continues of providing a great variety of fish.
You can find food available for all price ranges, but some of the street food is delicious and only costs a few euro. Fried calamari to go is a popular choice, and is usually served in a cone that you can take with you as you check out the sights.
Focaccia bread is also a cheap choice, and you can often get it for €2 or less. All it needs is a little dash of salt and olive oil in order to bring out the flavors of the bread.
While it might be more expensive than you would want to pay for a bottle of wine, no visit to the Cinque Terre is complete without trying some of the locally made limoncello. A tradition that has been passed down for generations, Cinque Terre might have the best in the world, so saving on food and skipping the umbrella at the beach to have a taste or two is definitely worth it.
Last but not least, you can usually find some local pastas that are reasonably priced and contain some of the famous seafood the Liguria region has to offer.
As in any area of Italy, finding a trattoria as opposed to a restaurante can save you money and you are much more likely to find traditional foods that are handmade by locals.
In any of the villages, you can often find a free table and the meals are less (around €10 for piati primi) than you would find at a white tablecloth restaurant.
Also, make sure to ask for the meal of the day—sometimes they might have a cheaper option that still gives you a two-course meal for less.
Have you been to the Cinque Terre? Have any suggestions?
By Alexa Schnee
Alexa Schnee has always wanted to be a writer. She loves the smell of the bookstore, because nothing in the world smells exactly like it. When she isn’t writing, she’s murdering some musical instrument or hitting the road. She will never, ever like math and will always love dancing in the Montana rain. She is a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, and currently spends her days traveling the world and drinking too much coffee. She is currently a writer for Elite Daily and her first novel, Shakespeare's Lady, was released April 2012.