Milan is the best international gateway to Cinque Terre. From Milan's Central Station (Milano Centrale), it's a three-hour train ride to Monterosso for $30. Add another $10 for First-Class comfort. Consider Genoa, halfway between Milan and Cinque Terre, a good rest stop, if three hours on a train is too much after the long flight.
Buy a Cinque Terre Card at the train station the minute you arrive. A three-day pass costs $12 (one day is $6), which covers unlimited train rides between the five villages, and access to the hiking trails and museums (by "museum," they mean small rooms with glossy photos on walls). Revenue from the card helps maintain the national park. The card does not cover boat rides, which run between the villages and beyond during spring and summer; one-way tickets begin at $9 ( www.navigazionegolfodeipoeti.it).
WHEN TO GO
If you're into shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, sold-out guest rooms and sticky humidity, then visit during the peak summer months. Or go between September and early April (avoid Easter weekend, when Italians bombard the place), and you'll likely have the place all to yourself. Bring a windbreaker and expect high-60s temperatures in the early fall and spring.
Like five sisters, each village in the Cinque Terre has its own personality. Monterosso is the big sis: a resort with cars and a beach, and the town with the most modern amenities. Vernazza is the pretty prom queen; with its town square and natural harbor, it's the most picturesque and the favorite Cinque Terre town among tourists. Corniglia is the quiet sister who keeps to herself; perched high above the water, it doesn't feel like a tourist trap (it's a grueling 365-step stair climb from the train station to town center, or ride the convenient $2 shuttle bus). Manarola and Riomaggiore are the fraternal twins; they're similar in layout and feel, with a work-a-day rhythm and intimate, homey charm.
WHERE TO STAY
There are plenty of guest room-locating services—to find one, step off the train and throw a rock in any direction. You'll also find locals soliciting their private rooms at the train station to arriving visitors. Look for ones advertising "camere con bagno"—a room with private bathroom. In Riomaggiore, I stayed at Locanda dalla Compagnia, a bare-bones but clean guest room located at the top of town ($95 in peak season; email@example.com; beware of steep walk to the rooms). In Vernazza, Tonino Basso, where I also stayed, rents out four immaculate rooms next to the post office—great beds, sparkling bathroom, plus laptop computer with Internet access ($115 and up; firstname.lastname@example.org). Know that many places accept only cash. And if you can't find a room (especially during the summer months), consider nearby La Spezia home base, 10 minutes by train from Riomaggiore. Levanto, five minutes by train north of Monterosso, is a prettier option.
WHERE TO EAT
In Vernazza, Giuliano and Stefano are just two of the 20-something hipsters manning the bar at Blue Marlin Bar. sk Giuliano to fix you a "Negroni" cocktail, a local favorite. Gambero Rosso is a sit-down restaurant by the harbor serving top-notch (and fairly expensive) Ligurian cuisine. Look for server Jeff Copeland, a young, friendly and helpful American expat. In Monterosso, Ristoranti Il Gabbiano serves simple, inexpensive pastas (such as the ubiquitous spaghetti al frutti di mare, the tomatoey seafood pasta, for $9), located steps away from the train station. And I especially enjoyed the spaghetti al cartoccio at Riomaggiore's Ristorante la Lampara—just like spaghetti al frutti di mare, but steam baked in foil.
THE HIKING TRAILS
Of the 21 official trails maintained by the Cinque Terre National Park, only path No. 2 from Riomaggiore to Monterosso and the "Torre Guardiola" above Riomaggiore require a fee. Purchase the aforementioned Cinque Terre card at any train station. The two segments of trail No. 2 I hiked were on opposite ends of difficulty.
The easy hike was the paved Via dell'Amore between Riomaggiore and Manarola, a leisurely 20-minute stroll.
The two-hour, up-and-down, soul- and sole-testing path between Monterosso and Vernazza involved what seemed like a thousand steps of stairs, precipitous walkways that were at times one-body-width across, but a view above Vernazza that will rob your digital camera of disk space.
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