9 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid in Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre, comprising five villages, is known around the world for its stunning scenery and epic hiking. In the last 20 years or so, Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore have morphed from sleepy fishing villages built into the cliffs overlooking the Ligurian Sea to some of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy. All the interest is thanks to the pastel-painted architecture, bright blue water, seafood tavernas, and a nearly 10,000-acre national park with beautiful hiking trails. Cinque Terre manages to combine everything tourists love about Italy with the added bonus of boating and hiking adventures. But before you show up at an Italian airport, there are nine rookie mistakes you should sidestep so you can make the most of your Cinque Terre visit.

1. Bringing a car.

Street at the Ca 'de Baran/Oyster

It's possible, and even quite easy, to drive to Cinque Terre from Pisa (an hour and 50 minutes), Florence (an hour), or Genoa (two hours). But, having a car once inside the villages is prohibited and expensive. For instance, Manarola doesn't allow cars inside the village. Instead, there's a paid parking lot just outside the village entrance. Parking fees are by the hour, and really add up -- especially if you plan on spending the night. There are a few free spots on the road across the street from the parking lot, but these get nabbed quickly. Driving between the villages requires winding up and down mountains. Instead of relying on private wheels, take the train. The five villages are accessible via a fast train that operates on a daily schedule and zips up and down the coast, stopping at each village -- it's only 20 minutes from Riomaggiore to the farthest village of Monterosso al Mare. (The same distance takes almost an hour to cover in the car). Visitors can also buy tickets for a ferry, which is slower than the train, but far more picturesque. Walking between the villages is another popular option. Once you're actually inside one of the small villages, walking is the best (and really only) way to get around. 

2. Not making dinner reservations.

Having to adhere to a dinner reservation time can be a drag on vacation. However, reservations are a requirement in Cinque Terre, especially in the summer months. Due to space constraints, most restaurants are quite small, and the kitchen prefers to operate in waves of seatings. Sure, you might get lucky if you turn up for sunset views and squid ink pasta at Billy's Taverna in Riomaggiore -- diners occasionally don't show up for their reservations -- but you're more than likely to be turned away. If you're nervous about calling a restaurant, simply ask hotel staff to place the call on your behalf, or make the reservation in person. And while we're on the subject, most restaurants are open for lunch, then close, and open again for dinner around 7 p.m. Breakfast in Italy usually consists of pastries or focaccia bread and coffee -- all which can be purchased in small bakeries. 

3. Skipping a hike.

Hiking Trail at Bed and Breakfast Il Vigneto/Oyster

Even if you don't consider yourself a sporty person, you must take at least a small hike in Cinque Terre. The network of footpaths that crisscrosses the region was painstakingly made by locals before the trains and highway were constructed. Today, it has been developed into the area's main attraction. The coastal path links all five villages (hikeable in about six hours), but if that's too much of a commitment, there are options. The first stretch of the hike is the most famous part of the coastal path. It takes just 20 minutes and is known as the Via dell'Amore. Sections of this quick hike tunnel under overhanging rocks and jut out to the breathtaking Ligurian Sea. A moderate option is hiking from Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza. This two-hour hike starts with a steep set of stairs, then evens out over streams and past wineries, until the decline into the stunning village of Vernazza. 

4. Wearing stilettos.

Italian women are known for their careful glamour and high-end fashion choices. It might be tempting to experiment with some fierce looks, but Cinque Terre is not Milan. The villages are completely vertical in some areas, the hikes are rugged, and the water's edge is rocky. You're going to want appropriate footwear and breathable clothing. That's not to say you can't doll up for dinner -- Italians do appreciate a nice outfit -- but definitely leave the four-inch stilettos at home. 

5. Hoping for a pool.

Street at the Hotel Marina Piccola/Oyster

With a few exceptions, you won't find a swimming pool in Cinque Terre. The vertical villages simply don't have the space, and chilly winters make them impractical for much of the year. The good news is that Monterosso al Mare has two swimmable beaches, and there are ladders leading from the rocks into the water on points up and down the coast. Note that swimming is at your own risk, so exercise caution. 

6. Forgetting a portable charger.

There's a perfect photo op almost everywhere you look in Cinque Terre. Whether you want a selfie in front of the candy-colored buildings, a video of waves crashing against the cliffs, or a shot posing with a slice of seafood pizza, this is definitely a trip that will blow up your Instagram feed. That's why you need to pack a portable charger for your phone, as well as an adapter for charging electronics in the hotel room.

7. Ordering spaghetti and meatballs.

Dennis Matheson/Flickr

Americans tend to think of Italian food as lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs, and while both of these items are delicious, you likely won't find them on menus in Cinque Terre. But don't worry, the region is famous for pesto (thanks to fragrant basil grown in nearby Genova). You'll also find fresh seafood everywhere, due to the seaside location. Deep-fried seafood cones are a real treat, with made-to-order breaded octopus, calamari, and prawns. And be prepared to experiment with excellent locally made wines that are rarely exported out of Italy. 

8. Expecting to shop.

As we mentioned, Cinque Terre is a one-of-a-kind place, and it's not to be confused with cosmopolitan Italian cities like Rome or Milan. If you're in the villages expecting to shop at designer boutiques and leather stores, you'll be disappointed. That's not to say there's nothing to buy, but lower your expectations. There are loads of souvenir shops for T-shirts, mass-produced art, locally made soaps, and postcards. Another popular shopping experience is food-related. There are a few specialty shops that focus on locally made cutting boards, dried pastas, preserved fruit, and spices. Riomaggiore has a sporting goods store for hikers who need new shoes or trekking poles. 

9. Skipping dessert.

Kristian Thy/Flickr

We have one word for you: gelato. Gelato is churned slower than ice cream, which provides a denser frozen treat. It's also served slightly warmer, so the texture is silkier, and a lower percentage of milk fat allows the primary ingredients to shine. Gelato stands are ubiquitous throughout the five villages, and flavors range from standard, like dark chocolate, to the unexpected, like raspberry. It's also pretty affordable, with a single scoop starting around two euros. 

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