Italy is one of those places that people visit over and over, enjoying the art and history that permeate the country. Once you’ve seen the big three – Rome, Florence and Venice – it’s time to go exploring and visit some of the smaller places on “the boot.” One of the most charming regions is a series of five little towns on the Italian Riviera, the Cinque Terre.

The Towns

There are five (cinque), each with its unique flavor and experience. Coursey 

Riomaggiore: The most town-like of the towns with everything the residents need and not a lot of catering to tourists. The town itself is the attraction with brightly coloured houses that seem to cling to the hillside as they climb their way up from the harbour. Hike all the way up the hill to find the old Nazi bunkers. Alberto Carrasco Casado

Manarola: Tiny and cute, it’s a great place to stop for a glass of wine while contemplating living in a place that requires steps to get from the bottom to the top. sundeviljeff

Corniglia: It’s the only town that isn’t directly on the sea and is therefore the least visited and the most quiet. To get to the town centre from the train stop, take the 400 stairs up the twisty path until you reach the top. The town is extremely proud of its wine and you may be invited into a cellar or garage for a sample. Henri Sivonen

Monterosso al Mare: This is where the Italians come to vacation. Despite the crowds, the town is still delightful, filled with curious shops along crooked lanes. If you are looking for some late night parties, this is the only town with bars that are open at night. runner310

Vernazza: Extremely scenic, the town sits under the gaze of a ruined castle and the protection of an old church. A Tuesday morning tail-gate market is fun to shop at, and the promenade is always filled with visitors and locals out for a stroll.

The Water

The Mediterranean Sea is so brilliantly blue there that it looks like a painted postcard. It’s easy to spend hours lost in its beauty. Fortunately there are cafes in all of the towns where you can sit with your cappuccino enjoying the view for as long as you want.

If your plan is to swim in the sea, Monterosso is the only town with a real beach. It’s a bit pebbly but still suitable for bare feet. In some of the other towns you’ll find young people climbing over the rocks to get to the water, but it’s not a good idea. Hop the train to Monterosso instead.

There are also small boats for rent and even a few kayaks to be found. You may find fisherman offering boating excursions. Riomaggiore has a boat tour business and also offers fishing excursions. Cinque Terre arose from fishing villages and many of the residents still make their living on the sea. Be careful of snagging someone’s net while you’re out paddling.

The Blue Trail

The towns are connected by rail, a slow moving train that runs frequently along the coast and stops at each place, but much of the route is tunneled through rock and there’s nothing to look at. A much more adventurous way to travel between the towns is to take the trail along the hillsides that connect the five old villages. The trail is really four separate trails punctuated by the towns and it’s well marked in each of them. With six hours of steady trekking you can traverse the entire 12 kilometres, but it’s popular to stop for a cup of coffee or glass of wine at each town and chat with other hikers.

Many trekkers choose to start in Monterosso to get the most difficult part of the hike out of the way first. Take the staircase up through the vineyards and orchards until you reach the flatter portion of the path, after which the trail is clear enough to follow. Continue on through trees, olive groves, meadows and sweeping vistas until you reach the next town. Repeat.

The Hills

There are hiking trails all over the hills above the Cinque Terre and almost as many bike trails. The Red Trail travels along the ridge tops and is flatter than the Blue Trail, but much longer. Dedicated hikers can travel from Portovenere to Levanto, the two towns on other side of the Cinque, although most people hike smaller stages of the trail.

Bikes can be rented at Riomaggiore by the day and are a great way to see the countryside. The terrain ranges from ‘somewhat’ to ‘very’ challenging and there aren’t many easily reached amenities.

If you’d like a challenge without venturing too far from town, join the postal delivery person on her rounds at Riomaggiore. She gets the mail from the train at the bottom of the hill and zigzags up through town making her deliveries on foot. Every day.

The People

Despite being overrun with tourists, the people of the five towns are kind and fun-loving. They will be delighted to help you shop for that quirky gift you have to have, or point you towards the nearest homemade wine to taste. Even the 70-year-old woman in heels that passes you on the Blue Trail will just shrug politely as you pant, explaining that she’s walked the hills since she was a child. The hiking may not get easier, but it’s hard to imagine the Cinque Terre getting any better.