Cinque Terre, which literally translates to five towns, is an area along the coast where there are five towns connected by trails, trains, and ferries making it relatively easy to hop between them and visit each.
The five towns are listed from north to south below:
For those traveling from Santa Margherita, there are direct trains to La Spezia (approx. one train every 1 -2 hours) lasting 60 minutes and alternative indirect options.
Purchase tickets on trainline before the train departs to avoid a fine for not paying for a ticket.
Take the train to La Spezia Centrale
8:24 Santa Margherita Ligure - 9:21 La Spezia Centrale
Leaving Cinque Terre: catch the train in the furthest north town of Monterosso back to Santa Margherita to prepare for dinner near your accommodations.
Note there are also indirect train options from Monterosso between the above times, just a slightly longer journey (75 minutes with a change)
From La Spezia, there is a train which runs between La Spezia and Levanto. The train stops in each of the five towns and typically runs about every 15 minutes. The journey between most towns is only a few minutes so depending on which town you are going to will impact how much longer your journey is extended
Once you reach La Spezia, purchase the one-day pass (Cinque Terre Train card) for about 18 euros which provides unlimited journeys on the train between towns for the day. You can purchase this at La Spezia station before then taking the train to your first town.
Be sure to always carry your ticket and validate the ticket as you will be fined if caught without a validated ticket.
Take the train from La Spezia to Riomaggiore. This is the first village when traveling from La Spezia. It feels split into three parts with a harbour area, the main town and an upper town. Like all the towns, it is not too large either. Check out each of the areas of the town. The harbour area offers beautiful views of the town, the upper section has a nice hillside walk and the main town has cafes, shops and places to grab a snack. Stop in Tutti Fritti for a seafood cone (note this may just be opening once you arrive).
If possible, try to take the ferry from Riomaggiore so you can observe the town from the water and use the ferry for transport to the next town. Purchase ferry tickets from the stand nearby the harbour and departure point.
The short ferry journey from Riomaggiore to Manarola provides a nice view of Riomaggiore from the water. As you pull up to Manarola, this town is also quite small, but provides picturesque views of all the colorful houses sitting on the cliffside. When visiting Manarola, be sure to check out Nessun Dorma for an afternoon snack. The restaurant has perfect views of the town and worth putting your name in the queue. As there are no reservations, download the phone app in advance and use the phone app to get in the virtual queue. The virtual queue opens at 12:30, with seatings commencing at 1:00 While you are waiting, explore the town and stop for a gelato.
Next catch the train from Manarola to Corniglia or, if you are feeling up for it, walk between the towns. The distance between the two is just under 2 miles and provides nice panoramic view. Corniglia is the smallest of the five villages and the only village without water access, as it sits above the shoreline. In order to reach the town itself from the train, you will either need to wait for a tiny bus which is typically overpacked or climb a stone staircase to reach the town. The stairs are doable and would recommend climbing if possible to avoid the undesirable bus. The town itself feels small and is a good stop for takeaway gelato, wine tasting, or afternoon snack. That being said, if running short on time, it can be skipped.
As it will be the afternoon at this point, plan to take the train from Corniglia to Vernazza. Known for being the most colorful of the five villages, Vernazza has a gorgeous harbour. Find a few of the lookout points above the town with nice views of the town. Depending on what direction you choose to visit the towns, consider sitting for a wine tasting at 5 Terre Bistrot to try wines produced in vineyards between the towns.
For the final town of the day, take the train one more stop from Vernazza to Monterosso. Biggest and oldest of the five villages, Monterosso is divided with an old town and new town area. Be sure to venture over to the old town as there are cute streets with nice restaurants, wine bars and cafes to enjoy a drink in. It is also the only town with a proper beach, including beach chairs and umbrellas set up to enjoy on a warm summer day. The beach draws in a lot of visitors so do not expect to have the town to yourself.
From Monterosso, take the train back to Santa Margherita Ligure