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The western coast of Italy where the peninsula meets the mainland is rocky and ruggedly beautiful. Within this setting are five villages built into the cliffs-Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Known collectively as Cinque Terre, to say these five villages are picturesque would be an understatement. The houses in Cinque Terre are stacked on top of each other in a seemingly haphazard way, sometimes so close to the edge of the surrounding cliffs that they look as though they might tumble into the sea. The houses are painted in vibrant yellows, oranges, pinks, and a cornucopia of other colors that make the scene look like a painter’s palette full of pastels. If you can pull your eyes away from the villages, the surrounding coastline is majestic as the rocks soar above the Mediterranean, jagged and sublime. Between the many trees that dot the tops of the hillsides, vineyards cling to the sides of the cliffs. You might have a tough time deciding what’s better-how the vineyards look above the villages or how good the grapes taste in your wine glass at dinner.

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Such a beautiful place is, of course, full of tourists. However, when we visited, we found that the number of tourists was not overwhelming and that most of the tourists were Europeans, who seemed to be more low-key than their American counterparts normally are. The small number of tourists can be explained by the fact that visitors are only allowed to visit Cinque Terre if they have overnight accommodations and, since the villages are so small, there aren’t a lot of rooms to rent. That being said, if you’d like to visit, make sure to book your room early.

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Each of the five villages has its own personality, and we recommend looking into each of the villages before you visit to find the one that fits best with your trip needs. Monterosso al Mare is the largest village and offers the widest selection of shopping, hotels, and sandy beaches. Vernazza is known for being a true fishing village as cars are not allowed in the village. Visitors who would like to be in a village less touristy than Monterosso, but that still offers options to explore, may find Vernazza to be a good fit for them. Corniglia is unlike the other four villages as it is not seated directly on the beach; instead, visitors have to hike up a set of stairs from the train station up to the village. For visitors who want to get away from the hustle and bustle, Corniglia may be a good option to experience the beautiful mountain cities, but set aside from the tourists. Manarola is perhaps the most photographed of all of the villages, so for those who travel to capture the perfect picture, Manarola is probably the ideal village. Finally, Riomaggiore is the best village to experience the every day life of a coastal Mediterranean town, filled will local shops and fishing boats. We stayed in both Monterosso and Riomaggiore, but explored each of the villages and found them to all have unique personalities that should be experienced.

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A trip to Cinque Terre is relaxing, but there are still plenty of activities for visitors to do. The villages and the surrounding natural areas are part of a national park, so visitors can hike the cliffs, including the trails along the coast between the villages. Make sure if you do that you obtain a hiking pass first. They’re easy to get, but not so much fun if you’re caught without one. Because the coast is rocky, beaches in Cinque Terre are few and far between, and most of the beaches there are filled with rocks. If hiking or swimming doesn’t pique your interest, simply wander the streets of Cinque Terre. There are plenty of great views of both the villages and the sea from all sorts of places. As you walk, check out some of the small shops, stop by some of the churches scattered throughout the towns, or, if you’re hungry, get some food from one of the many eateries. The restaurants and cafes in Cinque Terre serve a variety of foods, but they have two specialties-fresh seafood from the Mediterranean and pesto. Along with your meal, make sure you order some of the local wine, made from the grapes that grow on the cliffs above Cinque Terre.

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We had a wonderful time in Cinque Terre and would love to return at some point. Our visit was relaxing, but we still were able to see plenty of cool sights, take a dip in the Mediterranean, and taste some of the local wine and pesto. One recommendation that we have: make sure to visit Manarola at sunset during your visit. While the village is normally picturesque, the rays of the setting sun set the village and cliffs ablaze in vibrant colors, making for an awe-inspiring sight that will be ingrained in your memory (and will make for a great picture to hang on your wall!).

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