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The bright pastel coloured buildings were exactly as I’d imagined. After hours of time researching and staring at whimsical photos of the buildings that trickle down the hillsides of the Ligurian coastline, sparkling in the summer sun against the Mediterranean turquoise water, I was enchanted by the views before me.
Alongside about 300 other sweaty tourists who were bustling to get to the exact same lookout point that I was, for an extreeeemely similar photo they could post to Instagram later that day.
Like so….ahem this is totally different though because…uhm..reasons.
I’m not sure when Cinque Terra became an overcrowded mess, but goddamn is that place horrendous in the peak heat of the day in summer season.
With literal train carriage-loads full of tourists unloading into the adorably cobbled streets to pour through the villages, wreaking havoc and noise across the small Italian towns, it can feel like a miniature Disneyland, particularly in Vernazza. Complete with (sorry for the cliché but…) loud American tourists and stalls selling tourist tat for ridiculous prices.
We were relieved to have booked the perfect accommodation a short hop away from all that madness.
I 100% recommend visiting the 5 gorgeous villages of the Cinque Terra region – they are undoubtedly stunning, with delicious restaurants where the seafood and wine combos will make you weep in ecstasy. There’s the right amount of authentic Italian nonna’s still living in Rio Maggiore, Manorolo and Monterosso to keep the rustic villages feeling authentic, but to stay within the villages themselves seems a huge – expensive – pain in the ass.
How to Plan & Find your Perfect Accommodation
The Cinque Terra are (as the name might suggest) a succession of 5 villages along the coastline of the Italian region of Levanto. Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso and their surrounding areas make up the national park of the Cinque Terra. The area is beautifully hilly and green – the rolling hillsides perfectly placed for winemaking and hiking.
Where the hills end they become dramatic cliff side drop-offs into the water of the Mediterranean Sea. In short, it is a paradise of landscape and brightly coloured architectural styles that lure hundreds of thousands of people to visit every year.
When booking our accommodation, I knew any one of the main 5 villages would be popular and probably more expensive to stay in – a quick scan of Booking.com backed this up, with small pensions and B&Bs charging 4 star hotel rates for a nights stay. I’d also heard horror stories about driving in the region, where hairpin turns and rugged cliffs proved hazardous to non locals. Besides which, you can’t park in most of the villages.
Additionally, looking past the prettiness of the pictures, it was clear that if you stayed in one of these 5 picturesque villages, your place was likely to be up a steep steep stairway, where you’d be lugging your bags up and down tiny stairs among the crush of crowds that can invade these former sleepy seaside villages.
We saw a lot of sweaty husbands/boyfriends dragging heavy suitcases up tiny stairways in our visit. Not exactly the relaxing start to a holiday break!
So, although the romance of staying ‘in’ Cinque Terra is nice in theory, my practical side couldn’t justify all of that painful messing about. This was meant to be a holiday, not an endurance test. We were looking for accommodation that could give the following:
- Access to a beach for daily swims (this was our one beach holiday of the year so I’d be damned if we missed an opportunity!)
- Parking available for our hire car
- Easily get to the train station to connect to the Cinque Terra villages
- Within budget of €80 – €100 a night including breakfast
- Ideally owned and run by locals, not a chain hotel so we can support the local business
- Nearby restaurants, cafes and city centre
Pretty standard requirements right?
Initially I looked to La Spezia as our jumping off point to Cinque Terra. It’s the next major port down from the 5 villages and has an established tourism centre and plenty of hotel options.
If we had found an irresistible hotel or B&B, we very well could have stayed here. As it was, for the time of year we were travelling, there weren’t anything other than chain hotels still available and nothing appealed.
La Spezia is also the main port for many cruise ships that stop by this area of Italy, specifically to drop off crowds of tourists to enjoy the Cinque Terra. While I don’t have any problem with that style of travel at all, knowing its often the most convenient and affordable way for people to see a lot in a small amount of time – we didn’t want to fight a literal boatload of tourists to get on the train to Cinque Terra daily. So La Spezia was off the list.
If you are planning your own trip and spot a place in La Spezia that suits your budget, it is definitely a good option for accommodation. Outside of peak cruise season it is undoubtedly a good geographical choice to stay!
So where did we manage to find this mythical dream accommodation option to suit our ridiculously high standards?
Levanto is one village further than Monterosso on the Cinque Terra train line, northwest of the 5 villages and La Spezia. It has a similar rustic feeling to the Cinque Terra villages, but the added bonus of being a seaside resort town for Italians, Germans and Swiss to visit in its own right. There’s a beautiful stretch of white sandy beach for daily swims, a medieval palace with open gardens for morning strolls, an extensive boulevard by the beach with restaurants and cafes and some pretty fascinating history and architecture in its own right.
It was perfect.
We found a little family-owned and run B&B in a grotto within the centre of town. It gave us fantastic walking access to the beach in 5 minutes, the train station within ten minutes and we were surrounded by restaurants and cafes – not to mention the best bakery in town for breakfast.
Each day we were able to get up early, stroll through town for a pastry and espresso for breakfast (Italians truly do live their best lives), take a beach swim and then pop on a train to get to one of the villages for a day of sightseeing. Even with the swim and catching the train, as long as we were in the villages before 11am it was possible to get some sightseeing done without hordes of people photobombing and elbowing you out the way.
Staying in Levanto also meant we got to see a bit more local life. In the evenings as we perched on bar stools, munching on handmade pizza drizziled in Ligurian pesto and 3 kinds of cheese. We watched families and ridiculously attractive Italian mothers gather their kids and Nonna’s for walks down the cobbled streets. Because Levanto is more than just a sight of itself, it has a beach resort feeling but with local schools, fruit sellers, families and the proof of everyday life in the city streets.
For us, the balance of everyday Italian living, the long sandy stretch of beach and easy access to tourist villages when we wanted them made Levanto our ideal jumping off place. We also tripped across quite a few exclusive looking villas and B&B’s that would be an upgrade option if we ever return.
If you’re looking to stay near the Cinque Terra but away from hordes of people and experience some real Italian living, here’s the places I’d recommend in Levanto;
Budget: Ospitala de Mare hostel, walking distance to the beach and with a view over the church towers, this is a super budget option if you don’t mind staying in dorm style rooms. Prices start from just €50 a night which for the Cinque Terra is very good value.
Mid range: We stayed in a really lovely family run B&B, La Grotta Azzura, right in the centre of town. The La Grotta Azzura was like staying with your own Italian Nonna and our host Fabiana was absolutely lovely, making cute breakfasts in the backyard for us, telling where was good for food and very friendly every time we crossed paths.
The location really sold this place. Do be aware though Levanto as a city can get quite damp and muggy because of its location and as this place is in a grotto, you have to remember to turn the dehumidifier on or everything stays damp! Other than that this was a really good mid-range budget option in the centre of town, and we loved that it was family run.
Luxury: B&B La Madonetta. This wasn’t available for our dates but if we return I’d aim to stay in a lush boutique-y B&B like this one, with stunning views overlooking the sea. It’s a bit further up the hillside so about a 15 minute walk into town, but the views and the more modern decor more than make up for it. An excellent option if you want to splash out!
Levanto really did redeem the Cinque Terra madness. we loved the village feeling and being able to roam the buzzing, chatty streets at night where students and families were awake until all hours eating gelato and sipping on Aperol spritzers. If you want somewhere to enjoy the Cinque Terra away from all the crazy crowds, Levanto is your answer.
Just don’t tell all those other tourists about this little oasis, will you? We want to keep some of this gloriousness for ourselves!
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