Cinque Terre for families
Built around the 11th century, these villages were, at one time, accessible only by boat or footpath. Hiking between them is still the best way to discover the lemon trees, olive groves and clusters of multicolored houses in this region. As intriguing as this sounds, I was reluctant to take my 10-month-old there. I heard traveling in Cinque Terre with children was difficult. For one, the walking paths are full of stairs and precipitous cliffs. But going to Cinque Terre was on my bucket list, and I was not going to be deterred.
Where to stay
The first thing to do when planning your Cinque Terre stay is to choose one of the villages as your home base. With a little research, we found that Monterosso al Mare, or simply Monterosso, would best suit our needs. It’s the biggest of the five and the starting point of some scenic trails. It’s spread out between “new town” and the “old town. “New town” boasts a beachfront promenade lined with modern hotels, restaurants and bars. The train station is conveniently located in the center of the promenade. The paths through Monterosso are stroller-friendly with numerous ice cream stands and a beachside playground — fantastic for a daily stroll. “Old town,” a 10-minute walk from “new town,” includes residences, restaurants, churches and shops nestled in stone alleyways. The ferry landing can also be accessed from here. This is the only village with sandy beaches. Not to be compared to Caribbean beaches, these are small and narrow with patches of pebbles, but my daughter had a blast with a bucket and shovel.
From Monterosso, you can take either a 2-hour hike or a 10-minute train ride to Vernazza. We chose the latter. Vernazza is a narrow, one-street town with a church built on the water. The remains of a castle and old wall that once protected against pirates and a small harbor lined with colorful fishing boats make this town a mustsee. It was an easy trip with my little one in tow and made a great lunch stop and family photo opportunity.
East of Vernazza is Corniglia. From the train station, it takes 365 steps up the cliff or a long walk on a steep winding road to reach the town center. This is not the easiest place to visit unless you are looking for some serious exercise. There is a green park bus you can take to and from the train station; however, the schedules were varied and tested the patience of our little one. So we embraced the vertical challenge and rewarded ourselves with gelato after the climb.
Another one-street town, Manarola is the smallest of the five. It has a small harbor and rocky beach where you can take a swim. Enjoy a unique spot of land from which the most famous Cinque Terre photos are taken.
Riomaggiore has one main street, a harbor, a rocky beach, a castle, a church and a dozen restaurants. It also has goodtrain connections and is the closest to the larger city of La Spezia. This was an easy excursion and quick train ride from Monterosso.
Since the hiking trails vary in difficulty, length and beauty, it is particularly important for families with kids to choose their itineraries carefully. Hiking was not our main priority.
Train: We found the train to be an excellent way to travel between villages. Kids under age 4 travel free on the TrenItalia trains (both regional and national). Technically, that’s so long as they don’t occupy a seat.
Car: If you are driving to Cinque Terre, it is imperative to research parking options while looking for accommodations. Few places offer parking, and most villages are closed to vehicle traffic. It’s possible to find a central parking lot for a daily fee.
Ferry: Ferries are a great way to get away from the hustle and bustle and are available at most of the villages.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how wonderful the food is in this region. It’s best described as fresh, local, homemade cuisine that soothes the soul. Like a lot of kids her age, my daughter tends to be a picky eater. But in the land of pasta, she was
an easy customer. We quickly discovered a few favorites that influenced our daily agenda.
Pesto: This region is the birthplace of pesto. Basil is ground with cheese, garlic, olive oil and pine nuts, and then poured over pasta. My daughter loved the pesto lasagna at La Cantina di Miky in Monterosso. By the end of the trip they knew her name and always had a highchair ready to go.
Focaccia: This tasty pillowy bread, also originates here. It’s simply flatbread with olive oil and salt. Try Panifacio Focacceria in Vernazza.
Torta Monterossina: A wonderful cake named after the village with layers of chocolate and cream. Try Pasticceria Laura (Bakery Laura) in Monterosso. This place became a frequent stop for breakfast. We couldn’t get enough of the fresh pastries and cappuccinos.
Food markets: Once a week, in each village, there are tiny street markets for food. There’s a great one in La Spezia every morning that is about 20 minutes away by train. The vendors there love kids. My daughter scored quite a bit of free cheese and sausages.
Less is more
Pare down your itinerary and pace yourself. We managed daily strolls, shopping, eating, playing, naptime and sightseeing in all the villages with ease. Monterosso proved to be a great launching point for quick day trips throughout Cinque Terre. We were able to see it all without cramming 10,000 things on the agenda each day.
Hit up each village’s playground. For us, this was a must. Ask a local where the nearest parco giochi can be found. My favorite is in Manarola. The location is stunning, and it is enjoyable for parents and kids alike (and did I mention there’s a wine bar just beneath the playground!?).
Sample lots of gelato. Your kid will love you for it. Before our trip my daughter did not know the word “ice cream” but she soon learned to enthusiastically point out the gelato stands everywhere we went.
Ditch the stroller. Seriously, it’s a bad idea. With all the stairs, steep inclines and uneven streets (not to mention the hassle of getting on & off the trains) having a stroller here is not ideal. Instead, opt for a baby carrier or sling.
Take the boats. Kids love the boats. I mean, really LOVE them. And the ferries are a nice and relaxing way to visit Cinque Terre.
Any uncertainty I had about taking my daughter there was quickly erased. The sweet smell of the sea, stunning views, fantastic food and watching my daughter play with the local kids at the park made Cinque Terre the perfect family getaway.
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