Whether you arrive by boat or train, make Vernazza your first Cinque Terre stop. Arguably the most beautiful of the five villages, it fills early with day-tripping visitors, so enjoy the morning calm on a stroll through the narrow lanes and arched porticoes, past the lemon-hued church, and along the tiny harbor, where bobbing turquoise-and-white dinghies line the stone quay. Sip a cappuccino on the seaside piazza, or join tanned retirees wading into the crystal-clear water for their first swim of the day. Then climb the narrow staircase up to Castello Doria, an ancient seaside fortification with spectacular coastal views.
Fill a water bottle before leaving the tourist masses behind for the two-mile hike from Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare, the northernmost Cinque Terre town, along the popular Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Trail). The ascent is moderately strenuous along a dusty trail, but your effort will be rewarded with stunning bird’s-eye views of Vernazza. Continue through the lush landscape, past citrus groves and terraced vineyards equipped with rickety monorail cars that haul the handpicked harvest up vertiginously steep slopes. After a hike of about an hour and a half, Monterosso will come into view.
A promontory divides Monterosso, the Cinque Terre’s largest town, into two parts, old and new. Begin exploring the Old Town, nestled between green hills, with its multicolored houses, pebbled beach, and medieval carruggi (ultra-narrow alleys). Stop at Focacceria Il Frantoio for a snack of pan fritto (fried pizza dough stuffed with cheese), then admire a collection of artworks that include a van Dyck painting inside the bluff-top monastery. A tunnel leads to the newer part of town, known as Fegina, where rows of sun loungers and colorful parasols line the long sand-and- pebble beach. Cool off with a gelato or a dip in the Mediterranean, then join locals taking a relaxed passeggiata along the beach-side promenade.