Steeped in layers of colorful, old-world houses spilling down rocky cliffs into the impossibly blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea lies the picturesque Cinque Terre. But things aren't as charmed as they seem.
Area tourism is reaching new heights, causing alarm for infrastructure that simply isn’t equipped to handle the influx. In an effort to preserve the UNESCO World Heritage site, Cinque Terre is limiting the number of visitors to 1.5 million per year (currently, more than 2.5 million funnel in to see the towns). Preservation efforts are much-needed, so it might be time to consider an alternative. But don't be disappointed -- Italy has about 4,722 miles of coastline, and yes, other beautiful towns are situated on along some of them. The Ligurian destinations that stood out to us -- Lerici, Tellaro, and Portovenere -- all make stunning substitutes for Cinque Terre's teeming towns.
Tellaro, located just south of the Cinque Terre, has been rated one of Italy’s most beautiful villages, which explains why it’s such a big destination for artistic types. There are tiny streets and intriguing passageways — plus an abandoned village just outside of town — that are ready to be explored. To top it off, it’s located in the Gulf of Poets — named because Byron and Shelley both spent time here.
The houses are just as colorful as in the ; the balconies just as picturesque. It’s also off the train line, which automatically deters hordes of tourists. Instead, you can arrive at via bus or car from nearby . Alternatively, you can take a bus to the close village of (also worth a stop), and then, in true Cinque Terre fashion, walk to the town, stopping for a swim break at the beach along the way.
Hiking is also plentiful. Those looking for the same town-to-town walking experience that the Cinque Terre offers can continue on to Montemarcello (about three hours away) and explore Ameglia. Expect to come across olive groves and forests along the journey (it also has a castle that overlooks the town).
When it comes time to rest your head, book a room at the , which boasts its own beach. If you’re traveling in a group, consider reserving a triple room, which sleeps five, or one of the family rooms, which feature bunk beds. The budget hotel (rates start at $93) also offers a overlooking the water, sauna, and an indoor hot tub.
As far as what to do and see, the options are boundless: Visit the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, which is perched right on the water. Walk on the trails or go for a swim. Try local octopus dishes, which were inspired by the legend of an octopus who saved the village from attack. Then, make your way to the 17th-century Oratorio della Santa Maria and check out an art exhibition. Have a glass of wine in the main piazza, the gathering place for the village. Eat at the Michelin-starred Locanda Miranda. And repeat.
For the same views, but far fewer crowds, head to Portovenere, which is also situated to the south of the Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera. Stay at the Grand Hotel Portovenere, a former 17th-century convent in the center of town, to wake up to amazing sights of this colorful town (the restaurant is also perfect for a white tablecloth dinner).
Like the Cinque Terre, Portovenere is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site — and it well deserves the title: The town is believed to date back to the first-century B.C.
There’s also the picturesque San Pietro Church on a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea, beautiful narrow streets, and a cave leading to Byron’s favorite swimming spot in the Gulf of Poets (he once swam 7.5 kilometers to go see Percy Shelley in Lerici — a route people take each year in the Coppa Byron swim race).
If you feel like exploring, take a ferry to one of the three nearby islands. Like Tellaro, there’s no direct train service, so you’ll need to catch a ferry from the Cinque Terre, Lerici, or La Spezia.
Just five miles south of La Spezia, Lerici is perhaps the biggest of the towns (you can get on a bus from here to visit the others). Still, it’s no less gorgeous for those who want all the scenery but a little more to do.
While it’s still pretty under-the-radar for foreigners, Italians love the town — Milanese in particular. Do as the Italians do and promenade along the beachfront, visit the 13th-century San Terenzo castle, wander along the high street, Via Cavour, hike nearby trails, and have aperitifs in the main piazza, Garibaldi. Like the other towns, this destination doesn’t have a train station, which (thankfully) keeps it off the itinerary of most.
Eco del Mare hotel is located in a gorgeous, isolated spot with its own beach (every room even has water views). The eco-chic property also offers free kayaks to sporting guests.
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