Cinque Terre, Sentiero Azzuro, Italy

Photograph by Celentano, Laif/Redux
Photograph by Celentano, Laif/Redux

Best For: Families (if kids tire you can always take the train between towns); romance seekers; Europhiles; older hikers

Distance: It’s about seven miles between the five towns on the direct (and popular) Sentiero Azzuro, the Blue Trail. It’s also possible to make the hikes between towns longer (and steeper) by heading up the trails into the hills.

Ever since guidebook author Rick Steves began gushing about the charms of the Cinque Terre, Italy two decades ago, the place has jumped to the top of European travel itineraries. In fact, it can be absolutely overwhelmed with tourists eager to hike the Blue Trail, also known as Trail No. 2, the path that connects the five colorful villages—Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore—perched on the Mediterranean. But somehow the charm of the place has survived. Despite all the tourism, the towns still feel left back in time and many of the locals still only speak Italian. Vernazza especially feels straight out of a fairy tale, with its bright little buildings crowded onto a spit above the blue sea.

It’s the hike itself, however, that’s the real draw of the place. The Blue Trail hugs the rocky Ligurian coastline, which is so sheer here that the Cinque Terre can only be practically accessed by train or foot. The path wanders through vineyards and serves up postcard views of the towns. The sun, the fragrance of wild herbs, and the slow crash of the Mediterranean all combine for a romantic aura that will soften even the most unsentimental of cynics.

Beyond the Blue Trail, other paths climb into the hillsides, an escape from the hordes and often a necessary detour around occasional closures caused by the elements temporarily wiping out the Blue Trail. Take your time—the true secret to the trail is not the walk, but the dose of dolce far niente you can indulge in when you reach one of the towns and relax with a glass of local Cinque Terre white (you just passed the grapes that made it) and a slowly savored meal.

When to Go: The spring and especially the fall are best because there are fewer tourists and it’s cooler. Summer is hot and miserably crowded. Don’t even think about August.

Insider Tip: Since it is not directly on the water but perched on a hill, sleepy Corniglia is the best bet for a last-minute room when other spots are booked. It’s also nicely situated about halfway along the walk.