When you're traveling for an extended period of time, the most important thing to do is to keep a budget, because without a budget, traveling for an extended period of time quickly becomes "traveling for a short period of time and then going home and living with your Mom for a few months while you continue to post old pictures on Facebook to make it seem like you're still out there". But you will still want to visit some of the most expensive destinations in the world, because, let's face it, they're expensive for a reason. Some of the most beautiful places in the world are no longer inaccessible for the budget traveler, there's always a way to get there, you may have to just give up a few things. Unless you're George Clooney (or insert a better reference if you'd like, Cloons is just my go-to for a rich person that likes to travel), you can't spend every night in the Ritz Carlton and dine by candlelight overlooking the Mediterranean Sea for every meal. Plus, candlelight for breakfast? That's just a little decadent, don't you think, George? Give us a break.
The first place we're going to be exploring on our "Ballin' On A Budget" series is Cinque Terre, one of the most beautiful destinations in Europe. Cinque Terre is a six-mile stretch in the Liguria region of Italy containing five gorgeous towns literally built into the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The towns of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corneglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore were, unbelievably, not that popular for tourists as recently as twenty years ago, but the advent of the internet (Damn you, Al Gore!) and the surge of travel writers (Damn you, Rick Steves!) has made it one of the most popular destinations in Italy. Cinque Terre is now officially on the beaten path, and while the beauty is still there, but it is no longer untainted by tourists. And the prices are showing it. With UNESCO now limiting the number of tourists allowed to visit the area, it's about to get even more expensive, so let's see how you can visit Cinque Terre without being the charming prankster who gave us the criminally underrated One Fine Day.
SIDE NOTE: Don't feel like these tips are only for the long-term traveler. If you have been aching to spend a week in Cinque Terre, get out there! Let's just do some planning first.
WHERE TO STAY: DEIVA MARINA
Here's the secret about Cinque Terre that no one seems to be talking about. It's not really Cinque Terre, it's more like Seis Terre. Or Otto Terre. To think that Cinque Terre is only made up of the five towns that are connected via walking trail (More on this in a moment) is a trick of cartographers everywhere. When you go to visit New York City, it's perfectly acceptable to get a hotel room in Jersey City and take the train in every morning because the rooms there are half the price, and the same goes for Deiva Marina. Or Levanto. Or Bonnasola. Or Sestri Levante. Each city has a bonus that comes with staying there: Sestri Levante has it's own super cool beach scene. Levanto is included in the Cinque Terre Card. Bonnasola has the widest beach and has the same pastel-colored look as the other Cinque cities.
I chose Deiva Marina because we stayed there at the super fun Valdeiva Campground, which provided us a cabin with all the essentials we needed for $30/night. That's right. THIRTY DOLLARS PER NIGHT FOR ACCOMMODATIONS. In addition, they had a restaurant on site which provided us with some delicious and memorable meals (the restaurants where no one speaks English are always going to be better).
Deiva Marina seems to be a tourist destination for Italians as opposed to foreign travelers, which means the prices are lower across the board (we paid €4 for Spritzes at a bar overlooking the beach, while the same drinks cost us €8 in Riomaggiore) and the food is more authentic. The beaches are clean and beautiful, stretch for miles, and have public areas that are free to access. It's also (most importantly for this exercise) a twenty minute, €4 train ride from Cinque Terre, making the towns incredibly easy to access. Sure, it'd be more convenient to roll out of bed and onto a balcony in Vernazza, but we can't all be the star of Leatherheads.
CINQUE TERRE CARD: CONSOLIDATE, CONSOLIDATE, CONSOLIDATE
The Cinque Terre Tourist Coalition conveniently sells a Cinque Terre Train Card, allowing you unlimited train and bus rides between the cities, free wifi which you'll never be able to access, free restrooms which have incredibly long lines, and access to the walking trails. The trains and the walking trail are the only things that we used the cards for, and you'll probably be in the same boat. Note that the walking trails used to be free, but due to the inordinate amount of tourists which have wrecked havoc upon the trails in the past decade, they are now forced to charge. In fact, it seems the way that UNESCO is trying to preserve the five towns is to charge a premium for anything involving the words "Cinque" or "Terre". EXAMPLE: The fifty minute train from Deiva Marina to Santa Margherita set us back €4. The two minute train ride from Riomaggiore to Manarola is the same price. Anytime you are going to go into Cinque Terre, you're going to spend money. So let's spend it wisely.
Let's say you're going to buy the three day Cinque Terre Card (One Day: €16, Two Day: €29, Three Day: €41) because you want to get THE MOST CINQUE TERRE YOU CAN, and you're being smart, right? Not really. Trains between the towns within Cinque Terre cost €4 each (RIDICULOUS), and the access to the walking trail is €7.50, so to make your investment worthwhile, you'd have to spend a day on the walking trails between the towns and ride the rails nine times in three days. THREE TIMES A DAY. And that's not including the rides in or out of Cinque Terre because you're staying in Deiva Marina. Do you really want to spend that much time on the trains? Are you really vacillating between the towns that much? Let me answer that for you. You're not. Instead, let's buy the one day pass and plan a full day:
- Get Out Early: You absolutely MUST do the hiking trails between the cities of Cinque Terre but you should try to do them all in one day, it's definitely doable if you start early. Plus the earlier that you start, the less crowded it will be, the cooler it will be (hiking in the hot sun is TOUGH, believe me), and the more rewarding it is when you have that huge spaghetti lunch after you've hiked for six hours. Yes, the whole hike will take six hours (the hardest parts are from Monterosso to Corniglia, don't believe the hype that these are easy, there is a lot of uphill and a ton of stairs), but if you start at 7:30 AM, you'll be done in time for lunch in Portevenere. When we were there, the routes past Corniglia were closed for maintenance, but we got such a late start (didn't get on the trail until about 9), by the time we got to Corniglia, we were spent. There's easily accessible water fountains in each city, and even a super overpriced lemonade stand halfway between Vernazza and Manarola. If you're not super excited about an extremely sweaty four hour hike, you can start in Manarola, the route from there to Riomaggiore is easy. Plus the views are totally worth it.
- Take the train from Riomaggiore to Portovenere for lunch: Portovenere is only accessible via train or boat, and that's pretty cool. Be sure to tell everyone you know on Facebook about this when you caption your delicious seafood lunch. Change in the bathrooms of your lunch spot into your swimming costume, because.....
- Take the train from Portovenere from Riomaggiore for a dip: Spoilers. You're just going to be taking the train from town to town and going swimming in each spot. They're all free, and the best views of Cinque Terre are from the water.
- Take the train from Riomaggiore to Manarola for another dip: Told you.
- Take the train from Manarola to Corniglia for another dip: There is a beach directly below the train station of Corniglia. However. DO NOT GET OFF THE TRAIN IF YOU PLAN TO GO INTO THE TOWN OF CORNIGLIA. EXPLORE THE TOWN OF CORNIGLIA WHILE YOU ARE HIKING. THE TRAIN STATION IS AT THE BOTTOM OF APPROXIMATELY ONE THOUSAND STEPS. YOU WILL WANT TO DIE AND CORNIGLIA, WHILE LOVELY, IS NOT WORTH IT.
- Take the train from Manarola to Vernazza for a drink: Ha! Changed it up on you! Enjoy a drink overlooking the water. Relish the view. Hopefully it's almost sunset, and Vernazza is by far the most picturesque of the towns. Take a selfie of yourself eating a slice of pizza.
You took full advantage of that unlimited train pass. Congrats! If you really want to stick it to the man, just ride the train from Riomaggiore to Monterosso a bunch of times before you head home for the night. It'll feel great. Or just buy the three day pass and don't worry about how much you actually use it, which is the kind of thing you do if you once had nipples on your batsuit.
BEACH DAYS: PUBLIC ACCESS, BABY!
Let's face it, while you're in Cinque Terre, you're going to want to go to have a beach day or two. And you should! The beaches are absolutely stunning, the water incredibly clean and clear, and sometimes the ladies are topless. But here in Cinque Terre, there's only one true beach (in Monterosso), and almost 90% of it is taken up by private clubs where they'll charge you €22 for two chairs and an umbrella. At each end of the beach, though, is a public area where you can lay your towel out and splash around in the same beautiful water for free ninety nine. Save that €22 for aperitivos later. I'm sure the voice of Fantastic Mr. Fox would enjoy that incredibly cool man carved into the rocks just as much if he doesn't have to pay for it.
BOAT TOURS: DON'T BOOK AHEAD
The absolute best way to see Cinque Terre is from the water, and you are definitely going to want to get out on the open sea and let your nautical-themed pashmina afghan float in the wind. Most tours you'll see online will set you back between €75-€150 per person, but if you head to the marina in Vernazza, you'll find plenty of private boat owners willing to take you on a tour along the sea for about €50 per boat, and if you have four people, you're splitting that FOUR WAYS! And you can bring a bottle of wine on board with you, if you bring a cup for the skipper. I'm no mathematician, but that seems like a steal.
If you're feeling a little more adventurous, in Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre Dal Mare will rent you a small Zodiac boat for under a hundred Euros for the half day. We did this and thought it was well worth eating a couple of meals at the grocery store to keep us under budget for the day. I know Dr. Doug Ross wouldn't be OK with eating delicious Paninis that only cost €5 each, but we were.
DAY TRIP: SANTA MARGHERITA & PORTOFINO
This one isn't really budget related, but if I'm going to write a post about Cinque Terre, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention these two beautiful cities less than an hour away. Hot Take Alert: I thought the walk from Santa Margherita to Portofino was just as beautiful and fun as the walk between Cinque Terre towns. GASP I KNOW. Portofino is incredibly expensive, though, so take the train to Santa Margherita (€4), walk along the yacht-filled sea, stop into one or two of the many cove beaches between the cities which are absolutely spectacular along the way, take the ferry back (€6), and hope you see Clooney out on one of the yachts.
See how easy that was? You just spent a spectacular theoretical week in Cinque Terre, no thanks to George Clooney and his extravagant ways. Have more tips and tricks to ball on a budget in Cinque Terre? Leave them in the comments!
If you liked hearing about our trip to Cinque Terre, be sure to like us on Facebook, where we've uploaded a ton of pictures of our time there! Leave us a comment on how attractive we are!