If we got to pick one country in Europe to explore for another month, it would probably be Italy. But, since most of us are working with limited time and budgets, we have to make hard decisions. And one of the hardest decisions when traveling to Italy is Amalfi Coast or the Cinque Terre. Both are stunning coastlines with delicious food, jaw-dropping views, amazing hiking, and crystal clear aquamarine water to dive into. We managed to squeeze in both these past few months, so we’re breaking down the pluses (and a few minuses).
Amalfi Coast (AC): The Amalfi Coast is in the Campania region, with Naples as its closest major city. The train ride from Naples to Sorrento, the northern gateway to the coast, is about an hour. From Rome, add another one to three hours depending on which train you take.
Cinque Terre (CT): The Cinque Terre is in the Liguria region in the northwest of Italy. It’s about an hour train ride from Pisa and about two from Florence.
AC: Positano is a place to be seen. As we hiked into town down from our path on high (Il Sentiero degli Dei, or the Path of the Gods), I felt severely underdressed in hiking shorts and tennies as I trailed an older lady in a crisp white crepe pant suit and Ferragamo loafers. It didn’t get much better as we hit the boardwalk and a young lady was flip flopping in Valentino’s.
Positano and Ravello are posh, but the smaller towns have a much more laid back feel. We loved exploring some of these less visited towns, like little Cetara, where we seemed to be the only ones not fluent in Italian.
CT: None of these coastal towns are the remote fishing villages they once were, but the Cinque Terre has much more of a relaxed, backpacker feel. You’re more likely to be following someone in hiking boots than high-end Italian shoes.
AC: Italy is beautiful. Its coasts are beautiful, its towns are beautiful, and the Amalfi Coast is a crown jewel. The towns are more whitewashed than colorful, and my favorite part was the domed churches decorated with majolica tiles.
CT: The Cinque Terre feels more quaint and more colorful. The towns have distinct endings and beginnings, perfectly nestled into their spot in the cliffs.
AC: While the Cinque Terre is more popular for hiking, the Amalfi Coast is more popular for swimming, or more accurately, lounging. Most of the pebbly beaches are covered in sun beds and brightly colored umbrellas, which you can rent for about €10 a day. The water is warm and clear, and perfect for swimming as the water is typically quite calm.
CT: Monterosso features the best typical beach, with a large stretch of soft sand and bright blue waters. Other places to enjoy the water include the harbor area in Vernazza, Guvano beach, a nude beach just outside of Corniglia, a small, sheltered swimming cove in Manarola, and a rock beach just a few minutes away from the harbor in Riomaggiore. If you’re looking for more sand to stretch out on, Levanto, one train stop north of Monterosso, also has a large beach and boardwalk.
AC: The main hike in this area is Il Sentiero degli Dei, or the Path of the Gods. The path starts in Bomerano (which is great, because the little bakery near the center of town, Panificio, has the most delicious pastries). It winds through Nocelle, and then leads you down 2,000 steps into Positano. There’s a number of other hikes too. One of the coolest walks was going down the mountain from Ravello to Minori on a path through the houses that hug the steep hillside.
CT: The Cinque Terre has some of Italy’s best hiking, with so many options beyond just the Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Path). All of the trails we trekked along the cliffs offered breathtaking views of the deep blue Italian sea and the colorful towns that dot the coast. For more information on hiking in the region, check out our post here.
AC: Italy is one of those countries where it seems you can’t really go wrong with the food, as long as you’re not in a total tourist trap. As part of the Campania region, you’ll find DOP buffalo mozzarella for pizza margherita, large, juicy lemons for limoncello, and the freshest seafood and pasta for spaghetti alla puttanesca. The Amalfi Coast, and especially Positano, is known for its five star hotels and fine dining. With plenty of Michelin star restaurants to choose from, you’ll be sure to have an amazing dining experience. But, you can still find plenty of good eats if you’re on a budget. With our serious sweet tooth, we loved the regional pastries like sfogliatelle, flaky pastries filled with sweetened ricotta, and pasticciotti, warm custard and cherry encased by buttery pastry dough.
CT: The five towns that make up the Cinque Terre are part of the Liguria region of Italy. It’s know for pesto alla genovese, focaccia, and being on the coast, seafood. After hiking the first leg of the Sentiero Azzurro, we indulged in every little osteria in Vernazza, snacking on amazing focaccia, bruschetta and fritto misto. In the evenings, we dived into simple but flavorful dishes, like giant bowls of clams cooked in butter and lemon and gnocchi with pesto.
AC: Getting around the Amalfi Coast is kind of an ordeal.
Trains only reach the edge towns of Sorrento in the North and Salerno to the South, so on land you’re stuck dealing with the roads in a bus, car, or scooter to reach the towns in between.
To get to Sorrento from Naples, use the Circumvesuviana trains. The Circumvesuviana station is just beneath the Naples Central Train Station (Napoli Centrale), and it takes a little over an hour to get to Sorrento. You’ll need a NA5 Ticket – €4,50 (valid for 180 minutes). You can also use the 3 day Campania Arte Card Tutta la regione for transport. In the Campania region (which includes Naples, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Amalfi Coast) this card covers buses, the metro, funiculars and the Circumvesuviana trains.
If you’re coming from Rome, you must first take a train from Rome to Naples, then the Circumvesuviana train from Naples to Sorrento.
To get to Salerno from Naples, use the TrenItalia trains from the Napoli Centrale. Tickets cost around €4, and you can also use the 3 day Campania Arte Card .
Once you’ve reached Sorrento or Salerno, your only option for public transit on land to reach the towns in between, like Amalfi Town, Positano and Ravello, is the SITA Bus. The roads are narrow and windy with sheer cliff on one side. Before whipping around a curve, the local SITA bus drivers only give a quick honk and glance in the mirror before plowing through. There was no way I was driving on those roads, so we stuck to the bus, which was inconsistent and overcrowded. There were several times when the bus was simply too full, so we had to wait for the next one to come.
The buses from Sorrento and Salerno both end in Amalfi. This means that if you want to go from Salerno to Positano, you must first take the bus from Salerno to Amalfi Town, then another bus from Amalfi Town to Positano. Due to the irregularity and overcrowding, this can make travel along the coast very time-consuming. If you’re planning on exploring the Amalfi Coast by bus, the most convenient home base is Amalfi Town as it’s the main connection for the buses.
If you drive (and heaven help you), you’ll have the added nuisance of trying to find parking, which I’ve heard is extremely difficult even in the winter.
A scooter would’ve been a fun option, but wasn’t practical for us with a baby. I just hope you have fast reflexes to dodge the buses zooming through!
If you want to opt out of the roads entirely, you can rent a boat or take a ferry.
CT: Compared to the Amalfi Coast, transportation in Cinque Terre is a breeze.
There’s a train that shuttles you through the cliffs to connect all five towns, sandwiched by La Spezia to the south and Levanto to the north. For more information on which train pass to buy, check out our blog post here.
Trains come frequently from Florence and Pisa to La Spezia, where you can make a quick transfer and head off to the tiny town of your choice.
Cinque Terre also has a convenient ferry option, that stops at Monterosso, Vernazza, Manarola, Riomaggiore and Portovenere. It skips Corniglia as this village is on top of the cliff. A daily ticket for the whole line is €30, while roundtrip fares between villages start at €7.
8 The Weather
AC: As the main draw in the Amalfi Coast is the sea, the best time to visit is April through September. We visited in the middle of August, when almost every Italian hangs up their “in vacanza” sign and heads to the beach. Despite the crowds, we were still able to find a spot on the pebbly spiagge and enjoy the views from up above while hiking.
CT: If you’re visiting for the water, then mid-May through mid-September is ideal. If you’re there for the hiking, you can stretch it from mid-March to mid-October. Both regions have a Mediterranean climate, but the northern coast tends to be a few degrees cooler than the south.
The region swells with visitors in the summer months, and is largely a ghost town (or 5 little ghost towns) during the winter months. We visited the Cinque Terre in May, which was a great combination of being cool enough to hike yet warm enough to jump in the water (though it was a bit chilly). Plus, it was not totally overrun with tourists yet, which makes for a much more relaxing and enjoyable experience.
9 Day trips
AC: There are almost an endless number of amazing day trips from the Amalfi Coast. While Capri may be touristy, we could easily forgive the crowds to enjoy the beautiful views, great swimming, and the absolute best gelato we’ve had in Italy at Gelateria Buonocore (and we’ve eaten a LOT of gelato in Italy). The other islands of Ischia and Procida are also fun to visit. If you feel like adding in a bit more history, Pompeii, Vesuvius and Herculaneum are reachable. We think Naples deserves more than a day trip, but still worth a visit if you’re short on time.
CT: Cinque Terre tends to be a place to day trip to instead of a place to day trip from. It’s worth spending a few days there, and if you want to explore other parts of Italy, you’re probably better off finding a more convenient base. That said, close day trips that aren’t technically Cinque Terre are Levanto, with its large beach and boardwalk, and Portovenere.
Have you been? Which is your favorite?