The five beautiful lands that form Cinque Terre used to be one of Italy's best-kept secrets, but the arrival of the railroad changed everything. No longer isolated from each other and the rest of the country, these picturesque seaside villages have quickly become a popular tourist and hiking destination. Visitors can step off the train or boat and follow the crowds to breathtaking sights, but there's more to Cinque Terre than meets the eye. Venture beyond the usual tourist haunts in search of legend and romance. Savor the native dishes of Liguria, indulge in centuries-old traditions, and don't forget the essentials for what is sure to be the trip of a lifetime.

01Consider the Travel Seasons

The beautiful beaches of Cinque Terre are popular during the summer season. zm_photo / Getty Images

Peak season in Cinque Terre is from mid-June to mid-September. Walking trails are congested, even on the hottest days, but these conditions do little to diminish the serene atmosphere. Summertime visitors can enjoy longer days of hiking and sunbathing, and savor relaxed dinners late into the balmy evenings. Accommodations are limited, so make reservations well ahead of time if you plan to spend the night.

If you choose to visit Cinque Terre in the offseason, you'll beat the crowds and have better luck booking a room last-minute. The trails are much less crowded, but heavy rains could cause a closure or two. Your best bet is to check the weather and trail conditions each day of your trip. Regardless of the weather or season, this Italian Riviera retreat guarantees stunning landscapes and breathtaking views.

02Get to Know the Quirks of Each Village

Corniglia boasts incredible views of the surrounding villages of Cinque Terre. Simon Dannhauer / Getty Images

Each of the five Cinque Terre has its unique vibe and appeal to travelers. Familiarize yourself with the charms of each town to curate the perfect visit, especially if you plan on staying overnight. Riomaggiore is a great choice for evening barhoppers and social travelers, while the picturesque Vernazza is better for beach excursions and romantic getaways. Monterosso al Mare is the most popular city, with a modern waterfront promenade and charming old town. Manarola, considered one of Italy's most beautiful villages, is perfect for swimming and cliff diving. Corniglia is much quieter; though not accessible by sea, the town boasts incredible views.

You can visit all five villages in a single day, but after learning more about this Italian paradise, you may decide to extend your stay.

03Choose Your Own Italian Adventure

The passenger ferry is one of several ways to travel between the villages of Cinque Terre. sasimoto / Getty Images

Getting around Cinque Terre is half the fun. Most notable is its network of impressive walking and hiking trails. Navigating through the lush mountainside, ancient terraced hills, and along seaside cliffs, these trails connect all five villages by routes of ranging difficulties. Taking the train is a more convenient approach for day-trippers. f you begin the day early enough, you can spend some time in each village and have a meal before leaving. To marvel at the coastline from the water, consider boarding the public ferry or booking a tour with a private boat company. Rates depend on where you stop and how far you go, and on a hot summer day, the experience should be well worth the price.

04Invest in a Cinque Terre Card

The Cinque Terre Card can cover the cost of train and bus fare. Elijah-Lovkoff / Getty Images

Regardless of how you arrived in Cinque Terre, you will still have to pay to travel between each city. The trails are not expensive, nor are the train fares, but if you've arrived in a rental car, the parking fees will be substantial. These costs can quickly add up and take a bite out of your budget. The Cinque Terre Card is a convenient purchase that covers the Blue Trail entrance fees, bus and train fares, admission to some museums, Wi-Fi access, and restroom usage at train stations. Verify pricing and buy the card online, or inquire at the railway stations in La Spezia or any of the villages.

05Hike Through All Five Villages at Your Pace

The famous Sentiero Azzurro, Blue Trail, leads hikers along a scenic coastline path. MStudioImages / Getty Images

Several trails lead through the mountains of Cinque Terre, but the most scenic and popular route is the Sentiero Azzurro, the Blue Trail. These four individual paths follow the coastline from Riomaggiore to Monterosso, directly connecting all five hamlets. The entire route is a little under 8 miles. Adventure lovers can walk the distance in about 6 hours, or you can spread the journey out over a few days. Each leg of the Blue Trail shouldn't last longer than two hours, but trail closures and detours can add time and difficulty to your hike. Booking a room in one or more villages along the route is the perfect way to soak in the atmosphere of each community.

06Walk Off the Beaten Path

The Monesteroli steps are a stunning feature far from the famous Blue Trail. faber1893 / Getty Images

Maybe you'd like to escape the crowds on Blue Trail, or possibly burn a few extra calories to merit another serving of gelato. Whatever your reason for straying off the beaten path, there are lesser-known routes in the neighborhood worth traveling. The Trail of Sanctuaries connects small churches devoted to Mary just outside of each of the five villages. Passing through forest, farmland, and over streams, this route is a challenging pilgrimage to some of Liguria's most sacred places.

The Ancient Settlements trail is an easy hike that passes through terraced fields, abandoned quarries, and ancient ruins before leading you to a wine tasting bar. These hikes are significantly longer than the paths on Blue Trail, but with frequent closures due to safety concerns, you may find yourself taking the alternate route. Check the national parks website for information on trail conditions.

07Prepare for Lots of Walking — Even if You Aren't Hiking

The old towns in Cinque Terre typically feature a labyrinth of alleys and staircases. rabbit75_ist / Getty Images

The mountains of Cinque Terre remained inhabited for over a thousand years, not for their beauty, but their strategic location on the coast. Residents carved a way of life out of the rocky hills and built upward from the seaside cliffs. A genuine experience of these historic lands requires that you wander the steep main roads and ascend narrow staircases until you are practically lost. Most of the time, you'll pop out on a terrace or lookout point no matter your chosen path. Make sure you're in shape for the constant trekking up and downhill and pack comfortable shoes.

08Stay Fueled According to Your Budget

Save money on meals by packing lunch with food from the morning market in La Spezia. encrier / Getty Images

Touring Cinque Terre requires that you burn major calories if you plan on doing more than relaxing at a café or sunbathing on the waterfront. Even a stroll through the old town or a nature trail can tire you out if you're unprepared. Start the day with a good breakfast, and stay hydrated with a reusable water bottle. You can refill at the water fountains in each town since there are no shops or restaurants on the trails. If you get hungry, do yourself a favor and order a good meal in one of the villages rather than a snack to hold you over. Chances are you'll be hungry again by dinner after all that exercise. If you're on a tight budget, head to the morning market in La Spezia for fresh picnic lunch fixings. Don't forget to bring cash.

09Order the Seafood and Other Local Specialties

Fresh-caught anchovies and other seafood are popular with street vendors. Mustang_79 / Getty Images

Cinque Terre enjoys a variety of specialized crops and fresh seafood year-round. There are also a few classic Italian recipes that originated in the region, and you'd be remiss to leave the country without tasting some of these traditional flavors. Pesto Alla Genovese, considered the quintessential pesto recipe, is made with local ingredients and often served with pasta. Foccacia bread is another classic food originating in Liguria. Each locale prepares a distinct version of this hearth-baked bread. Fresh-caught anchovies are a specialty in Monterosso, and sure to satisfy even the pickiest eaters on vacation. Top off your meal with a glass of Sciacchetrà from the local winery, or Limoncino made with lemons from Monterosso. If alcohol isn't your thing, grab a bottle of oil pressed from the olives of nearby groves.

10Socialize in Town and on the Trails

Aperitivo is the perfect time to socialize with the locals and fellow travelers. Totajla / Getty Images

It doesn't take long to notice that the Italians thrive upon socializing within their community. Every evening, locals head for the plazas and bars for an aperitif and conversation before dinner. This lovely tradition keeps neighbors close and the atmosphere friendly, especially for visitors who enjoy chatting with the townspeople. Don't be afraid to engage with the Ligurians. Many of the kind souls residing in Cinque Terre are lifelong residents, and happy to share stories with enthusiastic travelers. Likewise, spread the friendly vibes to anyone you meet on the trails. Some paths cross through private property, and a kind salutation is a great way to show your appreciation to the owners. If you're lucky, you'll enjoy a friendly visit with a local.