Photographer’s Guide to the Cinque Terre

“The buildings from up here look like they lean against one another for support like someone stole their crutches.”

Photo by Michael Liao

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Pastel houses in shades of every hue gather in narrow ravines by the sea. The buildings are jumbled together, almost as if they collected here after a storm, pausing briefly just before falling into the sea. Each building’s windows form faceless facades that stare deep into the azure waters of the Mediterranean while small boats lap listless in the warm breeze. This postcard come-to-life is but one of five small seaside villages known as Cinque Terre, undoubtedly the most photogenic part of the Italian Riviera.

Vernazza Harbour View in Cinque Terre - Photo by Bailey Gullo
Vernazza Harbour View in Cinque Terre - Photo by Bailey Gullo

About Cinque Terre

The Cinque Terre, which translates to five lands in medieval times, was described as the five castles. Each village was home to a castle standing sentinel on the cliff tops along the coastline. The small fishing and farming communities that developed outside these castle walls would once scramble to their citadels for shelter during Turkish pirate raids.

Riomaggiore Village Boat Launch - Photo by Vidar Nordli Mathisen
Riomaggiore Village Boat Launch - Photo by Vidar Nordli Mathisen

As the threat of piracy faded, the local villages began to thrive, fostered by an economy of olives, fish and grapes. Today, however, the big industry is tourism. Each town is now a tapestry painted on the same theme — a well-weathered pastel jumble of homes dotted with medieval ruins. Each one, in its unique way, filling a small ravine from hilltop to the seashore. Castles that once protected these small communities today only guard glorious vistas, calling a siren song to the photographer and Instagram aficionado.

While officially part of the Italian Riviera, there is a peaceful stillness to the five villages along this ten-kilometre stretch that is far more idyllic than the elegant and bustling towns of Portofino and Santa Margherita Ligure. Cinque Terre draws much of its charm and stillness from the absence of cars. Cinque Terre is free of motorways, a result of its isolation and medieval construction. All that you will find here pebbled beaches, bright sun, warm seas, and people. It is Italy at its most relaxed, and in some ways, most authentic.

Manarola Village in Cinque Terre - Photo by Jordan Cormack
Manarola Village in Cinque Terre - Photo by Jordan Cormack

Each of the five villages is unique in its unique way. Each one seems almost animated as the architecture gently and steadily carves a laid back life out of the unforgiving terrain, as if before your eyes. It may just be a trick of the light or an illusion caused by the rolling waves of the Mediterranean backdrop, but each village seems to breathe with life before you.

Travelling between the villages can be done by a milk-run train that connects the towns one to another by long dark tunnels. As you pass through each small community, the dark of the tunnel explodes with light and colour as each village reveals itself momentarily before the train comes to a halt at the village station. Alternately you can hike from town to town along narrow trails, taking in the lush green of the landscape serving as a stunning foreground to an endless turquoise sea.

Riomaggiore Village at Sunset - Photo by Heidi Kaden
Riomaggiore Village at Sunset - Photo by Heidi Kaden

When to Visit

Like all popular tourist destinations, your choice depends on your capacity to tolerate selfie-loving tourists without grabbing their phones and tossing them into the sea. If you’re the sort of photographer that doesn’t mind being asked to take a group photo of and with a random stranger’s phone, then the summer is the best time to visit. The bright skies and deep blue waters are striking.

If, however, you are more like us and a perfect afternoon involves a long-abandoned factory that requires trekking through hellish underbrush to get to, and the only people for miles are the ones who won’t hear your screams… then the offseason will be more your speed. As well, in the winter months, the seas and waves will be more dramatic, adding a bit of weather drama to your images.

Ultimately it comes down to you and how you express yourself artistically. If you love bright colours and have neon dreams, you’ll love this place in the summer, and if you are a brooding artist who must suffer for their craft, you’ll enjoy the winter. Whichever artist you are, though, Cinque Terre has something for everyone.

See Cinque Terre on the PIXEO Map

Corniglia Village in Cique Terre - Photo by Dallin Holding
Corniglia Village in Cique Terre - Photo by Dallin Holding

Photographing Cinque Terre

Italy’s Cinque Terre is a perfect mix of culture, architecture, nature and people. Photographers would be well advised to spend a week here, to relax and capture the endless shooting opportunities. Rent a room or house in one of the five villages and relax. Be sure to pack comfortable shoes, and be prepared to walk, wine and dine. This beautiful part of the world is the perfect vacation destination that begs for you to bring your camera.

Outside of the usual photography advice, there are about four photography spots you cannot miss. So without further adieu, we’ll break them down for you.

Manarola Village at Dusk - Photo by Bjorn Snelders
Manarola Village at Dusk - Photo by Bjorn Snelders

Manarola

Manarola is likely the most famous village to photograph. Whether you are there for sunrise or sunset, you will find the light inviting. As well as being a golden-hour dream spot, there is no shortage of excellent angles and photography locations so you won’t likely have to worry about other people being your shots.

In Manarola, there are two great spots for shooting. First up is a shooting location from the rocks by the sea. Getting there is pretty straight forward, go to the pier and then step over the ropes and head out onto the rocks. Keep in mind that the rope is there for a reason, so keep a weather eye (pun intended) to the sea and waves. Also, we totally did not just recommend you cross a safety barrier to get the shot; we wouldn’t do that. But if you choose to do so, you’ll get a great shot.

Next up is the cemetery; this provides an excellent aerial style view of the community. The buildings from up here look like they lean against one another for support like someone stole their crutches. The shot above is a great example of this location.

Vernazza Village in Cinque Terre - Photo by Jeff Finley
Vernazza Village in Cinque Terre - Photo by Jeff Finley

Vernazza

Probably the most classic view of Cinque Terre is shown in this shot of Vernazza. To get to this spot, you’ll need to hike about 5 minutes up the trail towards Monterosso al Mare. This magical stop is where you’ll find a stunning view of the city. The high grass in the foreground can make the shoot a bit of a challenge, but a tall tripod is your friend.

Riomaggiore Village in Cinque Terre - Photo by Michael Liao
Riomaggiore Village in Cinque Terre - Photo by Michael Liao

Riomaggiore

Finally, there is Riomaggiore. This little village is often underappreciated from a photography standpoint and is a challenge to shoot because of its tight confines. But, the symmetry that can be found here, in our opinion, typifies the Cinque Terre experience. Carefully make your way out on the breakwater and look back and the village and you will meet what we think is the best view in the entire Cinque Terre. We highly recommend this spot at blue hour. But, remember again, breakwater, you know, for killer waves. Be careful.

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