Vernazza, Italy: The Complete Guide

Small boats moored at Vernazza

Dennis Macdonald / GettyImages 

Idyllic Vernazza, with its pretty pastel-colored houses rising dramatically from the sea, is considered one of the most picturesque villages on the Riviera di Levante (the southern end of the Italian Riviera). It's the second-most northerly town of the Cinque Terre—the five fishing villages recognized by UNESCO as a living, cultural landscape of extraordinary value. 

Vernazza has been inhabited since at least 1080 A.D., though its origins may be much older. Once the site of a maritime military base, the town became a powerful ally to the Republic of Genoa in the Middle Ages—its fortified castle and cylindrical tower served as a lookout for approaching marauders. Its prominence declined in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the town was ultimately rescued from stagnation by the construction of the Genoa-La Spezia railway line in 1864. Today, Vernazza subsists on tourism, fishing, wine, and olive oil production.

What to Do in Vernazza

To familiarize yourself with the town, start at the train station and walk down Via Roma to the tiny natural harbor where brightly painted fishing boats bob in the water. Don’t forget to stop at one of the many cafes and bars for a cappuccino or a glass of local white wine. Then explore the many narrow alleys and staircases that lead up to marvelous sea views. 

Below are some of the best things to do and see in Vernazza.

Church of Santa Margherita d'Antiochia: Chiesa di Santa Margherita d'Antiochia boasts an enviable position on the village’s main square overlooking the sea. Erected at the beginning of the 14th century, the current edifice was enlarged and reconstructed sometime between the 15th and 17th centuries in the elegant Ligurian-Gothic style. Featuring hanging arches, pilasters, and an octagonal tower crowned with an ogival dome, the church is one of the most fascinating and unique of the Cinque Terre.

Vernazza's beaches: Although neither are sandy, the two small beaches in the village of Vernazza—one at the end of the harbor and one that can be reached through a hole in the rock near the main square—are good for swimming and sunning. All Cinque Terre beaches have free areas open to the public, or you can rent an umbrella and sun lounger for a fee.

Andrea Doria Castle and Belforte Tower: The castle, thought to date to the 11th century, along with its defensive tower, occupy the highest point in the town and are the symbols of Vernazza. Visit the castle’s terrace and climb the tower for sweeping views of the village and surrounding hinterlands.

What to Eat and Drink in Vernazza

In Liguria, fish and seafood dishes dominate the cuisine, and Vernazza is no exception. Traditional ingredients like briny anchovies (acciughe), soft focaccia (a typical flatbread), and chunky minestrone soup are mainstays, yet each town in the Cinque Terre has its special take on these regional classics.

Here are a few of the traditional meals to try in Vernazza.

  • Tegame alla Vernazzana: The recipe most often associated with Vernazza is sort of a cross between a casserole and lasagna. It consists of baked layers of anchovies, potatoes, and tomatoes, seasoned with white wine, olive oil, and herbs.
  • Trofie al pesto: Native to Liguria, this pasta dish is made with a twisted, spiral-shaped pasta (trofie) mixed with pesto alla genovese—a type of a cold pasta sauce made of seven simple ingredients: basil, extra virgin olive oil, parmesan and pecorino cheeses, plus pine nuts, garlic, and salt. 
  • Buridda: This traditional seafood stew is made of leftover fish parts cut into small pieces and simmered on the stove with olive oil, tomatoes, capers, mushrooms, pine nuts, and whatever vegetables are on hand. Round buns called "galette del marinaio" are used to soak up the tasty Buridda juices.
  • Vernaccia: This dry white table wine is cultivated on the terraced coastal vineyards of the Cinque Terre. The indigenous vines of Vernazza (and nearby Monterosso and Corniglia) produce Vernaccia DOC—a full-bodied and citrusy wine consisting of Bosco, Albarola and Vermentino grapes.

Where to Stay

The best time to visit Vernazza is from mid-April to mid-October, avoiding the month of August, when trails and beaches are over-crowded and hotel prices are at their peak. Consider booking a stay at a charming guest house (affittacamere), a peaceful bed and breakfast, or a private holiday apartment around the village square. Some properties offer sunny terraces with breathtaking sea views. Family-run La Malà is a light-filled gem that looks out over the harbor.

If you plan to stay in a vacation rental home or apartment, do your due diligence by looking at all the photos online and making sure of cancellation policies. If you're visiting in the summertime and want to stay cool, confirm that there's air conditioning.

How to Get to Vernazza

You can reach this seaside town a few different ways. Read below to find the easiest mode of transit for your trip.

By Train

You can reach Vernazza from either La Spezia (the northern end) or Levanto (to the south). From La Spezia, take the local train (treno regionale) in the direction of Sestri Levante and get off at the fourth stop. From Levanto, take the regional train in the direction of La Spezia Centrale. In two stops you've arrived. Fares on the Cinque Terre Express train (Levanto – Cinque Terre – La Spezia) line (regional, second-class trains only) runs every 30 minutes. Fares are 4 euros each way, so if you’re planning to make several trips, it makes sense to purchase the Cinque Terre Train Card. An adult one-day pass is currently (as of July 2020) 16 euros. One-, three-, and seven-day passes, as well as discounts for children and families are also available.

By Car

Like all of the historical village centers of the Cinque Terre, Vernazza is closed to traffic. Because of a devastating 2011 flood, many of the roads leading into the village have not been repaired. There are parking lots about 1 km from the town, and shuttle buses to bring visitors back and forth. But since these lots tend to fill up quickly, we recommend using the parking area near the seafront in Monterosso al Mare or the facility in Levanto. To secure a spot, plan to get there early, especially in summer.

By Plane

The nearest airports are Genoa's Cristoforo Colombo (GOA), Pisa's Galileo Galilei (PSA) and Florence's Amerigo Vespucci Airport (FLR). The largest international airport, Malpensa International (MXP), is located in Milan.