I feel most alive when I’m watching the sun rise from the trails above Vernazza, buzzed on espresso and munching on focaccia bread. Vernazza, as with the rest of Cinque Terre, is best described by one word: magical. For me, visiting this place was a life-changing experience, and I can’t help but return whenever possible. These villages have something special about them, and that magic is best observed from the hiking trails that link them together.

For those who haven’t yet been, Cinque Terre is comprised of five colorful cliffside villages (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare) along the Italian riveria, about two hours by train from Florence. Each of these tiny villages has its own distinct charm; in fact, locals will tell you that they even have different dialects. You’re liable to fall in love with one of them, and personally, my village of choice is Vernazza. A friend there once told me that the place is like an octopus because when it grabs you, it doesn’t let go.

A Beginner's Guide to Cinque Terre   A Beginner's Guide to Cinque Terre

You can navigate between these villages on a train or a ferry, but my favorite way to get around in Cinque Terre is to hike the trails. It’s safe to say that these hikes are some of the most stunning in the world; one look at the views they offer and you’ll understand why. Of course, it helps to have a little knowledge of what to expect before you embark, so here are six things I wish I had known before my first hike here.

A Beginner's Guide to Cinque Terre

1. Timing is important

Hiking on a crowded trail with the sun bearing down on you at high noon is an entirely different experience than waking up at the crack of dawn and embarking on your hike as just as the village is waking up. For one, Cinque Terre is at its best early in the morning – the smells of fresh bread mingling with seawater, bells ringing in the distance, locals milling about their business before the peace is shattered by the first train arrival. Once you actually start on your hike, you’ll discover there’s nothing quite like the morning light as seen from high up in the trails. It’s an incredible feeling looking out over the villages with no one else around – if you wait too long, the trails gets hot, bright and crowded. I know no one wants to get up early on vacation… but trust me, it’s worth it here.

A Beginner's Guide to Cinque Terre

2. Slow is better

Yes, can hike the trails of Cinque Terre in a day or two, but it’s best to spread it out and take your time. If you can swing it, it’s ideal to see a village or two a day and allow plenty of time to wander around instead of trying to cram everything into a short visit. Cinque Terre is not the place to stress about checking activities off a list; you can worry about that back in Florence or Rome.

A Beginner's Guide to Cinque Terre

3. Access all year round

Trail closures happen, but they’re often short-term and due to weather. In the winter months, you may hear that they are closed down for the season, but this isn’t necessarily true – the parks department doesn’t make enough revenue to staff a ticket booth, but the trails aren’t ever closed in good weather, save for two notable exceptions. After the devastating flood of 2011 the “sentiero azzurro” (literally “blue path”, or the hike over the sea) from Corniglia to Manarola was closed down indefinitely, as was the famous “Via dell’Amore”, or the lover’s walk from Manarola to Riomaggiore. Despite plenty of talk of re-opening, in true Italian fashion, the parks department is taking its time. However, it’s still possible to hike between these two villages using alternate trails. The mountain path from Riomaggiore to Manarola is steep but not long, whereas the hike from Manarola to Corniglia takes a detour through Volastra (another lesser known village high in the hills), and is one of my favorites.

A Beginner's Guide to Cinque Terre

4. Don’t forget your map

Maps or some pre-knowledge about where to find trailheads is vital as they are not marked very clearly, especially for lesser-known hikes! Don’t skip these, though; the lesser-known trails are some of Cinque Terre’s best. On my first visit, I found it easiest to tackle the blue paths first, then hike the lesser known trails. The blue paths are the most famous and also the most crowded, and although they’re beautiful (my absolute favorite hike is the blue path from Corniglia to Vernazza), there are lots of lesser known hikes worthy of exploration. Another favorite is the old donkey path up to the sanctuary above Riomaggiore – it’s a quick trip and offers a breathtaking view of all five villages. Just be warned: like the rest of the Cinque Terre, the trails are… well, kind of quirky. As I said, they’re not always well marked, often very steep, and you will probably take a wrong turn end up in a stranger’s olive grove at least once. Hey, it happens. You’re in Cinque Terre… go with the flow and enjoy the adventure.

A Beginner's Guide to Cinque Terre

5. Be adventurous, but not too much…

There are some “unofficial” trails, such as the one to the infamous Guvano, a nude beach between Vernazza and Corniglia that’s accessible via a trail that starts about midway through the blue path. Seriously – take these sort of trails at your own risk. Hiking the Guvano trail alone was a big mistake; it was March, and the trail was overgrown, muddy, and eroded in places. After nearly getting lost and spending way too much time crawling on my hands and knees (sometimes into thorn bushes), I ended up so muddy and scratched-up that a passing couple assumed I’d fallen off the mountain when finally I re-emerged back onto the blue path.

A Beginner's Guide to Cinque Terre

6. Take off the hiking boots

Hiking is great, but make sure to leave plenty of downtime to just absorb the atmosphere. The laid-back atmosphere in Cinque Terre is what makes it so special – the best way to get a feel for this place is to embrace the slower pace of life. Spend an afternoon reading a book or listening to music on the rocks on a beach. Make friends with the owner of your favorite gelateria or a bartender at your favorite evening haunt; everyone in Cinque Terre is incredibly friendly. In fact, it’s the people that make this place special- I’ve never met a warmer, more open community. Pack a picnic and eat it on the rocks in the harbor, which is hands-down the best area both for great views and great people-watching. Cinque Terre has a way of getting under people’s skin; if you let it, you’ll understand why so many people are drawn to return.

A Beginner's Guide to Cinque Terre

I’ve traveled to seven countries in the past two years, but Cinque Terre is the place that feels the most like my home away from home. No matter where else I go in Europe, it’s the one spot I keep coming back to. Part of it has to do with its quirky, unpretentious charm. Another big factor is the people and how welcoming locals are to solo travelers. Lastly, I think it goes without saying that these little villages are filled with beauty at every corner, and once you’ve gotten a taste of the views from their trails, it’s hard to go back to reality.

Have you been to Cinque Terre your self? What are your top tips!

This is a guest post by Cocoa Laney.

Cocoa Laney is a 21 year old American portrait photographer with a penchant for traveling alone and an awful sense of direction. Currently she’s making it her personal mission to get hopelessly lost with a camera around her neck in at least 1 new country each year. You can see her professional work at cocoaLphotography.com, see her travel photos and personal blog at colorfulmeanderings.com, and follow her on Instagram at @colorfulmeanderings.