Northern Italy and Cinque Terre - a 15 day hybrid travel itinerary
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
The first time I went to Italy was on an active travel itinerary for our Dolomites trekking trip. On that previous trip, I had explored Florence beforehand and loved the vibrant and bustling city. This time, I wanted to explore the Northern lake region with a day trip crossover into Chamonix, France and then make my way west to the coastline and Cinque Terre. And to my delight, Florence again, was the perfect gateway city. With this travel itinerary, I focused on the northern lake and mountain regions of Lake Como, Stresa and Courmayeur and made the bold move to rent a car and drive ourselves to do it. (See tips on this below). From there, I used Milan as a point of transition, switching to train travel in order to head west, where our exploration would be done on foot or by boat.
Over these action-packed 15 days of hybrid travel, we visited over 10 different towns or cities, stayed in a mix of opulent 5-star hotels, moderately priced old-world style rooms, classic B&B’s and a few cheap ‘functional’ hotels that served as easy access to transportation. We dined on gourmet food, as well as local home cooking. We had fine wine and cheap pizza. And we kept the trip active by walking everywhere we could, riding bikes around Lake Como and hiking through all five villages of Cinque Terre. And at the end, we treated ourselves to a few nights of relaxation in the infamous Italian Riviera village of Portofino. It was a busy, fun-filled, self-guided trip that I hope you will consider for your next Italian adventure.
Although we rented a car and used train travel to connect our destinations, we spent as much time as possible walking in each town. Around Lake Como, bikes are available for hourly rental. In Chamonix, you can embrace the incredible mountain landscape on dozens of hiking trails. In Vernazza, there are many footpaths to walk and If you are in really good shape, try hiking the rolling, upper trail that connects all five villages of Cinque Terre!
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Treat yourself in Florence with a stay at Hotel Brunellschi and some rooftop cocktails at La Terrazza. We felt spoiled in Lake Como with a room at Palazzo del Vice Rey and a waterfront meal at Ristorante La Punta. In Stresa, a visit to the rooftop bar at Sky Lounge is a 'must'. And in Vernazza, a meal at Belaforte fulfilled our most romantic dining dreams. And of course, Portofino can offer some extremes in the category of luxury travel. We felt indulged and very comfortable in the beautiful rooms of Domino Home Piccolo and celebrated this last destination of our itinerary with cocktails at Belmond Splendido one night and 'bubbles' on the harbor at Winterose another.
TIP- I personally use this site frequently as most bookings do not require deposit and have lenient cancellation policies
How to Connect
Florence – when you are there, consider hiring a local guide to showcase their ‘home’ to you. You will no doubt see places and have experiences far greater than a larger tour company could provide.
Cinque Terre – this area was greatly impacted by floods and mudslides in 2011 and much work is still needed to restore the area. Revolve Water is a non-profit association dedicated to advancing environmental sustainability with a focus on communicating the value of water. Their mission is to identify, encourage and implement innovative solutions for citizens, companies and cities to become more sustainable in their water and energy usage. Their project in Cinque Terre aims to maintain an alignment with the traditional ways of life while making provisions to alleviate and lessen the amount of destruction should another flood occur. Better prevention measures are key to properly addressing the threat of flash floods in Cinque Terre as in other areas around the Mediterranean and beyond. You can learn more and support them here.
Trip rating - L2
English widely spoken, a variety of European foods, safe. If you decide to rent a car and drive, that may bump the rating up to a L3, due to signage often being in Italian, your comfort level driving on narrow streets and in busy foreign cities.
Month of travel - September –> shoulder season, less crowded and still great weather
Length of trip – 15 days
Tips/notes for Transportation
1. Renting a car - this is the most flexible way to explore the Northern Lake region on your own timeline. But it does require some adaptation due to foreign signage and congestion in big cities. On this itinerary, getting out of Como and getting Into Milan required some concentration and team effort to watch Google map directions and look for signs. But once outside the major cities, it was easy. Roads are narrow around Lake Como. I’d highly advise, packing light and getting the smallest car you can rent. Even if they try to upgrade you to a larger car (they think all Americans love this) – don’t! Keep the smaller car. It will save on gas, as well as relax your grip on the steering wheel in narrow corridors.
2. Tolls - there are several and they can be expensive. The highest price was the long tunnel between Courmayeur and Chamonix which was close to $30 US each way! But given its length, I can see why.
3. Cinque Terre – I don’t recommend driving there. Not only are there very few places to park a car, but the villages are on steep slopes and the rooms are small. So carrying only one piece of luggage, preferably a backpack, is advantageous. Cinque Terre is easily accessible by train via Milan or Florence. If you are planning to come and go from one major city, consider renting a locker there to store your large luggage and pack a smaller bag you can manage on the train and for the coast. For this itinerary, the route is in one direction and uses trains that have small luggage overhead holds. My suggestion is to use packing cubes and travel with a backpack or duffle that you can back-carry as needed. We were able to pack a few nice travel dresses and shirts, as well as active wear, and got comfortable getting two or three wears from each item.
Day 1 & 2 - Getting There
Flight- Morning San Francisco > Chicago (United)
Evening: Chicago > Brussels – night flight, arrives next morning.
Flight- Brussels > Florence (United) –arrives early afternoon
Accommodation suggestion - Hotel Brunellschi (for a special treat, book the deluxe panorama room – 2 story with a round bed and magnificent 360 views of downtown Florence.
Activity suggestion - after you nap and get settled into your room, go have cocktails on this fabulous terrace > La Terrazza
Day 3 - Florence
Activity suggestions - Tour Florence! Walk the streets and neighborhoods, stop for a quick stand-up espresso, sample everything, the Boboli Gardens are beautiful, check out the San Lorenzo leather market, the Sant’ Ambrosio indoor market, and if you are an art lover, you must spend some time at the Uffizi
NOTE – if you are out near the train station on this day, stop in and get your ticket for tomorrow.
Dinner suggestion - La Giostra (the pear ravioli is fabulous!)
Accommodation suggestion - Hotel Brunellschi
Day 4 - Lake Como
Train - 8am Florence > Milan (change trains) > Lake Como (1 hr 40 min total)
Rental car pickup- we used Budget. Get a small car!
**NOTE – we booked a one-way rental with a pickup in Como and drop-off in Milan. If you want to skip the day in Milan, you could do a round-trip rental and take the train from Como straight to the coast.
Drive - Como to Lezzano, Italy
Accommodation suggestion - Palazzo del Vice Rey (La Vista room is spectacular)
Fantastic lakeside historic palace renovated with five rooms and a beautiful terrace. The breakfasts are amazing, there a few local restaurants within walking distance and Bellagio is only a 15 minute drive away.
Day 5 – Lake Como / Bellagio
Activity suggestions - shopping, strolling the streets, have lunch with a lake view, then rent a bike for the afternoon.
Bike - rent bikes and ride around the lake. If you are a strong cyclist, take on the infamous ride to the chapel of Madonna del Ghisallo – the patron saint of cycling.
Dinner suggestion - Ristorante La Punta (beautiful views, lakeside)
Accommodation suggestion - Palazzo del Vice Re
Day 6 - Stresa and Lake Maggiore
Drive - Lezzeno to Stresa (~ 2 hours)
NOTE – there are 2 routes to get there. One will have you cross the border to Switzerland en route, so don’t be surprised if your GPS takes you North out of Como. (check It out on Googlemaps before trip)
OPTION - if you do end up North, why not drive to Locarno, Switzerland have lunch, then come around the top of Lake Maggiore to Stresa. It’s a cute little town.
Activity suggestion - Cocktails at the Sky Lounge at La Palma – one of the swankier rooftop lounges I have ever been.
Accommodation suggestion - Hotel Astoria (get a lakefront room)
Dinner suggestion - walk the streets and neighborhoods behind the hotels and see what local patio entices you.
Day 7 - Stresa and Courmayeur
Activity suggestion - AM boat tour to the palaces on the Borromean Islands
Drive - Stresa to Courmayeur (~ 2.5 hours)
Accommodation suggestion - Romantik Hotel Villa Novacento
Dinner suggestion - walk to the town plaza, lots of fine dining and pub style food choices here.
Day 8 - Day trip to Chamonix
Drive - Get up early and head to Chamonix ( ~30 min).
You will go through the long Mount Blanc tunnel - over 11K!
NOTE - be prepared for expensive toll, but it's worth it.
Chamonix - If the weather is good, get on the early gondola up to Mount Blanc! Clouds tend to gather in the afternoon.
Activity suggestions - Take the early gondola up to Aiguille de Midi – worth the price if skies are clear!
On the way back down, get off at the midway stop, have lunch, then hike across to the Mer de Glace train, have some wine, take the train back to Chamonix village. The path is fairly easy with fantastic views.
Accommodation suggestion - we went back to Romantik Hotel Villa Novecento in Courmayeur.
But you could also stay overnight in Chamonix and drive back the next day.
Day 9 - Milan
Drive - Courmayeur to Milan (~2.5 hors) , drop off rental car.
Activity suggestion - walk to hotel near Train Station (below), drop off backpack/luggage and go see the Milan Duomo, eat lunch in the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle, people watch or shop.
Accommodation suggestion - Hotel New York (budget hotel with super nice staff, close to train station).
Dinner suggestion - take a cab to the Naviglio Canal district and wander around. This area is full of bars, restaurants & even a few nightclubs.
Day 10 - Vernazza / Cinque Terre
Train - midday > Milan to Vernazza
NOTE - go here to plan your train trip, as the connection may vary at different times of year.
You will take an intercity train to the coast, then a regional train to Cinque Terre’s five coastal villages. We chose to change trains in Santa Margharita, because we knew we’d go back through there to get to Portofino.
Once on the regional train, pay attention to your stop! Starting from the north, Vernazza is the second stop after Monterosso
Activity suggestion - just before sunset, go find the foot path on the north side of the plaza (behind bell tower) that leads to Monterosso. Walk ~ 10 min up, then stop and look back on Vernazza in the setting sunlight – fantastic photo opportunity! If you stay here an extra night, this complete hike to Monterosso is supposedly beautiful (but steep).
Accommodation suggestion - Hotel Gianni Franzi
(we booked a double room with private bath. We emailed ahead to request a room with a sea view.)
This funky little place is quite a gem. The rooms are small and basic but there are many winding stairs to small hidden decks and one large rooftop patio for breakfast and wine tasting. It’s in a terrific location but you have to climb a lot of stairs, so be prepared with a backpack or easy-to-carry duffle!
Dinner suggestion - Anywhere down on the plaza. The place quiets down immensely after 4pm, when the last train of day tourists departs. But Ristorante Belaforte has a fantastic view and wonderful food.
Day 11 - Riomaggiore to Vernazza Hike
Ferry – 9am ferry to Riomaggiore (the furthest south of the Cinque Terre villages)
Hike – NOTE - Although the mudslide limits how far you can go on the lower seaside trail, there is another trail up higher that does connect all the villages. Warning – this trail is a workout! It is very steep and has a lot of stair steps. But you can stop along the way for lunch and water in any village along the way. We are fit and it took us five hours and a lot of sweat equity. Go here for more information on the trail.
If you choose not to hike the upper trail back to Vernazza, simply hike the lower trail as far as you can and then explore the town of Riomaggiore. Afterwards you can take the ferry or train back to Vernazza.
TIP – stop in Corniglia or Manarola for lunch – the pesto there is some of the country's best!
Dinner suggestion - Gambero Rossi – try the lemon and olive oil anchovies – a local specialty.
Accommodation suggestion - Hotel Giani Franzi
Day 12 - Portofino
Train - Vernazza to Santa Margharita
Ferry - to Portofino.
NOTE - You can also hike or bus to Portofino (~ 1-2 miles). But coming into the harbor by ferry is pretty cool, and worth the ferry ride, at least one way.
Dinner suggestion - Anything on the harbor. We simply wandered and sat where the menu looked good. If you travel during high season, you may need to make reservations.
Accommodation suggestion - Domino Home Piccolo
TIP - go find this lovely wine bar – Winterose. We stumbled upon it by accident and then returned every night we were in Portofino to sit outside, look at the yachts and sip 'bubbly'. It’s small, cosy, has great service and an amazing charcuterie plate. It felt like quintessential Portofino to us.
Day 13 - Portofino
Activity suggestions - Relax and spend time reading. Hike to Castello Brown (classic view over harbor), check out San Martino and San Georgio churches
Evening suggestion - Hike up to the Belmond Splendido Hotel for a cocktail with a view. This gorgeous 5-star classic hotel has a beautiful deck. Although the cocktails are pricey – as much as you would pay in San Francisco or New York City - the ambiance is great. However, before you decide to actually for dinner there or not, read current reviews for the restaurant on Yelp or Tripadvisor. We did not have a great dining experience here. So check out if the service and food quality has improved since our visit.
Accommodation suggestion - Domino Home Piccolo
Day 14 - Pisa and Florence
Ferry or bus - back to Santa Margarita – 8am: We opted for the bus, which had a stop just outside of the hotel, it was a quick, cheap ride and the schedule was more frequent than that of the ferry.
Train - 9am Santa Margharita to Rapallo (Trentalia Regional)
9:20am Rapallo to Pisa (Trentalia Intercity) – arrives Pisa 12:30p
4pm – Pisa to Florence (1 hour)
TIP - schedule your connecting train back into Florence so that you can have 3-4 hours to walk around Pisa and go see the leaning tower.
Hotel suggestion - Firenze Number Nine (walking distance from train station)
Day 15 - Return Home
Flight - 1:25pm Florence > Frankfurt > San Francisco arrives 5:30pm same date.