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Deciding Which Italian Resort Town To Visit: Cinque Terre, Lake Como, or Amalfi Coast?

(Vernazza, my favorite city along the Cinque Terre)

There’s more to Italy than Rome, Venice, and Florence and if you’re lucky enough to plan extra time in your visit to include one of Italy’s resort towns, do it, do it, do it!  A visit to one of the resort towns will allow you to see a side of Italy that’s different than any you’d get just sticking “inland” — not to mention round out your Italy vacation by experiencing the country’s quaint, rich, coastlines (yes, I am aware that Lake Como is not on the coast but it’s by the water so it’s all the same to me) and tiny villages.

The three most popular resort areas in Italy are Cinque Terre, Lake Como, and the Amalfi Coast.  If you have the time and money to go to all three, by all means, don’t hold back.  If, however, you’re like most people and you have to pick one from the list, read on for my advice to you.

If you consider geography and travel modes/proximity:

Lake Como and Cinque Terre are in the Northern part of Italy.  The Amalfi Coast is towards the South.  If your trip is going to be in the north, it may be easier for you to decide between Lake Como and Cinque Terre.  If your trip has you swinging south of Rome, Naples, or even all the way down to Sicily and Palermo, then consider the Amalfi Coast.

Also, it is worthwhile to look at travel distances.  While all of these areas can be reached by public transportation, some are easier to get to than others and one mode of transport is recommended over another depending on which one you’re going to.  Here are some  quick tips:

  • Lake Como is accessible via a 45min train ride from Milan, but be prepared to take a bus, train, ferry, or taxi/car to get to your specific town on the lake and this could add another hour or two to your travel time.
  • Cinque Terre is also accessible from Milan albeit a 3+ hour train ride; it is about a 2.5 hour ride from Florence.  Given how small the five villages that make up Cinque Terre are, I’d highly caution against driving into the towns as it’d be a headache to deal with parking.
  • The Amalfi Coast is another one of those destinations where a car is not ideal.  You would have to take a 30 min train ride from Naples to Sorrento and then a bus to the Amalfi (about another hour) unless you want to hire a taxi for an 80+ min ride.

If you’re looking for a beach:

Not a surprise here, but Lake Como does not have a beach so you’re left between Cinque Terre and the Amalfi Coast.  Of the five villages that make up Cinque Terre, only Monterosso al Mare has a beach.  And it’s a crowded beach at that.  But at least it’s a fairly long stretch of sand (by Italian standards).

(Monterosso al Mare, Italy)

You’ll also find small beaches in the towns dotting the Amalfi.  Positano, for instance, has a nice black pebbly beach.  And yes, it’s just as crowded as the one at Monterosso al Mare – heck, all Italian beaches are crowded.

(The beach at Positano after the crowds have gone home)

I actually wouldn’t advise picking one of these resort areas based on beach just because Italian beaches are crowded, the water doesn’t necessarily look pristine, and you could find yourself snorkeling in the spot a ferry is about to dock (not all the time, but I’ve seen it happen).

If you consider your travel style:

Are you the type of person that likes more upscale places or someone who doesn’t mind getting a little down and dirty?  If you identify with the former, I’d shortlist Lake Como and the Amalfi Coast because the towns that make up both tend to be more nicely kept and maintained.  You’ll also have a better chance of finding a nice hotel with air conditioning, which is a must in summer.

(Bellagio, along Lake Como, is one of the ritziest towns along the lake.)

If you still have a little bit of the backpacker mentality and don’t mind hanging in a place that is more “rustic” and “authentic”, maybe you’d enjoy Cinque Terre more.

(Riomaggiore, the most southern village in Cinque Terre, is also the most rustic: full of clothes drying on clotheslines, buildings that lean on each other, and crammed fishing boats bobbing up and down in its harbor.)

Don’t get me wrong – all the towns have their charm and are beautiful in their own right, but after going to all three, I realized that Cinque Terre is a place that I would have enjoyed in my backpacking days, prior to traveling as much as I have.  Now that I’ve traveled to 60 countries, I just wasn’t as impressed with Cinque Terre as I could have been.  Lake Como is beautiful, too, and I especially enjoyed the tiny towns of Varenna and Bellagio; there’s a reason there is a five star hotel in Las Vegas named after Bellagio.

(Varenna, often regarded as the most quaint and beautiful of the towns along Lake Como)

My favorite, however, is the Amalfi Coast.  The coastline is stunningly beautiful.

(Amalfi Town, Italy)

The tiny towns are adorable with my favorite being Positano.  Clearly, my travel style and tastes have evolved over the years where I’m leaning towards places that are clean, well maintained and a visual feast for the eyes… not to mention places that are more likely to have upscale accommodation options.  If that sounds like you too, you might like the Almalfi the most.  If not, head to Cinque Terre (it’s still gorgeous there, I promise!).

If you consider the attractions and what a typical day may be like:

Lake Como’s main draw is the lake itself.  You could spend a few days to weeks just exploring all the towns that line the lake, hiking, sunbathing at your hotel or at public pools, and visiting the mansions and gardens that dot the lake.

(Bellagio has a beautifully paved walkway lined with flowers and manicured trees, which is perfect for a relaxing afternoon stroll by the lake.)

You could try to find George Clooney’s villa.  You could also consider a day trip to Lugano, Switzerland, if you miss the cosmopolitan vibe of a big city.

To me, the ideal Lake Como visit is a lazy one where you wake up late, enjoy breakfast on your balcony overlooking the lake, take an afternoon stroll through one of the towns, enjoy coffee in one of the many cafes that line the lake, relax in a park bench with a good book, and finish off with a late dinner in a small Italian bistro tucked away in the middle of an alleyway or a fancy dinner overlooking the lake that’s now glistening with reflections from the town lights.

Your days in Cinque Terre could be just as lazy as I’ve described for Lake Como, but Cinque Terre has more of a “hustle and bustle” feel compared to Lake Como.  It could be because the place is jam packed with tourists and the towns are tiny (often with just one main street but tons of narrow alleys).

(The main thoroughfare through Manarola in Cinque Terre.)

There aren’t many attractions to see there – the five fishing villages are the main attraction there.  There are also tons of hiking trails linking the villages together as well as more trails a bit further inland.  You could also do a day trip to Portofino, another resort town close by but outside of Cinque Terre.

A day in Cinque Terre could consist of grabbing breakfast at a small cafe, hiking to a neighboring village, grabbing a picnic lunch at a grocery store, stopping for gelato, taking an afternoon swim in the harbor, watching the sunset with a glass of wine in hand, and then grabbing dinner in a bustling cafe.

Finally, the Amalfi Coast vibe is between Lake Como and Cinque Terre.  Attractions include hiking, sunbathing, visiting the other towns that make up the area, emerald grottos, and shopping.  You could also do day trips to Capri if you want to glam up the trip (there’s a street there that rivals Rodeo Drive in terms of excessiveness), Sorrento, and Naples.  You could also visit the famous ruins of Pompeii or Paestum.

A typical day in the Amalfi Coast could be coffee from your hotel in the morning, sunbathing at your hotel or on the beach, taking a ferry or bus to a nearby town for lunch, shopping in the afternoon, enjoying dinner with a view of the ocean, and capping off the evening with a stroll through town.

(How would you like to cap off your day in the Amalfi Coast with dinner and prime views of the Positano?)

If you want to avoid crowds:

If you like to get away from the crowds, you might want to avoid Italy altogether!  That said, I went to all three places in the peak of summer and the most crowded of the three was Cinque Terre.  There are literally hoards of daytrippers to Cinque Terre so practically all the villages are packed.  The Amalfi Coast was still crowded, but not as much as Cinque Terre.  Lake Como was the least packed of all of them, which is why I sensed more of a relaxed vibe about the place.

Conclusion:

For the most part, it is hard to pick between the three resort towns because they are all different and even each of the towns that make up Lake Como, Cinque Terre, and the Amalfi Coast have different personalities.  They all have beautiful (but different) views.  They all have good food and plenty of options to dine with a view.  They all have hills and stairs so you should be in good shape if you’re visiting.

Aside from that and the differences I noted above, I’d recommend:

Lake Como if:

  • You want a more relaxed, sophisticated vibe
  • You prefer to be in well manicured towns
  • You’re not looking for a “party spot” – towns tend to shut down
  • You’d rather sit on a park bench than on rocks

Cinque Terre if:

  • You don’t mind being in a place that is grittier (they are fishing villages, after all)
  • You are down for ducking into small stands for takeaway seafood (which you could enjoy on a harbor)
  • The idea of renting a little apartment in the town appeals to you (local living is popular there)
  • You’re traveling on a budget
  • You like visiting older, authentic villages

Amalfi Coast if:

  • You’re drawn to the posh, glam, or jet set lifestyle
  • Your idea of a vacation includes good food, wine, and breathtaking views
  • You want options for higher end hotels
  • You want to see ancient ruins

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The Seoul Girl - February 5, 2014 - 1:31 am

Thanks so much for the break down! You’ve made my decision a lot easier!

Ange - June 19, 2014 - 7:29 pm

Thank you for the wonderful descriptions and tips! They will definitely help in planning our trip!

Jessica - May 18, 2015 - 5:00 pm

This is a great break down! Thank you for taking the time to put this together and for sharing.

clare - February 27, 2017 - 11:58 am

This was very helpful, thank you!

jason baughman - March 21, 2017 - 5:14 pm

best article i’ve read comparing the three. thanks!

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