1) GAIN SOME PERSPECTIVE
Before you start connecting your Cinque Terre dots, bouncing from one village to the next, take a 15-minute uphill trek through gorgeous vineyards, to the Santuario della Madonna di Montenero (entrance is a five-minute drive west of Due Gemelli, a hotel at Via Litoranea, 1; 39-0187-920-111). The storybook journey, replete with fragrant wildflowers and colorful butterflies, is topped with uninterrupted views that allow visitors to size up the region's entire 11-mile coastline from 1,100 feet above sea level. The sanctuary, an active church with a pink and yellow bell tower, is a spectacular example of the 14th-century buildings that put these small towns on the map.
2) LOVERS' WALK
Drive down to Riomaggiore proper, park your car and head downhill to explore its marina. Then double back to the main drag and look for signs pointing to the village's biggest attraction: the Via dell'Amore, the first segment of the Sentiero Azzurro or the Blue Trail — a five-hour and somewhat challenging hiking trail that connects all five hamlets (5 euros for a daily pass). Connecting Riomaggiore and Manarola, this patch is just a leisurely stroll, offering a relatively flat coastal path that was carved into the mountain almost a century ago. The inspiring views and romantic nooks have earned it the nickname, the Path of Love. What will you really love? It's super easy.
3) TASTE TEST
The tiny town of Manarola is a sight to behold: a confection of pastel houses that climb up the side of black cliff, next to the region's most productive vineyards. This small area is known for not one, but two specialty wines: Cinque Terre white, a dry, tangy blend of three different grapes, and sciacchetrà, a super-sweet late-harvest dessert wine generally reserved for special occasions. To create your own special occasion, grab a table at the lovely Marina Piccola (Via Lo Scalo, 16; 39-0187-920-923), next to the waterside hotel of the same name. Ask to sample a Manarola Cinque Terre and then compare it to one that's made from grapes blended from all five villages (8 to 12 euros for a half-bottle). While you're at it, order the Cinque Terre sciacchetrà, too.
4) FAMILY-STYLE DINING
For a taste of a home cooking, head to Trattoria dal Billy (Via Rollandi, 122; 39-0187-920-628), a quaint three-story restaurant tucked into Manarola's lush mountainside. An enchanting climb through the village's mazelike alleyways leads to a set of garden terraces where you can sample local specialties like anchovies with salt or lemon, and taglierini with tomato, pecorino, pine nuts, baby shrimp, pepper and olive oil (both 8 euros). Sweeping vineyard and sea views abound.
5) SECRET BEACH
With three towns to hit in one day, take the quick regional train via the Spezia line (www.ferroviedellostato.it, 1 euro) to Corniglia, the smallest and most remote of the five villages. Forgo the 365-step climb to its tourist-filled center. Instead take the road much less traveled, to the clothing-optional private beach, Guvano, that only locals seem to know about. It's not easy to find: above and to the right of the train platform head down a narrow flight of stairs, follow a brick coastal wall and turn right, until you come to an industrial tunnel with a metal gate. Ring the bell to the left. Someone on the other end will buzz you in. Walk through the 10-minute-long path to a private vineyard overlooking two phenomenal beaches. Pay the gatekeeper 5 euros for your little slice of sunbathing heaven. Be sure to stock up on water and snacks at the train station; there are no concession shacks at the beach.
6) SQUARE MEAL
Vernazza, the next village over, could certainly nab Miss Congeniality in a Cinque Terre pageant. Everything from its historical attractions and manageable size to its somewhat chic vibe make this port arguably the most agreeable of the five towns. From the train station, walk along Via Visconti, the town's bustling main street, until you reach its adorable main square. Have a leisurely lunch at Trattoria Gianni Franzi (Piazza G. Marconi, 1; 39-0187-821-003), a 45-year-old institution that still serves scrumptious dishes like ravioli with fish sauce (13 euros) or baked fish with potatoes (20 euros). Finish things off with a glass of limoncino (3.50 euros), Northern Italy's answer to limoncello, the lemon liqueur popular in the south.
7) HIGHS AND BUYS
With a full belly and a slight buzz, you'll want to check out these sights in the following order: Santa Margherita d'Antiocha, a 1318 church built on sea rock with an odd facade that seems to turn its back on the piazza; the lookout towers of the 11th-century Castello Doria (1.50 euros) where you'll be rewarded with magnificent aerial views of the entire region; and La Cantina del Molo (Via Visconti, 27; 39-0187-812-302), a high-end enoteca that sells the most divine delicacies, along with wines from the owner's vineyards.
8) SAIL AWAY
You've been stealing glimpses of the Mediterranean Sea since you've arrived; now it's time to seize it. Board the last ferry (www.navigazionegolfodeipoeti.it; 3.50 euros) to the westernmost and largest village, Monterosso al Mare (or Monterosso by the Sea), which, as its name suggests, is the sandiest and most resortlike of them all. Upon disembarking, hang a left toward Fegina beach and join the locals enjoying sunset aperitivos after a day in the sun. Top-notch wines and terrific bruschettas (6 euros), as well as fantastic promenade people watching, can be had at the outdoor wine bar and shop Enoteca 5 Terre di Sassarini Giancarlo (Via Fegina, 94; 39-0187-818-063).
9) A MODERN FISH TALE
Traditional Ligurian cuisine, while entirely delectable, can also get repetitive. For something regional yet refreshing, head to L'Ancora della Tortuga (Salita Cappuccini, 6; 39-0187-800-065), a new spot housed in a converted bunker that was used during World War II. The contemporary kitchen specializes in fish dishes, including a seafood carpaccio with country vegetables (11 euros) and the daily catch served on grapevine leaves (12 euros). Be sure to reserve one of three tables that overlook the sea, or a spot on the upstairs terrace.
10) BEACH PARTIES
You didn't come to the Cinque Terre to party, but if you're looking to keep the torch burning in Monterosso al Mare, you might be in luck. During the warmer months, day trippers and locals alike will stage beach parties along the Via Fegina. All are welcome. Or mix with the congenial crowds at one of the mellow, pub-style bars on Via Roma in the historical district.
11) DOUBLE DELIGHT
The sweet and savory goodness at Il Frantoio (Via Goberti, 1; 39-0187-818-333) should be enough of a reason to get you up before your alarm clock rings. Bring your euro coins to this unassuming alleyway shop and make a breakfast of its unique dolci castagnina — warm circular pastries baked with chestnuts, salt, milk, pine nuts and raisins (1.60 euros each). Be sure, too, to grab a selection of the superior focacce to go (1.50 euros a square). The varieties are endless, and they'll make for the perfect lunch at the beach later on.
12) GET YOUR GLAM ON
Soak up the town's biggest selling point: it's Riviera-ness! Not far from the entrance up to Convento dei Cappuccini monastery, you'll find the Bagni Eden beach club (Via Fegina, 7-11; 39-0187-818-256), a postcardlike world of colorful chaise longues (with matching umbrellas), turquoise water and bronzed beauties playing Kadima paddle ball. For 16 euros you get the chaise longue, umbrella and use of the changing cabin. Pellegrino, focaccia and salty air never tasted so jet set, especially after all that hiking.
While there are no regularly scheduled direct flights between Genoa and the United States, Delta Air Lines offers direct service between Kennedy Airport in New York and Pisa. It may be easier to fly to Milan's Malpensa airport and then drive three hours to reach the Cinque Terre.
Leave your car at the Autosilos garage, at the tip of Riomaggiore, and retrieve it at the end of your trip (40 euros for two days). Driving is not permitted within the villages. Shuttle around by foot, by train (one-day pass for 5 euros) or by ferry (except to and from the port-less Corniglia).
Lodging is scarce in Manarola, so book early to snag one of the 10 rooms at Ca' d'Andrean (Via Discovolo, 101; 39-0187-920-040; www.cadandrean.it), a charming hotel converted from an old oil press and wine cellar. The lemon-tree garden and cozy fireplace lounge are nice bonuses. Doubles start at 92 euros.
Expect a wider range of hotels in Monterosso al Mare. Avoid the well-worn warhorses and opt for the sharp new Hotel Margherita (Via Roma, 72; 39-0187-808-002, www.hotelmonterosso.it), the closest thing to a boutique hotel in the area. The 25 rooms have plasma-screen TVs, cosmopolitan mini-bars and luxurious bathrooms. Rates begin at 90 euros.
There are few ATMs and many places don't accept credit cards, so take cash.