I don’t think there is just one place that everyone should visit, and it depends on where you are going to go. If you want to see Rome, visit Ostia, but read up on it first, because there aren’t very good guides on site. If you’re in Greece, you have to see Athens and the Acropolis AND one of the islands, or, alternatively, you have to rent a boat out of Athens yourself and boat around the coast. If you are going to Scotland, try to hike in the Highlands and not just throw all your days between Glasgow and Edinburgh. The same philosophy applies for any place you visit, really—get a sense of the country outside the city, of the past behind the present (or, if you are an historian, of the present above the past) and, above all, of the reality beyond the tourism.
For Italy, you have to find that place which has the best cornette, the other which has your favorite gelato and the place with the best millefoglio or tiramisu. Don’t just stay in the north—you have to visit the south, no matter who may say what—just be careful. If you speak the language of where you’re going, the one place you must visit is the pub right outside your hotel. Getting to know the people who live where you’re visiting is really a unique experience—I met a competition darts team and ex-metal band outside my apartment two weeks ago, and had one of the best nights in Rome I’ve had. Last week I met someone who had studied in New York City and who had snowboarded in Colorado, so we talked about skiing in America, in Italian, for half an hour. It is truly an amazing and unique experience. But if I did have to suggest one place in Europe which EVERYONE has to visit, presuming most people do not speak Italian, I would have to say it is the Cinque Terre.
A Google Image search could never do the Cinque Terre any justice. Spending a weekend there was one of the best decisions I’ve made in Europe. It was rainy, cold and windy, off-season and confusing, but I hear it’s much nicer when it isn’t the end of autumn. Even in spite of our bad luck, Le Cinque Terre held some of the most beautiful vistas I have ever seen. As a fervent admirer of small towns, mountains, oceans and cliffs, I found it hard not to want to live there. You will have no hard time getting around—the place is full of tourists, even in the off-season, who speak everything from English to Swedish. You should not hike the entire Cinque Terre if you are not fit enough, especially if the weather is bad—my roommate slipped off the edge of a cliff and fell about ten feet onto a bed of rocks. But the trail between Riomaggiore and the second of the five towns along the hiking trail is short and easy and flat, and the rail goes around the entire length for protection. This part of the trail is fit for everyone from young children to the very elderly, and it is right on the ocean on the edge of the mountains. Riomaggiore itself has a beautiful bar-cafe by the sea where you can look out from the deck. For those not wanting to hike, trains and ferries go from town to town and even without the rugged mountain trails, visiting the five villages connected by the trail is something I would recommend. The views will leave you breathless.
For those of you hiking in the autumn, don’t forget to take rain gear—that is a mistake I made and when I got off the trail the second day, I was shivering and wet—which made the cup of hot chocolate I had in a bar in Monterosso, overlooking the cliffs beyond the town and the sea in front of me, one of the best cups of hot chocolate I’ve ever had. For those of you hiking in the summer, I can’t imagine it being anything other than warm. The place is full of grapevines and olive orchards, and I hear that especially when hiking the higher mountain trails, you can frequently run across the farmers in the summer. Learn some Italian before you go and strike up a conversation! If you’re lucky, you could get a glass of wine and a new friend or two for it—it’s happened to me more than once. The people there are friendly from what I can tell, even to the tourists who do not speak Italian. Don’t expect them to speak your language, but do expect them to try—for all the worldly tourism of the Cinque Terre, the towns and the residents there still hold the small-town-friendliness and a very friendly view of the tourists who hike in their hills.
Do not try and hike the trail in a day—hiking is just part of the experience of the Cinque Terre. Honestly, I wish I had three days there so that I could have explored the other, higher trails to the mountain villages, which were inaccessible when I was there. If you’re not hiking, you could make a two or three day weekend trip between nearby Genova and the Cinque Terre villages, but regardless, the Cinque Terre is a must for any nature enthusiast, and for any Italian traveler or foreign tourist who wants more than just a few days in Rome. For me, the Cinque Terre was an irreplaceable part of my experience living in Italy, and I cannot imagine having not done it.
There are many alternatives to this, of course. If you are in Greece, there is a national park open in the summer on the island of Crete, which I hear is gorgeous, and similarly, there are towns around the park which view it. Corfu is beautiful as well, and Athens itself can be quite nice, as there are several parks atop the hills where you can view the city and the sea. There are some amazing gorges in France and Spain and there is a hiking trail right outside of Marseilles. If you find yourself around Pompeii, as most tourists do, consider hiking Mt. Vesuvius! If you’re around the south of Italy, the beaches (I hear) are amazing. But of all these options I could not recommend one higher than the Cinque Terre, with its unique mix of multinational tourism and small-town-atmosphere, with its wondrous seaside cliffs and majestic landscape, and with its quiet nightlife which is suitable both for those looking for a party and for those wanting to just have a nice dinner. If you’re going to Italy and visiting only Rome and one other place, make it the Cinque Terre—but make sure you have two days for it, that you are capable of the hike and that it will be sunny!
A note about the trail itself—it is not particularly challenging in its length or slope and it is not at all technical, but for those of you who have not hiked before, you might find it challenging in these aspects. What is the most dangerous or challenging part of the trails themselves is that they can be skinny and slippery in parts when weather conditions are not favorable, and there are usually no rails on the sides of the mountains, so don’t fall! For those of you who have hiked before, you are probably familiar with this sort of trail—it is fine for anyone with working legs and good eyes, and I did see several elderly couples on the trail, usually with trekking poles and lighter backpacks (water is the only necessity, and it IS a necessity!). DO NOT hike the trail from Vernazza to Monterosso while it is raining. The trail for this route can be particularly skinny in areas, and it was very difficult for me to get through because of the size of my backpack, even in the sun. It’s okay to be stuck in Vernazza when it’s raining, as Vernazza is quite a nice town and I do wish I had spent more time there—and there are ferries from Vernazza to Riomaggiore and a train station in each of the five villages. Hotels and hostels alike should be booked as far in advance as possible—the only reason I got a room a week in advance was because someone backed out of their booking! In the autumn, you should book at least a month in advance for a good place, and in the high season even sooner.