One of the best ways to clear your mind is the 12-hour hike through the five towns of Cinque Terre. Tucked into the Italian Riviera, slowly making your way through each unique village on foot is a refreshing, beautiful experience. Do this one solo for the full spiritual benefit without all the “are we there yet?” bullshit.
Once you get yourself to La Spezia, you have two main hiking options: start in Riomaggoire then hike until you reach Monterosso or vice versa. Or you can screw what everyone else is doing and tack on a few more hours of hike by starting way up top in Levanto and making your way down to Riomaggoire. To make the trip worthwhile, stay at the Ospitalia del Mare, a hostel in Levanto where you can pick up the trail at sunrise. There are trains connecting all of the villages should you get an unexpected foot cramp or bout of extreme laziness. Otherwise, hit the whole thing in one day and hop on the last train out of town (to Lucca or Florence) when you reach Riomaggoire.
Like the bonus level in Super Mario brothers, this village isn't technically part of the “cinque” but it has its own charms that deserve a quick look. There's a long stretch of beach that's nice for a solitary stroll, lots of little gelato shops in the town center, and some ruins from an old theater on your way to the hostel. Behind the hostel, you'll find creepy castle remains and general Italian shrubbery. Set your alarm for sunrise; walk straight up the hill from the front of the hostel. You'll hit little forested areas that sweep out into ocean views then narrow back inland. The fresh air will get you in the mood to move.
You'll know you've arrived to the first village, Monterosso, when you see a statue out on the beach of a giant holding the city on his shoulders. After your long morning hike, you'll want nothing more than to take a swim. Luckily, the best thing to do here is to rip off all your clothes and jump into the water. When you've had enough beach, waddle over to the handful of beachside restaurants, some of which are affordable for lunch. Don't get too comfortable though, you've got four more towns to hit before sundown.
OTP Tip: Try to plan your trip around the Lemon Festival (Mar 7th in 2013) when Monterosso gets decked out in boat-fulls of lemons and sells lemon-flavored everything, from pasta to jelly.
You'll see Vernazza jetting out from a distance as the entire city is situated on a natural cliff pier that pokes out into the ocean. Once there, check out the city's pastel architecture; the buildings are very much on top of each other and it's a trip visually. You can walk the whole village on foot in less than an hour and get back on the trail to venture on.
This place has all the pastel charm of the villages prior to it and is flanked by two small beaches. You can take a short dip here, maybe grab a snack (they're all about anchovies). Pop into the San Pietro church for a bit to see some old-school, gothic architecture then head back on the trail. Keep an eye on the flattened rocks down by the beach. Every now and then, Italian photographers will hold photoshoots down by the beach; sometimes the models wear clothes.
A great place for a wine break, Manarola is surrounded by vineyards that cascade down the mountainsides and swallow you as you hike. During picking seasons, you can see workers meticulously grabbing grapes. In town, sip a few glasses until you start feeling all romantic about yourself then finish off this hike with a slow crawl on “Via dell' Amore”, the easiest and cheesiest part of the journey. Stop for a second on the mile long stretch to admire the view and the lovers padlocks and move on before you catch any lonely feelings.
The end of the road, this town is best known for the stream that runs through it. Take a little time to unwind here and plan your next move. Take off your shoes and let everything sink in. Then hop on the last train the fuck out of there.
Cinque Terre used to be completely closed off to tourism until the early 2000s. Its small village feel will continue to diminish as it becomes more popular among the tourist crowd (and it's debatable if this hasn't already happened). On the trail, you will see cat sanctuaries, a little shop at the top of it all, local men selling meyer lemons, cool paths, and other backpackers from all over the world. It'll be a fun time to find yourself or discover five tiny villages all at once.