Tour groups can crowd Cinque Terre train platforms in peak season. (Rick Steves’ Europe)

Tour groups can crowd Cinque Terre train platforms in peak season. (Rick Steves’ Europe)

How to avoid madding crowds in Italy’s lovely Cinque Terre

The keys include visiting during off-peak season and skipping the towns at midday.

When I first came to the Cinque Terre, then an isolated stretch of the Italian Riviera south of Genoa, it was a classic “back door”: a string of five pastel-hued hamlets, gently and steadily carving a good life out of difficult seaside terrain. It was authentic, romantic and without a tourist in sight. Fast forward several decades … and the once-sleepy villages are now on Instagram bucket lists and mobbed in high season by organized tours and cruise-ship excursions.

The resident population of the five towns (Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manorola and Riomaggiore) is just 4,000 — but it’s estimated that some 2.5 million travelers visit annually. And it’s not just foreign tourists who flock here: Italians love the Cinque Terre, too.

The result, especially when day-trippers hit, is that trains and platforms can be mob scenes, the iconic coastal hiking trail becomes almost impassable and the towns’ tiny lanes are clogged to bursting. Even so, I still recommend this seductive corner of Italy. You can (and should) have a memorable trip here. Avoid the worst of the logjams by following these tips:

Consider your timing. April can be ideal, with fewer crowds and cooler temperatures. The busiest months are May, June, September and October; July and August can be less congested (but hotter). Avoid holiday weekends — especially Easter and Italian Liberation Day (April 25). I thought reports of catastrophic crowds were exaggerated … until a three-day weekend hit. On one recent Easter holiday, 95,000 visitors to little Vernazza caused shoulder-to-shoulder gridlock.

Sleep in the Cinque Terre — not nearby. The towns of Levanto and La Spezia are near the Cinque Terre and well connected by train, making them popular home bases. But it’s easier to take advantage of the cool, relaxed and quiet morning and evening hours if you’re sleeping in one of the five towns.

Skip town at midday. Cruisers and day-trippers start pouring into the Cinque Terre around 10 a.m. and typically head out by 5 p.m. Those midday hours are your time to hit the beach or find a hike away from the main trails. Be a reverse commuter: Leave town during the day and come back in the late afternoon, just as the crowds are thinning out.

Hire your own boat. If the regularly scheduled boats between towns are overwhelmed, consider hiring your own boat to zip you to the next village. Captains hang out at each town’s harbor, offering one-way transfers to other towns, sightseeing cruises, and more. It’s cheaper than you might think (about $35-$60) and very affordable if you split it among three or four travelers.

Figure out alternative, crowd-free activities. When the towns and trails are jammed, find something fun to do that’s off the beaten path. For example, pick a scenic spot for a wine tasting (the Cinque Terre is known for its white wine made from bosco grapes) or sign up for a pesto-making class (the tasty basil-and-nut sauce originated here).

Hike smartly. Most travelers aim for the well-known main coastal trail, which can be a human traffic jam and very hot at midday. Making things even worse, recent landslides have closed two key segments of the trail, pushing more hikers onto the remaining pathway. If you’re determined to hike it, go early (by 8 a.m.) or late (around 4 or 5 p.m.). Before setting out on an evening hike, find out when the sun will set — there’s no lighting on the trails.

Escape to alternative trails and towns. If you hear that it’ll be a busy cruise day, plan your activities elsewhere. If you’d like to hit the beach but Monterosso’s is a parking lot of bodies, hop the train a few minutes to nearby Levanto, rent a bike and pedal on a level path to the delightful (and far less-crowded) beaches at Bonassola or Framura.

You don’t have to join the tourist conga line on the coastal trail either. The entire Cinque Terre is crisscrossed with hiking trails where you’ll scarcely encounter another person. The offices of the Cinque Terre national park (there’s one in each town) are a great resource for learning about your options.

Don’t let the vertical terrain intimidate you. On a recent trip, I smartly took advantage of the shuttle buses that connect the towns to higher trailheads: I rode up, soaking up the scenery, then hiked down. Those upper trailheads are often where you’ll find remnants of much older Cinque Terre settlements, including evocative cemeteries and age-old churches. High above the tourist crowds, I could hear the birds and feel the maritime air pushed up with the breeze — and I was alone. The tranquility was heaven.

I’ve come back to the Cinque Terre nearly every year for decades. And even though the region is now well-discovered, I love that the magic still survives — if you know where to find it.

Talk to us

More in Life

Here’s how you can attract birds, including sparrows, to your yard. (Mike Benbow)
The gardener’s playbook for attracting birds to your yard

If you want birds to visit, you’ll need to provide four basic elements: safety, nesting spots, food and water.

Oliver Elf Army
New independent music label launches with a party in Everett

Palmer House specializes in cassette tapes. Oliver Elf Army, I Will Keep Your Ghost and FUNERALHOMES will play at the event.

John Morrison dressed up as Michael Myers wanders through a Halloween scene on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021 in Arlington, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Facebook map sets path to Halloween fun around the county

Brandi Smith’s map lists nearly 500 — and counting — addresses for trick-or-treating and spooky decorations.

The green Japanese maple has one of the most brilliant reds of all Japanese maples come fall. (Great Plant Picks)
Great Plant Pick: Acer palmatum ‘Osakazuki’ aka green Japanese maple

Though it’s an understated green, this tree has one of the most brilliant reds of all Japanese maples come fall.

The Snohomish Conservation District is hosting a “Lawns to Lettuce” webinar Nov. 4 via Zoom. (Mark Mulligan / Herald file)
Home and garden events and resources around Snohomish County

Home and garden events and resources around Snohomish County

When your jack-o’-lantern has lost its luster, toss it in the food and yard waste cart. Not the recycling bin. (Waste Management)
The 5 things scare recyclers — keep them out of the blue bin

Check to see if any of these common items have made it into your recycling cart. They make your recycling team scream!

Woodcarver Johannes Scholl went by John after emigrating from Germany to the United States. One of his elaborate folk art whimsies sold at Conestoga Auctions for $4,130. (Cowles Syndicate Inc.)
This folk art whimsy by John Scholl auctioned for over $4,000

A woodworker, Scholl’s carved decorations are thought to be among the most important works of the 20th century.

From left, Zendaya and Timothee Chalamet in the film "Dune." (Warner Bros. Entertainment/TNS)
The new ‘Dune’ is hypnotically beautiful, but is that enough?

This take on Frank Herbert’s epic looks great and isn’t bonkers like the 1984 David Lynch version. But star Timothee Chalamet is bland.

Robbie Dee portrays the King of Rock 'n' Roll in the Elvis tribute Kentucky Rain Band, performing Oct. 29 at the Historic Everett Theatre. (Kentucky Rain Band)
All about music: Schedule of concerts around Snohomish County

The listings include Sir Mix-a-Lot, ZZ Top and Bands, Brews and Bowling at Evergreen Lanes in Everett.

Most Read