Italy is the second most visited country in the world with about 80 million tourists a year. In practice this means that you should avoid popular attractions during the summer high season. Even places that used to be peaceful are now swamped. That’s why Cinque Terre is considering restricting the number of annual visitors.
Cinque Terre (The Five Lands) is an incredibly beautiful national park on the west coast in the region of Liguria, close to the harbor city of La Spezia. The area comprises five beautiful villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Cinque Terre has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997.
As several cruise companies have added Cinque Terre as a destination, the number of annual visitors has risen sharply. In 2015 this fragile territory was visited by 2.5 million tourists and that’s simply unsustainable. Tourism is an important industry in Italy and any decision to restrict the number of tourists will surely be a difficult one.
Even though all five villages are located on the same rugged coast line close to each other, each village is unique with its own atmosphere. Corniglia for example is located high up on the hills, whereas Vernazza is down right next to the sea. Needless to say that all villages have their own ways and customs, especially when it comes to food.
Last year I visited Cinque Terre in July, which was still manageable when it comes to temperature, but there were too many tourists. August would be completely out of the question. Clearly the best time to visit Cinque Terre is spring, for example in April or May. At that time the nature is fresh and green, the weather is mild, and there won’t be too many tourists. As a bonus, you have no risk of getting cut-off by a potential annual visitor limit.
The best way to move between the villages is with the local train, which goes right along the coast line and stops at every village. I suppose you could hike between (at least some) the villages, since the distance is only 2-3 km, but it would be a challenging hike in a rough and rolling terrain.
I recommend that you stay in Cinque Terre at least for a few days. The worst you can do is to run through each village in one day. Just thinking about it gives me stress symptoms. Your best alternative is to spend one day in each village, taking it slow and easy, and thoroughly studying the local food and wine culture.
Also consider using one of the other villages, like Bonassola, as your home base. Though technically not part of “the five” they still are part of the national park area and offer many good alternatives for accommodation.