How to avoid the crowds
in Cinque Terre

Overtourism is a growing phenomenon that our own research indicates affects almost 100 destinations around the world so far, but there are few places in Europe where the problem is so clearly visible as Cinque Terre, on Italy’s resplendent Ligurian coast. Around 2.5 million people visit these five tiny villages every year, the majority of whom are day-trippers there for a few hours on a cruise excursion and who typically follow the same well-worn routes. In peak season it’s not unknown for the 100m journey from the train station in one of the villages, Manarola, to the harbour, to take half an hour. Platforms can resemble rush hour on the London Underground, which is leading to safety concerns.

The anchovies caught off Cinque Terre are renowned In Italy – every September Monterosso al Mare holds a festival to celebrate their salty goodness. In peak season, wandering the narrow streets of these beautiful villages, their tiny patches of beach, tunnels, famous viewpoints and public squares, can make visitors themselves feel a little like anchovies stuffed in a tin. And of course the irony is most people spend just a short time in the villages, and will perhaps buy a meal, a drink, a couple of postcards or fridge magnets, doing very little to support the actual economy of these communities. This level of overcrowding tarnishes everyone’s experience of Cinque Terre, visitors and locals alike. Here’s how to avoid the worst of it.

Timing is everything

Cinque Terre tends to be busiest in May, June and September, with July and August not far behind. Italian public vacations are also immensely popular times with people flocking in from Florence, Genoa and Pisa. The quietest times to visit are in the shoulder season, late April, late October though the Easter and October half term vacations are popular with families. Don’t leave it too late though. Winter in Cinque Terre isn’t much fun: the weather is unpredictable (though usually damp) and heavy rain can cause landslips on the steep hillsides, closing off some walking trails. Public transport timetables are cut back so you have fewer options on trains and ferries, however those services still operating will be much quieter. And of course this being such a tourism-focused destination that during the off season many accommodations, restaurants, cafes and shops simply lower the shutters, so what you gain in personal space you lose in ambience.

Walk beyond the Azure Trail

The five villages are part of the Cinque Terre National Park which has around 120km of walking trails across its hilly terrain. Most of these are old mule paths, well-maintained and steep in places requiring a decent degree of physical fitness. The Azure Trail linking the villages offers magnificent views over the Italian Riviera and is quite easygoing too, making it very popular, and bottlenecks will often form at viewpoints. Meanwhile the famous Via dell’Amore, a short section of the Azure Trail, is closed for renovation and not expected to reopen until spring 2023. Hike the trails further up and even in peak season you’ll find yourself sharing them with relatively few other people, as day-trippers rarely have the time or inclination to go that far, while some vacations explore other lovely spots along the coast, or go deeper into Tuscany. You can also combine walking with activities such as sea kayaking and mountain biking, allowing you to get an energetic, quieter and very different take on this region that most visitors miss.

Avoid the cruise ships

Cruise ships arrive into La Spezia, just west of the most accessible village, Riomaggiore. On disembarking, thousands of passengers will be divided into coach trips that descend on Cinque Terre like clouds of locusts. The villages and the walking trails between them can get very busy from late morning to late afternoon, with groups numbering dozens of people following their guides around the main viewpoints. Cruise arrival schedules aren’t always entirely accurate or comprehensive but they can be handy in timing your visit to avoid the worst of the crush.

Getting around

There are several ways to get from village to village but very few people choose to go by car as parking spaces are rare as hens’ teeth. If you have the time, then the best option is definitely to walk, however many people will get around either by train or by passenger ferry (which doesn’t stop at Corniglia as the village has no harbour). The ferries tend to be not quite as busy as the trains, however those with a bit more money to spend will sometimes hire local fishermen to take them around in their boats. As well as giving you more space and flexibility, this is also a great way to put a little more money into the Cinque Terre community, much of which is dependent on seasonal tourism.

Home or away

There are two schools of thought on the best place to stay if you want to dodge the Cinque Terre crowds. La Spezia is an attractive city with plenty of accommodation available, just 10 minutes by train from Riomaggiore, while Moneglia is a charming seaside community further up the coast from the more famous villages. However, even the busier villages in Cinque Terre can be pleasant, as Jennifer Milward remarks on a walking vacation here, “The wine and the gelato are fabulous! People incredibly friendly...Manarola is a wonderful place to stay - go there is you want a relaxing stay.” The big advantage of course to staying in Cinque Terre is that you can experience them when the day-trippers have left – the hours after sunset can be delightful. Stay a good distance from the harbours and train stations where people congregate, and head elsewhere after breakfast, then have the place (almost) to yourself after dinner.

Small group tours

Joining a guided tour can appeal for many reasons, but why be one among 40 when you could be one among 16 or so instead? Responsible operators take care to avoid hotspots at the worst times of day, use local guides that know where and when crowds are likely to build up, providing employment as they go, and ensure that as far as possible the places where you eat and sleep are locally owned too so that your stay benefits the Cinque Terre community at the same time as you enjoy a more authentic experience.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Cinque Terre or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Einheit 00] [Intro: Kylie & Rob (and Helen)] [Timing is everything: Sergio Boscaino] [Getting around: Kylie & Rob (and Helen)]