I’m in the Cinque Terre off-season, so most of the time it’s been sane and mercifully quiet. And yet, everyone keeps telling me how catastrophic the crowds can be in peak season. I thought they were exaggerating…until a three-day holiday weekend hit. Saturday was a downpour, which kept all of the day-trippers at home. But Sunday was glorious. Ant it seemed like everyone in Italy woke up with the same idea: Let’s go to the Cinque Terre!
Stepping onto the train platform around noon, I saw hundreds of people milling around, waiting for (delayed) trains in both directions. It was a mob scene. Cruise passengers — with their cruise-line-logo stickers and their whisper-system earbuds — stuck close to their guides, in big packs along the platform. Individual travelers did their best to weave through the crowds, filling in little gaps.
And then the train came.
Bedlam. The train was full. A few people got off. And everybody wanted on. People pushed and pulled their travel partners into the tiny alcoves by the doors. I slipped in. I saw a tour guide at the door of the train, shouting to his group with exaggerated calm: “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. Just pooosh your way in. Pooosh in. I will be the last one.” Suddenly an elderly woman behind me started howling. “This is scary! I’m getting crushed! I’m getting crushed!” Finally the last person pooshed their way onto the train, we all inhaled deeply, the doors shimmied shut, and we were on our way to Monterrosso — where, five minutes later, the entire contents of the train disgorged onto the platform at once, creating yet another logjam. The whole experience felt less like a vacation, and more like some bizarre, self-imposed refugee crisis.
When I mentioned this to local friends, they confirmed that this happens from time to time. More than one told me, “It’s only a matter of time before somebody gets pushed onto the tracks, and get hurt…or worse.”
In short, these people are ruining the Cinque Terre:
In the more than a week I spent on the Cinque Terre during this shoulder season, this situation was unusual. But locals assure me that in peak season, it’s anything but.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying to avoid the Cinque Terre. It’s a glorious place that should, by all means, be visited. But if you’re coming in peak season, expect a few uncomfortable mob scenes — and take crowd-beating advice seriously. For next year’s guidebook, I’ve assembled these new tips:
Crowd-Beating Tips in the Cinque Terre
Italy’s undiscovered slice of traffic-free Riviera…has been discovered. The big news in recent years is the dramatic influx of crowds, which are frustrating both locals and conscientious visitors. And the biggest problem seems to be groups — whether day-trippers from Florence or other parts of central Italy, or cruises that bring thousands of tourists to La Spezia and Genoa. Things reached a head in early 2016, when national park officials leaked a proposal to strictly limit the number of visitors here each day. Even though they walked back that claim days later, it’s clear that the overcrowding is a problem that needs to be addressed. Until the authorities get their act together, here are some tips. First and most importantly…
Time your visit carefully. The busiest months are May, June, and September, while July and August are still quite busy. Shoulder season — April and October — can be a great time to visit (cooler temperatures for hiking, though it’s typically too cold to swim)…but be warned that good-weather holiday weekends (Easter, Italian Liberation Day on April 25) can bring peak-season crowds. And nice weekends any time of year can bring day-trippers from around Italy.
If you can’t avoid being here at a busy time, here are a few strategies:
Make the most of your time early and late. The cruisers and day-trippers start pouring in to the Cinque Terre around 10:00, and are typically headed out by 18:00 (if not earlier). That leaves you plenty of daylight hours to enjoy far less crowded towns, trains, and trails. Those mid-day hours are the time to hit the beach, write postcards, find a back-streets bar to nurse a glass of Sciacchetrà, or maybe find a hike away from the main thoroughfares. Locals say starting a hike at 5 p.m. rather than 2 p.m. makes a world of difference. At mid-day, the main coastal trail is a hot human traffic jam, as long columns of hikers attempt to pass each other on the steep and narrow steps. But early and late, you’ll enjoy cooler temperatures and far fewer crowds — and if you hike before 9:00 or after 19:00, you won’t have to pay admission for the national park trails. (Just be clear on the sunset time and how long the hike will take — the trails are not lit and can be treacherous after dark.)
Sleep in the Cinque Terre towns — not nearby. While nearby Levanto or La Spezia are close and well-connected by train, it’ll be easier to enjoy the Cinque Terre early and late if you’re actually sleeping there. I’d rather skip town during the day and come back when it’s quiet and cool, rather than vice versa — even if I have to pay a premium for my accommodations.
Escape to alternative trails and towns. If you get wind that it’ll be a busy cruise day, consider simply getting out of town. There are plenty of hikes beyond the busy coastal trail. Get local advice, and be sure to take advantage of the shuttle buses that connect each town’s center to remote trailheads where you’ll scarcely see another tourist. (One great resource, clearly outlining a variety of excellent options for experienced and properly outfitted hikers, is www.sciacchetrail.com.) If you’d like to hit the beach but Monterosso’s is a human parking lot, hop the train a few minute to Levanto, rent a bike, and pedal on a level path to the delightful (and far less crowded) beach at Bonassola. Then head back to the Cinque Terre for an evening hike or dinner, just as the crowds are thinning out.
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, do a wine-tasting or get a massage (in our book, we recommend options for each of these in both Vernazza and Monterosso).
Be careful on the train platforms. The trains — and especially the platforms — can be a perfect storm of crowds, particularly when trains in opposite directions pull in at the same time. It can feel downright dangerous on the platforms on very busy days, and locals predict that it’s only a matter of time before someone gets hurt or worse. If you can’t simply avoid the trains at peak times, be cautious. Spread out along the platform (and, in Vernazza, even up the tunnel) in the hopes of finding a less-crowded compartment. (This sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s remarkable how many people decide to clump along the middle of the platform.) The real problem on the platforms are the groups, which attempt to jam 40 or 50 people into a train all at once. If you see a group along the platform, do your best to find a different place to wait.
Hire your own boat. The regularly scheduled, high-capacity boats can be a good (and far more scenic) alternative to the trains — but they can also be jammed. If it’s simply miserably crowded, why not hire your own boat to zip you to your next town? Captains hang out at the harbors in Vernazza, Monterosso, Riomaggiore, and Manarola, offering a one-way transfer to any other town. It’s cheaper than you might think: €30-50 depending on the destination (very affordable when split among three or four travelers). You can also rent your own boat in Monterosso. While a bit of a splurge, this is both efficient transportation and a welcome escape from the crowds.
Finally, here’s what I’ll say to people coming on a cruise: Look, I get it. I like cruising. As a matter of fact, I’ve been on several cruises, collaborated with Rick Steves on two guidebooks about cruising in Europe, and would recommend a cruise for people who have a certain travel style and philosophy. But in the Cinque Terre, it just doesn’t work. That’s because most cruise passengers come to the five villages on package excursions. And trying to jam a group of 40 or 50 people from an already-crowded platform onto an already-crowded train is no fun. I actually feel sorry for people who come on a cruise and are sold shore excisions by their cruise lines — who know full well that they are dooming these people to the worst possible Cinque Terre experience. Selling cruise excursions to the Cinque Terre isn’t just bad business. I believe it’s unethical.
As Rick says in our Italy guidebook: Come to the Cinque Terre. But do it on your own, when you have the freedom to move around as you please — not following the color-coded umbrella of a hired-gun guide-for-the-day whose only interest is showing you the obligatory sights, then getting you back to your ship on time. (That’s why, on the many Rick Steves Tours that include a stop on the Cinque Terre region, we include a very clear orientation, then free time — allowing our tour members to do it their way.)
If you are coming to the Cinque Terre on a cruise, do yourself (and the rest of us) a favor, and instead take a side-trip to Pisa and Lucca — which are totally enjoyable in their own right…and far more capable of dealing with big crowds.