Enough with the Cinque Terre. Now Here Are Some Riviera Towns…near the Cinque Terre

I’ve written a lot on this trip about the crowds in the Cinque Terre. But those “five lands” aren’t the only game on the Italian Riviera. In fact, in the mainstream tourism world, it’s almost quaint that Rick Steves readers are so fixated on the Cinque Terre. Until a few years ago, they were forgotten little backwaters in the shadow of Rapallo and Portofino. If you’d like to luxuriate on the Italian Riviera, but aren’t up for the crowds (and quirks) of the Cinque Terre, try these on for size:

Porto Venere — the easiest and most worthwhile side-trip from the Cinque Terre — wins my vote for “la Sesta Terra” (the sixth land). It’s an easy boat ride from the Cinque Terre, and has a similarly colorful harbor area. You can spend a couple of hours prowling its sun-drenched waterfront, hiking to fortified churches at the jagged edges of town, and enjoying the great views over the “Gulf of Poets” (where Lord Byron once famously went for a swim, despite local warnings that the waters here were far too dangerous).

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Sestri Levante is a striking beach town on a crescent-shaped peninsula. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to settle into an Italian Riviera beach vacation.

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Santa Margherita Ligure is the most substantial town in the area that’s worth visiting in its own right. Yes, it has (pebbly) beaches, but it also has a bustling old town with a big Baroque church and lots of urban character.

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Portofino — close enough to Santa Margherita Ligure that you could walk (though the bus is faster and the boat is more romantic) — has a celebrity cachet. It’s the kind of place where the sailboat masts are taller than the houses. But I have to admit…I liked it. It’s definitely worth a side-trip from Santa Margherita Ligure. And the laundry drying from windows overlooking the harbor remind me that it’s not just Ferragamo, Gucci, and Clooney who keep an address here.

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Of course, none of these towns is quite like the Cinque Terre. But if you’re in the area, or want to escape some of the crowds on a particularly busy day, they’re not a bad alternative. Each of these is within about an hour’s train trip of the Cique Terre (and in some cases, easy to reach by a scenic boat trip). C’mon, I dare you…dive into the rest of the Riviera.

Just a Few More Cinque Terre Photos

Before I move on from the Cinque Terre, I couldn’t resist sharing just a few more pretty photos from this trip. (Stay tuned: More Italian Riviera beauty — and a little taste of Tuscany — are coming right up, followed shortly by the Austrian Alps.) Enjoy!

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Vernazza’s harbor, with its boats safely beached from rough seas, is always a popular photo op.

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Speaking of rough seas, I was in Manarola both in thundering surf — when the swimming hole became a churning whirlpool, and monstrous waves swallowed up the breakwater — and in eerily calm waters.

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During my afternoon hike from Vernazza to Corniglia, I had the trails mostly to myself. (If you’re wondering about the difficulty level of Cinque Terre hikes, it looks like this. Lots and lots and lots of this.)

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And finally, underrated Riomaggiore, with one of the prettiest harborfronts…

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…made even prettier at sunset, when everybody comes out to watch the sun disappear into the languid Ligurian Sea. This was the last night of my Cinque Terre visit, and  —  after a whirlwind afternoon running round Riomaggiore — I was just killing a few minutes here before the 8:30 train home to Manarola. This view certainly beat the train station waiting room…and I didn’t even mind having to rush to my train when I heard it pulling in.

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By the way, a note to my fellow shutterbugs: On this trip, I’ve had a blast playing around with the Google NIK Collection of photo editing software, which was recently purchased — and made free to the public — by Google. Admittedly, I’m getting carried away a little with all the new toys (especially in the Color Efex Pro tool). But if you’re ready to go beyond the basic photo editing capabilities of Picasa, give it a try.

The Gelato Wars of Corniglia

My wife’s Great-Great-Aunt Mildred traveled far and wide, long before such a thing was fashionable. Late in life, Aunt Mildred wrote a memoir about her experiences. The title: Jams Are Fun. It turns out that, after seeing so much of the world, Aunt Mildred realized that it’s not always the big museums, the fancy dinners, or the castles and cathedrals that stick with you most. It’s those serendipitous moments when things go awry. And so, in the spirit of Aunt Mildred, this part of my “Jams Are Fun” series — about when good trips turn bad, and the journey is better for it — takes place in a tiny hill town on Italy’s Cinque Terre.

The Cinque Terre — five charming, traffic-free villages on the Italian Riviera — is a delightful place to be on vacation. But when it comes to updating the Cinque Terre chapter in our Rick Steves Italy guidebook…meh, not so much. Anytime a researcher is dispatched to the Cinque Terre, they return with tales of woe. It turns out this lovely strip of coastline is a minefield of allegiances and grudges that can only exist in a tiny town. And the most intense conflict I’ve stumbled into anywhere involves — of all things — gelato.

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A few years ago, I hiked from Vernazza over the bluff to Corniglia — the Cinque Terre’s resident hill town, perched on a ridge overlooking the Mediterranean. On the outskirts of town, I stopped off at a hotel I needed to update for our book. As I was leaving, the owner stopped me. “Listen,” he said, conspiratorially. “If you want some gelato, I strongly recommend the first gelato place on the main street.” He made severe eye contact with me. “Not the second one! The first one. You understand? This is important.”

A bit puzzled, I left with a noncommittal “grazie for the tip” and headed into Corniglia. Sure enough, on the main street through the old center of town, two rival gelaterie stood next to each other. I thought nothing of it, and proceeded to update our listings with several hoteliers and restauranteurs. Strangely, as I made my rounds, a few other locals also weighed in — completely unsolicited — on which gelateria was the better one.

Curious — and ready for a snack — I dropped in at the gelateria that we recommend in the book. I was warmly greeted by Alberto, who couldn’t be more excited by my visit. He showed me a photo of himself with Rick, and a cover shot of our book that he likes to put in the front window. He forced several samples on me, and dished up a tipsy cone piled comically high with scoops of different flavors. He even pulled out a little plastic container and offered to load it up with even more gelato for later. (Facing a long, hot train ride back to the next town, I politely declined. He almost forced it on me anyway.)

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As I was leaving, Alberto pulled me in close. “Before you go,” he said, “can you do me a very big favor? That gelateria next door…” He practically spat on the floor as he said it. “They put up a picture of your book. But they are not recommended! They are lying! You must do something about this. This must be illegal! You have a responsibility to stop them.”

I walked past the other shop’s window. No Rick Steves sign. Oh, well. But Alberto chased after me. “Aha! They take it down because they know you are here. Please go in and tell them to stop!”

“Look,” I said, “if they don’t have the sign up when I’m here, then what can I do?” (In fact, there’s nothing I can do in any case. We’ve seen this from time to time: Once a place recognizes the touristic currency of a Rick Steves endorsement — whether they are actually recommended or not — there’s basically nothing we can do to police them. We just hope that our readers are actually using our book’s tips, rather than trusting random signs.)

Clearly, the gelato situation in Corniglia is a Big Deal. Somehow, all of this little town’s frustrations, conflicts, and grudges, dating back many generations, have boiled down to these two little neighboring shops. And I had been enlisted to play Solomon. I managed to escape that trip without any more conflict…but I could never forget the gelato controversy that raged in little Corniglia.

Flash forward a few years. I’m back in the Cinque Terre, and back in Corniglia, updating our book. This time, I’m prepared. I arrive in town with my shields up. I will not be drawn into Gelatogate. I will do my work and leave…as quickly as possible.

The day goes well. I make my rounds and am ready to head out. I’ve saved the gelato for last — partly to forestall further conflict, and partly to treat myself before the train ride home. But just before that, I’m updating one last restaurant. The restauranteur is warm and gregarious. We talk about his menu, and his enthusiasm and pride lull me into a sense of normalcy.

But then, when I have one foot out the door, like a coiled cobra — he strikes.

“Say…did you see the new gelateria at the start of town?” he asks me, conversationally…but a little too eagerly. Uh-oh. I know where this is going.

“It’s a very good one. You should see it.” His tone shifts from casual to severe, as his laser-beam eyes pierce mine. “You must see it.” The next few moments are a blur, as somehow I find myself following him down the street, to where he physically plants me inside this new gelateria.

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Aren’t two gelaterie more than enough for this tiny town? Do they really need a third? This is what I’m wondering as I get the hard sell.

I ask a few probing questions. And finally they ‘fess up that this is, in fact, a second outpost of one of the original gelaterie — the one that’s NOT in the book. I admire the bold gambit. Now there are two clone gelaterie, across the street from each other, before you even get to Alberto’s. (It also means that Alberto’s is, technically, no longer the “second one.”)

Scanning the flavors in this new interloper, the many skirmishes of the gelato wars become clear. Alberto’s shop has a delicious honey flavor, which we recommend in the book. This shop, too, has a honey flavor. Alberto is very proud of his basil flavor — new for this year. This shop, too, now has a basil flavor. Like JFK and Khrushchev, these two gelato makers are keeping pace with each other as they slowly…slowly…escalate the gelato wars.

Case made, the restauranteur tries to close the deal. “So…you will put this gelateria in your book?”

I hedge. “Uh, I’ll think about it.”

“Think about it!?” the restauranteur demands. In an instant, the tone of our conversation has turned sour and confrontational. “What’s to think about? It’s the best one. The best one!” (Mind you, he is — as far as I know — not the owner, nor in any way professionally involved in this gelateria. He’s just a very, very, very concerned citizen.)

I try to explain myself. But he won’t let me finish. “The last time Rick Steves was here, I took him to this gelateria. And it’s still not in the book. That was nearly two years ago! What is taking so long?”

I bail out of the shop, as politely as possible, and try to ignore the now-furious restauranteur as he hangs his head, Charlie Brown-style, and theatrically sulks back to his own restaurant — stomping his feet like a frustrated toddler.

It’s awkward, sure. But at least I get to leave town. For these poor villagers, this is just the latest salvo in the gelato wars of Corniglia.

I’m sure you’re wondering: Which one is best? Easy: Alberto’s. How do I know? Because on both trips, I tasted both. And Alberto’s wins the taste test, hands down. So if any Corniglia gelato warriors are reading this, now you know: If you want in the book…make better gelato.


To find quality ice cream on your own — whether you’re in a tiny town or a huge city — check out my tips on how to find Italy’s best gelato.

There are plenty more mishaps in my “Jams Are Fun” series. Such as the time I was stuck on a cruise ship in a North Sea storm. Or the time I ran out of gas on Scotland’s remote north coast.

And you can also read more posts about the Cinque Terre from this trip.

This happened to me while updating the Cinque Terre chapter in our Rick Steves Italy guidebook. We also have a more concise and focused, full-color Rick Steves Pocket Cinque Terre book.

The Curse of the Cinque Terre

I love my work. I mean, come on! I get paid to travel (and, sure, work very hard). But even guidebook researchers have “rough days at the office.” And those days happen in one place more than anywhere.

There’s one destination in Europe where researchers routinely return from an updating trip and say, politely, “If you need someone to do that chapter again next year…thanks but no thanks.” Strangely, that destination also happens to be one of the most gorgeous places in Europe: Italy’s Cinque Terre.

Mind you, nobody would refuse to visit the Cinque Terre for fun. It’s a fantastic place to be on vacation. It’s just a tough place to update.

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I already did my Cinque Terre duty a few years ago. But recently, when we were doling out assignments for this year, our Italy crew was telling us (as usual), “I’d love to do anything…except the Cinque Terre.” So I decided to take one for the team and head back to those five traffic-free Riviera villages.

So what’s the big deal? First off, these are teensy villages (just a few hundred residents apiece) — each one with its own small-town politics, grudges, and allegiances…and very long memories. In a town where everybody is everybody’s cousin, it requires diplomatic acrobatics to get the latest gossip about which restaurant is going downhill and which new accommodations are overcharging. Each town has its own quirks and mini-mafias, and sussing out how people line up — without stepping on too many toes — is a challenge.

The area is also a moving target. The glorious trails of the national park are managed by career bureaucrats who are big on talk but slow on action. There’s always some bold new master plan to revolutionize the park experience: Elevators to connect train stations with clifftop neighborhoods! A park combo-ticket that includes boats! Timed entry tickets for the trails! But then…it just never happens. Meanwhile, one day, out of nowhere, they wake up and decide to change all of the trail numbers.

It’s physically demanding to pound the pavement here. In most destinations, I figure out the places I need to check for the book, line them up in a logical order, then work my way through the list until it’s done. But in Cinque Terre towns, most of the accommodations are little one-off B&Bs: a person who rents two rooms on this side of the harbor, two others across the harbor, another one behind the station…and lives three towns away.

Some of these accommodations are easy enough to track down: The person who rents them works afternoons at the wine bar or the pizzeria, so you can just drop in and find them there. But for others, you have to call ahead. I spend a lot of time crouched in doorways, hiding from the hot sun or pouring rain, dialing the next person on my list. Sometimes they’re nearby and can meet me in 10 minutes to show me the room. Other times, they’re in the next town and want to make plans to meet tomorrow…when I’ll already be in the next town.

On my last trip, my cell phone provider had rotten coverage here. In Vernazza, my phone only worked when I was standing out on the breakwater. I was up at the very top of town — more than a hundred steep stone steps above the harbor. After updating one B&B, I took a few steps and spotted the sign for another B&B that I needed to check. Nobody was home, and my phone didn’t work. So I ran back down to the breakwater and called them. “Sure, meet me up there in five minutes!” Back up I went. And back down. And back up. And so on, all day long.

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On this trip, I had a similar experience. To check out a room, I climbed five steep, narrow flights of stairs inside one of the tall, skinny houses on the harbor. Later that day, I was inspecting another person’s room nearby. They offered to show me their second room, and off we went…back to that same building, up those same five flights of stairs, to an apartment literally next door to the one I’d just been in.

Another challenge here is the combination of the region’s modest size, and its outsize popularity among Rick Steves readers. The impact of our book on this community is massive. In a big city like Rome or Munich, the Rick Steves book is, for some, a big deal — but it’s not the only game in town, so people keep it in perspective. But on the Cinque Terre, that book feels like their pipeline to the world.

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One edition, several years ago, our editorial staff decided to reorganize the sleeping section a bit. The following year, our intrepid researcher returned and discovered that those changes were an atomic bomb that had ripped through one of the tiny towns. All day long, every time she contacted a B&B host to update their details, she was met with confusion, pointed questions, and even arm-waving fury about the changes. One woman literally screamed at her on the main street: “I was listed seventh last year, and now I’m listed ninth! What a disaster! My life is ruined! How dare you do this to me!” (Worst of all, this particular researcher had nothing to do with those changes. She never went back.)

The natives sometimes wage aggressive campaigns to get listed in the book (or get someone else un-listed). If a Rick Steves researcher starts at the top of town, by the time she hits the middle of town everybody knows — and once she reaches the bottom of town, she has a trail of people following her, brandishing business cards. On my last assignment here, I slept in one morning until about 11:00. (It was my day off. It happens.) When I finally left my room, two people were waiting for me out on the stoop to pitch me their businesses. They had no idea I was going to sleep in, so they’d been camped out there for hours.

A similar story, and one I’m not proud of: On that same visit, my B&B owner kept showing up to greet me with an elderly woman who had a room to rent. She spoke only Italian (mine is rusty) and kept trying to pitch me her room for the book. As we clearly state in the book, we only list people who rent multiple rooms, speak English, and can be reserved through email (to make things easier for our readers). She didn’t tick any of these three boxes, so she wasn’t going in the book, period. I kept trying to politely turn her down, and she kept showing up.

Finally, one morning, I was passing through a little piazza when she cornered me and asked me yet again to come see her room. Trying to politely extricate myself from the situation and get to work, I said, “No, thank you. No. No, I really can’t. No. No, I just don’t think it’s right for the book. Nope. Well, maybe later.” She perked up at the word “later” and seemed satisfied to let me on my way.

I spent hours running all over town, and was finally heading back to my room, when I passed through that same little piazza. And there she was, right where I’d left her. She’d been waiting for me all day long. When she saw me coming, she smiled with great satisfaction, stood up, and said warmly, “OK, now it’s later. Can I show you the room?”

I love the Cinque Terre. But when I’m wearing my guidebook research hat, I always breathe a tiny sigh of relief when I move on to my next destination. I hope I can return there soon…on vacation.

Crowd-Beating Tips for the Cinque Terre

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.

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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:

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.