The Cinque Terre is one of the most beautiful and unique regions of Italy. It is made up of 5 (hence the cinque) colorful cliff-side fishing villages that, until recently, managed to remain virtually cut off from the modern world. The villages are situated in the Liguria region, famous for its seaside and pesto pasta.
The remoteness of the region means that visiting can be somewhat complicated. The easiest way to visit is to arrange a day trip from Florence. Yes, you can visit a couple of these charming towns via a well-organized day trip! These tours transport you by private coach and typically arrange for you to visit 2 or 3 of the towns. This is a great choice because it requires zero planning, and getting to the Cinque Terre can be a bit complex.
Each year I take my students on just such a one-day tour. Our bus drops us off in Manarola, we take the train to Vernazza, and then hike from Vernazza to Monterosso where we enjoy some beach time before taking the train to La Spezia to catch our bus back to Florence.
If you decide that one day is simply not enough, and you want to see all of the villages, you will need to stay at least two nights. The logistics of getting there make staying one night impractical. But be warned, if you want to stay in one of the five famed towns in the summer, you will need to reserve well in advance.
Driving in the Cinque Terre can be difficult (think very steep inclines) and parking is scarce. If you want to arrive by car, I recommend staying in one of the nearby, larger cities that are well connected via the train. I like Portovenere and La Spezia. You can leave the car in La Spezia and take the train into the Cinque Terre.
Hiking trails, trains, and ferries connect the five towns of the Cinque Terre. You really should do all three while there. Buying the Cinque Terre Treno MS Card (more info here) will get you access to the National Park (where all the hiking trails are located) and unlimited use of the local trains.
Cinque Terre is probably most famous for its hikes, so you definitely want to make sure that you do at least one! The views are absolutely incredible and worth every step. There is one hike (of varying degrees of difficulty) connecting each of the tows – Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. You can read more about the hikes here. Although considered one of the more difficult hikes, my favorite is the hike from Vernazza to Monterosso.
Once you have worked up a good appetite on your hike, make sure you eat the pesto, focaccia, and the fresh seafood (these villages are fishing villages after all), and drink the white wine! You will also want to make sure you take a dip in the crystal clear blue waters of Monterosso.