I am a student in California that spent last fall in Europe studying abroad. Throughout all of my travels, I (and many of my companions) would say that the highlight of my experience was Cinque Terre. I traveled with 5 other girls throughout Italy for 10 days. We flew into Milan and were somewhat disappointed. it was a crowded, not particularly pretty city. Then we took the train to Cinque Terre and were amazed. We stayed in a hostel in Riomaggiore run by a very nice gentleman that allowed us to borrow his computer to send reassuring emails home to our parents.
We all had warm, clean beds, but it was extremely difficult to get warm water for a shower and much of the kitchen appliances were very very old. We ate at La Lampara, which had delicious food and decent wine. The chef and younger waiter were extremely friendly, and besides one other family, we were the only other patrons in the restaurant. Because we were there in early October, we did not experience the hordes of tourists that so many people complain about. Most of the time, we were the only ones on the streets, day or night. The trail to each city was pleasant and not crowded at all. The 4 other, larger cities seemed to be more crowded, but not unbearably so. Cinque Terre was a welcome break from the crowded plazas, crazy drivers, dirty subways and cat-calling men that typified Milan, Florence and Rome. If you can manage to make it to Cinque Terre in the off season, esp. Riomaggiore, you will have a fabulous time!
p.s. Anyone that prefers staying in hostels and is traveling to Florence should consider staying at Camping village Il Poggetto. (I think that is how it is spelled!) You take a 45 minute bus ride from the city to the countryside, and stay in a beautiful camp area in the hills! We paid around $20 a night, had a large room to ourselves, no bunk beds, had a large bathroom attached, and it was very quiet and peaceful. you give up being able to go out at night in Florence because the last bus comes around 8pm, but the camping village has a large, fantastic restaurant, bar, and locals! I believe we found out about this place through hostels.com.