Before I get into the meat of each city, I'm going to devote a post to the logistics. I'm going to share a map and discuss the hotel and transportation and anything important that you may need to know for visiting each particular town.
Cinque Terre translates to "Five Lands" and it consists of five coast towns: Monterosso Al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.
The closest airports are in Pisa and Genoa, but Milan and Florence are also reasonable options.
Once you've gotten yourself into Italy, I recommend train travel for getting to Cinque Terre. The trains are quick and convenient and affordable. I like using Rail Europe but buying directly through Trenitalia is probably what most people do.
WHERE TO STAY
I stayed in Vernazza and it was great. We stayed at Gianni Franzi, which was a decent hotel - I loved the view from their terrace - but it was a climb to get to our room. There were six sets of stairs we had to tackle with our luggage, which was the workout of a lifetime. However, I think it was worth it, as Vernazza is my favorite town; it's super charming.
I was under the impression that basically anywhere you stay in Vernazza will require you to climb a lot of stairs, so take that into consideration when you're booking and packing.
If you're into beaches, stay in Monterosso Al Mare, as this is the town with the largest beach. This village is relatively flat (the keyword is "relatively") and there's a big main square and lots to eat.
If you're looking for a gorgeous marina and a bustling main street, stay in Riomaggiore. The harbor is packed with tiny boats and fishermen.
If you want to stay in a village with lots of small town charm, stay in Manarola. It's incredibly quaint and charming and it's really easy to get a beautiful, Pinterest-worthy shot of the town from the hiking path right off of the marina.
And if you're really, really, really into stairs, stay in Corniglia. Once you arrive at the Corniglia train station, there's about 40 flights of stairs you have to climb to get to the town. Once you're in town, it's really beautiful and there are a lot of eateries and pretty churches.
The train runs through the towns pretty regularly and it's your best bet for town-to-town travel. The daily pass, which gives you unlimited rides on the train and also gives you access to the hiking trails, is €12. Single rides are €1.50, so if you're taking the train fewer than 8 times, then just buy a bunch of single rides. Ask for a train schedule while you're at the station. It will certainly come in handy, as the schedule is somewhat irregular and oftentimes, Vernazza, Corniglia, and Manarola are skipped. You'll notice trains speeding through the stations when they aren't scheduled to stop.
The main thing to remember (in general when traveling in Italy) is to validate your ticket prior to hopping on the train or bus. If you are caught with an unvalidated ticket, you will be fined.
You can also get around by boat. There's a water taxi-style boat that will take you from town to town, except to Corniglia, which does not have a harbor.
I saw a few people with bicycles but none of the towns seemed that suitable for biking. There are just too many stairs and narrow alleyways. Walking is your best bet within each town.
DO, SEE, & EAT
Cinque Terre is beautiful. The colorful buildings and beautiful harbors are a photographer's dream. We saw several groups of people sketching and painting. Sit in a quiet harbor and people watch. We watched a man fishing in the morning and saw him catch a bunch of fish, which was fun. You could also fish, if you're into that. There are hiking trails everywhere and quaint little shops selling local fare, like pesto and fresh pasta.
As far as food goes, there are lemon trees everywhere, so anything with lemon is a great bet. There's a lemon liquor, limoncino, which is quite popular. The local wine is a dry white, and it's bright and citrusy.
Cinque Terre is beautiful. Please, I beg of you, visit if you can. It's one of those bucket list destinations that you have to see.