Usually the first words I hear uttered from first time Italy travelers is “I want to go to the Amalfi Coast.” That’s not exactly a surprise given the area’s incomparable beauty. It’s hard to beat the aquamarine water, the brightly colored church domes and houses that dot the landscape, and the endless miles of coastal cliffs that jut out into the sea.
Even noted American Author John Steinbeck was awestruck on his first visit to the area. He was particularly moved, as most tourists are, by the seaside town of Positano.
“Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone. Its houses climb a hill so steep it would be a cliff except that stairs are cut in it. I believe that whereas most house foundations are vertical in Positano they are horizontal. The small curving bay of unbelievably blue and green water laps gently on a beach of small pebbles. There is only one narrow street and it does not come down to the water. Everything else is stairs, some of them as steep as ladders. You do not walk to visit a friend. You either climb or slide.”
Positano, along with the entire stretch of the Amalfi Coast which begins about an hour south of Naples along the Mediterranean, has caught the attention of writers as well as many film producers with iconic scenes being shot there along its many picturesque pathways. Positano, however, is just one of the unique towns to visit. While some aspects of Positano and the surrounding region remain the same, a lot has changed since Steinbeck’s day including the endless bus loads and boat loads of tourists that unfortunately now crowd the small villages, especially Steinbeck’s beloved Positano as well as Amalfi to the south. That’s not meant to dissuade you from going to the area south of Naples, as Positano is one of a kind. However, since you’re looking to T’s Italy for insider tips and advice, it’s important to present an accurate account of what you’ll experience especially, again in the high season.
My advice is to go ahead and visit Amalfi, Positano, and the isle of Capri for a long morning or afternoon, but when it comes to settling in for a few days, if you really want to get the taste of the Amalfi Coast, stay in one of the smaller villages, such as my favorite, Praiano or the tiny town of Atrani which is right around the corner from bustling Amalfi. Atrani is so close you can walk to it in ten minutes or less from Amalfi by way of an underground tunnel. Say goodbye to the maddening crowds and the cruise ships, and say hello to great views, great food, and especially peace and quiet. You won’t regret it. Here are some specific suggestions for your visit to towns along the Amalfi Coast:
- Sorrento: North of the start of the 25-mile long Amalfi Coast is often the base for folks traveling the coastline. Staying in Sorrento assures you a lovely seaside location complete with a dramatic back drop of giant cliffs jutting from the sea. My husband and I love to dine at, and stroll along, the Marina Grande with its many waterfront restaurants that provide endless views of the aquamarine Mediterranean. Sorrento also offers some practical pluses as well, especially when it comes to getting around. The busy port provides access to the local ferry service with regular jaunts to Capri, Positano, and Amalfi. The ferries are a refreshing way to travel the coastline and keep you from having to drive the daunting Amalfi drive, officially known as SS 163. Sorrento is home to a number of beautiful places to stay with a long list of four and five-star hotels. It also is home to countless Limoncello shops and factories. Taking a tour of one of these factories can be arranged by your guide or hotel concierge and is a fun activity that truly gives you a taste of the area. Don’t forget to give yourself plenty of time to shop along the Corso Italia; Sorrento’s main shopping district.
- Positano: Known for its colorful landscape, as well as its winding streets filled with fashion boutiques, art galleries, ceramic shops, along with row after row of stores featuring the most fabulous footwear including leather sandals that can be made to order on the spot. Here’s another insider’s trip from T’s Italy. If it’s ceramics you’re looking for, head down to the end of the Amalfi Coast to Vietri Sul Mare for a special treat. Not only can you walk into many of the ceramic factories and watch the artists at work, you will save lots of money, as most of the ceramics sold along the coast are made here so you not paying for all the overhead built into the Positano prices. Keep in mind if you’re visiting Positano in the high season from June through early September, you’ll need extra time to navigate the crowds. My suggestion, stop in Positano to say you’ve been there and done that. Have pronzo beachside at Chez Black or Tre Sorrelli (Three Sisters), and move on down the coast. It’s a beautiful town to visit, but I prefer the smaller towns that help you get that slice of real life in Italy.
- Praiano: This is, as I mentioned, my favorite town on the Amalfi Coast. Praiano is nestled between Positano to the North and Amalfi to the south. It offers everything the larger more touristy towns have such as wonderful hotels, including my number one Tramonto d’Oro or Golden Sunset, fantastic open-air restaurants with views of Capri, Positano, and more. And it sits between two beaches- One Fire Beach and Marina di Praia, a pebble beach at the foot of the cliff with an ancient Saracen watch tower. What’s missing? Nothing but the crowds. Oh, and although it’s hardly the shopping mecca of Positano, you’ll still find everything you need including wine bars, specialty shops, even a few quaint boutiques with lovely handmade items, and again plenty of places to dine. For an exquisite dining experience make reservations at Il Pirata. This restaurant located at Marina di Praia, stretches out over the water so much so that you can see and hear the waves splashing underneath. Il Pirata also has an outdoor and indoor bar. The indoor bar is in a cave, yes, a cave with a portion of the floor made of glass which allows you to admire the rock formations below. And if you wonder why the fish is so fresh, you won’t be wondering for long as you can see the fishing boats bobbing on the water close enough to practically reach out and grab your very own shrimp for the freshest frutti di mare pasta you’ve ever eaten. End your Praiano nights with a cocktail at the rooftop bar of the hotel Le Fioriere. This hotel is in the center of Praiano across from the Tramonto d’Oro. Last but not least, for a really unique experience that offers breathtaking views of the coastline, as if there aren’t enough incredible views, give the Path of the Gods hike a try. Wear comfortable shoes and bring a few bottles of water as you hike through mountains between Praiano and Positano. Hikers rave about this passage.
- Ravello: Praiano, Positano, and Amalfi, all hug the water’s edge. Ravello on the other hand is another get away place along the coast as it is way up, and I mean way up, in the mountains. It’s located high on a hill top 1200 feet above the ocean. The scenic ride with more twists and turns through the rolling hills is worth the trip alone. It was secluded enough for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who spent three weeks here in the summer of 1962 at the advice of American writer Gore Vidal. One of the most worthwhile sites to see in Ravello is the gardens of Villa Rufolo. The breathtaking grounds overlook the Gulf of Salerno and offer non-stop photo ops. Faithful Catholics will also want to spend time in prayer in the Ravello Cathedral, which faces the main square. The spectacular ambo or pulpit in this church is supported by six spiral columns sitting on six stunning marble lions. The Church is dedicated to St. Pantaleone; a physician martyred by beheading back in the 3rd The church is also recognized for what’s known as the miracle of the blood. Following the death of the saint, it’s said that blood mixed with milk started flowing from his head. The dense and dried blood, now kept in a reliquary, is said to liquify on the saint’s feast day, July 27th, and as a result this church is an important pilgrimage site.
- Amalfi: The highlight of Amalfi, even for folks not interested in matters of faith, is the incredible Cathedral of St. Andrew, as it is considered among the top architectural sights to see in the region of Campagnia. It is dedicated to the apostle and sits in the center of the main piazza, Piazza del Duomo. St. Andrew’s relics are kept here and he is considered the protector of this city. What makes this church so unique is its precarious location at the very top of a grand staircase. Its bronze doors go all the way back to the 11th Century. Unfortunately, Amalfi is not only a major tourist stop for buses coming in for day trips, but also a major port for cruise ships. Keep that in mind as you make your way into town. Again, just a reality check for you so you can prepare accordingly. I suggest getting to the church early and then taking a break at one of the amazing bakeries and Limoncello stores near St. Andrew’s. Grab a cappuccino (only if it’s before noon, of course) and try one of the local sweet delicacies such as the famous Sfogliatelle. In Italian American bakeries and households, Sfogliatelle are also known as lobster tails. No matter what name you give them, they’re delicious shell shaped pastries made of crunchy dough filled with ricotta cream. And this area of Italy is right where this treat was invented. Before heading out of Amalfi for calmer seas, no pun intended, this would be a great time to grab some gift items from the many shops located a stone’s throw from St. Andrew’s. Lemon scented candles, soaps, mini Limoncello bottles, and lemon filled candies- just to name a few of the more popular take-home items.
- Capri: The isle of Capri is in a category all its own. Here too, be prepared for the crowds. That said, the unbelievable natural beauty of the island does make battling those crowds a bit easier to take. There are plenty of ferries available from the main Amalfi Coast towns including Amalfi, Positano, and as mentioned previously, Sorrento. The boat ride from the coast to the island is also a treat. Once you step foot on Capri, you’ll notice quite a few local tour operators encouraging you to spend a small fortune on the famous Grotta Azzura or the Blue Grotto. Skip it. If grottos are your thing, consider the grottos around Praiano, just as brilliantly blue but much less crowded and much easier on the wallet. Not to mention the Blue Grotto often has very limited access due to the ever changing water levels. My favorite activity on Capri, which my husband and I discovered by accident on our first visit there, is the lift to the top of Mt. Solaro located in the town of Anacapri on the upper part of the island. You’ll pay around 11 Euro for a round trip ticket. But once you get to the top you won’t want to leave. This is the perfect place to view the famous symbol of Capri, the Faraglioni rock formations, and of course no place better for your Kodak or selfie moments. Once you make it back down the mountain to Anacapri you might want to visit the Villa San Michele, one of the most popular sights on the island. It’s the former home of physician Axel Munthe and now serves as a museum. Munthe was also a popular author. His book about this magical place, “The Story of San Michele” was published in 1929 and quickly became a best seller. The views from the villa are out of this world and you feel like you could reach out and touch the clouds, if there are any, as Capri is known for its crystal-clear skies. Before you step off the island have a cocktail in Capri’s main piazza; Piazza Umberto aka “Piazzetta.” It’s a lovely square and the perfect spot to rest before or after shopping until you drop, if that’s your thing. If you just want to window shop and get an early scoop on the latest fashion trends. Or if you’ve been waiting to grab the latest designer bag, head to Via Camerelle where you’ll get to choose from some of the most popular fashion names on the planet.
Whether you’re traveling by land or by sea along the Amalfi Coast, enjoy this very unique journey.