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Italy’s Amalfi Coast

Italy’s Amalfi Coast occupies a high position on many travelers’ bucket lists and conjures up fond memories for those who’ve experienced it. It’s a gorgeous region and quite popular in season despite being not particularly easy to get to. It’s also rich in history and culture—it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997—while simultaneously serving as the epitome of hedonism and la dolce vita.

The region contains some of the most beautiful and beautifully positioned accommodations in all of Italy. Like most Mediterranean resort areas, it comes alive in spring, summer, and fall, with hotels, restaurants, and beach clubs opening their doors in March or April; places start winding down in October, when the weather is typically still lovely. Spring and fall offer an opportunity to avoid the tourist swarm, but if you want to swim, June through October are the prime months. 

A family views Positano on the Amalfi coast. Photo: Adobe Stock
A family views Positano on the Amalfi coast. Photo: Adobe Stock

The Amalfi Coast is understood to mean the stretch of Campania waterfront south of Sorrento and north of Salerno on the sparkling Tyrrhenian Sea. (Naples and Salerno are the nearest major cities.) But most would agree that the epicenter of the Amalfi Coast lies between Positano and Amalfi.

The namesake town of the Amalfi Coast town sits 10 miles to the south of Positano along the famously twisty, scenic, and vertigo-inducing Amalfi Drive. Known formally as Strada Statale 163, it was built by the Romans before the concept of two-lane roads took hold. “Dramatic” is too weak a word for the drive: it goes over breathtaking fjords, ravines, and slim bridges, and the right-hand side puts you on the edge of a cliff that overlooks the sea. In some places, the road swerves through tunnels carved into the rock; in other spots, it’s so narrow that cars must back up to allow the local buses to pass. 

First-time travelers to the area would be wise to choose Positano or Amalfi as a base, while repeat visitors may want to stay in or near a blink-and-you-missed-it village on the road between the two, such as Praiano or Furore. In these lesser-known towns, you can enjoy quiet and semi-seclusion along with the extraordinary setting; usually all that is visible of the hotels and restaurants from the road are signs and carports, since the properties dot the cliff that overlooks the sea. Holing up in one of the tiny village boutiques here (in Furore, that would be La Locanda del Fiordo) will make you feel as if you’ve discovered a secret place, though you’ll be within one of the world’s most popular destinations and only a short ride from Positano and Amalfi.  

Hiking through Campania. Photo: Adobe Stock
Hiking through Campania. Photo: Adobe Stock

When you’re traveling from north to south, the Amalfi Coast essentially begins with Positano, the jewel in the crown. John Steinbeck celebrated the town in a 1953 essay, helping to transform it from a modest fishing village into a jet-set locale.

Accessing the village by sea is a memorable experience, as the Church of Maria Assunta, overlooking Spiaggia Grande, the pebbly main beach, comes into view. The scene, featured in such films as Only You (1994) and Under the Tuscan Sun (2003), should be instantly recognizable, as the church’s iconic dome, decorated with green and yellow majolica tiles, commands a prime spot among the village’s famous jumble of colorful villas, hotels, and terraces. Orange lounge chairs and umbrellas ring Spiaggia Grande, which is backed by lively cafes like Chez Black. 

Positano’s secondary beach, Fornillo, reached via a seaside walkway, offers a quieter scene than Spiaggia Grande. Lined with clubs like da Ferdinando, where you can rent a chair and enjoy excellent bruschetta, Fornillo is a place where you can choose a tiny cove to watch the low wispy clouds thread through the limestone cliffs and up into the canyons.

Positano doesn’t have a center; you discover the town slowly, walking the winding pathways that climb up the hill, browsing boutiques along the way, stopping for a gelato or lemon granita. (The region is famed for its lemons, and limoncello is ubiquitous.) Hang around until six to watch kids playing soccer on the beach as the church bells chime. It’s magical. 

fishermen’s boats. Photo: Adobe Stock
fishermen’s boats. Photo: Adobe Stock

Amalfi has a different flavor than Positano and a richer history, as it was the capital of the Duchy of Amalfi during the medieval period. Despite this royal background, Amalfi feels less glitzy and more authentic than Positano. In the piazza, which is across the street (and under an arch) from the beach, residents and visitors mingle beside a charming fountain, licking gelato cones from a dessert shop called Pasticceria Savoia. 

The piazza sits at the base of the Cathedral of St. Andrew, with its wide 62-step staircase and striped marble Byzantine façade. Dating from the 9th century, the church combines several styles—Arab-Norman, Renaissance, baroque—and is complemented by a magnificently ornate bell tower, which was under construction for a century and completed in 1280. 

As you head up from the square, you’ll see that pedestrians, Vespas, and cars share the narrow road, so keep your eyes open and be patient. Pop into shoe stores, ceramics shops, and little markets selling cheeses, cured meats, pastas, and produce. There are also pizza places, gelaterias, and chocolate shops. The whitewashed, flower-filled stairways off the street beg for exploration; if you follow them up, you may discover an out-of-the-way restaurant or a soccer game in full swing. 

 Atrani’s waterfront. Photo: Adobe Stock
Atrani’s waterfront. Photo: Adobe Stock

If your feet are up for more, venture just south of Amalfi to the town of Atrani, which features its own pocket beach and the baroque 10th century Church of San Salvatore de' Birecto. Then, if you haven’t had your fill of beachfront villages, you can head for compact Minori (about two and a half miles from Amalfi) and the more spread-out Maiori (another 25 minutes on foot), with its picturesque seafront promenade. Gaze up to see lemon groves terraced into the mountains.

The affluent Ravello, a 30-minute drive in the mountains above Amalfi, has long been a refuge for artists (Joan Miro), actors (Greta Garbo), writers (Truman Capote, Graham Greene, Tennessee Williams), and musicians (Leonard Bernstein, Richard Wagner, Edvard Grieg). Of course, the figure most associated with Ravello is author Gore Vidal, who hosted many a celebrity at La Rondinaia, his legendary 10,500-square-foot whitewashed villa. As such a following might suggest, Ravello is the site of music festivals and light shows, as well as a source of world-class hand-painted ceramics.

Even compared with Positano, Ravello is refined and sophisticated. The town is also a place of peerless vistas; the top-heavy stone pines (aka umbrella pines) framing the sea below have graced many a postcard and calendar. If you have time to venture off from the main piazza, head for the village’s top historic homes and their gardens, which are open to the public: Villa Rufolo, and Villa Cimbrone. There is also a Hotel Villa Cimbrone, which is lined with Roman busts that cut impressive profiles against the Tyrrhenian Sea.

If you’re staying more than a few days, a trip to the island of Capri is a must. Though not technically part of the Amalfi Coast, it is part of many visitors’ itineraries, and ferries run frequently to Capri from Amalfi and Positano. 

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The island didn’t need to be popularized in modernity the way Positano was; it has been a resort since Roman times, with the emperors Augustus and Tiberius constructing palatial villas. Visiting Capri comes with a caveat: due to its worldwide renown, the rocky island is choked with tourists, even in April and October. (My best memories of Capri are the times I’ve booked a room for a few days, thus avoiding the bottlenecks that the day-trippers and tour groups create—at least in the mornings and blissful evenings.) Capri’s tiny, café-bordered piazetta is the best orientation spot; from there you can walk along cobbled lanes lined with the storefronts of global luxury brands like Gucci, Fendi, and Brunello Cucinelli. 

A more adventurous experience is to stroll along the jasmine-infused Via Tragara to its endpoint at the Hotel Punta Tragara, where you can view Capri’s iconic faraglioni rocks—three tall seastacks just off the coast. But what most visitors don’t know is that if you head downhill, a pathway that turns into a series of switchbacks will lead you even closer to the faraglioni—and to the beach clubs that overlook them, Da Luigi and La Fontelina. Each has its own restaurant, and there’s no better place to while away the hours in Capri. (Note that there is no actual beach in the American sense, but rather platforms set between the rocks; so rent a lounge chair and jump in.)

Like Capri, the volcanic island of Ischia is also not officially part of the Amalfi Coast but is accessible via ferryfrom Amalfi and Positano. Ischia, with numerous deep bays and sandy beaches, is just as scenic as Capri—and as cinematic. It was the location for Elizabeth Taylor’s 1963 version of Cleopatra and contains the beach (Bagno Antonio) where Jude Law and Matt Damon meet in the 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley

Cathedral of St. Andrew, Amalfi. Photo: Adobe Stock
Cathedral of St. Andrew, Amalfi. Photo: Adobe Stock

Ischia is much bigger than Capri (nearly 18 square miles vs. Capri’s four), so if you don’t stay over, it’s even more important to be economical with your time. Consider heading to one the island’s fantastic day spas (Poseidon and Negombo are among the best), where you can walk around luxuriant gardens, hop from pool to therapeutic pool of different temperatures (courtesy of geothermal heat), and end the day at the beach.

The Amalfi Coast and its nearby isles endure as a paradisiacal destination where you are immersed in culture, history, scenery, toothsome cuisine, and luminous waters, heated naturally—if not from above, then from below the surface of splendid southern Italy.

A statue in Ravello, a town near Amalfi. Photo: Abobe Stock
A statue in Ravello, a town near Amalfi. Photo: Abobe Stock


Traveler Fast Facts

WHAT IT IS:

The Amalfi Coast is a 35-mile stretch in the Campania region of Italy, set on the Tyrrhenian Sea, which is part of the Mediterranean. The area is dotted with scenic fishing villages and hill towns, many of which have become chic, world-renowned resort destinations. 

CLIMATE:

The region enjoys a Mediterranean climate. The best time to visit is between April and October. July and August are the hottest (and most crowded) months, with daytime temperatures in the mid 80s Fahrenheit and nighttime temperatures in the mid 70s. September and October are glorious, with low humidity, and cool nights in the 60s.

GETTING THERE:

United Airlines offers seasonal nonstop service from the U.S. to Naples International Airport, which also accommodates private aircraft. Salerno-Costa D’Amalfi Airport is another option for private jets. For a nearly unlimited choice of commercial carriers (including American, United, Delta, Alitalia, Air France, and British Airways), it’s best to fly into Rome-Fiumicino International Airport, then drive or take a train south to Naples or Salerno. If you have a car or a driver, it will take you a little more than an hour to get to Positano from Naples. Given the serpentine Amalfi Coast, a better option might be to take the train to Salerno and then backtrack up the coast via ferry to Amalfi or Positano. It’s only a short walk from Salerno’s train station to the Port of Salerno. 

WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:

The Amalfi Coast is a walker’s destination, so bring comfortable shoes for the stone paths and stairways. Sandals are key for the pebbly beaches. While locals will appreciate an Italian greeting and knowledge of a few key phrases, English is widely spoken all along the coast and in the islands. Note that in general, the more far-flung a place is, the shorter the season. In other words, by mid-October, some Ravello restaurants and Capri beach clubs may be closed while Amalfi and Positano will still have a few more weeks of life—indeed revelry—left in them.


Traveler Report Card

ACCOMMODATIONS:

Il San Pietro di Positano (A+) remains one of the world’s most glamorous hotels. Positioned on the outskirts of town, it boasts spectacular terraced gardens and a private beach. On Ischia, San Montano Resort & Spa (A+), a member of Small Luxury Resorts, offers duplex nautically themed rooms with patio access to an infinity pool, in addition to 10 thermal pools of various sizes, shapes, and temperatures. Punta Tragara (A+), lovingly looked after by the Manfredi family, is among the most luxurious hotels on Capri, and none of the others can match its views of the Faraglioni rocks.

CUISINE:

The Amalfi Coast is blessed with prime seafood, and you can find some of the best at La Locanda del Fiordo (A+), the restaurant at a charming clifftop hotel in Furore. Its seafood salad (clams, mussels, prawns, octopus, and calamari) is fresh and flavorful, and the grilled scamorza cheese with vegetables is sublime. For some of the best Neapolitan pizza, try casual trattorias: Capricci (A), right off the beach in Positano; and Stella Maris (A+), overlooking the sea in Amalfi. For a more upscale and romantic experience (and memorable lemon pasta), book a sea-view table at Rada (A) in Positano. In minuscule Montepertuso, which is a strenuous but rewarding hike or 20-minute taxi ride up a mountain from Positano, a trattoria named Donna Rosa (A+) serves up some of the best ravioli in the area. 


EDITOR’S NOTE

My family and I recently returned from our own recent visit to Amalfi and the surrounding area. A few recommendations: 1) Check out the Museum of Handmade Amalfi Paper, which offers tours and showcases water-powered equipment that dates from the 13th century. 2) Take a side trip—about 30 miles north of Amalfi by car or train—to see the ruins of Pompeii. 3) If you opt to stay in Salerno (which is a delightful 50-minute ferry ride from Amalfi), consider the well-located L’Infinito guest house. It’s no five-star hotel; and to access it, you pass through an old wooden door and an unremarkable courtyard. But once inside, you’ll find modern, high-ceilinged guest rooms; excellent breakfasts; and a hostess who goes out of her way to be accommodating and make you feel at home. —Jeff Burger

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