Boasting some of the finest Mediterranean landscapes in Europe, with dazzling blue seas, lemon trees, olive groves, vineyards and steep, green cliffs, the Amalfi Coast is a location at the top of most people’s bucket lists, including my own. A tourist mecca for the rich and famous for over 50 years, the towns and villages of the Amalfi Coast were actually only joined to the rest of the world in the mid 19th-century when a road was built linking them together. Once these hidden villages were found, however, by the wealthy aristocrats conducting their Grand Tours of Europe, their secret was well and truly out.
Although I was incredibly excited to visit the Amalfi, I did have some reservations before we arrived – namely, that it would simply be one big tourist trap where original culture and charm had disappeared. It was, however, a place that has retained its integrity: town piazza’s still come to life in the evenings with locals chatting as their children play long after sunset, and sleepy alleyways with overgrown allotments and snoozing cats can be found in abundance.
It was a small strip of the world that I have utterly fallen in love with. Read on for our guide of the Amalfi coast:
Getting there and around
The Amalfi coastal road is notorious. Small winding roads, large tour buses and plenty of dark tunnels, these roads aren’t for the faint hearted. Even the day before we left for the Amalfi coast, I sat awkwardly as an American man in our sauna in Rome sat in the lotus position and put the fear of God in me as he described his recent experiences of driving along the coast. Uncomfortably shifting on my little sauna perch, beads of sweat running down my neck, I started to worry about what we had let ourselves in for.
Our experience, however, was not as bad as others have you believe. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the English countryside where confrontations with tractors on small, winding roads are common, or perhaps I just have balls of steel, but it wasn’t a terrible experience. All you need is plenty of patience and to be willing to take it slowly; very slowly. If you’re not keen to get behind the wheel, coach trips and buses are readily available from most of the coastal towns. The larger towns of Amalfi, Positano and Sorrento are also the main hubs for catching ferries, either along the coast to other towns or to the islands.
Sleepy Praiano is far quieter than its neighbour Positano, which is exactly why we decided to stay here at the beautiful Casa Angelina. With no real centre as such, apart from the colourful church and square, this is a low-key village for those looking for a little respite from the louder and more frantic towns surrounding it.
To relax: One Fire Beach is a fun and lively beach club, located at the bottom of many, many steps on Gavitella Beach. As well as available sun loungers, kayaks and paddle boards, a well stocked bar and fresh food ensures that you can devote a whole day to the turquoise sea. Make sure you stick around for the watermelon chopping extravaganza, where Piccoletto, the charismatic beach club host, chops multiple watermelons to the beat of the music, which are then quickly dished out to the cheering crowd.
If you’re looking for some exercise to walk off the seafood and wine, then head to beginning of the famous Walk/Hike of the Gods in the centre of Praiano. Here, 1,800+ steps will take you up (and up) to the top of the Amalfi coast cliffs, where you can hike to Positano. We thoroughly enjoyed the hike (separate blog post to come on this), which offered truly breathtaking views.
Where to eat: Although Praiano doesn’t offer the sheer volume of restaurants Positano does, there are a number of options for a tasty, yet reasonably priced, meal. Our favourite was Kasai, which boasts beautiful sea views under twinkling lanterns and a cosy but quirky interior. Top tip: book ahead to secure one of the outside tables to take full advantage of the views.
Perhaps one of the most famous towns along the Amalfi coast, Positano is a photographer’s dream. Romantic alleyways bursting with impressive shops, colourful homes clinging to the cliffsides and an extensive beach, this is a town you should devote some time to. Although there a few churches to be visited, rather than offering many top sights, Positano is a town best enjoyed at a leisurely pace and appreciated for its bustling beauty. The lively beach, offering pedalos, boats to rent and a restaurant promenade is the perfect place to while away an afternoon, particularly if you have children in tow.
Where to eat: You will be spoilt for choice on places to eat in Positano and there are restaurants for every budget. We ate here a number of times and all were pleasant. Our favourite restaurant, by far, however was the popular Casa Mele. With a trendy open kitchen, where you can watch the chefs whipping up culinary delights from the comfort of your own chair, this is a more modern dining experience compared to most other restaurants in the town. Be warned, the food does come at a cost but we felt it was worth every penny and a real treat.
Amalfi is, unsurprisingly, a mecca for tourists. We had initially been reluctant to visit this little town, simply due to the sheer number of tourist coaches and crowds we saw as we passed through it on the way to Ravello. On the spur of the moment, however, we decided to spend a morning here on our last day on the Amalfi Coast and I’m really pleased we did. With a fishing port, shingle beach, crowded villas hugging the coastline and colourful palaces, it is a beautiful town, despite the crowds.
The main sight in Amalfi is its hugely impressive Arab-Norman Cathedral (Duomo di Sant’Andrea Apostolo), which withstood the 14th century earthquake that destroyed most of the old city. 62 steps lead up to black and white striped marble arches and a rather intimidating door. I would highly recommend paying the entrance fee to explore the Moorish-style cloisters with tropical gardens: a moment of calm in this bustling town.
Another small but incredibly charming sight in Amalfi is the Piazza dello Spirito Santo Fountain. Made from volcanic stone with two 18th century carved marble faces, the fountain houses hundreds of tiny figurines. It is most popular at Christmas when an elaborate nativity scene is created. I found it weirdly enchanting and stood mesmerised taking in all of the little figures popping out from the stone.
Top tip: visit Amalfi in the evening when the day-trippers and coaches have left to enjoy a slower-pace of life as the sun sets over the Mediterranean.
Situated high on top of the Amalfi hills, beautiful Ravello, despite it being a town firmly focused on tourists, is a must-see. The main reason for this? The famous stately gardens with their mesmerising sea views; said to be the best along the coastline.
Villa Rufolo is the top sight in Ravello. Built in the 13th century, the villa has been home to several popes, who clearly had excellent taste. Despite an impressive past, the main draw to Villa Rufolo is its colourful gardens, perfectly juxtaposed to the turquoise sea. The gardens are incredibly beautiful and were surprisingly crowd-free when we visited.
The other top sight in Ravello is Villa Cimbrone, which also offers beautiful gardens, littered with impressive statues and sea views. Unfortunately, as seems to be the story of my life in Italy, we didn’t make it to this villa due to a disagreement with my stomach and a banana milkshake. It will be top of my list to visit when (not if) I return.
From Ravello, you can walk to Minori, a popular holiday town for Italians, or to Amalfi. Both are downhill and hard-going on the legs but are said to offer glimpses into secret passageways, and pretty hidden olive groves.
Ravello comes alive during the months of June – September, when the Ravello Festival is in full swing. During this time, most of its centre becomes a stage – when we visited a stage was being built in the gardens of Villa Rufolo in preparation for orchestral concerts, ballet performances, film screenings and exhibitions. I imagine attending one of these performances would be an unforgettable experience.
Good to know: factor in some time when calculating your journey to Ravello. By bus or car, the winding road up to the town is strictly one-way, meaning cars must patiently wait their turn to make their way up or down (managed by traffic lights). If traffic is particularly bad you could be in for a twenty-minute wait just to gain access to the road.
Sorrento marks the beginning of the Amalfi Coast as the largest town on from Naples. For this reason, it is a good place to base yourself if you’re without car or wishing to avoid repeated coastal drives. The town, despite being an obvious tourist resort, still retains a high-end charm. We chose not to visit, simply due to time constraints, but would happily explore on our next trip.
Other places to explore from the Amalfi Coast
If you are based along the Amalfi Coast, a day dedicated to visiting one or a few of the islands is a must. We visited Capri for a day, catching the ferry from Positano (around a 50 minute journey). The ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum are also easily accessible – it took us around an hour to reach Pompeii by car. Naples is another obvious choice for a day trip (although you would need far longer to explore this rambling city in full) and if you’re feeling energetic, Mount Vesuvius – Europe’s only active mainland volcano – is always close-by for a hike.
The Amalfi Coast offers something for every type of traveller. A place to relax and unwind, this stretch of coastline also offers glorious hikes, secret grottoes, beautiful architecture and plenty of charm. This will be a slice of the world that we will no doubt be returning to again and again.