One of the world’s most famous road trips, the Amalfi Drive (aka SS163) is also arguably Italy’s most beautiful 30 miles of coastline, and is certainly high on Italy’s list of top tourist attractions. Carved into cliffs already cut by deep ravines, the road clings high above the Tyrrhenian Sea in a series of breathtaking views and curves bordered by near-vertical mountains on one side and long vertical drops on the other.
You don’t have to drive yourself, and unless you’re used to Italian roads, you probably shouldn’t. One thing is certain: if you do drive, you won’t see much of the landscape. It’s not a place to take your eyes off the road, even for a second, and there are very few places to stop. The most popular alternative is to take the bus. These run often and stop in the towns so you can get off, look around, swim, have a coffee or lunch and get back on a later bus. Depending on the section of the route, SITA buses run every hour or two. The city Amalfi is the preferred stopping point, especially for travelers who take two days for the trip. One thing to remember: if you go by bus, go from west to east, starting in Sorrento, and try to get a window seat on the right side of the bus. If you’re driving, you’re going east-west, so you’re in the inner lane.
Another way to see this coast, and best for those in good physical shape who have the time, is on foot or a combination of walking and bus tours. Footpaths, stone steps and ancient mule tracks meander along the coast, passing through woodlands, lemon groves, wild flowers and small villages, with sea views almost constant. At any time you can stop to take pictures, have a picnic or just take in the view. The most beautiful part of the trail – and that’s a tall order here – is the Sentiero degli Dei, Footpath of the Gods, on the west side of Positano. Several outfitters arrange accommodation and luggage transfers for independent hikers, or you can join a week-long group tour.
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This westernmost town on the Amalfi Coast is clearly discovered, as you can tell by the chic fashions and the tanned men who wear them. It’s easy to understand the appeal of Positano when you see the flower-draped pastel houses tumble down the steep hillside down to the beach. Apart from the 13th century church of Santa Maria Assunta, with its dome of majolica tiles and the Byzantine icon of a black Madonna (legend has it brought here by pirates), the only things to see are the narrow alleys near the harbor and possibly celebs sitting in the cafes. There are more things to do on the beach, where you can hire rowboats, pedalos, sailboats, Zodiacs and motorboats, or embark on a cruise along the coast to Capri. Just east of Positano, it’s just as trendy beachyalso with a tiled church and not far beyond, the road crosses the deep and dramatic gorge of Valley of Furore.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Positano
Grotta dello Smeraldo (Emerald Cave)
Near the village of Conca dei Marini, stairs and an elevator descend to a sea cave. You may wonder how a sea cave got stalactites, but it wasn’t always at sea level. The cave was formed higher up, but the volcanic activity in the region (you’re not that far from Mount Vesuvius here) changed the sea and ground level and placed the cave where the sea could wash. Like the Blue Grotto in Capri, the sunlight shining through the water makes it look like it has been lit from within, in this case an emerald green glow. The water is so clear that it is possible to see through to the bottom. Boats wait at the cave entrance to take you inside, or you can take a boat to the cave from the beach in Amalfi, about a 15 minute drive away.
Adres: Route 163, Conca dei Marini, Amalfi
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From Atrani, just east of Amalfi, a winding road (SS 373) climbs through orange groves to Ravello, an ancient town in a stunning position overlooking the sea from the edge of the deep Valle del Dragone (Valley of the Dragons). The lush gardens that once surrounded his villas are now parks, each with a better vantage point than the last.
One wonders how many churches there are in such a small town, but like Amalfi it was once much larger. In its heyday from the 13th century, it had a population of 36,000, with churches, monasteries, villas and palaces. In the 12th century church of San Giovanni del Toro, rebuilt in baroque style, is a mosaic pulpit decorated with Persian majolica; in the crypt are frescoes of scenes from the life of Christ. In the center of the city is the Romanesque Cathedral of San Pantaleone, begun in 1086 and also renovated in Baroque style, and like the churches in Amalfi and Atrani, the bronze doors were cast in Constantinople. Inside are two projecting marble pulpits, both intricately inlaid. One has designs of mythical creatures and biblical scenes. You can walk back to Amalfi on the Atrani path, a long steep set of steps winding through lemon groves and past breathtaking views. Wait at least 90 minutes.
The gray stone tower opposite the cathedral is the gateway to a villa whose gardens and terrace views inspired Wagner’s magical garden at Klingsor nearby Parsifal. The villa started as a fortified mansion/farm in the 13th century and continued to grow with successive generations until it was known to have over 300 rooms (probably an exaggeration). The oldest remaining part is the 30 meter long stone watchtower. A Neo-Moorish monastery was added in the 18th century and the grounds were transformed into romantic gardens in the 19th century. Most of the buildings are now in ruins, which have been incorporated as garden features. Restored portions are used for art exhibitions and the grounds are the scene of concerts and an excellent summer festival featuring world-renowned performers and orchestras.
Address: Piazza Duomo, Ravello
Official site: https://www.villarufolo.it/home.html
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Villa Cimbrone Gardens
Past the Church of San Francesco, which has a Romanesque cloister, and the Church of Santa Chiara, you will find Villa Cimbrone. An avenue leads through the beautiful park to the Belvedere Cimbrone with an incomparable view of the Amalfi Coast. Stray from this promenade to find flower gardens behind walls and an extensive collection of bits and pieces – statues, fountains, columns, temples, wells and architectural features – brought here from ruins in this area and beyond. These were collected by the English gentleman who purchased the villa in 1904 and idiosyncratically incorporated into the midst of the greenery and flowers in the gardens.
Address: Via Santa Chiara 26, Ravello
Official site: www.villacimbrone.com
Vallone delle Ferriere
For a break from the beaches, one of the unique things to do in the Amalfi Coast is to hike through the deep valley named after the medieval foundries, the ruins of which can be seen here. The path to the valley begins in Pontone and ends six kilometers later in Amalfi. As you approach the town, you pass water mills that once powered the Amalfi paper industry. The trail, which is quite easy, descends into forests of chestnuts and passing stands of rare ferns, along a stream that falls into several waterfalls. The steep ridges on each side protect the valley from the worst winter winds and from the intense summer heat, creating a temperate and humid microclimate where rare plants thrive, some of which date back to the pre-glacial era. The central part of the trail passes through a protected natural area.
At the eastern end of the Amalfi Peninsula, where the hills descend steeply to the Gulf of Salerno, is the site of ancient Salernum, now Salerno. Salerno became the seat of the fascist government during World War II. Subsequent bombing and the Allied invasion in 1943 left only the partially ruined Castle of Arechis on the hill northwest of the city; a pair of arcs of a Roman aqueduct; and the cathedral, the only sight of any particular interest to tourists.
Built about 1080 and restored in 1768 and again after 1945, the Cathedral of San Matteo houses the relics of the Evangelist Matthew, brought here from Paestum, and one of Italy’s most important holy relics. St. Matthew is depicted in a mosaic above the doorway; the beautiful bronze doors were made in Constantinople in 1099. A staircase leads to a courtyard with 28 columns from Paestum and 14 sarcophagi, which have also been washed away from the ancient site. In the nave, note the two 12th-century pulpits with detailed mosaic decoration and nearby, an Easter candlestick in a similar style. At the end of the north aisle is the ornate tomb of Margaret of Anjou (1412) and in the chapel to the right of the high altar is the tomb of Pope Gregory VII, who died in Salerno in 1085. The choir and the floor are decorated with mosaics. After visiting the cathedral, the archaeological Museum has some local antiquities worth checking out if you don’t plan on traveling through to Paestum.
Address: Alfano I Square, Salerno
Tips and Tours: How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit to the Amalfi Coast
An organized tour to the Amalfi Coast is the best way to enjoy the spectacular coastal scenery. Sit back and enjoy the views as an experienced driver navigates the narrow, windy roads. These tours also include convenient pickup and drop-off from your hotel, as well as an expert guide.
- Day Trip from Sorrento: The Amalfi Coast day trip takes you through the quaint villages along this stunning coastline, with stops in the popular seaside town of Positano; the famous city of Amalfi; and the hilltop village of Ravello, where you can explore the beautiful gardens of the 13th-century Villa Rufolo.
- Day trip from Naples: For a completely flexible itinerary tailored to your specific interests, the Private Tour: Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi and Ravello Day Trip is a great option. See the sights from the comfort of a private chauffeur-driven car, stopping wherever you like to take photos and explore these four picturesque villages.
More destinations to see near the Amalfi Coast
The Amalfi Coast shares a peninsula with Sorrento, and along with Pompeii and Herculaneum, it’s one of the easiest day trips from Sorrento. You can take a boat north from Sorrento or the Amalfi Coast or from the city of Naples to the island of Capri. South of Salerno are the ancient Greek sites of Paestum.