It happened again. At a party last weekend, we found ourselves enthusiastically in conversation with friends who are planning a trip to Italy in October and who want ideas about places to visit.
The Amalfi Coast or costiera amalfitana, is one of our favorite places in Italy. The dramatic mountain cliffs rise up against the emerald-blue sea sparkling in the sunlight below. Pastel colored villages carved into the mountain-side shine vibrantly against the landscape, while scented lemon groves and a salty sea breeze fill the air.
The drive along this spectacular coastline is simply breathtaking. It’s not, though, for the faint of heart. With steep rock on one side and a dramatic drop to the Mediterranean on the other, the narrow road clings to the mountain and follows the twisting shoreline, resulting in winding roads and sharp curves. Equipped with a sense of adventure and some solid advice, you can drive the coast and experience one of the most beautiful drives in the world.
If you already know this and want to skip directly to the driving lesson, scroll to the bottom of this post. Otherwise, read on for our recommendations on where to go and what to do on your trip.
The Amalfi Coast is the 60 km (37 mile) stretch of coastline between Sorrento and Salerno, located just south of the Bay of Naples. The most charismatic part of the coast is between the cities of Positano and Vietri sul Mare. 36 km (22 miles) separate the two cities.
1. Vietri sul Mare
Arriving from Rome or any other northern Italian city, take the Autostrada A1 south toward Naples. Just past Naples, exit onto the Autostrada A3 headed toward Salerno-Reggio Calabria. Follow the A3 past Mt. Vesuvius, the volcano whose eruption in AD 79 buried the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, to the Vietri sul Mare exit. Follow the road down to toward the city of Vietri sul Mare. As you drive down the hill, you will have your first glance at the sea down below. As you enter the town, you will see a municipal parking lot. If space is available, this is your best parking option. There is a parking ticket machine at one end of the lot. Pay in advance and place your ticket on your dashboard. If there is no available space in the lot, look for street parking.
Vietri sul Mare
Vietri sul Mare is famous for its hand-painted ceramics. Ceramic-tiled storefronts line the main street of the village.
Inside there are dishes, vases, urns, wall-tiles and countless other items hand painted in vibrant colors in the traditional style of the Amalfi Coast. Stefano and I began a collection of dishes years and years ago, and each time we go back we acquire a few more pieces.
From Rome, it’s a two-and-a-half to three-hour drive to Vietri sul Mare. Plan to arrive in the morning and do your shopping before lunch. Stores will close at approximately 1:00.
Leave Vietri sul Mare and proceed west along the coastal road. Stop for lunch at Torre Normanna for spectacular coastal views and perfectly prepared seafood in an amazing location.
Proceed along the coastal road through the villages of Maiori and Minori, stopping for a caffè or a gelato if you wish, and on towards Amalfi. We will save Amalfi for tomorrow, however. When you arrive at the village of Castiglione, turn right and follow Via Castiglione up the mountain to the city of Ravello.
Ravello sits high on the mountain overlooking the Amalfi Coast below. It is a quaint town, and has been home to many famous artists, musicians and writers, the most notable of whom include Richard Wagner, who found inspiration for his opera Parsifal, and D.H. Lawrence., who wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover, here.
Ravello is home to two villas with striking architecture and gorgeous gardens. Villa Rufolo, originally a watchtower, is an oasis of serenity with it Moorish cloister that reflects the Arab cultural influence and its immaculately cured garden on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean. Wagner loved this garden, and each summer during the Ravello Festival concerts are held in this garden, with the sea as a spectacular backdrop. Villa Cimbrone is equally beautiful, with its lush gardens, temples, statues, and fountains and its famous terrace named Belvedere of Infinity for its view out over the coast and the vast expanse of sea below.
Spend the night in Ravello. There are many hotel choices at a variety of price points. Some hotels are located just outside the gates of the city just off of the main road, and are quite accessible. Others are tucked away inside the town, often down narrow cobblestone paths. Before making a reservation, ask about parking (there essentially is none inside the city walls), and also about luggage services. Be specific about where the nearest parking is, what parking costs, how far there is to walk, whether it is up or down hills, and if there is help with luggage. And of course, request a room with a sea view.
We stayed Villa San Michele years ago and were very satisfied. We have also stayed at Villa Amore. This more cost effective hotel is located deep into the heart of Ravello. A simple and clean place, it has a few rooms with small gardens overlooking the sea. Ask for a room with a full sea-view, vista sul mare, and don’t accept a partial or blocked view. Don’t be afraid to not accept a room if the view does not meet your expectations, and even to leave for a different hotel if they cannot offer you a different room. You are on the Amalfi Coast and a full-sea view is a must.
Many hotels along the Amalfi Coast offer a full- or half-pension. A full-pension includes breakfast, lunch and dinner. The half-pension, which we prefer, includes breakfast and either lunch or dinner. You need to let the hotel manager know each morning which meal you plan to have there. Our recommendation is to take advantage of the half-pension, eating lunch away from the hotel while you are exploring the coastline, and having dinner back at the hotel. We’ve always enjoyed the hotel dinners we’ve had on the Amalfi Coast; well prepared meals that take advantage of the fresh seafood, sun-ripened tomatoes, and amazing mozzarella di bufala native to that part of the country.
In the morning, have a caffè, hop back in the car and take Via Castiglione back down to SS163, the official name for the coastal road, and proceed toward Amalfi.
Once a the capital of the powerful Maritime Republic of Amalfi, but later ravaged by years of natural disaster and poverty, Amalfi is now a quaint, if very touristy, town. As you enter the town you will see several municipal parking lots near the shore, often with city traffic officers directing tourists into parking spaces. Be prepared to pay the high parking fees – there simply is no alternative.
Head up the hill into Piazza Duomo, the town square. Admire the cherubs and chuckle at the nymph’s water-jetting bosom at the Fontana di Sant’Andrea in the center of the square, and then turn to your right and visit Pasticceria Pansa for a Neopolitan-style pastry and a cappuccino or a cup of tea.
Make a mental note to return to buy some chocolate-dipped candied citrus peel or babà al limoncello to take away with you.
Adjacent to Pasticceria Pansa is the impressive 10th century Duomo di Sant’Andrea with its Arab, Norman and Gothic influences. Climb the 62 steps up to to the cathedral and admire its bronze doors, cast in Constantinople in AD 1044. Inside the Duomo frescos cover the walls of the Baroque interior. Be sure not to miss the Cloister of Paradise on the left side of the cathedral’s portico, with its Moorish white marble arches and beautiful garden.
After exiting the Duomo, stroll up the the streets of Amalfi and into the small alleyways of the village. Although the small shops are often over-priced, some fun items can be found. Look for confections of limoncello, the lemon-infused liquor made popular by the Amalfi Coast, or glass jars of tuna canned in olive oil. We promise you it will be the best tuna you’ve tasted. Before returning to your car, stroll down to the shoreline to see the quaint fishing boats and the sometimes impressive yachts docked in the harbor.
Have lunch in Amalfi, or find a spot further down the coast on your way towards Positano. Two highly recommended places are Ristorante Eola, which is along the coast in Amalfi, and Hostaria il Pino, which is further along the coastal road near the town of Praiano, just over half-way between Amalfi and Positano.
Positano is a jet-set and touristy village built dramatically and steeply into the side of the mountain in stunning pastel colors that glow in the evening sunlight.
Parking in Positano can be challenging. If you plan to spend the night, be sure to find a hotel that offers parking. In the best case scenario, you will pull off on the side of the road in front of your hotel, go in to check in, and hand your keys over to a valet, and not worry about your car again until you are ready to leave Positano. Luggage service is another thing to ask about. Steep staircases unlike anything you have ever seen have been cut into the mountain to allow locals and tourists to move about through the village. However, you don’t want to try to go up and down those with heavy suitcases! If you are not staying overnight, you will need to pay 20-30 Euros per day to park in a garage. It is outrageous, but simply part of the cost of experiencing the beauty of the Amalfi Coast.
In Positano, stroll up and down the charismatic labyrinth of streets. Shopping is one of the highlights of this little town, and hand-crafted, made-to-measure strappy leather sandals are what Positano is famous for. You can choose from a variety of styles and leathers and in about 10 minutes you will have your sandals made exclusively for you. They will cost a pretty penny, but will also last forever.
Wander down to the beach to soak up some Mediterranean sun, or simply for a stroll. There are two beaches: Spiaggia di Marina Grande is the busiest of the two, while Spiaggia di Formillo, a little further west, is quieter. Don’t expect white sand; both beaches are made up of small, round pebbles. You will want sandals to walk in, and if you plan on spending time on the beach it is worth renting chairs and an umbrella. From the beach you can see Li Galli, the archipelago of little islands just off of the coast that are said to be where the Sirens seduced Ulysses and other ship captains in Homer’s Odyssey. The coast is home to dozens of spots to grab a drink, an afternoon aperitif, or dinner.
If you prefer action over relaxation, consider taking a ferry to the islands of Ischia or Capri for a day trip. You will see a lot of advertising about the Grotta dello Smeraldo, the sea cave full of stalactites and stalagmites that fills with emerald-glowing light. Most reviews suggest that it is an excursion to pass on.
Directions out of the Amalfi Coast
When you are ready to leave Positano and end your stay on the Amalfi coast, get back onto the coastal road SS163 and follow it west. It will eventually take you inland in the direction of Sorrento. Follow the signs to Sorrento; the road will eventually turn into SS145. Stop and stay in Sorrento for a night, or follow the SS145 until you see signs for E45 Napoli/Roma. Take the E45 Napoli/Roma, which will turn into the Autostrada A1 headed toward Rome.
How to Drive on the Amalfi Coast
By now you are enamored with the costiera amalfitana, appreciative of the flexibility that a car offers, and enticed to experience the amazing coastal drive yourself. You can; just follow the advice below.
- Choose a smaller-size car. It will be easier to handle on the curves. Too much luggage is a hassle on the coast anyway.
- Consider automatic vs. manual transmission. Most Italian cars have manual transmission (cambio manuale), and if you know how to drive a straight-stick, the manual transmission is a lot of fun. Be prepared, however, for frequent shifting between first, second and third gear as you speed up and slow down on the winding roads. If this isn’t your thing, get a rental car with automatic transmission (cambio automatico).
- Keep an eye out for the scooters. Locals, especially the youth, use motorini and Vespas to travel up and down the coast. Their driving will seem reckless to you, especially as they pass you on the right, squeezing between your car and the mountain wall. Keep your cool and stay in your lane. Don’t be tempted to veer into the oncoming lane to go around them. They’ve driven this road hundreds of times, and you haven’t. They know when they fit and when they don’t.
- Don’t get too adventurous and rent a scooter yourself. You’re not ready for that yet. If you get really good at driving the road in a car, then you could maybe consider it.
- Don’t drive too fast, but don’t drive too slow, either. It’s very frustrating to be stuck behind a tourist who is creeping along the road, holding up traffic behind him or her. This is especially frustrating for the locals.
- Be mindful of cars flashing their lights at you; this is a form of communication in Italy. If an oncoming car flashes its lights at you, this means “watch out” or “get out of my way.” If a car behind you flashes its lights at you, this generally means “hurry up.”
- Slow down and hug the walls as you go around curves; you can’t see what is coming around the corner from the other direction. At some point, you’ll be surprised when you see a larger vehicle or a tour bus in the other lane and realize that you both don’t fit.
- When you encounter a tour bus on a curve, the tour bus has the right of way. Slow down or stop if necessary to let it get around first. If you encounter a tour bus on a curve and you both cannot fit, you will be expected to carefully and slowly back up to allow the bus through. Put your car into reverse so that the cars behind you see your reverse lights and understand that they also need to back up, and slowly move backwards until the bus can get by. It will be scary the first time, but you’ll be fine and the cars behind you will understand that they need to back up, too.
- If you are approaching a curve and you hear a deep horn honk, it is likely a tour bus approaching from the other side. Hug the wall and slow down, so that hopefully the bus can get by and you can avoid #8 above.
- You will encounter men and women with small fruit stands in little enclaves along the side of the road. They will be selling what appear to be gigantic lemons, but are actually citrons, which are more for attention-grabbing that anything else. You can stop, but you need to pull off the road into the enclave so that you are not blocking traffic.
- When you park, allow your passenger to get out of the car first so that you can park tightly against the side of the road and the wall.
- Before getting out of your car, look very carefully behind you to be sure that you are not opening your car door in front of an oncoming car, or even worse, a scooter.
- When you close your doors, take a moment to turn your side mirrors in against the car door. On this stretch of road, every inch counts.
- Finally, go easy on the white wine and limoncello if you are hopping back into your car after lunch. This isn’t the time to play Mario Andretti.
More on the Amalfi Coast:
The Amalfi Coast is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
View this YouTube video of driving on the Amalfi Coast. It’s the real deal, with delightful music in the background. Our only comment is that the film person was so focused on the road itself, the video does not do justice to the spectacular coastal views.
TripAdvisor has a forum on driving on the Amalfi Coast, with advice for drivers and for those who prefer to hire a transport service.