Touring the Amalfi Coast
A mile-by-mile guide to Italy’s paradise by the sea.
The curvy ribbon of asphalt known as the Amalfi Drive south of Naples offers the ultimate driving experience for enthusiasts. This 51-kilometer (32-mile) stretch of automotive aspiration featuring vertiginous curves and endless panoramas of sparkling sea vistas does more than link point A to point B (Sorrento and Vietri sul Mare, respectively). In fact, the Amalfi Drive is not a road to somewhere: It is the destination.
On a grander scale, La Costiera Amalfitana is a sensorial journey, and a metaphor for the best Italy can offer its visitors. In an extremely focused and compact piece of coastal geography, it delivers an impressive assembly of Italian ideals: the most beautiful views; the best beaches and important historical landmarks; the friendliest people; the most delicious food and luxurious accommodation. It’s the quintessential Italian holiday.
Highlights include the cascading towns of Positano and Amalfi, as well as Ravello, perched high above on a sea-facing bluff. Dazzling colors, sweet aromas and fresh ingredients set the tone for some of the most romantic eating venues Italy has to offer. Sate your appetite with the fresh catch of the day, shellfish, squid, creamy mozzarella and succulent cherry tomatoes. Wash the meal down with the crisp, flinty-tasting white wines of the Campania region or a chilled glass of frosty limoncello.
Sorrento, a town with a musical soul, marks the westernmost point of the Amalfi Drive. Immortalized in the silky voices of Italian tenor Enrico Caruso and international crooner Frank Sinatra in the song “Torna a Surriento,” the clifftop town stirs up deep romantic sentiments and its citrus garden aromas make the heart beat faster—or so the lyrics promise.
Sorrento’s dramatic positioning high above the sea on a rocky terrace awards pristine views straight across the Bay of Naples. The main drag, Corso Italia and Piazza Tasso, is lined with outdoor cafés and gelaterie. Come in the early evening when Sorrento is alive with couples and families strolling up the avenues.
One adorable restaurant in Sorrento is L’Antica Trattoria (lanticatrattoria.com). It has a shaded garden glowing with brightly colored flowers and serves spaghettoni di Gragnano with frutti di mare and roasted bandiera fish wrapped in lemon leaves. Marina Grande is the picturesque fishing village of Sorrento (at sea level) and is home to Trattoria Sant’Anna da Emilia. Informal, characteristic and affordable, you can feast on cozze al limone (steamed mussels with lemon) or gnocchi alla Sorrentina. If you come on July 26, the feast day of patron Sant’Anna, brilliant fireworks illuminate the evening sky over Marina Grande.
For a sophisticated and enlightening gastronomic experience, drive to Don Alfonso 1890 (donalfonso.com) in the nearby town of Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi. This is one of Italy’s most celebrated and critically acclaimed restaurants (with a cooking school and elegant guest suites for overnight stays). Alfonso and Livia Iaccarino offer pea soup with ginger and shrimp or orecchiette pasta with broccoli and tartufi di mare.
Once you cross over the Sorrentine peninsula from the Gulf of Naples to the Gulf of Salerno, the jaw-dropping beauty of the Amalfi Drive begins to unfold. The 15-kilometer (nine-mile) stretch includes a dramatic succession of curves, sheer cliffs, rocky twists and panoramic vistas. This section of the road, known as via Nastro Azzurro (“blue ribbon”) culminates with Positano. Here you are greeted by colorfully painted buildings and vibrant bougainvillea pouring copiously down to the sea from the steep flanks of the surrounding mountains.
A former fishing village turned dolce vita playground, Positano is arguably the most beautiful town along this blessed coastline. The backbone of Positano for pedestrians is the legendary scalinatella (staircase) that snakes its way down from the top of town to the bottom, where the beach, shops and seafront restaurants are. Folk songs set to mandolin music celebrate its quick, curvy descent and establish la scalinatella as a metaphorical portal to love and happiness.
Positano has a high density of luxury hotels and affordable accommodations with colorful charm and friendly warmth. One favorite is the 18th-century Hotel Palazzo Murat, while the leading luxury hotel is the family-run Le Sirenuse. The hotel’s public spaces and most of its rooms open onto the Bay of Positano. Excellent food is found at the beachfront Covo dei Saraceni. Menu items include risotto with shrimp cream and dustings of lemon zest, a fried fish platter and spaghetti with mussels and Mediterranean clams.
Another superstar hotel is Il San Pietro di Positano. A mile out of town, it offers private beaches, a swimming pool and panoramic gourmet restaurant. This is among the top five hotels in Italy and even if you don’t have the good fortune (or budget) to book a room here, you absolutely must stop by for a glass of wine on the San Pietro terrace at sunset.
Amalfi and Ravello
The coastal drive between Positano and Amalfi delivers 10 miles of picture-perfect vistas that combine shimmering sea views with the dramatic jaggedness of the coastline. The colors—the azure blues, bright yellows, pinks and vibrant verdant tones—are brilliant to the point of blinding. The air is so luminous that even the furthest point of sea glitter comes into focus with pinpoint sharpness.
Among the most celebrated restaurants in Amalfi is Trattoria Da Gemma; delicious menu items include anchovies marinated in frisella bread and paccheri pasta filled with burrata cheese, seafood and black truffle. There’s also the unforgettable “aunt Gemma” fish soup. If you have a sweet tooth, Amalfi is home to a few excellent pastry shops including Pasticceria Pansa, with outdoor tables facing the cathedral.
If you’d like to stay the night, a natural choice is the Hotel Santa Caterina (hotelsantacaterina.it). Perched 350 meters above Amalfi with bird’s-eye views of the coast, Ravello offers another cluster of luxury accommodations and restaurants. A bit off the beaten track is the excellent and authentic Trattoria Da Lorenzo in the town of Scala beyond Ravello. Simple and down-to-earth, Lorenzo makes one of the best frittura di pesce (fried fish platters) you’ll ever taste.
Past meets present in the polished and versatile wines of this ancient region.
Where do grapevines grow on trees? In Campania, the sun-drenched region of southern Italy that the ancients named Campania Felix (“happy land”) thanks to its abundant fertility. Home to the partially buried Roman city of Pompeii, its sister city Herculaneum and the chaotic “new city” Neapolis (Naples), Campania is a giant open-air museum to the ancient world. The same is true of its farming, which is rooted in traditions and practices started many millennia ago in Greece. Thanks to the ancient import and export activities of its massive port cities and Mediterranean hubs, Campania Felix amassed a significant patrimony of grapevine material. Fertile growing conditions and volcanic soils, plus the proximity of Rome, a major domestic market, gave rise to authentic, varied and unique wines.
The tiny hilltop town of Taurasi in Irpinia is a pillar of quality wine for southern Italy; the region is celebrated for its red wine made from the hearty and naturally tannic Aglianico grapes. In nearby Irpinia and Sannio are the areas of Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino. Greco shows beautiful aromas, Fiano boasts creamy textures and both unleash crystalline notes of brimstone, pear and Golden Delicious apple. Falanghina is a crisp, versatile and easy-drinking white wine.
The area south of Naples, at the foot of the menacing Vesuvius volcano, is home to the Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio (“the tear of Christ”) denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) based on Coda di Volpe for the white wines and Piedirosso for the reds. North of Naples is the historic Falerno del Massico area; the whites are made from Falanghina and the reds are a blend of Aglianico and Piedirosso.
Inland is the Taburno area (in the province of Benevento), which produces its own hearty version of Aglianico. Indigenous varieties and a winemaking culture that is stubbornly anachronistic—that is what distinguishes Campania, and is the reason for its success.
In addition to Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi and Ravello, another alluring stop along la Costiera Amalfitana is Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi, for its spectacular views of the Bays of Salerno and Naples, and its many splendid restaurants. Depending on your itinerary, rent your car in Naples (rather than Sorrento). That way, when you reach Salerno you can drive directly back to the Naples area (one hour) or Rome (three hours) on the autostrada, rather than returning on the coast drive.
In 2010, Feudi di San Gregorio unveiled a research project called I Patriarchi; its aim is to identify the handful of vines that act as the true custodians of Campania’s genetic identity. The vines span from 75 to 250 years old and provide cutting material for future vineyards. Professors Attilio Scienza and Luigi Moio of Naples University hope that these studies will be reproduced in other areas of Italy to identify, study and safeguard the country’s oldest vines.
The Island of Capri
Visitors to the Amalfi Coast will not be able to resist a visit to Capri. Ferries leave various points on the mainland, including Sorrento and Positano, making Capri an easy day-trip destination. Once there, take the cable car up to Capri town’s celebrated piazzetta , the main square, to sip cocktails and in the words of Norman Douglas “watch the world go by.” Beaches, luxury accommodations and restaurants abound.