Positano defies gravity. Pastel buildings hang like tendrils dipping over the sea. Mosaic church domes are wedged between cliffs. Old ladies with in matching house dresses and droopy nylons trudge up countless stairs. The town is vertical, funneling from a long, winding strip of coast into the hills. The highest neighborhood of Positano is Montepertuso, meaning Mount Hole in local dialect. As the legend goes, villagers attempting to escape marauders scampered into the hills above town only to become blocked by an imposing rock formation. They prayed to the Virgin Mary and so she ventured down from the heavens and parted the rocks, allowing the early Positanese to pass through safely. The hole in this rock formation is said to resemble the Madonna (I think it looks like an rather beaky eagle) and would give Montepertuso its name.
The legend reveals a lot about Positano. There were many pirates roaming the Amalfi Coast throughout the Middle Ages and the reign of the Duchy of Amalfi. To seek refuge from these pirates, locals built villas and churches high in the hills in unnatural crevices and perched atop cliffs. Later this odd architectural safety feature would draw hordes of visitors from the entire world to admire the unlikelt town of Positano.
For much of the second half of the twentieth century, Positano was a sleepier and less strategic port than her more powerful neighbor of Amalfi. Following WWII, bohemians, dancers and exiled European homosexual aristocracy grew tired or bored of Capri, and began investing in little pied-à-terres in Positano. Patricia Highsmith popularized this phenomenon when she wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley. In the book, wealthy American Dickie Greenleaf runs away from his family fortune to a retreat in the fictional town of Mongibello, inspired by the very real town of Positano. The film on the other hand took place largely on the island of Ischia.
Around the time all of the artists, dancers and homosexuals where forging their creative abodes on Positano and hanging out at the Buca di Bacco Bar Pergola, John Steinbeck made a rousing trip to the Amalfi Coast. Later he wrote, “Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” Perhaps the most fitting description of Positano written in recent history.
By the 1960s the Rolling Stones were getting stoned here, Jimi Hendrix’s old girlfriend was prancing around nude on Laurito Beach and jetsetters were flocking here to buy linens and stay at the Sirenuse Hotel, where Steinbeck also reposed. Positano has never really calmed down since. It is vibrant, colorful, sensual and unless you have untold sums of money to rent a private villa in the hills, it is also very crowded. You come here for what Diana Vreeland would call ‘pizzaz!’ Below is my guide to Positano’s pizzaz.
What to Do
The Pathway to the Gods is a breath taking old shepherd’s trail that connects the mountain top town of Agerola (not technically part of the Amalfi Coast) to the seaside town of Positano. If you plan to hike here from Positano’s city center, you are facing a long, uphill walk before even officially beginning the trail. You must head up the SS 163 Amalfitana Highway to the neighborhood of Arienzo and then up 1800 stairs to where the trail begins in Nocelle. You will be rewarded with spectacular sweeping views of the Amalfi Coast, Capri and the Galli Islands. From Nocelle to Agerola, the trail takes approximately three hours. Do not plan to hike back town to Positano from Agerola- it is simply too much hiking in one day. There is no direct public transport from Agerola. You can take a public bus to Amalfi and then from Amalfi another bus to Positano. Hiking back would frankly be faster. Do yourself a favor and book a private transfer. The views here are like none other- it is worth the effort.
The main beach of Positano is prime people watching territory. Here you will see proposals, preening locals, selfie loving visitors, diners, shoppers…. It is busy and sceney. But it also makes for an enjoyable afternoon at the beach. There is a small strip of public beach where you must fight for space to place your towel. Otherwise you can rent a bed and umbrella for the day for 15 Euro. Or just walk and sip a falanghina at the nearby Buca di Bacco Bar Pergola. Beware that local men who are often married also park their asses at this outdoor bar and prey unsuspecting women. But this too is also kind of fun to watch (and experience if that’s your sort of thing)!
To get into the true Positano spirit, walk the short path from the Main Beach to Fornillo. Head towards the Covo di Saraceno Hotel and up the staircase. This scenic footpath winds around rocks, with crystalline views of the sea and finally to the scenic Fornillo Beach. Spend a day here at Beach Club Da Ferdinando.
Where to Stay
This hotel is legendary not only for its luxury but also its literature. John Steinbeck famously staid in this prominent Pompeian red palace. In fact Sirenuse still hosts an elite writer’s workshop called Sirenland every year. Stay here if you want to be walking distance from the city center. The other two luxury properties we suggest require shuttle service to Positano’s main drag.
The terrain into which the Cinque family built this stunning hotel is absolutely gravity defying. The property spans several tiers from the road straight down to the water. The views from the pool will melt you into a state of bliss. Pure romance.
The former property of Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, Villa Treville is impossibly bohemian chic. If you are a lover of interior design, stay here. It is the most stylish hotel on the Amalfi Coast. In recent years, billionaire Govind Friedland purchased the property. It has not lost any of its magic. If you can’t afford to stay here, come her for a cocktail at sunset.
Anywhere else in the world this hotel would probably be considered on the highest end, in Positano it is notably and charmingly a mid-range priced hotel. An easy walk to the beach and the town center, Eden Roc is lovely and will not completely bankrupt you to stay here either.
This bougainvillea drenched hotel is perfect for young couples and families seeking affordable luxury. Not exactly a budget hotel, it is still possible to stay here for under 300 Euro a night- which is saying something in Positano. Splurge for a room with a balcony and view. These terraces are huge! You can save your afternoon cocktail money by enjoying your tipples on the terrace. Also a close walk down the town stairs to the center.
A little off the beaten path, this is one of the few hotels in Positano that offers direct beach access. And Fornillo Beach is far more charming than the crowded Main Beach of Positano. Once again, get a room with a balcony and view. Just prepare for a little bit of a hike to the town center. A spectacular cliff side path takes you from Fornillo to the Main Beach in ten minutes. The sunrise here is a site to behold.
It is still possible to stay at this little bed and breakfast for less than 150 Euro per night, which is incredibly unusual in Positano. It is clean, a great location with several sea facing rooms. The only problem is you MUST book far in advance. That cat is out of the bag on this.
La Tagliata is a famous scenic steak joint, high in the hills of Positano in the neighborhood of Montepertuso. There is also a very affordably prices bed and breakfast on this property offers delightful cooking class packages. The views here, given the altitude, are among the best in Positano. You will rely on shuttle transport to the center of Positano. So don’t plan on any late night visits to Music on the Rocks unless you also plan on spending about 50 Euro for a late night taxi ride back to Montepertuso. Then again, La Tagliata hosts live Tarantella folkloric music concerts every night and it can get pretty raucous too!
Also costing less than 200 euro, this eclectic guesthouse offers a full daily breakfast and each room boasts panoramic views. Right above Fornillo Beach, the hotel offers easy beach access and is about a 15 minute walk to the city center. There are a lot of stairs so be prepared to sweat!
Where to Eat
Da Adolfo is a bonafide scene. This is more beach shack than restaurant and sits right on Laurito Beach with a little skiff that runs every 30 minutes bringing customers from the Main Beach. You are supposed to have a reservation but it is often impossible to even get through to Da Adolfo by phone and I often wonder if they even know what email is. A secret is to come by foot from the stairs that connect road high above the restaurant to the beach. If you just show up, the frazzled staff here might just accidentally seat you. The boat often refuses to even board people who have no reservations. Once you are lucky enough to sit here, shirts, shoes and even pants are optional. Dig your feet into the pebbled sand, order the house falanghina wine with peaches and an appetizer of lemon leaves with fiori di latte cheese. For primo, enjoy the spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams) and for secondo just order whatever grilled fresh fish they have that day. I like the anchovies. Orata and branzino are also good. Service is surly and scene is chaotic. So just order a full liter of wine and go with the FLOW! Be careful not to photo bomb Gwyneth Paltrow’s Instagram selfies- she is none to skulk around here.
Another Positano institution, this steak house delights the American visitor looking for a break from the local seafood. Portions are huge. The antipasti alone are enough to make you wish you had worn your stretchy pants (or no pants at all for that matter). Prepare to be a glutton for the evening and enjoy the live folkloric music. You will get drunk. You might dance on the table.
This is the best fine dining restaurant in Positano. Just above the city center on the winding road, Da Vincenzo exquisitely prepares local dishes including ricotta stuffed squash blossom and seafood risotto. Romantic and gourmet, a Positano gem. Make reservations to ensure you get an outdoor table with that iconic view of the sea and town below.
Where to Party
There is only one place to party in Positano and it is the delightfully gaudy Music on the Rocks. You probably would not come here if you weren’t in Positano. The DJs are kind of terrible- think Panama City spring break circa Thong Song days and there are far too many local (married) men
on the prowl for American women of practically any age. BUT, you are in Positano and you probably got drunk at La Tagliata and you need to blow off some steam so you are here. And really, it is a rite of passage to spend at least one drunken night Positanting in the white pleather sofa infused grottos of Music on the Rocks. Mazel!
Where to Shop
You’ll find locations of this classic brightly patterned linen clothing shop all across the Amalfi Coast. And I love it. As soon as you check in to your hotel, head straight here and get yourself something LOUD that screams I AM FREEBASING FALANGHINA IN POSITANTO B*TCHES #sorrynotsorry. Bonus points if you buy a Mumu that features some bizarre pattern of Carmen Miranda heads or a hot pink and electric green scarf that you wear as a turban when you have freebased so much of the aforementioned falanghina that you can’t remember if it is scarf, a bespoke tank top or a pair of crotchless pants. Your Insta feed will thank your sartorial fashion sense later.
This Positano outpost of the famous Carthusia perfumery on Capri offers gently narcotic fragrances that will keep you smelling fresh after all your boozing and floozing. The mini perfumes make excellent gifts and the staff here will customize fragrances that all feature local products for you according to your pheromones. Be careful not to unwittingly attract any of the off duty married taxi drivers infesting the bar of Music on the Rocks.
The ceramics of the Amalfi Coast are vibrant and make the perfect gift for your friends and family that were not fortunate enough to join you on this adventure. This ceramic shop is super expensive. And if you are a big ceramic lover, I suggest you take a day trip to Vietri sul Mare- which is the ceramic capitol of the Coast. But if you just need a little souvenir, stop here and buy the garlic grater plates that are hand painted. Don’t come in here with children or backpacks. You will break something. And yes, you will pay for it!