The Towns of the Amalfi Coast
The Amalfi Coast offers some of the most striking panoramic vistas in the world. I like to call it suffocatingly beautiful because everywhere you look, every jagged cliff, every bougainvillea encrusted villa, every secret stone tipping into the sea is simply more beautiful than the last thing you saw not just that day but in your life. Driving down the Amalfi Coast is the pastel panoramic equivalent of gavaging yourself with shrooms at Woodstock. You just do not, cannot believe that what you are seeing is real. The good news is that it most definitely is.
For over two millennia, starting with the arrival of the first Greek mariners in the Bay of Naples and throughout the rise of the Roman Empire, the Amalfi Coast was a small collection of relatively unremarkable villages. The jagged coastline was naturally spectacular to be sure. But the Gulf of Sorrento and the Phlegraean towns of Baia and Bacoli were favored by Romans as the site of vacation homes. The most important local naval base of the day (which continues to be of strategic importance today even to the US Navy) was at Miseno on the Bay of Naples. The Amalfi Coast was essentially nothing but a beautiful backwater for the duration of the Roman Empire.
That all changed with the shift of power to the Eastern Roman Empire and the mounting important of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). As the center of geopolitical influence shifted east, trading routes also shifted to accommodate new commercial opportunities. The town of Amalfi became an important trading center and later became the Duchy of Amalfi, one of five Italian maritime republics that also included Genova, Pisa, Livorno and Venice.
As the Duchy of Amalfi grew rich, pirates started arriving. The terrain of the Amalfi Coast made it difficult for small sea facing villages including Positano and Conca dei Marini to defend themselves against marauders. Thus a new tradition of brigantes, mountain dwelling guerilla fighters, emerged to protect the vulnerable seaside towns. Over time, as a response to the increasing dangers of pirates, many of these villages began relocating further and further into the hills of the Monti Lattari, the mountain range that forms the gravity defying topography of the Amalfi Coast.
After centuries of creatively building villas, churches and businesses in these mountain crevices, rock faces and cliff sides, and with mariners painting their villas bright pastel colors to recognize them when returning home from long periods at sea, we ended up with a collection of beautiful, if oddly positioned villages that would later become the UNESCO world heritage site that it the Amalfi Coast.
Throughout much of the early 20th century, the towns of the Amalfi Coast fell into a decadent period of disrepair with many inhabitants immigrating to the Americas. Positano was all but abandoned and many early migrants arriving in New York and later settling in New Jersey and Connecticut sold their family villas for a song. Today those same villas are worth untold millions.
Following WWII, American GIs and later jet-set bon vivants rediscovered the Amalfi Coast, namely the towns of Positano and the operatic Ravello (where composer Wagner wrote Parsifal). Eventually Positano would eclipse Amalfi as the most important destination on the Amalfi Coast, a source of mild consternation for native Amalfitani who regularly remind us that the the Duchy was named after Amalfi and NOT Positano. Fair enough.
The important thing to remember is that while the Amalfi Coast is a littoral region with similar foods, customs and traditions, each town has evolved to embrace her own heritage and each has made significantly unique contributions to the cultural patrimony of the Amalfi Coast. The guide below provides a brief overview of each Amalfi Coast town, highlighting their specific cultural, and culinary distinctions. If you can spare the time while on the Amalfi Coast, try to appreciate each town in her own right. Travel slowly. Scratch beneath the surface (however beautiful it may be) and get to know the smaller towns including Cetara and Atrani.
Glittering Positano….. how could you not love her? While a relatively little known fishing town for most of her early history, Positano exploded onto the scene in the 1960s when the international jet-set pounced upon it. Not much has slowed down since. With mosaic church domes and iconic views, Positano is still the most popular destination on the Amalfi Coast. Many of the most important hotels on the Coast, including the Sirenuse and the San Pietro, call Positano home. The linens here are famous, but what you really come here for is the people (and yacht) watching. The main beach, the Spiaggia Grande is prime preening ground, but Fornillo and Arienzo are more scenic and slightly less crowded beaches. Positano is the Amalfi Coast in all of its spectacularly ribald grandeur. With the crowds, the colors, the sea and flowers, Positano offers nearly narcotic sensory overload.
Vibes: Hip, jet-set, crowded
Not to Miss: Sunbathing on Fornillo Beach; strolling the Main Beach (Spiaggia Grande); Pathway to the Gods; lunch at D’Adolfo (which is an unmitigated scene and requires advanced booking notwithstanding the fact that the owner, Sergio often takes the phone off the hook at peak hours and does not frequently respond to email requests for reservations)
An antidote to the crowded Positano, Praiano is equally beautiful with fewer crowds and less cacophony. Vettica di Praiano, a neighborhood, which sits above the main strip, offers some of the most jaw dropping views of the coast. Also villas here cost a fraction of what they would in Positano. That is not to say the Praiano is some how inferior to Positano. It simply remains less explored. The town does not boast sandy beaches- rather stunning platforms that jut into the sea. I suggest Il Pirata for both the beach club and the restaurant, which offers excellent sea urchin, and clam pastas. For those seeking nightlife, Praiano is home to the most important disco on the Coast, Africana Famous Club.
Vibes: Charming, serene with just enough night-life stimulation for those who seek it
Not to Miss: Beach day at Il Pirata; Vettica di Praiano’s piazza; One Fire Beach Club
Furore is the most curious of vertical towns. It starts at about 600 meters above sea level and runs straight down to the sea. It is famous for its lemons and wines. Marissa Cuomo, a local vintner has recently popularized the Fiorduva grape, a varietal that can only be found in this section of Coast. The Fiordo di Furore, a bridge that connects two jagged parts of the coast, is famous for its beach, which appeared in the Fellini film, Amore. Fellini adored the town of Furore and frequently vacationed here.
Vibes: Azure natural beauty, slightly of the beaten path, more rustic than Positano
Not to Miss: Cantine Marissa Cuomo; Fiordo di Furore
4) Conca dei Marini
This old fishing village would later become a favorite beach destination of Jackie Kennedy. While staying in Ravello, she reportedly shot down the coast in a little Fiat 500 to bathe in the beaches of Conca dei Marini. Before there was Jackie, there were the nuns that invented the sfogliatella pastry at the Santa Rosa Monastery in the heart of Conca dei Marini. The town is long, narrow and like Furure runs vertical straight down to the coast. The beaches here are on platforms- no long sandy beaches on this part of the Amalfi Coast. The platform beach clubs, including Capo di Conca are stunning and you should plan on spending the day here sipping Falanghina.
Vibes: Tranquil, beachy, casual
Not to Miss: Capo di Conca Beach Club; San Pancrazio Church (the piazza in front of it is amazing and does not have too many crowds); Grotta dello Smeraldo Cave
The former capitol of the Duchy of Amalfi, the town of Amalfi not only gives the Coast its name but also its history. Today it is a kind of hub for exploring the rest of the Amalfi Coast as it sits about halfway between Positano and Vietri sul Mare on the SS 163 Amalfitana, the famous curving road that connects the entire coast. It can get very busy here in the summer so I suggest venturing to the excellent beach clubs slightly north of the town center. You can reach these beaches, including Duglio and Santa Croces, by taking small boats from Amalfi’s docks that depart every 30 minutes. Go to Duglio Beach’s Lido degli Artisti or Santa Croce Beach’s Da Teresa. Plan on spending the day here and enjoying their excellent seafood pastas and main courses.
Vibes: Historic, crowded, jocular
Not to Miss: Duglio Beach; Santa Croce Beach; Sant’Andrea Cathedral
Just as the Amalfi Coast curves from the town of Amalfi into Atrani, everything changes. The southern portion of the Amalfi, starting at Atrani is far less crowded and perhaps more steeped in tradition than its northern counterparts. Atrani is tiny and its Santa Maria Maddalena Church is one of the most beautiful on the Amalfi. Stay here to avoid the crowds and enjoy a more relaxed vacation or come here for a quiet afternoon of strolling.
Vibes: Quiet, traditional, less touristy
Not to Miss: Santa Maria Maddalena
Since its boom years as an important silk trading post in the medieval era, straight through to today, Ravello is one of the richest and most beloved towns on the Amalfi Coast. Greta Garbo got married here. Richard Wagner wrote Parsifal here. Gore Vidal called it home. Ravello is a hilltop Amalfi Coast jewel of which Vidal once wrote, “a wonderful place to observe the end of the wolrd.” He may have been writing about Villa Cimbrone’s Infinity Terrace, which seems to hover over the sea, defying the laws of gravity allowing sky and sea to melt into one blindingly azure mass. Ravello has a small beach, Castiglione, but the main part of the town is up in the hills. Beware that what makes Ravello beautiful (its vertical coastal panoramas), also makes it difficult to navigate. There are a lot of staircases. Oh well, all the more reason to indulge in extra pasta.
Vibes: Old world beauty, classic, romantic, far quieter and cooler than Positano
Not to Miss: The Gardens at Villa Rufolo; The Infinity Terrace and Gardens at Villa Cimbrone
Just above Ravello, sits the hilltop town of Scala. Picturesque and tranquil, Scala is charming without being stuffy. To enjoy a real mountain retreat with Amalfi Coast views, head to Scala. If it is your first time to the Coast, you may want to make a lower lying coastal town such as Praiano your home base. However if you are searching for a romantic weekend holiday, I suggest Scala. Also a good spot to stay if planning to hike the regional trails of the Monti Lattari Mountains.
Vibes: Rustic, alpine, cool
Not to Miss: Monastery of Santissimo Redentore; Valle delle Ferriere Trail connecting Agerola to Ravello and Amalfi
Minori is what we might call a bonboniera, or little jewel box in Italian. Formerly a quaint fishing village, Minori is now a tourist destination that enjoys fewer crowds than the towns of Positano and Ravello. Here you will find a sandy beach (one of only three on the Amalfi Coast) as well as the famous Sal de Riso bakery, famous for its Delizia al Limone, lemon sponge cake dessert. Minori is also home to the Villa Marittima Romana, the most notable Roman era archeological site.
Vibes: Authentic, simple, quaint
Not to Miss: Sal de Riso Bakery, Villa Marittima Romana
The bigger sister to Minori, Maiori boasts the longest sand beach on the Amalfi Coast. Due to a devastating flood in 1954, most of Maiori’s sea facing buildings have been reconstructed. Though the 1960’s style architecture here is a stark departure from the mosaic and pastel villas of the rest of the Coast, do not let this stop you from spending time here. The beach includes ample free space if you tire of paying the exorbitant fees to enter beach clubs- which are the norm on the Amalfi Coast. Additionally, the lungomare sea walk is a pleasant stroll and ideal destination for those seeking more open spaces than available in other towns of the region.
Vibes: 1960s style architecture meets Tyrrhenian vistas
Not to Miss: Lungomare sea walk
Tramonti is the largest town of the Amalfi Coast. Just a 10-minute drive up the hills from Maiori, Tramonti offers mountain tranquility with full sea views. Additionally, this is the breadbasket of the Amalfi Coast given the abundant supply of arable land. Some of the best pizza makers in the region come from here. Also the Fiori di Latte cheese here is excellent. It is worth noting that if you plan to explore the Amalfi Coast on a budget, you may consider staying in Tramonti. It is a very short drive to the beaches of Maiori from and rooms costs a fraction of what they would elsewhere on the Amalfi Coast. Many people make the mistake of staying in Agerola while on a budget--- DON’T. Not only is Agerola not part of the Amalfi Coast (it is actually a part of the Province of Naples), but it takes over an hour in traffic to get to the beach from Agerola. Stay in Tramonti for similar alpine feel and budget and you will also be far closer to the beach.
Vibes: Foodie, agrarian, Alpine
Not to Miss: Santa Maria la Nova Church
Cetara is famous for its Colatura di Alici anchovy extract. Related to the ancient Roman fermented fish paste of Garum, Colatura enhances the briny umami flavor of local pestos, pasta and fish dishes. Some of the best anchovies in the Mediterranean come from these waters and some of the best restaurants on the Amalfi Coast are in Cetara- the most famous of which is Acqua Pazza. There is a little sliver of beach here and a quaint piazza. You are also only about a 25-minute drive from Salerno, so it is easy to reach Cetara using public transport.
Vibes: Foodie fishing village
Not to Miss: Lunch at Acqua Pazza; Delfino Colatura Factory
13) Vietri sul Mare
The southernmost town of the Amalfi Coast, Vietri sul Mare is know as the ceramic capitol of the region. While it can become crowded here in August, generally Vietri sul Mare is a tranquil alternative to the towns of the northern section of the Amalfi Coast. There is a long sandy beach here, and Vietri is easy to access with public transport. It is only a 10-minute drive from Salerno, which has a train station, unlike the Amalfi Coast. Plan to spend a day shopping for the most amazing selection of colorful, naïf style ceramics.
Vibes: Artsy alternative
Not to Miss: Solimene Ceramic Factory