The Amalfi Coast. La Costa Amalfitana.
It's always sounded so romantic to me, the idea of it: Small towns built into cliffs overlooking the sea; the road curving dangerously through narrow tunnels; photographs of twinkling lights in the windows of multicolored stucco buildings stacked precariously on top of one another, overlooking the sparkling Tyrrhenian Sea; brightly colored bougainvillea climbing stone walls and wrapping around iron railings. The sea is bright blue and dotted with tiny sailboats, and the beaches are lined with yellow and white striped beach chairs whose beautifully tanned occupants sip Aperol Spritzes as they soak up the golden sun.
Other than these glittering images stamped onto my brain, I really had no idea what the Amalfi Coast had to offer, and despite doing my research it was hard to know what to expect. Everyone seemed to have a different opinion of which town to stay in and what restaurant had the best view. It seemed that Positano was the most picturesque cove, filled with luxurious hotels and high-end restaurants. On the other end of the strip of small towns dotting the coast was Amalfi itself, a grittier place by reputation. It was where the cruise ships docked, constantly overwhelmed by all kinds of day-trippers.
To sidestep hotel rates as steep as the landscape, we sought a vacation rental for the cost efficiency, the living space and our own kitchen to prepare meals. Both relaxing and central, Praiano was the perfect small town midway between the main hubs of the coastline, Positano and Amalfi.
An exhaustive search led us to a beautiful home with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, several balconies and even a swimming pool. Nearly a hundred old stone steps separated the house from the closest parking/drop-off area, but the climb was worth the view from our patio.
Looking back on our trip to the Amalfi Coast, I have some takeaways that I wish I had known before visiting. Hopefully these tidbits can help you plan your own trip!
Where to Stay
So, I was right about Praiano being right in the middle of everything. It's a small, quiet village with a beautiful little church. There isn't much in the town itself: a couple small shops and a few restaurants. Nothing was walkable as the coast is extremely hilly, and it was necessary to take a bus to any other town. Also worth mentioning are the church bells that start at 7 a.m. every day and ring loud renditions of hymns every 15 minutes for at least an hour. The church bells set off the neighborhood dogs, and, well, you get an early start to your day because there's no going back to sleep after this wake up call. The positive? The sunrises were worth being up early for.
From our little villa in Praiano, we primarily went to Positano & Amalfi, and each were about a thirty minute bus ride. If you get car sick, the Amalfi Coast is not the place for you. The windy cliffside road grants no mercy of a straight-away, and the buses stops and restarts are constant. Though the drivers are pros, it's still a terrifying ride. The lanes are narrow and the curves are treacherous, and you often feel like you're about to topple over the low fence separating road from sea. You're in good hands, but be aware.
For first-timers or those with mobility issues, I would recommend spending the extra cash for a hotel or vacation rental in Positano. You will have much more at your fingertips, and will easily be able to walk out of your hotel and into a restaurant or shop. The idea of staying in Praiano in order to be central to other towns was great, but in actuality it was so difficult getting to other towns that we would have rather been somewhere we could have happily stayed the entire time. Planning a dinner out from Praiano was almost impossible, as the buses were infrequent and unreliable, and other than taking a $50 taxi ride to or from Positano there was no other way to get from town to town. We had to efficiently plan our days around the bus schedule, making it difficult to do much and see more.
Amalfi is also an option that would offer more convenience and more things to do, but it's not as beautiful or charming. Positano is also more easily accessible from the northern cities of Naples and Rome, the direction from which you'll likely approach the coast on your visit.
We booked our absolutely stunning home in Praiano, Villa Antica, through Trip Advisor. We had plenty of space, the kitchen was well-stocked, and we had every meal on the huge patio. There were, however, many stairs to climb to get to and from the bus stop, and with large suitcases and grocery bags it wasn't easy. Keep this in mind as this is quite common anywhere in the Amalfi Coast given its gorgeous but tricky terrain!
This is a personal choice. We had a rental car that we were convinced to leave for the week in a parking garage in Sorrento because everyone warned us away from driving on the Amalfi Coast. There is basically one road that hugs the cliffside and is very narrow and windy. However, by the time we arrived we had already been driving all over Southern Spain and Southern Italy, and although it was a slightly nauseating drive with all of the curves, I know Kiel would have managed just fine. However, he's a very confident (and somewhat aggressive) Boston driver. I wouldn't have been comfortable doing it myself. Also, parking is not easy in any of the towns so take that into consideration if you plan on driving yourself. Speak in advance to your hotel or vacation rental to ensure a parking spot.
If you're not comfortable driving, your second choice is public transportation. There are a couple bus lines that run daily between the coastal towns. However, the schedule is extremely confusing and inconsistent. They are infrequent, so they are usually very crowded and easy to miss, meaning you'll be stuck somewhere for a while. They don't run late at night so dinner in a town other than the one you're staying in can be very difficult. We relied on the bus, but it wasn't easy and ate up a lot of our time. We couldn't go to as many of the other towns as we really wanted to.
Another great option is that some hotels offer shuttles, so that's always a good question to ask. You can also consider the ferry, which we took one day from Amalfi to Positano. Again, the schedule is limited. Taxis are expensive (about $50 from Praiano to Positano, one way) and Uber is non-existent. Keep an open mind and an open schedule!
Things to Do
If it's your first time on the Amalfi Coast, you'll probably want to explore the towns as they're all very different from each other. Positano, Ravello, and Amalfi all offer different viewpoints and charming places to explore, from shops and restaurants to gardens and beaches. Here were a few of our top picks.
Spend a day wandering in and out of shops in Positano. Buy some citrus-scented souvenirs - the Amalfi coast is known for their huge, flavorful lemons. The hand-painted ceramics are also one of a kind; pick up a small plate or bowl to take home.
When you get hungry, stop for lunch at Hotel L'Ancora for some stunning views and even better grilled octopus. It was the freshest seafood I think I've ever tasted, and the seafood scialatielli (a flat, long noodle native to the coast) was to die for. After lunch (and a few spritzes), make your way down the hill. Walk past the beautiful Church of Santa Maria Assunta and downwards towards the beach. Consider taking a boat out to Capri for the day, or tour the beautiful grottos.
In the market for a new pair of shoes? There are many shops in Positano that will make you a custom pair of leather sandals. Find La Botteguccia and ask Dino to make you a quick pair while you browse the linen clothing boutiques. After slipping into your new shoes, find some good gelato - it's not hard! My go-to flavor is always pistachio, and it's how I judge all gelato shops. No matter what flavor you choose, there's nothing better than creamy, cool gelato on a hot day.
After you've broken in your sandals and it's time for Happy Hour, check out Hotel Palazzo Murat. Their outdoor bar is a beautifully hidden gem (albeit without a view), and the cocktails come with delicious little bites on the house. No one does Happy Hour better than the Italians, and what better way to rest up before dinner than this?
One of the most beautiful hotels on the Amalfi Coast, Le Sirenuse is a great place to watch the sunset over cocktails. Arrive late afternoon (trust me, you'll want to stay forever) and get a table at the edge of the Champagne and Oyster Bar & Grill. This is the perfect place to experience the luxury and natural beauty of Positano, and the cocktails don't hurt either.
Like most other places on the coast you'll go for an afternoon drink, cocktails at Le Sirenuse come with the most beautiful Marcona almonds and cured Italian olives. If you're hungry, the oysters are fantastic, and the rest of the menu boasts plenty of fresh seafood. It's the perfect place to sit and sip a Negroni or an Aperol Spritz before dinner.
Plus, one glance inside the stunning La Sponda Restaurant (also part of Le Sirenuse) and you'll be enticed to stay for dinner. We delayed our dinner reservations in Praiano to spend a little more time in this magical place, and I highly recommend staying here if you have the opportunity!
The Path of the Gods, or Sentiero Degli Dei
After spending over a month indulging in Spanish & Italian food (and wine), we needed a good workout, and this hike was the most breathtaking and rewarding I've ever walked. It's a bit confusing to find a starting point, but fortunately there was access from Praiano. You should absolutely do some research beforehand, pack plenty of water and consider adding a picnic lunch. The climb to reach the trail was insane - like, thousands of stairs insane - so be forewarned if you start from Praiano.
After an exhausting but steady climb up (somewhat) crumbling stone stairs, through trees, around bends, and past small farms, we made it to the start of the trail. We ascended from the isolation of our climb, which we realized few people did (apparently there was an easier way to the trailhead), and found many other hikers along our path.
The path itself is rather easy and the views are absolutely incredible. We ended near Positano, and the hike down was equally strenuous in a different way - if you've never gone down thousands of stairs, you'll find muscles you never realized you had - especially in your knees. Though the cause of our pain had been worthwhile, our legs were on fire for several days after the hike. You can find some important details, like trailheads and what to expect, here.
For a change of pace, take the ferry from Positano to Amalfi or vice-versa. The view from the sea is completely different and so beautiful. It's also a nice way to get on the water without spending a lot of money for a private boat tour. You enter the town at sea level, whether you take a bus from a neighboring town or the ferry.
The high-trafficked town requires greater attentiveness to transportation schedules, and the lines for ferries and buses get long fast.
For the most part, you can explore Amalfi in a few hours with a stop for lunch. Because most of it is at ground level, and not up in the cliffs, the views aren't quite as amazing as they are at the hotels and restaurants in Positano and other towns, but for the same reason the mostly flat and walkable town is much easier to explore.
The Cathedral of Amalfi, from the 9th century, is a colorful combination of architectural styles (Arab-Norman-Romanesque) and worth the climb up from the Piazza Duomo. The entrance fee costs only three Euros.
Keep wandering and find Da Gemma, considered one of the best restaurants in town. You're going to want to make a reservation here for sure!
Finally, before you board the ferry back to Positano, browse the shops for local specialties like chestnuts and limoncello or stop into a bakery for a sfogliatella, a deliciously flaky pastry filled with lemon cream.
Dinner at Tramonto D'Oro
If you're looking to overlook the sea for dinner one evening, try Tramonto D'Oro in Praiano. Plan a lunch or earlier dinner, as you won't want to lose the spectacular views to nighttime.
This meal - the last of our stay - was wonderful from start to finish. Our incredible dishes included Eggplant Parmigiana, Seafood Risotto, and Limoncello-soaked Babas (small donuts) for dessert. The outstanding service included a visit from a member of the family which has run the hotel and restaurant since 1952. When it came time to leave stuffed and content from a shared bottle of wine, the hotel even shuttled us home at no additional cost!
Take a Day Trip to Pompeii and Naples
If you tire of the Amalfi Coast's views and isolation, escape with a day trip to Pompeii or Naples. If you don't have a car, there's plenty of tours that originate from the coast and will have you back in your rental by day's end.
I have always been fascinated with Pompeii, and discovering it was only an hour away made it a must-visit! We were lucky that it was technically the off-season and lines were short. Pompeii can be a zoo in peak tourist periods, and I would not want to share the ancient streets with thick crowds.
The ruins of Pompeii are an incredible experience if you're interested in seeing an almost perfectly preserved city from the 6th century BC. It's an eerie feeling walking the streets with cobblestones that are dug deep with tracks from chariots, then glancing the restaurants and homes of people whose lives were frozen in time. Mount Vesuvius looms over the region, still active, and one can imagine the terror of feeling and watching its eruption.
I also highly recommend downloading the Rick Steves' App for your phone. He has audio tours all over Europe, and the one for Pompeii was perfect; it hit the highlights without being too long or in depth (very necessary on a hot day). Also keep in mind that it's not the easiest place to walk around if you have mobility issues. The footing can be uneven and there are often big steps up into the buildings.
After you've worked up a major appetite from touring Pompeii, jump in the car for another 25 minutes and you're in the birthplace of pizza - Naples! This was another bucket-list item for me because, well, pizza. Unfortunately we only had time to stop for one night and one meal. Despite some negative opinions of the city, enough voices have spoken of its beauty and historical significance to make me want to return one day.
If you're driving, I can tell you that Naples was probably the most stressful place we drove in our entire trip, as the traffic is chaotic and the streets are very confusing. But it brought us to pizza, so it was worth it. We only had one meal, so the pressure was on to find the best pizza in town. I highly recommend Pizzeria Di Matteo. You can get a pizza at the window on the street or you can sneak through the kitchen for a table. The Arancini were also delicious!
When to Go
Tourist season begins around Easter, officially, and goes through September. We were there around mid-October, and the weather was absolutely perfect. Very warm and sunny during the day, but a little cooler at night. However, a storm was rolling in as soon as we left. I think early October would be the best time to visit, as the tourist traffic has died down and the prices are lower.
Should you visit?
Absolutely! The Amalfi Coast is a place unlike any other. Just remember that things are not always as convenient as we're used to, and take that into consideration as you plan your trip. Don't book back-to-back tours or restaurant reservations - things always take more time in Italy, and you'll be happier (and less disappointed) if you adapt to their way of living instead of vice versa.
If you're budget conscious, this might be a trip to save for in the future. While vacation rentals are cheaper than hotels, it won't make a huge difference unless you're sharing it with a big group. Furthermore, restaurants and transportation are quite expensive. It's not an easy place to be frugal, and there's plenty of beautiful places in Italy (and the rest of Europe) that you can enjoy for much less money.
If you do plan on going, and you like help every step of the way, book central hotels and guided tours. You'll have someone to make your dinner reservations and help you find your way. If you're more adventurous, book a beautiful vacation rental and play it by ear! No matter what kind of vacation you're looking for, you'll find it in the natural beauty of Italy's coast.