Exploring the Top Attractions of the Amalfi Coast: A Visitor's Guide

Amalfi Coast
Amalfi Coast
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One of the world's most famous road trips, the Amalfi Drive (aka SS163) is also arguably the most beautiful 48 kilometers of coastline in Italy, and certainly high on the list of Italy's top tourist attractions. Carved into cliffs that are already cut by deep ravines, the road clings high above the Tyrrhenian Sea in a series of breathtaking views and curves bounded by almost vertical mountains rising on one side and long vertical drops on the other.

You don't need to drive it yourself, and unless you're used to Italian roads, you probably shouldn't. One thing is sure: if you do drive, you won't see much of the scenery. It's no place to take your eyes off the road, even for a second, and there are very few places to stop. The most popular alternative is to take the bus. These run frequently and stop in the towns, so you can get off, look around, go for a swim, have a coffee or lunch, and get back on a later bus. Depending on the section of the route, SITA buses run every hour or two. The town of Amalfi is the favorite stopping point, especially for travelers taking two days for the trip. One thing to remember: if you go by bus, go west to east, beginning in Sorrento, and try for a window seat on the right side of the bus. If you're driving, go east to west, so you'll be on the inside lane.

Another way to see this coast, and the best for those in good physical condition who have the time, is on foot or a combination of walking and bus travel. Walking paths, stone stairways, and ancient mule paths wind along the coast, and you'll walk through forests, lemon groves, wildflowers, and tiny villages, with almost constant sea views. At any point, you can stop to take pictures, eat a picnic, or just absorb the view. The most beautiful section of trail - and that's a tall order here - is the Sentiero degli Dei, Footpath of the Gods, on the western end from Positano. Several outfitters will arrange lodging and luggage transfers for independent walkers, or you can join a week-long group walking tour.

Positano

Positano
Positano
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This westernmost town along the Amalfi Coast has clearly been discovered, as you can tell by the chic fashions and yacht-tanned people wearing them. It's easy to understand Positano's attraction when you see its flower-draped pastel houses tumbling down the steep hillside to the beach. Apart from the 13th-century church of Santa Maria Assunta with its dome of majolica tiles and Byzantine icon of a black Madonna (brought here by pirates, according to legend), the only sights to see are the narrow lanes near the port and possibly celebs sitting in the cafés. At the beach, you can rent rowboats, paddleboats, sailboats, Zodiacs, and motorboats, or sign on for a cruise along the coast to Capri. Just east of Positano is equally trendy Praiano, also with a tile-domed church, and not far beyond, the road crosses the deep and dramatic gorge of Vallone del Furore.

Grotta dello Smeraldo (Emerald Cave)

Close to the village of Conca dei Marini, stairs and an elevator descend to a marine cave. You may wonder how a sea cave came to have stalactites, but this one wasn't always at sea level. The cave was formed higher, but the region's volcanic activity (you're not all that far from Vesuvius here) changed the sea and ground levels and put the cave where the sea could wash in. Like the Blue Grotto in Capri, sunlight shining through the water causes it to look as though it were lit from within, in this case in an emerald green glow. The water is so clear that it is possible to see through to the bottom. Boats wait at the cave entrance to take you inside, or you can take a boat to the cave from the beach in Amalfi, about a 15-minute ride.

Address: Route 163, Conca dei Marini, Amalfi

Amalfi

Amalfi
Amalfi
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The town of Amalfi lies at the mouth of a deep gorge, and its picturesque setting makes it one of the most popular holiday resorts in Italy. Legend holds that Amalfi was founded by Constantine the Great but whatever its origins, by the Middle Ages, it was an independent state with a population of some 50,000. Through its active trade with the Orient it rose to influence and wealth becoming a sea power rivaling Pisa and Genoa. You can see Amalfi's sphere of maritime influence in a ceramic map of the town's extensive trades, on the wall of the Porta della Marina. Just to its left is the Ancient Arsenal of the Republic of Amalfi, where 11 of the original naval arsenal's 20 arches remain. Inside is the large Amalfi Galleon used in the annual regatta.

Museo Civico (Municipal Museum)

Inside the Town Hall, easy to spot by its facade decorated with modern mosaics, the municipal museum houses artifacts from the region's maritime history, including ancient maritime instruments, tools, maps, and documents. Its major attraction is the Tabula Amalphitana, a 12th-century document compiled here, establishing the maritime law that lasted for centuries.

Address: Piazza Municipio, Amalfi

Cattedrale Sant'Andrea Apostoli (St. Andrews Cathedral)

Amalfi Cathedral
Amalfi Cathedral
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A flight of 62 steps leading up to the cathedral gives you plenty of time to admire its mosaic façade and magnificent portico with pointed arches. Originally built in the ninth century, the Duomo was remodeled in Sicilian Lombard-Normanesque style in 1203; the campanile dates from 1180 to 1276. Stop to admire the fine bronze door, cast in Constantinople in 1066. These and another of the same age also cast in Constantinople, which you can see in the 10th-century church of San Salvatore de' Bireto in nearby Atrani, demonstrate the close ties Amalfi's trade created with Byzantium. Inside, ancient columns from Paestum support the choir, and in the crypt are the remains of the Apostle St. Andrew, brought here in the 13th century. To the left, in the portico, is the entrance to the cloister, Chiostro del Paradiso, built 1266-68. The beautiful cloister with its graceful double columns and interlocked vaulting contains ancient sarcophagi, marble and mosaics, along with a peaceful garden.

Address: Piazza del Duomo, Amalfi

Ravello

Ravello
Ravello
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From Atrani, just east of Amalfi, a winding road (SS 373) climbs through orange-groves to Ravello, an old town in a superb site overlooking the sea from the brink of the deep Valle del Dragone (Valley of Dragons). The lush gardens, which once surrounded its villas are now parks, each one with a better viewpoint than the last. You may wonder at the number of churches in such a small town, but like Amalfi, it was once much larger. In its 13th-century heyday, it had a population of 36,000, with churches, monasteries, villas, and palaces. In the 12th-century church of San Giovanni del Toro, remodeled in Baroque style, is a mosaic pulpit decorated with Persian majolica; in the crypt are frescoes of scenes from the life of Christ. In the center of the town is the Romanesque Cathedral of San Pantaleone, begun in 1086 and also remodeled in Baroque style, and like the churches in Amalfi and Atrani, its bronze doors were cast in Constantinople. Inside are two outstanding marble pulpits, both intricately inlaid. One has designs of mythical creatures and biblical scenes.

Villa Rufolo

Villa Rufolo
Villa Rufolo
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The gray stone tower opposite the cathedral is the gate to a villa whose gardens and terrace views inspired Wagner's magic garden of Klingsor in Parsifal. The villa began in the 13th century as a fortified manor house/farm and continued to grow with successive generations until it was reputed to have more than 300 rooms (likely an exaggeration). The oldest part remaining is the 30-meter stone watchtower. In the 18th century, a Neo-Moorish cloister was added, and in the 19th century, the grounds were made into Romantic gardens. Most of the buildings are now in ruins, which are incorporated as garden features. Restored portions are used for art exhibits, and the grounds are the scene of concerts and an outstanding summer music festival with world-renowned performers and orchestras.

Address: Piazza Duomo, Ravello

Villa Cimbrone Gardens

Villa Cimbrone Gardens
Villa Cimbrone Gardens
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Past the church of San Francesco, which has a Romanesque cloister, and the church of Santa Chiara, you'll find Villa Cimbrone. An avenue runs through its beautiful park to the Belvedere Cimbrone with incomparable views of the Amalfi coast. Stray from this promenade to find flower gardens tucked behind walls and a wide-ranging collection of bits and pieces -- statues, fountains, columns, temples, well heads, and architectural elements -- that were brought here from ruins in this area and beyond. These were collected by the English lord who bought the villa in 1904, and incorporated into the gardens in idiosyncratic ways in the midst of the greenery and flowers.

Address: Via Santa Chiara 26, Ravello

Official site: www.villacimbrone.com

Salerno

Salerno Cathedral
Salerno Cathedral
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At the eastern end of the Amalfi peninsula where the hills drop steeply into the Gulf of Salerno is the site of the ancient Salernum, now Salerno. Salerno became the seat of the Fascist government during World War II. Subsequent bombing and the allied invasion in 1943 left only the partially ruined Castello di Arechi on the hill northwest of town; a few arches of a Roman aqueduct; and the cathedral, the only sight of any particular interest to tourists.

Built about 1080 and restored in 1768 and again after 1945, the Cathedral of San Matteo houses the remains of the Evangelist Matthew, brought here from Paestum, and one of Italy's most important holy relics. St. Matthew is pictured in a mosaic above the doorway; the magnificent bronze doors were made in Constantinople in 1099. A flight of steps leads up to a courtyard with 28 columns from Paestum and 14 sarcophagi, also scavenged from the ancient site. In the nave, be sure to notice the two 12th-century pulpits with detailed mosaic decoration and nearby, an Easter candlestick in a similar style. At the end of the north aisle is the ornate tomb of Margaret of Anjou (1412), and in the chapel to the right of the high altar is the tomb of Pope Gregory VII, who died in Salerno in 1085. The choir screens and floor are decorated with mosaics. After visiting the cathedral, the Museo Archeologico has some local antiquities worth seeing if you don't plan to travel on to Paestum.

Address: Piazza Alfano I, Salerno

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