Many of us have dreamed of that once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Amalfi Coast—that place of dramatic jagged cliffs, glistening Mediterranean water, and endless bowls of perfectly cooked pasta. In other words, the la dolce vita. Yet the reality can look very different: long hours sitting in the car in traffic, restaurants flooded by rowdy study abroad students, and streets so crowded that it can take 10 minutes to walk a block. When John Steinbeck wrote, “Positano bites deep,” this was not the scene he was witnessing.
So how do you navigate one of the most exquisite coastlines in the world now that’s it’s become one of the most visited places in the world? First, don’t let the popularity deter you or assume that it’s all been discovered. Instead, follow this itinerary—complete with all the tips on when to go and where to stay—to avoid the standard tourist pitfalls and enjoy all the many gems the Amalfi coast has to offer.
Before we go further, a word to the wise about when to go. There’s no way to avoid the swarming crowds of the summer. The golden months visiting the Amalfi Coast, as in-the-know travelers can tell you, are the end of September to October. (A close second are May and early June, the spring shoulder season.) The sea is warm from heating up through the hottest months of the season, but the air is refreshing. “Il San Pietro is now more popular in October than it was five or six years ago,” said Carlos Cinque, the co-owner of Il San Pietro, the Positano-based Relais and Chateaux property. “October weather is milder because of climate change. This year, we’ll close at the end of the month with a full house,” he said.
Here’s the Departures tried-and-tested itinerary for a perfect week on the Amalfi Coast.
After a long flight, which usually involves a transfer somewhere in Europe to arrive in Naples, start in Sorrento, about a one-hour drive from the Naples airport. Sorrento is a haven of beautiful landscaping, stylish locally-based retail, and one of the top hotels in the area, The Bellevue Syrene. Furthermore, it’s a great jumping-off point to the rest of the coast.
One of the cardinal rules of blissing out on the Amalfi Coast is to stay at hotels with direct access to the beach. Being able to swim—not just look at the Mediterranean—is crucial. The Bellevue Syrene, a Relais and Chateau property set slightly on the outskirts of town, will remind you why it’s worth traveling for almost a day to reach this part of the world. The hotel, which has sweeping vistas across the gulf to Naples, has its own private beach platform. You’ll feel like you are staying with well-stocked friends—the hotel has something called a “club lounge,” an elegant room where chef-prepared snacks, like baked zucchini with Parmesan, rotate throughout the day, including unlimited espresso and Prosecco. Don’t miss the hotel’s restaurant, which serves some of the best truffle pasta in Italy. Their jewel-box spa is also top-notch.
From Sorrento, you can head take an afternoon trip to Nerano, a tucked-away beach at the western end of the Amalfi Coast that is usually packed with yachts in the summer months, but if you come, as we did, in early October you can just enjoy a quiet lunch and swim at Lo Scoglio—famous for, among other things, their zucchini pasta—and then take a dip at their private beach. The very civilized bus costs only two euros each way, or you can easily charter a boat or private car.
Sorrento, perhaps unlike other places on the Amalfi Coast, feels like a real place—not just a city built for tourists or a destination with cookie-cutter luxury stores that you could find in any other city. A few one-a-kind stores not to miss: 158 Studio is a contemporary jewelry boutique in the heart of Sorrento that carries exclusively Italian designers. Denchyle carries an eclectic selection of both men and women Italian designers. On the same street is Centro Della Seta, a family run store, specializes in beautiful silk ties and cashmere scarves.
Don’t leave Sorrento without a meal at Soul & Fish, which is beloved by locals, and isn’t just another generic Italian restaurant or tourist trap. Nestled in the city’s historic port, the establishment puts a modern twist on their country’s cuisine (think flash friend tuna with wasabi mayo) but also make a to-die-for spaghetti Pomodoro and exquisite lemon cake. The dinner bill for two, including wine, was around 50 euros.
Sound like a bargain to you? Another tenet of traveling on the Amalfi Coast is avoiding snooty establishments. If you’re eating exclusively at all Michelin-starred restaurants with multiple courses and three-figure bills, you are missing out on the culinary beauty of this region: eating and drinking simple delicacies that don’t break the bank.
If Virginia Cinque, who, along with her sons, owns and manages Il San Pietro di Positano, one of the top beach resorts in Europe, gives you a piece of advice about the area, you listen. “The worst thing a foreigner can do is rent a car,” she said. Not only are the windy roads harrowing and narrow, Americans aren’t used to the kind of high-stakes driving the Amalfi Coast requires. Not to mention the traffic—which dissipates later in the season but never totally goes away, due to the tour buses, on the vertiginous narrow road (one lane in places) that links the towns along the coast.
To that point, arrive in Positano via ferry, which leaves from the port in Sorrento. Once you arrive, immediately hop in a water taxi to continue on to Il San Pietro. Not only will you avoid the madding crowd, but you’ll also save time; the local water taxis appear faster than an Uber in Manhattan.
Splurge on Il San Pietro because it’s the epitome of everything that is so enchanting about the Amalfi Coast. It has direct access to the water; warm, impeccable hospitality, and the food—everything from ideal beachside fare at Carlino’s to Michelin-starred Zass—but is located just outside Positano so you feel ensconced in a bubble of luxury, yet within easy range of the town’s charms and amenities. To get to the lower part of the city, the water taxi will take you in less than 10 minutes; for the upper part of town, the hotel’s shuttle is available 24 hours.
This year we didn’t even go into Positano, but instead headed for the much less touristy Praiano, the next town to the east, to eat at La Strada, where the grilled fish is served in acqua pazza, or “crazy water,” a magical sauce. Their almond semifreddo is so worth the calories that you should order at least two of them.
One more simple-yet-brilliant insider tip on savoring the Amalfi Coast comes from Andrea Zana, the general manager of Il San Pietro. Visitors frequently try to do too much, Zana says. “The distances are deceiving. Going 16 kilometers takes much longer here on a one-lane road [than in most places].” In other words, cramming in Ravello, Capri, and Pompeii as day trips from Positano is a sure-fire recipe for fatigue.
Rather than stew in a hot car on windy roads, enjoy the Sentiero degli Dei, or ‘Path of the Gods’. It’s the old footpath connecting Positano, Praiano, and Agerola that winds through forest and along cliffs far above the coastal towns and the Mediterranean below. The views are stunning; the exercise—hundreds upon hundreds of staircase steps—invigorating; and the intimate footpaths threading through villages and past ancient churches are a window into the region’s living history.
For the last part of your trip head to Ravello, where the region’s wealthy families historically would spend their summers to be up in the hills where it’s cooler. Feel a bit of that heritage and stay at the Palazzo Avino, which was built in the 12th century for a noble Italian family. Now it’s a five-star hotel with arresting archways, fine tilework, stunning sea views, a lobster-and-martini bar, an inventive Michelin-starred restaurant, and its own beach club on the coast several miles away, with free shuttle bus service.
For an interesting out-of-the-box afternoon, head down to Minori, a charming seaside town with a sandy beach—an unusual find on the Amalfi Coast. For a sense of just how high up in the hills of Ravello you are, walk down the couple thousand of steps through warrens of Italian neighborhoods to get to Minori. Your legs will feel it, but you’ll get a sense of what it took to get provisions up to Ravello before there were cars.
Next door to the Palazzo Avino is the famous Belmond Hotel Caruso; go for lunch so you can sit in the spectacular private gardens and much on gourmet pizza. Then stop at the shop at the Belmond for an expertly curated array of jewelry, bags, and clothes, mostly made in Italy. The selection is superior to that of the very touristy stores in Ravello.
Conclude your stay with one of Ravello’s signature features: its sumptuous gardens. Two private estates, Villa Cimbrone and Villa Rufalo, have paid-admission gardens that are sanctuaries of local flora and manicured grounds, with serene alleys and scenic overlooks, nestled abutting grand ancient manses. Having eaten and swum your fill, enjoy a quiet moment contemplating the region’s timeless beauty.