Italy's Amalfi Coast is one of those places with a "must see" reputation. Staggeringly picturesque and maddeningly touristy, it can be both rewarding and frustrating. As if an antidote to intense Naples (just an hour to the north), it's the perfect place for a romantic break from the rest of your trip, if done right and if your budget can handle some splurges.
Three towns stand out as noteworthy points on this stretch of coast: Positano, like a Gucci ad come to life; Amalfi, evocative of a time when small towns with big fleets were Mediterranean powerhouses; and Ravello, for its fun tramp-in-a-palace feeling.
The best launchpad for the Amalfi Coast is the city of Sorrento, easily accessible by train and bus from Naples. From Sorrento, travelers have two main options for reaching the storied coast: bus and taxi. The bus — easy to catch and with frequent departures — takes one of the world's great routes. Cantilevered hotels and villas cling to the vertical terrain while beautiful sandy coves tease from far below. The Mediterranean twinkles temptingly, hinting at the fun at the end of the ride. But the twisty, well-traveled road is a hairy drive — police are posted at tough bends during peak hours to help fold in side-view mirrors.
If you can afford it, I recommend skipping the bus and hiring a private driver in Sorrento to explore the coast. This is a splurge, but when you factor in the value of your time waiting for buses, the opportunity to stop en route as you like, and the local insights of your driver, it can be a fine value (especially if you split the cost among a small group).
My favorite town for overnighting here is Positano, about an hour from Sorrento. Hanging on the most spectacular stretch of the coast, the village is squished into a ravine, with narrow pedestrian-only alleys that cascade down to the harbor. To get anywhere, you have to walk either up or down.
Walking here has a time-warp feel, as strict building codes have kept out modern construction. The town's shallow, white rooftop domes, typical of the region, are filled with sand, providing low-tech insulation to keep things warm in winter and cool in summer.
Positano offers little to do except eat, shop, and enjoy the beach and views. It has a pleasant gathering of cafés, galleries, and boutiques selling specialties such as ceramics, linens, and while-you-wait leather sandals. Select your design and color, get your feet measured, bide your time for about as long as it takes to enjoy a cold shot of limoncello (just an idea), have the fit checked, and leave with a wearable souvenir of your chic Positano escapades.
The town of Amalfi is roughly another hour along the coast from Positano. Innocuous as it looks today, in its 10th- and 11th-century heyday the town wielded serious maritime might. With a trading fleet that controlled this region, it competed with Genoa, Pisa, and Venice. But in the 1300s, Amalfi was devastated by a tsunami and then a plague, leaving the town a humble backwater.
Its former importance explains why Amalfi's cathedral is grander than a town of 5,000 would ordinarily merit. It houses the remains of St. Andrew, whom the people here credit with cooking up a freak 1544 storm that saved the town from a pirate raid. The church's peaceful Cloister of Paradise, with 120 graceful columns protecting stone sarcophagi of Amalfi's nobles, is a perfect place for a shady rest.
Another worthy stop in Amalfi is its Museum of Paper, located in a 13th-century paper mill. Follow its guided tour to learn about the history and how-to of Italian papermaking — a longtime industry for the town — and for a peek at the museum's vintage water-powered machinery. Kids can dip a screen into a rag pool and make a sheet for themselves.
About 30 minutes from Amalfi, suspended 1,000 feet above the sea, the town of Ravello sits like a lush, terraced Eden, serenely floating above it all. It's most famous for its views, though it does have a few worthy sights.
Villa Rufolo, built inside the 13th-century ruins of a noble family's palace, presents wistful gardens among stony walls with oh-my-God views. In spring and fall, it serves as a sublime venue for classical concerts. Villa Cimbrone boasts a romantic garden, five-star hotel, and the Terrace of Infinity, dangling high above the sea and lined with 18th-century marble busts gazing out at panoramas that seem to go on forever.
With a million vistas, each one different, the Amalfi Coast is a feast for the eyes. Just as it has for centuries, it continues to lure holiday goers, drawn here by the spectacular scenery, mild climate, and the region's special brand of la dolce vita.