Italy’s Amalfi Coast
In this program, we explore Sorrento's back streets, taste traditional Italian food, drive along the dramatic Amalfi Coast to catch some breathtaking scenery, learn the history behind the tourist shops of Amalfi, stroll in the shadow of Greek temples at Paestum, and sail to the isle of Capri to enter the fabled Blue Grotto.
Ristorante Delfino serves fish in big portions to hungry locals in a quiet and bright, Seattle-style pier restaurant. The cooking, service, and setting are all top-notch. The restaurant is lovingly run by Luisa, her brothers Andrea and Roberto, and her husband Antonio. If you're here for lunch, take advantage of the sundeck (at Marina Grande; tel. +39 081-878-2038).
Hotel Minerva is like a sun-worshipper's temple, with a spectacular terrace offering outrageous Mediterranean views. Bright common areas, a small rooftop swimming pool, and a cold-water Jacuzzi complement 60 large, tiled, colorful rooms with views, some with balconies.
Once the cellar of an old monastery, this is now a small, dressy restaurant that serves delightfully presented, playful, and creative modern Mediterranean dishes under a grand, rustic arch. Peppe and his staff love to explain exactly what's on the plate. The dashing team of cooks builds sophisticated dishes with an emphasis on seafood in a state-of-the-art kitchen. Peppe holds a Michelin star and designs his menu around whatever's fresh. Reservations are often necessary to dine inside under their elegant vault.
The Monetti family car-and-driver service — Raffaele, brother-in-law Tony, and cousin Lorenzo — have taken excellent care of my readers' transit needs for decades. Though Sorrento-based, they also do trips from Naples (more expensive). Don't just hop into any taxi claiming to be a Monetti — call first. If you get into any kind of a serious jam in the area, you can call Raffaele for help.
This church is "Amalfi Romanesque" (a mix of Moorish and Byzantine flavors, built c. 1000–1300), with a fanciful Neo-Byzantine facade from the 19th century. Climb the imposing stairway, which functions as a mini Spanish Steps hangout zone and a handy outdoor theater (small entry fee; open daily).
The ruins at Paestum include one of the best collections of Greek temples anywhere — and certainly the most accessible to Western Europe. Entry tickets to the site include the Paestum Archaeological Museum, showing off beautifully crafted works that help bring Paestum to life. While the museum has good English descriptions, there are scant descriptions at the site itself — but my guidebook includes a thorough self-guided tour (skip the bookshop's mediocre guidebooks and the museum's dull audioguide). You'll enjoy the best light and smallest crowds late in the day.
Three thousand tourists a day spend a couple of hours visiting Capri's Blue Grotto (Grotta Azzurra). I did — early (when the light is best), without the frustration of crowds, and with choppy waves nearly making entrance impossible…and it was great. Two companies make the boat trip from different parts of Marina Grande — Laser Capri and Motoscafisti Capri. If you're on a budget, you can take the bus from Anacapri to the grotto (rather than a boat from Marina Grande).
This Baroque church in the village center has a remarkable majolica-tiled floor. For the best view, climb the spiral stairs from the postcard desk. Services are held only during the first two weeks of Advent, when the church is closed to visitors.
From Anacapri, ride the chairlift (seggiovia) to the 1,900-foot summit of Monte Solaro for a commanding view of the Bay of Naples. Work on your tan as you float over hazelnut, walnut, chestnut, apricot, peach, kiwi, and fig trees, past a montage of tourists (mostly from cruise ships; when the grotto is closed — as it often is — they bring passengers here instead). Prospective smoochers should know that the lift seats are all single. The ride takes 13 minutes each way, and you'll want at least 30 minutes on top, where there are picnic benches and a café with WCs.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, enjoying more of the best of Europe. And this time we're exploring Italy's dramatic Amalfi Coast area, and somewhere along here we're going to find a blue grotto. Thanks for joining us.
Just south of Naples are some of Italy's most appreciated attractions: along a breathtaking coastline you'll find trendy resort towns, ancient ruins, and enchanting island getaways. Long the haunt of celebrities, the allure of Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast is still a hit with travelers today.
We'll start with the southern Italian charms of Sorrento, taste traditional Italian food with a playful flair, drive along the dramatic Amalfi Coast enjoying its cliffside towns, and we'll stroll in the shadow of Greek temples at Paestum, and take a cruise to the seductive isle of Capri with its romantic Blue Grotto.
In the south of Europe, Italy juts into the Mediterranean Sea. The coast stretching south of Naples is filled with temptations. From our home base in Sorrento, we explore the Amalfi Coast, stopping in the towns of Positano and Amalfi. After visiting the temples at Paestum, we sail to the isle of Capri.
Wedged on a ledge under the mountains and over the sea, spritzed by lemon and orange groves, Sorrento is an attractive resort town of 20,000 residents and — in the summer — as many tourists.
Serene Sorrento is well-located, both as a springboard for regional sightseeing and as a fine place to simply stay and stroll. While just an hour south of wild and crazy Naples, the Sorrentines have gone out of their way to create a completely safe and genteel place for tourists to come, relax, and enjoy spending their money.
While the town's hot and mobbed with tourists during the summer, we're here in mid-April. The weather's comfortable…and most of those enjoying the fun in the Sorrento sun are locals.
Sorrento goes back to ancient Greek times. In fact, the word "sorrento" comes from the Greek word for "siren." During his legendary odyssey, Ulysses sailed by, and he overcame the treacherous lure of the seductive sirens. In doing so, he opened up this region to colonization. To the ancient Greeks, places like Sorrento were the wild, wild west.
The town's original Greek street plan survives, running east–west for the most sunlight, and north–south for the prevailing and cooling breeze. While the breeze is welcome in the summer, even in ancient times documents report of locals complaining about the cold winter wind.
Sorrento's back streets give a peek at both its long history and rich culture. This 13th-century palace recalls a rough and tumble age. It had no balconies...for security reasons.
Tiny shrines decorate walls throughout southern Italy. The Catholic faithful pray to Mary in hopes that she'll advocate for them up in heaven.
Italians venerate Mary, and Italian men also venerate their mothers. Even so, Italian men have built into their lives women-free zones. Here at the Sorrento Men's Club, men — and only men — play cards and gossip under an historic emblem of the city and a frescoed 16th-century dome. While originally a place where the town's nobles met, today this is the club for working-class guys. Strictly no women — and no telephones either.
From the old center, an ancient lane zigzags down to Marina Grande — Sorrento's historic harbor. Just before reaching the harbor, you pass through an ancient Greek gate, a reminder that Marina Grande was always a separate town with its own proud residents. It's said even their cats look different. Sorrentines believe that because this section of town was locked outside the fortified wall during pirate raids, Marina Grande dwellers descend from Saracen (or Turkish pirate) stock. Sorrentines still scare their children by saying, "Behave — or the Turks will take you away." Today, there's just not much very menacing about the Turks of Marina Grande.
The port's economy is still based on its colorful fishing fleet...and more recently its many seafood restaurants.
The family-run Ristorante Delfino gets its seafood right off the fishermen's boat. Enticing dishes are served with enthusiasm to hungry locals right on the pier.
Waiter: Salute. [Cheers.] Salute, signori.
Around here lemons are everywhere. Every other shop is lemon yellow. Stores bottle their own citrus treats...and they're generous with samples.
When it comes to fruit stands in Sorrento, pucker up! On the Amalfi Coast there is always something to learn in this land where there's more to lemons than lemonade.
Rick: In Sorrento there's lemons everywhere. Tell me about your lemons.
Shopkeeper: Allora. These are typical lemons of Sorrento, OK? We tell [call them] sfusato. "Sfusato" is the form.
Rick: Oh that's nice.
Shopkeeper: With this we make limoncello.
Rick: I can smell the limoncello. OK. What's the big one?
Shopkeeper: This big one is cedro. This we heat with extra-virgin olive oil and salt, near the fish.
Rick: So, with the dinner, with the fish?
Shopkeeper: Yes. Yes.
Rick: Very nice. Thank you. Grazie.
Shopkeeper: You're welcome. Bye-bye.
Surprising visitors, right in the town center, is an inviting lemon grove. An abundant orchard provides locals and tourists alike with a fragrant and peaceful stroll. At the rustic shop, cap your visit with a taste of the regions favorite liqueur, limoncello.
While there are plenty of beaches near Sorrento, many hotels offer travelers an attractive alternative. Our Hotel Minerva is like a sun worshipper's temple with a spectacular terrace, commanding Mediterranean views, and a small, cliff-hanging swimming pool.
This place provides all I look for: an efficient lobby and inviting lounge, and a simple room with a good bed and great view.
During the peak season, many resort hotels require "half pension." That means you must buy either lunch or dinner there. It's a reasonable policy, designed to keep the hotel restaurants busy, but I prefer a hotel like this one, one that leaves meals optional so I'm free to go out and find whatever restaurant I like.
And tonight, that restaurant is Il Buco. Once the cellar of an old monastery, today it's a small, dressy restaurant serving delightfully presented, top-quality food. They showcase good wine and offer elegant service.
In the state-of-the-art kitchen, the chefs pride themselves on taking a playful attitude toward traditional Italian dishes.
In my guidebooks, I strive to list places with hands-on ownership. Il Buco's owner, Peppe, designs his menu around whatever's fresh, and he lovingly explains each course to his guests.
Peppe: Generally it's the spaghetti vongole, but we want to play with the tradition. We make a little distraction on this plate with some pasta and clams the other side. Just forgive the idea to use your finger, clean your clams…and play with the spaghetti. Buon appetito!
Rick: I can rearrange it my way?
Rick: Thank you very much.
And during a balmy Sorrento evening, the streets are filled with people enjoying a convivial passeggiata. For many, a stop at the gelateria is a regular part of the family night out.
Gelateria Davide is sure to have the flavor that suits your mood. Peruse the mouth-watering chorus line before ordering.
Shopkeeper: Thank you.
Rick: Ciao. Ciao.
This isn't a festival; it's just another night — a celebration of community in the Mediterranean world. With all this action on the streets, who wants to go home?
Sorrento is the ideal home base for exploring the stunning Amalfi Coast. Tourists line up each morning, packing the buses, which make the memorable daytrip.
But this is a case when I hire a cabbie — like Raffaele Monetti — to be my driver and guide.
Rick: Time for a trip on the Amalfi?
But — especially for a small group — when you factor in the value of your time and the frustration of trying to explore a congested and expensive bit of Italian coastline on your own, a day with your own driver can be a fine value.
The Amalfi Coast is chaotic, scenic, in-love-with-life Italy at its best. With its breathtaking scenery, dramatically perched port towns, and historic ruins, the Amalfi is Italy's coast with the most. Whether you ride the bus or a taxi, the trip south from Sorrento is one of the world's great road trips. You'll gain respect for the Italian engineers who first built the road — and even more respect for the bus drivers who drive it. Cantilevered hotels and villas cling to the vertical terrain. And beautiful sandy coves tease from far below. As you hyperventilate, notice how the Mediterranean really twinkles.
Traffic is so heavy that private tour buses are only allowed to go southbound. Even so, because of the narrow roads and tight corners, expect some delays…
...and enjoy the show.
Rick: Beautiful, look at the engineering here.
Raffaele: This road is very, very old. It is about 750 years old.
Rick: 750 years?
Raffaele: Yes. For make this road it takes about 150 years from Sorrento down to Salerno.
Specializing in scenery, shopping, and sand, the resort town of Positano hangs on the most spectacular stretch of the coast. Only one street in Positano allows motorized traffic — the rest are steep pedestrian lanes. Because bus access is so limited and hotels don't take large groups, the town — unlike Sorrento — has been spared the impact of big-bus tourism.
The village is squished into a ravine, with narrow pedestrian-only alleys that cascade down to the harbor. The "skyline" looks like it did a century ago — strict building codes prevent modern structures. The town's shallow rooftop domes are filled with sand. These provide insulation — cool in the summer…warm in the winter.
Positano's steep lanes are a way of life for the 4,000 hearty residents. It's a pleasant gathering of cafés, galleries, and boutiques. There's little to do here but eat, window-shop, and enjoy the beach and views...and that's exactly the way its many visitors like it.
The beach is a relaxed scene. Boats shuttle visitors in and out. Young Romeos polish their craft. And the café crowd watches it all unfold.
There's really no way to avoid the climbs that come with this staggering scenery. To save a few steps, I enjoy the efficiency of having a cell phone on the road. You can buy a cheap one here or bring one that works in Europe from home. I'm ready to head on and Raffaele said to just give him a call to be picked up.
Many of the best Amalfi Coast views are just south of Positano. You'll see several medieval watch-towers built to warn of Turkish or Saracen pirate attacks.
Raffaele: The towers are very old from the Saracens' time.
Rick: The Saracen pirates?
Rick: So there's 30 of these along the coast.
Rick: Why so many?
Raffaele: Because they needed the towers just to tell to the people that the Saracens was on the way in.
Rick: So it was a warning about the attacks?
Raffaele: Yes, just a warning. And they warned with a fire on the top of the tower. So every tower has a little bit of fire.
Rick: Oh, so like, very fast you could spread the word the Saracens are coming, the pirates are coming.
Raffaele: Yes. And all the people just go from the beach up.
Rick: Run away from the pirates.
Raffaele: Yes, run away, yes.
The Amalfi Coast is named for this town. After Rome fell, Amalfi emerged as an independent republic. Innocuous as it looks today, in its 10th-century heyday, Amalfi was a maritime power. With a trading fleet that controlled this region, it competed with Genoa and Venice.
The Republic of Amalfi minted its own coins; it even established the "rules of the sea" — the basics of which survive today. But in 1343, this tiny powerhouse was devastated by a tsunami. This disaster, compounded by a deadly plague, left Amalfi a humble backwater.
Today the shipyards, where its powerful galleys were built a thousand years ago, house tourist shops, and the former glory of Amalfi's pint-sized empire is remembered on this tiled map. But tourists seem oblivious to the towns illustrious past. They're here to enjoy the good life under the Amalfi sun.
Today, the town lives off tourism — and boasts a cathedral grander than a town of 7,000 would merit. The church's imposing stairway provides an ideal hangout for locals. Its fanciful façade is neo-Byzantine, dating only from the 19th century. But this bronze door is a thousand years old, given to Amalfi by a wealthy local merchant who had it made in Constantinople.
The cathedral is richly decorated. Behind its fine 13th-century wooden crucifix, a painting shows St. Andrew martyred on an X-shaped cross. And St. Andrew himself is buried here. Holy relics were sources of power in the Middle Ages. Like Venice needed the bones of St. Mark to get on the pilgrimage map, Amalfi got St. Andrew — one of the apostles who left his nets to join the original "fishers of men."
St. Andrew's remains were brought here from Constantinople in 1206 during the Crusades —that's an indication of the wealth and the importance of Amalfi back then. St. Andrew is near and dear to the people of Amalfi because he's credited with saving the town from certain pillage and plunder back in the 1500s during a pirate raid. Just when a horrible attack seemed inevitable, a freak storm hit and the pirate ship was destroyed.
This plank is all that remains of that ship. This and other treasures of the cathedral are well displayed in the adjacent museum. The Angevin Mitre, with a "pavement of tiny pearls" setting off its gold and gems, has been worn by bishops since the 14th century.
The "Cloister of Paradise" is a peaceful as well as evocative place for a shady rest. Its graceful columns protect stone sarcophagi, as this was the cemetery of Amalfi's nobles. The bell tower, with its majolica tiles — a regional specialty — stands high above the cathedral.
Just south of the Amalfi Coast stands a dramatic reminder of the rich history of this part of Italy. While many travel all the way to Greece to see Greek ruins, just south of here you can see some marvelous Greek temples. Remember, 500 years before Christ, southern Italy was called "Magna Grecia" — greater Greece.
And the wonders of that western frontier of Greece can be well appreciated at Paestum. The town was founded by Greeks in the sixth century B.C. The Romans conquered it in the third century B.C. But the final conquerors of Paestum, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, kept the site wonderfully deserted for nearly a thousand years.
The striking setting includes the remains of three impressive temples: the lonely Temple of Ceres…the almost delicate Temple of Hera[, which] was dedicated to the Greek goddess of marriage in 550 B.C…
…And the highlight, the Temple of Neptune, is simply breathtaking. Constructed in 450 B.C, it's a textbook example of the Doric style. As well-preserved and beautiful as the Parthenon in Athens, this huge structure is a tribute to Greek engineering and aesthetics.
For a great day-trip from Naples, Positano, or Sorrento, catch the early morning jet boat to the isle of Capri. The isle of Capri was first made famous as the vacation hideaway of Roman emperors. In the 19th century, it was the haunt of Romantic Age aristocrats on their Grand Tour of Europe.
While the island is small — just four miles by two miles — there's plenty to see and do. To get the most out of our quick visit, I'm meeting my friend and fellow tour guide Roberta Mazzarella. Our first stop is the reason most come to Capri: to enter the fabled Blue Grotto.
The Blue Grotto experience is more than just visiting a cave. Getting there, getting in, and getting back is a scenic hoot. You enjoy a fast cruise partway around the gorgeous island, seeing bird life and local fisherman at work all under dramatic limestone cliffs.
Roberta: So most of the isle of Capri is just like this. Limestone cliffs straight down into the beautiful blue water. Look at this cliff, from the water all the way up to the top; Roman emperors loved this, because it was easy to defend.
Arriving at the mouth of the grotto you find a busy "distribution center." As the tourist-laden boats arrive, awaiting dinghies converge and visitors clamber gingerly into their little boats.
The entry hole is small. If the water's too rough, it becomes too dangerous...dinghies can't get in and visitors are turned back.
We're lucky today — there's a little chop, but dinghies are squeezing in. The raffish rowers jostle their way to the tiny hole. Tourists scrunch down safely below the gunwales. And the guides pull fast and hard on the cable at the low point of the swells to squeeze you into the grotto.
Inside the 60-yard-long cave, the sun reflects off the limestone bottom, giving the grotto its famous brilliant blue.
Your man rows you around, sings a little "O Sole Mio," and lets you enjoy the iridescent magic of the moment.
Capri, the largest of the island's two towns, sits in a saddle above the port. Piazza Umberto is the main square of this cute and touristy shopping town. The main drag is nicknamed "Rodeo Drive" for its exclusive boutiques. While prices are steep, the window shopping's free.
These days — especially in the summer — Capri can be a world-class tourist trap, packed with gawky visitors searching for the rich and famous, and finding only their prices. But other times of year — we're here in April — it provides a relaxing and scenic break. At the edge of town, elegant villas and a public garden are strategically placed to enjoy fine views.
On glitzy Capri, everything's done with panache. Taxis are white convertibles. Though expensive, they make getting around an unforgettable part of your visit.
The island's second town, Anacapri, has fewer tourists, a little more character, and a passion for colorful majolica tiles.
Roberta: These are majolica tiles. We can see them everywhere... in Napoli, on the Amalfi Coast, here in Capri, on the domes of the churches, on the floors, on — decorating people's homes.
Rick: On squares like this.
Roberta: And on squares like this one. Just glazed tiles...what's makes them special: the colors. We love colors here.
The town's celebrated San Michele Church has a remarkable majolica floor showing paradise on earth in a classic 18th-century Neapolitan style. Ironically, the church's floor is so gorgeous that pews for worshippers are replaced by a boardwalk for tourists. The entire floor is ornately tiled, featuring a sword-wielding angel driving Adam and Eve from paradise. The devil is wrapped around the trunk of a tree laden with trouble-causing apples. The animals — with curiously human expressions — seem blissfully ignorant of this momentous event.
For expansive island views, ride the chairlift to the top of Monte Solaro — Capri's 1,900 foot summit. You'll float over lush orchards and well-tended gardens.
At the summit, you'll enjoy the commanding panorama of both the Italian mainland in the distance and the isle of Capri. Cliffs are busy with birds — enjoying a little R&R break during their migration, tending scenic nests, and soaring on a steady sea breeze. The Faraglioni Rocks are an icon of the island — with tour boats squeezing through every few minutes. And from here, the hike down is a delight.
It's clear to me why Roman emperors chose this island as their holiday escape, and why today so many travelers include the Amalfi Coast in their Italian travel plans. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Ciao.
Ulysses sailed by, and he overcame the…tradetjeblah.
Rick: …taxis being open.
Passerby: Hey, hey!
Cameraman: That's what I needed.
Rick: That's what we needed.
Rick: Oh it is so rude when I'm talking to somebody and she answers the phone
Roberta: [Phone rings, answers]
Boat people: Hey, Rick.
Rick: Hey, where're you from?
Boat people: New York.