The Costiera Amalfitana, or Amalfi cost, is Italy’s most beautiful stretch of coastline, a mild-weathered enclave of towering cliffs, idyllic villages tumbling colorfully to the sea, precipitous corniche roads, luxuriant gardens, and magnificent vistas over turquoise waters and green-swathed mountains. It lies along the flanks of the Sorrento Peninsula, a cliff-edged promontory that juts from the mainland close to the southern reaches of the Bay of Naples.
The coast’s most convenient access point is Salerno, a busy port best known as one of the main Allied beachheads during the 1943 invasion of Italy. From Autostrada A3, you pick up the SS163 at Vietri sul Mare, a village celebrated for its ceramics, and one that offers sweeping views of the coastline to come. From here, the road weaves past innumerable viewpoints—the one at Capo d’Orso is the best— and skirts the villages of Maiori (small sandy beach) and Minori (ruins of a first-century A.D. Roman villa) before a junction close to Atrani (two tempting churches) whisks you inland to Ravello.
Ravello is one of the most romantic and beautiful small towns imaginable. Perched on steep, terraced slopes—”closer to the sky than the sea,” in the words of French novelist Andre Gide—it is a place blessed with luxuriant gardens, quiet lanes, sleepy, sundrenched corners, and a lofty position at 1,148 feet (350 m) that provides unforgettable views over the azure coast below. At its heart lie an 1lth-century cathedral and the Villa Rufolo , the latter one of two villas for which the town is famous. Built in the 13th century, the villa received guests that included popes and emperors, as well as Richard Wagner, who composed part of his opera Parsifal here in 1880. Views from its idyllic gardens are magnificent, as are those from the nearby Villa Cimbrone .
Dropping back to the coast from Ravello, the corniche road brings you to Amalfi, in its day one of Italy’s four powerful maritime republics (with Venice , Pisa, and Genoa). All sea trade in the Mediterranean was once governed by the 1lth-century Tavole Amalfitane, the world’s oldest maritime code. Today, the town’s beauty, stunning seafront setting, and mild climate make it a hugely popular resort, so steel yourself for high prices and high-season crowds.
Pride of place goes to the Duomo di Sant’Andrea, fronted by a gorgeous and intricately patterned 12th-century facade. Founded in the ninth century, the church’s subsequent alterations have spared the beauty of its principal glory, the main portal’s 1lth-century Byzantine bronze doors. Next to the church lies the Choistro del Paradiso (1268), or Cloisters of Paradise, whose somber Romanesque tone is enlivened by the Arab elements in its sinuous columns.
You can escape much of the hustle by hiking into the hills above town. Consult the visitor center for more details, or take the popular walk along the Valle dei Mulini, a steep-sided ravine dotted with ruined watermills—mulini—once used to make paper, an industry for which Amalfi was, and still is, famous. The small Museo della Carta offers displays related to the industry.
West from Amalfi, the increasingly spectacular corniche road passes Grotta dello Smeraldo,a marine cave of luminous emerald waters that you can visit by boat, elevator, or rock-cut steps. Just beyond it, the road passes the Vallone di Furore, one of the coast’s most impressive gorges (worth exploring on foot), before arriving at the villages of Praiano and Positano, two more smart and majestically situated villages. From here the road runs around the tip of the peninsula to Sorrento, a popular package tour resort, although none the worse for that. Other roads to Sorrento and the peninsula’s northern coast— notably the SS366 from Vettica Minore near Amalfi—provide firsthand views of the interior’s beautiful Lattari mountains.