Amalfi Coast, Italy Limoncello and Hair Raising Roads
After Rome, Florence, and Venice, the Amalfi Coast is probably the most popular destination for tourists in Italy. Problem is that, unlike those cities, the Amalfi Coast is a collection of small towns and villages, so the crush of tourists can be especially intense, particularly during the summer months.
But, don’t let the throngs of visitors dissuade you from visiting. The Amalfi Coast is one of the most beautiful places in Italy with incredible natural scenery, sparkling water, pebbly beaches and limoncello.
Table of Contents
A Short History
Amalfi, while small and quant today, was a major maritime power during the early Middle Ages. Amalfi merchants became rich trading grain, salt, wood, and even slaves. But, in the late 12th century, rival Pisa sacked Amalfi, reducing its importance. Then, an earthquake rocked the Bay of Naples in 1343, causing a tsunami that destroyed the port of Amalfi. The city never recovered, forgotten until tourists rediscovered the pristine water, mild climate and spectacular vistas in the 19th century.
Of course, you’ll want to see the famous Amalfi Drive, but a bit of advice, leave it to the professionals. The scenery is so beautiful and the road so winding that you are taking your life into your hands. The buses are safe and the drivers know the road way better than you do. And, if you’re not driving, it’s easier to take pictures.
Truck drivers might be a different story. The last time we were on the Amalfi Coast we took a bus from Sorrento to Positano along the Amalfi Drive. Gorgeous, couldn’t be better. Until we came to a complete stop. That’s not unusual along the Amalfi Drive because buses and trucks often have to stop or even back up to allow traffic coming the other way to pass. Usually, in a minute or two, you’re on your way again. But, ten minutes pass, then twenty. People turn off the engines of their cars and get out. Some people get off the bus to investigate. Turns out, a truck had backed up to let a car pass and had gone too far. One wheel was hanging precariously off the cliff. A crowd of Italians gathers, each giving their two cents on how to solve the problem. Civil engineers and physics professors, all. It took 90 minutes before the truck was back on solid ground and we were moving again. Luckily, no one was hurt.
Despite the Amalfi Drive’s appearance, it is actually very safe. I looked for any news stories about cars careening off the cliff, poor tourists plunging to their ultimate fate in the sea below and couldn’t find one instance. Car crashes, yes. But nobody going over the edge. Still, I prefer to leave the driving to the professionals.
And if you still don’t want to risk the Amalfi Drive, you can take a boat from one town to the next. This is a fun and incredibly scenic way to populate your news feed with great pix and vids.
Although you can now get limoncello all over Italy (and in most of Europe and any self-respecting Italian joint in the US), its home is the Amalfi Coast region where the famous Sfuaato, or Sorrento, lemons are grown.
I first encountered limoncello at Nonna Cherubina restaurant (don’t look for it, Stefi and Luigi moved to Spain years ago) in Warwick, Rhode Island. Karen and I dined there all the time and to this day we still try to recreate some of their recipes like pasta with lentils, goat cheese and rosemary. So good!
Stefi and Luigi worked incredibly hard at the restaurant and didn’t often get to go home, so their family and friends would come to Rhode Island to visit. One night we met Luigi’s friend Otis (a nickname given to him because of his love for Otis Redding) who was visiting from Bologna. We spent a raucous evening laughing too loud and drinking limoncello.
A couple years later were visiting Bologna and Luigi put us in touch with Otis. Keep in mind, Otis only knew Karen and I from one evening spent in a restaurant, but when he found out we were coming, he insisted on taking us out and showing us his city along with his sister and her fiancé. When Otis deposited us back at our hotel at 2am his sister asked “What time should we pick you up tomorrow?” Nothing like Italian hospitality.
When you get to the Amalfi Coast you’ll notice it is quite a bit different from the other parts of Italy you may visit. There are not a lot of historic must-see blockbuster sites. The city of Amalfi has a nice cathedral as does Positano.
When shopping for limoncello, I recommend Antichi Sapori d'Amalfi in the town of Amalfi. You can’t miss it; their store is right at the foot of the giant staircase leading to the cathedral. I was hesitant at first, this place looks like a tourist trap from the outside. But, they make their own limoncello with good ingredients. And they have bottles with interesting designs and fun shaped bottles which make a perfect gift. Some bottles are even 100cl or less so you could conceivably pack a bottle in your carry on, although many airlines don’t allow alcohol in your carry on.
Another option is to pack your bottles in your checked baggage. Word to the wise if you do this. The corks in limoncello bottles are not sealed as securely as, say, wine bottles. Take it from someone who learned the hard way and had a suitcase of wet and sticky clothes upon returning home; seal the bottles yourself using heavy duty tape.
Antichi Sapori d'Amalfi also offers shipping, but it is quite expensive.
Shopping on the Fashionable Amalfi Coast
If you’re looking for high-end stores, there’s plenty to choose from. Well-heeled tourists spend quite a bit of money on fashionable summer clothes, beachwear, and sandals. There’s plenty of boutiques where you can drop your Euros in Positano.
The Amalfi Coast is renowned for the art of ceramics. There’s even a ceramics museum in the watchtower of a villa in the town of Vietri sul Mare.
Also in Vietri sul Mare is the ceramics store Ceramica Artistica Solimene. They have a huge selection of handmade ceramics and the seconds (some with hardly discernable flaws) are a real bargain. The store, as it is, is more a giant storage area for the ceramics. Prices generally aren’t listed (you have to ask) and don’t expect white glove service. Still, if you’re willing to suspend your expectations on customer service, this can be an incredible experience. Shipping is available if you can’t fit your find room in your suitcase.
If shopping for ceramics in a more intimate environment is what you’re looking for, stop in one of the shops in the town of Amalfi. You can spend anywhere from 10€ to tens of thousands of Euro for a one of a kind work of art. Remember, these are extremely fragile items, so it costs quite a bit to ship them home. What I usually do is buy several small, inexpensive souvenirs. Stuff like a trivet or a spoon holder for the kitchen. Or an olive dish or a small ceramic animal. These make great gifts, you can fit them in your suitcase, and you won’t be crushed with disappointment if one breaks before you get it home.
The craft of papermaking dates back hundreds of years in this area. Today, the industry has virtually died out. La Scuderia del Duca is still making paper in their workshop using traditional methods. Their shop has paper, etchings, albums, and antiques. And, of course, they do custom jobs like wedding invitations.
Once you’re finished shopping, you can take some time and look for the miniature nativity scenes scattered along the coast. Some are on the Amalfi Drive, crammed into grottos that are easy to miss. Others are on side streets in town. They depict the nativity in miniature, but the setting isn’t Bethlehem, but the Amalfi Coast. Buildings are carved into the rock face and tiny figurines of townspeople, animals, everyday household items, and, of course, Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, and lots of angels populate the town. These scenes take up quite a bit of space and are lovingly carved and painted which makes them an unexpected find if you stumble upon one.
Foodie Amalfi Coast
Fine dining is not in short supply on the Amalfi Coast. No less than seven restaurants have earned a Michelin star. With that quality comes high prices. And crowds. Reservations at the top spots are essential.
After party on the island of Capri, take a boat ride to the Blue Grotto (and bring your GoPro or camera; a video from here will look great on your Instachatbook feed), soak up the sun on the beach, linger over limoncello on the terrace of what seems like thousands of restaurants with spectacular views and decide the churches in Rome, the museums in Florence, and the canals in Venice can wait, grab a gelato at Gelateria Buonocore. The aroma of fresh made cones are sure to lure you in.
Amalfi’s Da Gemma has been around for almost 150 years and they use the original recipe from 1872 for their zuppa di pesce (fish soup). The terrace can be crowded, but offers the best atmosphere; make a reservation so you can be sure to sit there.
Named after a fishing net used in Amalfi, Ristorante La Tonnarella is accessible by the restaurant’s boat shuttle from Amalfi. Situated on a tiny beach, this restaurant has been around since the 60’s when Jackie Onassis would eat here (there’s a dish named after her).
You’ve heard of farm-to-table, the concept where restaurants buy ingredients from farmers directly. Well, what do you call it when the restaurant is the farm? La Tagliata, that’s what. This restaurant in the hills above Positano has a garden where they pick vegetables for the menu daily. Farm animals are also raised on site for the meat offerings.
For a splurge in Positano, La Sponda is the romantic choice. Located inside the luxury Le Sirenuse hotel, La Sponda is a Michelin starred restaurant with an atmosphere that can’t be beat. Each night they illuminate the terrace overlooking the water with 400 candles.
Da Adolfo is a ramshackle beach club of a restaurant accessible by the restaurant’s boat parked at the pier in Positano and exclusively for the use of restaurant patrons. Adding to the exclusivity (some say arrogance), is the fact that reservations are required and only available by phone, which employees only sporadically answer, if at all. The charm of the beach location may make all your trouble worthwhile.
Frittelle di Alghe
The Italians love their fritters. And on the Amalfi Coast, where seaweed is plentiful, they make a dish called frittelle di alghe, literally seaweed fritters. Made with rice, seaweed, and eggs, the little balls are fried and gobbled up. You can find frittelle di alghe in little bakeries on the coast, but they’re also starting to show up in some restaurants, even some higher-end ones.
Most of the Amalfi coast doesn’t have blockbuster sights; it’s all about relaxing by the water, eating a nice meal, taking a boat ride, and limoncello. But, travel a few miles inland to Ravello and you’ll find a great medieval churches, gardens, museums, and, in the summer, the Ravello Festival. The Villa Cimbrone dates to the 11th century and there is now a hotel on the site. But, the gardens at the villa are the real attraction. Walk along the Terrazza dell’Infinito (Terrace of Infinity) and check out the marble busts which use the clear sky and blue water as background colors to create a magical effect. This is a fantastic spot for a GoPro video or a selfie. A bus gets you from Amalfi to Ravello in 25 minutes.
In 79AD Pompei was destroyed by ash and pumice from an eruption at Mount Vesuvius. The city was rediscovered in 1599, but real archeological digging and excavation wasn’t undertaken until the 1700’s. Since then, Pompei has been a major tourist attraction. The train stops at the foot of the entrance.
Outside the entrance gates you’ll see people hanging around who will probably try to sell you a “tour” of Pompei. These “guides” aren’t registered or regulated, so if you opt to hire one, interview them beforehand to make sure they understand your needs (and language). Buyer beware.
Since the various sites inside Pompei are not labeled, the best way to see the doomed city is with an audio guide. You can rent them at a kiosk near the ticket window.
There’s very little shade at the site. Bring a hat and sunscreen.
You may opt to combine your visit to Pompei with a climb of Mount Vesuvius. Buses leave from outside the train station, or you can book a private tour. Prepare accordingly. It is much colder on Mount Vesuvius than at sea level. Also, the sun is relentless; bring sunscreen. This is a mountain. Be ready to do some climbing. While not overly strenuous, it is a walk that will tire you out a bit. Trail #5 is the most popular and gets you within close range of the volcano itself, which, while still active, hasn’t had an eruption in 70 years.
Peel (yellow only, no pith) of 8 large lemons
32 oz grappa (or grain alcohol)
16 oz water
14 oz sugar
Notice that there’s no lemon juice in limoncello. Just the peel, or zest. Buy the best organic lemons you can find. Not Meyer lemons or any lemon with a thin skin. You want big lemons with thick skin to you can get the most zest possible.
· Place the zest in a sterilized jar with the grappa. Use grain alcohol if you can’t get grappa, but under no circumstances should you use vodka! Seal the jar and put it is a cool, dry place for a minimum of three weeks. Longer, if you can wait. You’ll notice that the liquid takes on a yellow tint from the lemons after a few days.
· After three weeks (or more) strain the peels and retain the liquid.
· On a stovetop, make a simple syrup by bringing the water and sugar to a simmer until the sugar melts. Let the syrup cool.
· Combine the infused grappa with the simple syrup and put in a sterilized bottle or jar. Seal the jar or cork the bottle and put in your freezer.
Note that this recipe can be adapted to your taste. I’ve given you a recipe that most people like. For me, I like my limoncello a little less sweet, so I decrease the amount of simple syrup I add. You can find your ideal ratio by putting an ounce of infused grappa in a glass. Add a half ounce of simple syrup and take a tiny sip. Too strong? Add more simple syrup until you love it!
Sorrento is accessible by train from Naples or Rome. The Circumvesuviana train runs from Naples to Sorrento every half hour or so and takes just over an hour. It has a stop at Pompei so you could stop on your way to see the ruins. There is also a train called the Campania Express which can take you to the Amalfi Coast. Be careful of pickpockets on the train. Driving and parking is difficult on the Amalfi Coast. I don’t recommend renting a car.
Buses run regularly between Sorrento, Postitano, and Amalfi. There is also a route from Amalfi to Salerno. Tickets must be purchased at a tabaccherie, bar or café.
There’s ferries operating between several of the towns along the Amalfi Coast including one from Sorrento to Capri, but they won’t take you to the Blue Grotto on Capri. Not only will they get you to your destination, but the ride is a visual treat.
Eating and Drinking
Excellent gelato and homemade cones.
Via Vittorio Emanuele, 35, 80076 Capri NA, Italy
An institution in Amalfi since 1872. Vegetarian and vegan options available.
Via Fra Gerardo Sasso, 11, 84011 Amalfi SA, Italy
Ristorante La Tonnarella
Take the restaurant’s boat shuttle from Amalfi to reach this beach-front establishment. Vegetarian dishes on the menu.
Via Marina di Conca, 84010 Conca dei Marini, Italy
Restaurant in Positano featuring produce from their garden and meat from their farm animals. Vegetarian options available.
Via Tagliata, 32B, 84017 Positano SA, Italy
Michelin starred restaurant inside Le Sirenuse hotel. Unbeatable atmosphere.
Via Cristoforo Colombo, 30, 84017 Positano SA, Italy
Beach shack restaurant with outstanding seafood. Reservations by phone only. +39 089 875022
Via Laurito, 40, 84017 Positano SA, Italy
Rustic Garden to Table Dining
Real farm to table dining at an Amalfi Coast vineyard. Kitchen is a renovated barn.
Things to Do
Antichi Sapori d'Amalfi
Shop selling quality limoncello in fun shaped bottles. At the foot of the staircase in Amalfi.
Ceramics museum in a villa’s turret in Vietri sul Mare.
Via Nuova Raito Raito di Vietri sul Mare
Yearly classical music festival
Swirl the Glass
Wine tastings and wine tours on the Amalfi Coast.
Tenuta San Francesco
Amalfi Coast winery.
Via Fieccia, 84010 Tramonti SA, Italy
Isle of Capri
There are lots of tour operators who will take you to the famous Blue Grotto
Much less touristed island than Capri.
Much less touristed island than Capri.
Places to Stay
Beautiful water views. Website is in Italian.
Via Roma, 46, 84010 Praiano SA, Italy m
Villa San Michele
Built right into the cliff above the sea near Ravello. Spectacular views.
Via Carusiello, 2, 84010 Ravello SA, Italy
Right in the center of Amalfi near the Piazza.
Salita Fra' Gerardo Sasso 4, 84011, Amalfi, Italy
Bed and Breakfast in a beautiful 12th century building in Amalfi.
Piazza Municipio, 13, 84011 Amalfi SA, Italy
Beautiful two bedroom apartment with seaview in Conca dei Marini
Apartment on the first floor of a farmhouse in Minori
Large two bedroom apartment with seaview terrace a few km south of Amalfi.