Positano and the Amalfi Coast: 10 Surprising Things First-Time Visitors Should Know
The natural beauty, alluring charm and ancient history of the Amalfi Coast places this region at the top of many travelers' must-see lists. Is this the year you plan a once-in-a-lifetime trip to experience this extraordinary coastline of pastel villages, cascading cliffs and azure seas?
The most popular holiday destinations are glamorous Positano, historic Amalfi and romantic Ravello, but there are many small towns throughout the region with lovely accommodations and authentic attractions. In total, there are 13 municipalities along the Amalfi Coast, many of which include even smaller villages within the individual town limits. The entire region hugs the peninsular mountainside and there are stunning coastal vistas everywhere. There are churches and museums, gardens and hiking paths, fresh food and seafood markets, shops and restaurants, sunwashed beaches and water sports. The nearby islands of Capri, Procida and Ischia are popular day trips, as are the ancient Roman ruins at Pompeii and Herculaneum. There is something for everyone, and it is all spectacular.
First-time visitors planning a trip to the Amalfi Coast will find lots of useful information in articles and travel guides recommending places to see, recreate, shop and dine. Many offer good practical advice about things like currency and local transportation. However, even after doing their homework, people traveling to this region for the first time tend to find a few surprises.
At Carrington Italia — the only local private villa specialists with an office in the heart of Positano — we strive to prepare our guests to ensure that their carefully planned vacation is not only a smooth travel experience but the proverbial "trip of a lifetime." We always recommend our guests do some independent research because there are so many things to see and do, and many of those are personal choices best made in advance. The advice we offer to first-time visitors is intended to supplement the many wonderful guidebooks and travel articles about our region. We work hard to help our guests avoid surprises, but we also encourage them to have a little bit of patience if things don’t go exactly as planned. It’s all part of the adventure!
Yes, Positano does have that many steps.
Travel guides mention the abundance of steps in the vertical town of Positano. But they either do not convey just how vertiginous the town is, or people perhaps gloss over it. Either way, first-time visitors are often surprised. Make no mistake: There are many steps. There likely will be steps from the road to the entrance of your villa or hotel. Wherever you stay, there are many steps to the beaches and ferry dock.
Just to put this in perspective, there are 365 formidable steps at the U.S. Capitol building. A local Positanese might do that twice before lunch! So practical footwear is in order but, more importantly, anyone with mobility issues should choose a location carefully. When touring the town, children must be old enough to manage steps or parents must be prepared to carry them. Americans are accustomed to going anywhere with a stroller, but that is not the case in Positano. If steps might be a problem for someone in your party, get local advice beforehand. Certain properties and possibly other villages may better accommodate the needs of seniors and small children. (On the plus side, with all those steps there's no need for a gym! And keep in mind that the vertical nature of the town is what creates all those stunning views from every angle!)
It takes a bit of effort to get to Positano, but it's worth it.
The closest international airport is Naples, which is about one hour and 15 minutes to Positano by car, depending on traffic. Rome is much farther away — a three and a half hour road trip.
If you fly into Naples, you have several options: taxi, pre-arranged car service, or ferry. Bus service is not recommended, nor is the local train line (Circumvesuviana) between Naples and Sorrento. (There is no train service directly to Positano from Naples; it only goes as far as Sorrento.) In the tourist season those options are crowded, unpleasant and stressful after a long flight.
From Naples, a pre-arranged licensed car service with a professional driver is the most comfortable and reliable option. If you take your chances with an airport taxi, ask beforehand what the flat rate is and confirm that with the driver.
Another option from Naples is traveling to Positano by ferry (Metro del Mare), which is pleasant, but in order to reach Positano you’ll have to change ferries once or twice (in either Sorrento or Capri or both) as it’s not a direct route from Naples. Also, the port in Positano is at beach level, where no cars or taxis are permitted. So it's an uphill climb (with your luggage) to reach the town center, Piazza dei Mulini, where there are taxis and local buses. But, if the ferry appeals to you, a porter service can be arranged in advance (for a per-bag fee) to bring your luggage from the port to the town center.
When flying into Rome, we recommend using a private car service to reach Positano. The cost is well worth it. It's a very long drive after a trans-Atlantic flight and you don't want to arrive in Positano stressed and harried.
The other option is to take the fast train from Rome to Naples and then follow the aforementioned advice to hire a private car or taxi that will take you to your destination in Positano or neighboring towns. From FCO airport, you would take the internal Leonardo Express train to Rome’s Termini station (about 30 minutes) and then take the fast train Frecciarossa to Napoli Centrale, which is a little more than an hour. Once in Naples you have the option of ground transportation or ferry.
For more info on this topic, read How to Get to Positano.
Tour the region, but skip the rental car.
Unless you are familiar with the region and have experience driving in Italy, a rental car is not recommended — particularly in Positano. Most villas and homes do not do not have parking. Public parking spaces are limited and costly, and roads are tricky to say the least. Roads are a shared resource (cars, trucks, motorcycles, scooters, cyclists, pedestrians) and mostly single lane. They are slow moving year-round and extremely crowded in summer.
You don't need a rental car to get around. If you want to tour various towns along the coast, the ferry is a far better option. You may also consider hiring a boat for the day, or a semi-private boat tour. When ground transportation is needed, local bus service, taxis, and hired car services can fill your needs. If you want to visit more distant sites, such as Pompeii, a licensed private tour guide/driver is recommended.
Yes, it is that crowded in summer, particularly in August.
If you can avoid traveling to the Amalfi Coast in summer, you will avoid what can only be described as a crush of tourists. August is the month most Italians take their annual holiday; everyone escapes the heat of the cities and heads to the lakes and coastal towns. The road leading to Positano is jam-packed with vehicles. The most popular day trip destinations, Capri and Pompeii, are so crowded in summer we recommend visitors consider alternatives such as the islands of Ischia and Procida, and the ancient ruins at Herculaneum or Paestum.
There is a lot happening during the summer months — festivals, concerts and other events — but there is much to see in spring and fall, and you can experience it all in a more relaxed environment.
The tourist season is actually longer than Easter through September.
Many travel guides mention the "official" opening of the tourist season as Easter weekend and some also note that the "close" of the season is the last weekend in September with the annual fish festival celebration in Positano at Fornillo Beach.
While that may be considered the high season, there is plenty to see and do along the Amalfi Coast during the shoulder months. Hotels may not open until Easter but many private villas are available throughout the spring and fall. There are festivals and concerts in the shoulder months. Ferry service continues through October. Harvest time is in the fall. Pompeii is open year-round and Capri is more manageable in spring and fall. Visitors interested in a relaxed and authentic travel experience would do well to consider the shoulder months.
Beaches and beach clubs have their own rules and protocol.
There are beaches all along the Amalfi Coast; some of them very small, and some only accessible by boat because they are situated below cliffs. Most are pebble beaches, not sandy beaches, so visitors will need water shoes, flip flops or beach sandals. (The beach in Vietri sul Mare is one of the few sandy beaches.) Many Amalfi Coast beaches lose the sun fairly early in the afternoon, so sunbathers must get an early start. (A notable exception is tiny Gavitella beach in Praiano.)
The larger and most popular beaches — for example, the iconic Spiaggia Grande, the main beach in Positano — have private and public/free sections. Each private section is marked by rows of chairs and colorful umbrellas and managed by a lido or beach club. Visitors can procure two lounge chairs and a small table with an umbrella for a daily fee. Each lido may have slightly different amenities, such as changing rooms and showers. A few exclusive beach clubs offer wifi, provide towels and hot-water showers, and have restaurants and servers to bring elegant cocktails to your beach chair. It's a relaxing and luxurious way to spend the day.
You will need cash — meaning, Euros! Credit cards are not universally accepted.
Americans are accustomed to using debit cards and credit cards when traveling internationally, but many Amalfi Coast shops and cafes only take cash — and only Euros, not U.S. dollars. If you've been to other destinations in Italy and you've paid with a card for just about everything, please remember these are small towns. Different rules, different expectations.
Also by law, all vacation rentals and hotels require a city tourist tax. It is typically requested to be paid in cash — Euros.
Italians keep different hours. And time is usually noted in 24-hour format (military time).
Italians typically eat lunch at 1:30 p.m. (13.30) — traditionally, the mid-day meal is the largest of the day — and a light dinner as late as 9:00 p.m. (21.00). Many restaurants along the Amalfi Coast will not accept dinner reservations any earlier than 7:00 p.m. (19.00). If late restaurant dining does not appeal to you, it's another good reason consider a villa equipped with a kitchen!
First-time visitors also need to know that a "bar" in Italy is not a cocktail lounge. It's a coffee bar, and it's an important part of Italian life. Locals often eat a light breakfast (espresso and pastry) at a bar on the way to work — and they'll go to a bar later in the day for a social coffee break. Visitors will find bars useful not only for breakfast but also for lunch and snacks.
Because Positano is so entirely focused on tourism, most establishments remain open during the entire day but in smaller towns visitors may encounter the tradition of "riposo" which is the Italian version of "siesta." It means "to rest." Locals may go home for a long lunch, and return late afternoon to remain open well into the evening. So, when touring smaller towns, it can be challenging to figure out where to eat, and many shops and small markets (alimentari) close for lunch and don't re-open until much later in the day.
Italians are very energy-conscious. It's born of necessity.
Actually this is true throughout Europe due to the high cost of fuel. Italy has strict federal energy regulations that include all hotels and private villas, large and small. The government decides what months heating and air conditioning are allowed. Hotels may have energy surcharges and villas typically log meter readings on arrival and departure, and charge for energy use if guests go over a certain limit.
Also, in markets on the Amalfi Coast, fresh food is locally grown — not imported from points around the globe. Local fruits, vegetables and seafood are wonderful, but keep in mind the selection is limited to whatever is in season. (The farm-to-table movement actually started in Italy in the 1960s.) It's all very sustainable and resource efficient — and fresh, local and delicious.
Italian culture is more formal than Americans think.
Decorum is important to Italians. As a tourist destination, the Amalfi Coast has a relaxed resort atmosphere, but good manners always apply. Table manners are formal, and polite courteousness is expected when interacting with servers. Tipping is five to 10 percent, not 20. As of 2005 smoking in public places in Italy is prohibited — although you may see a few people breaking this rule. In restaurants, your table is yours for the meal period, as servers generally refrain from trying to achieve a quick turnover — which is so common in U.S. restaurants. Service may seem a little slow to Americans, but Italian diners appreciate service that is not rushed. Guests are expected to spend a couple of hours enjoying their meal. In addition, Italians consider it rude for servers to be too “present” at your table.
Dress is casual resort-wear. Swimsuits are fine for the beach, of course, but not elsewhere. (There is actually a city ordinance in Positano forbidding people to walk around town shirtless or in bathing suits, although you’ll see visitors breaking that rule!) And the dress codes for entering churches are real rules, not suggestions. No exposed shoulders or knees, and it applies to both men and women. (You won't just be frowned upon; you will be turned away.) And no food, water bottles or cell phone use in church.
In general, the region is cosmopolitan. English is widely spoken and you'll hear many languages and accents. Friendliness is welcomed; Italians greet strangers and friends alike with a good day (buongiorno) or good evening (buonasera), and if you want to attempt saying that in Italian it is appreciated. (But "ciao" is a personal greeting and not exchanged among strangers.)
Interacting with locals is definitely encouraged. Because that's where all the best vacation stories come from!