The Amalfi Drive

An overview of the amazing, spectacular, gravity-defying, cliff-hanging scenic road along the Amalfi Coast from Sorrento to Salerno

This white-knuckle thrill ride is one of Italy's greatest wonders, 30 miles of narrow, S-curve roadway strung halfway up a cliff with the waves crashing below, green slopes all around, medieval pirate watchtowers on the headlands, and colorful villages tucked into the coves.

Welcome to the undulating, world-famous Amalfi Drive, otherwise known as the Amalfitana and by its official handle SS163. It lies along the south side of the Sorrentine Peninsula that forms the southern arm of the Bay of Naples.

How to get to the Amalfi Drive

To get to Amalfi, Positano, Ravello, and the other villages and towns of the Amalfi Coast, you'll need to get to the south side of Sorrento's peninsula, which means your first order of business is reaching Sorrento, a middle-class resort town atop a cliff overlooking the Bay of Naples (on the north side of the peninsula). » more

Sorrento has plenty of hotels and other tourist infrastructure (this is where many bus tours put up to explore the region), but only a fraction of the charm enjoyed by the smaller villages on the Amalfi Coast itself. My advice is to hop on a bus (be sure to sit on the right for the best views) and head out to explore the Amalfi Coast itself. » more

If you are driving directly to the Amalfi Coast, you can bypass Sorrento. » more

From Sorrento to Positano (18km; 35–45 min.)

This is a relatively uneventful ride, south from Sorrento and mostly inland over the tall hills of the peninsula to the Amalfi Drive on the southern side of it. The first views of the coast as you come down a hairpin road are pretty spectacular, but the not much else happens until you reach the first major stop—that postcard child of the Amalfi Coast, the chichi resort town of Positano.

This tumble of white and pale pastel houses stairsteps up the hillsides of a tight cove, a charmingly disorderly stack of sea-view terraces picked out with bougainvillea. A multitude of these old fisher homes and summer villas have been transformed into hotels or B&Bs, and though the hoipalloi (us regular tourists) now know about it, too, Positano still exerts almost as a strong pull on the rich and famous as it has since the heyday of the 1950s Jet Set. » more

From Positano to Amalfi (19km; 45–60 min.)

About 3km (2 miles) beyond Positano is its sister hamlet of Praiano, also a trendy resort (only much smaller and still little-known) with a majolica-domed church (and an excellent hotel called the Locanda Costa Diva).

Past the village of Furore the bus pops out of a tunnel to ride a bridge across one of the coast's most dramatic gorges, the Vallone del Furore.

At kilometer-marker 24, outside the fishing community of Conca dei Marini, are the stairs (or elevator) down to the Grotta dello Smeraldo (Emerald Grotto). This cavern was formed above sea level, then partially sunk below the water, and the effect of light inside causes the water to glow an eerie green. » more

A detour from Amalfi to Ravello (7km; 25–30 min.)

Seven kilometers inland—and 1,155 feet up—from Amalfi perches Ravello, a tiny town of crumbling villas whose flower-filled grounds and lush pleasure gardens have become public parks hosting concerts under the stars. » more

From Amalfi to Salerno (25km; 60–75 min.)

As you make your way east on the Amalfi Coast toward Salerno, you'll pass though several more small villages—Atrani, just beyond Amalfi, is the cutest—and a few sprawling resort towns with decent (but crowded) beaches that are favored by Italians on week-long packaged vacations. Minori has a bit of old-school charm; Maiori now consists primarily of a depressingly unbroken seafront line of identical low-rise hotels; skip it.

The one town most worth getting off the bus for is at the tail end of the coast: Vietri Sul Mare, these days practically a Salerno suburb and chock-a-bloc with studios turning out hand-painted ceramics. » more

The Amalfi Drive ends at Salerno, a busy and bustling—but (for the tourist) relatively bland—working port city. Sadly, World War II bombs were not kind to Salerno, leaving it but a few historic sites, though enough to amuse you in case public transport connections strands you there for a few hours. » more

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How long does the Amalfi Coast take?

Planning your time: Budget at least a day for the Amalfi Coast. Simply to drive the coast without getting out (except to change buses in Amalfi) takes at least five hours—that's three hours touring the coast from Sorrento to Salerno, plus another hour on each end to get to and from those gateway towns.

If you do want to pack it all into a single day—and actually stop and get out in a few towns—it might be best to just book a tour that picks you up at your hotel, gives you time in each of the main Amalfi Coast towns, and returns you to your hotel 6–9 hours later:

  • From Sorrento, group tours start from $40, private drivers from $60, and private tours from $90. » book
  • From Naples, group tours start from $97, private drivers from $55, and private tours from $85. » book

Otherwise, it makes far more sense to spend at least one night on the coast.

If, however, your schedule doesn't have that much leisure time, might I suggest riding the first leg—from Sorrento to Positano to Amalfi—taking a quick spin around Amalfi town, then catching a ferry either back up the coast to Sorrento or over to Capri.

» Amalfi Coast itineraries

The Amalfi Drive: by car or by bus?

The way I see it, the last thing you want to do is deprive yourself of gawking at every postcard-perfect curve by driving it yourself. Also, vacations aren't meant to be stressful. I drove it once, and since then have always taken the bus, which conveniently leaves every half hour from in front of the Sorrento train station.

On the bus, you get to admire the pretty view (rather than mentally revising your will as you careen terrified around blind corners), plus it doesn't take three burly men and a crowbar 20 minutes to un-pry your fingers from the steering wheel at the end. » more

If you are determined to take your life into your own hands, you can drive yourself along the twisting, death-defying Amalfi Coast down the SS163 from Sorrento to Salerno.

Here's a hint at how congested the traffic is: Locals are allowed to drive only every other day of the week (odd numbered license plates one day, even numbered ones the next). And as the driver, ask your companion to take lot of pictures because you'll be too busy digging your fingernails into the wheel, violently pumping the brakes, and otherwise desperately trying not to end up smushed against the cliffside—or flying off it into the water 80 feet below.

Buses blare their horns when rounding blind, outside curves so you'll know they're coming. When you see them coming on the inside curves, stop before the curve itself so the bus—whose swing, in such instances, takes up both lanes—can get past. Also be prepared to put it in reverse and back up along with everybody else on the frequent occasions when the bus hasn't enough space and traffic going both ways has to ease back to make room.

Which direction?

Explore the coast from west to east (though it feels for all the world like you are traveling from north to south, this peninsula actually stretches almost due east-west).

In other words, ride from Sorrento to Salerno.

You can, of course, do the drive "backwards," from Salerno to Sorrento, but hardly anyone does. Why? Because if you go from Sorrento to Salerno, you'll be in the right lane of a highway cantilevered out over the coastline, with no opposing traffic to block your view and your window hovering right above the cliffs plunging down into the surf.

The other way, from Salerno to Sorrento, you'll spend much of the trip staring at the raw rock of a cliffface that is worryingly close to your window. (If you are forced to go this direction, at least sit on the left side of the bus so you can glimpse some of the scenery between gaps in the oncoming traffic.)

Sit on the right side of the bus

Be sure to snag a window seat on the right side of the bus for the best views.

Thanks to parallax, sometime you'll actually feel as if you are dangling off the edge of the road dozens of feet above the crashing waves below. Fun!

Beware car-sickness

This road sports some serious curves, and the drivers are experts and making all but the most iron-stomached travelers wish there were barf bags on board.

Armor yourself by downing some Dramamine before boarding or taking the wheel—seriously.

(Or pop into an Italian farmacia and ask for "Travel Gum," a wonderful medicine consisting of giant round candy-shelled Chiclets in a foil pack. Chew on one of these for about five minutes and your motion sickness will vanish. After about 20–30 minutes, your tongue will go slightly numb. No idea why. but they work a dream and I always stock up when I go to Italy.)

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