If you're interested in spectacularly rugged coastal views, charming towns climbing along seaside cliffs, boats and yachts plying crystal-blue waters, and some of the highest prices ever to be seen at summertime resorts, then the Amalfi Coast should be your first destination within Campania.
Amalfi is just one of the picturesque towns along this 30-mile stretch, which also includes the popular vacation spots of Positano and Ravello. There is a small airport here, called Aeroporto di Salerno, which receives a limited number of flights from the northern Italy cities of Turin, Milan, and Verona, as well as from international cities.
The prettiest way to arrive at the Amalfi coast is by automobile, though the breathtaking, cliff-top turns can be as scary to navigate — and as jam-packed with summer traffic — as any along California's famous Highway 1. Easier arrival routes can be found by way of ferries from Naples or SITA buses that connect to the Sorrento and Salerno train stations. The SITA website does offer schedules, but the information is available only in Italian.
If you plan to savor a few sips of the favorite local drink, Limoncello, be sure to do so after dinner — the time when the lemon liqueur is typically served. Expect a small, chilled ceramic glass instead of a more modern cup, and be sure to sip instead of gulp even though the size of the ceramic glass will sometimes be no bigger than that of an American shot glass.
Amalfi, now a town of about 5,500 permanent residents, has a history that dates back to the sixth century. It was once a prominent city with some 70,000 dwellers. Long before tourism became a primary economic underpinning, Amalfi served as a strategic port for traders wanting to bargain for grain from inland, salt from nearby islands, and silks from the Byzantine empire.
Today, the town is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses the entire Amalfi Coast, and it draws visitors who want to linger in the resorts, taste the locally made Limoncello liqueur, and purchase some of the elegant paper for which the region is known. There is a paper museum in town — Il Museo della Carta — where you can not only learn the centuries-old techniques of making fine paper, but where you can buy everything from writing tablets to wedding invitations.
On the architectural front, an interesting stop is the Sant'Andrea cathedral, with an imposing, ornate fa çade that blends Byzantine style with other movements. Bring your best aerobic mindset here: The cathedral sits atop a steep staircase that has left many an out-of-shape tourist's knees wobbling.
The seaside town of Positano is, like the cathedral in Amalfi, accessible only to those willing to navigate steep staircases. They're seemingly everywhere in this picture-perfect enclave, which brims with pricey shops and boutique restaurants — most of which make getting around worth the effort.
While tourism is the main industry in Positano today, the town's popularity is a relatively recent development, having been spurred by a glowing article about the place that John Steinbeck wrote for Harper's Bazaar in 1953. Positano's beauty was again put on the world stage in the 2003 film Under the Tuscan Sun.
The hotels in Positano tend to be among the priciest along the entire Amalfi Coast, and some regularly make the lists of the best places to stay in the entire world. A standard room at Il San Pietro di Positano, for instance, will set you back at least 1,300.
The best way to enjoy Positano on a budget is by simply walking around with your photographer's eye at the ready. Look for lunch on-the-go from a vendor, and savor your keepsake photographs instead of splurging on meals that can easily cost more than your camera.
The thing to do in Ravello, after you're done gawking at the spectacular seaside views offered all over the small town, is visit Villa Rufolo. Constructed in the 1200s and once having served as a watchtower, the villa was built on such a grand scale that it has served as a home to several popes over the centuries. The gardens are world renowned and are said to have been the natural landscape that inspired German composer Richard Wagner to write the third act of his final opera, Parsifal, on site.
Villa Rufolo is also the setting for Ravello Festival, which typically begins in late June and runs straight through until the end of October, featuring classical music, ballets, films, and more. The town may be small, but the talent is not; recent participants have included legendary choreographer Bill T. Jones and the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. You can order tickets online and learn more about the festival at its website.