An unashamed resort, Sorrento is still a civilized old town. Even the souvenirs are a cut above the norm, with plenty of fine old shops selling ceramics, lacework and intarsio (marquetry items) – famously produced here. The main drawback is the lack of a proper beach; the town straddles the cliffs overlooking the water to Naples and Mt Vesuvius.
Positano is the coast’s most picturesque and photogenic town, with steeply-stacked houses tumbling down to the sea in a cascade of sun-bleached peach, pink and terracotta colours. No less colourful are its steep streets and steps lined with wisteria-draped hotels, smart restaurants and fashionable boutiques.
It is hard to grasp that pretty little Amalfi, with its sun-filled piazzas and small beach, was once a maritime superpower with a population of more than 70,000. For one thing, it’s not a big place – you can easily walk from one end to the other in about 20 minutes. For another, there are very few historical buildings of note.
Sitting high in the hills above Amalfi, Ravello is a refined, polished town almost entirely dedicated to tourism (and increasingly popular as a wedding venue).
West of Sorrento
If you are here in midsummer, consider escaping the crowds by heading to the green hills around Sorrento. Known as the land of the sirens, in honour of the mythical maiden-monsters who were said to live on Li Galli (a tiny archipelago off the peninsula’s southern coast), the area to the west of Massa Lubrense is among the least developed and most beautiful in the country.
An ancient fishing village, a low-key summer resort and, increasingly, a popular centre for the arts, Praiano is a delight. With no centre as such, its whitewashed houses pepper the verdant ridge of Monte Sant’Angelo as it slopes towards Capo Sottile.
The first town you come to following the coast west from Sorrento is Massa Lubrense. Situated 120m above sea level, it’s a disjointed place, comprising a small town centre and 17 frazioni (fractions or hamlets) joined by an intricate network of paths and mule tracks. For those without a donkey, there are good road connections and SITA buses regularly run between them.
Sant’Agata sui due Golfi
Perched high in the hills above Sorrento, Sant’Agata sui due Golfi is the most famous of Massa Lubrense’s 17 frazioni. Boasting spectacular views of the Bay of Naples on one side and the Gulf of Salerno on the other (hence its name, ‘St Agatha on the two Gulfs’), it’s a tranquil place that manages to retain its rustic charm despite a fairly heavy hotel presence.
About 3.5km east of Amalfi, or a steep kilometre-long walk down from Ravello, Minori is a small, workaday town, popular with holidaying Italians. Scruffier than its refined coastal cousins Amalfi and Positano, it’s no less dependent on tourism, yet seems more genuine, with its festive seafront, pleasant beach, atmospheric pedestrian shopping streets and noisy traffic jams.
Marina del Cantone
From Massa Lubrense, follow the coastal road round to Termini. Stop a moment to admire the views before continuing on to Nerano, from where a beautiful hiking trail leads down to the stunning Baia de Ieranto and Marina del Cantone.
East of Sorrento
More developed and less appealing than the coast west of Sorrento, the area to the east of town is not totally without interest. There’s the district’s longest sandy beach, Spiaggia di Alimuri, at Meta di Sorrento and, 12km beyond that, the Roman villas at Castellammare di Stabia.
Vietri sul Mare
Marking the end of Amalfi’s coastal road, Vietri sul Mare is the ceramics capital of Campania. Production dates back to Roman times but it took off on an industrial scale in the 16th and 17th centuries with the development of high, three-level furnaces.
Just beyond Erchie and its pleasant beach, Cetara is a picturesque fishing village with a reputation as a gastronomic hot spot. It has been an important fishing centre since medieval times and today its deep-sea tuna fleet is considered one of the Mediterranean’s most important. At night, fishermen set out in small boats armed with powerful lamps to fish for anchovies.
Known to the Romans as Aequa, Vico Equense (Vico) is a small cliff-top town about 10km east of Sorrento and just five stops away via the Circumvesuviana train. Largely bypassed by international tourists, it’s a laid-back, authentic place worth a quick stopover, if only to sample some of the famous pizza by the metre.
A tiny, still relatively isolated mountain village, above Positano and beyond Montepertuso, Nocelle (450m) commands some of the most spectacular views on the entire coast. A world apart from touristy Positano, it’s a sleepy, silent place where not much ever happens and where the few residents are happy to keep it that way.
Marina di Furore, a tiny fishing village, was once a busy little commercial centre, although it’s difficult to believe that today. In medieval times, its unique natural position freed it from the threat of foreign raids and provided a ready source of water for its flour and paper mills.