Campania lays claim to some of Italy's most dramatic and ruggedly walkable terrain – from paths worthy of gods on the Amalfi Coast to quiet, ancient woodlands in the Cilento. The sea is another feast of possibilities: surreally lit sea caves, self-drive boat rides to hidden coves, and marine parks perfect for diving.
Beaches & Swimming
The region's best sandy beaches line the Cilento coast from Paestum down to Palinuro and are mainly frequented by Italian tourists. The area is celebrated for its Blue Flag beaches, meaning they are clean well-tended and crying out for a quick dip. Highlights include Castellabate's 4km stretch of yellow sand, the broad Spiaggia Grande di Acciaroli and the beaches around Palinuro. Not only are these beaches bigger than the coves closer to Naples, but they are also less crowded and more frequented by locals.
Ischia has some reasonable dark-sand beaches in close proximity to the island's famous spas and is the best place in the Gulf of Naples islands to lay down a towel. Procida's beaches are less impressive.
Both the Amalfi Coast and Capri lack broad sandy beache; rather. the 'beaches' in these regions are more likely to inhabit sheltered coves or rocky promontories. Some are only accessible by boat or steep staircases. This notwithstanding, the region is riotously popular and sports a celebrity cast of excellent (if expensive) beach clubs.
Swimming is perennially popular in the Campania region, with the water usually clean and warm enough for summer bathing. Popular beaches invariably support at least one beach club and often have safe roped-off areas for swimming. Beware of ocean currents on more isolated beaches. Campanians are rightly proud of their clean-and-green Blue Flag beaches, all ideal for a relaxing swim. Popular Blue Flags include Spiaggia del Fornillo in Positano, Spiaggia di Faro on Capri and Spiaggia Palinuro on the Cilento coast.
Private vs Public Beaches
In Campania, most beaches are split into private and public sections. Private beaches are the preserve of stabilimenti balneari (beach clubs), venerable bathing establishments that commandeer broad sections of sand (or rocks) from where they charge admission to use comfortable sun-loungers and umbrellas. Most establishments also offer bars, restaurants, showers, toilets and, often beach toys. Beach clubs are hugely popular in Italy and thus get very crowded in the high summer. Admission ranges between €10 and €25 per person, for which you'll get an ombrellone (beach umbrella) and lettino (sunbed). Factor in food and drinks and a day at the beach can cost up to €60.
If you don't fancy paying for a place on the sand, look for a spiaggia libera (free beach). Usually signposted, these often consist of crowded, narrow stretches of beach close to the nearest road access or sometimes right beside the private beach.
Boating & Sailing
At the height of summer, the crystalline waters around Capri and Sorrento and all along the Amalfi Coast are an unofficial regatta of pleasure boats.
Yachting and boating are by far the most popular water pursuits in this part of the world. For every earnest kayaker, you'll spot at least 10 pleasure boats full with a swimsuit-clad clientele of sun-kings and -queens knocking back the sparkling wine.
Guided trips around the beautiful Bays of Naples and Salerno are legion, whether you join a group tour, hire your own boat (and skipper), or skipper the rig yourself. Experienced mariners can island-hop around the Bay of Naples or along the Amalfi Coast on chartered yachts, while weekend boaters can explore hidden coves in rented dinghies, for which you need no experience – thought be sure you understand the instructions before you set off!
Boat tours of Capri are practically obligatory. Positano and Amalfi are also good places to cast off. If you're short on cash, you can take a 'cruise' on a water taxi instead. TraVelMar boats with friendly crews motor along the coast between Salerno and Positano from April to October for as little as €5 a trip.
Every four years Amalfi hosts the Regata delle Antiche Repubbliche Marinare (Regatta of the Old Maritime Republics), an annual boat race between the once-mighty maritime republics of Amalfi, Venice, Genoa and Pisa. Amalfi's turn will come around in 2020 and 2024.
Caves & Grottoes
Campania has an abundance of caves and grottoes both aquatic and terrestrial. As well as sheltering a surreal stash of natural features, the caves testify to a long human history, from prehistoric humans to classical emperors to modern tourists. Made up of limestone and dolomite rock, the island of Capri is dotted with caves, including the famed Grotta Azzurra, the island’s most visited sight where the effects of light and water on the white limestone rock gives off a luminous blue glow. Similar effects can be observed in other caves on the Campania coast, notably the Grotta Azzurra near Palinuro (which is vastly less frenetic than Capri’s cave) and the Grotta dello Smeraldo near Amalfi (where the light effect throws up an evocative emerald sheen).
Further inland, over 400 caves lie beneath the karstic mountains of the Parco Nazionale del Cilento, Valle di Diano e Alberni, including two humungous caverns open to the public. Both the Grotte di Pertosa-Auletta and the Grotte di Castelcivita stretch for several subterranean kilometres and are hauntingly endowed with stalagmites, stalactites, natural water features and bats. Both caves run compulsory guided tours involving a mix of boat travel and walking. Combined, they are the best-run and most-visited tourist sights in and around Italy’s second-largest national park.
Cycling in Campania has its limitations, though they are by no means insurmountable. There is little flat land in these parts, the weather can be blisteringly hot, and roads are often narrow, serpentine and populated by fearless bus drivers.
The Amalfi coast road is regularly utilised by cyclists, but to join them you'll have to concentrate hard and be prepared to forsake the views for more urgent matters (eg cumbersome buses, speeding sports cars and steep dropoffs). Less trafficked and infinitely more bike-able roads cross the Parco Nazionale del Cilento, Vallo di Diano e Alburni, and you can easily plan a DIY multiday excursion between small towns in this expansive national park (Italy's second largest).
Mountain biking isn't the done thing on the Amalfi, as most trails include steep stairs. Aspiring mountain bikers are better off heading to the quiet coastal trails in the Trentova-Tresino protected area just south of Agropoli.
Of the Gulf of Naples islands, Procida is the best place for a slow sedate cycle and has a bike rental outfit right on the ferry dock.
Diving is a popular pursuit in Campania and the underwater extravaganza is top notch by Mediterranean standards. Diving operators are active along most of the coast, offering guided immersions, equipment hire and courses for all levels. Good options are present in Ischia, Agropoli and Marina di Praia on the Amalfi Coast.
If in doubt, head for the highlight, the Punta Campanella Marine Reserve. Located at the tip of the Sorrento Peninsula, it's well known for its colourful marina fauna, small reefs and multicoloured seaweed. Nettuno Diving based at Marina del Cantone is one of the best dive operators in Campania and can organise special access to the marine reserve. Other favourite dive sites include the WWII wrecks at Agropoli, the turquoise waters around Capri and the underwater grottoes of Marina del Cantone.
Parco Sommerso di Gaiola is a marine reserve just below Posillipo near Naples with abundant marine life. Guided snorkelling and diving tours are offered here, as well as glass-bottom boat tours in the warmer months.
In general, avoid August, when much of Campania's coastline is besieged by holidaymakers and prices are at their highest. Information on diving schools and areas is available from local tourist offices and online at www.diveitaly.com (in Italian).
Kayaking & Canoeing
Water sports such as kayaking and canoeing seem to take second place to boating and yachting in Campania's ritzier resorts, although there's plenty of scope to engage in water-based exercise, if you know where to look.
Kayak Napoli runs day and evening tours of the city coast, which take in old palazzi and coastal caves. At Marina Piccola on Capri you can hire canoes if you're brave enough to pitch in amid the wasp's nest of pleasure boats in high summer. For a quieter paddle you're better off heading for Procida, probably the best place in the region to dip an oar. Kayaks can be hired next to the sheltered scimitar of Marina di Chiaiolella from where local company ASD Kayak Procida runs a wonderful circumnavigation of the island.
Spas & Springs
The Gulf of Naples has been celebrated for its thermal waters for thousands of years, seducing everyone from Roman emperors to frazzled celebrities.
Volcanic Ischia is Italy's spa-island extraordinaire. Herein lies one of the world's richest, most diverse hydrothermal hotspots, with no fewer than 103 thermal springs, 67 fumaroles and 29 underground basins. The best spas, Negombo and Giardini Poseidon, inhabit veritable parks that combine lush gardens and modern sculpture with a booty of mineral pools, massage treatments and private beaches. Less luxurious but more historic are the Terme Cavascura, complete with old Roman baths. For those who object to paying to use what is, after all, natural hot water, head to the Baia di Sorgeto, a free-access thermal bathing spot in the sea on the island's south coast.
Easily reached on the Cumana train from Naples, the Terme Stufe di Nerone is one of the most famous thermal spas in the Campi Flegrei, complete with indoor and outdoor pools, terraced gardens, and saunas carved out of the region's trademark tufa rock.
Walking & Hiking
Campania's most renowned trail is called Sentiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods) and it's no exaggeration: this is a heavenly place to stroll, walk or hike. Day-hiking is the modus operandi of most visitors, although some longer excursions are available in the wilder Cilento region.
Trails on the Amalfi coast and the Sorrento peninsula are generally well marked and well mapped. Most are equipped with paved steps to help walkers negotiate the steep cliffs and hillsides for which the area is famous. Although not technically difficult, the paths are often steep, hot (summer temperatures can hit 40°C;104°F) and – occasionally – mildly exposed. Enjoy them, but don't underestimate them.
Trails in the Parco Nazionale del Cilento, Vallo di Diano e Alburni are less well marked and, as result, far less utilised. The Gulf of Naples Islands are a mixed bag. Most visitors come here to engage in ambling strolls, but there are a handful of short, sharp climbs for those of a more adventurous nature.
Reaching the summit of Mt Vesuvius is easier than you may think, with regular shuttle buses connecting Ercolano–Scavi Circumvesuviana station to the summit car park. From here, it’s a relatively easy 860m walk up to the summit, where your reward is a 360-degree panorama capturing Naples, its bay, and the distant Apennine mountains.
The volcano is part of the Parco Nazionale del Vesuvio, a national park criss-crossed by nine nature sentieri (trails) of varying lengths and intensity. The most challenging and rewarding is the 6.7km Lungo la Strada Matrone (Rte 6). Starting from Via Cifelli, it heads up the volcano’s southeastern slope to the summit. The park itself is a rich natural oasis, home to hedgehogs, moles, stone martens and foxes, as well as around 140 species of bird, including spotted woodpeckers, hawks and imperial ravens.
Gulf of Naples Islands
Of the three main Gulf of Naples islands, the surprise package for walkers is Capri. Indeed, walking in Capri is a good way to escape the tourist hordes. Most walks are on paved paths and all are unrelentingly spectacular. The longest and wildest sortie is the Sentiero dei Fortini along the west coast.
Ischia is less well endowed with clearly marked walking routes. The obligatory hike is the short jaunt to the summit of Monte Epomeo. Guided walks of the thermally rich interior are offered by Geo-Ausfluge, conducted by a local geologist.
Despite its steep uncompromising terrain, the Amalfi Coast guards one of the best trail networks in Italy. Up above the busy tourist towns of Positano and Amalfi with their clattering cafes and bulging beaches lies a parallel universe of ancient footpaths and shady woodlands where hikers can find an inner calm.
The coast protects one of Italy's most iconic hikes, the Sentiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods), plus numerous other circuits, point-to-points, mountain climbs and inter-village connections. The scenery is never less than glorious: terraced hillsides dotted with clusters of tumbling houses, air thick with the aroma of ripening lemons, and a backing track of church bells and braying goats interrupted occasionally by the distant honk of a bus klaxon. The Valle delle Ferriere circuit is a wonderful wooded hike in the hills behind Amalfi town, while the Valle del Sambuco explores the lemon groves and oak forests north of Minori.
Most of the trails are well marked and well mapped. The only real drawback is the steps – there are lots of them and most hikes contain at least one energy-sapping climb. The bonus: the higher up you go, the more tranquil your surroundings become.
Parco Nazionale del Cilento, Vallo di Diano e Alburni
Southeast of the Amalfi Coast lies Parco Nazionale del Cilento, Vallo di Diano e Alburni, Italy's second-largest national park. This remarkable wilderness area is home to around 3000 registered botanical species, as well as a number of rare birds, including the golden eagle and alpine chough. The potential for hiking here is enormous, but poor transportation links, fairly scant multilingual information and the area's sheer size (meaning trailheads are far apart and often hard to find), make this the preserve of a more adventurous type of walker.
Some of the more doable day-hikes lie closer to the coast. A good introduction to the latent joys of the Cilento can be sampled in the Trentova-Tresino nature reserve near Agropoli or around Capo Palinuro.
Online, www.parks.it offers useful information on the region's national parks and trails.
While you'll never be far from civilisation when hiking in Camoania, it's necessary to make sure you come prepared for hot weather, rugged exposed paths, and lots (and lots and lots) of steep steps. Bring comfortable lace-up walking shoes or sturdy boots, a small day pack, sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat, plenty of water, and some energy-stoking snacks. If you're planning a serious hike, let someone know the approximate duration and location.