The SITA Bus Experience
Thanks to its precipitous topography, the Amalfi Coast never benefited from a railway line. Instead, modern train passengers offloaded in Salerno in the east or Sorrento in the west must take their lives into their own hands and hire a car, or – slightly less risky – put their lives into someone else’s hands and hop onto one of the region’s famous blue SITA buses.
The spectacular road you’ll be driving along is called Strada Statale 163, aka the Nastro Azzurro (Blue Ribbon). Commissioned by Bourbon king Ferdinand II and completed in 1853, it wends its way along the Amalfi Coast between Vietri sul Mare and Sant’Agata sui due Golfi, near Sorrento, snaking round impossibly tight curves, over deep ravines and through tunnels gouged out of sheer rock. It’s a magnificent feat of civil engineering, although, as John Steinbeck pointed out in his 1953 essay, My Positano, the road is also 'carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side…'.
Which is where the skill of your bus driver comes in. You haven’t really experienced the Amalfi Coast until you’ve sat through the animated theatre of a SITA bus ride, squeezing past backed-up lines of cars where motorists exchange impatient hand gestures, or screeching around hairpin bends where waist-high barriers are all that exist between you and oblivion. With a liberal use of their loud klaxons (a familiar sound on the Amalfi), bus drivers seem to take the latent dangers in their stride, sitting confidently at their wheels like Formula One racing drivers blessed with super-human peripheral vision.
SITA buses stop at numerous places along the coast with Amalfi town acting as the main nexus. Buy a ticket beforehand in a tobacconist shop or a bar, validate it as you climb on board, and enjoy the ride. Popular bus routes get crowded in July and August, so be prepared to stand.
Amalfi Coast Beaches
While the Amalfi coastline is spectacular, it doesn’t offer much in the way of sandy beaches. Not that this stops crowds of sun devotees from piling in during summer to commandeer every inch of available space. The coast’s best beaches inhabit steep-sided coves at the foot of tumbling cliffs or narrow promenades fronting the region’s historic towns. As with other places in Italy, they are usually lined with rows of stabilimenti balneari, beach clubs where you must pay to use the facilities (such as sunloungers, umbrellas, showers, bars and restaurants). Fortunately, most beaches have at least one free public-access area.
Here are some of the coast’s best beaches:
Vietri sul Mare The easternmost town on the Amalfi Coast has its best sandy beach and is thus mega-popular with families. Broad, but crowded in the high summer, it's easily accessible from town and offers good parking.
Maiori One of coast’s less tourist-centric towns harbours, perhaps surprisingly, the region’s longest beach, a ruler-straight 900m – and it’s mainly sandy too. A couple of areas at either end are free for public access.
Fiordo di Furore A tiny scoop of public beach at the end of Furore’s narrow ‘fjord’, offering fantastic sheltered swimming. Accessed via a steep staircase.
Marina di Praia A small cove 2km east of Praiano with a pebbly beach and good swimming opportunities. The beach is accessible either by boat or down steep staircases. It's backed by a cluster of excellent fish restaurants and a couple of dive operators.
Spiaggia della Gavitelli Praiano’s ‘other’ beach is a tiny but popular affair with a private beach club and a decent restaurant plying potent cocktails. As one of the coast’s few west-facing beaches, it’s a lovely spot to watch the sunset. Access is by steps or boat from Marina di Praia.
Spiaggia Grande Positano’s main beach has rough grey sand and very expensive sunloungers for hire. Facilities are top-notch and there's an abundance of bars and restaurants nearby, but the beach gets very crowded.
Spiaggia del Fornillo The number-two beach in Positano has a slightly more laid-back ambience than Spiaggia Grande, with a slump-down beach-shack bar and something of a party atmosphere in the summer.
Atrani is Amalfi town’s smaller, shyer sibling, a tiny compact village (the smallest in southern Italy by area) locked into a narrow steep-sided valley where it's been left to develop in splendid isolation. While ostensibly there are similarities between the two settlements (both have unusual churches, small but popular beaches, and milling legacies), Atrani is distinctly quieter, cheaper, more authentic and humming with a sense of community. Part of its charm stems from its lack of traffic: the SS163 coastal road carries the honking SITA buses high above the town centre on a stone bridge. But, the real appeal of Atrani is that it doesn’t seem to be bothered about putting on a show. Instead, well-shaded Piazzetta Umberto I, with its handful of no-fuss restaurants, sits with its back to the sea looking all the better for its lack of fresh paint.
Atrani is a 10-minute walk east of Amalfi. Take the tunnel through the Luna Rosso underground car park and then cut in front of the Nostromo restaurant and along the seafront.