Published on: 15 January 2016 | Last updated: 6 January 2020
This section of the route takes you from Sorrento on the Golfo di Napoli to the port city of Salerno on the Golfo di Salerno. It follows the very scenic road along the Costiera Amalfitana (Amalfi coast) taking in Positano and Amalfi along the way.
At a glance
Moderately challenging. There are a number of climbs on the route, but none of them are long or steep: the biggest climb involves an altitude gain of 380 metres over 11 kilometres.
The road is off-limits during the day to trucks, and larger buses are banned, as are campervans and caravans. Many tourists take the local buses, but it is still a popular scenic road, and in places it gets narrow. It’s best to start early to avoid the rush. Things get a lot easier after Amalfi.
Tarmac roads in good condition.
Map and altitude profile
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|Sorrento to Positano||33 kms|
|Positano to Amalfi||16 kms|
|Amalfi to Salerno||26 kms|
John Steinbeck wrote a description of the coast road:
“ Flaming like a meteor we hit the coast, a road, high, high above the blue sea, that hooked and corkscrewed on the edge of nothing, a road carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side. And on this road, the buses, the trucks, the motor scooters and the assorted livestock. We didn’t see much of the road. In the back seat my wife and I lay clutched in each other’s arms, weeping hysterically, while in the front seat Signor Bassano gestured with both hands … And below us, and it seemed sometimes under us, a thousand feet below lay the blue Tyrrhenian licking its lips for us. ”
The good news is that you’ll see very few buses (most large tour buses are banned from the road) and no trucks (they can only use the road at night). I saw a couple of donkeys in Positano, but sadly no other livestock. The motorino scooter or moped is still very much the preferred way to get around.
The modern road is now a little wider than a couple of cars but there are some of the original tunnels that can make things a little tricky - as well as places where the road is lined with cars parked on any available roadside where you can fit a parking space.
The views, of course, are still as dramatic as when Steinbeck passed this way.
This area is known for its lemons and along the road, you’ll see lemon groves on terraces carved out of the cliff face. It is worth taking a moment to think about the amount of work as generations of local people, with picks and shovels, built these terraces. The terraces go all the way down to the sea, using it seems every square metre of land. Lemons are everywhere with roadside sellers selling from the back of the three-wheeler Ape trucks, and in ceramic roadside markers. And then, of course, there’s limoncello — a drink to be treated with respect as it is very easy (a friend told me) to drink too much and end up with an evil hangover next morning.
Sorrento is the largest town on this stretch of coast and the gives its name to the penisola sorrentina. From Sorrento you take the SP7 climbing to Massa Lubrense. The hotels soon give way to olive groves as you climb. After Massa Lubrense you continue on the SP7 with another climb —the longest of this section— to Termini.
There are bars in both Massa Lubrense and Termini. In Termini, there’s the Bar de Simone on the main piazza with its views over Capri. The next village on the route is Sant’Agata Sui Due Golfi (Saint Agatha on the Two Gulfs) which owes its name to the fact that it overlooks both the Golfo di Napoli and the Golfo di Sorrento, and there are points along the road where if you look one way there’s the Sorrento, Capri and Monte Vesuvio and in the other direction the Golfo di Salerno.
After Sant’Agata the SP7 comes out onto the SS145 (the Nastro Verde - ‘green ribbon’) which then, in turn, joins the SS163 Nastro Azzurro (‘blue ribbon’). In case you’re wondering, no the Peroni beer isn’t named after the road, but this didn’t stop me having a celebratory Nastro Azzurro at the end of the day.
The SS163 was built in the first half of the nineteenth century. The road has of course been widened since then, but there are still some tunnels along the way that give you an idea of the width of the original road.
Coping with the traffic
The local authorities have taken a number of steps to deal with the problems of congestion, and thankfully many tourists also take the local SITA buses. But there are still many tourists who opt for private transfers. Generally riding the road isn’t too much of a problem as there’s not a huge amount of traffic, and it’s the sort of road that drivers treat with respect. But there are points where the road narrows, and, as is often the case on roads where its difficult to overtake, cars often come in bunches.
My tips for staying safe and sane on this road:
- start early - the main rush seemed to be after about ten in the morning
- be prepared pull over. If you’re faced with a tricky situation, or simply feeling unnerved by traffic behind you, then pull over, take a minute to enjoy the view and then continue on your way once the traffic has cleared.
Next stop after Sant’Agata Sui Due Golfi is Positano. The SS163 goes around the centre of the town, but you can take the main street (the Viale Pasitea) through the centre (note that this is one-way —north-south). Look out for the presepe (nativity scene) just after the tunnel on your way into town.
This is how Steinbeck describes Positano:
“ Its houses climb a hill so steep it would be a cliff except that stairs are cut in it. I believe that whereas most house foundations are vertical, in Positano they are horizontal. The small curving bay of unbelievably blue and green water laps gently on a beach of small pebbles. There is only one narrow street and it does not come down to the water. Everything else is stairs, some of them as steep as ladders. You do not walk to visit a friend, you either climb or slide. ”
He’s not exaggerating about the one narrow street and the steps (although I didn’t see any that were as steep as ladder). Something to consider when you book a place to stay. Its a memorable ride down the main street with the rooftops of the village and the bay below you. Look out for the roadside presepe (nativity scene) part way down. Note that this road is one-way. Be sure also not to follow the Tutte Le Direzioni sign at the top as this is designed to divert traffic around the centre of the village.
Steinbeck goes on to say:
“ Nearly always when you find a place as beautiful as Positano, your impulse is to conceal it. You think, “If I tell, it will be crowded with tourists and they will ruin it, turn it into a honky-tonk and then the local people will get touristy and there’s your lovely place gone to hell”. There isn’t the slightest chance of this in Positano. In the first place there is no room. There are about two thousand inhabitants in Positano and there is room for about five hundred visitors, no more. The cliffs are all taken. Except for the half ruinous houses very high up, all space is utilized. And the Positanese invariably refuse to sell. ”
He sure got that wrong. Somehow they did find the space: the population of Positano is about double what it was when Steinbeck was there and I have no idea how many tourist beds there are. Positano is about as touristy as it gets. I have to say that I did a mini-celebration when I got to the Bar del Sole in Praiano (the next village along the coast): a normal local Italian bar, with coffee at a normal price, and people talking about last night’s calcio (soccer) match rather than arguing about which order to ‘do’ Pompei and Capri.
But before you get too nostalgic it’s worth remembering that, according to Steinbeck, during the 1860s and 1870s thousands of people left the village and its population fell from 8,000 to 2,000 (he says that in the 1950s there were over five thousand people living in New York City who had been born in Positano – double the population in Positano at the time). The population of Positano is now almost twice what it was when Steinbeck visited, and the village is no longer dying — which has got to be mainly thanks to tourism.
Conca dei Marini and the Grotta dello Smeraldo
Along the coast between Praiano and Conca dei Marini is the Grotta dello Smeraldo (Emerald Cave) . Discovered by a fisherman in 1932, it’s a huge chamber with its ceiling 24 metres from the sea level. It gets its name from the colour of the light filtered through the undersea entrance to the chamber. There’s a lift from the road that takes you down to the entrance and then you go by rowing boat into the grotta itself. I have to say that reviews on TripAdviser are mixed. Don’t confuse it with the Grotta Azzurra on Capri.
Look out for the Piccadilly ceramics shop/workshop. There’s also a little bar nearby with great views over the marina.
From Conca dei Marini there’s a short climb and then it’s downhill into Amalfi. There are a couple of narrow tunnels on the way, but they are fairly short and shouldn’t present any problems.
Amalfi and beyond
Amalfi was once an independent city state and rival to the other maritime republics of Venezia, Pisa, and Genova, until it came under the control of the Normans. It was sacked by the Pisans in 1123 and its decline was confirmed by a devastating tsunami in 1343. Amalfi is well worth a visit for its centro storico and the duomo (cathedral).
Most of the tourist traffic seemed to stop at Amalfi (or turns off to take the road to Ravello. This means that the road to from here to Salerno is a lot quieter. To my mind, it was every bit as scenic. The road takes you through the less well-known resorts of Minori and Maiori and to Vietri. The last significant climb (180 metres altitude gain) takes you to the Capo d’Orso. Just before the Capo is the Badia Santa Maria de Olearia a complex of three small frescoed churches built into the cliff face. Sadly it’s only open on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings. For more information (in Italian) and opening hours go to: santamariadeolearia.com .
I stopped for lunch at Pane E Coccos’ in Cetara — a smashing little seaside village that’s all to easy to miss.
After Cetara it’s on to Vietri Sul Mare and to Salerno itself. At Salerno, the road joins the SS18 which descends on a huge ramp down to the port. From the port you continue along the lungomare (sea-front) into Salerno itself.
Salerno is the largest town along the route (and provincial capital). It’s relaxed and unpretentious and a nice place to stop for the night. It is basically a modern Italian port city and not really a tourist destination. You may find that a bit of a relief after the Sorrento peninsula.
Salerno has a small but charming centro storico with some impressive medieval aqueducts. (Note though that if you arrive in mid-afternoon you many find everything shut up and apparently deserted — it comes to life again in the early evening).
Its archeological museum gets good reviews; its star exhibit is a bronze head of Apollo.
If you have the time and energy you might want to visit the Castello di Arechi which overlooks the town. According to Lonely Planet you can get there by taking the number 19 bus from the Piazza XXIV Maggio. According to LP it offers spectacular views over the town and its golfo.
The castle is a good symbol of the complicated history of this region, it was first a Byzantine for, then became the base for an independent Longobardo (Lombard) principality before it was taken over by the Normans who were in turn succeeded by the Aragonese.
Salerno was home to Europe’s first medical school (founded in the 9th century), there’s a newly revamped Museo Virtuale.
The beaches south of the town were also and also the scene of the main allied landing in Italy in September 1943. A critical first step in the liberation of the continent it has been overshadowed by the Normandy landings that took place in June 1944.
I had originally planned to do a loop through Ravello and then take the road that heads inland to the Valico di Chiunzi before returning to the coast at Maiori. A side trip to Ravello is well worth considering if you have the time and the energy.
Places to stay
Hotels and B&Bs
Find and book places to stay with Booking.com
Booking.com pages for places on this section of the route:
- Sorrento Coast and Costiera Amalfitana area pages
- Sorrento | Positano | Praiano | Ravello | Conca dei Marini | Amalfi | Maiori | Vietri sul Mare | Salerno
About these links
If you use these links to book accommodation Booking.com will pay me a small part of their commission. This helps support the costs of producing this site.
I use Booking.com to find and book places to stay when there are no campsites in the area. The large majority of hotels and many hostels are now on ‘Booking’. I like it because it means that I can get almost-instant confirmation. The rating system is also a reliable guide to the quality of the accommodation.
I’ve never had a problem finding places to keep my bike —even if it’s a cupboard or store room. I always use the ‘special requests’ field on the booking form to tell the hotel that I’m travelling with a bike, which gives them the opportunity to let me know if there’s a problem.
Many properties offer free cancellation but it’s a good idea to check the conditions as these vary from property to property.
Transport and services
According to the local cyclists’ organisation spaccanapolibike (spaccanapolibike.it: Bici su EAV) you can take bikes on the train that runs to Sorrento. You need to buy a ticket for your bike as well as for yourself. The service is operated by the regional train company EAV on the Circumvesuviana rail line. Trains leave from the Porto Nolana and Garibaldi stations. Note that this line also serves the Pompei and other archaeological sites, so it’s probably best to travel at times when it is less busy.
There are train stations at Vietri sul Mare and Salerno which are served by Trenitalia regional trains which are the best option if you are travelling with a bike.
There is ferry service operated by Grimaldi Lines from Salerno to Palermo (and on from there to Tunis).
Sorrento Bike offer bike hire services from their base in Sorrento.
Absolutely unsolicited and unsponsored endorsement: I can’t write this without mentioning the guy in Zero Store on Corso Garibaldi who rescued my tour after I had given my MacBook Air a nervous breakdown (this guide is dedicated to him). Top tip #1: don’t leave a laptop recharging inside a neoprene sleeve in a hot tent. Top tip #2: if you do, you need to reset the PRAM.
Articles in this series
- Southern Tyrrhenian Coast overview
- Southern Tyrrhenian Coast Part: 1: the Costiera Amalfitana from Sorrento to Salerno
- Southern Tyrrhenian Coast: Part 2: the Costiera Cilentana from Salerno to Acciaroli
- Southern Tyrrhenian Coast: Part 3: The Costiera Cilentana from Acciaroli to Sapri
- Southern Tyrrhenian Coast: Part 4: Basilicata and Calabria from Sapri to Scalea