Amalfi Coast Travel: Pro Tips
THE AMALFI COAST: ALL THAT AND OH, SO MUCH MORE
Amalfi Coast travel tips from someone (like me) who knows it well can make visiting one of the most stunning places on the planet even more magical, and less stressful. But I also believe strongly that non-native Italians who write about Italy (like me) have an ethical responsibility to know what NOT to share and draw the line accordingly. So although “pro tips” won’t always equal “insider tips,” I pinky swear that what you’ll see and experience will not disappoint. On that note, below are some things you can do and/or plan ahead for that will make your time on Italy’s beautiful Amalfi Coast less stressful and more fun.
DRIVING. While your odds of getting from Point A to Point B safely are close to 100%, driving on the Amalfi Coast is not for the faint of heart. It’s a lotta crazy that can be intense, especially for first-timers. If you’ll be the one driving, I strongly recommend establishing a code word for “SHUT THE FUCK UP SO I CAN CONCENTRATE!” before you go. A ‘best practice’ for all of Italy is renting the smallest car possible that will hold the requisite number of people. Not even remotely kidding…you absolutely will not be able to park an American-sized “small” car in many garages (or drive down most of the narrower Italian streets), but a European compact will fit just fine.
Amalfi Coast Travel Tips, #101: a highly experienced and seriously chill driver is a must. If you’re high strung, pick someone else, and I mean that sincerely. It’s harrowing, with lots of surge and screech action that will break a novice or nervous Nancy. There are mirrors on the curves, but the roads are narrow with a lot of switchbacks. You’ll see plenty of “Sita Fermata” signs jutting out of the stone walls, which means bus stop, and the buses do stop, so pay attention.
Oh, and let scooters and motorcycles dodge and weave around you without changing course unless death or impact is imminent. Why? Because they’re better at darting in and out of traffic than you’ll be at predicting their next move.
PARKING. A lot of hotels in Italy do NOT include or even have parking, so if you’re renting a car, it can be challenging to find a space, especially on the Amalfi Coast (and in Rome). Do yourself (and your sanity) a favor and research options near your destination before you even get in the car so you don’t end up driving the same loop 12 times or accidentally park in front of the Turkish Embassy and find yourself face-to-face with a nice soldier aiming an AK-47 at you (true story). Oh, and free spaces are limited to non-existent, so just plan to pay and don’t whine about it. On that note, some effective/efficient search apps are:
Google Maps (sorta). Type “parking” in the search field and it will pull up everything in your immediate vicinity. GPS can be sketchy in Italy, and sometimes the results include private garages that are for residents only, so just FYI.
EasyPark is active in 80+ Italian cities and in addition to finding parking, you can also use it to pay, which is handy if your Italiano non va bene.
In Rome, ParkMe lets you reserve spaces where that’s an option, and tells you the driving and walking distance of parking locations from where you are, the days and hours of operation, how many total spaces it has, how full it is as a percentage, how much it costs, what the amenities are, and lists payment options, including Pay by Phone. If you’ll be there a week or longer you might consider renting a monthly space.
TRAINS. The Trenitalia system is molto favoloso, and the generally the most efficient method of getting from Point A to Point B in Italy, especially the Frecce (fast) trains. (Italo is another high-speed option with more amenities on some routes and lower fares, but fewer trains, so more on them in a moment.) Regional, or slow, trains are your other choice. They (obviously) take longer, but they’re significantly cheaper and still get you where you’re going. Regardless of which one you choose, buy your tickets online ahead of time when possible, especially if your Italian is iffy. You’ll save yourself the stress of hunting for and figuring out how to select “English” on the station kiosks with six Italians waiting behind you. BTW, if that happens anyway, just breathe and focus…you’ll either figure it out or a very nice Italian man will help you because he fucking has somewhere to be, lol.
Regional Train Basics. Regional trains are all second class with no assigned or guaranteed seats, so if you board at the last minute, you may find yourself standing in the vestibule between cars. If you purchase your ticket at one of the self-service kiosks at the station, what the ticket will state on the back in English, but the kiosk will only warn you about in Italian, is that you must validate it before boarding the train by using the special machine on the platform. Since Regional tickets don’t specify dates, times, or seats, they’re basically blank passes that could be used over and over. If you don’t validate them, you can be fined €200, which would suck. it’s a serious thing with no exceptions for tourists, so best case scenario, the conductor will let you pay a reduced fine of €50 while you’re onboard. Luckily, validating your ticket is super easy: just find the green and white egg-shaped machine (or yellow rectangle in some stations), stick the left end of your ticket in the slot, and let the machine do its thing.
Frecce Basics. Regardless of service and fare choices, not only do you get to select a seat, you should since it’s included in the fare, so check the little “Choose the seat” box above the red “Continue” button when you’re booking your ticket and it will show you the open seats in the available coaches. (The Trenitalia system typically tries to upsell you where it can, so you can either proceed as is or upgrade at that point.) A Frecce ticket doesn’t require validating since it’s only good for the seat, train, and time you pick. There are three separate Frecce train lines:
Frecciarossa (red line) trains go the fastest (up to 300 m/h) and connect all of the larger municipalities, including Taranto, Salerno, Naples, Rome, Florence, Perugia, Bologna, Milan, Verona, and Venice, as well as others. It has the most trains per day (200ish), including non-stop options. Frecciarossa trains have several service class levels to choose from that include Standard, Premium, Business, Business Area Silent, Business Salottino (maximum privacy, leather recliners, bar service), Working Area, and Executive (maximum distance between you and the next guy, leather seats that fully recline, exclusive services). On top of that, there are different fare options (Base, Economy, and Super Economy) available within some (but not all) of the service levels. The Frecciarossa 1000 trains are the newest models (and the most badass since they go up to 400 km/h!) so FYI if you see that designation when you’re booking.
Frecciargento (silver line) trains run on both the traditional and high speed lines, give you a choice between 1st or 2nd Class coaches with Base and Economy fare options, and go up to 250 km/h. Frecciargento trains run several routes in Northern Italy, plus one that goes all the way from Bolzano near the Austrian border to Reggio di Calabria at the tip of the boot, with a bunch of stops in between, including FCO.
Frecciabianca (white line) trains are actually fast trains that run slow since they operate on the traditional lines that run the entire length of both the Ligurian and Adriatic coasts, as well as connect them with routes from Rome to Ancora and another that zig-zags across Northern Italy.
PEEING IN ITALY (THE SHORT VERSION)
THE ESSENTIALS. I actually wrote a whole blog devoted to peeing in Italy, but the condensed version covers the essentials. The most important thing to know, besides donne = women and uomi = men (or signore = ladies and signori = gentlemen), is that WC (public bathrooms, aka “toilettes”) are not prevalent in Italy1 and relieving yourself is not free in most of them.
If you’re new to international travel, Italy isn’t being an asshole…this is the norm in most European countries. (South America too.) So, Rule #1 to peeing in Italy is: ALWAYS carry €1 coins and tissues on you! Sometimes there will be an attendant who’ll give you an entry “ticket” like the one from SM Novella station. (SIT = LOL.) Alternatively, you’ll encounter a coin-operated turnstile, but either way, no € = no potty. Occasionally, restaurants and cafés (called bars in Italy, FYI) that share toilets with other businesses may also have pay toilets, so just expect to pay to pee everywhere you go and consider it a gift from Mary when it’s free.
Gelaterias and bars are abundant in Italy, so for me, peeing is worth the price of a €1 macchiato or €2 gelato scoop since I’m perpetually up for either. Speaking of macchiati, I’ll linger over a meal, but if I’m consuming espresso, it means I have shit I need to get done, so “caffè in piedi” is one of my Top 10 Favorite Things About Italy (Italians are #1). It’s literally standing coffee, and it’s how caffeine is consumed here…think bar shot style, only with a caffeine buzz instead of an alcohol one. (BTW, cafes are called bars in Italy. So are bars. A lot of them are hybrids of both. If you can’t tell which one an establishment is from the outside, consult Yelp, ask Siri, or just, you know, go in and look.)
On that note, drinking and ordering coffee in Italy is a whole separate blog post that’s still in progress, so a couple of quick notes on how not to be a complete moron or asshole and respect the Italian caffè culture: 1) Coffee = Espresso in Italy, so if you want black coffee, order an Americano, because if you ask for “a coffee” you’ll get “un caffè”…a shot of espresso. 2) If you want to sit and drink your Americano, macchiato, or cappuccino, you’ll pay more…get over it. 2) Do not, NOT (!!) order your fucking coffee of choice to go…EVER.. 3) If you order a “latte” expect a glass of milk, because that’s what it means here. 4) Ordering a second cappuccino is a faux pas of epic proportion, especially after 1:00, so do it if you must, but know this.
FINDING AND USING PUBLIC TOILETS (WC). Rule #2 to peeing in Italy, especially in smaller villages, always pee when you have the opportunity. Museums tend to have the nicest toilets, but not always. Which brings us to Rule #3: If you’re a diva about only peeing in sparkling clean bathrooms…you need to get. the. fuck. over. yourself right now. I promise you that holding it until you find a facility that’s “up to your standards” poses a far bigger threat to your health than holding your breath and plunking your lily ass down on a toilet that’s even semi-functional when your bladder is at maximum holding capacity. Or squat…odds are you’ll encounter a floor toilet at least once. If you’ve never used one before, center yourself before releasing the kraken…losing your balance would be a bummer. (Pun intended.)
I’ve used bathrooms all over the world, and in direct conflict with La Bella Figura, Italy has some sketchy ones. In its defense, foreign tourists (horribly unladylike ones!) are responsible for the state of Italian toilets, not gli italiani, who are actually exceptionally hygienic. The discrepancy between the cleanliness of Italian casa and hotel bathrooms with their separate bidet and hand towels and public toilet grossness is vast.
In their defense, I wouldn’t want to clean up some of the (literal) shit I’ve seen either. I don’t care who you are or where you’re from, that toilet brush (and there will be one, even in the most disgusting bathrooms) is sitting there with the expectation that YOU will take responsibility for swishing your skid marks away, princess. So, in the interest of international diplomacy, if you get poo on anything, have some respect for humanity and clean it up. Oh, and FFS, wipe your overspray off the seat and wash your hands when you’re done, capiscono?
FLUSHING. It should go without saying, but visual evidence indicates otherwise, so FLUSH! Italian toilets don’t have a standard flushing mechanism like the ‘lever on the left’ style of US toilets, and it may or may not be incorporated into the tank itself. If there’s no obvious handle, then methodically look up, down, and all around for something you can push, pull, turn, or step on. The two-circles in the wall above the tank version is common…push the little circle for pee and the big one for anything else. (Guys: I’m assuming Italian urinals follow the same general principals as Italian toilets, but you can pee pretty much anywhere if you’re discreet, so you’re on your own.)
1 Personally, I wholeheartedly embrace the philosophy of not retrofitting 800-year-old buildings or displacing art and architecture with oversized bathrooms, so before you bitch about it, think about where you are.
I like picking restaurants intuitively, but if you’re a researcher, Google and Yelp are mostly spot-on in Italy. Pasticceria Savoia had the best gelato in Amalfi (the actual city), and my favorite dinner place was Ristorante Piazza Duomo. The décor is cool…literally lots of shiny things to look at – bottles on shelves and things hanging from the ceiling.
Halfway between Amalfi and Praiano on the right, B&B Al Pesce d’Oro (the goldfish hotel, which is where we stayed) also has a molto delizioso ristorante and it’s away from the masses. The hotel and restaurant have been owned and run by the Civale family for, like, 80 years, so it’s legit.
Across the street is Ristorante Da Ciccio Cielo Mare Terra (um, Restaurant of something Sky Sea Earth), which is famous for being the oldest restaurant on the Amalfi Coast (and for its food, but it’s $$$$). FYI, Sophia Loren’s villa is directly below it on the water. (I so wanna be her when I grow up.)
Bar Bagni Fratelli Grassi in Positano (translation: fat brothers bar bathrooms had the best view of the beach and was a good place to hang and have a gelato/beer/espresso while you rest, but it’s mostly self-serve, so if you’re wanting ambiance and attentiveness, it ain’t your place. Positano is still busy in the off-season, and during high season it’s chaotic to insane, so find your center before you go. Or take a Xanax. Either way. J
BEACH ACCESS, VIEWPOINTS, AND COOL THINGS TO SEE:
It’s tricky to find beach access outside of Amalfi or Positano, but if you want a quieter Tyrrhenian Sea experience, the first photo is the sign for the beach stairs we walked to from Al Pesce d’ Oro. They’re easy to miss, but they’re before Hotel Le Terrazze.
For an epic 360-degree view of the coast from above, Punta Parco Corona in Pianillo is worth every hairpin turn it takes to get there IF you can handle them, because there a bunch.
MT. VESUVIUS. Mt. Vesuvius is fascinating but bizarre and potentially dangerous (duh) but mostly safe to hike/walk. Pompeii the archeological site is spectacular, but the city of Pompeii is a shithole and Naples is filthy, so just something to be aware of if you go.
If you decide to drive to the top of Vesuvius, PEE FIRST. There’s a McDonald’s in Pompeii that’s one of your best bets for a quick pee if you’re driving. Not even kidding…the bathroom in the restaurant at the summit is bizarre, but the only two places to stop on the way to the top have a creepy vibe. FYI, there are packs of wild Alsatians (Italian dogs) that live in the woods, so stay on the trail if you hike to the summit. Which, by the way, is €10 per person and requires a ticket, which is what the nice Italian policeman will be telling you when you enter the parking lot below the summit if you go. I’m not sure when this article was written, but if you can get past the ads every two inches, it’s full of good info. https://www.timetravelturtle.com/hiking-mount-vesuvius-naples-italy/
ROMA PASS AND FIRENZE CARD. Rome and most other larger Italian municipalities have credit card-sized city “passes” that you can buy online before you depart, and I highly recommend doing so. They’re basically magic visitor cards that are 1000% worth the cost just for the fact that you get VIP access or line shortcuts (or a whole separate line) to a lot of places with them, plus a specified number of free museum entries, discounts, and free public transportation. My most recent Roma Pass was €39 and I picked it up at FCO (there are signs, plus instructions/directions online.) The Firenze Card costs more (€72), but it also does more.
VIATOR. The last time I used Viator, it was to purchase early morning VIP access to the Sistine Chapel, and…best €155 ever. Viator also sells shortcut/VIP tickets to a plethora of other events and locations, so wherever you go, check them out before you book anything because it can save you time, money, sanity, or all of the above.