The small seaside city of Positano on the Amalfi Coast is centrally located for day trips to Capri Island, Sorrento, Naples or Ravello, but it is intriguing enough to be a standalone destination on anyone's Italy itinerary.
Positano's striking scenery is its greatest asset. Pastel-colored shops, restaurants and hotels cling to cliffs that rise steeply from the turquoise waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Steep cobblestoned steps connect the labyrinth of dining and shopping options above with the beachfront and marina below. Visitors to Positano can be as relaxed or as busy as they want to be.
Italian charm and sophistication abound in art galleries and boutiques. The main sight in town is the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, which dates from 1200 and houses a stunning Byzantine Black Madonna and Child painting.
The number of year-round residents is relatively small in Positano, and although this number may triple or quadruple in the height of the tourist season, the locals remain friendly, open and very helpful. After all, tourism is what provides for them.
Staying for a little longer than a couple of days, which is what most itineraries generally prescribe, will provide a window into a different side of Positano. The town has its own unique rhythms, particularly in the shoulder-season months of March, April, September and October. Positano is very quiet in the winter.
The town is built into Monti Lattari, set in graduated tiers up the mountainside. The bright hues of the block buildings, in shades of rose, ocher, yellow and purple, are said to have originally served to help returning fishermen spot their homes.
Positano is the first major town coming from Sorrento on the famous Amalfi Coast drive. Travelers see furtive glimpses of it while approaching along the Sorrentine Peninsula on one of the world's most scenic roads. Alternatively, a seaside approach (worthwhile if you are able to do it) is possible April-October, when ferries from Sorrento, Amalfi and Capri make Positano one of their destinations on the Amalfi Coast.
Positano is one of the oldest places on the Amalfi Coast, with settlements dating from the Upper Paleolithic Age. It started as a mill, where Roman Emperor Tiberius sent his three-oar boat for bread, because he was afraid of being poisoned on nearby Capri Island. In the 1200s, Pisa sacked the entire Positano area, and after a long period of rebuilding, the city of Positano erected an elaborate defense system of watchtowers. The town competed for top position of the Mediterranean Sea Trade with the coastal town of Amalfi, a little farther south along the coast.
Under Neapolitan fiefdom until the end of the 17th century, Positano produced silk and canvas goods. It gained its supremacy in the 18th century under the Bourbons, during the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In the 19th century, it experienced a period of decline, with more than three-quarters of its population emigrating to the U.S. because of relatively poor prospects of making their livelihood on fishing and agriculture. In the 20th century, particularly after World War II, Positano gained immense popularity as a seaside retreat for Italian and foreign artists.
Today, in spite of its immense and sometimes overwrought popularity, Positano retains its breathtaking beauty and its position as the jewel of the Amalfi coast.
The main characteristics of Positano are its narrow, winding roads, steep staircases, houses that are half-leaning against the coast, and terraces with expansive views of the sparkling sea. The main sight is the beautiful majolica-tile-domed Santa Maria Assunta in the center of town. The main beach, Spiaggia Grande, is sprawled in front of the church, and the smaller beach Il Fornillo can be found just down the seaside pathway Via Positanesi d'America. The Emerald Grotto between Positano and Amalfi can be explored, as well as smaller grottoes accessible by boat or by renting a sea kayak from Fornillo beach.
Up above the town, the two hamlets of Montepertuso and Nocelle can be reached by climbing literally thousands of stairs or by local buses. Nocelle is the starting point of the most beautiful hiking trail on the Amalfi Coast, the Sentieri degli Dei, a half-day excursion and a must during your stay in Positano.
Although nightlife in Positano mostly consists of long dinners and slow strolling through the city's cobblestoned streets, there are a few options for visitors seeking more action. In summer, the beachfront cafes along the Spiaggia Il Fornillo are packed with young couples and backpackers.
Most of the restaurants in Positano are unabashedly geared toward the tourist trade, with relatively high prices and menus listed in several languages. You definitely will eat well there, though, as there are plenty of trattorias and restaurants focused on serving Mediterranean-inspired dishes made with fresh, seasonal ingredients. There are not a lot of options outside of regional southern Italian cuisine.
Homemade pastas—in particular an eggless pasta called scialatielli—grilled fish and seafood specialties are a large part of Positano cuisine, with local limoncello a popular after-dinner drink. The atmosphere is a large part of the experience, with many restaurants boasting dining terraces with beautiful sea views.
Don't forget to try the delizie al limone (a soft pastry with delicious lemon-flavored cream) or the torta positanese (a local traditional cake with almonds).
Most establishments are open from March or April-November, with some opening for a short time around Christmas and New Year's.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 15 euros; $$ = 15 euros-30 euros; $$$ = 31 euros-45 euros; $$$$ = more than 45 euros.
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