At first glance, it's hard to imagine that this resort destination, set in a verdant valley of the Lattari Mountains, with its cream-color and pastel-hue buildings tightly packing a gorge on the Bay of Salerno, was in the 11th and 12th centuries the seat of the Amalfi Maritime Republic, one of the world's great naval powers, and a sturdy rival of Genoa and Pisa for control of the Mediterranean. The harbor, which once launched the greatest fleet in Italy, now bobs with ferries and blue-and-white fishing boats. The main street, lined with leather shops and pasticcerie, has replaced a raging mountain torrent, and terraced hills where banditti (bandits) once roamed now flaunt the green and gold of lemon groves. Bearing testimony to its great trade with Tunis, Tripoli, and Algiers, Amalfi remains honeycombed with Arab-Sicilian cloisters and covered passages. In a way Amalfi has become great again, showing off its medieval glory days with sea pageants, convents-turned-hotels, ancient paper mills, covered streets, and its mosquelike cathedral. A plaque under Amalfi's Porta Marina bears this inscription: "The judgment day, when Amalfitans go to Heaven, will be a day like any other." Visitors to this charming city, set in a verdant valley of the Lattari Mountains, will soon understand what it means. For sheer picturesqueness, it can't be beat. Drinking in the vista of the town against the sea from the balcony of the town's historic landmark Convento di Amalfi is like getting an advance on paradise. Amalfi's origin is clouded. One legend says that a general of Constantine's army, named Amalfo, settled here in 320; another tale has it that Roman noblemen from the village of Melphi (in Latin, "a Melphi"), fleeing after the fall of the empire, were first in these parts, shipwrecked in the 4th century on their way to Constantinople. Myth becomes fact by the 6th century, when Amalfi is inscribed in the archives as a Byzantine diocese, and the historical pageant really begins. Its geographic position was good defense, and the distance from Constantinople made its increasing autonomy possible. Continuously hammered by the Lombards and others, in 839 it rose against and finally sacked nearby Salerno, to which its inhabitants had been deported. In the 10th century, Amalfi constructed many churches and monasteries and was ruled by judges, later called doges—self-appointed dukes who amassed vast wealth and power. From the 9th century until 1101, Amalfi remained linked to Byzantium but also was increasingly independent and prosperous, perhaps the major trading port in southern Italy. Its influence loomed large, thanks to its creation of the Tavola Amalfitana, a code of maritime laws taken up by most medieval-era kingdoms. Amalfi created its own gold and silver coins—or tari, engraved with the cross of Amalfi—and ruled a vast territory. With trade extending as far as Alexandria and Constantinople—where a large colony of Amalfitan merchants resided—it became Italy's first maritime republic, ahead of rivals Pisa, Venice, and Genoa; the population swelled to about 100,000, many of them seafarers and traders. As William of Apulia wrote in the 11th century, "No other city is richer in silver, cloth, and gold. A great many navigators live in this city... famous almost throughout the world as those who travel to where there is something worth buying.But the days of wine and doges were about to end. In the 11th century Robert Guisgard of Normandy—in the duplicitous spirit of politicos to thisday—first aided, then sacked the town, and the Normans from Sicily returned, after a short Amalfitan revolt, in the 12th century. Then, when the Republic of Pisa twice conquered it, Amalfi fell into decline, hastened by a horrific storm in 1343, then by an indirect blow from Christopher Columbus's discoveries, which opened the world beyond to competing trade routes. By the 18th century, the town had sunk into gloom, looking to its lemons and handmade paper for survival. After the state road was built by Ferdinand, the Bourbon king of Naples, in the 19th century, Amalfi evolved into a tourist destination, drawing Grand Tour—era travelers like Richard Wagner, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Henrik Ibsen, all of whom helped spread Amalfi's fame.
No wonder this is considered the most romantic restaurant
in Amalfi, with lace-covered tables, ciuccio (donkey) ceramics, tall
candles, and fresh floral bouquets in salons graced with frescoes and marble
floors. Opened in 1959, it became the first in Southern Italy to earn a Michelin
star in 1966, and once drew a gilded guest list that included such fans as Andy
Warhol and Federico Fellini. The menu maintains dishes favored 50 years ago:
picture slices of fish grilled in lemon leaves marinated with an almond and wild
fennel sauce. A tasting menu is available, but don't miss the antipasti.
Once a children's theater, this informal and charming white-stucco restaurant in the medieval quarter is 50 steps above the main drag. A house specialty is grilled squid and calamari with mint sauce, reflecting its position—suspended between sea and mountains. Try also the Scialatielli al Teatro, with tomatoes and eggplant. The pizzas from the wood-fired oven are terrific.
Locals highly recommend this little ristorante a few minutes' walk north of the Duomo. Named after the ancient coin of the Amalfi Republic, the restaurant occupies a former stable whose space has altered little outwardly since those equine days, though the white walls, appealing local art, crisp tablecloths, large panoramic photos, and tile floors make it cozy enough. Winning dishes on the vast menu include the wood-oven-baked thin-crust pizza and the scialatielli alla Saracena (long spaghetti-style pasta laden with tasty treats from the sea). The prix-fixe options (from €20 to €40) are a great deal.
With its white awnings and prime location on the beach, Stella Maris is likely the first restaurant you'll encounter on arriving in Amalfi. Dining outdoors or in front of the glass walls, you can gaze at the fishing boats bobbing in the bay, or at the sun worshippers tanning on the small beach. The risotto al pescespada (rice with swordfish) is a treat, or try a pizza. If you haven't yet worked up an appetite, you can down an aperitivo or cocktail on the terrace.
Trattoria da Ciccia-Cielo-Mare-Terra
Big windows overlook the sky, sea, and land, and there's ample free parking, so this modern seafood restaurant on the Amalfi Drive (approaching from Conca) is a good place to stop if you're driving. The young owner, Francesco Cavaliere, will give you a warm welcome. After some perfect pasta—the spaghetti al cartoccio (spaghetti with clams, olives, capers, and fresh tomatoes) has been a specialty for half a century—finish up with the ricotta-and-pear cake, designed to accompany a tiny glass of well-chilled limoncello.
Diners in the know have sung the praises of this understated landmark since 1872. The kitchen glistens, the menu is printed on local handmade paper, and Italian foodies appreciate dishes such as paccheri con burrata e scungilli (large pieces of pasta with cheese and sea snails). For dessert try the local specialty: eggplant and chocolate. Tile floors, white tablecloths, and a terrace set above the main street create a soothing ambience.
In the heart of medieval Amalfi, with outside seating occupying the small piazza outside the churches of Santa Maria Maggiore and the Maria Santissima Addolorata, this gastronomical treat is a testimony to the art of good food. Lovers of the craft prepare simple seasonal dishes using grandma's recipes—try the grilled squid or the buffalo steak. The inside eating area is painted in vivid yellow and Pompeii red, reflecting the wheat and wine used in this fine restaurant and wine bar.
Open since 1949, this airy, popular fish restaurant on Amalfi's almost-emerald waterfront dishes out reasonably priced seafood and cucina tipica Amalfitana (Coast cuisine) such as the tasty penne with tomatoes, cream, eggplant, peppers, basil, and cheese, or excellent grilled fish. You can see the boats bringing in the day's catch, and at night pizza is served on the terrace amid the twinkling lights of hills, sea, and sky.
One of the most sophisticated restaurants on the Amalfi Coast, Eolo is run by the owners of the Marina Riviera hotel. The decor is suavely tranquil—white-cove ceilings, Romanesque columns, mounted starfish—but the kitchen is anything but, tossing out superb gastronomic delights patrons can accompany with one of more than 3,000 wines. Many dishes are fetchingly adorned with blossoms and other visual allures, but nothing compares to the view of Amalfi's harbor from one of the tables in Eolo's picture-window alcove. If you don't land one of these, don't fret—the entire room is pretty enough as it is.
Leather goods are popular items in small shops along the
main streets; one good option is Bazar Florio, whose fair and friendly owner's
stock includes handbags, wallets, and backpacks.
La Scuderia del Duca Cartiera Amatruda
A publisher of fine books and postcards, La Scuderia sells desk accessories, objets d'art, and beautiful art tomes about Amalfi.
A well-known and respected family of coral craftsmen has run this shop since 1930.
La Dolceria dell'Antico Portico
In the heart of Amalfi, this pasticceria boutique creates marvelous tortes, biscotti, and almond cakes.
If you're pining for English-language newspapers, wanting a book on Amalfi's history, or just looking for a suitable poolside novel, try this shop near the tourist office.
Duomo di Sant' Andrea
Complicated, grand, delicate, and dominating, the 9th-century Amalfi cathedral has been remodeled over the years with Romanesque, Byzantine, Gothic, and baroque elements, but retains a predominantly Arab-Norman style. Cross and crescent seem to be wed here: the campanile, spliced with Saracen colors and the intricate tile work of High Barbery, looks like a minaret wearing a Scheherazadian turban, the facade conjures up a striped burnoose, and its Chiostro del Paradiso (Paradise Cloister) is an Arab-Sicilian spectacular. Built around 1266 as a burial ground for Amalfi's elite, the cloister, the first stop on a tour of the cathedral, is one of southern Italy's architectural treasures. Its flower-and-palm-filled quadrangle has a series of exceptionally delicate intertwining arches on slender double columns.The chapel at the back of the cloister leads into the earlier (9th century) basilica. Romanesque in style, the structure has a nave, two aisles, and a high, deep apse. Note the 14th-century crucifixion scene by a student of Giotto. This section has now been transformed into a museum, housing sarcophagi, sculpture, Neapolitan goldsmiths' artwork, and other treasures from the cathedral complex. Steps from the basilica lead down into the Cripta di Sant'Andrea (Crypt of Saint Andrew). The cathedral above was built in the 13th century to house the saint's bones, which came from Constantinople and supposedly exuded a miraculous liquid believers call the "manna of Saint Andrew." Following the one-way traffic up to the cathedral itself, you finally get to admire the elaborate polychrome marbles and painted, coffered ceilings from its 18th-century restoration. Art historians shake their heads over this renovation, as the original decoration of the apse must have been one of the wonders of the Middle Ages.
Valle dei Mulini
Uphill from town, this was for centuries Amalfi's center for papermaking, an ancient trade learned from the Arabs, who learned it from the Chinese. Beginning in the 12th century, former flour mills were converted to produce paper made from cotton and linen. In 1211 Frederick II of Sicily prohibited this lighter, more readable paper for use in the preparation of official documents, favoring traditional sheepskin parchment. But by 1811 more than a dozen mills here, with more along the coast, were humming. Natural waterpower ensured that the handmade paper was cost-effective. Flooding in 1954, however, closed most of the mills for good, and many have been converted into private housing. The Museo della Carta (Museum of Paper) opened in 1971 in a 15th-century mill: paper samples, tools of the trade, old machinery, and the audiovisual presentation are all enlightening. You can also participate in a paper-making laboratory.
Santa Maria Maggiore
As inscribed on a capital at the entrance, one Duke Mansone I had this church constructed in 986. Though the layout is Byzantine, a 16th-century overhaul inverted the entrance and high altar, and the decoration is now mostly baroque. The campanile dates from the 12th century, and there's a noteworthy 18th-century crèche scene. The church is open only for Sunday services.
Porta della Marina
This gateway "door" to the harbor bears a huge, flaking ceramic panel, created by Renato Rossi in the 1950s, commemorating the trade routes of the republic during the Middle Ages. In one example, ships loaded with Italian timber sold the wood for gold in North Africa, then used the gold to buy gems, spices, and silks in Asia to trade back in Italy. Walk 200 feet along Corso delle Repubbliche Marinare, past the tourist office, to see the ceramic panel created by Diodoro Cossa in the 1970s. The scenes illustrate local historical highlights, among them Roman refugees establishing themselves in nearby Scala in the 4th century, the founding of Amalfi by these same Romans, Amalfi's commercial and diplomatic role in the Mediterranean, the arrival of St. Andrew's body, and the invention of the maritime compass.
Hotel Luna Convento
The legendary St. Francis of Assisi founded this 13th-century former monastery that retains its original cloister, famous for its distinctive Arab-Sicilian arcaded columns and crypt with frescoes. Two centuries ago the property was transformed into the Amalfi Coast's earliest hotel. The many noteworthy guests include Henrik Ibsen, who wrote much of his play A Doll's House here. The hotel also owns the landmark Torre Saracena (Saracen Tower), now home to a bar and nightspot, which sits across the highway and stands guard over Amalfi's seaside promontory.
Maria Santissima Addolorata
This church is adjacent to the confraternity founded in 1765 to organize Amalfi's Good Friday celebrations. The entrance gate bears a late-Gothic bas-relief of the Crucifixion, once belonging to nobility from the nearby village of Scala and identified by its coat of arms at the foot of the cross. The interior is Neoclassical, with a coffered ceiling and a harmonious scale; note the 16th-century marble Madonna and Child in the sacristy. The church is only open on Saturday evening for 7 pm Mass (6:30 from November to March).
Arsenale della Repubblica
From the middle of the 11th century, Amalfi's center of shipbuilding, custom houses, and warehouses was the Arsenale, today the only (partially) preserved medieval shipyard in southern Italy. Ships and galleys up to 80 feet long, equipped with up to 120 oars, were built at this largest arsenal of any medieval maritime republic. Two large Gothic halls here now host occasional exhibitions and display artifacts from Amalfi's medieval period, including paintings, ancient coins, banners, and jeweled costumes. The highlight is the original 66-chapter draft of the code of the Tavole Amalfitana, the sea laws and customs of the ancient republic, used throughout the Italian Mediterranean from the 13th to the 16th century. The Tavole established everything from prices for boat hires to procedures to be followed in case of a shipwreck. Long one of the treasures of the Imperial Library of Vienna, the draft was returned to Amalfi after more than 500 years. Ten of the arsenal's original 22 stone piers remain; the others were destroyed by storms and changes in the sea level on this ever-active coast.
Piazza Flavio Gioia
A statue, set in an ironically disorienting traffic roundabout in front of the harbor, honors the Amalfitan credited with inventing the maritime compass in 1302. Many say it was the Chinese who invented the compass, passing the idea along to the Arabs, who traded with Amalfi; Gioia may have adapted it for sea use (for the record, some historians believe there was no such person as Gioia).
Rua Nova Mercatorum
A tunnel-like passageway also known as Via dei Mercanti, the evocative Rua Nova was the main thoroughfare of medieval Amalfi, when the main road was a raging torrent. Still the town's most fascinating "street," it is especially wonderful when the light from alleys and windows plays on its white walls. Stretching almost the length of the main street, it ends at a medieval-era contrada, or neighborhood, with a fountain known as Capo di Ciuccio (donkey's head), where mules would refesh themselves after the climb down from the hills.