The recommendation is clear: January is the worst time to travel to the Amalfi Coast.* That kind of advice didn’t stop Napoleon, so it didn’t stop me either.
Here are some observations about activities and sights from my visit, and then you can decide when (not if) you want to visit the famed Costiera Amalfitana.
On Visiting in January
- The coastal villages are g̶h̶o̶s̶t̶ ̶t̶o̶w̶n̶s̶̶̶ peaceful. Positano had two restaurants, a coffee bar, and a car mechanic open. Amalfi’s main town square was open but not much else. Even with the businesses closed, the small towns are still lovely to walk around. The lack of crowds is great if you don’t like people and only want to meet local residents, but you’ll always need a backup restaurant for when you arrive at your planned restaurant to find it closed. Larger towns like Sorrento were more open.
- The weather is perfect for physical activity. I hiked the Path of the Gods (Sentiero Degli Dei) on one day and biked the coastal road on the next. In the summer time the roads are busy and the temperatures are not ideal for exertion at mid-day. The bike mechanic I rented from (Sorrento Bike) told me that during the summer he leads groups early in the morning to beat the heat. But in January I had the whole day!
- Sorrento is still celebrating Christmas. Apparently, nobody had the heart to tell them Santa came and went. But their confusion is your gain, since the town is wonderfully awash with Christmas lights and music. Even at the end of January, the illuminated tree in Piazza Tasso belts out upbeat renditions of “So This Is Christmas” and “Oh Happy Day” every hour each evening, surrounded by the dancing lights strung up on the buildings all around. This sounds like a joke but really isn’t.
- Since there are no throngs of tourists at every corner, it’s easier to feel at home and welcomed. Unlike Rome, there are no tour peddlers waiting for you in the street attempting to make eye contact leading to separation of person and wallet. Residents have extra space this time of year so I genuinely felt welcome everywhere I went. The bike mechanic where I rented my bike spent time with me showing various routes I could choose from, which wouldn’t have been possible had I not been the only customer.
- While the tourists are gone, the construction workers emerge. The main road among the Amalfi coast (SS163) becomes a single lane for brief segments while road repairs are underway (controlled by traffic lights). There are plenty of bikers on the road, so cars and buses are cautious rounding the corners. Buses honk their horn as they round blind corners to warn you to pull over if you can.
- Biking really is worth it. There are many places along the main road with breathtaking views that whizzing by in a car would not justify. On a bike you can stop at the side of the road and hop on a restraining wall to take a picture or just a gander. It slows your pace but if you only wanted a speed record you could have stayed on your Peloton.
What can you take pictures of? This is the Amalfi Coast so that ought to be obvious, but since you asked…
There is no shortage of steep and rocky cliffs separated by terraced villages and orchards on the Amalfi Coast. The Path of the gods is an excellent hike that takes you through some of the most fantastic views the coast has to offer. The grandeur of the mountains is almost paralleled by the lengths that humans have gone to establish their houses and farms on the hillsides. From houses built into the cliffs themselves and in the bottom of ravines, the tough landscape has led to creative building practices, such as cables with buckets for transporting materials up and down from the main road.
The charm of the villages may be due to the residents’ precious protection of their properties. In January many of these houses and businesses were surrounded by workers maintaining the exteriors of their buildings. It was actually pretty neat to see the amount of bustle going on at some of the places. One hotel was being completely renovated and for a brief time the foundation was visible, exposing the narrow cliffside on which an entire hotel rested.
At any coast, the land is just half of what’s there. Some people say the best way to see the Amalfi Coast is from the water. There are ferries to the nearby Island of Capri for those interested and, during the summer, the ferries run around the peninsula connecting the various ports. Don’t be fooled by the “Mediterranean Climate,” though: the water is cold in the winter!
What makes a narrow alley so charming? Perhaps it’s the idea that this place hasn’t succumbed to the modern norms of multi-lane boulevards and separate sidewalks. Instead, the town has maintained the personal charm where every market is local and every restaurant is walkable. In any case, walking around the alleys of Sorrento is non-stop joy whether you are lost or not.
Christmas is over when Sorrento says it’s over, got it? The town went all out on their Christmas decorations: Each alleyway had a different style of lights. The main alley in the picture above was lit by wreaths, miniature trees, chandeliers, miniature trees on top of chandeliers, and the regular old lamp posts. It is quite a scene.