Five alternatives to the Amalfi Coast for an Italian road trip
Italy’s most storied coast isn’t the only choice for glittering water and heart-stealing views. From Como to Calabria, discover five lesser-known alternatives for the perfect road trip.
Roads chiselled into cliffs, villages spilling down the rockface, some of Europe’s most lusted-over hotels and the Tyrrhenian Sea twinkling away, safe in the knowledge that nothing created by humans can ever outshine it. No wonder everyone loves the Amalfi Coast.
This year, that love will be even fiercer as attentions turn to the Bay of Naples, where, just off the Amalfi Coast, the tiny island of Procida has been named Italian Capital of Culture. What’s already a well-trodden corner of the country will be packed to the gills.
But if you’re keen to feel that unhurried, dolce vita vibe that’s long drawn people to Amalfi, then there are plenty of worthy alternatives in a country with nearly 5,000 miles of coastline. Just as all Italian regions are different, so too are their coastlines — so whether you’re looking for full-on luxury or a wilder, more rustic road trip, the country’s your oyster.
1. Costa Viola, Calabria
On the toe of Italy’s boot, you’ll find a coastline that’s every bit as dramatic as Amalfi, with an even more evocative name. The ‘Violet Coast’, named after the livid colour it turns during dramatic sunsets, runs north from Reggio Calabria — the very end of the Italian mainland — up to the Capo Vaticano peninsula, the knobbly ‘bunion’ on Italy’s toe. But what a ‘bunion’ it is — this is an area of dramatic cliffs shearing down to dreamboat sandy beaches, darling towns like Tropea, where the narrow streets slalom past ancient palazzi before finishing abruptly at the cliff edge, and unspoiled villages such as Pizzo, home of Italy’s double-layered ice cream dessert, the tartufo.
Along the Costa Viola itself, the road hugs the cliffside, zigzagging up and down through villages like castle-crowned Scilla, with the Aspromonte mountain range in the distance. Not that you’ll be looking that way — heading south, it’s eyes right, to see two live volcanoes: Stromboli, one of the Aeolian islands in the distance, gently puffing away, and Etna, looming from across the water, so close you can almost feel the heat. From Villa San Giovanni, you can take the ferry to Sicily, but hold back — swaggering Reggio is calling, with its ancient Greek bronzes in the city museum and one of Italy’s loveliest seafront promenades.
Where to stay: Villa Paola is an elegant grande dame in Tropea, meticulously crafted from a 16th-century convent and with a spectacular pool with sea views. From £250, B&B.
2. Monte Argentario, Tuscany
With sweeping corniches over the Tyrrhenian Sea, glamorous, world-class hotels and sun-drenched coves, Monte Argentario has all the Amalfi essentials and adds another precious ingredient: sand. A high promontory anchored to Tuscany’s southern coast by two thick sandbars, Monte Argentario could almost pass an island — indeed, it does island life to perfection. Sunloungers line up along the shore at dune-rippled Feniglia beach, street food stalls at elegant Porto Santo Stefano dole out cones of delicately fried fish and the only exercise anyone seems to do is the walk down the cliffside to one of the perfect coves etched round the perimeter (you’ll hit gold on the stretch between Porto Santo Stefano and Cala Moresca).
Monte Argentario has long been a low-key weekend retreat for wealthy Romans and is also beloved by equally low-key celebrities, who stay around Porto Ercole, whose previous claim to fame was being the malarial swamp where Caravaggio died. Today, it couldn’t be more different, a place of old-school wealth where yachts huddle in the marina. Other than sunbathe, eat and sleep in glamorous surrounds, there’s not a whole lot else to do on Monte Argentario — and that’s exactly the point.
Where to stay: Follow the stars to Hotel Il Pellicano near Porto Ercole, where shady sunloungers among the rocks guarantee privacy. From £417, B&B.
3. Salento, Puglia
Wondering what the Amalfi Coast felt like several decades ago? Look no further than the eastern coastline of Puglia’s Salento peninsula — the stiletto tip of Italy’s heel. Here, with the Adriatic washing at the bottoms of cliffs, there’s a much simpler feel — one of the main attractions on the most spectacular stretch from Otranto south to Leuca is the Grotta Zinzulusa, a cave plastered with stalactites, stalagmites and a whole lot of guano from the resident bats. That’s not to say it isn’t glam — Otranto itself is a chic beach town, where restaurants serve fish caught just hours earlier, and the Pugliese take their daily passeggiata (evening stroll) around the 15th-century Aragonese Castle. Heading south is the turn-of-century spa town, Santa Cesarea Terme, where you can still take the waters and enjoy spa treatments on the rocks or go for a dip in the lido scored from the cliffside.
Salento isn’t just about the coastline, however, this is a storied land where prehistoric dolmens sit amid olive groves, and fortified masseria farmhouses have been transformed into upmarket accommodation. But that coastline — fragrant with the herbs and bushes of the macchia mediterranea shrubland — is so breathtaking, you may not want to go inland at all.
Where to stay: Soak up the peace at Masseria Montelauro, a 19th-century farmhouse fringed by citrus and olive trees, with a delectable pool in the garden. From £168, B&B.
4. Lake Como, Lombardy
It might not flank the sparkling Mediterranean, but if you’re looking for the old-school glamour and superstar glitz of Amalfi, then look no further than Europe’s longest, deepest lake, with similarly superlative views. Most people take to the water itself, either on ferries or those famous vintage Riva boats, but on four wheels, you’ll realise Lake Como is also perfect for road-tripping.
It’s easy to loop Lake Como in a full day of driving, but why would you? This, perhaps more than anywhere else, is a place of leisure. For Amalfi-style drives, you’re best skipping the most famous stretch that runs north of Cernobbio — the outer side of the forward ‘leg’, if imagine the lake to look like a sprinter. Instead, start inching up that inner peninsula from Como town to Bellagio, for a road that hugs the cliff edge and plunges over mini ravines, including the waterfall-laced Orrido di Nesso. Stop to take in tiny villages such Torno, where an ancient-frescoed church watches over a pint-sized harbour. On the other, more famous side, the road ripples up and down around Laglio and Moltrasio — where you should stop for lunch at Trattoria La Moltrasina, a cooperative that’s been feeding the locals for more than a century. Further north, stop off for lakeside walks around Musso and Gravedona.
Where to stay: You’ll be cantilevered over the lake from the balconies at Al Molo 5, a delightful restaurant-with-rooms in sleepy Vassena, 15 minutes south of Bellagio. From £126, B&B.
5. Western Sardinia
The east coast of Italy’s second-largest island has long been known for its GPS-defying cliff drives and spectacular coves calling, siren-like, from the bottom of precipices for those who dare. The north, of course, has the ritzy beaches of the Costa Smeralda, but Sardinia’s underrated west coast has it all: cliff-etched roads, gorgeous coastal villages and beaches that, crucially, are accessible to all. Its industrial history — this was a mining region — means it missed the tourism boom. Today, though, that’s a boon.
Sardinia’s wild west is an astonishingly varied place. Start in Carbonia in the south — a mining town of blocky, rationalist buildings with the fascinating Museo del Carbone based in the former Serbariu mine, where visitors are led through underground tunnels. From there, head west up the not-for-the-faint-hearted coastal road, which lurches round the cliffs to Portixeddu.
History buffs will love the San Giovanni di Sinis peninsula halfway up the coast, where the Roman city of Tharros still overlooks a sweeping sandy beach, and the museum at Cabras houses mysterious sculptures of ancient warriors, known as the ‘Giants of Mont’e Prama’. Further north, towards Bosa, the road ripples through Amalfi-style villages unfurling down the rockface. At the top of the drive, you’ll find the chocolate-box seaside town of Alghero, and the coastal wilderness of Porto Conte Regional Natural Park.
Where to stay: Villa Asfodeli is a beautiful albergo diffuso (‘scattered hotel’) centred around an art nouveau mansion in teeny Tresnuraghes. From £71, B&B.
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