On a sunny September afternoon on the Amalfi Coast, we wandered up to a promontory with a wedding-cake Baroque church next to a geometric belltower. Across a tiny piazza sat a blindingly-white building sporting equally-bright laundry, with the sea on one side and a mountain looming on the other. Strangely enough, our only company was an Italian father helping his daughter learn to ride her pink bicycle.
We had started the day in the town of Amalfi but quickly joined a small trickle escaping around the bend in the road to the pocket-sized village of Atrani. A seven-minute walk took us from wall-to-wall tourists to a laid-back beach with pastel houses climbing up the mountain behind it.
Both towns are UNESCO sites, but with very different vibes. In Amalfi, it seemed like everyone was busy posing for pictures. In Atrani, visitors and locals were more interested in enjoying their surroundings.
How to Walk From Amalfi to Atrani
There’s been some debate about how to walk from Amalfi to Atrani, but we found the journey easy enough. We picked up the coastal road by the ferry terminal, near Amalfi’s cathedral. Since the road does not have a separate sidewalk, we wouldn’t recommend the route in the dark or fog. However, the traffic in mid-September – even with driving restrictions in place – made it resemble a luxury-vehicle parking-lot more than a speedway. The main confusion for some visitors comes from the vehicular tunnel, which is not safe for pedestrians. Instead, we veered to the right at the tunnel entrance, using the path winding along a terraced restaurant. This took us down a flight of stairs to Atrani’s beach. We’ve marked the route on a Google map.
Amalfi & Atrani, Twin Tastemakers of the Early Middle Ages
Archaeologists have found remains of Roman villas buried in debris from the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE in the area. When the Empire collapsed several centuries later, the twin towns of Amalfi and Atrani came into their own as a joint center of international trade. While most of Europe slipped into the Dark Ages, Amalfi and Atrani kept up with the latest cultural and technological developments from Asia and Africa. Their strong ties to Muslim merchants helped them avoid the raids suffered by their neighbors – not to mention bringing Islamic architectural influences to the region.
Eventually larger, more aggressive city-states like Venice and Pisa began taking over trade routes. The latter sacked Amalfi and Atrani twice in the 12th century. A 1343 tsunami all but wiped both towns from the map.
What to See in Atrani
In spite of the tsunami’s damage in the 14th century, Atrani’s terrain ensured it would retain a medieval layout. The labyrinth of pathways twists vertically as much as horizontally, folding around itself every which way. It’s easy to see why the artist M.C. Escher was drawn to Atrani, and we recommend checking out his images of it here.
The main square, the Piazza Umberto I, lies through the viaduct arches lining the main beach. Beyond that, it’s best to summon one’s inner goat and head up without a map or set itinerary: Atrani is too small to get lost in for long. Given its current population of under a thousand people, it’s not surprising that the town’s current size lies well within its medieval boundaries. But because the structures blend into the mountains, we never seemed to reach the ‘edge’ of town.
Church of San Salvatore de’ Birecto
Overlooking the Piazza Umberto I, the San Salvatore de’ Birecto is perhaps the best place to get a sense of Atrani’s history. The lower-level archway once spanned a stream, and this 10th century church has had to be rebuilt and remodeled countless times due to water damage. A 30-year project restored its original Arabic elements and ancient tilework – a fact we hadn’t read about before visiting and sadly missed. The white-on-white interior looks exquisite, as seen here.
In medieval times, the region’s aristocracy congregated in Atrani, and elections for the Duke of Amalfi were held in this church. Nobles funded the 11th century bronze doors cast in Constantinople. Today, the church’s most famous piece is a 12th century marble plaque carved with peacocks, which became Atrani’s emblem. Opening hours: daily 10-1 & 3-6.
Collegiata di Santa Maria Maddalena
Standing on the tip of land jutting into the sea, the Santa Maria Maddalena proudly juxtaposes a curious combination of styles. In the high Baroque façade, every curve and flourish seems to be moving. By contrast, the tiered belltower has flat, static surfaces articulated with brown volcanic stone.
A pair of domes in different sizes adds color and pattern with ceramic tile. It’s almost impossible to get a sense of how it all fits together, since the structures merge with the buildings around and under them. In fact, the three most famous views of the complex – from the square in front, from the main beach, and from the mountains above – barely resemble one another.
Most pictures of Atrani show the main beach, bordered by a line of massive arches supporting the road above. We found it moderately busy and utterly relaxed on a Sunday afternoon. Cafés lining the arched passageways provide a way to enjoy the beach for those without swimsuits, as well as a respite from the sun’s rays.
Prices to rent a beach chair and umbrella vary according to season. There is also a free area, although it appeared to be more rocky than the sandy lido.
Technically, the beach at Castiglione lies outside Atrani’s limits, but the walk takes a mere five minutes from the Piazza Umberto I. (Be prepared for plenty of stairs, however.) Many locals consider this beach to be one of the best on the Amalfi Coast.
The private section, the Lido di Ravello, has chairs and umbrellas for rent with table service and changing rooms. The public part is called the Spiaggia di Castiglione. A near-vertical path leads up to the hamlet of Ravello above.
We picked up SITA bus tickets at a shop in the Piazza Umberto, and the proprietor explained where to find the stop. Heading towards Salerno (Line 5120), the bus wasn’t too crowded even in late afternoon. Buses heading towards Positano and Sorrento (Line 5070) or Ravello (Line 5110) can get packed during high season. The line to Ravello leaves from the stop at Castliglione di Ravello, a five-minute walk from Atrani. Full bus schedules are available on the SITASUD website, and we’ve marked the stops on our Google map.
Staying in Atrani
For those interested in hiking on the Amalfi Coast, Atrani would be an ideal alternative to the more crowded towns like Amalfi or Positano. However, its lack of access to ferries or trains makes it less suitable as a base for destinations further afield. For anyone hoping to combine the Amalfi Coast with visiting Pompeii, Herculaneum, or Paestum, we recommend staying in Salerno or possibly Vietri sul Mare.