Ancient Greeks associated the islands in the Bay of Naples with the Sirens. Today Ischia is famed more for the restorative powers of its volcanic waters – but the landscape’s seductive quality remains. Sandy beaches with thermal vents, hidden grottoes, and lava spires mix with lush ravines and hillside terraces. Perhaps the most magical spot of all is the Castello Aragonese, a miniature island sanctuary surging out of the sea near the village of Ischia Ponte. Here ancient temples and olive groves mingle with a medieval fortress while ruined churches serve as modern art galleries. 

Named after its 15th-century castle, the Castello Aragonese connects to Ischia via a causeway. Along with structures spanning two and a half thousand years, the islet offers a celebrated restaurant and several cafés, as well as a monastery converted into a small hotel. Although the castle makes a dreamy day trip, staying overnight allows access to countless gardens and terraces with views fit for angels.

We arrived on Ischia in jittery condition after a whirlwind, jetlagged stay in Naples. Besides providing an easy base for visiting the island’s famed spas and beaches, the Castello Aragonese gave us a glimpse of Arcadia. After three nights in the monastery, we felt positively beatific.

Ischia Overview

The largest of the islands in the Gulf of Naples, Ischia lies about an hour’s ride by hydrofoil or 90 minutes by ferry from Naples. Most towns are on the edge of the island with Mount Epomeo dominating the middle. Rising to a height of just under 800 meters (2,600 feet), the volcano is currently in a “quiescent” phase, releasing heat through countless thermal vents scattered in and around the island.

Ferries arrive and depart from the town of Ischia Porto, on the northeastern side of the island. The port stretches along the coast and eventually turns into the village of Ischia Ponte, with the Castello Aragonese lying across a narrow strip of sea. All sites below can be found on our Google map.

Castello Aragonese

Fortress & Community

Ancient Greeks established their first Italian colony on the island of Ischia, and some of the castle’s defensive structures date to 475 BCE. Looking at the islet from shore, it’s easy to see why it made an ideal fortress: this 300,000 year-old magma bubble rises almost vertically from the water. Originally, it was connected to the main island by a spur of land, but a volcanic eruption in the second century caused the soil to sink.

Ischia Island Italy Spiaggia dei Pescatori Sandy Beach At Sunset View Of Castle Aragonese Small Island And Pastel Houses

Less obvious from afar is the islet’s capacity to sustain an entire community. The fortress became a refuge for the region’s inhabitants in the stream of invasions following the Roman Empire’s collapse. Attacks from pirates were an ever-present threat, along with eruptions from the now-dormant volcano. At one point, the tiny island hosted 1,892 families along with several religious orders and a garrison for the prince. In 1441, the Aragonese king of Naples remodeled the castle, cutting tunnels underneath to provide better access to the structures above and adding the causeway we see today.

From Prison to Monument

English shelled the islet during the Napoleonic Wars and destroyed many of its structures. By 1823, only about 30 inhabitants remained when King Ferdinand of Naples turned the castle into a prison. After the unification of Italy prompted the closure of the complex, the Castello Aragonese was more or less abandoned.

Ischia Island Italy Castello Aragonese Medieval Castle Tower With Olive Tree Branches

A lawyer named Nicola Mattera purchased the fortress and surrounding property from the Italian government in 1912. Fifty-five years later, the castle was declared a national monument. In the following decades, Mattera’s artist son Gabriele and his family completed most of the restorations. Today the family continues to live on and maintain the island.

The Castello Aragonese Today

Tickets to the Castello Aragonese include a guide to its monuments and attractions, arranged by a numbered route winding around the islet. Visitors can expect to spend at least a few leisurely hours touring the complex. Besides the fortress and monastery, churches and other structures perch between gardens. Some retain their original interiors, while others exist as suggestive shells. Most of the buildings and terraces contain art, from 700 year-old frescoes to sculptures and paintings by Gabriele Mattera and other contemporary artists.

Ischia Garden Castello Aragonese Terrace Overlooking Sea With Lush Plants
Terraced gardens cover much of the island. Some are ornamental, but others produce food and wine for the restaurant.

Our favorite spot was the terrace holding the ruins of the Cathedral of the Assumption. Built by the people of Ischia after a volcanic eruption in 1301 destroyed the existing cathedral, the church went through several stylistic phases before succumbing to shelling in 1809.

Ischia Island Italy Castello Aragonese Baroque Church Ruins Alter With Bombed Roof Open To Sky

Today arches frame a central space open to the sky, with a view of Ischia’s volcanic green slopes sprouting pastel buildings at the water’s edge. In the nave, Baroque flourishes and raw bricks bask in the sun, flanked by chapels with offerings of flowers.

Ischia Island Italy Terrace Castle Aragonese Statue At Sunset Overlooking Mountainside Stone Walls White Houses

In one alcove, a concave ceiling medallion sits on the ground like a colossal bowl, mirroring the dome still in place above it. Nearby, a statue marks steps leading to a crypt with frescoes from the school of Giotto.

Amongst the idyllic views and tranquil terraces, the island holds a few darker attractions. Besides the prison, a medieval museum features a collection of armor, weapons, and torture instruments. 

Strangest of all, the nuns who once lived in this paradisical setting developed a gruesome practice. In the crypt beneath the Church of the Immaculate Conception, they propped their dead up on stone chairs with drainage holes in the seat. The nuns expressed their disdain of the human body as a receptacle for the spirit rather paradoxically, by collecting the decomposing bodies’ fluids and bones. Needless to say, the hours spent in prayer within the poorly-ventilated space probably hastened everyone’s demise.

Visiting the Castello Aragonese

Ischia Ponte View From Castello Aragonese Blue Water Boats Mountains Edge Of Castle Roof

The Castello Aragonese is open daily from 9 to sunset. Tickets for self-guided tours cost €12. For more information on the island, including the restaurant, art exhibits, and special events, check the Castello website and also the Friends of Gabriele Mattera Foundation

The converted monastery, Il Monastero, is open for guests from April through October. Our room featured an arched ceiling and patterned blue-and-white tile floors. Breakfast on the terrace overlooking the sea included produce straight from the garden and exquisite morning cakes, courtesy of pastry chef Martina. 

Ischia Ponte & Environs

Ischia Ponte Italy Island Boats On Calm Sea Morning Light Pastel Houses Line Shoreline

The little town of Ischia Ponte makes an excellent base. Several sandy beaches, including the Spiaggia dei Pescatori (Fishermans’ Beach), offer views of the Castello Aragonese. We also enjoyed swimming right off the rocks lining the causeway. Plenty of restaurants offer dining both on and off the water. We liked the old-school Pizzeria Pirozzi, with its friendly atmosphere and a rooftop terrace overlooking the sea. (Via Seminario, 51/53.)

Ischia Highlights

Thermal Waterpark

Thermal springs can be found all over Ischia. We opted to visit the famed Negombo waterpark, with 22 acres of gardens, pools, and caves sprawling across the hills surrounding San Montano Bay. From sun-drenched pillars pouring water onto stiff muscles to a grotto evoking ancient Roman caldariums, the park’s 14 basins feature just about every size, material, and temperature. Sampling them all takes anywhere from a few hours to most of the day, interspersed with lounging on terraces. Negombo also offers access to one of the island’s best beaches, the Spiaggia di San Montano.

Ischia Island Italy San Montano Beach People Bathing In Jade Green Sea White Umbrellas On Sand

When we visited in September, it was busy but not crowded. The atmosphere was giddy, with a few good-natured shrieks in the cold pools and giggles in the steamy cave. I discovered my personal nirvana in the second-hottest pool, with dappled sunlight and underwater jets.

Negombo is open from 8:30-7, late April through early October. Prices vary according to season and the number of visitors; check a recent price chart for details. The CD, CS, 1, and 2 bus lines have a “Parco Negombo” stop, between the towns of Lacco Ameno and Forio. Signs help guide visitors along the 10-minute walk downhill to the entrance. For more information on Ischia’s bus system, see below.

Sant’Angelo and Maronti Beach

Ischia Island View Of Sant Angelo From Maronti Beach Turquoise Waters Southern Italy

We’d planned to spend a full day exploring the beaches around Sant’Angelo. The ancient fishing village – scenic in its own right – offers access to a handful of smaller beaches and coves. A 10-minute walk leads to Fumarole and the beginning of Maronti Beach. Fumarole is named for its many steam vents, some of which heat the sand and rocks enough to cook food. Maronti’s renowned expanse holds multiple public and private areas along its 10 km length, with hot springs and restaurants bordering various stretches.

Unfortunately it started to rain just after we arrived, so we hopped on a bus to Forio.

Forio

Forio’s population of about 12,000 makes it the second-largest town on Ischia. A promenade goes from the pretty Chiesa del Soccorso past the port to the laid-back Chiaia beach. From Forio, one can walk up to another beach at San Francesco or the gardens of La Mortella.

La Mortella Gardens

The Giardini La Mortella is a paradise unto itself. Inspired by the Alhambra, the garden takes advantage of Ischia’s subtropical landscape. Lady Susana Walton arrived on Ischia in 1949 with her husband, composer William Walton, and spent more than five decades developing the property. 

La Mortella’s plants are layered so that any given spot shows something at its peak. Beginning with epic-scale greenery and water features near the entrance, visitors can wander twisting paths up the hillside to a surprisingly diverse array of lush scenes. In one, a raw stone table and seat create a spot to contemplate the view. In another, life-size crocodile sculptures skulk near a pond of water-lilies.

Ischia Island Italy La Mortella Botanic Garden Tropical Pool Lilly Pads Rocks Palms Orange Flowers Mountains In Distance

Besides the botanic garden, La Mortella also houses the couple’s music foundation. During warmer months, a Greek-style amphitheater overlooking the bay hosts outdoor concerts.

Giardini La Mortella is open from early April through the end of October. The website has information on visiting the gardens and concert schedules. The bus stop on the CD, CS, 1, and 2 lines is a five-minute walk, with signs posted along the way for guidance.

Ischia Transportation

Getting to Ischia

The journey to Ischia is a treat, with incredible views of Naples and Mount Vesuvius. Large ferries take longer but don’t get buffeted as much by the waves; the speedier (and pricier) hydrofoil routes tend to be cancelled during stormy weather. 

Bay Of Naples View From Ferry To Ischia Mount Vesuvius Small Island And Boats

While Ischia Porto is the main point of departure, some boats also stop in Casamicciola Terme or Forio. 

From Naples, larger ferries depart from the Porta di Massa, while hydrofoils and catamarans use the Molo Beverello port. During summer, it’s a good idea to reserve in advance, especially for the smaller boats. We travelled in early September, and purchased ferry tickets at the port.

Procida Island Italy View Of Port From Ferry Morning Light Pastel Buildings Boats Bay Of Naples
Procida’s harbor

Many routes between Naples and Ischia stop at the island of Procida along the way. Seasonal hydrofoil routes also run from Ischia to Sorrento, Capri, and the Amalfi Coast. Alternatively, one can travel by boat to Naples and then get a train – which is what we did when a storm forecast meant we couldn’t take the hydrofoil to Salerno.

Getting to the Castello Aragonese

Ischia Island Italy Sea View From Castle Aragonese Rooftops Stone Walls And Lush Mountains

From Ischia Porto, there are two options for getting to Ischia Ponte and the Castello Aragonese. Taxis take about 10 minutes. Alternatively, the #7 bus departs from the station just behind the harbor; the ride takes about 15 minutes. The bus goes to the Piazzale Aragonese at the end of the causeway. During midday, however, it might not go past the intersection of Via Seminario and Via Pontano. (Our map shows both spots.)

Ischia’s Bus System

Ischia’s bus system is comprehensive, inexpensive, and fairly reliable – although it can get crowded during peak hours. 

E.A.V. runs the regional buses, with 16 numbered lines plus a circular route. The latter runs in both directions: ‘CD’ stands for Circolare Destra and runs clockwise, while ‘CS’ stands for Circolare Sinistra and runs counter-clockwise. Ischia’s tourist information portal has maps and links to current timetables.

Tickets and passes are sold at bus stations, bars, tobacconists, newsstands, travel agencies, and some hotels. A single ride costs €1.50, and the ticket must be stamped on board the bus. We appreciated  the flexibility of the unlimited-ride pass, which costs €4.50 for one day, €11 for three days, or €14.50 for a week. 

Ischia Onscreen & Further Reading

Ischia Ponte Pescatori Beach View Of Castello Aragonese People Swimming Evening Light

“The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999) is one of many films shot on Ischia. More recently, the island featured in the television adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend.

For more on the area, see our other posts:

Historic Center of Naples

Salerno

Amalfi Coast: Atrani and Vietri sul Mare.