I didn’t like Naples, but I loved Ischia.
Ischia is probably the least most talked about island unofficially part of the Amalfi coast experience. Italians know it well, flocking to it every summer as their vacation of choice. Plenty of Europeans know it, also arriving en mass in thongs when the centigrade passes 30. But out of Europe, Ischia is rarely mentioned. Capri, Sicily, Elba, Sardinia…but no one ever talked to me about Ischia. I even managed to miss pronounce it right up until we basically arrived as no one knew to correct me.
Turns out Ischia is beautiful and thankfully worth knowing about more than the person next to you on the ferry. Ischia is good enough in fact to suffer the injustice of Naples (sorry Naples, maybe we just met on bad terms) which many pass through on their way to the Amalfi coast. After a brief hour ferry ride from Naples port, we stepped off the boat in the late afternoon in Ischia and took a quick taxi ride to Ischia Ponte where we had booked our AirBnB for the 5 nights we intended to stay.
Ischia Ponte is about 10 minutes by taxi, or 25 minutes walk from the ferry down picturesque (I’m going to be saying that word a lot so get used to it) cobble stone streets flanked by pastel buildings. It’s a slightly older, quieter and more traditional part of the island which is overlooked by the majestic Aragonese Castle (which I’ll gush a little more over later).
The island itself is small but varied, each corner of it offering a slightly different experience. From the modern tourist (and shopping) heart at Ischia Porto (where most people disembark) to the quaint pedestrian only coastal city of Sant ‘Angelo, Ischia is one of those irritating travel blurbs come true, having ‘something for everyone’.
While we waited for our check in time, we took our hosts lunch suggestion at Ristorante Pizzeria Aglio olio & Pomodoro where we quickly ordered the salt baked fish and two large Aperol Spritz. After the chaos on Naples, Ischia was off to a very good start.
We checked into our Airbnb, a small apartment overlooking the castle and managed by Gina, who is probably the sweetest substitute Nonna you’re ever likely to come across whilst on holiday. Over a simple breakfast of homemade jams and bread each morning on the terrace, Gina would listen attentively to our plans for the day, making suggestions and giving us tips for each location. The apartment is small, and the nearby church bells are VERY close, but we loved hanging out with Gina and hearing stories of the day that The Talented Mr Ripley cast came to town.
Whether it was watching a movie ‘My Brilliant Friend‘ being filmed down the street or men gather on the fishing wharf each morning to discuss the catch, Ischia Ponte offers a glimpse of what local life might have been like on the Amalfi coast when before all the tourists arrived.
Ischia is roughly 46 square kilometres in size and circled by a convenient set of bus services that run clockwise and anti clockwise. Once you figure out the ticket system, it is the most convenient and cost effective way to get around. But it’s also the smelliest and most crowded way to get around as it’s the same bus EVERYONE on the island also uses to get to and from work/school/the beach. Wherever you are on the island, there is a bus stop close by. Initially we had been drawn by the lure of hiring a scooter and doing the rounds ourselves, but having now seen the narrow winding and incredibly congested streets of Ischia, I’m glad we didn’t. Ischia is an interesting contrast of laid back and full on, kind of like going to South East Asia.
There are beaches aplenty on Ischia, and the sand-side table service is generally half the cost of what it is in Positano. In fact, one of the best meals I had was on a small beach shack at Maronti Beach (amazing bruschetta and the best Puttanesca of the trip).
Different parts of the island offer different beach experiences; we generally found the west side more relaxed, with fewer tourists and a more family atmosphere. The south has long stretches of dark sand beaches and thermal pools heading up to Sant’ Angelo which is picture perfect and completely free of cars. The east at Forio felt more modern, with large harbours and long nice beaches full of locals. The only beach we didn’t get to were those in the north, as we preferred instead to spend a day at the incredible Negombo Thermal Gardens – well worth the bus ride out.
As interesting each part of the Island was, we found it was incredibly satisfying to return to the relatively quiet streets of Ischia Ponte at the end of each day with its amazing restaurants (Coco a must for seafood), cute streets, and that view of Castle Aragonese. There was always a slightly different view to enjoy and locals to spy on. And now let’s talk about that Castle…
Held privately since 1912 Aragonese Castle costs just 10 euro to visit from 9am to sunset. We were in Ischia near the end of May and if you went to the castle after 3pm, you had it pretty much to yourself – the sort of place you could go to time and time again, just to enjoy the view, sip an espresso on the terrace or sketch out a masterpiece in one of the many kept gardens.
Compared to the castle tours of Rome, this feels like you are wondering the grounds of someone’s vast home, and if you wait long enough, you’ll see the family that owns and still lives in the castle, returning home with shopping at the end of the day. There are few rails, no multimedia demonstrations, and while we were there, no tourist groups that we bumped into. I hate to say it, but you get the impression that the family runs the Castle this way because they have tasted the rest of Italy’s booming historical circuit and decided on a different (and arguably) richer experience.
Later on a whim, and not really expecting that we would get a seat, we asked our AirBnB host to book us into the restaurant at the top of the castle with just two days notice. To our surprise we got in, it was an amazing dinner and didn’t feel like a tourist experience at all. We sipped Champagne on the Castle parapets as Ischia darkened beneath us, and came home very satisfied and with a very modest bill.
I caught a cold just before arriving in Ischia so for two of the days we stuck pretty close to our accommodation, eating 4 Euro pizzas on the beach and letting the pre-summer sun slowly sink into us.
But even under the weather, we loved the island that much that we ended up cancelling our proposed jaunt to Sorrento (and Pompeii), deciding instead to splash out on an additional 2-night stay at Ischia Blue which is one of the highest rated accommodation options on the Island. It was a just deserved praise, an amazing room and private beach that capped off our 7 days in Ischia.
Written by Mark Welker and photographed by Monique & Mark Welker.