The town takes its name from its terraced lay-out on the hillside, at the bottom of the Capo Scalea promontory. The old town is placed on the heights and preserves the remains of an ancient wall, while towards the beach, the Scalea Marina centre has recently been developed, with modern hotels, villas and numerous bathing areas on the beach.
Scalea probably derives from Scala which currently only means "ladder" in Italian, but used to also refer to any "[exclusively] commercial harbor", initially on a derogatory sense, as the military ports were never as disorganized as the commercial ones with the makeshift ladders and planks, instead of sturdy docks and built quays. Scala as harbor, is certainly an obsolete Medieval meaning, borrowed however by Byzantine Greek as Skala/Σκάλα/Σκαλέα, as well as by Turkish as "İskele".
Scalea was inhabited since prehistorical times, as proved by the material of the Paleolithic period that was excavated in a cavern near Torre Talao, which dominates over the rocky promontory called Scalea Island. It is claimed that the town of Laüs, of pre-Indo-European origin and colonized by the Sybarites in the 6th-5th century BC, once stood on the plain South of Scalea, near the mouth of the river Lao.