Spectacular Sorrento: sights, flavours, and culture in southern Italy

by W. Andrew Powell
Sorrento from Hotel Cristina

Basking in the sun along the coast of southern Italy, Sorrento is an idyllic seaside town that embodies everything you’ve ever heard about the Amalfi Coast, and a bit more beyond that too.

Nestled along the curve of the beautiful shoreline that makes up part of the top-end of the Amalfi coast, almost directly across from Mount Vesuvius, Sorrento is a idyllic setting for a romantic getaway, or even a family vacation. Walk down any street in town to find shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, and in the evening, maybe even a roving musician or two.

What makes Sorrento beautiful is that the town bridges the ages between Italy of yesterday, and Italy of today, with style and charm that feels like something from an old movie. The centre of town is vivid and beautiful, and filled with historic touchstones from the last several hundred years, but it also offers every amenity a traveller could expect; modern hotels, wireless internet in many restaurants, and stores that sell just about anything you might want.

During the summer months, Sorrento is very busy thanks to the surge of travellers from across Europe, and the cruise ships that come to port in the town, but the miraculous thing about Sorrento is that it never feels so busy that you can’t find a seat in a restaurant. The streets become full and vibrant, like there’s a party every night, and the shops and stores do fill up, but during my week-long stay there, I never once had to wait more than a few minutes for anything.

Hotel Bellevue Syrene
Hotel Bellevue Syrene

For the casual traveller, Sorrento embodies the relaxed spirit most of us enjoy on a good trip, in a small space that requires very little transportation once you arrive, aside from when you want to go sight-seeing out of town. Sorrento is also centrally located between a number of excellent day-trip destinations, including Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii, Positano, Amalfi, and the island of Capri, which makes it a great starting-point for exploring this area of Italy. It is also safer, and cleaner than many of the alternatives, like Naples, and easier to travel to and from compared to many of the small towns nearby.

Sorrento can be pricey though. It’s worth realizing before you arrive that generally you can expect to pay between 15€ to 20€ for a fairly cheap meal for two people, including pizza and two soft drinks, or with cheap beer or wine. You can find some cheaper alternatives in town, including snacks, but for a quality meal with pasta, wine and a light dessert, expect to pay around 30€ to 40€.

The same can be said of the town’s many hotels, which range in price from 60€ per night during the summer for budget-conscience options, to over 500€ per night for high-end accommodations. On average though, expect to pay between 130€ to 180€ per night for a double room.

Costs aside, it’s easy to get lost in the culture of this charming town that is walkable if you’re willing to get some exercise. The town has a fairly steep incline in places, especially if you’re walking to any of the hotels along the outer-edge of town, like the Hilton Sorrento Palace, but it’s only a challenge on your return, or you can take a taxi back to your hotel for 10-15€, depending on where you’re staying. Some hotels also offer shuttles both ways, from the train station and back again, so keep that in mind as well, although the times can be rather limiting if you want to stay out beyond 10:00 PM.

In the heart of the town, the streets are wonderfully narrow and private, and filled with people on the warm summer evenings. The party atmosphere is everywhere, and it’s the kind of mood that feels comfortable, lively, and heartfelt, rather than brass or loud. One evening, I watched as a throng of people started a Conga line in front of a gelateria, led of course by the store’s owner.

It’s also the kind of place where a gelateria can be famous, as is the case with Gelateria Primavera, which has a constant crowd of people, and walls covered in photos of stars and celebrities, including the current Pope.

Food is certainly an easy pastime to enjoy in town, as there are restaurants and treats around every corner. Shoppers will also find just about every Italian product they could dream of, including Limoncello liquor, all kinds of lemon products like soaps and sweets, hand-made goods, and beautiful leather. In particular, if you’re looking for a perfect pair of leather gloves, go to Via San Cesareo just west of Piazza Tasso and find the store that says “Gloves” out front, and head to the back wall. For 40€, the owner will look at your hands and bring you a beautiful pair of leather gloves for yourself, or they make a fantastic gift.

There is also a mind-blowing artist by the name of Marcello Aversa who works out of a store in Sorrento on the Via Antonino Sersale. His work is intricate and beautiful, but it does not come cheap. Aversa’s work is astounding and complex, and it’s worth even buying just a small sample, if you can keep it safe on the trip home. Expect to pay anywhere from 100€ to 300€ for even just a small piece of his work.

Aside from the local churches, which are all worth taking a look at when you have time, there are a few other must-see places in Sorrento.

Cafe at Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria
Cafe at Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria

For one thing, you need to plan at least one trip to the stunning Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria for a drink on their cafe patio, which looks out over the ocean. It’s a beautiful spot and on summer evenings they often have live music playing for guests at the Vittoria Bar. If you’re interested in having a meal at the Terrazza Bosquet restaurant, keep in mind that the hotel is expensive, for your average traveller, but the Terrazza Bosquet’s Chef Luigi Tramontano is a Michelin Star award-winner, so you can’t go wrong if you’re looking a really special night out while you’re in Sorrento.

Sorrento’s Piazza Tasso is another great spot that you’re bound to pass through while visiting the town, and it offers a range of restaurants around the perimeter of the street where you can sit and enjoy a decently-priced meal, snack, drink or dessert while you take in the bustle of the town. It’s a particularly wonderful spot during the evening, as the town gets a little quieter. For a great dessert, an espresso, or a glass of wine, Bar Ercolano was one of my favorite spots in town, but Fauno Bar or Pizzeria Aurora are also great options here.

Next up on the must-see list is the Port of Marina Grande, which is a small fishing village located along the western perimeter of Sorrento. You can reach the village by following the Via Marina Grande road west of the Hotel Bellevue Syrene, and then taking a small path down to the Via del Mare. For those who don’t want to walk up or down the hill, you can also take a cab to the sea-side area which features a few shops, in addition to a few restaurants, hotels, and a beach for sunbathers.

It is also worth mentioning the Sorrento Men’s Club, which is across from the Monnalisa restaurant on Via San Cesareo at the corner of Largo Padre Reginaldo Giuliani. This ancient looking space has a wrought iron fence and a gate, and it’s generally filled with old Italian gentlemen, but the walls and ceiling are works of art. You may only spend a few minutes here, but it’s worth stopping to see this beautiful old gem.

Port of Marina Grande
Port of Marina Grande

Finally, there are the hotels of Sorrento. While I don’t have experience with all of the hotels, there are a multitude of options, depending on your budget, and how far you’re willing to stay from the town’s centre. The Bellevue Syrene offers a luxurious experience on the edge of the ocean, but for a more affordable option, the Hilton Sorrento Palace is both classy and well priced with very nice rooms.

Located on the edge of town is another little gem, the Hotel Cristina, which offers magnificent views of the town, but it is located at the top of a steep hill, and not all of the rooms are exactly luxurious. However, the rates start at around 150€ for a room for two people, which is a good deal for a moderately priced hotel, and it has a nice pool area that shows off Sorrento from edge to edge.

How to get there:
If you’re flying in directly, you can land in Naples, Italy, and then make your way to the Napoli Centrale train station. Once there, look for the Circumvesuviana Trains, which run between Naples and Sorrento. The trains are not ideal if you have a lot of luggage, as the seating is fairly tight, but they are quick and only cost a few Euros each way if you’re willing to rough it a little. Alternately, you can also take a hydrofoil ferry from Naples to Sorrento, which is just over 12€ each way. Car services also offer transportation between Naples and Sorrento.

If you are going to Sorrento from Rome, Italy, take the train from Roma Termini station to Naples’ Napoli Centrale train station. For Canadians, you can easily pre-book your train for a bit of a discount on RailEurope.ca for around 32€ each way. After that, follow the direction above to catch the Circumvesuviana Trains to Sorrento.

Map of Sorrento, including places of interest: (Click for the full-sized map)

Sorrento Photo Gallery:

Scenes from Sorrento:

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