The Romans knew a good thing when they saw it. Which is why the Italian clifftop resort of Sorrento, and its magnificent views of the bay of Naples, has been taking visitors’ breath away for at least 2,000 years.
Words Val Culley
*Featured in Crave’s Issue 84, June 2017
A stroll along Via San Cesareo, one of the ancient streets in the heart of Sorrento, southern Italy, is a treat for all the senses.
Crammed with stalls, shops and restaurants, the ancient, narrow cobbled street runs parallel with the much wider Corso Italia, following a line of the ancient Greek town plan. It was designed to be shaded by buildings to keep it as cool as possible during the summer.
Pedestrians entering the street are greeted with bright colours, snatches of mandolin music, excited voices and activity. Luxury leather and jewellery shops display their stock alongside fresh fruit and vegetable stalls. The colours are dazzling: strings of bright red chilli peppers, colourful hand-painted ceramics and fresh, green vegetables.
From the doorway of a handbag shop wafts the smell of leather, from another a whiff of Sorrento’s famed lemon perfumes. Sample ice-cold limoncello in the liqueur shops, watch marquetry craftsmen produce intricate designs in inlaid wood and negotiate the invitations of waiters in the entrances of bars and restaurants.
Snatches of the song Torna a Surriento fill the air as people open wooden musical boxes outside souvenir shops, competing with the occasional Italian voice that soars above the rest like an operatic tenor.
The colourful street runs off Piazza Tasso, the hub of Sorrento. It is named for Torquato Tasso, regarded as the greatest Italian poet of the Renaissance, who was born in Sorrento in 1544 and is honoured with a marble statue. It’s a good place to get your bearings before exploring the town’s wealth of historic sights. Enjoy a drink at one of the square’s many bars, then head off from one of the piazza’s bus stops, taxi rank or horse-drawn carriage terminus, or simply amble towards the sea.
The Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria has its entrance just off Piazza Tasso. Inside the iron gates, a plaque records the visit of the great tenor Enrico Caruso, who was photographed on its terrace in 1921. The pop song Caruso, a tribute to the opera singer, was written by Lucio Dalla while he was staying at the hotel in the late 1980s. For a closer look at the sea, walk down Via Luigi De Maio to Piazza Sant’Antonino, turn down Via San Francesco past the medieval cloisters – a popular wedding venue – to Villa Comunale, pretty public gardens that have a lovely view of the Naples coastline, Vesuvius and Procida. Down below is a beach and you will see tiny figures swimming in the sea.
From here, take the lift or walk down to Sorrento’s main port, Marina Piccola. Or, head down Via Marina Grande, passing the house where Tasso was born. Now part of the Imperial Hotel Tramontano, this is where Neapolitan poet Giambattista De Curtis wrote Torna a Surriento on the terrace in 1902.
On the way, you’ll pass under an architectural gem, the fourth-century BC Greek gate, an arched stone gateway built from square-cut blocks of stone. Emerging on Marina Grande, you might see fishermen mending their nets; fishing by traditional methods is still an important part of Sorrento’s economy.
Try the local catch at the area’s homely shops, bars and restaurants, many of which have been run by the same families for generations. Ask for a table on Da Emilia’s wooden platform suspended over the sea and sample beautifully cooked, freshly caught seafood.
Further round the bay is Marina Piccola, from where you can take boats or hydrofoils to Ischia, Capri, Procida and Naples. Landlubbers might prefer to catch a train, which leave every 30 minutes for Pompeii, Ercolano and Naples from the Circumvesuviana railway station, further along Corso Italia from Piazza Tasso.
Sorrento is not famed for its beaches, with the best located out of town. To the northeast, off the coastal road to Naples, is a long beach known as Metà Alimuri. Other good beaches lie in the direction of Massa Lubrense. For a particularly lovely swimming spot, walk or take the Line A bus to Capo di Sorrento, and follow the signposts to some Roman ruins. Just before the ruins is a natural triangular pool known as Queen Joan’s Baths, or Bagni della Regina Giovanna, connected to the sea by a rock archway. The clear, shimmering water is ideal for swimming and snorkelling. On the tip of Punta del Capo are the ruins of a Roman villa, which would once have had panoramic views of the bay from its windows.
Lovely beaches can also be found at nearby Marina di Puolo and Marina del Cantone, below Nerano, near the tip of the Sorrento peninsula.
If you return hot and weary after a day on the beach or sightseeing, it is lovely to arrive back to Sorrento’s peaceful streets, bathed in evening sunshine. In the golden glow, you suddenly realise why it is known to Italians as La Gentile, “the kind one”.
| First Things First
What to Do
Start with breakfast or coffee at one of the bars on Piazza Tasso or Via San Cesareo.
Browse the designer shops on Corso Italia, or watch the artisans at work in the marquetry stores in the historic centre. Learn more about the history of Sorrento at Museo Correale, on Via Correale, and enjoy a fantastic view from the terrace.
Have a pre-lunch glass of wine or beer under the awnings of Bar Ercolano at the end of Via San Cesareo.
Pause for a quick pizza in a restaurant garden or cool down over pasta or seafood in the air-conditioned Zi’Ntonio, on Via Luigi De Maio.
Fancy a swim? Take the Line A bus to Capo di Sorrento and walk down past the Church of San Rosario to the hidden idyll of Queen Joan’s Baths. Afterwards, relax and sunbathe next to the ruins of Villa Pollio, enjoying the sea view.
Back in Sorrento, cool off with an ice cream at one of the gelaterie on Corso Italia.
Sip an aperitivo at Da Fauno, on Piazza Tasso, and watch the smartly dressed Italians saunter past on their evening passeggiata. Afterwards, dine on fresh fish at one of the seafront restaurants at Marina Grande.
Have a nightcap while listening to live music in one of the bars on Via Pietà.
Where to Stay
Best location: Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria
A familiar landmark as you approach Sorrento by sea, the hotel’s entrance is off Piazza Tasso, handy for all the amenities in the centre of Sorrento.
Piazza Tasso, 34, 80067 Sorrento
T +39 081 8777111
Romantic setting: Imperial Hotel Tramontano
The poet Tasso was born in a house that now forms part of the hotel and Milton, Goethe and Ibsen have all been inspired to write while staying here.
Via Vittorio Veneto, 1, 80067 Sorrento
T +39 081 8782588
Best view and best value: Hotel Dania
This family-run hotel has a large terrace with panoramic views over the bay of Naples – on a clear day you can see the island of Ischia.
Via Capo, 69, 80067 Sorrento
T +39 081 8073572
Where to Eat and Drink
Named in honour of Capri, the island that lies just off the tip of the Sorrento peninsula, this classic salad is made with slices of plum tomatoes, fresh mozzarella di bufala and basil leaves. It has the colours of the Italian flag: red, white and green. Try it at Il Pozzo in Via Tasso.
Gnocchi alla Sorrentina
Small potato dumplings cooked Sorrento style in a tomato sauce with mozzarella and fresh basil is a good choice for primo piatto (first course). Sample it at La Fenice in Via degli Aranci.
Spaghetti alla Nerano
Also known as spaghetti con zucchini, or spaghetti with courgettes, this simple but delicious pasta dish appears on many Sorrento restaurant menus. Enjoy it where it was invented in the 1950s at Ristorante Maria Grazia in Marina del Cantone.
Delizia al Limone
Sorrento’s most famous dessert is light sponge cake filled with cream and covered with lemon-flavoured cream. Order it at Ristorante Sant’Antonino on Via Santa Maria delle Grazie.
Light, dry, fragrant Falanghina white wine goes perfectly with fish and mozzarella dishes. Rare outside Campania, it is made from grapes grown on the Sorrento peninsula. Cantina del Taburno Falanghina is on many local wine lists, including that of Ristorante Zi’Ntonio on Via Luigi De Maio.