Italy | Spotlight on Sorrento
Italy: spotlight on…Sorrento
Sorrento is perfectly positioned for day trips to neighbouring coastline tourist destinations such as Positano and Amalfi, the island of Capri in the Bay of Naples and a quick train ride to Pompeii. Sorrento offers plenty of appeal for all ages.
Where is Sorrento
Sorrento is located on the Sorrentine Peninsula in Southern Italy. Set high above plunging cliffs, the coastal town boasts sweeping views overlooking the Bay of Naples, and islands Ischia and Capri.
I think there’s a little bit of Italian in all of us: our love of food, wine, sun, sea… Experiencing the Amalfi Coast has to be one of the best ways to discover your inner Mediterranean soul. It is, however, expensive compared to many other destinations in southern Italy. Not everyone is blessed with a never-ending supply of money so if you’re travelling on a budget, you will need to consider your options to enjoy the Amalfi Coast in style without going broke. Consider Sorrento. It is a convenient base for travellers wishing to explore the Amalfi Coast plus the accommodation is more affordable than the sought-after Amalfi and Positano destinations.
Where to start
Head to Sorrento’s historic centre, the town square, Piazza Tasso, grab a table out the front of Fauno Bar and watch the world go by. Built in the fifties, Fauno Bar has a charm of its own and worth the wait for a seat. Order an Aperol Spritz garnished with a huge chunk of succulent, sweet melon clinging to the side of the glass. You won’t regret it.
Piazza Tasso is lined with cafes and restaurants right in the middle of the action. From Piazza Tasso meander the bustling old historic centre, Centro Storico, and get lost along the narrow medieval alleys.
The main shopping street radiating from Piazza Tasso is Corso Italia (cuts Sorrento from east to west). Corso Italia is home to high-end boutiques. Hunting for something a bit different from the usual touristy stuff? Head to Via Fuoro (also known as Via Fuorimura) between Corso Italia and Via dell’ Accademia. For lots of restaurants, cafes, boutiques, and shops head along Via Antonino Sersale and Via S. Nicola. You’ll find treasures for your eyes and your stomach.
Find time to pop into some of the churches dotted throughout the town’s historic centre; they’re not only pretty, they’re soul soothing.
Watch the sunset at Villa Comunale Park.
Get caught up in the action at Marina Piccola. It’s Sorrento’s main transport hub and home to an strip of cool Sorrento Beach Clubs. It’s impossible to miss Marina Piccola unless you stick to land travel and that would be a shame.
Check out the ruins of the Valley of the Mills. (Vallone Dei Mulin) dating back to the 13th century. An otherworldly spot. You’ll find the old flour mills behind Piazza Tasso.
Sorrento is bursting with brilliant restaurants, trattorias and waterfront eateries catering to all tastes and budgets, but don’t overlook the delis groaning with abundant supplies of fresh olives, mortadella, cheese, bread, and bottles of local wine. If you’re staying in an apartment, it’s an idyllic way to dine in comfort in your own ‘home’ after a busy day sightseeing. Recommend Il Bocconcino deli, Via S. Cesareo.
After something cooling and sweet? We couldn’t say no to the gelati. Our recommendations: try the pistachio ice cream. Highly recommend Caffè Partenope; not only is the gelato excellent but so too the décor with its flash chandeliers. Also, save room for a tub of gelato from Gelateria Primavera (Corso Italia). It’s well known but worth the hype.
If it’s your first visit and you’re limited for time, jump on a ferry or bus and head to the Amalfi Coast jewels: Positano and Amalfi or jump on a train to Pompeii. Not to be missed is a ferry trip across the Bay of Naples to Capri for a bit of hobnobbing with the luxe set decked out in Italian designer clothes. Remember a ferry trip to Capri (or any of the coastal towns) will be dominated by the weather. If there are high swells, the ferries probably won’t be running to some of the marinas.
We travelled along the coast by bus when the ferries weren’t operating and concur ferry is by far the better mode of transport; it’s comfortable and the cinematic views are spectacular. The public buses are cramped (in fact, seriously overcrowded) and can be a little nerve wracking when navigating the hairpin bends in the road.
Sorrento has two main marinas: Marina Piccola (the small marina; the transport hub for the hydrofoils and ferries) and Marina Grande (the big marina; the smaller of the two marinas featuring a little fishing village with restaurants). Access to Marina Piccola is via an easy walk along a winding flight of steps. We preferred the quicker option – the lifts carved into the rock walls. Enter Villa Comunale Park and on your left is a lift which takes you down to sea level. Costs about 1 euro one way.
Although we’d pretty much seen what we wanted to see, we were keen to check out the hilltop town Ravello and visit Villa Rufolo. Although Ravello boasts breathtaking vistas, unlike Positano and Amalfi, it doesn’t have a marina and is only accessible by road. We opted to book a tour with Viator. It was a small group tour. We departed Sorrento, travelled via bus to Positano, ferry to Amalfi, then bus to Ravello. Although we retraced our steps from previous days’ journeys, this tour gave us a different perspective of the Amalfi Coast.
For the young and not-so-young fuelled with a dare-devil, confident attitude, hire a scooter or small car and take off along the coast road. (We weren’t feeling that adventurous!)
We had originally booked Villa Elisa for our trip in 2019, which was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. A refund was not offered but our booking deposit was held in trust by the villa until we could travel. Finally when we tried to book in 2022, Villa Elisa’s room availabilities were limited. Post pandemic 2022 everyone was travelling. We juggled dates and split our time between two accommodations to ensure we took advantage of our pre-paid deposit at Villa Elisa.
For the first half of the week we stayed at the William Apartment. Literally in the heart of Sorrento, the apartment was generously proportioned and well-appointed. We loved the roof top garden which gave us a bird’s-eye view of the goings-on in the street below.
The second half of the week we stayed at Villa Elisa. Located in Piazza Sant’Antonino, the villa was a delight. It wasn’t contemporary like William Apartment, but it did exude rustic charm and boasts a cooling central courtyard with big-leaved, glossy green plants.
Which was better? 50-50. I preferred William Apartment, Monty preferred Villa Elisa. Both locations were excellent – easy walking distance to all necessities (restaurants, mini supermarket, boutiques, train station etc.) and close access to the beach and ferries below via the lift.
What we loved
One night while staying at the William Apartment, an opera singer burst into song. I watched the performance from a secluded spot in our secret garden above the street. It was magic. And the restaurants. Too many to pick just one but we loved the opulent, theatrical setting of Osteria del Buoncovento.
What would we do differently?
Loved Sorrento as our base but should have spent a night in Positano (while still keeping our Sorrento accommodation). We should have extended our time on the Amalfi Coast and stayed in other towns. Further down the Amalfi Coastline, the ancient Arab village Praiano or Minori, a small town located in a quiet cove, hold appeal. They’re not touristy and perfect places to get a real taste of local life. Minori is only 10 mins by boat from Amalfi. Alternatively, hire a private boat for the day, moor at different marinas and explore their smaller villages.
We spent a day in Pompeii and elected not to engage a guide. Big mistake. Recommend paying for a tour with guide to take you to Pompeii and Herculaneum. Trying to do both on your own is tricky.
We would add the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria to our list. Although we passed it many times we never popped inside. A sunset drink from the balcony would have been memorable.
What to buy
There are sandal shops everywhere selling beautiful shoes and handmade footwear of all imaginings, including irresistible jewelled creations. They’re well priced and would make wonderful gifts for friends. And bags! Lots of well-priced leather bags in a rainbow selection of colours.
Wish I had known
Amalfi Coast is very different to the Cinque Terre. The Cinque Terre is compact and quicker to get from one town to the next via train. Having been to both, you really can’t say one is better than the other. Both hold sway in terms of their beauty , their impeccable views, sensational food, and for the energetic, great hiking trails.
Before you fly to Italy, arm yourself with a decent smattering of the Italian language. It will hold you in good stead.
Grab copies of the train timetables from the Sorrento train station. There are two trains: Campania Express (Sorrento – Naples) and Circumvesuviana train. It will help with your planning. The ferry timetables are not reliable as they are at the mercy of the sea and tides; their frequency is also affected by the season. The local buses (SITA) are useful if wanting to travel from Sorrento to Positano and Amalfi.
Let yourself get lost in the narrow streets. You never know what gems you are going to discover. The streets are long, intersecting in places or running parallel to each other. Don’t try to recall the name of the street you were in because you probably won’t be able to find a street sign.
Don’t buy the first thing you see if you’re on a budget. More than likely, you’ll find it in smaller boutique further down the street. Buy handmade. Don’t buy mass produced tourist stuff.
If you’re into art, you’ll come across lots of different galleries holding exhibitions in beautiful old churches. Go in. Explore. Enjoy. You’re bound to meet some wonderful characters along the way. (Picture above left cloister of San Francesco; above right Soccorso Societa Operaia Sorrento)
Don’t be deterred by the seasons. When we were there early October 2022. The Viator Tour guide said their tours were booked right through to December. Unheard of pre Covid-19.
Don’t over research your trip. Let it unfold organically.
Sorrento is just an hour by train from Naples. We flew from Palermo, Sicily, to Naples. Our Ryanair flight was about an hour. Once you land at Naples International Airport, exit through the airport’s main entrance, and turn right. Talk to the ticket sellers to ensure you purchase the correct bus tickets to Napoli Centrale Station (Naples’ central train station). The bus ride is about 3km from the airport to Naples’ central train station. Once at the station, you have two ticket options: taking the Campania Express highspeed train with minimal stops or the train with multiple stops (which takes forever). On arrival at Sorrento train station, be aware the ‘tourist office’ is not the official tourist office, they are tour operators. If you are staying in the heart of Sorrento, it’s an easy 5 mins walk from the station.