“I fell in love with Sorrento in an instant” wrote in Neither Here nor There travel writer Bill Bryson, who described Sorrento as “a compact town tumbling down from the station to the Bay of Naples”.
Sorrento is a town of about 16,000 inhabitants in the province of Naples, in what is sometimes called the Neapolitan Riviera, in the Campania region, Southern Italy.
Sorrento is the place where the most celebrated tenor of all time, the great Enrico Caruso, spent the last days of his life, in the luxurious Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria where a plaque commemorates the event. Sorrento was a favourite haunt of another of the greatest opera tenors, Luciano Pavarotti, who sang the song Caruso sometimes in duet with its author the singer songwriter Lucio Dalla, who wrote it to remember Caruso’s last days and nostalgically imagines the tenor looking at the Bay of Sorrento.
And who does not know Torna a Surriento, one of the best loved Neapolitan songs, a 1902 poignant song to a beautiful girl who is leaving Sorrento and the man who loves her, and who reminds her of the great beauty of the place she may leave forever. Placido Domingo, Jose’ Carreras, Andrea Bocelli and before them Luciano Pavarotti and Enrico Caruso, not to mention Elvis Presley, are just a few of the many prestigiuos singers who have performed the song. When at the end of the 1900s Italy’s President Sandro Pertini paid an official visit to China, the hosts played Torna a Surriento, and not the Italian national anthem.
Famous all over the world is Sorrento’s limoncello, a liqueur made with lemon rinds, water, alcohol and sugar.
Sorrento lies on a peninsula named after it, separating the Bay of Naples, which it overlooks, from the Gulf of Salerno on the south. The main mountain range of the Sorrento Peninsula are the Lattari Mountains, of which the highest peak is Mount Sant’Angelo (4,734 feet, or 1,443 m).
The town is on top of a high cliff dominating the bay from a 50 metres height in a straight drop down to the sea, surrounded by luxuriant vegetation: bougainvillea, umbrella pines, dwarf palms, hibiscus plants.
The celebrated Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso, until the 19th century one of Europe’s most widely read poets, author of the great epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata about the Crusades, was born in Sorrento in 1544. The town’s main square, Piazza Tasso, was named after him and is home to a statue of him in cloak and pantaloons leaning on a book placed on a pedestal, with a finger to his beard, gazing pensively towards the sea.
Piazza Tasso, the heart of Sorrento, is small but busy, lined with bars and restaurants, with outdoor cafes on every corner, a church, a clock tower, bells ringing, statues, palm trees, orange trees, panel-coloured buildings, balustrades. It’s like a town terrace from which to look down to the sea crossed by ferries to Capri and Positano. People go shopping and promenading for their “passeggiata” here in the square until late night, amid horse-drawn carriages and youngsters on their “motorini” (scooters).
The streets departing from Piazza Tasso are colourful, uninterrupted series of shops and buildings with balconies adorned with flowers, dominated by breathtaking views of the rich vegetation on the rising cliffs at the end. There are shadowy, cool alleys, filled with boutiques and rich aromas. There are steep, stunning roads sloping all the way down to the sea and the marina. And silent avenues of orange and olive trees, tunnels of greenery, decorated with pillar fragments and urns thought to come from the summer villa of Emperor Augustus which once stood there. The scent of orange blossoms, celebrated in Turna a Surriento, is in the air.
Partly due to Sorrento’s position on a cliff, beach space does not come easy but has to be found through some ingenuity. However, you can find strips of sandy beach, often surrounded by spectacular overhanging cliffs, and beautiful pebble beaches. Many jutting terraces, little piers, decked jetties also offer an alternative to beaches, with umbrellas, loungers and beach huts arranged over them, for sunbathing and a dip in the Mediterranean, in the open sea or in crystal pools between the rocks.
One of Sorrento best beaches is west of town at Punta del Capo. Walk to the end of the main street Corso Italia and you will find Via del Capo, a clifftop, long, winding road going all the way to Punta del Capo promontory. The road is full of hotels because of the superb views enjoyed from there across the Bay of Naples. You can see the entire bay, up to the Mount Vesuvius volcano, Naples in the distance, and the islands of Ischia and Procida. And you’ll have panoramic views of Sorrento, waterfalls, shrines to the Virgin Mary, and the limestone cliffs of the Capo.
Very probably Sorrento was founded by the ancient Greeks, then it was dominated by the Etruscans before becoming a Roman resort by the name of Surrentum. An archiepiscopal see at least from 420 AD, Sorrento became an autonomous duchy in the 7th century, and then part of the newly-formed Norman kingdom of Sicily in 1137.
Many great literary figures have visited Sorrento, among whom Keats, Henrik Ibsen, Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, Goethe, and Maxim Gorky who lived there.
In addition to its natural beauty, Sorrento has several remarkable artistic and historical places to see. Its historic centre still exhibits the right-angled layout of the Roman roads, and is partly surrounded by 1500s’ walls. In it are the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, with a must-see cloister dating back to the 1300s with an Arab-style arched portico, and the Cathedral, rebuilt in the 15th century, with neo-Gothic facade.
The Correale di Terranova Museum contains important collections of Greek and Roman archaeological finds, Capodimonte porcelains, Medieval sculpture, 17th-19th centuries paintings, Campanian decorative art; the museum’s park offers a breathtaking view over the bay.
Near Punta del Capo, a promontory 3km west of Sorrento, are Roman remains supposedly from the 1st century AD’s Pollio Felice Villa. Another Roman villa by the sea is the Agrippa Postumo Villa(, just below today’s (the) Hotel Syrene), built by emperor Augustus’ nephew.
Sorrento has been a very popular seaside resort since time immemorial for the stunning beauty of its location and for its climate. Sorrento is also important for the production of wine, olive oil, nuts (the noci di Sorrento) and citrus fruit.
Travelling around Sorrento & Amalfi Coast
You’d be crazy from Sorrento not to explore the neighbouring, stupendous Amalfi Coast.
The Sorrento and Amalfi peninsula, coated in olive groves, bougainvillea, citrus groves, vineyards and almond trees is a place of stunning beauty.
The Sorrento Peninsula is remarkably well served by public transport, it’s a hub of communications. Regular ferries and hydrofoils connect it to the islands of Capri and Ischia and to Naples. Trains link it to Pompeii and Herculaneum. And spectacular drives run along its coastline, joining its various resorts.
Amalfi is close to the railway station of Salerno, and many bus and coach services connect all the various towns of the Amalfi Coast. Naples Capodichino international airport is also close by. The A30 motorway (autostrada) connects the Amalfi Coast, in Italian Costiera Amalfitana, with the rest of Italy.
The short stretch of coastline between Sorrento and Salerno has been repeatedly dubbed the most beautiful and dramatic in the entire Mediterranean and in Europe. The coastal road itself, known as the Amalfi Drive, is part of this great scenic beauty. The most spectacular section of the Amalfi Drive is between Amalfi and Positano, approximately 25 km of paradise. The road is just two cars wide in many sections, so take care. Passengers may relax and be spellbound. It’s so glorious that you will want to repeat the journey in the opposite direction.
The local Circumvesuviana is the main train line connecting Sorrento to Naples all along the arch of the coast of the Bay of Naples. It is also a direct link between Sorrento and Pompeii. In addition, the Circumvesuviana station in Sorrento and the other stations along the train line are junctions of efficient and cheap ferry and bus services radiating towards the main attractions and tourist destinations on the Amalfi Coast and in the interior.
The Bay of Naples
The Bay of Naples, called in Italian Golfo di Napoli, is an inlet of the southern part of the Tyrrhenian Sea, an arm of the Mediterranean Sea. It is 10 miles wide and extends for 20 miles from Cape Miseno in the Phlegrean Peninsula in the north-west to Campanella Point in the Sorrento Peninsula in the south-east. The Sorrento Peninsula separates it from the Gulf of Salerno in the south.
At the end of the Phlegrean Peninsula, closing the bay to the north, are the islands of Procida and Ischia (pronounced Iskia). At the end of the Sorrentine Peninsula, closing the bay to the south, is the island of Capri.
The Bay of Naples is a place of incredible beauty and world fame. Packed within it and along its shores are an amazing number of sites, from archaelogical sites like the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, preserved after the eruption of the still-active volcano Mount Vesuvius, to resorts of magic beauty like Sorrento, from the steep hills surrounding it to the city of Naples, which is also its main port.
Other coastal towns along the Bay of Naples include Castellammare di Stabia, Torre del Greco, Torre Annunziata, and Pozzuoli, with the Gulf of Pozzuoli as a northern inlet of the Bay. Pozzuoli, the birthplace of celebrated Oscar-winning actress Sophia Loren, is the most geologically unstable bit of land on earth.
Getting to Sorrento
BY AIR: to Naples International Airport Napoli Capodichino. From Naples airport, Curreri coaches and shuttle services go directly to Sorrento, with 8 daily runs each way. The journey takes 1 hour 15 minutes; a coach ticket is 10 euros.
From the UK, the only direct non-stop flights to Naples are from London. The exception is TUI Airways (the new name of Thomson) which flies non-stop to Naples Airport from London Gatwick, Birmingham, East Midlands, Bournemouth, Bristol, Cardiff, Newcastle, Doncaster Sheffield, Manchester, Glasgow. The prices are reasonably low, with some return tickets around or just above £100, and there are special offers.
An alternative to booking with an airline is to reserve your flight with an aggregator. Travel and flight aggregators have information on many companies and operators and search the best flight for you. With aggregators you save money when you book flight and hotel, and possibly car hire, together rather than reserving them separately.
From the USA, one of the best known and most popular aggregators is Expedia (USA) .
From the UK, a good option is Skyscanner .
You can also check a price comparison site like Kelkoo (UK) for the cheapest flight.
BY TRAIN: to railway station Napoli Centrale of Naples, just over an hour from Rome Termini Station and the main rail hub in southern Italy. From Naples to Sorrento take the local Circumvesuviana train line, running every half hour in summer, about 1 hour 15 minutes journey passing lovely villages and towns, with tickets costing 5 euros. In the summer you can alternatively travel by boat from Naples to Sorrento.
BY COACH. There are direct daily bus services from Rome Stazione Tiburtina to Sorrento.