Sorrento, perched picturesquely on a plateau above the sea with spectacular views over the Bay of Naples, is situated towards the end of the mountainous Sorrentine peninsula, over the hills from the famous resorts of the Amalfi Coast. In mythology, this area is often identified as the land of the sirens, beautiful maidens of the sea whose song lured mariners to their doom.
Sorrento is built on a historic site settled from prehistoric times onwards. There was a Greek town here, and then the Roman town of Sorrentum. A few relics of these times can be seen in the town museum. This was an obvious site to build a settlement, surrounded by low cliffs on one side and ravines on the other. It had a natural ring of defences, as well as access by sea and a fertile hinterland. Nowadays parts of the ravine are filled in – a bridge and town gate were demolished to make way for the modern town’s heart, Piazza Tasso. But even without these physical defences, Sorrento has managed to keep its historic town centre reasonably intact. Although many properties are now converted to tourist businesses, the mellow old buildings still help create the delightful authentic atmosphere which gives Sorrento a big advantage over modern beach resorts.
Sorrento and its sister towns, Sant’Agnello, Piano di Sorrento and Meta di Sorrento now spread all the way along the large plateau that was once primarily agricultural. The towns are all separated from the sea by low cliffs, and there are hardly any beaches. Sea access is mostly from wooden boardwalks built out over the water, although there are a few scraps of sandy beach along the coast and some attractive coves and pebble beaches around the peninsula.
Sorrento is a pleasant town for pottering around. Its pedestrian lanes, little tourist boutiques and restaurants all make it an easy and enjoyable place to dawdle and enjoy the holiday atmosphere. Visitors line the railings in the Villa Comunale park to enjoy grand views towards Vesuvius, Naples and Ischia and watch fiery sunsets behind the headland or wander down to the old fishing quarter, Marina Grande, to sample the seafood or take a boat trip with fishermen.
Read on for more information on things to see and do in Sorrento.
Chiesa di San Francesco / The Church of St. Francis
From the outside, the Church of St. Francis has an air of modernity in contrast to other more ornate churches in Sorrento. The simple white façade was rebuilt in marble in 1926. However, the present portal, which dates back to the fifteen hundreds, was preserved. The church itself is much older. Originally it was an ancient oratory founded by Saint Antonino, the Patron Saint of Sorrento, who dedicated the church to St. Martin of Tours. In the Fourteenth Century, Franciscan Friars transformed it into a church, which was later reconstructed in the baroque style and embellished with stucco decorations.
A convent and a cloister stand by the church, both also dedicated to St. Francis. The cloister is a marvellous atmospheric mix of many architectural styles, from the pagan era to the Middle Ages, and is a delightfully peaceful place to visit. Its evocative architecture, secluded tranquility and seasonal flowers create a unique environment for contemplation and quiet, far from the hubbub of the city.
The picturesque Marina Grande has the atmosphere of a forgotten world. Despite being immensely popular with tourists, it has maintained its rustic charm, original identity, and sense of community. It’s really a fishing village set around a small bay and features several hotels and restaurants right on the shoreline.
Restaurants, homes and shops, rising along the curve of the rocks and the colourful booths on the pier, are all architecturally consistent, creating a harmonious neon free scene, remaining one of Italy’s untouched treasures.
The secluded atmosphere stems from its sheltered position, created by the promontory which separates the city of Sorrento from this delightful hidden harbour. The promontory was once the site of a Roman villa belonging to the Emperor Augustus’ nephew.
The harbour’s community, unsurprisingly, is close knit, entrenched in time honoured customs, and proud of its heritage, maintaining a “cottage industry” approach to its ancient and primary source of survival, namely fishing.
As with all ports, it was also a place of trade, connecting Sorrento and the sea. Since the Third Century B.C. a city gate, constructed of limestone blocks, stood in Sorrento’s walls to admit traders and visitors from the harbour to the city. Legend tells how, in 1558, late one night, a slave in league with Turkish pirates, opened the ancient door between the port and the town, and the town was mercilessly sacked.
The Gozzi Sorrentini, characteristic hand made wooden boats with triangular sails and a light manoeuvrable structure, specifically adapted for fishing, were once crafted in the port. Although “Gozzo” is a generic term for wooden vessels, those made in Sorrento were the vintage version, in a boat-building tradition established over centuries.
The scene in the port at sunset, as fishermen clean their nets and wrap up their day is evocative of a pre industrial lifestyle which has all but vanished from shores across the world.
Piazza Torquato Tasso
Dedicated to a poet and a patron of the same name, Piazza Torquato Tasso lies at the very heart of Sorrento. The Sorrentini are proud of their native born poet, said to be one of the greatest late Renaissance Italian writers, so they named the piazza after him, erecting his statue there also.
The square, created in 1800, replaced outmoded fortifications which had stood on the site since the turbulent Fifteen hundreds. Its high position, which in the past was advantageous for defence, now affords pleasant views of the city and sea beyond. Saint Antonino, who took refuge in Sorrento during the Lombard invasions, became the city’s patron, and now also has a commemorative statue in the square.
Piazza Torquato Tasso is a spacious meeting point of several roads, as well as a focal point of the city. As evening approaches and the working day draws to a close, it becomes a pleasant place for an evening stroll for locals and visitors alike.
Via San Cesarea
In ancient Times, via San Cesareo was the central street of the Roman city of Sorrento. It seems that, despite the passing of the centuries, little has changed. In the past it was an urban thoroughfare and now it is the place to go for some retail therapy and to stock up on souvenirs and gifts for people back home. Shops here sell locally-made crafts and a delicious range of regional food and drinks: olive oil, ricotta, smoked scamorza cheese, walnuts and limoncello.
Littered with bars and restaurants, those who love to shop, till they drop, can collapse and recharge anytime on an Italian culinary delicacy.
The portals and façades dominating the street, for the most part are Neapolitan Baroque, dating back to the Seventeenth-Eighteenth Centuries.
For cool a moment and a chance to admire Baroque art and architecture, the Church of the Madonna Addolorata, which has stood since the eleven hundreds, may be worth a visit.
Located on Corso Italia, the main road in Sorrento, the cathedral and its clock tower is one of the town’s more beautiful landmarks. It dates from the 11th century and was rebuilt in the 15th century in a Romanesque style. The dramatic interior has a painted ceiling, frescoes and a stunning altar.
Sorrento’s cathedral features a striking exterior fresco, a triple-tiered bell tower, four classical columns and an elegant majolica clock. Inside, take note of the marble bishop’s throne (1573), as well as both the wooden choir stalls and stations of the cross, decorated in the local intarsio (marquetry) style. Although the cathedral’s original structure dates from the 11th century, the building has been altered several times, most recently in the early 20th century when the current facade was added.
Park Villa Communale
The largest public park in Sorrento, the Villa Comunale sits on a cliff top overlooking the entire Bay of Naples and offers benches, flowers, palms, and people-watching, plus a seamless vista that stretches from Capri to Vesuvius. From here steps lead down to Sorrento’s main harbour, the Marina Grande.
A small and charming park that almost resembles a town square, the Villa Comunale is actually a leading attraction, not because of the exotic planting, seasonal flowers and large trees providing shade from the Italian sun, but because of the panoramic views. Tourists come to the Villa Comunale in their droves and are never disappointed, bringing their cameras to record the seemingly endless coastal scenery around the Bay of Naples. Apart from the many yachts sailing by, other sights to look for include the Marina San Francesco, which is located almost directly below the Villa Comunale, the Marina Piccola, the Marina Grande and even Mount Vesuvius itself. The Chiesa di San Francesco is very close by.