In Greek mythology, Sorrento was home to the sirens, who lured passing sailors onto the rocks with their beautiful songs. And it still pulls in the visitors today – though today it’s the panoramic views across the Bay of Naples, sunny weather, fantastic food and laid-back atmosphere that do the luring. I first visited Sorrento a few years back and totally fell in love with the town and couldn’t wait to go back, and I’m not alone. It’s probably the most popular holiday spot on the Neapolitan Riviera, so you can’t exactly call it an undiscovered gem, but although it might be a bit touristy in spots you can’t help being charmed by the town. Here are my top tips for what to see, do and (most importantly) eat and drink on a visit to Sorrento.
Wander the backstreets
Sorrento’s centro storico (historic centre) is a maze of narrow streets which run back from the cliffside – they’re supposedly pedestrianised but don’t be surprised if you see someone trying to squeeze a car down there. The medieval alleyways twist and turn past trattorias, bars and shops. Forget the map and keep walking and you never know what you might discover – a hidden church, a fantastic gelateria. As well as the usual tourist shops there’s also an artisan district where you can buy local crafts from workshops making lace, leather or intarsia – inlaid wood carvings. To find out more about the wood carving and see some impressive examples, visit the Museo Bottega della Tarsia Lignea in an 18th century palazzo.
Take a dip in the bay
With its steep cliffs, Sorrento doesn’t have a beach as such, but down along the waterfront there are piers jutting out into the water where you can swim or sunbathe during the summer months. Most are owned by hotels or restaurants so you might have to buy a drink or hire a deckchair to bag a prime spot. But there are a few patches of sand in between where you can dip your feet in the Bay of Naples, or if you walk around the headland there’s a sandier stretch in the quieter bay at Marina Grande. To get down to the seafront there’s a road down to the harbour from Piazza Tasso, and if you don’t fancy the climb back up then there’s a lift cut into the rocks that will carry you back up to the top for €1.
Watch the sun set
Sorrento’s cliffside setting is one of its biggest charms. And when the sun starts to go down, the bustle of Sorrentine life halts for a few minutes as people gather along the cliffside to watch the sky turn red and the sun dip into the sea. Head to the Villa Communale Park for a great view across the bay towards Vesuvius. There’s often a busker to provide some musical accompaniment as well as a small cafe. Or if you prefer your sunset with a glass of prosecco, head to the terrace at the swanky Bellvue Sirene hotel. The hotel is built on the remains of a Roman villa and its five-star rooms will set you back €450, but if you want a taste of luxury on a budget then non-guests can also stop by for drinks in their terrace bar.
Feast on local produce
Food and drink are an immensely important part of life in Sorrento. The area’s volcanic soil produces tasty fresh produce like olives, tomatoes, peaches, cherries and oranges. These are used in delicious simple dishes like caprese salad with tomatoes, basil and buffalo mozzarella, wafer-thin pizzas, spaghetti vongole with clams, and Delizia al Limone – cream-covered lemon cakes. Some of our favourite spots were L’Antica Trattoria for a sophisticated take on local specialities, Inn Bufalito for fantastic mozzarella and Cafè Latino for its great wine list in a candlelit garden of lemon and orange trees. And don’t forget a gelato stop – there are gelateria scattered across town or you can learn to make your own at Gelateria Davide.
Down a limoncello
Lemons are big business around Sorrento. They grow in pots or gardens wherever there’s space in the town as well as in huge netted orchards on the outskirts, and there’s even a local variety of giant lemons here that are the size of a grapefruit. You can find them in soaps and bath oils, but their most famous use is in the limoncello liqueur, whose bright yellow bottles fill the shops here. Made by soaking lemon peel in alcohol, limoncello is usually served chilled as a digestif after dinner, and at about 32% alcohol it has a bit of a kick. If the real deal is a bit much you can also find a gentler limoncello flavoured gelato.
Take a day trip
Sorrento is in a prime central spot for visiting a host of other sights in the area. To the north are the ruined cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, easy to get to on the Circumvesuviana train line (30 minutes to Pompeii or 50 minutes to Herculaneum), or you can climb up to the crater of Vesuvius. To the east is the spectacular Amalfi Coast, though the cliff-hugging coast road to get there can get gridlocked. To avoid the crowds you can take a ferry from Sorrento harbour to Amalfi or Positano (30 or 50 minutes) or head across the bay to the glamorous islands of Capri and Ischia (20 minutes to Capri or one hour to Ischia). Or you could even charter a boat to explore some of the hidden coves nestled beneath the cliffs.