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It's almost a pity that most cruise passengers use Sorrento as a mere transportation hub, pausing just long enough to catch a bus, train or ferry to big-name destinations like Pompeii, Capri and Naples. The clifftop town -- with its al fresco cafes, 19th-century villas-turned-hotels, warrens of old city shopping streets and coastal views -- is a picturesque place to spend a relaxing day ashore. Sorrento offers cruisers a delectable taste of Italy that will leave you hungrily anticipating later ports of call along the Italian coast or yearning to return to take a bigger bite out of the scenic Amalfi Coast.
Sorrento wears its history on its sleeve -- a 10th-century church here, a 14th-century cloister there, a 15th-century loggia across the way. The area was first settled by the Greeks who called their new home "the city of Sirens" -- where in mythology, those lovely mermaids lured seamen to death with their pretty songs. In Homer's Odyssey, Ulysses stuffed the ears of his crew with wax and bound himself to the mast so he could hear the tempting tunes as they passed by. Even so, Sorrento's alluring call enticed to its shores a number of different empires, whose wealthy saw the area as an ideal seaside playground. Roman emperors built vacation homes here, and the appeal carried into the 18th and 19th centuries when Europe's elite came here on their Grand Tours and the literati of the time wrote sang the praises of this seaside spot.
Today, Sorrento continues to be a popular tourist destination and the perfect spot for leisurely independent exploration. From the tender piers at Marina Piccola, it's a short bus ride (or more arduous walk) up the cliffside to Piazza Tasso, the main town square. From there, you can wander through the small tourist center, pausing to admire the inlaid-wood decorations in the Duomo, spend your euros on a leather bag or lemon-flavored chocolates, or simply admire the pastel-colored villas. There's no shortage of scenic overlooks for photos of your ship or the Amalfi Coast, and weary sightseers can rest their feet and fill their bellies in any number of al fresco cafes (try a wood-oven pizza for a true taste of the Campania region).
You certainly can't go wrong with day trips to Sorrento's more famous neighbors. A tour of the ruined city of Pompeii (or less famous Herculaneum) lets visitors experience how ancient Romans lived, worked and played. The Isle of Capri is a playground for the rich, but the casual tourist can enjoy dramatic views and upscale shopping from the island's picturesque towns. Cruise ships offer a variety of tours to all of these attractions, yet independent travelers should know that most day-trip destinations are easily reached on your own by Sorrento's trains and ferries.
If you do head out of town, try to come back early. Sorrento's pleasures can be sampled in only an hour or two, and a stroll through the town will be a wonderful cap to your day on the Amalfi Coast.
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Other Western Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Barcelona • Cannes • Capri • Corsica (Ajaccio) • Elba • Florence (Livorno) • Fuerteventura • Genoa • Gibraltar • Ibiza • Korcula • La Palma • Lanzarote • Las Palmas • Lisbon • Madeira (Funchal) • Malta (Valletta) • Marseille • Monaco • Naples • Nice • Palermo • Palma de Mallorca • Portofino • Rome (Civitavecchia) • Saint-Tropez • Sardinia • Sete • Seville (Cadiz) • Sorrento • Taormina (Messina) • Tenerife • Tunis (La Goulette) • Venice • Villefranche
With lemon trees growing right in the city, products like limoncello and lemon-flavored candies and cookies are great local buys. For a more expensive souvenir, look for inlaid wood items (jewelry boxes, picture frames, etc.), as well as lace and embroidery. Jewelry made of red coral is said to improve fertility. For a very Italian souvenir, leather bags, gloves and belts make for fashionable gifts and mementoes of your trip.
Italian is the official language, but English is widely spoken in the tourist areas, and English-language menus are available in many cafes.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The euro is the currency in use throughout Italy; for current currency conversion rates, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. There's a currency exchange office but no ATM at the Marina Piccola tender pier. Once up the hill, ATMs can be found in Piazza Tasso (northeast corner of the square) and just off Piazza S'Antonino at the intersection with Via San Francesco. Currency exchange offices are much more prevalent than actual banks.
Where You're Docked
Sorrento is a tender port, and one that is easily canceled if rough seas don't permit the tenders to run. Tenders dock at Marina Piccola, which is also where the hydrofoil to Capri departs.
Marina Piccola is located at the bottom of the hill upon which the main town of Sorrento perches. Within steps of the tender drop-off are souvenir and tobacco shops, a currency exchange office and several cafes. There's also a ticket booth where you can buy ferry tickets to destinations like Capri, Naples and Positano, and a staging area to catch a bus or cab.
By Foot: The walk from the marina to town takes about 20 minutes and is mostly uphill, involving some 200 steps (not recommended for the faint of leg). While the walk from Sorrento back down to Marina Piccola isn't too bad (the steps start right after the scenic overlook on Via de Maio), most people will prefer to catch a bus up from the tender pier to the main town. If you're not venturing beyond Sorrento proper, you can easily walk to all the attractions, shops and cafes of the city center.
By Bus: From Marina Piccola, the blue bus (buy tickets onboard) heads directly to Piazza Tasso, Sorrento's main square. The orange bus (buy tickets at one of the nearby shops) goes to the Circumvesuviana train station. Intercity buses to destinations along the Amalfi Coast also depart from the train station, but be warned that the roads are winding and in high season, traffic can be heavy. CitySightseeing Sorrento offers a hop-on, hop-off bus tour in the greater Sorrento area, as well as excursions to Ravello, Minori/Maiori and Positano. Buses depart from Piazza de Curtis by the main train station; you can also catch the hop-on, hop-off bus in Piazza Tasso. You can buy tickets onboard or in authorized agencies, such as hotels.
By Train: The Circumvesuviana Railway runs from Sorrento to Naples, with stops in Pompeii and Herculaneum. It's very easy to do independent exploration by train. Take the orange bus from the tender pier to the railway station; otherwise, it's a short walk from Piazza Tasso.
By Ferry: Catch a ferry or hydrofoil from Marina Piccola to Capri, Naples, Positano or other destinations. Both the ticket booth and the departure point are steps from the tender drop-off. The hydrofoil to Capri should take about 25 minutes.
By Taxi: You can hire a taxi from stands at Marina Piccola or in Piazza Tasso, if you wish to take a cab to nearby destinations or the Amalfi Coast. Be sure to agree on a price before you start driving.
By Car: Various local and international car rental agencies have offices in Sorrento, such as Auto Europe, Europcar and Hertz. However, with summer traffic, you're better off taking a ferry or train if you can.
Watch Out For
Sorrento appears not to believe in crosswalks, so take care when crossing main roads such as Piazza Tasso. It's not always obvious where the best place to cross the street is, especially with so many cars and Vespas darting about in multiple directions. When you see a clearing, walk quickly and confidently across the road and oncoming traffic should stop.
If you plan on touring the Amalfi Coast independently, pad your schedule with extra travel time, especially during the summer high season. Battling nightmarish traffic on your own could easily cause you to miss your ship. If you want to venture out of town, this is one port where shore excursions can be a lifesaver.
Because it is so massive (some 66 acres), the highlight, must-do regional attraction, Pompeii, is best viewed with a guide -- such as on a shore excursion. But for those who want to go on their own, there is a commuter train that runs frequently from Sorrento to Naples with a stop near the ancient site (ask at the train station for specifics). Pompeii was once a city of 20,000 inhabitants before it was destroyed by lava eruption in 79 A.D. The majority of the city has been excavated and the ruins are amazing. On a tour you will see enough ruins and marble streets to visualize a commercial center with shops, temples, baths, theaters, villas and some 22 houses of ill repute (one marked by a still-visible symbol of a male body part...). During the drive you can view Vesuvius, the still-active volcano.
Driving the steep and winding Amalfi Coast, even on a bus, can be a white-knuckle experience, but the views are worth it. You can catch a bus to Positano, the well-known hideaway of artists and writers (including John Steinbeck). The town is now filled with boutiques and fancy hotels but still a pretty place to visit -- pastel-colored houses spill down a cliff to the sea. Be prepared for a leg workout; the streets are steep. Also note the hourly buses can get very crowded, and occasionally people get bumped -- allow plenty of time to get back to your ship. You can also catch a boat to Positano from Sorrento, with boats making the 45-minute trip about four times a day. Taxis between Positano and Sorrento are about $75 each way.
The island of Capri (www.capritourism.com), located just across the Bay of Naples, has charming villages (Anacapri and Capri) full of boutiques and sidewalk cafes and is a fun destination for easy-going sightseeing. Other diversions include a boat trip to the Blue Grotto (daily, regular departures from 9 a.m. throughout the day, departs from Marina Grande); it's a fabulous sea cave. Also check out Villa San Michele (Anacapri, daily from 9 a.m. - 6 p.m.). The 18th-century home of a Swedish physician, this elegant villa has lovely furnishings, classical art and a gorgeous garden. To get to Capri, take the hydrofoil from Marina Piccola; the trip across the Bay of Naples takes 25 minutes each way, and boats dock at Marina Grande on the island.
Naples is the biggest city in the area around Sorrento, and its primary tourist attraction is the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, also known as the National Archeological Museum (Piazza Museo, open from 9 a.m. - 8 p.m., last entry 7 p.m., closed Tuesday) which, according to popular opinion, has better displays of artifacts from Pompeii than Pompeii itself. The museum also features a truly world-class collection of classical sculpture, Egyptian antiquities, murals and mosaics. Other historic sites include the 13th-century Castel Nuovo (Piazza Municipio, 9 a.m. - 7 p.m., closed Sundays) and the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte (Via Miano 2, 8:30 a.m. - 7:30 p.m., closed Mondays), which was an 18th-century palace and has now been restored and transformed; it showcases an excellent collection of Renaissance art. Plus, when in Naples, be sure to eat pizza -- you can't go wrong with a traditional margherita pizza (mozzarella, tomato and basil).
Been There, Done That
Stay in Sorrento. For those looking for some exercise, there's decent, scenic hiking in the green hills above Sorrento. Trails are marked and the local tourist office (at Via de Maio, 35) can offer specific advice.
Though few people come here to look at churches, Chiesa di San Francesco (the Cloister of St. Francis; Via San Francesco; open 9 a.m. - 6 p.m. daily) is worth a peek. It dates from the 14th century and offers pretty archways and a lovely garden. The convent is also an art school that regularly offers exhibits. The nearby Villa Comunale gardens are a pleasant setting for resting weary feet and getting panoramic views of the Bay of Naples. Another quick stop is the Duomo (Cathedral) of San Filippo and San Giacomo (Corso Italia and Via Giuliani), with its beautiful marble columns and Renaissance artwork on the ceiling. Sorrento is known for its inlaid woodwork, and the cathedral has intricately designed wooden depictions of the Stations of the Cross.
The Museo Correale di Terranova (50 Via Correale; closed Tuesdays, open other days 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.) is located in a former palace that today houses ancient works of art and a whole bunch of antiques, including locally produced inlaid wood products. The gardens are also worth a peek.
The best areas for window-shopping are Piazza Tasso and the narrow Via San Cesareo. The streets are lined with shops selling everything from jewelry to inlaid wood products, limoncello, leather goods, paintings, Murano glass, produce, ceramics and souvenirs. Leather goods are a great buy in Sorrento; glove and pocketbook shop/manufacturer Concetta Pane (Via S. Francesco 14/16, also Via S. Cesareo 6/8/10 and 16/20) also sells belts, shoes and wallets. The best-known maker of inlaid furniture is Gargiulo & Jannuzzi, Piazza Tasso, which opened in 1863. Keep in mind stores are open mostly 9:30 a.m. - 1 p.m., and again from 4 p.m. - 8 p.m. And if all the retail therapy has you hungry or thirsty, just pull up a chair at one of the cafes along the way.
Herculaneum (open daily from 8:30 a.m. - 7:30 p.m., www.pompeiisites.org), like Pompeii, was destroyed during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. This smaller town of about 5,000 inhabitants has only been partially excavated, but you can often see even more intriguing details than are available at Pompeii, such as wooden beams, furniture and carbonized papyrus scrolls.
Sorrento's tourist areas are chock-a-block with restaurants, from cafes lining the various piazzas to upscale restaurants in fancy hotels. You can't go wrong with pizza (some of the best in Italy is found in Naples and its surrounding towns) or fresh fish. Skip dessert at lunch and stop later in the afternoon for a gelato (creamy Italian ice cream) or a taste of locally made limoncello (Italian lemon liqueur) at a bar. Most restaurants will charge a coperta (cover charge) of a few euros for bread and the privilege of sitting down; this is separate from the service charge or gratuity, which may or may not be included.
The cafes on Sorrento's Piazza Tasso tend to be expensive, not to mention crowded, but just off the square is Bar del Carmine, Piazza Tasso, serving pizza and salads, with outdoor seating. We enjoyed the anchovy and olive pizza and a caprese salad. Open for lunch and dinner.
Ristorante Don Vincenzo (southeast corner of Piazza Tasso, open noon to midnight) is where you'll find many of your ship's crewmembers headed for lunch, so you know it's got great food at reasonable prices. Salads, pastas and pizzas are great midday options -- portions are big, so one salad and one pizza could easily feed two people. Sit outdoors for the best people-watching.
The twin restaurants of O'Canonico and Pizzeria Aurora (Piazza Tasso 7 and 10/11) give visitors the option of more upscale or more casual dining from the same kitchen. O'Canonico serves up traditional cuisine, including homemade pasta, fish and meat dishes, and has an award-winning wine cellar. The more casual Pizzeria Aurora offers an enormous selection of toppings for its wood-oven pizzas. Both restaurants offer outdoor seating, perfect for enjoying warm weather and life in Sorrento's main square.
For a splurge, try La Basilica (Via Sant'Antonino 28, open noon to midnight, closed Mondays). Prix-fixe and a la carte lunch menus offer a selection of starters, pasta and mains, as well as vegetables, dessert and coffee. Seafood is the specialty here -- try the ravioli stuffed with fish.
A fancier place to sample the local cuisine is the 200-year-old L'Antica Trattoria (Via P.R. Giuliani 33) where the specialty is its antipasti. Open daily, noon - 3 p.m., and 7 a.m. - 11:30 p.m. Reservations are recommended.
You can't walk a block in Sorrento without stumbling across a gelato shop, but for the largest selection of flavors, head straight for Davide Il Gelato (Via Padre R. Giuliani 39). Typical flavors like chocolate and strawberry are augmented by more unusual selections like noci di Sorrento (Sorrento walnuts), delizia al limone (lemon cream) or Ferrero Rocher (tastes like the milk chocolate-hazelnut candies).
Staying in Touch
Internet cafes can be found at Sorrento Info (Via Tasso 19) and Bar Insolito (Via degli Aranci 49). You simply don't stumble across Internet cafes in Sorrento (who'd think a trendy-looking bar would be hiding Internet stations within?) so if you're planning on e-mailing, jot down these addresses before you go.
Editor's Note: Due to an anti-terrorism law passed in Italy in 2005, all passengers wishing to use the internet in a public facility must present an internationally recognized document (or a passport) to the establishment providing public communication services.
Best for First-Timers: A full-day "Pompeii and Amalfi Coast" tour begins with a 1.5-hour drive to Pompeii. A guide will take you through the streets of city, past temples, private homes and law courts all dating to 79 A.D. Afterwards, drive past mountain villages and stop at a five-star hotel for lunch with views of the Gulf of Naples. The drive home will pass by Positano, a fishing village and artists' haven.
Best for Foodies: Several cruise lines offer their version of a half-day "Taste of Sorrento" tour. Travel to a local farm, where you'll taste cheese, olive oil and limoncello. After a tour of the farm, enjoy a scenic drive through the Sorrento hills and by the Amalfi Coast, before returning to Sorrento.
Best for Return Visitors: The all-day "Island of Capri" tour takes guests by hydrofoil to Capri, an island favored by celebrities and the well-to-do. On arrival, board a minibus for a drive to Anacapri, where sightseeing options include a ride up Mount Solaro via a chair lift for 360-degree panoramic views, or a visit to the Villa San Michele to see its gardens and collection of antiquities. After a short period of free time, guests will transfer to Capri Town to have lunch, go shopping or wander through the central square, before re-boarding the hydrofoil for the return to Sorrento.
Best Choice for View-Seekers: Take a drive on the spectacular Amalfi Coast, which is considered one of the most scenic drives anywhere. Bus, mini-bus or private driver tours are available (our feeling, the smaller the vehicle, the more romantic the trip). The tour will include a stop in lovely Positano, a town with Moorish-style white buildings that literally cling to a cliff above the sea. A lunch here is a lunch to remember, particularly if you dine at the famed -- and expensive -- San Pietro Hotel, which has its own seaside chapel and breathtaking views.
For More Information
On the Web: Sorrento Tourism: +39 081 807 4033
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Italy Ports
The Independent Traveler: Italy
--by Fran Wenograd Golden, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor.
--All photos are courtesy of www.sorrentotourism.com.