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 alfresco 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 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 alfresco 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.
Sorrento appears not to believe in pedestrian crossings, so take care when crossing main roads such as around 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.
As is common throughout Italy, opening hours are subject to frequent change, fluctuation and whim. We've done our best to list hours accurately, but be sure to confirm before setting out. The same goes for sailing times of ferries and hydrofoils. No matter what a sign says, confirm that the boat you think will get you back in time is really going to be sailing. Even confirm that you're standing in the right spot to catch your boat, train or bus. (We once watched a Sorrento ferry sail off from the dock labeled "Napoli," only to discover it had been our ferry to Capri; at least all the waiting Italians were fooled, too!)
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, near 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 Sant'Antonino at the intersection with Via San Francesco. Currency exchange offices are much more prevalent than actual banks.
Italian is the official language, but English is widely spoken in the tourist areas, and English-language menus are available in many cafes.
With lemon trees growing right in the city, products like limoncello and lemon-flavored candies and cookies are great local buys. 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 limoncello, paintings, Murano glass, produce, ceramics and souvenirs.
For a more expensive souvenir, look for inlaid wood items (jewelry boxes, picture frames, etc.), as well as lace and embroidery. The best-known maker of inlaid furniture is Gargiulo & Jannuzzi (Piazza Tasso, 011 39 81 8781041) which opened in 1863.
For a very Italian souvenir, leather bags, gloves and belts make for fashionable gifts and mementos of your trip. Glove and pocketbook shop/manufacturer Concetta Pane (14/16 Via S. Francesco, 6/8/10 Via S. Cesareo and 16/20 Via S. Cesareo; 011 39 81 877 0003) also sells belts, shoes and wallets.
Keep in mind stores are open mostly 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., and again from 4 p.m. to 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.
--By Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor; updated by Gayle Keck, Cruise Critic contributor