Sitting astride the gorge that once divided cliff-clinging Sorrento in two, you’ll find Piazza Tasso, the central living room of the town. Piazza Tasso is where the locals come to see and be seen, to sit in cafes and bars, or to catch a bus; it all happens here. During the day it’s a busy traffic hub, but at night the traffic is limited and the residents take the space back from the cars and buses. The square is named after the Renaissance poet, Torquato Tasso, born in Sorrento and due to be crowned King of the Poets by the Pope until he died mere days before the ceremony. A statue of the great man stands in one corner of the piazza. Around the square you’ll find the lovely Baroque Church del Carmine Maggiore , and the Palazzo Correale, an 18th century mansion built around a 15th century house owned by the aristocratic Correale family. Leading from the square is Sorrento’s main shopping street, Via San Cesareo, a busy pedestrianized commercial hub full of lemon-based treats.
Sorrento’s Cloister of San Francesco is an oasis of tranquility steps away from the historic town’s bustling central piazza of Sant’Antonino. The cloister unites a religious complex of seventh-century monastery and a late-medieval church, both dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, and is a showpiece of various architectural styles from pre-Roman through Arabic to medieval.
In the 14th century Franciscan friars from the monastery repurposed an ancient oratory into their church; it has some Baroque features and its simple white façade was rebuilt in 1926. Inside there are several richly decorated chapels adjoining the single nave and in 1992, a bronze statue of St Francis was placed outside the church; it is the work of Roman sculptor Alfiero Nena. But the cloister, built at the same time as the church, is the star turn here; its tranquil gardens are filled with bougainvillea and vines that climb over arched arcades.
Ravello is a tiny village, with only about 2,500 permanent residents, but it has a history and cultural life that belie its size. The Romans founded the city in the 6th century, escaping the barbarians and no doubt appreciating the lovely views Ravello offers.
The annual Ravello Festival is one of Italy’s finest and celebrates the music of one of Ravello’s greatest fans, the German composer, Richard Wagner, who was inspired by the architecture of the magnificent Villa Rufolo when he stayed there in 1880. Since then the Arab influenced villa and its splendid garden has hosted luminaries such as Jacqueline Kennedy and Hillary Clinton.
The other villa worth seeing is Villa Cimbrone, dating from 1905. Also of note is the Cathedral of San Pantaleone, dating originally from the 11th century. Less hectic than some of the other towns along this coast, Ravello is the place to go for some elegant respite from the madding crowds. It lies only a few miles from Amalfi.
The Emerald Grotto on the beautiful Amalfi coast lies south-east of Sorrento along a wondrously dramatic coastal road that swoops up cliffs and dives around switchback roads with typical Italian charm and recklessness. Discovered in 1932 by a local fisherman, the grotto is an underground cavern famous for its translucent, turquoise-blue waters, which sparkle as the sun’s rays percolate underground. Encrusted with dripping limestone stalactite and stalagmite formations, the cave was submerged by the Mediterranean Sea during the last Ice Age, spanning 45 meters (147 feet) by 32 meters (105 feet) and in places reaching a height of 24 meters (79 feet). It is best visited between noon and 3pm, when sunlight filters through the grotto entrance to create ever-changing colors dancing across the waves. A Nativity scene was created underwater in the cave in 1956 and every Christmas divers come to place flowers around the crib.
Salerno itself is pretty and interesting but really it is nothing compared to the towns further along the Amalfi Coast. Amalfi itself lies 16 miles (26km) west of Salerno and the road there is dotted with small towns. Another 10 miles (16km) west is the jewel in the crown, Positano, with its lovely pastel houses clinging to the cliffs. The road is exhilarating and winding with wonderful views. The beaches along this stretch of coast are renowned for their romantic beauty.
South of Salerno is Paestum, site of UNESCO-listed Greek temples, some rivaling Athens’ acropolis. Buses between Salerno and Paestum are cheap and regular through the day, and take about 1 hour and 20 minutes each way. Alternately, a taxi will take you, but negotiate a price and get them to wait for you. These ruins are a highlight of this coast.
Sorrento perches high on the clifftops and is best known for its shopping, its proximity to the gorgeous Amalfi Coast and also to Pompeii. Sorrento itself has a lovely old town to explore complete with historic churches such as Basilica di Sant’Antonino (patron saint of the sea-faring), and piazzas to sip coffee, watch and be seen. Via San Cesareo is the busy pedestrianized commercial hub, proudly selling high fashion and local produce such as the lemon liquor Limoncello.
The cruise tender will drop you off at Marina Piccolo and from there it is a short if steep walk into central Sorrento. Alternately there are minibuses or taxis.
Sorrento itself is a pretty town, if quite tourist-oriented. But some of the very best sights of southern Italy are easily reached from Sorrento and highly recommended. Pompeii is world-famous as the town which stopped literally in its tracks when Vesuvius erupted in AD79.