Best of Italy - Rick Steves (2016)
Naples, Sorrento, and the Amalfi Coast
Italy intensifies as you plunge deeper. If you like Italy as far south as Rome, keep going—it gets better. If Italy is getting on your nerves, don’t go farther. Naples is Italy in the extreme—its best (the birthplace of pizza and Sophia Loren) and its worst (home of the Camorra, Naples’ “family” of organized crime).
Naples is also the springboard for a region full of varied, fascinating sights. Just beyond Naples are the ancient Roman ruins of Pompeii, in the shadow of the brooding volcano, Mount Vesuvius. A few more miles down the road is the pleasant resort town of Sorrento and the island of Capri. And plunging farther south, you’ll reach the dramatic scenery of the Amalfi Coast.
NAPLES, SORRENTO, AND THE AMALFI COAST IN 3 DAYS
Naples, with its incomparable Archaeological Museum (closed Tue), makes a memorable half-day stop between Rome and Sorrento. The resort town of Sorrento is a pleasant home base with easy transit connections to the surrounding sights: Pompeii, Capri, and the Amalfi Coast.
The following plan assumes you’re heading south to Naples (from Rome, Orvieto, or Florence), but it also works if you fly into Naples to start your trip.
Day 1: For a quick stop in Naples, visit the Archaeological Museum, follow my self-guided Naples walk, and eat a pizza. Then head to Sorrento, your home base.
Day 2: Choose between busing along the Amalfi Coast or boating to Capri. Or add another day to fit in both.
Day 3: See the unforgettable ruins of Pompeii as a day trip from Sorrento, or en route heading north (to Rome or beyond).
This chapter provides you with the necessary information to see any of the sights on your own. But if you want to take a tour of all or part of this region, consider Naples-based Mondo Guide’s shared tours for my readers, which give you the luxury of a private guide at a fraction of the usual cost because you’re sharing the expense with my readers. I don’t receive a cut from the tours; I set this up with Mondo Guide to help my readers have the most economical experience in this region, where transportation, particularly along the Amalfi Coast, can be challenging and time-consuming.
Mondo Guide offers these tours daily from April through October: a walking tour of Naples (€25, 3 hours), a walking tour of Pompeii (€15, admission extra, 2 hours), and two all-day excursions from Sorrento: an Amalfi Coast van tour (€50) and a boat trip to Capri (€80; tel. 081-751-3290, mobile 340-460-5254, www.mondoguide.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
▲▲ Naples Lively, gritty port city featuring vibrant street life and a top archaeological museum with treasures from Pompeii. See here.
▲▲▲Pompeii Famous ruins of the ancient Roman town, stopped in its tracks by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. See here.
▲▲ Sorrento Seaside resort port and transit hub, serving as a good home base for the region. See here.
▲▲ Capri Island getaway boasting the Blue Grotto, a short cruise from Sorrento. See here.
▲▲▲The Amalfi Coast String of seafront villages tied together by a scenic, cliff-hanging road, overlooking the shimmering Mediterranean. See here.
Reservations are required. For specifics, see their website, www.mondoguide.com, and select the “Shared Tours for Rick Steves” tab. Use your credit-card number to reserve a spot, though you’ll pay cash for the tour. If you must cancel, email them more than three days in advance or you’ll be billed.
Each tour requires a minimum of six participants. You’ll receive email confirmation if your tour will or will not run. Confirmed departures are continually updated on their website.
Neapolis (“new city”) was a thriving Greek commercial center 2,500 years ago. Today, it remains Italy’s third-largest city with more than one million people. Naples impresses visitors with one of Europe’s top archaeological museums and, of course, the best pizza anywhere.
The pulse of Italy throbs in Naples. It’s appalling and captivating at the same time. Watching the police try to enforce traffic sanity is almost comical in Italy’s grittiest, most polluted, and most crime-ridden city. But this tangled mess still somehow manages to breathe, laugh, and sing—with a joyful Italian accent.
A little Naples goes a long way; if you’re not comfortable in chaotic and congested cities, think twice before spending the night here. Those intrigued by the city’s street life will enjoy staying over. The city is cheap by Italian standards: Splurging on a sane and comfortable hotel is a worthwhile investment. On summer afternoons, life slows and churches, museums, and shops close as the temperature soars. The city comes back to life early in the evening.
Naples is set deep inside a large, curving bay, with Mount Vesuvius looming just five miles away. Although Naples is a sprawling city, its fairly compact core contains the most interesting sights. The tourist’s Naples is a triangle, with its points at the Centrale train station in the east, the Archaeological Museum to the west, and the Piazza del Plebiscito and the port to the south. Steep hills rise above this historic core, including San Martino, capped with a mighty fortress.
Tourist Information: Central Naples has multiple TIs, none of them particularly helpful—just grab a map and browse the brochures (www.inaples.it). There are TIs in the Centrale train station, operated by a private agency (daily 9:00-18:00, near track 23, tel. 081-268-779); by the entrance to the Galleria Umberto I shopping mall (Mon-Sat 9:00-17:00, Sun 9:00-13:00, tel. 081-402-394); and along Spaccanapoli, across from the Church of Gesù Nuovo (Mon-Sat 9:00-17:00, Sun 9:00-13:00, tel. 081-551-2701).
Theft and Safety: Don’t venture into neighborhoods that make you uncomfortable. The areas close to the train station are especially seedy. Touristy Spaccanapoli and the posh Via Toledo shopping boulevard are more upscale, but you’ll still see rowdy kids and panhandlers. Assume able-bodied beggars are thieves. Any jostle or commotion is probably a thief-team smokescreen. To keep bags safe, it’s probably best to leave them at the left-luggage office in Centrale Station or at your hotel. Always carry your bag on the side away from the street—thieves on scooters have been known to snatch bags as they swoop by. Keep valuables buttoned up.
For tips on avoiding scams and pickpockets if you take the Circumvesuviana commuter train, see here.
Sightseeing Pass: The Campania ArteCard regional pass could save you a few euros when visiting major sights (such as the Naples Archaeological Museum and Pompeii). The €32 three-day Tutta la Regione version is good if you’re visiting Naples and Sorrento; it covers two sights (plus a 50 percent discount on others) and transportation within Naples and on the Circumvesuviana train and Amalfi Coast buses. The €34 seven-day Tutta la Regione option covers five sights (and discounts on others) but no transportation. For those lingering in Naples, the €21 three-day Napoli-only version covers city transit and three city sights, plus discounts on others. You can buy the cards at some Naples TIs and at participating sights (cards activate on first use, expire 3 days later at midnight, www.campaniartecard.it).
Traffic: In Naples, red lights are discretionary; be wary, particularly of motor scooters. Keep children close. Smart tourists jaywalk in the shadow of bold locals, who generally ignore crosswalks. Wait for a break in traffic, cross with confidence, and make eye contact with approaching drivers. The traffic will stop.
Tours: Pina Esposito offers fine walking and driving tours of Naples and the region as well as tours of the Archaeological Museum (€60/hour, 2-hour minimum, 10 percent off with this book, mobile 338-763-4224, email@example.com).
Mondo Guide offers private tours of the Archaeological Museum (€120/2 hours), the city (€240/4 hours), and the region (www.mondoguide.com). Reserve in advance if you want to take their shared walking tour of Naples (€25, daily at 15:00, 3 hours, meet at the steps of the Archaeological Museum—you can do the museum on your own before joining your guide).
CitySightseeing Napoli tour buses make three different hop-on, hop-off loops through the city, each lasting about one hour. The best is the red line (Route A), which loops around the historical center and stops at the Archaeological Museum (€22, ticket valid 24 hours, runs roughly hourly, buy from driver, tel. 081-551-7279, www.napoli.city-sightseeing.it).
GROUND FLOOR: THE FARNESE COLLECTION
MEZZANINE: POMPEIIAN MOSAICS AND THE SECRET ROOM
TOP FLOOR: FRESCOES, STATUES, ARTIFACTS, AND A MODEL OF POMPEII
Naples’ Museo Archeologico offers the best look at artifacts from Pompeii, an ancient town buried in ash by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in a.d. 79. When Pompeii was excavated in the late 1700s, Naples’ Bourbon king bellowed, “Bring me the best of what you find!” Because the finest art and artifacts ended up here, the ancient sites today are impressive but barren.
Cost and Hours: €8, sometimes more for temporary exhibits, free first Sun of the month, Wed-Mon 9:00-19:30, closed Tue. Early and temporary closures are noted on a board near the ticket office. In July and August, expect many rooms to be closed due to lack of staff.
Getting There: To take the Metro (Metropolitana) from Centrale Station, follow the signs to the Garibaldi subway station (down the stairs in front of track 13). Buy a single transit ticket at the newsstand or a tobacco shop. You’re looking for line 2 (Linea 2) trains heading in the direction of Pozzuoli (generally depart from track 4). Ride one stop to Cavour. Walk five minutes uphill through the park along the busy street. Look for a grand old red building located up a flight of stairs at the top of the block.
If taking the Metro back to Centrale Station, it’s faster to catch a train in the Cavour station, rather than at the connected Museo stop (which is on a different Metro line).
A taxi from the train station to the museum should cost about €12 (though cabbies are infamous for overcharging).
Information: The shop sells a worthwhile National Archaeological Museum of Naples guidebook for €12. Tel. 081-442-2149.
Tours: The decent audioguide costs €5 (at ticket desk).
Baggage Check: Bag check is obligatory and free.
Photography: Photos are allowed without a flash.
Eating: The museum has no café, but vending machines sell drinks and snacks at reasonable prices. There are several good places nearby to grab a meal, such as La Stanza del Gusto, two blocks away (see “Eating,” later).
Entering the museum, stand at the base of the grand staircase. To your right, on the ground floor, are the larger-than-life statues of the Farnese Collection, starring the Toro Farnese and the Farnese Hercules. Up the stairs on the mezzanine level are mosaics and frescoes from Pompeii, including the Secret Room of erotic art. On the top floor are more frescoes and a scale model of Pompeii. WCs are behind the staircase.
✵ From the base of the grand staircase, turn right through the door marked Collezione Farnese and head to the far end—walking through a rich collection of idealistic and realistic ancient portrait busts—to reach the farthest room (Sala XIII).
GROUND FLOOR: THE FARNESE COLLECTION
This floor has nothing from Pompeii; its highlight is the Farnese Collection, a grand hall of huge, bright, and wonderfully restored statues excavated from Rome’s Baths of Caracalla. The statues were dug up in the 1540s at the behest of Alessandro Farnese (by then Pope Paul III) while he was building the family palace on Campo dei Fiori in Rome. His main purpose in excavating the baths was to scavenge high-quality building stone. The sculptures were a nice extra and helped the palace come in under budget. In the 1700s, the collection ended up in the hands of Charles, the Bourbon king of Naples (whose mother was a Farnese). His son, the next king, had it brought to Naples.
✵ Quick—look down to the left end of the hall. There’s a woman being tied to a snorting bull.
The tangled Toro Farnese tells a thrilling Greek myth. At 13 feet, it’s the tallest ancient marble group ever found, and the largest intact statue from antiquity. A third-century a.d. copy of a lost bronze Hellenistic original, it was carved out of one piece of marble. Michelangelo and others “restored” it at the pope’s request—meaning that they integrated surviving bits into a new work. Panels on the wall show which pieces were actually carved by Michelangelo (in blue on the chart): the head of the woman in back, the torso of the aunt under the bull, and the dog.
Here’s the tragic story behind the statue: Once upon an ancient Greek time, King Lycus was bewitched by Dirce. He abandoned his pregnant wife, Antiope (standing regally in the background), who later gave birth to twin boys. When they grew up, they killed their deadbeat dad and tied Dirce to the horns of a bull to be bashed against a mountain. Captured in marble, the action is exciting: cape flailing, dog snarling, hooves in the air. You can almost hear the bull snorting. In the back, Antiope oversees this harsh ancient justice with satisfaction.
At the opposite end of the hall stands the Farnese Hercules. The great Greek hero is exhausted. He leans wearily on his club (draped with his lion skin) and bows his head. He’s just finished the daunting Eleventh Labor, having traveled the world, freed Prometheus from his rock, and carried Atlas’ weight of the world on his shoulders. Now he’s returned with the prize: the golden apples of the gods, which he cups behind his back. But, after all that, he’s just been told he has to return the apples and do one final labor: descend into hell itself. Oh, man.
The 10-foot colossus is a third-century a.d. Roman marble copy (signed by “Glykon”) of a fourth-century b.c. Greek bronze original (probably by Lysippos). The statue was famous in its day. Dozens of copies have been found in Roman villas and baths.
The Farnese Hercules was equally famous in the 16th-18th centuries. Tourists flocked to Rome to admire it, art students studied it from afar in prints, Louis XIV made a copy for Versailles, and petty nobles everywhere put small-scale knockoffs in their gardens. This curly-haired version of Hercules became the modern world’s image of the Greek hero.
✵ Backtrack to the main entry hall, then head up to the mezzanine level (turn left at the lion and go under the Mosaici sign).
MEZZANINE: POMPEIIAN MOSAICS AND THE SECRET ROOM
Most of these mosaics—of animals, musicians, and geometric designs—were taken from Pompeii’s House of the Faun (see here). Walk into the third room and look for the 20-inch-high statue in a freestanding glass case: the house’s delightful centerpiece, the Dancing Faun. This rare surviving Greek bronze statue (from the fourth century b.c.) is surrounded by some of the best mosaics of that age.
A museum highlight, just beyond the statue, is the grand Battle of Alexander, a second-century b.c. copy of the original Greek fresco from a century earlier. It decorated a floor in the House of the Faun and was found intact; the damage you see occurred as this treasure was moved from Pompeii to the king’s collection here. Alexander (left side of the scene, with curly hair and sideburns) is about to defeat the Persians under Darius (central figure, in chariot with turban and beard). This pivotal victory allowed Alexander to quickly overrun much of Asia (331 b.c.). Alexander is the only one without a helmet...a confident master of the battlefield while everyone else is fighting for their lives, their eyes bulging with fear. The horses, already in retreat, add to the scene’s propaganda value. Notice the shading and perspective, which Renaissance artists would later work so hard to accomplish. (A modern reproduction of the mosaic is now back in Pompeii, at the House of the Faun.)
Farther on, the Secret Room (Gabinetto Segreto) contains a sizable assortment of erotic frescoes, well-hung pottery, and perky statues that once decorated bedrooms, meeting rooms, brothels, and even shops at Pompeii. These bawdy statues and frescoes were once displayed in Pompeii’s grandest houses as entertainment for guests. Roman nobles commissioned the wildest scenes imaginable. Think of them as ancient dirty jokes.
At the entrance, you’re enthusiastically greeted by big stone penises that once projected over Pompeii’s doorways. A massive phallus was not necessarily a sexual symbol, but a magical amulet used as protection against the “evil eye.” It symbolized fertility, good luck, riches, straight A’s, and general well-being.
Circulating counterclockwise through this section, look for the following: a faun playfully pulling the sheet off a beautiful woman, only to be shocked by a hermaphrodite’s plumbing (#12); horny pygmies from Africa in action (#27); a toga with an embarrassing bulge (#34); a statue of a goat and a satyr illustrating an act of sodomy (#36); and, watching over it all with remarkable aplomb, Venus, the patron goddess of Pompeii (#39).
The back room is furnished and decorated the way an ancient brothel might have been. The 10 frescoes on the wall functioned as both a menu of services offered and a kind of Kama Sutra of sex positions.
Battle of Alexander mosaic
✵ So, now that your travel buddy is finally showing a little interest in art...finish up your visit by climbing the stairs to the top floor.
TOP FLOOR: FRESCOES, STATUES, ARTIFACTS, AND A MODEL OF POMPEII
At the top of the stairs, go through the center door to enter a grand, empty hall. This was the great hall of the university (17th and 18th centuries) until the building became the royal museum in 1777. Walk to the center. The sundial (from 1791) still works. Look up to the far-right corner of the hall and find the tiny pinhole. At noon (13:00 in summer), a ray of sun enters the hall and strikes the sundial, showing the time of the year...if you know your zodiac.
To your left, you’ll see a door marked affreschi. This leads to eight rooms showing off an impressive and well-described collection of frescoes taken from the walls of Pompeii villas. Pompeiians loved to decorate their homes with scenes from mythology (Hercules’ labors, Venus and Mars in love), landscapes, everyday market scenes, and faux architecture. Continue around this wing counterclockwise (with the courtyard on your left) through rooms of artifacts found at Pompeii. At the far end is a scale model of Pompeii as excavated in 1879 (plastic di Pompeii). Another model (on the wall) shows the site in 2004, after more excavations.
✵ Eventually you’ll end up back in the great hall.
Step out to the top landing of the staircase you climbed earlier. Turn left and go down, then up, 16 steps and into the wing labeled La Villa dei Papiri. This exhibition shows artifacts (particularly bronze statues) from the holiday home of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. In the second room (numbered CXVI), look into the lifelike blue eyes of the intense Corridore (athletes), bent on doing their best. The Five Dancers, with their inlaid-ivory eyes and graceful poses, decorated a portico. The next room (CXVII) has more fine works: Resting Hermes (with his tired little heel wings) is taking a break. Nearby, the Drunken Faun (singing and snapping his fingers to the beat, a wineskin at his side) is clearly living for today—true to the carpe diem preaching of the Epicurean philosophy. Caesar’s father-in-law was a fan; his library of 2,000 papyrus scrolls supported his Epicurean outlook. Back by the entrance, check out the plans of the villa, and in the side room, see how the half-burned scrolls were unrolled and read after excavation in the 1750s.
✵ Return to the ground floor. The exit hall (right) leads around the museum courtyard and to the gift shop.
For extra credit on your way out of the exit hall, find Doriforo. He was last spotted on the right side. (If he’s been moved, ask a guard, “Dov’è il Doriforo?”) This seven-foot-tall “spear-carrier” (the literal translation of doriforo) just stands there. What’s the big deal about this statue? It’s a marble replica made by the Romans of one of the most-copied statues of antiquity, a fifth-century b.c. bronze Greek original by Polyclitus. This copy once stood in a Pompeii gym, where it inspired ancient athletes by showing the ideal proportions of Greek beauty. So full of motion, and so realistic in its contrapposto pose (weight on one foot), the Doriforo would later inspire Donatello and Michelangelo, helping to trigger the Renaissance. And so the glories of ancient Pompeii, once buried and forgotten, live on today.
This self-guided walk takes you from the Archaeological Museum through the heart of town and back to Centrale Station. Allow at least three hours, plus time for pizza and sightseeing stops. If you’re in a rush, do it in half the time by walking briskly and skipping Part 2.
PART 1: FROM THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM TO PIAZZA BELLINI AND PIAZZA DANTE
The first two parts of this walk are a mostly straight, one-mile ramble down a fine boulevard (with a few colorful detours) to the waterfront at Piazza del Plebiscito. Your starting point is the Archaeological Museum (at the top of Piazza Cavour, Metro: Cavour or Museo). As you stroll, remember that here in Naples red traffic lights are considered “decorations.” When crossing a street, try to draft behind a native.
✵ From the door of the Archaeological Museum, cross the street, veer right, and enter the mall. (If the mall is closed for renovation, simply loop around the block to its back door.)
Galleria Principe di Napoli: This was named for the first male child of the royal Savoy family, the Prince of Naples. Walk directly through it, enjoying this fine shopping gallery from the late 19th century, similar to those popular in Paris and London. This is “Liberty Style,” Italy’s version of Art Nouveau (named for a British department store) that was in vogue at a time when Naples was nicknamed the “Paris of the South.” Parisian artist Edgar Degas left Paris to adopt Naples—which he actually considered more cosmopolitan and sophisticated—as his hometown.
✵ Leaving the gallery through the opposite end, walk one block downhill. At Via Conte di Ruvo, head left, passing the fine Bellini Theater (also in the Liberty Style). After one block, turn right on Via Costantinopoli, continuing directly downhill to Piazza Bellini. As you walk, look up to enjoy architecture built in the late 19th century, when Naples was the last stop on Romantic Age travelers’ Grand Tour of Europe.
Soon you’ll run into the ragtag urban park called...
Piazza Bellini: Walking between columns of two grand churches, you’re suddenly in neighborhood Napoli. A statue of Sicilian opera composer Vincenzo Bellini, who worked in Naples in the early 1800s, marks the center of the park. Survey the many balconies—and the people who use them as a “backyard” in this densely packed city. The apartment flats were originally the palaces of noble families, as indicated by the stately family crests above grand doorways. At the downhill end of the square, peer down into the sunken area to see the ruined Greek walls: blocks of tuff (volcanic rock) without mortar. This was the wall, and you’re standing on land that was outside of the town. You can see the street level from the fifth century b.c., when Neapolis—literally, “the new city”—was founded. For 2,500 years, laundry has blown in the breeze right here.
✵ Walk 30 yards downhill. Stop at the horseshoe-shaped Port’Alba gate (on the right). Spin slowly 360 degrees and take in the scene. The proud tile across the street (upstairs, between the two balconies) shows Piazza Bellini circa 1890. Pass through the gate, and stroll past the book stalls down Via Port’Alba to the next big square.
Piazza Dante: This square is marked by a statue of Dante, the medieval poet. Fittingly, half the square is devoted to bookstores. Old Dante looks out over an urban area that was once grand, then chaotic, and is now slowly becoming grand again.
While this square feels perfectly Italian to me, for many Neapolitans it represents the repression of the central Italian state. When Napoleon was defeated, Naples briefly became its own independent kingdom. But within a few decades of Italian unification, in 1861, Naples went from being a thriving cultural and political capital to a provincial town, its money used to help establish the industrial strength of the north, its dialect considered backward, and its bureaucrats transferred to Rome.
Originally, a statue of a Spanish Bourbon king stood in the square. (The grand orange-and-gray building is typical of Bourbon structures from that period.) But with the unification of Italy, the king, symbolic of Naples’ colonial subjugation, was replaced by Dante, the father of the unified Italian language—a strong symbol of nationalism (and yet another form of subjugation).
The Neapolitan people are survivors. A long history of corrupt and greedy colonial overlords (German, Norman, French, Austrian, and Spanish) has taught Neapolitans to deal creatively with authority. Many credit this aspect of Naples’ past for the strength of organized crime here.
Across the street, Caffè Mexico (at #86) is an institution known for its espresso, which is served already sweetened—ask for senza zucchero if you don’t want sugar (pay first, then take receipt to the counter and hand it over). Most Italians agree that Neapolitan coffee is the best anywhere.
✵ Walk downhill on...
Via Toledo: The long, straight street heading downhill from Piazza Dante is Naples’ principal shopping drag. It originated as a military road built under Spanish rule in the 16th century. Via Toledo skirted the old town wall to connect the Spanish military headquarters (now the museum where you started this walk) with the Royal Palace (down by the bay, where you’re heading). As you stroll, peek into lovely atriums, an ancient urban design feature providing a break from the big street.
After a couple of hundred yards, you’ll reach Piazza Sette Settembre. In 1860, from the white marble balcony of the Neoclassical building overlooking the square, the famous revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi declared Italy united and Victor Emmanuel II its first king. Only in 1870, a decade later, was the dream of Italian unity fully realized when Rome fell to unification forces.
✵ Continue straight on Via Toledo. About three blocks below Piazza Dante and a block past Piazza Sette Settembre, you’ll come to Via Maddaloni, which marks the start of the long, straight, narrow street nicknamed...
Spaccanapoli: Before crossing the street—whose name translates as “split Naples”—look left (toward the train station). Then look right (to see San Martino hill rising steeply above the center). Since ancient times, this thin street has bisected the city. It changes names several times: Via Maddaloni (as it’s called here), Via B. Croce, Via S. Biagio dei Librai, and Via Vicaria Vecchia. We’ll return to this intersection later.
✵ If you want to abbreviate this walk, turn left here and skip ahead to Part 3. Part 2, described next, is a bit of a detour, and requires backtracking uphill (or a short taxi ride) later. If you have time, it’s worth the effort.
PART 2: MONUMENTAL NAPLES
✵ We’ll detour off of Via Toledo for just a couple of blocks (rejoining it later). At the Spaccanapoli intersection, go right (toward the church facade on the hill, up Via Pasquale Scura). After about 100 yards, you hit a busy intersection. Stop. You’re on one of Naples’ most colorful open-air market streets.
Via Pignasecca Market: Snoop around from here if you’re so inclined. Then, turn left down colorful Via Pignasecca. You’ll pass meat and fish stalls, produce stands, street-food vendors, and much more. This is a taste of Naples’ Spanish Quarter, which we’ll experience more of later in this walk.
✵ Via Pignasecca meets back up with Via Toledo at the square called...
Piazza Carità: Built for an official visit by Hitler to Mussolini in 1938, the square is full of stern, straight, obedient lines. The modern memorial statue in the center of the square celebrates Salvo d’Acquisto, a rare hometown hero. In 1943, he was executed after falsely confessing to sabotage...in order to save 22 fellow Italian soldiers from a Nazi revenge massacre.
✵ From Piazza Carità, continue south down Via Toledo for a few blocks, looking to your left for more...
Fascist Architecture: You can’t miss the two big, blocky bank buildings. First comes the chalky-white BNL Bank. A bit farther down, past the Metro, imagine trying to rob the even more imposing Banco di Napoli (Via Toledo 178). Step across the street and check out its architecture: typical fascist arches and reliefs, built to celebrate the bank’s 400th anniversary (est. 1539—how old is your bank?).
✵ On the next block (at Via Toledo 184) is the...
Banca Intesa Sanpaolo: This fills an older palace—take a free peek at the opulent atrium. In the entry hall, you can buy a ticket for the Galleria d’Italia Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, a small art collection located in the upper two floors. The gallery’s only piece worth seeing—on the second floor—is a great late Caravaggio painting, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula. The rest of the second floor holds chandeliered apartments, a few Neapolitan landscapes, and little else (€5, more for special exhibits, includes audioguide, Tue-Sun 10:00-18:00, closed Mon, tel. 800-454-229, www.palazzozevallos.com).
✵ Feeling bold? From here, head uphill a couple of blocks into the...
Spanish Quarter: This is a classic world of basso (low) living. The streets—which were laid out in the 16th century for the Spanish military barracks outside the city walls—are unbelievably narrow, and the buildings rise five stories high. In such tight quarters, life—flirting, fighting, playing, and loving—happens in the road. This is the cliché of life in Naples, as shown in so many movies. The Spanish Quarter is Naples at its most characteristic. Concerned locals will tug on their lower eyelids, warning you to be wary. The mopeds can be aggressive (watch out!), but the shopkeepers are friendly. Hungry? Pop into a grocery shop and ask the clerk for a prosciutto-and-mozzarella sandwich (about €4).
✵ Return to Via Toledo and work your way down. Near the bottom of the street, on the right at #275, is Pintauro, a takeaway bakery famous for its sfogliatelle. These shell-shaped, ricotta-filled Neapolitan pastries are often served warm from the oven and make a tasty €2 treat.
Just beyond, on the right, notice the station for the Centrale funicular. If you have extra time and enjoy city views, this can take you sweat-free up to the top of San Martino, the hill with a monastery/museum looming over town (see here). Across the street is the impressive Galleria Umberto I—but don’t go in now, as you’ll see it in a minute from the other side.
For now, just keep heading down the main drag and through the smaller Piazza Trieste e Trento to the immense...
Piazza del Plebiscito: This square celebrates the 1861 vote (plebiscito, plebiscite) in which Naples chose to join Italy. Dominating the top of the square is the Church of San Francesco di Paola, with its Pantheon-inspired dome and broad, arcing colonnades. If it’s open, step inside to ogle the vast interior—a Neoclassical re-creation of one of ancient Rome’s finest buildings (free, daily 8:30-12:00 & 16:00-19:00).
✵ Opposite is the...
Royal Palace (Palazzo Reale): This building displays statues of all those who stayed here. Look for eight kings in the niches, each from a different dynasty (left to right): Norman, German, French, Spanish, Spanish, Spanish, French (Napoleon’s brother-in-law), and, finally, Italian—Victor Emmanuel II, King of Savoy. The statues were made at the request of V. E. II’s son, so his dad is the most dashing of the group. The interior is unimpressive.
✵ Continue 50 yards past the Royal Palace (toward the trees) to enjoy a...
Fine Harbor View: While boats busily serve Capri and Sorrento, Mount Vesuvius smolders ominously in the distance. Look back to see the vast “Bourbon red” palace—its color inspired by Pompeii. The hilltop above Piazza del Plebiscito is San Martino, with its Carthusian monastery-turned-museum (remember, the Centrale funicular to the top is just across the square and up Via Toledo). The promenade you’re on continues to Naples’ romantic harborfront—the fishermen’s quarter (Borgo Marinaro)—a fortified island connected to the mainland by a stout causeway, with its fanciful, ancient Castel dell’Ovo (Egg Castle) and trendy harborside restaurants. Farther along the harborfront stretches the Lungomare promenade; the stretch named Via Francesco Caracciolo is a delightful people-watching scene on balmy nights (best after 19:00).
✵ Head back through the piazza and pop into...
Gran Caffè Gambrinus: This coffee house, facing the piazza, takes you back to the elegance of 1860. It’s a classic place to sample a crispy sfogliatella pastry, or perhaps the rum-soaked cakes called babà. Stand at the bar (banco), pay double to sit (tavola), or just wander around as you imagine the café buzzing with intellectuals, journalists, and artsy types during Naples’ 19th-century heyday (daily 7:00-24:00, Piazza del Plebiscito 1, tel. 081-417-582).
✵ A block away, tucked behind the palace, you can peek inside the Neoclassical...
Teatro di San Carlo: Built in 1737, this is Europe’s oldest opera house and Italy’s second-most-respected (after La Scala, built in Milan 41 years later). The theater burned down in 1816, and was rebuilt within the year. Guided 35-minute visits in English just show you the fine auditorium with its 184 boxes—each with a big mirror to reflect the candlelight (€6; tours Mon-Sat at 10:30, 11:30, 12:30, 14:30, 15:30, and 16:30; Sun at 10:30, 11:30, and 12:30; tel. 081-797-2468, www.teatrosancarlo.it).
Beyond Teatro di San Carlo and the Royal Palace is the huge, harborfront Castel Nuovo, which houses government bureaucrats and the Civic Museum. It’s a mostly empty shell, with a couple of dusty halls of Neapolitan art, but the views over the bay from the upper terraces are impressive (€6, Mon-Sat 9:00-19:00, closed Sun, last entry one hour before closing, tel. 081-795-7722, www.comune.napoli.it).
Cross the street from Teatro di San Carlo and go through the tall yellow arch into the Victorian iron-and-glass shopping mall, Galleria Umberto I. It was built in 1892 to reinvigorate the district after a devastating cholera epidemic occurred here. Walk left to bring you back out on Via Toledo.
✵ For Part 3 of this walk, double back up Via Toledo to Piazza Carità, veering right (just above the first big fascist-style building we saw earlier) on Via Morgantini through Piazza Monteoliveto. Cross the busy street, then angle up Calata Trinità Maggiore to the fancy column at the top of the hill. (To avoid the backtracking and uphill walk, catch a €10 taxi to the Church of Gesù Nuovo—JAY-zoo noo-OH-voh.)
PART 3: FROM SPACCANAPOLI BACK TO THE STATION
You’re back at the straight-as-a-Greek-arrow Spaccanapoli, formerly the main thoroughfare of the Greek city of Neapolis.
✵ Stop at...
Piazza Gesù Nuovo: This square is marked by a towering 18th-century Baroque monument to the Counter-Reformation. Although the Jesuit order was powerful in Naples because of its Spanish heritage, locals never attacked Protestants here with the full fury of the Spanish Inquisition.
If you’d like, you can visit two bulky old churches, starting with the fortress-like Church of Gesù Nuovo, followed by the simpler Church of Santa Chiara (in the courtyard across the street). Both are described in more detail later, under “More Sights.”
Piazza Gesù Nuovo
✵ After touring the churches, continue along the main drag. Since this is a university district, you’ll see lots of students and bookstores. This neighborhood is also famously superstitious. Look for incense-burning women with carts full of good-luck charms for sale.
Farther down Spaccanapoli—passing Palazzo Venezia, the embassy of Venice to Naples when both were independent powers—you’ll see the next square.
Piazza San Domenico Maggiore: It’s marked by an ornate 17th-century monument built to thank God for ending the plague. From this square, detour left along the right side of the castle-like church, then follow yellow signs, taking the first right and walking one block to Cappella Sansevero, worth a visit for its statuary (see here).
✵ Return to Via B. Croce (a.k.a. Spaccanapoli), turn left, and continue your cultural scavenger hunt. At the intersection of Via Nilo, find the...
Statue of the Nile (on the left): A reminder of the multiethnic makeup of Greek Neapolis, this statue is in what was the Egyptian quarter. Locals like to call this statue The Body of Naples, with the overflowing cornucopia symbolizing the abundance of their fine city. (I once asked a Neapolitan man to describe the local women, who are famous for their beauty. He replied simply, “Abundant.”) This intersection is considered the center of old Naples.
✵ Directly opposite the statue, inside of Bar Nilo, is the...
“Chapel of Maradona”: The small “chapel” on the right wall is dedicated to Diego Maradona, a soccer star who played for Naples in the 1980s. Locals consider soccer almost a religion, and this guy was practically a deity. You can even see a “hair of Diego” and a teardrop from the city when he went to another team for more money. Unfortunately, his reputation has since been sullied by problems with organized crime, drugs, and police. Perhaps inspired by Maradona’s example, the coffee bar has posted a quadrilingual sign (though, strangely, not in English) threatening that those who take a picture without buying a cup of coffee may find their camera damaged...capisce?
✵ As you continue, you’ll begin to see shops selling...
Presepi (Nativity Scenes) and Corno: Just as some Americans keep an eye out year-round for Christmas-tree ornaments, Italians add pieces to the family presepe, the centerpiece of their holiday decorations. Stop after a few blocks at the tiny square, where Via San Gregorio Armeno leads left into a colorful district with the highest concentration of shops selling fantastic presepi and their tiny components, including figurines caricaturing local politicians and celebrities. Some even move around.
Another popular Naples souvenir is the corno, a skinny, twisted, red horn that resembles a chili pepper. The corno comes with a double symbolism for fertility: It’s a horn of plenty, and it’s also a phallic symbol turned upside-down. Neapolitans explain that fertility isn’t sexual; it provides the greatest gift a person can give—life.
A bit farther up Via San Gregorio Armeno, you’ll find the underground Napoli Sotterranea archaeological site, along Via dei Tribunali. This street also hosts some of the city’s best pizzerias: Gino Sorbillo at #32, Pizzeria I Decumani at #58, and Pizzeria di Matteo at #94. For a break from pizza, I like Trattoria Campagnola at #47.
Presepi nativity scenes
Back on Spaccanapoli and a bit farther along, on the right at #87, the D’Auria shop sells some of the best presepi in town, many of them the classy campane version, under a glass bell.
✵ As Via B. Croce becomes Via S. Biagio dei Librai, notice the...
Gold and Silver Shops: Some say stolen jewelry ends up here, is melted down immediately, and gets resold in some other form as soon as it cools. Look for compro oro (“I buy gold”) signs (for example, in the window of the shop at #95)—a sign of economic tough times.
✵ Cross busy Via Duomo. If you have time and aren’t already churched out, consider detouring five minutes north (left) up Via Duomo to visit Naples’ Duomo; just around the corner is the Pio Monte della Misericordia Church, with a fine Caravaggio painting. Afterward, continue straight along Via Vicaria Vecchia. As you stroll, ponder Naples’ vibrant...
Street Life, Past and Present: Here along Via Vicaria Vecchia, the street scenes intensify. The area is said to be a center of the Camorra (organized crime), but as a tourist, you won’t notice. Naples has the most intact street plan of any surviving ancient Greek or Roman city. Imagine this city during those times (and retain these images as you visit Pompeii), with streetside shop fronts that close up after dark, and private homes on upper floors. What you see today is just one more page in a 2,000-year-old story of a city: meetings, beatings, and cheatings; kisses, near misses, and little-boy pisses.
You name it, it occurs on the streets today. Black-and-white death announcements add to the clutter on the walls. Widows sell cigarettes from buckets. For a peek behind the scenes in the shade of wet laundry, venture down a few side streets. The neighborhood action seems best at about 18:00.
A few blocks on, at the tiny fenced-in triangle of greenery, hang out for a few minutes to just observe the crazy motorbike action and teen scene.
✵ From here, veer right onto Via Forcella (which leads to the busy boulevard that takes you to Centrale Station). A block down, a tiny, fenced-in traffic island protects a chunk of the ancient Greek wall of Neapolis. Turn right here on Via Pietro Colletta, walk 40 yards, and step into the North Pole, at the...
Polo Nord Gelateria: The oldest gelateria in Naples has had four generations of family working here since 1931. Sample a few flavors, including their bacio or “kiss” flavor (chocolate and hazelnut)—all are made fresh daily (Via Pietro Colletta 41). This street leads past two of Napoli’s most competitive pizzerias (described under “Eating,” later) to Corso Umberto I.
✵ Turn left on the grand boulevard-like Corso Umberto I. From here to Centrale Station, it’s at least a 10-minute walk (if you’re tired, hop on a bus; they all go to the station). To finish the walk, continue on Corso Umberto I—past a gauntlet of shady salesmen—to the vast Piazza Garibaldi, with a shiny modern canopy in the middle. On the far side is the station. You made it.
Churches on or near Spaccanapoli
▲CHURCH OF GESÙ NUOVO
CHURCH OF SANTA CHIARA
In the City Center
PORTA NOLANA OPEN-AIR FISH MARKET
On San Martino
▲SAN MARTINO CARTHUSIAN MONASTERY AND MUSEUM
Churches on or near Spaccanapoli
These churches are linked—in this order—on Part 3 of my self-guided walk.
▲CHURCH OF GESÙ NUOVO
This Baroque church’s unique pyramid-grill facade survives from a fortified 15th-century noble palace. Step inside for a brilliant Neapolitan Baroque interior. The second chapel on the right features a much-adored statue of St. Giuseppe Moscati (1880-1927), a Christian doctor famous for helping the poor. In 1987, he became the first modern doctor to be canonized.
Continue on to the third chapel and enter Sale Moscati. Look high on the walls of this long room to see hundreds of “Ex Votos”—tiny red-and-silver plaques of thanksgiving for prayers answered with the help of St. Moscati (each has a symbol of the ailment cured). As you leave Sale Moscati, notice the big bomb casing that hangs high in the left corner. It fell through the church’s dome in 1943, but caused almost no damage...yet another miracle.
Cost and Hours: Free, daily 7:30-13:00 & 16:00-19:00, Piazza del Gesù Nuovo, www.gesunuovo.it.
CHURCH OF SANTA CHIARA
Dating from the 14th century, this Gothic church is from a period of French royal rule under the Angevin dynasty. Inside, look for the faded Trinity on the back wall, which shows a dove representing the Holy Spirit between the heads of God the Father and Christ (c. 1414). The altar is adorned with four finely carved Gothic tombs of Angevin kings. A chapel stacked with Bourbon royalty is just to the right. Its tranquil cloistered courtyard, around back, is not worth its €6 entry fee.
Cost and Hours: Free, daily 7:30-13:00 & 16:30-20:00, Piazza del Gesù Nuovo.
This small chapel is a Baroque explosion mourning the body of Christ, who lies on a soft pillow under an incredibly realistic veil. It’s also the personal chapel of Raimondo de Sangro, an eccentric inventor, patron of the arts, and a grand master of the Freemasons. The chapel, filled with Freemason symbolism, contains his tomb and the tombs of his family. Study the remarkable Veiled Christ in the center. Carved out of marble by Giuseppe (“Howdeedoodat”) Sammartino in 1753, it combines a Christian message (Jesus died for our salvation) with Freemason philosophy (the veil represents how the body and ego are obstacles to real spiritual freedom). As you walk from Christ’s feet to his head, his expression goes from suffering to peace. Downstairs are two mysterious skeletons—some of the mad inventor’s work, with artificial veins to illustrate the circulatory system.
Good English explanations are posted throughout; when you buy your ticket, pick up the free floor plan, which identifies each of the statues lining the nave.
Cost and Hours: €7, buy tickets at office at the corner, Wed-Mon 9:30-18:30, closed Tue, no photos, Via de Sanctis 19, tel. 081-551-8470, www.museosansevero.it.
Naples’ historic cathedral, built by imported French Anjou kings in the 14th century, boasts a breathtaking Neo-Gothic facade. Step into the vast interior to see the mix of styles along the side chapels—from pointy Gothic arches to rounded Renaissance ones to gilded Baroque decor. Explore the two largest side-chapels (flanking the nave, about halfway to the transept), each practically a church in its own right. On the left, the Chapel of St. Restituta stands on the site of the original, early-Christian church that predated the cathedral. On the right is the Chapel of San Gennaro—dedicated to the patron saint of Naples—decorated with silver busts of bishops, and seven paintings on bronze. The cathedral’s main altar at the front is ringed by carved wooden seats, which are filled three times a year by clergy to witness (they hope) the Miracle of the Blood, when two tiny vials of the dried blood of St. Gennaro temporarily liquefy before their eyes. Thousands of Neapolitans cram into the church to watch. They believe that if the blood remains solid, it’s terrible luck for the city. The stairs beneath the altar lead to a crypt with the relics of St. Gennaro.
Cost and Hours: Free, Mon-Sat 8:30-13:30 & 14:30-20:00, Sun 8:30-13:30 & 16:30-19:30, Via Duomo.
In the City Center
This underground maze of passageways and ruins from Greek and Roman times can only be toured with a guide. You’ll descend 121 steps under the modern city to explore two different underground areas. One is the old Greek tuff quarry used to build the city of Neapolis; it was later converted into an immense cistern by the Romans. The other is an excavated portion of the Greco-Roman theater that once seated 6,000 people; some locals’ windows look down into the theater ruins. The tour involves a lot of stairs and a narrow, 20-inch-wide walkway—lit only by candlelight (a heavyset person could not comfortably fit and claustrophobes will be miserable). There’s not much to see, but it’s a unique experience that includes history from World War II, when the cistern was used as a bomb shelter.
Cost and Hours: €10; includes 1.5-hour tour. Visits in English are offered daily at 10:00, 12:00, 14:00, 16:00, and 18:00. Bring a light sweater. Tel. 081-296-944, www.napolisotterranea.org.
Getting There: The site is at Piazza San Gaetano 68, along Via dei Tribunali. It’s a 10-minute walk from the Archaeological Museum. The entrance is immediately to the left of the Church of San Paolo Maggiore (look for the Sotterranea signs).
PORTA NOLANA OPEN-AIR FISH MARKET
Of Naples’ many boisterous outdoor markets, its fish market will net you the most photos, memories—and smells. It’s been located for centuries under Porta Nolana (a gate in the city wall), immediately in front of the Napoli Porta Nolana Circumvesuviana station and four long blocks from Centrale Station. From Piazza Nolana, wander under the medieval gate and take your first left down Vico Sopramuro to enjoy an edible scavenger hunt (Tue-Sun 8:00-14:00, closed Mon).
On San Martino
The ultimate view overlooking Naples, its bay, and the volcano is from the hill called San Martino, just above (and west of) the city center. Up top you’ll find a mighty fortress (which charges for entry but offers the best views from its ramparts) and the adjacent monastery-turned-museum. While neither of these sights is exciting in its own right, the views are. And the surrounding neighborhood (especially Piazza Fuga) is classy compared to the gritty streets below. Enjoy the views for free from the benches on the square in front of the monastery.
Getting There: From Via Toledo, the Spanish Quarter gradually climbs up San Martino’s lower slopes, before steep paths take you up the rest of the way. But the easiest way to ascend San Martino is by funicular. Three different funicular lines lead from lower Naples to the hilltop: The Centrale line runs from the Spanish Quarter, just near Piazza del Plebiscito and the Toledo Metro stop; the Montesanto line from the Montesanto Metro stop and Via Pignasecca market zone (near the top of Via Toledo); and the Chiaia line from farther out, near the Piazza Amadeo Metro stop. Each is covered by the regular local transit ticket. Ride any of the three up to the end of the line; they converge within a few blocks at the top of the hill—Centrale and Chiaia wind up at opposite ends of the charming Piazza Fuga, while Montesanto terminates a bit closer to the fortress and museum.
Leaving any of the funiculars, head uphill, carefully tracking the brown signs for Castel S. Elmo and Museo di San Martino (escalators make the climb easier). Regardless of where you come up, you’ll pass the Montesanto funicular station—angle right (as you face the station) down Via Pirro Ligorio, and then continue following the signs. First you’ll reach the castle (containing a decent modern art museum, closed Tue), and then the monastery/museum (both are about 10 minutes’ walk from Piazza Fuga).
▲SAN MARTINO CARTHUSIAN MONASTERY AND MUSEUM
The monastery, founded in 1325 and dissolved in the early 1800s, is now a sprawling museum. The church is a beautiful Baroque explosion. Around the humble cloister are a variety of museum exhibits, including an excellent collection of presepi (Nativity scenes), both life-size and miniature, including the best I’ve seen, by Michele Cucinello. The square out front has views nearly as good as the ones from inside.
Cost and Hours: €6, Thu-Tue 8:30-19:30, closed Wed, last entry one hour before closing, audioguide-€5, Largo San Martino 8, tel. 081-229-4502, http://cir.campania.beniculturali.it/museosanmartino/.
Naples is the birthplace of pizza. Its pizzerias bake just the right combination of fresh dough (soft and chewy, as opposed to Roman-style, which is thin and crispy), mozzarella, and tomatoes in traditional wood-burning ovens. The famous, venerable places can have lines stretching out the door and half-hour waits for a table. If you want to skip the hassle, ask your hotel for directions to the neighborhood pizzeria. An average one-person pie (usually the only size available) costs €4-8; most places offer both take-out and eat-in, and pizza is often the only thing on the menu.
The most famous pizzerias are both a few long blocks from the train station, and at the end of my self-guided Naples walk. Antica Pizzeria da Michele is for purists. It serves just two varieties: margherita (tomato sauce and mozzarella) and marinara (tomato sauce, oregano, and garlic, no cheese). Arrive early or late to get a seat; if you come early you can watch the pizza artists in action. If there’s a mob, head inside to get a number (Mon-Sat 10:30-24:00, closed Sun; look for the vertical red Antica Pizzeria sign at the intersection of Via Pietro Colletta and Via Cesare Sersale at #1; tel. 081-553-9204). If it’s just too crowded, Pizzeria Trianon, across the street and left a few doors, often has room. Da Michele’s archrival since 1923, Trianon offers more choices, higher prices, air-conditioning, and a cozier atmosphere (€5-8, plus a 15 percent service charge, daily 11:00-15:30 & 19:00-23:00, Via Pietro Colletta 42, tel. 081-553-9426).
Pizza was born in Naples.
Trattoria Campagnola is a classic family place with mama busy cooking in the back and wine on tap. Venture away from pastas to experiment with local dishes—you can’t go wrong (€7-10 main courses, Wed-Mon 12:00-16:00 & 19:00-23:00, closed Tue, no reservations, Via Tribunali 47, tel. 081-459-034).
La Stanza del Gusto, two blocks downhill from the Archaeological Museum, injects crusty Naples with modern color and irreverence. Downstairs is casual while the upstairs is more refined (€7-9 panini, €10-18 secondi; fixed-price meals: €35 five-course vegetarian, €65 seven-course meat; Tue-Sat 12:00-15:30 & 19:30-23:30, closed Sun-Mon, Via Santa Maria di Constantinopoli 100, tel. 081-401-578).
As an alternative to intense Naples, most travelers prefer to sleep in mellow Sorrento, just over an hour away. But here are a few good local options. The prices listed are typical for high season (spring and late fall). Prices are soft during the slow summer months (July-Sept).
Abbreviations: S=Single, D=Double/Twin, T=Triple, Q=Quad, b=bathroom
Price Rankings for Double Rooms: $$$ Most rooms €130 or more, $$ €90-130, $ €90 or less
Notes: Many Italian cities levy a hotel tax of €1.50-5 per person, per night (often collected in cash; usually not included in the rates I’ve quoted). Room prices change; verify rates online or by email. For the best prices, book directly with the hotel.
$$$ Decumani Hotel de Charme is a classy oasis in the heart of the city, just off Spaccanapoli. The neighborhood is dingy, but the hotel is an inviting 17th-century palace with a gorgeous breakfast room (standard Db-€149, bigger deluxe Db-€20 more, rates soft, air-con, elevator, Via San Giovanni Maggiore Pignatelli 15, second floor, tel. 081-551-8188, www.decumani.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$$ Art Resort Galleria Umberto has 15 rooms in two different buildings inside the Umberto I shopping gallery at the bottom of Via Toledo, just off Piazza del Plebiscito. It’s a genteel place in an aristocratic setting. Pay €20 extra for a room overlooking the gallery (cheapest non-view Db-€115, air-con, elevator, Galleria Umberto 83, fourth floor—ask at booth for coin to operate elevator if needed, tel. 081-497-6224, www.artresortgalleriaumberto.it, email@example.com).
$ Grand Hotel Europa has 89 decent rooms decorated with not-quite-right reproductions of famous paintings. The location, on a seedy street right next to the Centrale station, is handy for train travelers, but less convenient for sightseeing and dining (Sb-€60, Db-€75, Tb-€90, air-con, elevator, restaurant, Corso Meridionale 14, across street from station’s north exit near track 5, tel. 081-267-511, www.grandhoteleuropa.com, firstname.lastname@example.org). For location, see map on here.
Getting Around Naples
Naples’ entire public transportation system—Metro, buses, funicular railways, and the single tram line—uses the same tickets, which must be stamped as you enter (in the yellow machines). A €1 single ticket (corsa singola) covers any ride on one mode of transportation (bus, tram, funicular, or Metro line 1), with no transfers; Metro line 2 has its own €1.20 version. If you need to transfer, buy the 90 minuti ticket for €1.50. Tickets are sold at tabacchi stores, some newsstands, and occasionally at station windows; Metro stations have clunky coin-op machines. A giornaliero day pass costs €3.50 and pays for itself with three rides, but can be hard to find; many tabacchi stores don’t sell them. Two versions of the Campania ArteCard cover public transit, but the card doesn’t work in turnstiles; you’ll have to show it to the staff, who will open the gate for you. Always be wary of pickpockets when using public transportation.
For general info, maps, and fares in English, visit www.unicocampania.it, though schedules are on the Italian-only site www.anm.it.
By Metro: Naples’ subway, the Metropolitana, has three main lines (linea). Station entrances and signs to the Metro are marked by a red square with a white M.
Line 1 has several stations that are useful for tourists. From the Museo stop (Archaeological Museum), line 1 heads to Dante (at Piazza Dante, between the museum and Spaccanapoli), Toledo (south end of Via Toledo, near Piazza del Plebiscito), Municipio (at Piazza Municipio, just above the harbor and cruise terminal), and Garibaldi (on Piazza Garibaldi in front of Centrale Station). Many of the newer stations are huge, elaborate, and designed by prominent architects; proud locals are excited to tell you about their favorite.
Line 2 (technically part of the Italian rail system) is most useful for getting quickly from the train station to the Archaeological Museum: It runs from Centrale Station to Piazza Cavour (a 5-minute walk from the Archaeological Museum); it also stops at Montesanto (top of the Spanish Quarter and Spaccanapoli street, and the base of the funicular up to San Martino). The new line 6 is not yet complete, but it’s unlikely to be of much use to tourists.
By Funicular: Naples’ three funiculars (funicolare) carry commuters and sightseers into the hilly San Martino neighborhood just west of downtown. All three converge near Piazza Fuga, a short walk from the monastery/museum, hilltop castle, and marvelous views (see San Martino listing on here).
By Bus: Buses are crowded and poorly signed, and aren’t a user-friendly option for uninitiated newcomers.
By Tram: Tram line #1 runs along Corso Garibaldi (at the other end of the big square from Centrale Station) and down to the waterfront, terminating by the ferry and cruise terminals (direction: Stazione Marittima). It’s useful if you’re connecting from boat to train, or returning to the port after finishing my self-guided walk.
By Taxi: Taxi drivers in Naples are notorious for overcharging. A short ride in town should cost €10-12. Ask for the tariffa predeterminata (a fixed rate). Your hotelier or a TI can tell you what a given ride should cost. There are some legitimate extra charges (baggage fees, €2.50 supplement after 22:00 or all day Sun and holidays). Radio Taxi 8888 is one reputable company (tel. 081-8888).
Arriving and Departing
There are several Naples train stations, but all trains coming into town stop at either Napoli Centrale or Garibaldi—which are essentially the same place, with Centrale on top of Garibaldi. Stretching in front of this station complex is the vast, gritty Piazza Garibaldi. Be alert for pickpockets in the station and the surrounding neighborhood.
Centrale is the slick, modern main station. It has a small TI (near track 23), an ATM (at Banco di Napoli near track 24), a bookstore (La Feltrinelli, near track 24), and baggage check (deposito bagagli, near track 5). Pay WCs are down the stairs across from track 13. Shops and eateries are concentrated in the underground level.
Rick’s Tip: At the Naples train station, carry your own bags; there are no official porters. Men will offer to help you—refuse. On the Circumvesuviana train, be ready for this common trick: A team of thieves blocks the door at a stop, pretending it’s stuck. While everyone rushes to try to open it, an accomplice picks their pockets.
Getting Around Naples, Sorrento, and the Amalfi Coast
To connect Naples, Sorrento, and the Amalfi Coast, you can travel on land by train, bus, and taxi. Whenever possible, consider taking a boat—it’s faster, cooler, and more scenic.
By Circumvesuviana Train: This useful commuter train—popular with locals, tourists, and pickpockets—links Naples, Pompeii, and Sorrento. At Naples’ Centrale Station, follow Circumvesuviana signs downstairs and down the corridor to the Circumvesuviana ticket windows (no self-service ticket machines—line up). Insert your ticket at the turnstiles and head down another level to the platforms.
Circumvesuviana tickets are covered by the Campania ArteCard (see here), but not rail passes. If you’re heading to Pompeii, take any Circumvesuviana train marked Sorrento—they all stop at both places (usually depart from platform 3). Sorrento-bound trains depart twice hourly, and take about 40 minutes to reach Pompei Scavi-Villa Misteri (for Pompeii ruins, €2.60 one-way), and 70 minutes to reach Sorrento, the end of the line (€3.10 one-way). Express trains to Sorrento marked DD (6/day) reach Sorrento 15 minutes sooner, and also stop at Pompeii.
On the platform in Naples, double-check with a local that the train goes to Sorrento, as the Circumvesuviana has several lines that branch out to other destinations. When returning to Naples on the Circumvesuviana, get off at the next-to-the-last station, Garibaldi (Centrale Station is just up the escalator). Back in Naples, you can use your Circumvesuviana ticket to cover all public transit within three hours of validation (no need to validate again).
Perhaps your biggest risk of theft is while catching or riding the Circumvesuviana. You won’t be mugged—but you may be conned or pickpocketed. Especially late at night, the train is plagued by ruffians. For maximum safety and peace of mind, sit in the front car, where the driver will double as your protector, and avoid riding it after dark.
By Bus: Crowded SITA buses are most useful for traversing the popular Amalfi Coast. Mondo Guide tours also cover the Amalfi Coast. For more information on both options, see here and here.
By Taxi: For €100, you can take a 30-mile taxi ride from Naples directly to your Sorrento hotel; agree on a set price without the meter and pay upon arrival. You can hire a cab on Capri for about €70/hour. Taxis in the Amalfi Coast are generally expensive, but they can be convenient, especially with a larger group; see under “By Taxi” on here.
By Boat: Several ferry companies service the Naples, Sorrento, and Amalfi Coast areas: Caremar (www.caremar.it), SNAV (www.snav.it), Gescab (www.gescab.it), Navigazione Libera del Golfo (www.navlib.it), Alilauro (www.alilauro.it), and Alicost (www.alicost.it). For schedules to Capri, you can check online (www.capritourism.com; click “Shipping Timetable”), at any TI, or at the dock.
Each company has different destinations and prices. The quicker the trip, the higher the price. A hydrofoil, called a “jet boat,” skims between Naples and Sorrento—it’s faster, safer from pickpockets, more scenic, and more expensive than the Circumvesuviana train (6/day, more in summer, departs roughly every 2 hours starting at 9:00, 35 minutes).
At Naples’ Molo Beverello dock, ticket windows clearly display the next available departure. The number of boats that run per day depends on the season. Trips are canceled in bad weather. Most boats charge €2 or so for luggage. If you plan to arrive at and leave a destination by boat, note the return times—the last boat usually leaves around 19:00 or so.
Garibaldi, at the lower level of the Centrale Station complex, is used exclusively by the Circumvesuviana commuter train (which you’ll most likely use to connect to Sorrento or Pompeii). This is not the terminus for the Circumvesuviana; that’s one stop farther downtown, at the station called Porta Nolana.
Getting Downtown from the Station: Arriving at either station, the best bet for reaching most sights and hotels is either the Metro or a taxi. In the lower-level corridor (below the main Centrale hall), look for signs to Metro lines 1 and 2. Line 2 offers the faster route to the Archaeological Museum (ride it to the Cavour stop and walk 5 minutes). Line 1 is handy for city-center stops, including the cruise port (Municipio), the main shopping drag (Toledo and Dante), and the Archaeological Museum (Museo).
A long row of white taxis line up out front. Taxi fares are fixed and should not exceed €12 or so to downtown hotels or the Archaeological Museum. If you know the going rate (ask your hotelier or the TI inside the station), you’re less likely to get overcharged.
Train Connections from Naples to: Rome (at least hourly, 1 hour on Frecciarossa express trains; otherwise 2 hours), Florence (hourly, 3 hours), Venice (almost hourly, 5.5-7 hours with changes in Bologna or Rome). Any train listed on the schedule as leaving Napoli PG or Napoli-Garibaldi departs not from Napoli Centrale, but from the adjacent Garibaldi Station.
Note that the departures listed above are Trenitalia connections; Italo offers additional high-speed options to Rome, Florence, and Venice (www.italotreno.it).
From Naples by Circumvesuviana to: Pompeii (2/hour, 40 minutes), then Sorrento (2/hour, 70 minutes total, end of the line).
Rick’s Tip: To reach the ancient site of Pompeii, make sure to take the Circumvesuviana commuter train to the Pompei Scavi-Villa dei Misteri stop (scavi means “excavations”). Don’t take a regular train to the modern city of Pompei, which is on a separate rail line and a long, dull walk from the ruins.
Naples is a ferry hub with great boat connections to Sorrento, Capri, and other nearby destinations. Ferries use the Molo Beverello dock, while cruise ships use the nearby Stazione Marittima cruise terminal. The two docks are side by side at the port on the southeast edge of downtown Naples, near Castel Nuovo. Get to the city center by taxi, tram, Metro, or on foot; the Alibus shuttle bus runs to the airport.
The taxi stand is in front of the port area. Figure around €12 to get to the train station or to the Archaeological Museum.
As for public transit, a €1 single ticket covers either the tram or the Metro. You can buy tickets at any tobacco shop. Remember to validate your ticket as you board the tram or enter the Metro station.
Tram #1 stops at the busy road directly in front of the cruise terminal and heads to Piazza Garibaldi and the train station (6/hour, 15 minutes). If you’re taking the Circumvesuviana commuter line to Pompeii or Sorrento, hop off this tram a bit earlier, at Porta Nolana, where you can catch the train at its starting point.
Straight ahead across the road from the cruise terminal (on the right side of the big fortress) is Piazza Municipio, with the handy Municipio Metro stop. From here, Line 1 zips you to the Archaeological Museum (Museo stop) or, in the opposite direction, to the train station (Garibaldi stop).
On foot, it’s a seven-minute walk—past the gigantic Castel Nuovo—to Piazza del Plebiscito and the old city center.
Boat Connections from Naples to: Sorrento (6/day, more in summer, departs roughly every 2 hours starting at 9:00, 35 minutes), Capri (roughly 2/hour, hydrofoil: 45 minutes; ferries: 60-80 minutes); see www.snav.it and www.navlib.it.
Naples International Airport is located a few miles outside of town (a.k.a. Capodichino, code: NAP; handy info desk just outside baggage claim, tel. 081-789-6111 for operator, tel. 848-888-777 for info, www.gesac.it). Alibus shuttle buses whisk you from the airport to Naples’ Centrale train station/Piazza Garibaldi in 15 minutes, and then head to the port/Piazza Municipio for boats to Capri and Sorrento (buses run daily 6:30-24:00, 3/hour, less frequent early and late, 30 minutes to the port, €3 ticket from a tobacco shop or €4 on board, stops at train station and port only). Taxi prices from the airport are fixed at generally less than €20 to most downtown hotels; insist that the driver abide by this fixed rate.
To reach Sorrento from Naples Airport, take the direct Curreri bus (see here). A taxi to Sorrento costs about €100.
A once-thriving commercial port of 20,000, Pompeii (worth ▲▲▲) grew from Greek and Etruscan roots to become an important Roman city. Then, on August 24, a.d. 79, everything changed. Vesuvius erupted and began to bury the city under 30 feet of hot volcanic ash. For the archaeologists who excavated it centuries later, this was a shake-and-bake windfall, teaching them volumes about daily Roman life. Pompeii was accidentally rediscovered in 1599; excavations began in 1748.
Pompeii offers the best look anywhere at what life in Rome must have been like around 2,000 years ago. It’s easily reached from Naples on the Circumvesuviana commuter train. Vesuvius, still smoldering ominously, rises up on the horizon.
Rick’s Tip: Up to 15,000 visitors crowd the Pompeii site on the first Sunday of the month when it’s free. Avoid visiting on that day.
Cost: €11, possibly more during special exhibits, free first Sun of each month. Also consider the Campania ArteCard (see here) if visiting other sights in the region.
The Forum at Pompeii
Hours: Daily April-Oct 8:30-19:30, Nov-March 8:30-17:00, last entry 1.5 hours before closing.
Closures: Be warned that some buildings and streets are bound to be closed for restoration when you visit. If you get totally derailed, just use the map and numbers to find your way.
Getting There: Pompeii is roughly midway between Naples and Sorrento on the Circumvesuviana train line (2/hour, 40 minutes from Naples, 30 minutes from Sorrento, either trip costs about €2.50 one-way, not covered by rail passes). Get off at the Pompei Scavi-Villa dei Misteri stop; from Naples, it’s the stop after Torre Annunziata. The DD express trains (6/day) bypass several stations but do stop at Pompei Scavi, shaving 10 minutes off the trip from Naples. From the Pompei Scavi train station, it’s just a two-minute walk to the Porta Marina entrance: Leaving the station, turn right and walk down the road about a block to the entrance (on your left).
Parking: Parking is available at Camping Zeus, next to the Pompei Scavi train station (€2.50/hour, €10/12 hours); several other campgrounds/parking lots are nearby.
Information: Ignore the “info point” kiosk at the station, which is a private agency selling €12 tours. At the site, pick up the free map and booklet at the entrance (ask for it when you buy your ticket, or check at the info window to the left of the WCs—the maps aren’t available within the walls of Pompeii). Tel. 081-857-5347, www.pompeiisites.org.
Rick’s Tip: Parents should note that Pompeii’s ancient brothel contains sexually explicit frescoes; if you’re on a tour, let your guide know if you’d rather skip that stop.
Tours: My self-guided tour provides a good framework for exploring the site on your own, as does my free Pompeii audio tour. If you want a guided tour, book a Mondo Guide tour in advance (€15, doesn’t include €11 Pompeii entry but your guide will collect money and buy tickets, daily at 11:00, reservations required, meet at Hotel/Ristorante Suisse, just down the hill from the Porta Marina entrance; tel. 081-751-3290, www.mondoguide.com, email@example.com). Audioguides are available from a kiosk near the ticket booth at the Porta Marina entrance (€6.50, €10/2 people, ID required), but they offer basically the same info as your free booklet.
Length of This Tour: Allow two hours, or three to visit the theater and amphitheater. With less time, focus on the Forum, Baths of the Forum, House of the Faun, and brothel.
Baggage Check: You can check bags for a fee at the train station (downstairs, by the WC) or for free near the turnstiles at the site entrance.
Services: A pay WC is at the train station. The Pompeii site has three WCs—one near the entrance, one in the cafeteria, and another near the end of this tour, uphill from the theaters.
Eating: The Ciao cafeteria within the site serves good sandwiches, pizza, and pasta at reasonable prices. Several mediocre restaurants cluster between the entrance and the train station. Your cheapest bet may be a discreet picnic.
Pompeii, founded in 600 b.c., eventually became a booming Roman trading city. Not rich, not poor, it was middle class—a perfect example of typical Roman life. Streets would have been lined with stalls and jammed with customers from sunup to sundown. Chariots vied with shoppers for street space. Two thousand years ago, Rome controlled the entire Mediterranean—making it a kind of free-trade zone—and Pompeii was a central and bustling port.
Rich and poor mixed it up as elegant houses existed side by side with simple homes. Pompeii served an estimated 20,000 residents with more than 40 bakeries, 30 brothels, and 130 bars, restaurants, and hotels. With most of its buildings covered by brilliant white ground-marble stucco, Pompeii in a.d. 79 was an impressive town. As you tour Pompeii, remember that its best art is in the Archaeological Museum in Naples.
✵ Just past the ticket-taker, start your approach up to the...
1 Porta Marina M
The city of Pompeii was born on the hill ahead of you. This was the original town gate. Before Vesuvius blew and filled in the harbor, the sea came nearly to here. Notice the two openings in the gate (ahead, up the ramp). Both were left open by day to admit major traffic. At night, the larger one was closed for better security.
✵ Pass through the Porta Marina and continue up to the top of the street, pausing at the three large stepping-stones in the middle.
2 Pompeii’s Streets M
Every day, Pompeiians flooded the streets with gushing water to clean them. These stepping-stones let pedestrians cross without getting their sandals wet. Chariots traveling in either direction could straddle the stones. A single stepping-stone in a road means it was a one-way street, a pair indicates an ordinary two-way, and three (like this) signifies a major thoroughfare. The basalt stones are the original Roman pavement. The sidewalks (elevated to hide the plumbing) were paved with bits of broken pots (an ancient form of recycling) and studded with reflective bits of white marble. These “cats’ eyes” helped people get around after dark, either by moonlight or with the help of lamps.
A typical Pompeiian street
Pompeii Tour Map Key
1 Porta Marina
2 Pompeii’s Streets
5 Via Abbondanza
6 Fish & Produce Market; Plaster Casts of Victims
7 Baths of the Forum
8 Fast-Food Joint
9 House of the Tragic Poet
10 Aqueduct Arch
11 House of the Faun
12 Original Lead Pipes
13 House of the Vettii
14 Bakery & Mill
16 Temple of Isis
17 Theater & Piccolo Theater
18 To Amphitheater
✵ Continue straight ahead and enter the city as the Romans once did. The road opens up into the spacious main square—the Forum. Stand at the right end of this rectangular space and look toward Mount Vesuvius.
3 The Forum (Foro) M
Pompeii’s commercial, religious, and political center stands at the intersection of the city’s two main streets. While it’s the most ruined part of Pompeii, it’s grand nonetheless. Picture the piazza surrounded by two-story buildings on all sides. The pedestals that line the square once held statues (now safely displayed in the museum in Naples). Citizens gathered in the main square to shop, talk politics, and socialize. Business took place in the buildings that lined the piazza.
The Forum was dominated by the Temple of Jupiter, at the far end (marked by a half-dozen ruined columns atop a stair-step base). Jupiter was the supreme god of the Roman pantheon—you might be able to make out his little white marble head at the center-rear of the temple.
At the near end of the Forum (behind where you’re standing) is the curia, or city hall. Like many Roman buildings, it was built with brick and mortar, then covered with marble walls and floors. To your left (as you face Vesuvius and the Temple of Jupiter) is the basilica, or courthouse.
Pompeii had the same layout that you would find in any Roman city at the time. All power converged at the Forum: religious (the temple), political (the curia), judicial (the basilica), and commercial (this square was the main marketplace). Even the power of the people was expressed here, since this is where they gathered to vote.
Look beyond the Temple of Jupiter. Five miles to the north looms the ominous backstory to this site: Mount Vesuvius. Mentally draw a triangle up from the two remaining peaks to reconstruct the mountain before the eruption. When it blew, Pompeiians had no idea that they were living under a volcano, as Vesuvius hadn’t erupted for 1,200 years. Imagine the wonder—then the horror—as a column of pulverized rock roared upward, and then ash began to fall. The weight of the ash and small rocks collapsed Pompeii’s roofs later that day, crushing people who had taken refuge inside buildings instead of fleeing the city.
✵ As you face Vesuvius, the basilica is to your left, lined with stumps of columns. Backtrack to the three stepping stones we saw earlier to go inside. (If it’s fenced off, peer through the gate.)
4 Basilica M
Pompeii’s basilica was a first-century palace of justice. This ancient law court has the same floor plan later adopted by many Christian churches (also called basilicas). The big central hall (or nave) is flanked by rows of columns marking off narrower side aisles. Along the side walls are traces of the original marble.
The columns—now stumps all about the same height—were not ruined by the volcano. Rather, they were left unfinished when Vesuvius blew. Pompeii had been devastated by an earthquake in a.d. 62, and was in the process of rebuilding the basilica when Vesuvius erupted 17 years later. The half-built columns show the technology of the day. Uniform bricks were stacked around a cylindrical core. Once finished, they would have been coated with marble dust stucco to simulate marble columns—an economical construction method found throughout the Roman Empire.
Besides the earthquake and the eruption, Pompeii’s buildings have suffered other ravages over the years, including Spanish plunderers (c. 1800), 19th-century souvenir hunters, WWII bombs, wild vegetation, another earthquake in 1980, and modern neglect. The fact that the entire city was covered by the eruption of a.d. 79 actually helped preserve it, saving it from the sixth-century barbarians who plundered many other towns into oblivion.
✵ Exit the basilica and cross the short side of the square, to where the city’s main street hits the Forum. Stop at the three white stones that stick up from the cobbles.
5 Via Abbondanza M
Glance down Via Abbondanza, Pompeii’s main street. Lined with shops, bars, and restaurants, it was a lively, pedestrian-only zone. The three “beaver-teeth” stones are traffic barriers that kept chariots out. On the corner at the start of the street (just to the left), look at the dark travertine column standing next to the white one. The marble drums of the white column are not chiseled entirely round—another construction project left unfinished when Vesuvius erupted.
✵ Head toward Vesuvius, walking along the right side of the Forum. Immediately across from the Temple of Jupiter is a building with four round arches. Go in the door just to the right, and find two glass cases.
6 Fish and Produce Market, Plaster Casts of Victims M
As the frescoes on the wall (just inside on the left) indicate, this is where Pompeiians came to buy their food—fish, bread, chickens, etc. These fine examples of Roman art—with their glimpses of everyday life and their mastery of depth and illusion—would not be matched until the Renaissance, a thousand years after the fall of Rome.
The glass cases hold casts of Pompeiians, eerily captured in their last moments. They were quickly suffocated by a superheated avalanche of gas and ash, and their bodies were encased in volcanic debris. While excavating, modern archaeologists detected hollow spaces underfoot, created when the victims’ bodies decomposed. By gently filling the holes with plaster, the archaeologists were able to create molds of the Pompeiians who were caught in the disaster.
✵ Exit the market, turn right, and go under the arch. On the pillar to the right, look for the pedestrian-only road sign (two guys carrying an amphora, or ancient jug; it’s above the REG VII INS IV sign). In the road are more “beaver-teeth” traffic blocks. The modern cafeteria is the only eatery inside the archaeological site (with a coffee bar and WC upstairs).
Twenty yards past the cafeteria, on the left-hand side at #24, is the entrance to the...
7 Baths of the Forum (Terme del Foro) M
Pompeii had six public baths, each with a men’s and a women’s section. You’re in the men’s zone. The leafy courtyard at the entrance was the gymnasium. After working out, clients could relax with a hot bath (caldarium), warm bath (tepidarium), or cold plunge (frigidarium).
Plaster cast of victim
The first room you enter served as the dressing room. Holes on the walls were for pegs to hang clothing. High up, the window (with a faded Neptune underneath) was originally covered with a less-translucent Roman glass. Walk over the nonslip mosaics into the next room.
The tepidarium is ringed by mini-statues or telamones (male caryatids, figures used as supporting pillars), which divided the lockers. Clients would undress and warm up here, perhaps stretching out on one of the bronze benches near the bronze heater for a massage. Look at the ceiling—half crushed by the eruption and half intact, with its fine blue-and-white stucco work.
Next, admire the engineering in the steam-bath room, or caldarium. The double floor was heated from below—so nice for bare feet (look into the grate across from where you entered to see the brick support towers). The double walls with brown terra-cotta tiles held the heat. Romans soaked in the big tub, which was filled with hot water. Opposite the big tub is a fountain, which spouted water onto the hot floor, creating steam. The lettering on the fountain reminded those enjoying the room which two politicians paid for it...and how much it cost (5,250 sestertii). To keep condensation from dripping from the ceiling, ribbing was added to carry water down the walls.
Baths of the Forum
The Eruption of Vesuvius
At about 1:00 in the afternoon on August 24, a.d. 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted, sending a mushroom cloud of ash, dust, and rocks 12 miles into the air. It spewed for 18 hours straight, as winds blew the cloud southward. The white-gray ash settled like heavy snow on Pompeii, its weight eventually collapsing roofs and floors, but leaving the walls intact. Although most of Pompeii’s 20,000 residents fled that day, about 2,000 stayed behind.
That night, the type of eruption changed. The mountain let loose superheated avalanches of ash, pumice, and gas eastward (away from Pompeii). These red-hot “pyroclastic flows” sped down the side of the mountain at nearly 100 miles per hour, engulfing everything in their path. Around 7:30 in the morning, a pyroclastic flow headed south and struck Pompeii, snuffing out all life.
✵ Today’s visitors exit the baths through the original entry (at the far end of the dressing room). Immediately across the street is an ancient...
8 Fast-Food Joint M
After a bath, it was only natural to want a little snack. Just across the street is a fast-food joint, marked by a series of marble counters. Most ancient Romans didn’t cook for themselves in their tiny apartments, so to-go places like this were commonplace. The holes in the counters held the pots for food. Each container was like a thermos, with a wooden lid to keep the soup hot, the wine cool, and so on. Notice the groove in the front doorstep and the holes out on the curb. The holes likely accommodated cords for stretching awnings over the sidewalk to shield the clientele from the sun, while the grooves were for the shop’s folding accordion doors. Look at the wheel grooves in the pavement, worn down through centuries of use.
✵ Just a few steps uphill from the fast-food joint, at #5 (with a locked gate), is the...
9 House of the Tragic Poet(Casa del Poeta Tragico) M
This house is typical Roman style. The entry is flanked by two family-owned shops (each with a track for a collapsing accordion door). The home has an atrium (with skylight and pool to catch the rain), den (where deals were made by the shopkeeper), and garden (with rooms facing it and a shrine to remember both the gods and family ancestors). In the entryway is the famous “Beware of Dog” (Cave Canem) mosaic.
Today’s visitors enter the home by the back door (circle around to the left). Inside the house, the grooves on the marble well-head in the entry hall (possibly closed) were formed by generations of inhabitants dragging up the bucket by rope. The frescoed dining room is off the garden. Diners lounged on their couches (the Roman custom) and enjoyed frescoes with fake “windows,” giving the illusion of a bigger and airier room. Next to the dining room is a humble BBQ-style kitchen with a little closet for the toilet (the kitchen and bathroom shared the same plumbing).
✵ Return to the fast-food place and continue about 10 yards downhill to the big intersection. From the center of the intersection, look left to see a giant arch, framing a nice view of Mount Vesuvius.
10 Aqueduct Arch—Running Water M
This arch was part of Pompeii’s water-delivery system. A 100-mile-long aqueduct carried fresh water down from the hillsides to a big reservoir perched at the highest point of the city wall. Since overall water pressure was disappointing, Pompeiians built arches like the brick one you see here (originally covered in marble) with hidden water tanks at the top. Located just below the altitude of the main tank, these smaller tanks were filled by gravity and provided each neighborhood with reliable pressure.
✵ If you’re thirsty, fill your water bottle from the modern fountain. Then continue straight downhill one block (50 yards) to #2 on the left.
11 House of the Faun (Casa del Fauno) M
Stand across the street and marvel at the grand entry with “HAVE” (hail to you) as a welcome mat. Go in. Notice the two shrines above the entryway—one dedicated to the gods, the other to this wealthy family’s ancestors. (Contemporary Neapolitans still follow this practice; you’ll notice little shrines embedded in walls all over Naples.)
You’re standing in Pompeii’s largest home, where you’re greeted by the delightful small bronze statue of the Dancing Faun, famed for its realistic movement and fine proportion. (The original is in Naples’ Archaeological Museum.) With 40 rooms and 27,000 square feet, the House of the Faun covers an entire city block. The next floor mosaic, with an intricate diamond-like design, decorates the homeowner’s office. Beyond that, at the far end of the first garden, is the famous floor mosaic of the Battle of Alexander. (The original is also at the museum in Naples.) In 333 b.c., Alexander the Great beat Darius and the Persians. Romans had great respect for Alexander, the first great emperor before Rome’s. While most of Pompeii’s nouveau riche had bad taste, stuffing their palaces with over-the-top, mismatched decor, this guy had class. Both the faun (an ancient copy of a famous Greek statue) and the Alexander mosaic show an appreciation for history.
House of the Faun
The house’s back courtyard leads to the exit in the far-right corner. The courtyard is lined with pillars rebuilt after the a.d. 62 earthquake. Take a close look at the brick, mortar, and fake-marble stucco veneer.
✵ Leave the House of the Faun through its back door and turn right. (If this exit is closed, return to the entrance and make a U-turn left, around to the back of the house.) Thirty yards down, along the right-hand side of the street are metal cages protecting...
12 Original Lead Pipes M
These 2,000-year-old pipes (made of lead imported from Britannia) were part of the city’s elaborate water system. From the aqueduct-fed water tank at the high end of town, three independent pipe systems supplied water to the city: one for baths, one for private homes, and one for public water fountains. If there was a water shortage, democratic priorities prevailed: First the baths were cut off, then the private homes. The last water supply to go was the public fountains, where all citizens could get drinking and cooking water.
✵ If the street’s not closed off, take your first left (on Vicolo dei Vettii), walk about 20 yards, and find the entrance (on the left) to the next stop. (If the street—or the house—is closed, turn right instead, and skip down to the next set of directions.)
13 House of the Vettii (Casa dei Vettii) M
Pompeii’s best-preserved home has been blocked off for years; unfortunately, it’s unlikely to reopen in time for your visit. The House of the Vettii was the bachelor pad of two wealthy merchant brothers. If you can see the entryway, you may spot the huge erection. This is not pornography. There’s a meaning here: The penis and the sack of money balance each other on the goldsmith scale above a fine bowl of fruit. Translation: Only with a balance of fertility and money can you have abundance.
If it’s open, step into the atrium with its ceiling open to the sky to collect light and rainwater. The pool, while decorative, was also a functional water-supply tank. It’s flanked by large money boxes anchored to the floor. The brothers were successful merchants, and possibly moneylenders, too.
Exit on the right, passing the tight servant quarters, and go into the kitchen, with its bronze cooking pots (and an exposed lead pipe on the back wall). The passage dead-ends in the little Venus Room, which features erotic frescoes behind glass.
Return to the atrium and pass into the big colonnaded garden. It was replanted according to the plan indicated by the traces of roots that were excavated from the volcanic ash. Richly frescoed entertainment rooms ring this courtyard. Circle counterclockwise. The dining room is finely decorated in black and “Pompeiian red” (from iron rust). Notice the lead humidity seal between the wall and the floor, designed to keep the moisture-sensitive frescoes dry. Continuing around, you’ll see more of the square white stones inlaid in the floor. Imagine them reflecting like cats’ eyes as the brothers and their friends wandered around by oil lamp late at night. Frescoes in the Yellow Room (near the exit) show the ancient mastery of perspective, which would not be matched elsewhere in Europe for nearly 1,500 years.
✵ Facing the entrance to the House of the Vettii, turn left and walk downhill one long block (along Vicolo dei Vettii) to a T-intersection (Via della Fortuna), marked by a stone fountain with a bull’s head for a spout. Intersections like this were busy neighborhood centers, where the rent was highest and people gathered.
With the fountain at your back, turn left, then immediately right, walking along a gently curving road (Vicolo Storto). On the left side of the street, at #22, find four big stone cylinders. (If Vicolo Storto is fenced off, continue down the street and take the next possible right, then right again—looping around the closed-off block.)
14 Bakery and Mill (Forno e Mulini) M
The brick oven looks like a modern-day pizza oven. The stubby stone towers are flour grinders. Grain was poured into the top, and donkeys or slaves pushed wooden bars that turned the stones. The powdered grain dropped out of the bottom as flour—flavored with tiny bits of rock. Each neighborhood had a bakery like this.
Continue to the next intersection (Via degli Augustali, marked REG VII INS XII, where there’s another fast-food joint, at #33) and turn left. As you walk, look at the destructive power of all the vines, and notice how deeply the chariot grooves have worn into the pavement. Deep grooves could break wagon wheels. The suddenly ungroovy stretch indicates that this road was in the process of being repaved when the eruption shut everything down.
✵ Head about 50 yards down this (obviously one-way) street to #44 (on the left). Here you’ll find Taberna Hedones (with a small atrium, den, and garden). This bar still has its original floor and, deeper in, the mosaic arch of a grotto fountain. Just past the tavern, turn right and walk downhill to #18, on the right.
Possible detour: If the road past the tavern is blocked off, here’s another way to reach the next stop: First, backtrack to the Forum—go back the way you came, turn left at the bull’s-head fountain, then turn left again at the aqueduct arch. Back in the Forum, head down to the far end and turn left onto the main street, Via Abbondanza (which we looked down earlier—remember the beaver teeth?). Follow this, turning left up the street after the second fountain (marked REG VII INS I, with a small Vicolo del Lupanare sign). This leads to the entrance of the...
15 Brothel (Lupanare) M
You’ll find the biggest crowds in Pompeii at a place that was likely popular 2,000 ago, too—the brothel. Prostitutes were nicknamed lupe (she-wolves), alluding to the call they made when trying to attract business. The brothel was a simple place, with beds and pillows made of stone. The ancient graffiti includes tallies and exotic names of the women, indicating the prostitutes came from all corners of the Mediterranean (it also served as feedback from satisfied customers). The faded frescoes above the cells may have been a kind of menu for services offered. Note the idealized women (white, which was considered beautiful; one wears an early bra) and the rougher men (dark, considered horny). The bed legs came with little disk-like barriers to keep critters from crawling up.
✵ Leaving the brothel, go right, then take the first left, and continue going downhill two blocks to the intersection with Pompeii’s main drag, Via Abbondanza. The Forum—and exit—are to the right, for those who may wish to opt out from here.
The huge amphitheater—which is certainly skippable—is 10 minutes to your left. But for now, go left for 60 yards, then turn right just beyond the fountain, and walk down Via dei Teatri (labeled REG VIII INS IV). Turn left before the columns, and head downhill another 60 yards to #28, which marks the...
16 Temple of Isis M
This temple served Pompeii’s Egyptian community. The little white stucco shrine with the modern plastic roof housed holy water from the Nile. Isis, from Egyptian myth, was one of many foreign gods adopted by the eclectic Romans. Pompeii must have had a synagogue, too, but it has yet to be excavated.
✵ Exit the temple where you entered, and go right. At the next intersection, turn right again, and head downhill to the adjacent theaters. Your goal is the large theater down the corridor at #20, but if it’s closed, look at the adjoining, smaller, but similar theater (Teatro Piccolo) just beyond at #19. (Once inside the small theater, you may be able to find a path to the big one.)
17 Theater M
Originally a Greek theater (Greeks built theirs with the help of a hillside), this was the birthplace of the Greek port here in 470 b.c. During Roman times, the theater sat 5,000 people in three sets of seats, all with different prices: the five marble terraces up close (filled with romantic wooden seats for two), the main section, and the cheap nosebleed section (surviving only on the high end, near the trees). The square stones above the cheap seats once supported a canvas rooftop. Take note of the high-profile boxes, flanking the stage, for guests of honor. From this perch, you can see the gladiator barracks—the colonnaded courtyard beyond the theater. They lived in tiny rooms, trained in the courtyard, and fought in the nearby amphitheater.
✵ You’ve seen Pompeii’s highlights. When you’re ready to leave, backtrack to the main road and turn left, going uphill to the Forum, where you’ll find the main exit. For a shortcut back to the entrance area (with the bookstore, luggage storage, and quickest access to the train station), when you are halfway down the exit ramp, take the eight steps on the right and follow the signs. Otherwise, you’ll end up on the main road—where you’ll head right and loop around.
However, there’s much more to see—three-quarters of Pompeii’s 164 acres have been excavated, but this tour has covered only a third of the site. After the theater—if you still have energy to see more—go back to the main road and take a right toward the eastern part of the site, where the crowds thin out. Go straight for about 10 minutes, likely jogging right after a bit (just follow the posted maps). You’ll wind up passing through a pretty, forested area. At the far end is the...
18 Amphitheater M
If you can, climb to the upper level of the amphitheater (though the stairs are often blocked). Mentally replace the tourists below with gladiators and wild animals locked in combat. Walk along the top of the amphitheater and look down into the grassy rectangular area surrounded by columns. This is the Palaestra, once used for athletic training. (If you can’t get to the top of the amphitheater, you can see the Palaestra from outside—in fact, you can’t miss it, as it’s right next door.) Facing the other way, look for the bell tower that tops the roofline of the modern city of Pompei, where locals go about their daily lives in the shadow of the volcano, just as their ancestors did 2,000 years ago.
✵ If it’s too crowded to bear hiking back along uneven lanes to the entrance, you can slip out the site’s “back door,” which is next to the amphitheater. Exiting, turn right and follow the site’s wall all the way back to the entrance.
Spritzed by lemon and olive groves, Sorrento is an attractive resort of 20,000 residents—and, in summer, just as many tourists. Just an hour south of Naples but without a hint of big-city chaos, serene Sorrento makes an ideal home base for exploring the entire region. This gateway to the Amalfi Coast has an unspoiled old quarter, a lively shopping street, and a spectacular cliffside setting above the Mediterranean. The town’s economy is based on tourism, so everyone seems to speak fluent English and work for the Chamber of Commerce.
Downtown Sorrento is long and narrow. Piazza Tasso marks the town’s center. The congested main drag, Corso Italia, runs parallel to the sea, passing 50 yards below the train station, through Piazza Tasso, and then out toward the cape, where the road’s name becomes Via Capo. Nearly everything mentioned here (except Meta beach and the hotels on Via Capo) is within a 10-minute walk of the station. The town is perched on a cliff (some hotels have elevators down to sundecks on the water); the best real beaches are a couple of miles away.
Sorrento has two separate port areas: Marina Piccola, below Piazza Tasso, is a functional harbor with boats to Naples and Capri, as well as cruise-ship tenders. Marina Grande, below the other end of downtown, is a little fishing village, with recommended restaurants and more charm.
Sorrento is busiest in summer and hibernates in winter (Nov-March), when many places close down.
Rick’s Tip: Sorrento makes a great home base because all of the key destinations are within an hour or so: Naples (by train or boat), Pompeii (by train), the Amalfi Coast (by bus), and the island of Capri (by boat).
Tourist Information: The helpful regional TI (labeled Azienda di Soggiorno)—located inside the Foreigners’ Club—hands out the free monthly Surrentum magazine, with a great city map and schedules of boats, buses, concerts, and festivals (Mon-Fri 8:30-19:00, Sat-Sun 9:00-13:00 except closed Sun Oct-May; Via Luigi de Maio 35, tel. 081-807-4033, www.sorrentotourism.com).
Small “Info Points,” located around town, are: just outside the train station in the green caboose (daily 10:00-13:00 & 15:00-19:00); near Piazza Tasso at the corner of Via Correale (daily 10:00-13:00 & 16:00-21:00, under the yellow church); at Marina Piccola (daily 9:00-17:00, closed Nov-March); and at the Achille Lauro parking garage.
Tours: Naples-based Mondo Guide offers affordable shared tours from Sorrento—an Amalfi Coast drive (see here) and a boat trip to Capri (see here; tel. 081-751-3290, www.mondoguide.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
This lazy stroll through town ends down by the waterside at the small-boat harbor, Marina Grande.
✵ Begin on the main square. Stand under the flags with your back to the sea, and face...
This piazza is Sorrento’s living room. Noisy and congested, it’s where the action is. The most expensive apartments and top cafés are on or near this square. City buses stop at or close to the square on their way to Marina Piccola and Via Capo. The train station is a five-minute walk to the left. A statue of St. Anthony, patron of Sorrento, faces north to greet arrivals from Naples (he’s often equipped with an armload of fresh lemons and oranges).
This square spans a gorge that divides downtown Sorrento. The newer section (to your left) was farm country just two centuries ago. The older part is to your right, with an ancient Greek gridded street plan.
For a glimpse at the gorge-gouged landscape, take a quick detour: With the water to your back, carefully cross through the square and walk straight ahead a block inland, under a canopy of trees and past a long taxi queue. Belly up to the green railing in front of Hotel Antiche Mure and look down to see steps that were carved in the fifth century b.c. The combination of the gorge and the seaside cliffs made Sorrento easy to defend. A small section of wall closed the landward gap in the city’s defenses (you can still see fragments today a few blocks away, near Hotel Mignon).
Sorrento’s name may come from the Greek word for “siren,” the legendary half-bird, half-woman who sang an intoxicating lullaby. According to Homer, the sirens lived on an island near here. No one had ever sailed by the sirens without succumbing to their musical charms...and to death. But Homer’s hero Ulysses was determined to hear the song. He put wax in his oarsmen’s ears and had himself lashed to the mast of his ship. Oh, it was nice. The sirens, thinking they had lost their powers, threw themselves into the sea. Ulysses’ odyssey was about the westward expansion of Greek culture; to the ancient Greeks, Sorrento was the wild west.
✵ Back at Piazza Tasso, face the sea and head to the far-left corner of the square. You’ll find a...
STATUE OF TORQUATO TASSO
The square’s namesake, a Sorrento native, was a Renaissance poet—but today seems only to wonder which restaurant to choose. Directly behind the statue, pop into the Fattoria Terranova shop, one of many boutiques that sell regional goodies and offers free biscuits and tastes of liqueurs. This one makes all organic products on its own agriturismo farm outside the city.
Just to the right of the shop, peek into the big courtyard of the 18th-century, aristocratic Palazzo Correale (#18), its walls lined with characteristic tiles.
✵ As you’re leaving the courtyard, on your immediate left you’ll see the narrow...
VIA SANTA MARIA DELLA PIETà
Here, just a few yards off the busy main drag, is a street that goes back centuries before Christ. About 100 yards down the lane, at #24 (on the left), find a 13th-century palace (no balconies back then, for security reasons), now an elementary school. A few steps farther on, you’ll see a tiny shrine across the street. Typical of southern Italy, it’s where the faithful pray to their saint, who contacts Mary, who contacts Jesus, who contacts God. This shrine is more direct—it starts right with Mary.
✵ Continue down the lane, which ends at the delightful...
Walk alongside this long church until you reach the doors facing the street, halfway down. Step inside the outer door (free, daily 8:00-12:30 & 16:30-20:30, no visits during Mass), and examine the impressive intarsio (inlaid-wood) interior doors. Made to celebrate the pope’s visit in 1992, they show scenes of the town and its industry, as well as an old-town map. Continue into the church for a stroll around the ambulatory, checking out the intricate Stations of the Cross. Work your way toward the back door. Before exiting, on the right find the fine presepe (manger scene) that sets the first Christmas in Naples—with pasta, mozzarella, salami, and even Mount Vesuvius in the background. Exit through the back door, also crafted with finely inlaid wood.
✵ Backtrack 10 yards down Via Santa Maria della Pietà, turn left at the passage under the covered arcade, and cross busy Corso Italia.
CORSO ITALIA AND THE OLD TOWN
In the summer, this stretch of road is closed to traffic each evening, when it hosts the passeggiata and everyone is out strolling. Look back at the bell tower, with the scavenged ancient Roman columns at its base. Now go straight down Via P. Reginaldo Giuliani, following the old Greek street plan. Locals claim the ancient Greeks laid out the streets east-west for the most sunlight and north-south for the prevailing and cooling breeze. Pause at the poster board on your right to see who’s died lately.
✵ One block ahead, on your right, the 14th-century loggia is home to the...
SORRENTO MEN’S CLUB
Once the meeting place of the town’s nobles, this club has been a retreat for retired working-class men for generations. Strictly no women—and no phones.
Italian men venerate their mothers. (Italians joke that Jesus must have been a southern Italian because his mother believed her son was God, he believed his mom was a virgin, and he lived at home with her until he was 30.) But Italian men have also built into their culture ways to be on their own. Here, men play cards under a historic emblem of the city and a frescoed 16th-century dome, with marvelous 3-D scenes.
✵ Turn right for a better view of the Men’s Club and a historical marker describing the building. Then continue along...
VIA SAN CESAREO
This pedestrian-only shopping street leads back to Piazza Tasso. It’s lined with shops where you can sample lemon products. Notice the huge ancient doorways with their tiny doors—to let only the right people in, during a more dangerous age. The recommended Raki gelato shop is on this street, at #48.
✵ After a block, take a left onto Via degli Archi, go under the arch, and then hang a right (under another arch) to the square with the...
STATUE OF ST. ANTHONY
Sorrento’s town saint humbly looms among the palms, facing the basilica where the reliquary contains a few of his bones (free, downstairs in the crypt beneath the altar, surrounded by votives).
✵ Exit the square at the bottom-left (following the Lift to the Port signs; don’t go down the street with the line of trees and the Porto signs). Watch on the left for The Corner Shop, where Giovanni sells a wide variety of wines, limoncello, pastas, and other foods. Soon after, on the right you’ll see the trees in front of Imperial Hotel Tramontano, and to their right a path leading to a...
This fine public square, Villa Comunale, overlooks the harbor. Belly up to the banister to enjoy the view of Marina Piccola and the Bay of Naples. From here, steps zigzag down to the harbor, where lounge chairs line the sundecks (there’s also a €1 elevator to the harbor). The Franciscan church fronting this square faces a fine modern statue of Francis across the street. Next to the church is a little cloister. Pop inside to see Sicilian Gothic—a 13th-century mix of Norman, Gothic, and Arabic styles, all around the old pepper tree. This is a popular spot for weddings and concerts.
Around here, limoni are ubiquitous: screaming yellow painted on ceramics, dainty bottles of limoncello, and lemons the size of softballs at fruit stands.
The Amalfi Coast and Sorrento area produce several different kinds of lemons. The gigantic, bumpy “lemons” are actually citrons, called cedri, and are more for show—they’re pulpier than they are juicy, and make a good marmalade. The juicy sfusato sorrentino, grown only in Sorrento, is shaped like an American football, while the sfusato amalfitano, with knobby points on both ends, is less juicy but equally aromatic. These two kinds of luscious lemons are used in sweets such as granita (shaved ice doused in lemonade), limoncello (a candy-like liqueur with a big kick, called limoncino on the Cinque Terre), delizia (a dome of fluffy cake filled and slathered with a thick whipped lemon cream), spremuta di limone (fresh-squeezed lemon juice), and, of course, gelato or sorbetto alla limone.
✵ From here, you can quit the walk and stay in the town center, or continue another few minutes downhill to the waterfront at Marina Grande (if it’s before 20:00, you’ll be able to catch a bus back; otherwise, you’ll have to walk back uphill). To continue on to Marina Grande, return to the road and keep going downhill. At the next square (Piazza della Vittoria), which offers another grand view, cut over to the road closest to the water. After winding steeply down for a few minutes, it turns into a wide stairway, then makes a sharp and steep switchback (take the right fork to continue downhill). Farther down, just before reaching the waterfront, you pass under an...
ANCIENT GREEK GATE
This gate marks the boundary between Sorrento and Marina Grande, technically a separate town with its own proud residents—it’s said that even their cats look different.
✵ Now go all the way down the steps into Marina Grande, Sorrento’s “big” small-boat harbor.
Until recently, this community was traditional, with its economy based on fishing. Locals recall when women wore black when a relative died (1 year for an uncle, aunt, or sibling; 2-3 years for a husband or parent). Men got off easy, just wearing a black memorial button.
I recommend two harborfront restaurants that serve seafood and more: the cheaper, rustic Trattoria da Emilia and, on the far side of the harbor, the classier Ristorante Delfino, which boasts a sundeck for a lazy drink before or after lunch. (Both restaurants are listed under “Eating,” later.)
✵ From here, buses return to the center at Piazza Tasso every hour. Or you can walk back up.
▲LEMON GROVE GARDEN (GIARDINI DI CATALDO)
This small park consists of an inviting organic lemon and orange grove lined with shady, welcoming paths. The owners have worked the orchard through many generations. They’ve even grafted orange-tree branches onto a lemon tree so that both fruits now grow on the same tree. A nice little stand offers a chance to sniff and taste the varieties of lemons, and enjoy free samples of chilled limoncello along with other homemade liqueurs made from basil, mandarins, or fennel.
Cost and Hours: Free, daily 10:00-sunset, closed in rainy weather, tel. 081-878-1888, www.igiardinidicataldo.it. Enter the garden either on Corso Italia (100 yards north of the train station—where painted tiles show lemon fantasies) or at the intersection of Via Capasso and Via Rota (next to Hotel La Meridiana Sorrento).
Nearby: The family’s small “factory”—where you can see them making these products and buy a tasty gelato, granita, or lemonade—is just past the parking garage along the road below the garden (Via Correale 27). They also have a small shop across from the Corso Italia entrance (at #267).
▲▲CORSO ITALIA PASSEGIATTA
Take time to explore the surprisingly pleasant old city between Corso Italia and the sea. Views from Villa Comunale, the public park next to Imperial Hotel Tramontano, are worth the detour. Each night in summer (May-Oct at 19:30; Nov-April weekends only), the police close off Corso Italia to traffic, and Sorrento’s main drag becomes a thriving people scene. The passeggiata peaks at about 22:00. (When Piazza Tasso and the main thoroughfare are closed to traffic, buses for Via Capo leave from up on Via degli Aranci, a short walk from Piazza Tasso along Via Fuorimura.)
▲SWIMMING NEAR SORRENTO
There are no great beaches in Sorrento—the gravelly, jam-packed private beaches of Marina Piccola are more for partying than pampering, and there’s just a tiny spot for public use. The elevator in Villa Comunale city park (next to the Church of San Francesco) gets you down for €1. At Marina Grande, Restaurant Delfino has a pier lined with rentable lounge chairs for sunbathing.
A classic, sandy beach is two miles east at Meta, and is generally overrun by teenagers from Naples. While the Meta Circumvesuviana stop is a long walk from the beach (or a €25 cab ride), bus #A goes directly from Piazza Tasso to Meta beach (last stop, schedule posted for hourly returns). At Meta, you’ll find pizzerias, snack bars, and a little free section of beach, but expect to pay for a spot on one of the sprawling private beaches. Lido Metamare seems best (May-Sept, lockable changing cabins, lounge chairs, tel. 081-532-2505). It’s a very Italian scene, with a manicured beach, a playground, light lunches, loud pop music...and no international tourists.
The wild and stony beach at Punta del Capo is a 15-minute bus ride west from Piazza Tasso (the same bus #A explained above, but in the opposite direction from Meta; 2/hour, get off at stop in front of the American Bar, then walk 10 minutes past ruined Roman Villa di Pollio).
Tiny fishing Marina di Puolo is popular in the summer for its sandy beach, surfside restaurants, and beachfront disco (to get here, stay on bus #A a bit farther—ask driver to let you off at Marina di Puolo—then follow signs and hike down about 15 minutes).
Snorkeling and Diving
To go snorkeling or scuba diving in the Mediterranean, contact Futuro Mare for a one-hour boat ride out to the protected marine zone that lies between Sorrento and Capri with options for snorkelers, beginners, and experienced certified divers (about 3 hours round-trip, call 1-2 days in advance to reserve, tel. 349-653-6323, www.sorrentodiving.it, email@example.com).
You can rent motorboats big enough for four people at Marina Piccola (with your back to the ferry-ticket offices, it’s to the left around the corner at Via Marina Piccola 43; tel. 081-807-2283, www.nauticasicsic.com).
Sorrento is a fun place to enjoy a drink or some dancing after dinner.
Fauno Bar dominates Piazza Tasso with tables spilling onto the square.
Bagattelle American Bar, the oldest club in town, is run by DJ Daniele, who tailors music to the audience (including karaoke). The scene, while sloppy, is generally comfortable for the 30- to 60-year-old crowd. If you’re alone, there’s a pole you can dance with (no cover charge, €4-7 drinks, no food, nightly from 21:30, down the steps from the flags at Piazza Tasso).
The English Inn offers both a streetside pub and a more refined garden out back—at least until evening, when the music starts. The menu includes fish-and-chips, all-day English breakfast, baked beans on toast, and draft beer (daily, Corso Italia 55, tel. 081-878-2570).
The Foreigners’ Club, which has a sprawling terrace and some of the best sea views in town, offers live music—Neapolitan songs and Sinatra-style classics—nightly at 20:00 (May-mid-Oct). The meals are affordable yet uninspired, but it’s a good spot for dessert or an after-dinner limoncello (€6-8 light meals, €9-14 pastas and pizzas, €13-23 secondi, daily, Via Luigi de Maio 35, tel. 081-877-3263).
At Teatro Tasso, a hardworking troupe puts on The Sorrento Musical, a folk-music show that treats visitors to a schmaltzy dose of Neapolitan Tarantella music and dance—complete with “Funiculì Funiculà” and “Santa Loo-chee-yee-yah.” The 75-minute Italian-language extravaganza features a cast of 14 playing guitar, mandolin, saxophone, and tambourines, and singing operatically from Neapolitan balconies. Your €25 ticket (€50 with 4-course dinner) includes a drink before and after the show (3-5 nights/week mid-April-Oct at 21:30, bar opens 30 minutes before show, dinner starts at 20:00 and must be reserved in advance—in person or by email, box office open virtually all day long, facing Piazza Sant’Antonino in the old town, tel. 081-807-5525, www.teatrotasso.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
In a town proud to have no McDonald’s, consider eating well for a few extra bucks (I’ve listed two splurges on the next page).
Budget Eating: Pizzeria da Franco, a local favorite, serves hot sandwiches and pizzas on waxed paper (€5-8 meals, daily 8:00-late, just across from Lemon Grove Garden at Corso Italia 265, tel. 081-877-2066). Little Kebab Ciampa makes fresh kebabs nightly—your best €6 non-Italian meal in town (opens at 17:00, before cathedral off Via Santa Maria della Pietà, at Vico il Traversa Pietà 23, tel. 081-807-4595). Picnickers forage at the Decò supermarket (Mon-Sat 8:30-20:30, Sun 9:30-13:00 & 16:30-20:00, Corso Italia 223).
Gelato: These shops have creative flavors and use top-notch ingredients. Gelateria David, near the train station, also offers gelato-making classes (€12/person, 5-person minimum, 1 hour, reserve by email or phone: tel. 081-807-3649, email@example.com; a block below train station at Via Marziale 19); don’t mistake this place for the similarly named Gelateria Davide in the center. Raki is convenient, on the main shopping street (Via San Cesareo 48, mobile 329-877-7922).
Gourmet Splurges Downtown
Ristorante il Buco, once the cellar of an old monastery, is a dressy place serving creative, playful Mediterranean dishes under a grand, rustic arch. The emphasis is on seafood and a state-of-the-art kitchen. Reserve ahead to dine under their elegant vault (€20-24 pastas, €25-28 secondi, extravagant tasting menus for €75-100, good veggie options, Thu-Tue 12:30-14:30 & 19:30-23:00, closed Wed and Jan; just off Piazza Sant’Antonino—facing basilica, go under grand arch on your left and immediately enter restaurant at II Rampa Marina Piccola 5; tel. 081-878-2354, www.ilbucoristorante.it).
L’Antica Trattoria enjoys a sedate, candlelit ambience. The cuisine is traditional, but with modern flair and good veggie options. Run by the same family since 1930, the restaurant has a trellised garden outside and intimate nooks inside. They offer fixed-price meals (a €20 three-course lunch and a €44 four-course dinner) or you can order à la carte (€20-23 pastas, €30-35 secondi). Reservations are smart (daily 12:00-23:30, closed Mon Nov-Feb, air-con, Via Padre R. Giuliani 33, tel. 081-807-1082).
Mid-Priced Restaurants Downtown
Inn Bufalito specializes in all things buffalo (mozzarella di bufala, steak, sausage, salami, etc.), served in a modern space with a fun indoor-outdoor vibe. Don’t miss the seasonal specialties on the blackboard (€7-10 salads, €10-13 pastas, €12-18 secondi, daily 12:00-23:00, closed Nov-March, Vico I Fuoro 21, tel. 081-365-6975).
Chantecler’s Trattoria is a family-run hole-in-the-wall on the narrow lane leading to the cathedral. Their lunch menu is cheap; the dinner prices are affordable and they have good veggie options (lunch—€4 primi, €5 secondi; dinner—€6-9 pastas, €9-12 secondi; take out or eat in, Tue-Sun 12:00-15:00 & 18:30-23:00, closed Mon, Via Santa Maria della Pietà 38, tel. 081-807-5868).
Ristorante Pizzeria da Gigino, with a lively, sprawling interior and tables spilling onto the street, makes huge, tasty pizzas in their wood-burning oven (€8-12 pizzas and pastas—good gnocchi, €10-15 secondi, daily 12:00-24:00, closed Jan-Feb, just off Piazza Sant’Antonino at Via degli Archi 15, tel. 081-878-1927).
Meating, as its name implies, focuses on top-quality meats, from homemade sausages to giant steaks on a charcoal grill. They also have vegetarian options and a short list of pastas (€10-20 meals, Wed-Mon 12:00-15:00 & 18:00-24:00, closed Tue, Via Santa Maria della Pietà 20, tel. 081-878-2891).
Harborside in Marina Grande
For a decent dinner con vista, head down to the small-boat harbor, Marina Grande (follow the directions from the cliffside square, Villa Comunale, on my self-guided Sorrento walk). It’s about a 15-minute stroll from downtown. You can also take bus #D from Piazza Tasso. Be prepared to walk back (last bus leaves at 20:00) or spring for an overpriced taxi.
Ristorante Delfino serves fish in big portions in a quiet and bright pier restaurant. The cooking, service, and setting are all top-notch. At lunch, take advantage of the sundeck (€12-18 pastas, €18-30 secondi, daily 12:00-15:00 & 18:30-22:30, closed Nov-March; at Marina Grande, facing the water, go all the way to the left and follow signs; tel. 081-878-2038).
Trattoria da Emilia, at the opposite end of the waterfront, is more rustic, less expensive, and good for Sorrentine home-cooking, including lots of fresh fish and fried seafood (€6-13 pastas, €11-16 secondi, daily 12:15-15:00 & 19:00-22:30 except closed Tue Sept-Oct, closed Nov-Feb, no reservations taken, indoor and outdoor seating, tel. 081-807-2720).
Hotels often have beautiful views; many offer balconies. Ask for a room “con balcone, con vista sul mare” (with a balcony, with a sea view). “Tranquillo” is taken as a request for a quieter room off the street.
Hotels listed are either near the center (where balconies overlook city streets) or on cliffside Via Capo (with sea-view balconies), a 20-minute walk—or short bus ride—from the station.
In August, the town is jammed with Italians and prices often rise above the regular high-season rates quoted here. Rates are soft in April and October, and drop by about a third from November to March. Always contact hotels directly, mention this book, and ask for their best rate.
In the Town Center
$$$ Hotel Antiche Mura, with 50 rooms and four stars, is sophisticated, elegant, and plush. Surrounded by lemon trees, the pool and sundeck offer a peaceful oasis. Just a block off the main square, it’s quiet because it’s perched on the ledge of a dramatic ravine (small-windowed Db-€150, regular Db-€219, balcony Db-€279, Tb-€299, Qb-€340; air-con, elevator, parking-€10/day, a block inland from Piazza Tasso at Via Fuorimura 7, tel. 081-807-3523, www.hotelantichemura.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$$$ Plaza Sorrento, next door, is an upscale, contemporary refuge with an inviting rooftop swimming pool. “Comfort” and “Superior” rooms offer balconies for €20-40 more (standard Db-€180, Tb-€230, 10 percent discount if you reserve directly with hotel and show this book, elevator, air-con, Via Fuorimura 3, tel. 081-877-1056, www.plazasorrento.com, email@example.com).
Abbreviations: S=Single, D=Double/Twin, T=Triple, Q=Quad, b=bathroom
Price Rankings for Double Rooms: $$$ Most rooms €140 or more, $$ €85-140, $ €85 or less
Notes: Many Italian cities levy a hotel tax of €1.50-5 per person, per night (often collected in cash; usually not included in the rates I’ve quoted). Room prices change; verify rates online or by email. For the best prices, book directly with the hotel.
$$$ Hotel Palazzo Tasso has 11 small, sleek, modern rooms, though there’s little public space and peak-season prices are high (rates change by the day, Db-up to €220 in peak season, “deluxe” room with balcony-€20 extra, air-con, elevator, Via Santa Maria della Pietà 33, tel. 081-878-3579, www.palazzotasso.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$$ Il Palazzo Starace B&B offers seven tidy, modern rooms in a little alley off Corso Italia, one block from Piazza Tasso (Db-€120-130 depending on size, balcony-€15 extra, five-bed family room-€170, 10 percent off with cash and this book in 2016, air-con, lots of stairs, no elevator but has a luggage dumbwaiter, ring bell around corner from Via Santa Maria della Pietà 9, tel. 081-807-2633, mobile 366-950-5377, www.palazzostarace.com, email@example.com).
$$ Hotel Mignon rents 22 soothing blue rooms with beautiful, tiled public spaces, a rooftop sundeck, and a small garden (Sb-€80, Db-€120-€130, Tb-€150, air-con, most rooms have balconies but no views; from the cathedral, walk a block farther up Corso Italia and look for the hotel up a small gated lane to your left; Via Sersale 9, tel. 081-807-3824, www.sorrentohotelmignon.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$ Ulisse Deluxe Hostel is the best budget deal in town, with 56 well-equipped, marble-tiled rooms and elegant public areas, as well as two six-bed dorm rooms (hotel: Db-€80, Tb-€120, Qb-€160; hostel: €25/bunk in single-sex dorm; breakfast buffet-€10; for the best rates, mention this book and reserve directly; air-con, elevator, spa and pool use cost extra, parking-€10/day, Via del Mare 22, tel. 081-877-4753, www.ulissedeluxe.com, email@example.com). The hostel is a five-minute walk from the old-town action: From Corso Italia, walk down the stairs just beyond the hospital (ospedale) to Via del Mare. Go downhill along the right side of the big parking lot to find the entrance.
On Via Capo
These cliffside hotels are outside of town, toward the cape of the peninsula (from the train station, go straight out Corso Italia, which turns into Via Capo—a 20-minute walk). Or you can easily get here by bus (bus #A, about 3/hour from Piazza Tasso, €1.60). If you’re in Sorrento to stay put and luxuriate, especially with a car, these places are perfect.
$$$ Hotel Minerva, my favorite Sorrento splurge, is like a sun-worshipper’s temple. The road-level entrance (on a busy street) leads to an elevator that takes you to the fifth-floor reception, where you’ll step onto a spectacular terrace with outrageous Mediterranean views. Bright common areas, a small rooftop swimming pool, and a cold-water Jacuzzi complement 60 colorful rooms, some with balconies (Db-€170, Tb-€210, balcony-€20 extra, 3-night peak season minimum, air-con, parking-€15/day, closed Nov-March, Via Capo 30, tel. 081-878-1011, www.minervasorrento.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$$$ Hotel La Tonnarella is a villa turned boutique hotel, with several terraces and a small beach with private elevator access. Eighteen of its 24 rooms have views (non-view Db-€155, “superior” sea-view or balcony Db-€200, “deluxe” Db with view terrace-€220, exotic view suite with terrace-€330, extra bed-€50, air-con, parking-€5/day, closed Nov-March, Via Capo 31, tel. 081-878-1153, www.latonnarella.it, email@example.com).
$$ Albergo Settimo Cielo (“Seventh Heaven”) is an old-fashioned, family-run cliff-hanger, 300 steps above Marina Grande. The reception is just off the waterfront side of the road, and the elevator passes down through four floors with 50 clean but spartan rooms—all with grand views, and many with balconies (Db-€140, Tb-€180, Qb-€215, slightly cheaper without balcony, air-con in summer, free parking with this book, nice pool, sun terrace, closed Nov-March, Via Capo 27, tel. 081-878-1012, www.hotelsettimocielo.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$$ Hotel Désirée has reasonable rates, a rooftop sunning terrace, and humbler vistas. The 22 basic rooms have ravine-facing or partial-sea views, and half come with balconies—all the same price (Sb-€64, small Db-€79, Db-€89, Tb-€109, Qb-€119, most rooms have fans, lots of stairs with no elevator, laundry-€8, free parking, closed early-Nov-Feb except for Christmas, Via Capo 31, tel. 081-878-1563, www.desireehotelsorrento.com, email@example.com).
Getting Around Sorrento
By Bus: City buses (usually orange or red-and-white) all stop near the main square, Piazza Tasso, and run until 20:00. Bus #A takes a long route parallel to the coast, heading east to Meta beach or west to the hotels on Via Capo and beyond (about 3/hour); buses #B and #C make a loop up and down, connecting the port (Marina Piccola) to the town center; and bus #D heads to the fishing village (Marina Grande). The trip between Piazza Tasso and Marina Piccola costs just €1.20; for other trips, tickets cost €1.60 and are valid for up to one hour (purchase at tobacco shops and newsstands). Stamp your ticket upon entering the bus. The €8, 24-hour Costiera Sita Sud pass covers Sorrento and the entire Amalfi Coast.
Bus stops can be tricky to find. Buses #A and #D stop where Corso Italia passes through Piazza Tasso. If you’re heading west (to Via Capo or Marina Grande), find the stop at the west end of the piazza, across from the statue of Torquato Tasso. If you’re heading east (to Meta), catch it in front of the yellow church at the east end of the piazza. Buses #B and #C stop at the corner of Piazza Sant’Antonino, just down the hill toward the water.
A different bus (often gray, operated by a private company) runs only between the port and Piazza Tasso (3/hour in season, €1.20, buy ticket from driver, not covered by 24-hour pass).
By Scooter: Many places rent motor scooters for about €35 per day, including two locations near the train station: Europcar (Corso Italia 210p, tel. 081-878-1386, www.sorrento.it) and Penisola Rent, in Hotel Nice (Corso Italia 259, tel. 081-877-4664, www.penisolarent.com). Don’t rent a vehicle in summer unless you enjoy traffic jams.
Rick’s Tip: In Sorrento, taxis can be a huge rip-off. Because of heavy traffic and the complex one-way road system, you can often walk faster than you can ride.
By Taxi: Taxis are expensive, charging an outrageous €15 for the short ride from the station to most hotels (more for Via Capo). Even if you agree to a set price, be sure it has a meter (all official taxis have one).
By Bus Tour: To see more of the peninsula, consider CitySightseeing Sorrento’s hop-on, hop-off bus tours (€12, buy tickets on board, daily 4/day April-Oct, full loop is seven stops in 1.75 hours, departs from front of train station, www.sorrento.city-sightseeing.it).
Arriving and Departing
Sorrento is the last stop on the Circumvesuviana train line from Naples. In front of the Sorrento train station is the town’s main bus stop, as well as taxis waiting to overcharge you. All recommended downtown hotels are within a 10-minute walk.
Getting to Via Capo hotels requires an uphill 20-minute walk, a €20 taxi ride, or a cheap bus ride. If you’re arriving with luggage, you can wait at the train station for one of the long-distance SITA buses (usually red or green-and-white) that stop on Via Capo on their way to Massa Lubrense (about every 40 minutes). Frequent Sorrento city buses leave from Piazza Tasso in the city center, a five-minute walk from the station (go down a block and turn left on Corso Italia; from the far side of the piazza, look for bus #A, about 3/hour). Tickets for either bus are sold at the station newsstand and tobacco shops (€1.60). Get off at the Hotel Belair stop for my recommended hotels. After 19:30 or on Sunday, when the city center can be closed to traffic (including the Piazza Tasso bus stop), catch the bus instead on Via degli Aranci (with your back to the station, wind left, up and around it; the bus stop is near Bar Paradise).
Train Connections to Naples and Pompeii: The Circumvesuviana commuter train runs twice hourly between Naples and Sorrento. The schedule is printed in the free Surrentum magazine (available at TI). From Sorrento, it’s about 30 minutes to Pompeii (€2.20), and 70 minutes to Naples (€3.60). If there’s a line at the train station, you can also buy tickets at the Snack Bar (across from the main ticket office) or downstairs at the newsstand.
Six Curreri buses run daily to and from Naples International Airport (€10, pay driver, leaves Sorrento daily at 6:30, 8:30, 10:30, 12:00, 14:00, and 16:30, likely 2 additional departures in summer, 1.5 hours, departs Sorrento from in front of train station, tel. 081-801-5420, www.curreriviaggi.it).
Passenger boats and cruise tenders dock at Marina Piccola. To head from the marina to downtown Sorrento, go up the big staircase where the pier bends. Standing on the promenade and facing town, you’ll see a TI kiosk and ticket windows for boats to Capri and Naples in the lower area to your left; the bus stop directly ahead; and the elevator up to town to the right, about a five-minute walk along the base of the cliff (€1, follow lift/acensore signs). The bus is the easier option, since it takes you directly to Piazza Tasso in the middle of town. Just catch the next bus (either the city bus, buy ticket before boarding at the nearby ticket window; or the private gray bus, buy ticket on board; either way, the ride costs €1.20 and takes just a few minutes; buses generally depart at least every 20 minutes). If you ride the elevator up to the Villa Comunale city park, exit through the park gate and bear left; Piazza Tasso is about four blocks away.
Boat Connections: The number of boats that run per day varies: The frequency indicated here is for roughly mid-May through mid-October, with more boats per day in the peak of summer and fewer off-season. Check all schedules locally with the TI, your hotel, or online (use the individual boat company websites below, or www.capritourism.com). The Caremar line, a subsidized state-run ferry company, takes cars, offers fewer departures, and is just a bit slower—but cheaper—than the hydrofoil. All of the boats take several hundred people each, and frequently fill up. Boat tickets are sold only at the port; you can buy them for the next day, but only in the evening.
From Sorrento to Capri: Boats run at least hourly. Your options include a fast ferry (traghetto or nave veloce, 4/day, 25 minutes, Caremar, tel. 081-807-3077, www.caremar.it) or a slightly faster, pricier hydrofoil (aliscafi, up to 20/day, 20 minutes, Gescab, tel. 081-807-1812, www.gescab.it). To visit Capri when it’s least crowded, it’s best to buy your ticket at 8:00 (or the evening before) and take the 8:30 hydrofoil; if you miss it, try to depart by 9:45 at the latest. These early boats can be jammed, but it’s worth it once you reach the island.
From Sorrento to Naples: Boats depart roughly every two hours, starting at 7:20 (6/day, more in summer, 35 minutes, NLG, www.navlib.it).
Sorrento’s Achille Lauro underground parking garage is centrally located, just a couple of blocks in front of the train station (€2/hour, €24/24 hours, on Via Correale).
The island of Capri is just a short cruise from Sorrento. It was the vacation hideaway of Roman emperors Augustus and Tiberius and, in the 19th century, the haunt of Romantic Age aristocrats.
The “Island of Dreams” is a zoo in July and August, overrun with group tourism at its worst, with nametag-wearing visitors searching for the rich and famous—and finding only their prices.
At other times of year, though still crowded, Capri can provide a relaxing, scenic break from the cultural gauntlet of Italy. What gets lost in all of the glitz is how gorgeous it is: Chalky white limestone cliffs rocket boldly from the shimmering blue and green surf. Its chief attraction is the famous Blue Grotto and its best activity is the chairlift up Monte Solaro.
Scenic, relaxing Capri
Pronounce it right: Italians say KAH-pree, not kah-PREE like the song or the pants. The island is just four miles by two miles, separated from Sorrento by a narrow strait. Get oriented on the boat before you dock, as you near the harbor with the island spread out before you. The port is a small community of its own, called Marina Grande, connected by a funicular and buses to the rest of the island. Capri town fills the ridge high above the harbor. The ruins of Emperor Tiberius’ palace, Villa Jovis, cap the peak on the left. To the right, the dramatic “Mamma mia!” road arcs around the highest mountain on the island (Monte Solaro), leading up to Anacapri (the island’s second town, just out of sight). Notice the old zigzag steps below that road. Until 1874, this was the only connection between Capri and Anacapri. The white house on the ridge above the zigzags is Villa San Michele (where you can go for a grand view).
To see everything on a day trip from Naples or Sorrento: Take an early hydrofoil to Capri (from Sorrento, buy ticket at 8:00—or buy it the evening before; the boat leaves around 8:30 and arrives around 8:50). Upon arrival at Marina Grande, catch a boat to the Blue Grotto. Instead of taking the boat back, catch a bus from the grotto to Anacapri, which has 2-3 hours’ worth of sightseeing. In Anacapri, see the town, ride the chairlift to Monte Solaro and back (or hike down), stroll out from the base of the chairlift to Villa San Michele for the view, and eat lunch. Afterward, catch a bus to Capri town, which is worth at least a half-hour. Finally, ride the funicular from Capri town down to the harbor and laze on the free beach or wander the yacht harbor while waiting for your boat back to Sorrento.
If you’re heading to Capri specifically to see the Blue Grotto, be sure to check the weather and sea conditions. If the tide is too high or the water too rough, the grotto can be closed. Ask the TI or your hotelier before going.
You could visit Capri on the way between destinations: Sail from Sorrento, check your bag at the harbor, see Capri, and take a boat directly from there to Naples or to the Amalfi Coast (or vice versa).
If you visit Capri during July and August, it’s wise to get a round-trip boat ticket with a late return time (ensuring you a spot on a boat at the time they’re most crowded)—you can always use the ticket to return earlier if you like. On busy days, be 20 minutes early for the boat, or you can be bumped.
Outside of July and August, buy a one-way ticket to Capri (there’s no round-trip discount anyway) to give yourself maximum schedule flexibility; then you can take any convenient hydrofoil or ferry back. Be sure to check times for the last return crossing upon arrival with any TI on Capri (or at www.capritourism.com); the last return trips usually leave between 18:30 and 19:30.
Starting your day early is the key to an enjoyable trip to Capri. Day-trippers come down from as far as Rome, creating a daily rush hour in each direction (arriving between 10:00-11:00, leaving around 17:00). If you arrive before them, the entire trip to and into the Blue Grotto might take you just a half-hour; arrive later and you might face as much as a two-hour delay.
A cheap day trip to Capri is tough. Hydrofoils from Sorrento cost €17 each way, and a Blue Grotto ticket (plus boat transportation) comes to €32—so you’re already pushing €50 per person before you even factor in bus tickets and admissions elsewhere on the island. You can save a few euros by taking the slightly slower (but less frequent) Caremar ferry to Capri instead of the hydrofoil, and another few euros by using the bus to the Blue Grotto instead of the boat. After the boats stop running, anyone willing to swim the few yards in from the little dock can see the Blue Grotto for free (albeit illegally).
Tourist Information: Capri’s TI has branches in Marina Grande (near Motoscafisti Capri tour boat dock, tel. 081-837-0634), Capri town (on Piazza Umberto under bell tower, WC and baggage storage downstairs behind TI, tel. 081-837-0686), and Anacapri (on main pedestrian/shopping street, Via Orlandi 59, tel. 081-837-1524). Their well-organized website has schedules and practical information in English (www.capritourism.com). At any TI, pick up the free map or pay for a better one if you’ll be venturing to the outskirts of Capri town or Anacapri.
Baggage Storage: At the port, the fourth souvenir shop to the right of the funicular provides baggage storage (daily 9:00-18:00, look inside for left luggage sign on far back wall, tel. 081-837-4575). If it’s closed, your best option is at the upper funicular station in Capri town (daily 7:00-20:00, bag storage behind TI; you pay extra to take big bags up the funicular).
Tours: Naples-based Mondo Guide offers a no-stress, all-day shared tour for €80, which includes: pick-up at your hotel, transportation to and from Capri on a private boat (10 people maximum), an early visit to the Blue Grotto when conditions allow (€13 entry, optional), about four hours of free time on Capri, and a trip around the island (daily at 8:00, may be cancelled in bad weather). Reservations are required (tel. 081-751-3290, www.mondoguide.com, firstname.lastname@example.org); see here.
Tempio Travel, based at the Sorrento train station, offers a similar trip to Capri at a similar price (tel. 081-878-2103, www.tempiotravel.com).
▲CHURCH OF SAN MICHELE
▲VILLA SAN MICHELE
▲▲CHAIRLIFT UP TO MONTE SOLARO
Map: Marina Grande
Three thousand tourists a day visit the Blue Grotto (Grotta Azzurra). I did—early (when the light is best), without the frustration of crowds, and with choppy waves nearly making entrance impossible...and it was great.
The actual cave experience isn’t much: a five-minute dinghy ride through a three-foot-high entry hole to reach a 60-yard-long cave, where the sun reflects brilliantly blue on its limestone bottom. But the experience—getting there, getting in, and getting back—is a hoot. You get a fast ride and scant narration on a 30-foot boat partway around the gorgeous island; along the way, you see bird life and limestone cliffs. Roman emperors appreciated the island’s invulnerability—surrounded by cliffs, with only one good access point, it’s easy to defend.
Just outside the grotto, your boat idles as you pile into eight-foot dinghies that hold up to four passengers each. Next, you’ll be taken to a floating ticket counter and asked for the €13 entry fee. From there, your rower will elbow his way to the tiny hole, then pull fast and hard on the cable at the low point of the swells to squeeze you into the grotto (keep your head down and hands in the boat). Then your man rows you around, spouting off a few descriptive lines and singing “O Sole Mio.” Depending upon the strength of the sunshine that day, the blue light inside can be brilliant.
The grotto was actually an ancient Roman nymphaeum—a retreat for romantic hanky-panky. Many believe that a tunnel led here directly from the palace; and that the grotto experience was enlivened by statues of Poseidon and company, placed half-underwater as if emerging from the sea. It was ancient Romans who smoothed out the entry hole that’s still used to this day.
When dropping you off, your boatman will fish for a tip—this is optional, and €1 is sufficient.
Cost: The €13 entry fee (separate from the €14 ride from Marina Grande) includes €9 for the rowboat service plus €4 to cover the admission to the grotto itself. Though signs forbid it, some people dive in for free from the little dock next to the grotto entrance after boats stop running—a magical experience and a favorite among locals.
Timing: When waves or high tide make entering dangerous, the grotto can close without notice, sending tourists home disappointed. If this happens to you, consider the one-hour boat ride around the island instead.
If you’re coming from Capri’s port (Marina Grande), allow 1-3 hours for the entire visit. Going with the first trip will get you there at the same time as the boatmen in their dinghies—who hitch a ride behind your boat—resulting in a shorter wait at the entry point.
If you arrive on the island later in the morning—when the Blue Grotto is already jammed—try visiting about 15:00, when most of the tour groups have vacated. This may only work by bus (not boat). Confirm that day’s closing time with a TI before making the trip.
Getting There: You can either take the boat directly from Marina Grande, as most people do, or save money by taking the bus via Anacapri.
Two companies make the boat trip from different parts of Marina Grande: Laser Capri (tel. 081-837-5208, www.lasercapri.com) and Motoscafisti Capri (081-837-7714, www.motoscafisticapri.com). It’s €14 round-trip with either company (no one-way discount). The first boats depart Marina Grande at 9:00, continuing until 13:00 and often later (likely 17:00 in summer, but earlier off-season).
If you’re on a budget, you can take the bus from Anacapri to the grotto. You’ll save almost €7, lose time, and see a beautiful, calmer side of the island. Anacapri-Blue Grotto buses (roughly 3/hour, 10 minutes) depart only from the Anacapri bus station at Piazza della Pace (not from the bus stop at Piazza Vittoria 200 yards away, which is more popular with tourists). If you’re coming from Marina Grande or Capri town and want to transfer to the Blue Grotto buses, don’t get off when the driver announces “Anacapri.” Instead, ride one more stop to Piazza della Pace. If in doubt, ask the driver. At the Piazza della Pace bus station, notice the two lines: Grotta Azzurra for the Blue Grotto, and Faro for the lighthouse.
Getting Back: You can either take the boat back, or ask your boatman to drop you off on the small dock next to the grotto entrance, from where you climb up the stairs to the stop for the bus to Anacapri (if you came by boat, you’ll still have to pay the full round-trip boat fare).
This cute but extremely clogged and touristy shopping town is worth a brief visit. You can get here from the port (taking the funicular, which drops you just around the corner from Piazza Umberto) or by public bus from Anacapri (4/hour, 10 minutes). The TI is under the bell tower on Piazza Umberto.
Capri town’s multi-domed Baroque cathedral, also on Piazza Umberto, has a multicolored marble floor, scavenged in the 19th century from Emperor Tiberius’ villa.
To the left of City Hall (Municipio, lowest corner of the square), a narrow, atmospheric lane leads into the medieval part of town, which has plenty of eateries.
The lane to the left of the cathedral (past Bar Tiberio, under the wide arch) is a fashionable shopping strip, dubbed “Rodeo Drive” by residents. Walk a few minutes down Rodeo Drive (past Gelateria Buonocore at #35, with its fresh waffle cones) to Quisisana Hotel, the island’s top old-time hotel. From there, head left for fancy shops and villas, and right for gardens and views.
Downhill and to the right, a five-minute walk leads to a lovely public garden, Giardini di Augusto (€1, April-Oct daily 9:00-19:30, May and early Nov daily 9:00-17:30, shorter hours and free to enter off-season, no picnicking). It boasts great views—handy if you don’t have the time, money, or interest to access the higher vantage points near Anacapri (Monte Solaro or Villa San Michele).
Capri’s second town has 2-3 hours’ worth of interesting sights. Though Anacapri sits higher up on the island, there are no sea views at street level in the town center.
There are two bus stops: Piazza Vittoria, in the center of town near the base of the Monte Solaro chairlift; and 200 yards farther along at Piazza della Pace (pronounced “PAH-chay”), a larger bus station near the cemetery. Piazza Vittoria gets you a bit closer to the main sights (chairlift and Villa San Michele), while Piazza della Pace is where you transfer to or from the Blue Grotto bus.
Rick’s Tip: Buses leaving Anacapri for Capri town or Marina Grande can be packed. Your best chance to get a seat is to catch the bus from Piazza della Pace.
From either stop, if you’re here to sightsee Anacapri, make your way to Via Orlandi, the town’s pedestrianized main street. From Piazza Vittoria, the street is right there—just go down the lane to the right of the Anacapri statue. From Piazza della Pace, reach it via the crosswalk and then the small lane called Via Filietto. The TI is at Via Orlandi 59, near Piazza Vittoria.
To see the town, stroll along Via Orlandi for 10 minutes or so. Signs suggest a quick circuit that links Casa Rossa (containing four sea-worn Blue Grotto statues upstairs plus a small collection of 19th-century paintings), Church of San Michele (listed below), and peaceful side streets. Along with plenty of shops, you’ll also find eateries selling quick, inexpensive pizza, panini, and other goodies; try Sciué Sciué (same price for informal seating or takeaway, near TI at #73, tel. 081-837-2068) or Pizza e Pasta (takeaway only, just before church at #157, tel. 328-623-8460).
▲CHURCH OF SAN MICHELE
This Baroque church in the town center has a remarkable majolica floor showing paradise on earth in a classic 18th-century Neapolitan style. The entire floor is ornately tiled, featuring an angel driving Adam and Eve from paradise and the devil wrapped around the trunk of a beautiful tree. For the best view, climb the spiral stairs from the postcard desk.
Cost and Hours: €2, daily April-Oct 9:00-18:30, Nov and mid-Dec-March 10:00-14:00, closed late Nov-mid Dec, in town center just off Via Orlandi—look for signs for San Michele, tel. 081-837-2396, www.chiesa-san-michele.com.
▲VILLA SAN MICHELE
This is the 19th-century mansion of Axel Munthe, an idealistic doctor who lived here until 1943 and whose services to the Swedish royal family brought him into contact with high society. Walk the path from Piazza Victoria past the villa to a superb viewpoint over Capri town, and—in the distance—Mount Vesuvius and Sorrento. Paying to enter the villa lets you see a few rooms with period furnishings; a ho-hum exhibit on Munthe; a delightful garden; and Olivetum (a tiny museum of native birds and bugs). A view café serves affordable sandwiches.
Cost and Hours: €7, May-Sept daily 9:00-18:00, closes earlier Oct-April, tel. 081-837-1401, www.villasanmichele.eu.
Getting There: From Piazza Vittoria, walk up the grand staircase and turn left onto Via Capodimonte. At the start of the shopping street, on your right, pass the deluxe Capri Palace Hotel.
▲▲CHAIRLIFT UP TO MONTE SOLARO
You can ride the chairlift (seggiovia) from Anacapri to the 1,900-foot summit of Monte Solaro for a commanding view of the Bay of Naples. Work on your tan as you float over hazelnut, walnut, chestnut, apricot, peach, kiwi, and fig trees, past a montage of tourists. Prospective smoochers should know that the lift seats are all single. The ride takes 13 minutes each way, and you’ll want at least 30 minutes on top, where there are picnic benches and a café with WCs.
Cost and Hours: €7.50 one-way, €10 round-trip, daily June-Oct 9:30-17:00, last run down at 17:30, closes earlier Nov-May, confirm schedule with TI, tel. 081-837-1438, www.capriseggiovia.it.
Getting There: From the Piazza Vittoria bus stop, just climb the steps and look right.
At the Summit: Enjoy the panorama of lush cliffs. Find the iconic Faraglioni Rocks. The pink building nearest the rocks was an American R&R base during World War II. On the peak closest to Cape Sorrento are the ruins of Emperor Tiberius’ palace. The Galli Islands mark the Amalfi Coast in the distance. Cross the bar terrace for views of Mount Vesuvius and Naples.
Hiking Down: A highlight for hardy walkers (provided you have strong knees and good shoes) is the 40-minute downhill hike from the top of Monte Solaro, through lush vegetation and ever-changing views, with an optional detour to the 14th-century Chapel of Santa Maria Cetrella (at the trail’s only intersection, it’s a 10-minute walk to the right), and back into Anacapri. The trail starts down the stairs, past the WCs (last chance). Down two more flights of stairs, look for the sign to Anacapri e Cetrella—you’re on your way. While the trail is well-established, you’ll encounter plenty of uneven steps, loose rocks, and few signs.
Getting Around Capri
By Public Transportation: Tickets for the island’s buses and funicular cost €1.80 per ride and are available at newsstands, tobacco shops, official ticket offices, or from the driver. Validate your ticket when you board. Skip the €9.60 all-day pass (available only at official ticket offices), which barely pays for itself on a short visit.
Schedules are clearly posted at all bus stations. Public buses are orange, while the gray-and-blue buses are for private tour groups. Public buses from the port to Capri town, and from Capri town to Anacapri, are frequent (4/hour, 10 minutes). The direct bus between the port and Anacapri runs less often (2/hour, 25 minutes). From Anacapri, branch bus lines run to the parking lot above the Blue Grotto and to the Faro lighthouse (3/hour each). Buses are teeny (because of the island’s narrow roads) and often packed. At most stops, you’ll see ranks for passengers to line up in. When the driver changes the bus’s display to read completo (full), you just have to wait for the next one.
By Taxi: Taxis have fixed rates (Marina Grande to Capri town-€15; Marina Grande to Anacapri-€20 for 3 people, €2/additional person). You can hire a taxi for about €70 per hour—negotiate.
By Scooter: Ciro rents bright-yellow scooters with 50cc engines—strong enough to haul couples. Rental includes a map and instructions with parking tips and other helpful info (€15/hour, €55/day, includes helmet, gas, and insurance; daily April-Oct 9:30-19:00, may open in good weather off-season, look for Ferrari logo at Via Don Giobbe Ruocco 55, Marina Grande, mobile 338-360-6918, www.capriscooter.com). Capri’s steep and narrow roads aren’t a good place for novice riders to learn.
Arriving and Departing
By Boat from Capri’s Marina Grande to: Sorrento (fast ferry: 4/day, 25 minutes, Caremar; hydrofoil: up to 20/day, 20 minutes, Gescab), Naples (roughly 2/hour, hydrofoil: 45 minutes; ferries: 60-80 minutes), Positano (mid-April-mid-Oct, 2-4/day, 30-60 minutes; less off-season, Gescab), Amalfi (mid-April-mid-Oct, 1/day, 1.5 hours). Confirm the schedule carefully at TIs or www.capritourism.com—last boats usually leave between 18:00 and 20:10.
THE AMALFI COAST
With stunning scenery, cliff-hugging towns, and historic ruins, Amalfi is Italy’s coast with the most. The trip from Sorrento to Salerno is one of the world’s great bus rides. Cantilevered garages, hotels, and villas cling to the vertical terrain, and beautiful sandy coves tease from far below and out of reach. As you hyperventilate, notice how the Mediterranean, a sheer 500-foot drop below, really twinkles. Over the centuries, this landscape has lured Roman Emperor Tiberius, Richard Wagner, Sophia Loren, and Gore Vidal to enjoy la dolce vita.
Amalfi Coast towns are pretty, but they’re also touristy, congested, and overpriced. Most beaches here are private—and pebbly—and access is expensive. Check and understand your bills in this greedy region.
Three towns along the coast are popular stops: picturesque, romantic Positano; the workaday but lively Amalfi town; and the view-strewn hill town of Ravello.
The drive takes a long, full day by bus, car, or tour, and is best done as a round-trip from Sorrento. If you’d rather stay overnight on the coast, Positano is a good choice.
Getting Around the Amalfi Coast
The scenic Amalfi drive is thrilling, but treacherous; even if you have a car, consider taking the bus or hiring a driver out of Sorrento.
Many travelers take a round-trip bus tour, though you could go one way by bus and return by boat. For example, take the bus along the coast from Sorrento to Positano and/or Amalfi, then catch the ferry back. This works best in summer, because ferries run less often in spring and fall; some don’t run at all off-season (mid-Oct-mid-April); and they don’t run in stormy weather at any time of year. If boats aren’t running between Amalfi and Sorrento, change boats in Capri.
From Sorrento: SITA buses depart from in front of Sorrento’s train station nearly hourly (in peak season, 20/day, marked Amalfi via Positano) and stop at all Amalfi Coast towns (Positano in 50 minutes; Amalfi in another 50 minutes). To reach Ravello (the hill town beyond Amalfi), you’ll transfer in Amalfi. Ticket prices vary with trip length (one-way to Positano-€1.80, to Amalfi-€2.70; for Ravello, you’ll change in Amalfi and pay an extra €1.20). All rides are covered by the 24-hour Costiera SITA Sud pass (€8).
In summer, buses run from 6:30 to 22:00 (they stop running earlier off-season). Buy tickets at the tobacco shop or newsstand nearest any bus stop before boarding. At the Sorrento train station, buy tickets at the newsstand at street level—labeled Ticket Point (daily 7:00-20:00, closed 13:30-14:30 off-season, also sells Circumvesuviana train tickets). Tickets are also sold at the less reliable info booth outside near the bus stop. If both are closed, try the snack bar upstairs in the station, or Bar Frisby, just down the hill.
Line up under the Bus Stop SITA sign across from the train station. A schedule is posted on the wall; lettered codes indicate which days a particular bus runs. Giornaliero (G) means daily; Feriale (F) denotes Monday-Saturday departures; and Festivo (H) is for Sundays and holidays. After 19:30 and on Sundays, the main Corso Italia through town may be closed to traffic; if so, buses leave from Via degli Aranci (with your back to the station, go left and wind around it; the bus stop is near Bar Paradise).
Avoiding Crowded Buses: Amalfi Coast buses are routinely unable to handle the demand during summer months and holidays. If you don’t get on one bus, you’re well-positioned to catch the next one. Try to arrive early in the morning: buses start running as early as 6:30; beginning at 8:30, they leave about every 30 minutes. Departures between 9:00 and 11:00 are crowded. Count the number of people in line: Buses pull into Sorrento empty and seat 48 (plus 25 standing).
Rick’s Tip: Summer congestion can be so bad that return buses don’t even stop in Positano (because they filled up in Amalfi). Those trying to get back to Sorrento are stuck with taking an extortionist taxi or hopping a boat...if one’s running. If touring the coast by bus, stop in Positano first and come home from Amalfi to avoid the problem of full buses.
From April through October, CitySightseeing Sorrento’s bright red buses travel between Sorrento, Positano, and Amalfi, offering commentary along the way. They’re more expensive than the public bus, but worth considering if the public buses are full (regardless of your destination, first leg is €10, and each subsequent leg is €6; buy tickets onboard, departs hourly from Sorrento’s train station starting at 8:45, www.sorrento.city-sightseeing.it).
By Shared Tour
Naples-based Mondo Guide offers a nine-hour minibus trip that departs from Sorrento and heads down the Amalfi Coast, with brief stops in Positano, Amalfi, and Ravello, before returning to Sorrento. Lunch isn’t included; to save time for exploring, just grab a quick lunch in one of the towns. Reserve in advance (€50, daily at 9:00; meet in front of Sorrento’s Hotel Antiche Mura, at Via Fuorimura 7, a block inland from Piazza Tasso, tel. 081-751-3290, www.mondoguide.com, email@example.com); see here.
Boats stop at Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi, and Salerno, generally from mid-April through mid-October. Check schedules carefully: Routes vary by season and may be suspended without notice (few boats run off-season). The specific companies operating each route change frequently, compete for passengers, and usually claim to know nothing about their rivals’ services. You can check websites (www.travelmar.it, www.alicost.it, and www.gescab.it), but it’s smartest to confirm locally—the region’s TIs hand out current schedules. Buy tickets on the dock.
Here are some representative in-season connections for boats from Positano to: Amalfi (4-8/day, 30 minutes, TravelMar), Capri (mid-April-mid-Oct, 2-4/day, 30-60 minutes, Gescab), Sorrento (mid-April-mid-Oct only, 2-4/day, 35 minutes, Alicost), Salerno (mid-April-Sept only, 4-6/day, 70 minutes, TravelMar). The last boats often leave Positano before 18:00. Stormy weather can disrupt schedules.
Given the challenging drive, impossible parking, congested buses, consider hiring your own car and driver for an Amalfi day trip. Payment for most of these car services is by cash only.
Rick’s Tip: If you can organize a small group, an eight-seater minibus with driver is a good deal (about €300; €40 per person).
The Monetti family car-and-driver service have taken excellent care of my readers’ transit needs for decades. Sample trips and rates: all-day Amalfi Coast (Positano, Amalfi, Ravello), 8 hours, €280; Amalfi Coast and Paestum, 10 hours, €400; transfer to Naples airport or train station to Sorrento, €110. These prices are for up to four people, more for a larger eight-seater van. Though Sorrento-based, they also offer more expensive trips from Naples. Don’t hop into any taxi claiming to be a Monetti—call first. Their reservation system is simple and reliable (English-speaking office 338-946-2860, mobile 335-602-9158, www.monettitaxi17.it, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Francesco del Pizzo is another good, honest driver, who offers commentary in English (9 hours or so in a car with up to 4 passengers, €280; up to 8 passengers in a minibus, €320; mobile 333-238-4144, email@example.com).
Umberto and Giovanni Benvenuto offer transport, narrated tours, and shore excursions throughout the Amalfi Coast, as well as to Rome, Naples, and Pompeii (tel. 081-007-2114, mobile 346-684-0226, US tel. 310-424-5640, www.benvenutolimos.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
If you’re hiring a cabbie off the street for a ride and not a tour, here are sample fares from Sorrento to Positano: up to four people in a car one-way for about €80 (or up to six people for €90 in a minibus); figure on paying 50 percent more to Amalfi. While taxis must use a meter within a city, a fixed rate is OK otherwise. Negotiate—ask about a round-trip.
Amalfi Coast Bus Tour
The scenic bus trip from Sorrento to Salerno is a white-knuckle ride. Traffic is so heavy that private tour buses are only allowed to go in one direction (southbound from Sorrento). Summer traffic is infuriating. Fluorescent-vested policemen are posted at tough bends during peak hours to help fold in side-view mirrors and keep things moving. This loose self-guided tour is organized from west to east.
Rick’s Tip: For the best views of the Amalfi Coast, sit on the right when leaving from Sorrento and on the left returning to Sorrento. Sit toward the front to minimize carsickness.
Leaving Sorrento, the road winds up into the hills past lemon groves and hidden houses. The gray-green trees are olives. (Notice the green nets slung around the trunks; these are unfurled in October and November, when the ripe olives drop naturally, for an easy self-harvest.) Dark, green-leafed trees planted in dense groves are the source of the region’s lemons. The black nets over the orange and lemon groves create a greenhouse effect, trapping warmth and humidity for maximum tastiness, while offering protection from extreme weather.
Positano, on the Amalfi Coast
Atop the ridge outside of Sorrento, look to your right: The two small islands after Sorrento are the Galli Islands. Once owned by the famed ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, these islands mark the boundary between the Bay of Naples and the Bay of Salerno. Technically, the Amalfi Coast drive begins here.
One of the islands has the first of many stony watchtowers you’ll see all along the coast. These were strategically placed within sight of each other, so that a relay of rooftop bonfires could quickly spread word of a pirate attack.
The limestone cliffs that plunge into the sea were traversed by a hand-carved trail that became a modern road in the mid-19th century. Limestone absorbs the heat and rainwater, making this south-facing coastline a fertile suntrap, with temperatures 10 degrees higher than in nearby Sorrento. The chalky, reflective limestone, which extends below the surface, accounts for the uniquely colorful blues and greens of the water. Bougainvillea, geraniums, oleander, and wisteria grow like weeds. Notice the nets pulled tight against the cliffs—they’re designed to catch rocks that often tumble loose after absorbing heavy rains.
As you approach Positano, you know you’ve reached the scenic heart of the Amalfi Coast. This colorful, pretty town is built on a series of manmade terraces, carefully carved out of the steep rock, then filled with fertile soil carried here from Sorrento on the backs of donkeys.
If you’re getting off here, stay on through the first stop by the round-domed yellow church (Chiesa Nova), which is a long walk above town. Get off at the second stop, Sponda, then head downhill toward the start of my self-guided Positano Walk (described later). Sponda is also the best place to catch the onward bus to Amalfi. If you’re coming on a smaller minibus, you’ll twist all the way down—seemingly going in circles—to the start of the walk.
The next town you’ll see is Praiano. Less ritzy or charming than Positano or Amalfi, it’s notable for its huge Cathedral of San Genarro, with a characteristic majolica-tiled roof and dome. Most of the homes are accessible only by tiny footpaths and staircases. Near the end of town, just before the big tunnel, watch on the left for the big presepi (manger scene) embedded into the cliff face. This Praiano-in-miniature was carved by one local man over several decades. At Christmastime, each house is filled with little figures and twinkle lights.
Just past the tunnel, look below and on the right to see another watchtower. Yet another caps the little point on the horizon.
A bit farther along, look down to see the fishing hamlet of Marina di Praia tucked into the gorge between two tunnels. If you’re driving, consider a detour here for a coffee break or meal. This serene nook has its own little pebbly beach with great views of the stout bluffs and watchtower that hem it in. A seafront walkway curls around the bluff all the way to the tower.
Just after going through the next tunnel, watch for a jagged rock formation on its own little pedestal. Locals see the face of the Virgin Mary in this natural feature, and say that she’s holding a flower (the tree growing out to the right). Also notice several caged, cantilevered parking pads sticking out from the road. This stretch of coastline is popular for long-term villa rentals.
Don’t blink or you’ll miss the fishing village of Fiordo (“fjord”), down and on the left, filling yet another gorge. Humble homes are tucked so far into the gorge that they’re entirely in shadows for much of the year. Today these are rented out to vacationers; the postage-stamp beach is uncrowded and inviting.
After the next tunnel is another hamlet. Keep an eye out for donkeys with big baskets on their backs; they’re the only way to make heavy deliveries to homes high in the rocky hills.
Soon you’ll pass the parking lot of Grotta dello Smeraldo (Emerald Grotto), a cheesy roadside attraction that wrings the most it can out of a pretty, seawater-filled cave. Passing tourists park here and pay to take an elevator down to sea level, pile into big rowboats, and get paddled around a genuinely impressive cavern. Unless you’ve got time to kill, skip it.
Now you’re approaching what might be the most dramatic watchtower on the coast, which guarded the harbor of the Amalfi navy until the fleet was destroyed in 1343 by a tsunami, which led to Amalfi’s decline.
Around the next bend you’re treated to stunning views of the coastline’s namesake: Amalfi. The white villa sitting on the low point between here and there (with another watchtower at its tip) once belonged to Sophia Loren. Now pan up to the top of the steep, steep cliffs overhead to see the hulking former Monastery of Santa Rosa. Locals proudly explain that the beloved sfogliatella dessert was first created there. Today, it’s a luxury resort, where you can pay a premium to sleep in a former monk’s tiny cell.
The most striking stretch of coastline ends where the bus pulls to a halt—at the end of the line, the waterfront of Amalfi town. Spend some time enjoying the city.
From Amalfi, you can transfer to another bus to either head up to Ravello (described later), capping a cliff just beyond Amalfi, or onward to the big city of Salerno (which is on a direct train line to Naples). Alternatively, buses and boats take you back to Positano and/or Sorrento.
Specializing in scenery and sand, Positano hangs halfway between Sorrento and Amalfi town on the most spectacular stretch of the coast.
The town flourished as a favorite under the Bourbon royal family in the 1700s, when many of its fine mansions were built. Until the late 1800s, the only access was by donkey path or by sea. In the 20th century, Positano became a haven for artists and writers escaping Communist Russia or Nazi Germany. In 1953, American writer John Steinbeck’s essay on the town popularized Positano among tourists, and soon after it became a trendy Riviera stop. The town gave the world “Moda Positano”—a leisurely dolce vita lifestyle of walking barefoot, wearing colorful clothes, and sporting skimpy bikinis.
Today, it’s a pleasant gathering of cafés and expensive stores draped over a steep hillside. Terraced gardens and historic houses cascade down to a stately cathedral and a broad, pebbly beach. The “skyline” looks like it did a century ago. Notice the town’s characteristic rooftop domes.
There’s little to do here but eat, window-shop, and enjoy the beach and views...hence the town’s popularity. Consider seeing Positano as a day trip from Sorrento: Take the bus out and the afternoon ferry home, but be sure to check the boat schedules when you arrive—the last ferry often leaves before 18:00, and doesn’t always run in spring and fall.
Squished into a ravine, with narrow alleys that cascade down to the harbor, Positano requires you to stroll, whether you’re going up or heading down. Endless staircases are a way of life for the 4,000 hardy locals. Only one street allows motorized traffic; the rest are narrow pedestrian lanes. The center of town has no main square, unless you count the beach.
Tourist Information: The TI is a block from the beach, in the red building a half-block beyond the bottom of the church steps (April-Sept Mon-Sat 9:00-18:00 or later, Sun 9:00-14:00, shorter hours off-season, Via Regina Giovanna 13, tel. 089-875-067, www.aziendaturismopositano.it).
Baggage Storage: Neither bus stop has baggage storage. Blu Porter can meet you at the Sponda bus stop and watch your bags for €5 apiece; call in advance (tel. 089-811-496).
Private Guide: Lucia Ferrara is a Positano native who leads food and walking tours (3 hours, €30/person) as well as hiking tours (mobile 339-272-0971, www.zialucy.it, email@example.com).
This short, self-guided stroll downhill will help you get your bearings.
✵ Start at...
Piazza dei Mulini: This is the lower stop for the little red-and-white shuttle bus—and as close to the beach as vehicles can get. Older people gather inside Collina Bakery, while the younger crowd congregates on the wisteria-draped terrace across the street, which shades the best granita (lemon slush) stand in town.
Dip into the little yellow Church of the Holy Rosary (by the road), with a serene 12th-century interior. Up front, to the right of the main altar, find the delicately carved fragment of a Roman sarcophagus (first century b.c.). As we walk, we’ll see a few reminders that Positano sits upon the site of a sprawling Roman villa.
Continue downhill into town, passing shops selling linen and ceramics. These industries boomed when tourists discovered Positano in the 1970s. The beach-inspired Moda Positano fashion label was born as a break from the rigid dress code of the 1950s. You’ll also see many galleries featuring local art.
✵ Wander downhill to the “fork” in the road (stairs to the left, road to the right). You’ve reached...
Midtown: At Enoteca Cuomo (#3), butchers Pasquale and Rosario stock fine local red wines and make homemade sausages, salami, and panini—good for a quick lunch. The smaller set of stairs leads to the Delicatessen grocery store, where Emilia can fix you a good picnic.
La Zagara (across the lane from the steps, at #10) is a pricey pastry shop by day and a piano bar by night (music starts around 21:00, summers only). Tempting pastries such as the rum-drenched babà fill the window display. After hours, it’s filled with traditional Neapolitan music and dancing. A bit farther downhill, Brunella (on the right, at #24) is respected for fine linens.
Across the street, Hotel Palazzo Murat fills what was once a grand 12th-century Benedictine monastery. Napoleon, fearing the power of the Church, had many such monasteries closed during his rule here. This one became a private palace, named for his brother-in-law, who was briefly the King of Naples. Step into the plush courtyard to enjoy the scene, with great views of the cathedral’s majolica-slathered dome. Continuing on, under a fragrant wisteria trellis, you’ll pass “street merchants’ gulch,” where artisans display their goodies.
✵ Continue straight down. You’ll run into a fork at the big church. For now, turn right and go downstairs to Piazza Flavio Gioia, facing the big...
Church of Santa Maria Assunta: Set atop Roman ruins, this was once the abbey of the Benedictine monastery. Originally Romanesque, it was given a Baroque makeover in the 18th century. Inside, in the first chapel on the left is a fine manger scene (presepe). Its original 18th-century figurines give you an idea of the folk costumes of the age. Above the main altar is the Black Madonna, a Byzantine painting, likely brought here by 12th-century Benedictine monks. To the right of the altar, a small freestanding display case holds a silver and copper bust of St. Vitus—the town patron, who brought Christianity here in about a.d. 300. In the adjacent niche (on the right) is a rare 1599 painting of Baby Jesus by Fabrizio Santafede.
Back outside, you’ll see the bell tower, dating from 1707. Above the door, it sports a Romanesque relief scavenged from the original church. The scene—a wolf mermaid with seven little fish—was a reminder how integral the sea was to the town’s livelihood.
✵ Backtrack up the steps, circling around the church. You’ll likely see a construction zone, and possibly a new museum.
The entire town center—from this cathedral all the way up to the Piazza dei Mulini, where we started this walk—sits upon the site of a huge Roman villa complex, buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in a.d. 79. Positano recently began excavating part of the villa; a small museum is planned here to exhibit a surviving fragment of a Roman fresco.
✵ Continue climbing down the steps arcing to the right (following beach/spiaggia signs). You’ll eventually come to the square, with concrete benches, facing the beach.
Piazzetta: This square is a gathering point in the evening, as local boys hustle tourist girls into the nearby nightclub. Residents traded their historic baptistery font with Amalfi town for the two iron lions you see facing the beach. Around the staircase, you’ll also see some original Roman columns, scavenged from the buried villa. Look up to admire the colorful majolica tiles so typical of church domes in this region.
Big Beach: Called Spiaggia Grande, it’s colorful with umbrellas. It’s half public (straight ahead) and half private (to the left, behind the little fence). The nearest WC is beneath the steps to the right. The kiosks offer rowboat rentals and excursions to Capri and elsewhere.
From the beach you can see three of the watchtowers built centuries ago to protect the Amalfi Coast from pirates: one on the far-left horizon, just below Praiano; one on the Galli Islands, straight ahead; and one far to the right, marking the end of Fornillo Beach. (The round tower in the foreground is modern.) Defenders used these towers—situated within sight of each other—to relay smoke signals. In more recent times, artists holed up inside the tower on the right (near Fornillo Beach) for inspiration.
As you face out to sea, on the far-left side of the beach (below Rada Restaurant) is Music on the Rocks, the only remaining piece of the chic 1970s scene. While it’s dead until about 23:30, if you just want to stop for a drink, the cool troglo-disco interior opens at 21:00 (€10-20 cover charge includes a drink). This and La Zagara (mentioned earlier on the walk) are your best nightlife options.
✵ Now turn right and wander across the beach to a nearby beach. Behind the kiosks that sell boat tickets, find the steps up to the path that climbs up and over, past a 13th-century lookout fort from pirate days, to the next beach. It’s a worthwhile five-minute walk through a shady ravine to...
Fornillo Beach: This is where locals go to swim (and escape tourists). It’s less crowded and chair/umbrella rentals are cheaper. There are a few snack bars and lunch eateries here.
✵ Our walk is over. Time to relax.
Linen garments are popular items. To find a good-quality piece, look for “Made in Positano” (or at least “Made in Italy”) on the label, and check for 60 percent or more linen. Brunella and Pepito’s have top reputations and multiple outlets throughout town.
For handmade sandals crafted to your specifications while you wait (at prices starting about €50), try La Botteguccia, facing the tranquil little square just up from the TI, or Carmine Todisco, around the corner.
At the waterfront, restaurants with view terraces leave people fat and happy, albeit with skinnier wallets. All are scenic, convenient, and overpriced (figure €15-20 pastas and secondi, plus pricey drinks and sides, and a cover charge).
Lo Guarrancino, hidden on the path to Fornillo Beach, is a local favorite for its great views and good food (€12-13 pizzas, €12-23 pastas and secondi, daily 12:00-15:30 & 19:00-23:00, closed Nov-Easter, follow path behind the boat-ticket kiosks 5 minutes to Via Positanesi d’America 12, tel. 089-875-794).
Wine-Dark House, tucked around the corner from the beach (and the TI), fills a cute little piazzetta at the start of Saraceno lane. They serve good food (€10-20 pastas and secondi), wine (several local wines-€5/glass), and €6-7 sandwiches (closed Tue, Via del Saraceno 6/8, tel. 089-811-925).
Capricci, next door, is an informal café (€7-9 pizzas and main courses, daily 9:00-23:00, delivery available, Via Regina Giovanna 12, tel. 089-812-145, www.capriccipositano.it). Their white-tablecloth restaurant across the street serves the same food at higher prices.
Ristorante Bruno, which is uptown, unassuming, and family-run, is pricey but worth considering for a meal without a hike down into the town center (€12-17 pastas, €17-22 secondi, daily 12:30-23:00, closed Nov-Easter, near the top of Via Colombo at #157, tel. 089-875-179).
These hotels are all on Via Colombo, which leads from the Sponda bus stop down into the village. They close in the winter (Dec-Feb or longer). Expect to pay more than €20 a day to park.
$$$ Hotel Marincanto is a four-star hotel with 32 beautiful rooms and a rooftop view terrace (Db-€230, pricier superior rooms and suites, extra bed-€70, air-con, elevator, pool, stairs down to a private beach, reception on bottom floor, Via Colombo 50, tel. 089-875-130, www.marincanto.it, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$$ Hotel Savoia has 39 sizeable, breezy, and bright rooms (Db-€140, view Db-€180, deluxe Db with balcony or terrace-€210, extra bed-€50, air-con, elevator, Via Colombo 73, tel. 089-875-003, www.savoiapositano.it, email@example.com).
$ Residence la Tavolozza has six attractive, quiet rooms, each with a view terrace (Db-€95-120 depending on size, extra for breakfast, call if arriving late, air-con, Via Colombo 10, tel. 089-875-040, www.latavolozzapositano.it, firstname.lastname@example.org).
The main coast highway winds above the town of Positano. Regional SITA buses stop at two scheduled bus stops located at either end of town: Chiesa Nuova (at Bar Internazionale, near the Sorrento end of town) and Sponda (nearer Amalfi town). Although both stops are near roads leading downhill through the town to the beach, Sponda is closer and less steep; from this stop, it’s a scenic 20-minute downhill stroll to the beach (and TI).
The SITA bus returning to Sorrento leaves from the Sponda stop, sometimes up to five minutes before the printed departure. In case the driver is early, you should be, too (about hourly, daily 7:00-22:00, until 20:00 off-season). Buy tickets at the tobacco shop in the town center (on Piazza dei Mulini) or just below the Sponda bus stop at the Li Galli Bar or Total gas station (across from Hotel Marincanto).
The local red-and-white shuttle bus (marked Interno Positano) connects the lower town with the highway’s two bus stops (2/hour, €1.30 at tobacco shop on Piazza dei Mulini, €1.70 on board, convenient stop at the corner of Via Colombo and Via dei Mulini, heads up to Sponda). Collina Bakery, located off Piazza dei Mulini, is just across from the shuttle bus stop, with a fine, breezy terrace to enjoy while you wait.
Drivers must go with the one-way flow, entering the town only at the Chiesa Nuova bus stop (closest to Sorrento) and exiting at Sponda. Driving is a headache here. Parking is even worse.
After Rome fell, the Amalfi Coast’s namesake town was one of the first to trade goods—coffee, carpets, and paper—between Europe and points east. In its 10th- and 11th-century heyday, it was a powerful maritime republic that rivaled Venice. Amalfi established “rules of the sea”—the basics of which survive today.
In 1343, this little powerhouse was suddenly destroyed by a tsunami. That disaster, compounded by devastating plagues, left Amalfi a humble town. Today, its 5,000 residents live off tourism. Amalfi is not as picturesque as Positano or as well-connected as Sorrento, but it has a real-city feel and a vivacious bustle.
Amalfi’s one main street runs up from the waterfront through a deep valley, with stairways to courtyards and houses on either side. It’s worth walking uphill to the workaday upper end of town. Narrow, stepped side lanes squeeze between hulking old buildings.
Amalfi’s waterfront is the coast’s biggest transport hub. The bus station, ferry docks, and a parking lot (€5/hour) are next to each other. Venture into the town and you’ll quickly come to Piazza Duomo, the main square (sporting a statue of St. Andrew), and the cathedral.
Tourist Information: The TI is about 100 yards from the bus station and ferry dock, next to the post office (Mon-Fri 9:00-13:00 & 14:30-17:30, Sat 9:00-13:00, closed Sun, shorter hours off-season, pay WC in same courtyard, Corso della Repubbliche Marinare 27, tel. 089-871-107, www.amalfitouristoffice.it).
Baggage Storage: You can store your bag safely for €5 at Divina Costiera Travel Office facing the waterfront square, across from the bus parking lot (daily 8:00-13:00 & 14:00-19:00, closed mid-Nov-March, tel. 089-872-467).
Speedboat Charters: Consider Charter La Dolce Vita (mobile 335-549-9365, www.amalficoastyacht.it).
Rick’s Tip: Don’t get stranded! The last bus from Amalfi back to Sorrento leaves as early as 20:00 (in Oct-March, though later in other months: April-May and Sept at 21:00, June-July at 22:00, Aug at 23:00—confirm times locally). Especially in summer, the last buses out may be full, leaving your only option a €100 taxi ride.
This church, built c. 1000-1300, is a mix of Moorish and Byzantine flavors. Its imposing stairway functions as a hangout zone and outdoor theater. The 1,000-year-old bronze door at the top was given to Amalfi by a wealthy local merchant who had it made in Constantinople. The courtyard of 120 graceful columns—the “Cloister of Paradise”—was the cemetery for nobles in the 13th century. Don’t miss the fine view of the bell tower and its majolica tiles. The original ninth-century church, known as the Basilica of the Crucifix, named for its fine 13th-century wooden crucifix, is today a museum filled with art treasures. Down the stairs to the right of the altar is the Crypt of St. Andrew. Under the huge bronze statue, you’ll see a reliquary holding what are believed to be Andrew’s remains (€3, daily 10:00-17:00, open only for prayer 7:30-10:00 & 17:00-19:30, tel. 089-871-324). A free WC is at the top of the steps (through unmarked green door, just a few steps before ticket booth, ask for key at desk).
Paper has been a vital industry here since Amalfi’s glory days in the Middle Ages. At this cavernous, cool 13th-century paper mill-turned-museum, a guide recounts the history and process of papermaking and demonstrates vintage machinery (€4; March-Oct daily 10:00-18:30; Nov-Feb usually Tue-Sun 10:00-15:30, closed Mon; a 10-minute walk up the main street from the cathedral, look for signs to Museo della Carta; tel. 089-830-4561, www.museodellacarta.it).
To grab a fast bite, walk five minutes up the main drag; on the right, past the first archway, is Pizza Express, with honest €4-6 pies, calzones, and sandwiches to go (Mon-Sat 9:00-21:00, closed Sun, Via Capuano 46, mobile 339-581-2336). The Cuoppo d’Amalfi fried-fish shop at Piazza dei Doge fills cardboard cones with all manner of deep-fried sea life. A small supermarket is on the same piazza, and another supermarket (Decò) is just off of the main drag (up an alley to the right near #34, at Via dei Curiali 6). Both supermarkets close for a midafternoon break and all day Sunday.
Taverna degli Apostoli has colorful outdoor tables, cozy upstairs dining, and a brief but thoughtful menu. It’s on Piazza Duomo, tucked just around the left side of the grand staircase, up a smaller flight of stairs (€12-14 pastas, €12-18 secondi, daily 12:00-16:00 & 19:00-24:00, Supportico San Andrea 6, tel. 089-872-991).
The Andrea Pansa pastry shop and café is a venerable spot for dessert; try their sfogliatella, the delicate pastry invented at a nearby monastery.
Ravello sits atop a lofty perch 1,000 feet above the sea, with breathtaking views that have attracted celebrities for generations. Richard Wagner, D. H. Lawrence, M. C. Escher, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Greta Garbo, and Gore Vidal have all called it home.
The town is like a lush and peaceful garden floating above it all, with nothing but stones, old villas-turned-luxury hotels, cafés, and tourists. It’s a good half-day outing from Amalfi, or a full day from Positano. The views from the bus ride up and back are every bit as stunning as those along the coastal route.
The town’s entry tunnel deposits you on the main square, Piazza Duomo, with the Duomo. The TI is down the street past the cathedral (TI open daily May-Oct 10:00-18:00, closes earlier off-season, 100 yards from the square—follow signs to Via Roma 18, tel. 089-857-096, www.ravellotime.it).
The Duomo, which overlooks the main square, feels stripped-down and Romanesque. Its key features are its 12th-century bronze doors, the carved marble pulpit supported by six lions, and the relic of holy blood (left of main altar). The front door is locked; enter through the humble cathedral museum on Viale Wagner, around the left side (€3, daily May-Oct 9:00-19:00, Nov-April 9:00-18:00).
Villa Rufolo, also on Piazza Duomo, has wistful gardens with spectacular views. Enter the villa through the stout watchtower, a reminder that it wasn’t always postcards and limoncello. Walk through the ruins to reach the viewpoint overlooking the garden terrace, which you’re welcome to climb down and explore (€5, daily May-Sept 9:00-20:00, Oct-April 9:00 until sunset, tel. 089-857-621, www.villarufolo.it). You can enjoy the same view, sans the entry fee, from the bus parking lot below the villa.
Several no-brainer, interchangeable restaurants face Piazza Duomo and line the surrounding streets. To enjoy this fine setting, just take your pick. You can also grab a takeaway lunch at one of the little groceries and sandwich shops that line Via Roma (between Piazza Duomo and the TI). Enjoy your meal at the panoramic benches at the far end of Piazza Duomo (facing the cathedral).
Ravello and the town of Amalfi are connected by a winding road and a bus. Coming from Amalfi town, buy your ticket at the bar on the waterfront, and ask where the bus stop is (normally by the statue on the waterfront, just to the statue’s left as you face the water). In Ravello, line up early, since the buses are often crowded (they run at least every 40 minutes, 30-minute trip, €1.20, buy ticket in tobacco shop; catch bus 100 yards off main square, at other end of tunnel).