Seasonal Sorrento

Free of the summer’s foreign tourists, but no less lively, Sorrento is a beautiful place to be at Christmas – here’s why it’s a perfect festive destination…

Words and photos by Fleur Kinson

Sorrento at Christmas
It’s half past eleven, and the evening’s only just getting going in Sorrento


The Christmas period seems to come earlier and earlier in Britain, with shops piled high with gifts, tinsel and crackers long before the golden days of autumn have faded to white. By the time December finally arrives many of us have become quite jaded with the whole idea of Christmas. To recapture some festive magic and atmosphere, many of us like to take a long weekend abroad somewhere in December. Some try Germany, with its twinkling Christmas markets, Lapland, with its snow and Santa-kitsch, or New York, with its awesome department stores and cornucopian window displays.

Surprisingly few of us, however, seem to realise how lovely Italy can be in the run-up to Natale. This flamboyant country, with its flair for ornament, its genius for foodstuffs and its reverence for family, is an ideal target for the seeker of Christmas ambience. The lights are heart-meltingly pretty, the shops are stocked with glossy, mouthwatering goods, and the streets are full of friendly people, all of them genetically predisposed to the passeggiata, whatever the temperature. Not that the temperature ever gets too ruthless. Cold, clear days, graced with cheering sunshine are the December norm across most of Italy.

Peperoncini brighten up the market stalls

Buzzing piazzas
Some of Italy’s best-loved towns are arguably more attractive in the run-up to Christmas than they are at the height of summer. Sorrento is a perfect example. This unashamed tourist town on a rocky cliff overlooking the Bay of Naples teems with foreign visitors all summer long. They don’t come for the beaches – Sorrento has none to speak of – or for the monuments, museums or churches – Sorrento is too fun-oriented to boast many. They come for the pleasure of wandering the buzzing lanes and piazzas lined with shops; for the lively cafés and bars and boisterous evening passeggiata. 

Come to Sorrento in December and all these robust pleasures are undiminished, but the town is enjoyably full of Italians rather than northern Europeans. Market stalls hawk shiny boxes of panettone and sumptuous food hampers, delicate lights prettify the palm trees and the pastel buildings. The whole town hums with colour and life. 

On Sorrento’s shopping streets, even in the winter, summer colour is everywhere – in the ubiquitous, bright bottles of limoncello, in the hedgerow-like displays of vivid hot chillies, and in the massive citrus fruits that blaze undimmed by cool December. Sorrento simply groans with oranges and lemons – so unusually big and breast-like you can’t help but look away in embarrassment when they ripely poke your way. 

Fecundity isn’t just limited to the ripe bounty found in the shops, though. Sorrento is a popular wedding venue for young Neapolitans, and on any Saturday in December romantic love is likely to be reaching its colourful nuptial apex here. You’ll see crowds of well-wishers throwing rice at a blushing bride and her bashful new spouse, and newlyweds throughout town posing for photos and video shoots. The Italian style of wedding portraiture is racy by British standards, so expect plenty of public snogs and lascivious looks between dolled-up couples. No cold-hearted winter chill here!

Sorrento shopping street
Christmas street decorations

Air of excitement
Wandering Sorrento’s narrow lanes full of little shops is a huge pleasure – just as it is in the height of summer. But in December cascades of tiny bulbs brighten the shopfronts, and bold illuminated stars are strung against the sky. As daytime fades to the pale eggshell blue of twilight, these stars seem to grow bigger and brighter, and as darkness falls, the air of excitement increases. This is southern Italy, and siesta-straddling opening-hours are inviolable, heedless of winter. All the shops and all the traders will be bustling with activity till 8pm. And then, in various stages, the passeggiata will begin – the regular celebration of night-time, now doubly celebratory because it is set against a backdrop of festive lights.

On a Saturday night in December, Sorrento’s streets are packed until the small hours. The whole population of the town is out, their numbers swelled by Neapolitans visiting for the weekend. Every age group is here – children, teenagers, the elderly, the middle-aged – all strolling, chatting, buzzing with the excitement of nothing in particular. They stop at cafés and gelaterie, they hail friends and family and wander on again. If this were Britain, everyone would be packed into pubs, closing the door on the cold outside.

Local identity
But strolling the streets of your hometown en masse at night fosters an immense sense of community. You see the faces of all who share your town, feel you’re all united in this activity, and remember that you all have these familiar streets and piazzas in common. On a summer’s night, Sorrento would be packed with northern Europeans – each only here for a week or two. They are extremely welcome, but, of course, they can’t help but dilute the presence of local people. Here in the heart of winter, Sorrento reclaims itself, and revels in its temporarily more concentrated local identity.

Even the palm trees get a Christmas make-over

Walks are always much improved by having pretty things to look at along the way. And pre-Christmas Sorrento does lovely things with lights. In a central piazza, a perfectly conical Christmas tree is a blaze of white dots. The trunks and arcing fronds of palm trees are all picked out in lines of lights, as are the contours of the buildings – the doorways, windows and architectural shapes. Sorrento becomes a graphic cartoon of an Italian seaside town, all its lines and curves drawn in electric white. Fitting somehow, that cartoon-feel. Sorrento is a bit of a fantasy place – wholly dedicated to pleasure and recreation. It’s a pretty bauble with the simple intention of shining and making you smile. In the run-up to Christmas, Sorrento is a star that shines very brightly indeed.


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