Salerno starts at the ruins of an ancient castle perched on top of a mountain with commanding views of the Amalfi Coast. The rest of the city spills down to the sea, as tunneled medieval passageways snake between crumbling Baroque palaces and walls covered in poetry. In one neighborhood, an aqueduct with pointed arches runs through early 20th century apartment buildings. Another area is dominated by Salerno’s great 11th century Norman cathedral. Along the water stretches the Lungomare, a promenade where people walk their dogs, jog, or catch up with friends. This is unvarnished southern Italy, with nary an Instagrammer in sight.
We chose to stay in Salerno for the sake of convenience and wound up enjoying it more than anywhere else on the Amalfi Coast. As the region’s transportation hub, the city offers easy access to an enormous number of destinations year-round. The busy port and modern life here occasionally sneak into the more idyllic views, but Salerno’s lively university-town atmosphere has charm to spare.
Our guide includes information on visiting Salerno and how to get around the region. All sites in the city itself are marked on our Google map.
Table of Contents
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Staying in Salerno
Transportation Guide: Ferries, Trains, Buses, Parking
Destinations: Paestum, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Naples, Amalfi Coast
Salerno sits at the juncture of the Amalfi Peninsula and the Cilento Coast of Italy, just south of Naples and Mount Vesuvius. The historic center lies on the western side of the city, with a ferry terminal at either end. A pedestrian shopping street, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, runs parallel to the coast from the main train/bus station to the medieval areas. Because the coastal mountains come nearly to the water’s edge, portions of the city can be hilly; during daylight hours, a public elevator runs from sea level up the hill – see information on the Rione Fornelle in the “Sights” section below for details.
Salerno’s official history began in 197 BCE with the foundation of a Roman colony. When the Empire collapsed, southern Italy became a seething mass of competing communities from three continents. ‘Barbarian’ Lombards took over the region around Salerno but faced frequent incursions from Byzantines and Arabs, not to mention power struggles with Rome. But the contact with other cultures helped the area avoid the stagnation of the Dark Ages. As nearby Amalfi focused on international trade, Salerno rose in importance as the most powerful duchy in the region. A prestigious center of learning grew around its famous medical school, the first of its kind in Europe.
The constant battling attracted mercenaries from Normandy in the 11th century. The fiercest and cleverest of them all was Robert de Hauteville, nicknamed Guiscard (the Wily), who ultimately took nearly all of southern Italy for himself. Along the way, he married Sichelgaita, the daughter of Salerno’s duke who was notorious for her own warrior skills. They made Salerno the capital in 1076.
When Robert Guiscard died, his brother Roger united southern Italy with Sicily but ruled from his own capital of Palermo. (See our post on the Normans in Sicily for more information.) A few generations later, Frederick II’s preference for Naples commenced Salerno’s long slide back into obscurity. After Italy’s unification in 1861, foreign industries began settling in the city and the population grew substantially. Salerno was heavily bombed in World War II and served as the nation’s provisional capital for six months after the Allied victory.
Cattedrale di San Matteo, a.k.a. the Duomo
Salerno’s Norman past still dominates its Duomo, one of Italy’s most underappreciated treasures. Pope Gregory VII consecrated the structure in 1084 when Robert Guiscard offered him sanctuary from attacks in Rome. The pope’s tomb, topped by an effigy, lies in the church. The tomb and relics of the Apostle Saint Matthew, brought to the city in 954, rest in the crypt.
Norman architecture picked up on the Byzantine and Islamic influences prevalent in Southern Italy. The courtyard and belltower, for instance, feature striped arches and geometric motifs associated with mosques. Like most medieval architecture, the duomo incorporates pieces looted from ancient sites, notably the Roman sarcophagi and 28 columns purportedly from Paestum.
Each of the main doorways is guarded by a pair of carved lions from Constantinople; the bronze door, also from Byzantium, leading from the courtyard to the church is known as the Porta dei Leoni. The exquisite carvings and mosaics on the pulpits date to the 12th century, but the Byzantine mosaics in the apses are restorations.
The cathedral was remodeled after an earthquake in 1688, but the Baroque elements don’t dominate – until the dizzyingly ornate crypt. This extravaganza of gilt and marble may feel shocking at first. Architect Domenico Fontana created an intricate series of interconnected shapes, then covered every surface with a patchwork of color and pattern.
Piazza Alfano. Basilica hours: daily 8:30-8 except Sunday/holidays 8:30-1 & 4-8. Crypt: daily 9-8 except Sunday/holidays 9-1 & 6-8. Cathedral website.
This forerunner of European botanical gardens perches in one of the loveliest spots in the city. In the early 1300’s, physician and botantist Matteo Silvatico turned a local garden space into a collection of medicinal plants for the Salernitan Medical School. (He probably also inspired the doctor featured in Bocaccio’s Decameron, set during the plague several decades later.)
Over the centuries, the garden was shaped into the terraces we see today, with a dramatic staircase and spectacular views. The adjacent building holds a small museum, a café, and a shop with local products.
Admission €3. Il Giardino della Minerva: Via Ferrante Sanseverino 1. Opens daily at 9:30; closing time depends on season but generally just before sunset.
Poetry & Street Art of the Rione Fornelle
A 2014 collaboration between poets, artists, and residents began with the aim of celebrating local poet Alfonso Gatto and reviving a neighborhood. Today the poetry and murals have spread all over town, but the density remains highest in the original rione Fornelle.
The entrance to the Rione Fornelle is across the street from the pastel blue façade of the Chiesa della Santissima Annunziata, easily recognizable with its tiled dome and pink bell tower. The artwork runs between buildings, from the street into a small piazza. At the back, a public elevator runs up to the hillside near Minerva’s Gardens. There are signs to help visitors along the short walk, and we’ve also marked it on our map.
Two branches of a ninth-century aqueduct converge in a more modern neighborhood near the Duomo-Via Vierni train station. Unlike its older Roman counterparts, this one features an early adoption of pointed arches, which were just filtering into Europe from eastern lands. Even though it was built by Benedictine monks rather than ancient pagans, the structure’s scale and engineering still raised suspicion in the general population, and the aqueduct picked up the nickname “Devil’s Bridge.”
Intersection of Via Veila, Via Fiera Vecchia and Via Arce
Other Sites: Castello Medievale Arechi
Although the site is most famed for its dramatic views, the ruined castle is worth exploring. It was built by Byzantines, probably as an expansion of an ancient Roman fortress. The last renovations were made in the 16th century, and the castle was abandoned with the onset of firearms in the 19th century.
Castle admission €4, Tuesday-Saturday 9-5, Sunday 9-3:30. Visitors can take the #19 bus, which runs hourly, or hike up to the site.
Roberto Papi Museum
A huge collection of medical instruments amassed in the 19th century (with some taxidermied animals for good measure) fits nicely with Salerno’s pioneering medical history.
Admission €3. Via Trotula de Ruggiero 23. Tuesday, Wednesday, Sunday 9:30-1; Thursday-Saturday 9:30-1 & 4:30-7:30.
Chiesa di San Giorgio
Originally part of an ancient monastic complex, the Chiesa di San Giorgio was transformed into what many consider to be the most beautiful Baroque church in Salerno. Later the building was merged with the barracks and offices of the Guardia di Finanza, so visitors must pass by the financial police before entering the church….
Via Duomo 19, Monday 10-12 & 6-8, Tuesday-Friday 10-12
Staying in Salerno
The Salerno culture website is a great resource for things to see and do in the city.
We stayed just around the corner from Minerva’s Gardens, just a few minutes’ walk from the Duomo. Our Airbnb had a spacious loft setup, a little roof patio, and panoramic views. Our kind hostess Massima picked us up at the train station and made sure we had everything we needed.
A group of locals waiting for the Pizzeria Criscemunno to open confirmed Massima’s recommendation. An open kitchen led to a terrace overlooking the Duomo piazza and an enormous, inventive selection of pizzas. We’ve tasted quite a few pizzas by now, and this was as good as it gets. Via Romualdo Il Guarna 15.
Getting to Salerno
Trains from Rome Terminale take two hours. From Naples Centrale, the ride is about 35-60 minutes. It’s also possible to get a bus from the Naples airport straight to Salerno.
Salerno’s main train and bus station lies a few blocks from the coast, on a pleasant piazza with a medieval church on the end. A second train station, the Duomo-Via Vernieri, serves regional lines.
For those traveling by car, Salerno has an underground parking lot. Many destinations in the area, such as the Amalfi Coast, have long since surpassed reasonable traffic levels, so driving may not be feasible – or enjoyable.
With multiple companies serving a huge number of destinations, ferries can get confusing. Local website livesalerno puts everything together in one place, and tends to have up-to-date information about service disruptions due to weather.
Salerno has two ferry terminals, with some overlap between the destinations they serve. Near the main train/bus station, the terminal at the Piazza della Concordia has boats to most towns along the Amalfi Coast. For ferries departing from “Manfredi”, look for the crescent-shaped building marking the entrance to the Stazione Marittima di Salerno, with a low-slung terminal designed by Zaha Hadid. This terminal includes a line to Capri via Positano, hydrofoil service to Ischia, and boats to the Costa del Cilento (Agropoli & San Marco Castellabate), as well as routes to Sicily’s Aeolian Islands.
One of the best-preserved sets of ancient Greek temples anywhere lies just south of Salerno. Trains depart from both Salerno stations, and the ride lasts around 40 minutes. See our post on Paestum for more information.
Trenitalia’s regional line to Pompeii runs roughly every half hour and takes about 40 minutes. The trains stop in the town’s central station, which lies a pleasant 15 minutes’ walk from the amphitheater. We recommend using the Piazza del Ampiteatro entrance instead of the main entry (Porte Marina) on the other side of the ruins, as the latter lacks shade and tends to be more crowded. Both entries have luggage storage, audioguides, and buses to Mount Vesuvius.
The closest train station to the archaeological site at Herculaneum is on the Circumvesuviana line, which doesn’t serve Salerno. We took a regional train to Naples (25-60 minutes), then picked up the Circumvesuviana to the Ercolano Scavi stop (approximately 16 minutes). Alternatively, visitors can take a regional train from Salerno directly to the Portici-Ercolano station, and walk the mile or so to the archaeological site. Regional trains run roughly hourly and take about 60 minutes.
Frequent service runs to Naples from both Salerno Centrale and the Duomo-Via Vernieri station, although the latter may be on routes with more stops. Express trains can take as little as 22 minutes, but some rides will last over an hour. Naples Centrale and Piazza Garibaldi are part of the same station complex.
In addition to ferries running from Salerno’s Concordia terminal, SITASUD runs buses along the Amalfi Coast, one of the world’s most beautiful and crowded routes. Our bus ride from Amalfi to Salerno lived up to the hype, both in terms of scenery and white-knuckle cliffside turns. During high season, visitors may not be able to board in hotspots like Positano and Ravello, but the towns east of Amalfi (Atrani, Maiori, Minori, Cetara) get less traffic. See our post on Atrani for more information.
We spent an idyllic Sunday afternoon in the lovely Vietri Sul Mare. Just six kilometers from Salerno, this little town specializes in ceramics and also has a quiet beach. Trains from the Salerno’s Duomo-Via Vierni station take four minutes, while the ride on SITA buses is closer to 15. Ferry service is another option.