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During World War II, Salerno was designated the capital of Allied Italy, and much of the town was destroyed by severe bombing. Only the medieval center and part of the 19th-century waterfront were miraculously spared. The reconstruction and expansion that followed, especially to the southeast and northeast of the seafront, gave the town a more modern look. However, in the 1990s, a renovation campaign brought the old sections of Salerno back to their original splendor, particularly its seafront promenade.

Lined with palm trees and opening onto the seascape of the Costiera Amalfitana and Cilentana, Lungomare Trieste is the most beautiful seafront promenade in the whole region. At the western end, you'll find the Villa Comunale (Piazza Amendola), a pleasant and orderly public garden, adjacent to the Teatro Verdi (Piazza Luciani; tel. 089-662141; www.teatroverdisalerno.it; daily 8am-2pm and 4-8pm). This historic theater was inaugurated on April 15, 1872, with a performance of Verdi's Rigoletto. A recent face-lift has brought the beautiful baroque and neoclassical decorations back to life, including the magnificent hall, with its frescoed ceiling by Domenico Morelli. The theater hosts many important concerts and performances. The town is dominated by the Castello di Arechi, Via Benedetto Croce (tel. 089-2854533; www.ilcastellodiarechi.it; free admission; TuesSun 9am-2pm and 4pm-sunset); originally built by the Byzantines, probably over older fortifications, the castle took on its current mantle under Spanish rule in the 16th century. It now hosts special events, but it's worth a visit just for its view. It can be reached by car, taxi, or on foot -- a steep 40-minute climb along a pedestrian ramp.

The medieval heart of Salerno -- where most of the town's attractions are concentrated -- is a picturesque place for a stroll. From Piazza Amendola you can take the exclusive shopping street Via di Porta Catena and follow it to charming Piazza Sedile del Campo, the medieval market square, graced by the beautiful little Fontana dei Delfini (Fountain of the Dolphins) and the Palazzo dei Genovesi (at no. 3) -- today a school -- with its grand portal. Off the piazza, in Via Roteprandi, you'll find the church of Sant'Andrea de Lama, one of the oldest medieval buildings in Salerno -- note its pretty 12th-century bell tower -- and, a few steps farther, the even older church of Sant'Alfonso, dating from the 10th century. Inside, admire some recently restored frescoes dating from the Longobard era. Return to Piazza Sedile del Campo to access Via dei Mercanti, Salerno's major shopping street, which dates from medieval times. This is where you'll find some of the best boutiques and most elegant stores in town. Off to the left is the Vicolo dei Sartori with the Palazzo Fruscione, notable for its medieval decorations, including a pretty loggia and intertwined arches. Not far off, on Vicolo Adalberga, is the ancient Palatine San Pietro a Corte church. Its 11th-century frescoes have survived, and excavations of its layered strata have revealed the structure of an ancient Roman thermal bathhouse. Farther along Via dei Mercanti is the 10th-century Chiesa del Crocifisso, Piazza Matteotti 1 (tel. 089-233716; daily 9am-noon and 4-7pm), famous for its beautiful 13th-century frescoes in the main and right apses of the crypt. One depicts the Crucifixion and the other three saints; this fresco is reproduced in mosaics over the main altar of the church.

Scuola Medica Salernitana (Salerno Medical School) was one of the first medical schools in the Western world: Scholars believe it was the medical school that operated in the Greek colony of Velia in the 6th century A.D. and developed in later centuries to attract scholars from all over Europe. Today what is left is a small museum, Via dei Mercanti (tel. 089-2576126); Mon-Sat 9am-1pm and 4-7pm, Sun 9am-1pm), inside the former St. Gregorio church that contains documents and a collection of medical instruments, and the school's botanical garden, Giardino della Minerva, Via Ferrante Sanseverino 1 (tel. 089-252423; www.giardinodellaminerva.it), originally created in the 14th century by one of the school's masters, Matteo Silvatico, in the terraced garden of his house. His Giardino dei Semplici (Garden of Simples) is considered the first botanic garden in the Western world. The name refers to the few key plants from which most basic remedies were obtained. The garden is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 1pm and 5pm to sunset; admission is 2€.

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