A spectacular city lying in the shadow of soaring Mount Vesuvius with a charming waterfront, fabulous historic center, and some of the most mouthwatering food in Italy, Naples has been a gathering place for many since ancient times. Located on the west coast of Italy facing the Tyrrhenian Sea, it’s Italy’s third-largest city and while it once had a bit of a rogue reputation, that’s changed in recent years with it undergoing a renaissance of sorts. One of the country’s most authentic destinations, it’s a city with a story to tell, where simply wandering the streets is a great way to soak up the atmosphere, allowing it to tell its tale. It’s a cultural hub filled with magnificent art and centuries-old architecture while offering a modern side that includes outstanding nightlife.
With so many things to see and do in Naples, it’s impossible to get bored here, with these options some of the best to include on your itinerary.
Starting with the Neapolis, founded in the 5th century BC by Greek settlers, to the city of today, Naples has managed to retain the influence of successive cultures that emerged in the Mediterranean basin and Europe, making it particularly unique. Between the Middle Ages and the 18th century, Naples was a focal point of art and architecture, expressed in everything from ancient forts to palaces and churches. The No. 1 thing to do in Naples is to explore the historic center, a bustling district, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site focused around Via dei Tribunali and Spaccanapoli, which cuts right through the Old Town. A stroll reveals timeless beauty around every corner, including many majestic monuments like Castel Nuovo and Santa Chiara, giving one the best sense of this beautiful yet chaotic city and its palatial buildings. Discover ornate piazzas, baroque churches, and bustling street markets, while dodging the scooters that buzz through the narrow alleyways.
The birthplace of pizza, trying a slice here is a must for any visitor. It’s often said to be the world’s best, with a soft chewy crust that has slightly burnt edges. It’s not about fancy toppings, with a classic Neapolitan simply topped with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil. Said to have been invented by a local cook in the 18th century to honor queen Margherita di Savoia, the toppings were selected to reflect the colors of Italy’s flag: red, white, and green. There are pizzerias in every neighborhood worthy of accolades with a total of over 800 in the city, but just 100 boasts certification by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the regulatory agency ensuring the art of pizza-making and the ingredients are in accordance with Neapolitan tradition. To find the best, look for a sign that says Vera Pizza Napoletana, a long line of locals waiting outside, and a wood-fired oven.
If you have any interest in baroque art, don’t miss Cappella Sansevero, a 16th-century chapel hidden away in a backstreet near Piazza San Domenico Maggiore. It includes nearly 30 works of art, with three particularly notable sculptures. The crown jewel is Giuseppe Sanmartino’s Cristo Velato, or The Veiled Christ, which is a remarkable life-size depiction of Jesus created in 1753 by Giuseppe Sanmartino. Antonio Corradini’s Veiled Truth was completed in 1752 as a tomb monument, while the Release from Deception by Francesco Queirolo serves as a monument to Raimondo’s father, completed in 1754. The marble statues are emblematic of the love of décor in the Rococo period. While representing remarkable artistic achievement. The chapel also includes a rather strange sight, the so-called Anatomical Machines which are the human skeletons of a man and a woman with arterial systems perfectly preserved.
The National Archaeological Museum is one of the best of its kind in the entire world. Anyone who has an interest in Greco-Roman artifacts will enjoy exploring here. Built in the late 1700s by King Charles VII to house the collection of treasures and antiquities he inherited from his mother, it includes Italy’s second-largest collection of Egyptian relics, mosaics, and frescos from Pompeii. That includes much of the loot uncovered during both the Pompeii and Herculaneum digs. One of the highlights is the erotic art from Pompeii that’s hidden away in the “red-light” section called the Gabinetto Segretto. It includes everything from sexually explicit frescos and mosaics, to phallic charms, and more. Others include the remarkable mosaics on the mezzanine such as The Battle of Alexander against Darius and the Farnese collection on the ground floor which features Farnese Bull and Farnese Hercules, a huge sculpture portraying the mythical death of the Queen of Thebes.
Be sure to make time for a stroll on the lungomare seafront. This approximately two-mile pedestrianized road running between Santa Lucia and Mergellina offers spectacular views of Mount Vesuvius looming on the horizon along with views of the island of Capri and the city of Naples itself. You’ll pass through areas like Santa Lucia where you’ll see the church di Santa Lucia and the harbor area of Borgo Marinaio where locals like to hang out. The Riviera di Chiaia area is popular for shopping and nightlife, while the area around Castel dell’Ovo is the best stretch for an evening walk. There are boat rentals available, small beaches, and smooth rocks that provide the perfect place for sunbathing along with various eateries for grabbing a refreshing lemon granita and a tasty bite. It’s also one of the best places to be at dusk for catching a glorious, Instagrammable sunset.
Castel dell’Ovo literally translates to the “Egg Castle.” This imposing castle rises out of the sea on a small island linked to the mainland by a bridge. It’s the city’s oldest and most impressive castle, dating to the 12th century with Norman origins, set in the same area that was occupied by a Roman villa in the 5th century. Legend has it that its name refers to the egg that Virgilius would have hidden inside a cage in the castle’s basement. The halls are now used for conferences and exhibitions and are available for public visits via guided tours. Just strolling around the stone walls provides a great sense of the history it’s seen. Beneath the towers and walls is an ancient harbor, Borgo Marinari, that’s home to many bars and restaurants for enjoying a delicious seafood meal with a breathtaking view over the Gulf of Naples with Mount Vesuvius in the backdrop.
Behind the gothic-style basilica of the same name which sits in the heart of this monastery complex, built to house 200 monks and the Angevin royal family tombs, is a network of ornately decorated cloisters that belong to the closed order of Santa Chiara. The walkways dividing the central garden, filled with citrus trees and lavender, are lined with over 70 ceramic-tiled octagonal columns that are connected by benches. The brightly colored tiles were painted by Donato and Giuseppe Massa, depicting rural scenes, with everything from vignettes of peasant life to hunting sessions. The four internal walls with whimsical frescoes that to the 17th century tell Franciscan tales. A small museum sits adjacent to the cloisters and includes the ruins of a 1st-century AD spa complex with an impressively well-preserved sauna. This is a great place to go when you’re in need of an oasis of calm in the chaotic center of the city.
Castel Sant’Elmo (Saint Elmo’s Castle) is a stunning medieval fortress that’s perched on a hill overlooking Naples. It’s had many incarnations – originally it was a church, but 400 years later in 1349 it was transformed into a castle and in 1538 it was fortified. Up until the 1970s, it was used as a military prison. Today, visitors not only enjoy a peaceful place for reflection but a spectacular view over the city, nearby islands, the Sorrento peninsula, and Mount Vesuvius. It also hosts a museum, Museo del Novecento, which documents the major influences on Naples’ art scene with a focus on 20th-century Neapolitan art. Step inside to discover sculptures, paintings, and installations, including La schiena, a sensual work by Eugenio Viti, Monumento, a magnetic photograph by Giuseppe Desiato, and an untitled sculpture by Salvatore Cotugno of a rapped muted figure that strangely recalls Giuseppe Sanmartino’s Veiled Christ.
Naples’ Royal Palace, officially Palazzo Reale, is located in the heart of the city on the elegant Piazza del Plebiscito. It’s one of four Bourbon royal residences, together with the Royal Palace of Portici, the Royal Palace of Caserta, and the Capodimonte Palace. The most central of them all, Palazzo Reale was where the royal family was often found between 1734 through 1861 during the Bourbon reign. A visit will bring provide an excellent glimpse at their lavish lifestyle, including the Throne Room which has a golden throne, a private theater where plays and operas were exclusively performed for the royal family, and much more. Throughout the palace, there are gorgeous antiques, tapestries, paintings, painted ceilings, magnificent furniture, and décor. The Historic Apartment now serves as a museum and includes the Royal Chapel and Mariacristina di Savoia Room. The lush gardens overlooking the Bay of Naples make a visit worth it for the view alone.
Museo di Capodimonte is one of the most underrated museums in Naples. As it’s located outside of the city center, most tourists overlook it but it’s been called the city’s most important art museum, showcasing a vast collection of classical art. Some of the highlights include the Farnese Collection on the museum’s second floor which includes cameos, paintings, and various antiquities that King Charles of Bourbon inherited. The haunting portrait of a young woman who may have been the artist’s mistress, Antea by Parmiganino is a gem, with a gaze that’s been compared to Ferrante’s Lila. Works by legends from Andy Warhol to Raphael can be found on the third and fourth floors, with the standouts the famous Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi and Caravaggio’s Flagellation of Christ. Royal apartments can be seen throughout, but the most impressive are on the second floor and include sparkling crystal chandeliers, mirrors, and portraits of Bourbon monarchs.
With such a wide array of tasty eats, sampling the street food in Naples is a must. It’s also a great way to eat cheaply if you know where to go. One of the best ways to discover those mouthwatering bites is on a street food tour with a local expert. There are many options, including tours combining sightseeing and tasting. You’ll learn about the history of the city as you make your way from one mini-feast to the next, enjoying everything from pizza and ragu to baccala. Some of the small, unassuming spots using age-old recipes will be revealed along with some of the famous spots so you’ll easily be able to return to the places you enjoyed the most. If you head out on your own, don’t miss San Gregoria Armeno, or Christmas Alley. This is the oldest part of the city and it smells like pizza, with many tiny pizzerias
Naples is renowned for its nativity scenes, or presepi in Italian. Along its famous pedestrianized street, via San Gregorio Armeno, or Christmas Alley, you can watch local artisans as they create them. It’s been a tradition here for centuries, with all of the figurines handcrafted. Every year there are new characters added, including film stars, local celebrities, and politicians. There are hundreds of shops along this street selling handmade presepi, so if you’ve ever wanted one, you’ll want to do it while you’re here. Although they’re open throughout the year, the best time to visit is in September and October before the busy holiday season. This is when the artisans start to prepare their shops for Christmas allowing visitors to observe the skilled craftsmen at work. There are options for every budget, ranging from around $50 to over $4,000. The shops also sell accessories and figurines if you want to make your own presepi.
As so many ancient cities do, Naples has a fascinating underground with a millennia’s worth of history. It’s riddled with tombs, tunnels, grottos, and catacombs, many of which are open to public visitors. Just north of the city center are the Catacombs of San Gennaro which are arranged on two levels and have much larger spaces than the more well-known Roman catacombs. The original nucleus dates back to the 2nd century AD and is believed to be the tomb of a noble family who provided other spaces for the Christian community. There was an expansion some 200 later, with an underground basilica dedicated to the remains of St. Agrippinus, the first patron of Naples. A bishop’s chair has been well-preserved, carved into the rock while the opening in the altar allowed the faithful to view and touch the saint’s tomb.
For a truly magical evening filled with high drama, catch a performance at Teatro San Carlo. While the original theater, built in 1737, burned down in 1816, the 19th-century reconstruction near Plebiscito Square is magnificent with its classic gilded interior. When it was revealed, French writer Stendhal remarked, “The first impression is that you have been transported to the palace of an oriental emperor. Your eyes are dazzled, our soul enraptured. One of the top opera houses in Italy, It not only sets a memorable stage for world-class opera, but classical music, and ballet. If you can’t attend a performance, consider taking a guided tour of the venue. The 45-minute tours usually include the elegant main hall, the royal box, and the foyers. Tickets can be purchased right at the theater up to 15 minutes before tours begin. Or visit the museum, MeMus, which is focused on theater and the opera house’s illustrious past.
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