Updated: March 8, 2018
Naples is the birthplace of pizza and a meal in one of its heaving pizzerias is a quintessential city experience. Popular places like Pizzeria Gino Sorbillo (Via dei Tribunali 32) and Di Matteo (Via dei Tribunali 94) draw large crowds, so be prepared to queue for a table. And don’t expect fancy toppings – the classic Neapolitan pizza is the margherita with tomato, mozzarella and basil. According to city folklore, this historic composition was invented by a local cook in the 19th century to honour the then queen of Italy, Margherita di Savoia. The toppings were chosen to reflect the red, white and green of the Italian flag. To ensure you’re getting a genuine Neapolitan pizza, go for a place with a Vera Pizza Napoletana sign outside and a wood-fired oven (forno a legna). Note also that Neapolitans usually drink beer with their pizzas not wine. To really immerse yourself take the excellent private pizza-making class put on by Napolinvespa.
Explore the Historic Center
Take to the teeming lanes and backstreets of the historic center to experience some of Naples’ legendary streetlife. Action is focused on the claustrophobic area around Via dei Tribunali and ‘Spaccanapoli’, a long, strip of several streets strung together. In this bustling district, you’ll come across majestic baroque churches, ornate piazzas, heaving pizzerias and lively street markets. Just don’t expect peace and quiet. It’s a noisy, chaotic area and you’ll have to keep your wits about you, if nothing else to avoid the scooters that fly through the narrow alleyways.
Bone up on Ancient History
Naples’ Museo Archeologico Nazionale is a must-see. One of Italy’s great museums, it boasts a world-class collection of ancient Greek and Roman artefacts. Many of its prized treasures come from Pompeii and Herculaneum, including a series of stunning mosaics. Chief among these is a celebrated depiction of Alexander the Great directing his armies against the Persian king Darius. Another outstanding work is the Toro Farnese (Farnese Bull), a vast sculpture showing the mythical death of the Queen of Thebes. For a change of style, search out the museum’s red-light section, the Gabinetto Segreto, which displays a small stash of ancient erotica.
No trip to Naples would be complete without a detour to Pompeii. The site, within easy striking distance of the city, provides a remarkable snapshot into ancient life with its remarkably preserved houses, public baths, temples, amphitheater, even a brothel.
Pompeii is busiest on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, so try to visit on a weekday if possible. Also, afternoons are quieter than mornings. The critical time to avoid is between 10am and 11am when the tour buses arrive and long queues form at the main ticket office.
As well as Pompeii, you can also visit the ruins of Herculaneum, a second victim of Vesuvius’s AD 79 eruption. The site here is smaller than Pompeii and while less well known, it has some amazingly preserved houses and frescoes.
For information on opening times and booking tickets see www.pompeiisites.org.
Both Pompeii and Herculaneum are easy to get to from Naples. From underneath Stazione Centrale, take the Circumvesuviana train to Ercolano Scavi for Herculaneum (about 20 minutes) and Pompei Scavi for Pompeii (35 minutes).
Some other considerations: make sure to take bottled water; wear comfy walking shoes; and take sunscreen and a hat if visiting in summer.
Go to church
You could spend months exploring all Naples’ churches. The city is awash with basilicas, churches, chapels and shrines, many of which contain priceless artworks. One of the most imposing is the Duomo, the city’s lavishly decorated baroque cathedral. Further splendours await at the Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo, one of several fascinating churches in the historic center. Nearby, the Gothic Basilica di Santa Chiara is an oasis of calm with its serene tiled cloisters. Note that Naples’ churches are generally free to enter.
Revel in Baroque Art
Search out the Cappella Sansevero for a blast of stunning baroque art. Hidden in a backstreet near Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, this ornate 16th century chapel is home to a series of awe-inspiring sculptures. Chief among these is Giuseppe Sanmartino’s Cristo velato (The Veiled Christ), an incredible life-size depiction of Jesus lying under a transparent shroud. An altogether stranger sight are the chapel’s so-called Anatomical Machines. These are two human skeletons, one of a man, the other of a woman, displayed with their arterial systems perfectly preserved.
Have a Coffee Break
Get into the local lifestyle by nipping into a bar for a quick coffee. To do it like a pro, pay first at the cash register, then place your receipt on the counter and order from the barista, perhaps leaving a coin or two as a small tip. There are various coffee concoctions to choose from, but by far and away the most common is the espresso, which is what you’ll get if you ask for un caffè. Cappuccinos are also popular but in Italy these are considered morning-only drinks. Note also that coffees are generally served already sweetened in Naples, so if you want yours without sugar ask for it amaro (bitter).
The city’s best known café is Caffè Gambrinus (Via Chiaia 1-2), a smart chandeliered affair where Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway once drank. Another place revered for its coffee is Caffè Mexico on Piazza Dante.
Take in a Gallery
Naples boasts a great selection of museums and galleries showcasing everything from ancient sculpture to baroque paintings and contemporary installations. The city’s most important art museum is the Museo di Capodimonte whose vast collection of classical art includes works by the likes of Raphael, Botticelli, Caravaggio, even Andy Warhol. For more contemporary fare try MADRE, a fascinating modern art museum near the Duomo, or check out the works in the Toledo and Università metro stations.
Escape to Vomero
To escape the relentless hurly-burly of central Naples, head up to the hilltop district of Vomero. Here you can bask in sweeping bay views and visit the Certosa e Museo di San Martino, a beautiful monastery complex known for its opulent baroque decor and beautiful cloisters. Among its artistic treasures is the city’s largest presepe (nativity scene), a huge 18th-century composition featuring 160 figures and 80 animals. To get to Vomero take the funicular from Piazza Augusteo, just off Via Toledo.
Walk the Seafront
Stretch your legs on Naples’ lungomare (seafront). With Vesuvius looming on the horizon and Capri shimmering in the blue haze, the 3km-long promenade between Santa Lucia and Mergellina is a glorious spot for a stroll. If you’re hungry, there are various cafes and eateries along the way or you can stop off at the Borgo Marinaro for a seafood meal. Whilst on the Borgo take time to investigate Castel dell’Ovo, Naples’ oldest castle, which has been a city landmark since the 12th century.
A Night at the Opera
For an evening of high drama, head to the Teatro San Carlo. This historic theater is one of Italy’s top opera houses and its classic gilded interior sets a memorable stage for world-class opera, ballet and classical music. If you can’t make a performance, you can visit on a guided tour or learn about its illustrious past at MeMus, a modern museum dedicated to the theater. Note that entrance to the museum is through Palazzo Reale on Piazza del Plebiscito.
Long a byword for Mediterranean chic and still today a favourite summer hangout, Capri is a popular day trip from Naples. Frequent hydrofoils serve the island from Molo Beverello, taking about 50 minutes to make the short crossing (€20 one-way). Once on the island you can explore the whitewashed streets of Capri Town and take a panoramic chairlift up from Anacapri. The island’s premier sight is the Grotta Azzurra (Blue Grotto), a stunning sea cave named for its ethereal blue light. The easiest way to visit this is to take a boat tour from Marina Grande – these cost around €15 not including the €14 admission to the cave.
You don’t need to take the metro to go underground in Naples. The city’s undersoil is riddled with tunnels, tombs, grottoes and catacombs, many of which can be visited. To the north of the center, you can explore the Catacomba di San Gennaro where the city’s patron saint was interred in the 5th century. Another good site is the Galleria Borbonica, a 19th-century tunnel system built to link the royal palace (Palazzo Reale) with a barracks near the sea. During WWII, it was used as an air-raid shelter.
Shop for Presepi
Naples is renowned for its nativity scenes, known in Italian as presepi. To see what all the fuss is about head to Via San Armeno Greco where local artisans have been hand-crafting figurines for centuries. Each year new characters are added to the cast, which as well as traditional biblical figures and animals also includes local celebrities, film stars, and caricatures of Italian politicians. Not surprisingly, the street gets particularly frenzied in the build-up to Christmas when shoppers pour in to update their Yuletide decoration.
A bit far for a day trip but well worth visiting if you have the time, the Amalfi Coast is Italy’s most spectacular stretch of coastline. Verdant cliffs plunge into sparkling azure waters whilst towns like Amalfi, Positano and Ravello cling to the precipitous slopes. The area is at its busiest in July and August, but is beautiful throughout the year, especially in May, June and September. To reach the Coast from Naples, you’ll first need to get to Sorrento, either by Alilauro boat or by Circumvesuviana train. From there, SITA Sud buses and summer-only ferries connect with Positano and Amalfi.