Naples is one of Italy’s most fascinating cities, but 90% of our clients leave as soon as they arrive, heading immediately for the luxury hotels and breath-taking views of the Amalfi Coast. Sorrento, Capri and Positano are beautiful and tourist-friendly to be sure, but if you want to see something of the real Italy, we suggest you stay in Naples for a night or two.
Naples may be known internationally these days for its organized crime, but historically it was an essential stop on the European Grand Tour, renowned for its history and compared to Paris for its artistic beauty. In recent years, the local authorities have worked hard to clean up the city, to make it more inviting for visitors and there are been a resurgence in tourism, thanks in part to the popularity of Elena Ferrante’s novels.
Part 1: What to see and what to eat
The underground city
The Bay of Naples was colonized by the Greeks, long before the Romans got here. If you only do one thing in Naples city, take the Napoli Sotterranea tour to the underground aqueducts built to bring water to the Greek settlement (entrance on Via dei Tribunali, next to the church of San Polo Maggiore). The impressive system of cisterns and tunnels allowed the city to develop in ancient times. You’ll discover how the water was kept clean and fresh, what life was like for the men who worked down here and how the aqueducts were rediscovered as a place of refuge in the 20th century.
The site can only be visited in the company of their guides, so you don’t get lost in the tunnels, and ends with a visit to a house built over and into the ruins of a Greek theatre, layers of history being built on top of each other throughout the ages.
Being underground is also a great way to escape the summer heat. As well as aqueducts, Naples has a large system of catacombs in the Rione Sanità, very different to the Roman ones that were long buried. To get here, take a bus, or an energetic walk,from the Museo area (archaeological museum), up towards Capodimonte.
Neapolitans have a particular relationship with death and the dead, as you will discover if you visit the Cimitero delle Fontanelle. Unfortunately, the explanations there are only in Italian, so read up before you go.
Although Italian cemeteries are generally located outside the city walls, in Naples, many people insisted on being buried in their local churches. As families died out and bones were removed to make space for new burials, the bones had to be relocated somewhere and were buried in shallow graves in the Fontanelle Caves. In the 17th century, victims of the plague were also buried here, away from the city center, until flooding in the 19th century disturbed the bones. They were returned to the caves, and cholera victims were also buried here. Eventually, a cult of the dead developed around this place, with locals coming to pray to the departed, to clean the skulls, to leave flowers and to ask for aid.
To get to the cemetery, take the metro to the Materdei stop and follow the signs. There are several flights of steps down to the cemetery, and back to the metro later.
A similar cult can be found in the church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco on Via dei Tribunali, where locals used to pray to the Souls in Purgatory and took care of their earthly remains. After their time in purgatory,the souls would enter heaven, where they would be able to intercede for those who had prayed for them on earth. Both places were closed by the Archbishop of Naples in 1969, in the hopes of stamping out these heretical practices.
Don’t confuse the Napoli Sotterranea tour in Piazza San Gaetano on Via dei Tribunali with the one on Vico S.Anna in Palazzo. The first is much better value, lasting about an hour and a half with young, professional guides who have a good level of English and knowledge of Naples’ history.
A bird’s eye view
If you aren’t afraid of heights, climb up Vesuvius for magnificent views out across the countryside. Most people drive close to the summit and walk the last 25 minutes to the crater. There is a €10 entrance fee to the top, which includes a guide who accompanies you as you peer inside the steaming crater. For nature-lovers and serious hikers, it is also possible to explore the mountain flanks and the Vesuvius National Park. You’ll find plenty of tours running from outside the train stations at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Expect to pay €20 for a round trip, excluding the entrance fee to the summit.
Naples is home to 3 castles, 2 that protect the harbour, and one high above the city. It’s fun to take the funiculare railway up to the Vomero area of the city where Castel Sant’Elmo watches over the city. Once you reach the top you’ll get wonderful views of the bay, Vesuvius and the rooftops of the city on a clear day. From here, you’ll see across to the other high point of the city: Capodimonte.
At the top is a beautifully-kept, walled park,which is open for free during the day and surrounds the Capodimonte Museum, the city’s finest art collection, housed in the palace of King CharlesVII of Naples and Sicily. Here you will find many examples of the Neapolitan School, as well as Italian Masters like Raphael, Caravaggio and Titian.
Naples is not the place to be on a diet! Everywhere you look food is being sold, spilling out onto the sidewalk. Give yourself a pass and enjoy all the tasty delights the city has to offer. As a bonus, prices are reasonable and tourist menus are rare.
Whether or not pizza was really created here, Naples is undoubtedly home to some of the finest pizza in the world, thanks to the delicious local tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella. There’s strong competition for ‘best pizza’ from the city’s pizzerie, with Sorbillo and Da Michele being 2 of the top contenders.
For a quick snack, look out for pizza portafoglio, ‘small’ pizzas sold from the shop front to customers on the street between about 10am and 7pm. Costing €1.50-€2 each, the pizza is wrapped in paper and folded up and be warned that the fresher it is, the higher the chances you’ll have tomato sauce running down your arm before you are finished!!
If you ever get tired of pizza, there’s plenty of other food to keep you entertained. The city is also famous for its slow-cooked ragù sauce and everyone you talk to will recommend a different place to try it. Of course, seafood is very popular here, as is frying. The two combined make for some excellent street food to snack on as you visit the city. Finally, anyone with a sweet tooth must start the day with a sfogliatella (pastry stuffed with sweet ricotta and candied peel) and have at least one babà (rum soaked sponge cake).
Don’t be surprised if you find that 3 meals a day, really aren’t enough to try all the delicious food on offer as you walk down the street!
Aim to be around Spaccanapoli when hunger sets in, as there’s a great concentration of places to eat here. Decide how long you are willing to wait to try the best pizza in town and don’t be surprised to find a line of 1.5-2 hours outside da Michele or Sorbillo. Neapolitans love their food so the quality is generally high everywhere. If time is an issue, pick somewhere else to eat and you’re bound to have an amazing experience all the same, in fact, it’s likely to taste better if you haven’t waited 2 hours for it!
- For pizza try Pizzeria Di Matteo at Via dei Tribunali, 94
- Get your babà from Pastisseria Capparelli at Via dei Tribunali, 327
- Sfogliatelle are available from bars and bakeries across the city. Scaturchio at Piazza San Domenico Maggiore is generally recognized as a leader in the art of sfogliatelle, though you will pay a bit more for the experience.
- For ragù, try Tandem at Via Giovanni Paladino, 51. As well as the classic ragù, they have also created a vegan version made from seitan, giving non-meat eaters an alternative to pizza! Although it’s tiny inside, opt for an indoor table if you can, so you can get the attention of the waiters – service here is not fast!
- Take a cooking class while you’re here and take your pizza-making skills home with you!
Can’t decide what to eat? Then have a local guide take you on a history and food tour of the city,picking the best places to stop and snack between visiting the highlights of the city center.