In part 1, we looked at what to see and eat in the city. In 1995, the historic center of Naples was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the cultural significance of the generations of history, interwoven throughout the city.
And Naples is not alone. There are also a number of other UNESCO sites, protected for the cultural and historic importance, within easy reach of the city.
Part 2: UNESCO World Heritage Sites
In the shadow of Vesuvius
Arriving in Naples, visitors are immediately struck by the proximity of the city to Europe’s most famous volcano. For locals, Vesuvius keeps watch over the city, though you might feel it’s more a frighteningly close reminder of its destructive potential.
Thanks to Vesuvius, even Rome is left in the shade by the wealth of sites to discover in and around the volcano. The UNESCO sites of Pompeii,Herculaneum & the villa of Oplontii, show a glimpse into the world that was covered by the its eruption in 79AD, with a wealth of artefacts from the sites preserved in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.
Everyone has heard of Pompeii,the largest of the towns destroyed by the eruption of AD79. Every year around 2.5 million visitors come to walk the streets of this ancient town, once buried under pumice and ash. They take the same route, visiting the forum, theatres, plaster-casts of those who didn’t flee the town in time,the brothel and some of the better-preserved houses.
Private tours may also include the amphitheatre, situated outside the walls on one-side of the town, rarely do they take visitors to the recently restored Villa of the Mysteries outside the walls on the far side of the town, as the walk through streets of poorly-restored buildings, isn’t a good use of time on a site that offers so much else, sadly denying visitors the sight of Pompeii’s best-preserved frescoes.
Fewer visitors make it to Herculaneum, putting it in second place, though it is in many ways the finer of the two sites. Even in antiquity, the town was only about a third the size of Pompeii, and much of it remains buried beneath the modern city that was built over it, with about 15 acres having been excavated.
It was a wealthy town, a popular seaside resort with many fine villas. While Pompeii was hit as rocks rained down from the eruptive column destroying roofs and walls, Herculaneum was on the other side of the volcano and remained untouched until the column collapsed and lava rushed down the far side, covering Herculaneum. Rather than destroying the buildings, the eruption carbonised the town, preserving wood, food and people to be discovered later by archaeologists. Many of the buildings still have their upper storey and preservation efforts here have been more successful than at Pompeii,so despite the smaller size, visitors have a clearer idea of what the town looked like.
The last of the three sites is the villa of Oplonti at Torre Annuziata. Situated close to Pompeii, Villa Poppaea is thought to have belonged to the imperial family, and to have been the sometime residence of Nero’s second wife, Poppaea Sabina. The villa is impressive in size, and although there is evidence of damage from an earthquake in the years prior to AD79, the bright colors adorning the walls remain striking.
Together the sites give a detailed impression of Roman towns, their houses, shops and decoration. Finally, visit the archaeological museum in Naples to see many of the artefacts discovered during the excavations.
If you have the time, don’t try to see Pompeii and Herculaneum in a single day, as one ancient street will start to look much like another after a few hours and you’ll walk much further than you realize.
Invest in a private guide, rather than a group tour. Pompeii, in particular, is full of group tours competing to see the same things at the same time. A private guide will lead you masterfully through the less crowded streets and show you sites that are not included on the standard tours.
The ticket is only valid for one entrance, so if your tour doesn’t take you to the Villa of the Mysteries, it’s worth staying on the site and heading there afterwards (there is an exit next to the villa, so you don’t have to go all the way back to the beginning).
If you are going to stay in the Amalfi area, visit one of the sites on your way down and another on your way back to the airport or train station. Take a private transfer and your driver will keep your bags safely locked in the car while you visit the site. If you have an early flight, consider spending your final night in Naples. Hotels there are cheaper than Sorrento, and you won’t have to get up so early the next day for the hour-long drive!
Naples Historic Center
The historic center of Naples,one of the oldest and largest in Europe, is itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Throughout the city, monuments dating back to the Greeks document its rich history. Inthe Middle Ages to the 18th century, when it was considered one of Europe’s great capitals, along with London and Paris, Naples has been influential across Europe in terms of culture and architecture.
The center of Naples is smaller than you might expect. If you only have one day, don’t waste it on public transport (the city has a metro, but it’s neither modern nor fast), but see as much as you can by walking around.
Don’t miss the Naples Underground Tour, the statue of the Veiled Christ, the Archaeological Museum, the Basilica of Santa Chiara and the grand Piazza del Plebiscito, especially at sunrise. If you have time, take the funicular railway up to Castel Sant’Elmo, climb to the top and enjoy the silent views out across the city and the bay.
Although the city has improved in recent years, crime here is still high, so leave your jewellery and watches at the hotel and take a leather bag that closes securely and can’t be easily cut, that you can wear across your chest.
Italy is a Republic now, but for years the south was ruled by the Spanish Bourbons. Under their rule, the 18th century saw the construction of the grandiose Piazza del Plebiscito, the royal residence of Capodimonte and the San Carlo theatre. They were also responsible for one of Europe’s largest palaces, the Reggio di Caserta, about 40 minutes outside of Naples. Previously the site of a hunting lodge, King Charles of Bourbon, planned to build a palace here modelled on Versailles, one that would be out of reach of attacks from the sea, the chaos of Naples and Vesuvius,should it erupt.
Charles was a popular ruler, both in Naples, and later as king of Spain, and was responsible for promoting cultural projects, like the excavation of the newly rediscovered Herculaneum and the foundation of the Naples Museum, economic developments and supporting the well-being of the people, regardless of class.
The UNESCO site at Caserta includes not only the royal palace, but also the Carolino aqueduct and the San Leucio resort in the hills 10km from the palace. Here Charles built a silk factory, paying great attention to the needs of the workers, ensuring they had the most advanced technologies of the day, to produce high quality silk.
In a social experiment ahead of its time, housing was built for the workers, who would live together round the silk factory with their families, in a village governed by special royal statute. Women were recognised as being equal to a man and free to marry without having to provide a dowry. Educational and health care were provided for everyone, with protections for widows, orphans and the disables.
At the center of the community, the silk factory was housed in the Villa Belvedere, the royal hunting lodge, alongside the royal apartments. There had been plans to develop the village into the city of Ferdinandopoli, named after Charles’ son, but these were cut short by the outbreak of war with France.
Described by the UNESCO evaluation committee as ‘the swan song of the Baroque’, both the palace and the grounds are of monumental proportions, designed to house not only the royal court, but also the government and troops for their protection. The palace contains 1200 rooms over 5 floors, 40 of them described as ‘monumental’, and even has its own theatre, inspired by San Carlo in Naples.
Outside, the gardens stretch away from the palace, as far as the eye can see, creating a wonderful vista from the palace. The Carolino Aqueduct was designed by Vanvitelli to supply the fountains positioned at intervals throughout the park, as well as the ‘English Garden’.
If you’re looking for some restoration after the bustle of Rome and Naples, spending time in the palace grounds is the perfect antidote and with the Caserta train station close by, it can easily be visited on your own from Naples, or in the company of a private guide.