Bustling, hustling, grimy and beautiful: Naples, Italy’s third largest city, brims with passion and energy. Neapolitan food and music are world famous but the city has many hidden treasures too. It’s a great destination for a city break or as a base for exploring the stunning coastline of Campania. Here’s our Naples itinerary from ancient wonders to contemporary art, crafts, music, local food and the best day trips.
Who went: My sons, Nick and Ed came with me to Naples in September. They’re both studying history and it seemed a bit of an oversight that we’d never visited Pompeii, one of the most famous archeological sites in the world. So at the last minute, we booked flights and headed off to Naples.
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Planning a Naples Itinerary: 3 days
The boys aren’t teens anymore (19 doesn’t count) but Naples does have a buzz and an edginess that older children will appreciate. The presence of Roman times lingers too, as palpably for me as in Rome itself. Plus there’s Europe’s most active mainland volcano looming over the bay. And the food is fantastic!
Naples was a hugely important European city for centuries. Spanish, Austrian and French rulers all left their mark and helped give Naples its unique character. All in all, there’s lots to see and plenty we didn’t have time for. These were our favourite sights after 3 days in Naples plus 3 day trips: a kind of starter kit for a fascinating, colourful and complex city.
Explore the Historic Centre of Naples
We stayed in the Centro Storico, the UNESCO protected historic centre of Naples. It’s a great place to begin an exploration of Naples and most of the sights listed below, apart from Vomero, are in or adjacent to it. This makes it easy to plan an itinerary since nearly everything is within walking distance.
The streets here are narrow and cobbled, flanked with tall buildings and flagged with laundry dangling from iron balconies. Not surprisingly natural light is in short supply but there’s plenty of colour at ground level in the closely packed shops and stalls.
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The whole area bustles with locals and tourists, people pausing for snacks and waiters whisking in and out of buildings balancing trays of expressos to deliver to office desks. It’s a great place to wander and get a feel for the city.
Watch out though – those paved streets look like they might be pedestrianised until suddenly a scooter or taxi materialises, beeps its horn, weaves fast through the passers by and zooms away again. The scooter may be carrying a business man, it may be transporting an entire family plus dog – in whichever case it won’t be dawdling. Traffic is a bit of a hazard in Naples.
We strolled around the grid of streets established by the Greeks and Romans. Via San Siagio Dei Librai is also called the Spaccanapoli because it splits Naples in half. Via Dei Tribunali has ancient arcades in which passers by can shelter from the scooters with a fistful of pizza or a cone of deep-fried deliciousness.
The famous Via San Gregorio Armeno links the two and is a magnet for tourists – see why below. None of it has been gentrified. There might be a familiar looking H & M on neighbouring Via Toledo but the Centro Storico is resolutely as it was.
We took in the street scenery. At a corner we stopped off at uber-trad Caffe Ciorfito for cappuccino and cornetti. Later as we passed the Conservatorio di Musica the soaring notes of an aria drifted out of an upstairs window and down the ancient street. It was a trumpet solo when we passed again later in the week.
We didn’t take a walking tour as we were doing several day trips out of town. But I’d like to on another visit. The historic centre of Naples is packed with interest and it’s so much easier to be shown around by a knowledgeable local than to stop at every street corner to whip out the guidebook!
Book a walking tour of Naples. Click here for more info on small group and food-tasting tours of old Naples
I like the sound of this small group tour of old Naples with food-tasting
Naples Nativity Scenes in San Gregorio Armeno
Whether or not you’re interested in craftsmen-made Christmas scenes, a visit to Via San Gregorio Armeno is a must. Little terracotta figures were made here in classical times as temple offerings, but the presepi (nativity cribs) business really took off during the Bourbon era of the 18th century. Aristocrats began to collect the figures and arrange them into festive tableaux of Italian village and market life. The craftsmen are still thriving in this little street and Neapolitan families visit every year to buy new figures to add to their Christmas nativity scenes at home.
It’s a lovely place to find traditional Italian souvenirs – but that’s only half the story. This is Naples after all and the Neapolitans have given the street their own unique spin. In a odd mix of holy and irreverent, beautifully carved shepherds and wise men join ranks with pop culture heroes and villains: politicians, TV personalities and the entire blue-shirted Napoli football team.
We spent quite a while browsing the stalls and dipping in and out of the little workshops. You could populate an entire 18th century Italian village with the figures from one shop, right down to perfectly detailed baskets of fruit and fish.
Then pop outside to the next door stall and there’s Donald Trump, here’s a robe-lifting monk! And let’s not dwell on the rolls of politician loo paper ….
See underground Naples
There’s a whole other world beneath the streets of Naples. Roman markets, viaducts and cisterns, catacombs, WW2 air-raid shelters, even abandoned cars.
We went underground at the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore. It’s at the top end of Via San Gregorio Armeno in the historic centre. The church itself is a fine medieval building at the centre point of ancient Naples. But pop downstairs and you find yourself first in medieval times and then, another flight down, in a Roman marketplace. This is a market building from the 4th century BC with a bakery, a laundry and a bank.
Napoli Sotterranea is based in Piazza San Gaetano, just round the corner from San Lorenzo Maggiore. This is a guided tour that takes you 40 metres below ground to see Greek water cisterns, a Roman theatre and WW2 air raid shelters. There’s even an optional candlelit section. We didn’t have enough time in the end but here’s a link if you’re planning ahead. Click here to pre-book a Napoli Sotterranea tour.
I’d have liked to visit the Bourbon Tunnel too. It’s a cavernous 18th century cistern, a shelter during bombing raids in WW2 that still contains some ancient impounded cars.
There’s a lot going on under the streets of Naples. Book ahead for tours of the underground tunnels, ancient city or catacombs. Click here for a selection of Naples underground tours.
Finally don’t miss one of the Metro’s Art Stations. Toledo was our local stop and is dazzling. If only all tube stations could be like this one.
Be amazed in Cappella Sansevero
There are plenty of churches worth visiting in Naples but we’d heard about one in particular. Cappella Sansevero, in the historic centre of Naples, isn’t even old in Naples’ terms, it’s a small private chapel from the eighteenth century. What’s most interesting and even mysterious about it are the sculptures inside, commissioned by Raimondo di Sangro. A nobleman and Prince of Sansevero he was a soldier, writer and patron with an interest in science and alchemy.
The Veiled Christ is the carving that everyone comes to see: a sculpture of the body of Christ covered in a fine translucent shroud. What makes it special is that the whole piece, veil included, has been carved from a single block of marble. The detailing is so breathtaking that legend has it that the veil was the result of a secret recipe to turn cloth to marble.
Take in a museum: ancient or modern
Naple’s National Archeological Museum has one of the best collections in the world. We wanted to see some of the wall paintings, mosaics and statues from the Pompeii excavations. It was a chance to fill in the gaps from our tour of the original villas.
The museum itself was originally a barracks – a very splendid one with sweeping stairways and lofty ceilings. This is just as well because the ground floor is home to some towering statues from the Greek and Roman period. The muscular Farnese Hercules and giant Farnese Bull are just some of them.
I liked the busts of the Roman emperors: there are a couple of Vespasian that seem real enough for you to recognise him out in the street. Upstairs, in a kind of ancient poets’ corner, you come face to face with the extravagantly wrinkled Homer, of Odyssey fame.
The most giggled about area of the museum is the infamous Gabinetto Segreto, a not-so-secret chamber where they’ve stashed all the porn from Pompeii. This does underline the point that the Romans were ‘not like us,’ certainly in terms of art considered suitable for dining room walls. You’ll also take away a whole new meaning for the phrase ‘with bells on’.
We went to MADRE, Naples’ Museum of Contemporary Art later that day. Housed in an old palazzo (of course) it has a small and brilliant collection of modern art and installations by Jeff Koons and Anish Kapoor amongst others.
In a current exhibition ancient artifacts are juxtaposed with contemporary work that references the eruption of Vesuvius – but that hardly begins to describe it. Dense and well-translated text supports each installation and there’s a lot to take in. We wished it hadn’t been our second culture fix of the day! Come with a clear head and an open mind. By the way, we totally missed Mimmo Paladino’s horse sculpture – it’s up on the roof.
Both museums are conveniently in the historic centre so easy to include when planning an itinerary.
Trick your friends in Piazza Plebiscito
Named to mark the unification of Italy in 1860 this spacious and elegant piazza is just south of the historic centre, on your way to the waterfront and handy for various Neapolitan must sees including the opera house, the Galleria Umberto 1 and Gran Caffe Gambrinus. It’s pretty splendid itself with curving colonnades that look quite a lot like Bernini’s St Peter’s Square in Rome and a centrepiece dome that’s clearly Pantheon-esque.
In front of the domed church of San Francesco di Paola stand two bronze statues of Bourbon kings on horseback. These are the focus of a famous Neapolitan trick.
The test is whether you can stand with your back to the palace door facing the dome and walk straight across the piazza and between the two statues – blindfolded. It’s a longish walk, about 100 metres, but since the statues stand wide apart it doesn’t seem too difficult.
Nick tried it with his eyes closed and us hovering to stop him crashing into unwary passers by. The result was so peculiar that Ed and I had to have a go as well. Apart from the fact that the cobbles and guttering are a bit unnerving underfoot, the whole piazza has a hidden camber.
It’s almost impossible to walk straight. Try it!
If you have more time than us you can also visit the pink-hued Royal Palace which faces the colonnade.
Listen to traditional Neapolitan music by Napulitanata
To say Naples has a musical history would be a bit of an understatement. Famous for its opera and folk songs, it’s the birthplace of Caruso and O Sole Mio, possibly the best known melody in the world, hummed by Gargarin as he orbited Earth.
Napulitanata operates out of a renovated ex-taxi storeroom in a arcade opposite the Archeological museum. It’s a group of young musicians with a mission. They present traditional Neapolitan music and song for locals and visitors alike in an intimate setting that’s more like a living room than a concert hall. There’s a friendly welcome and a drink with nibbles for the audience who sit round the edge of the room. It’s fun, authentic and not at all ‘packaged’ – and helpfully introduced in English as well as Italian. Check out their website here to book a show and watch some clips on their Facebook page here. Go before they get too famous!
Eat all the food
If you like to eat local food when you’re on holiday then you’ll love Naples. Unlike more touristy cities, where eateries proffer laminated menus in several languages with photos, most restaurants in Naples are primarily catering for Neapolitans. So you might struggle a bit to understand exactly what’s on your plate but it’s more likely to be authentic, reasonably priced – and delicious.
Everyone knows Naples is the home of pizza, and possibly gelato too. But it also claims a stake in ragu, the meaty slow-bubbled sauce that’s the base of a truly great spag bol.
Street food, of the traditional rather than the hipster variety, is a big thing in Naples. Pizza obvs, which is folded in on itself so it can be carried in one hand. But Neapolitans are also very fond of deep-fried snacks and food stalls specialise in takeaway paper cones filled with warm and comforting potato croquettes, crispy vegetables or indeed, fried pizza. And the sweet pastries are epic. Arrive hungry and make plans to do lots of walking between meals!
See the view of the Bay of Naples from Vomero
On our last day in Naples we hopped on one of the funicular trains to catch a lift up the hill to Vomero. We emerged into another world of peaceful, airy tree-lined streets with hardly any beeping and zooming at all. Vomero is a residential area – I couldn’t find a postcard anywhere – and seems a million miles away from the hustle of Centro Storico. After popping into a supermarket to buy coffee to take home, we headed up to Certosa di San Martino via handy outdoor escalators (although inexplicably they closed down at lunchtime).
This monastery complex lies beside Castel Sant’Elmo. Both apparently have great views but we picked the Certosa for its garden terraces. There’s a museum inside including carriages, royal barges and a huge presepi display. Out on the terraces are glorious panoramic views of the city and the Bay of Naples. And mosquitoes.
We walked back into town down the Pedamentina San Martino, an ancient staircase that’s been hairpinning down the hill since the 1300s. More of a walkway than a flight of stairs it begins ignominously, with lots of broken glass underfoot, dropped by sightseers sitting on the wall of the Belvedere outside the Certosa. To be honest the best views are at the top and we did spend a lot of time watching our feet as we made our way down the 414 stairs, passing homes and even a B and B.
At the bottom of the steps it’s not obvious where to go so it was lucky we had Google maps. The answer we chose was a narrow steeply winding street with a couple of blind corners. This is clearly an enjoyable challenge for scooter riders but not so much for pedestrians. It led to Via Toledo via the hubbub of Quartieri Spagnoli and some fish stalls!
This would have been fun to do as part of a guided walk and I’d have loved to hear some stories about the Pedamentina.
Book a walking tour of Naples that includes the Pedamentina. Click here for more info
Planning an Italian city break?
Take a day trip from Naples
Poised on the west coast of Italy, south of Rome, Naples is in one of the most beautiful regions of Italy. You could spend a week in the city and take a different day trip everyday. That’d be a shame because there’s lots to enjoy in Naples but it’s definitely worth organising at least one day out. We did several!
A busy Southern Italian port town, Pompeii was engulfed by the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. This globally famous archaeological site is huge – and it takes a bit of unpacking. We spent the morning there on a private guided tour and there was still lots more to see.
Climb to the top of the volcano responsible for the devastation of Pompeii. We did the two in one day although it’s a bit of a push and doesn’t leave much time for lunch. But the view from the crater edge is fab. Pick a clear day.
This lovely little island is only a 30 minute boat ride from Naples. It was peaceful to the point of sleepy on the weekday we visited.
After some pottering around we settled in on a quiet sunny beach with a fab restaurant. If you’d prefer a bigger or more glamorous island both Capri and Ischia are easy to get to from Naples.
If Pompeii whets your appetite for archeology or you’d prefer to dip into a smaller site, then visit Herculaneum. Another Roman town that met an abrupt end thanks to the eruption, it’s just a short train ride from Naples. Unlike Pompeii, Herculaneum wasn’t flattened. The shells of some of its two storey buildings are still standing. It gives an eerie sense of how a Roman town really looked 2000 years ago.
A traditional seaside town with cliff top views, Sorrento is an hour south of Naples and gateway to the glorious Amalfi coastline.
We spent an afternoon here after visiting Herculaneum. It was a flying visit but we still had time to find lunch with a view, relax, swim, and have a sunset aperitif before we caught the train ‘home’.
Naples Italy Points of Interest
Here’s a selection of tickets and tours from Get Your Guide
Top Tips for Getting Around Naples
Is Naples Safe?
So much is written about whether or not Naples is safe for tourists. It’s certainly earned a reputation for organised crime and grime over the years. But recently much has been done to regenerate the city. Obviously I can’t give a definitive answer about whether or not you should go, but we loved it so here are some tips based on our visit.
Firstly I wonder whether some of the unease on internet forums might be due to disappointed expectations. Like its northerly cousins, Venice and Florence, Naples is proudly steeped in 2000 years of history. But that’s where the comparison ends. This is a real, working Southern city that doesn’t rely on tourists for economic success. Even Rome just an hour away by train feels more manicured, less anarchic.
The first eye-opener is the graffiti that forms a running frieze along the streets, high as an outstretched arm with a spray can. This isn’t hipster-style ‘street art’ either, mostly it’s plain old aerosol scribble. It gives Naples’ handsome facades a rather distopian air, especially under the street lights at night.
The second surprise is that you’ll find yourself swerving to avoid heaps of bagged up rubbish on the pavements. The city has an intransigent problem with refuse collection.
We weren’t in Naples for long but we found it friendly and didn’t feel threatened. However, we stuck to commonsense principles that apply to any big cosmopolitan city where pickpockets and bag snatchers operate eg:
- Don’t wear jewellery, watches or carry expensive bags
- Keep phones, cameras and guidebooks under wraps as much as possible when walking around. Carry a crossbody bag in front of you.
- Keep in mind the distraction tricks that thieves can use. We know people who have been targeted in other cities.
- Stick to the main sightseeing areas and take reliable local advice about the parts of town best avoided by tourists. Check where it’s ok to walk at night – some places (as in many big cities) are off limits. Use a registered taxi if in doubt. Be vigilant in stations and on trains.
Incidentally, there was a noticeable police presence in some squares and busy streets – we’d seen this in Rome too.
Crossing the street in Naples
‘See Naples and die’ wrote Goethe in the 1780s. Apparently he was referring to the magnificence of the architecture. He may have also muttered it as he skipped out of the path of a flying phaeton (there were more horse-drawn carriages in Naples than in Paris at the time).
Crossing the road in Naples requires your full nerve and attention. There appear to be zebra crossings (black and white stripes across a street) but the pedestrian doesn’t have right of way. You could wait all day for a gap in the traffic. Our best advice is to slipstream the locals while you get your eye in. Old ladies, school children, dog walkers, they all use the stripes confidently, so watch and learn. Traffic does appear to give way if (if!) it has enough time to see you striding purposefully across the road. Hesitate though and that bunch of scooters will race to pass in front and behind you.
We tried to cross at quiet, narrow points in the street or walk the extra distance to a pedestrian crossing with lights where you’re marginally safer. If you travel to Naples with family you’ll want to brief everyone thoroughly about this!
Should you hire a car in Naples?
Short of parachuting in, I can’t think of a more dramatic way to enter Naples than by taxi on a hot dark Saturday night. The noise, smells and visual cacophony assault you from all sides. Traffic lights only temporarily impede a remorseless surge of cars and scooters. Our driver plunged through it all with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a phone to his ear so he could have a nice chat at the same time. He charged us 28 euros for the journey from the airport to our apartment. It was more than his original estimate but we were happy that none of us had been in the driving seat ourselves.
But the traffic is all part of the spirit and energy of Naples! You don’t need a car as it’s perfectly easy to get around and take day trips with a combination of foot, bus, metro, train and boat. Our advice is to leave the driving to the experts and sit back and enjoy the views.
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Have you been to Naples? What was your favourite experience there? Join in the conversation in the Comments below.
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