“See Naples, and then die!’ That was a proud saying, Count, which we used to hear as we cruised under lateen sails about the glorious bay that reflects from its waters the fires of Vesuvius “- William Kirby
Naples is sadly often missed off a travel itinerary for Italy. Located in Southern Italy, it is the capital of Campania and sits on the stunning Bay of Naples. It rarely tops the list of Italy’s most beautiful cities, however if you look past the rubbish strewn streets and the chaos, Naples has plenty of history, character and rustic charm. It also has the best pizza in the world.
|Bay of Naples|
Founded by the Greeks in 470BC, it is one of Europe’s oldest cities. A bustling port since antiquity it’s full of history and natural wonder. To enjoy it fully, it’s well worth two or three days of your travels to explore all this wonderful city has to offer.
Don’t be put off by tales of crime, all cities have that. It has an energy and rawness that is absent in a lot of European towns. The streets are full of frenetic activity, it is surrounded by the beautiful Bay of Naples, and the city’s vibrant rhythm made me fall in love with it.
|Statue of the Nile God – Piazzetto Nilo|
Locals talk with their whole bodies, arms waving like maestros of an orchestra. Conversations are staccato; there are definitely no quiet carriages on the trains here.
I guess living in the shadow of an active volcano is a stark reminder for Neapolitans that life is precious and must be lived passionately.
|Statue of Ferdinand IV of Naples|
Many people only stay in Naples to catch transport to the Amalfi Coast or stay overnight to visit Pompeii. This beautiful city is well worth more of your time. If you want to see an Italy that is authentic and real, take the time to explore this wonderful city.
|Statue of Umberto|
Here is my top ten list of things to do in Naples other than Pompeii/Herculaneum and why this city is worth more of your time.
1. Piazza Plebiscito & Chiesa di San Franceso di Paola
Wander around the Piazza Plebiscito, a beautiful open space within the city. The square was named after the Plebiscite taken on October 2, 1863, which brought Naples under the unified Kingdom of Italy, under the house of Savoy. It has been a backdrop for some of the most prominent artists such as Elton John, Maroon 5, Muse, Andrea Boccelli, Sting, and Bruce Springsteen.
Chiesa di San Franceso di Paola is a Roman Catholic Church whose neoclassical architectural style is reminiscent of the pantheon on Rome.
|Chiesa di San Francesco di Paola|
2. Indulge your sweet tooth at Café Gambrinus
After we roam around Piazza Plebiscito, we inadvertently sit down and have coffee at one of Naples most famous and overpriced cafes – Gran Café Gambrinus. Apparently Oscar Wilde and Bill Clinton have both got their caffeine fix here.
Whilst it is touristy and overpriced, it is a lavish art Nuevo café, where artwork and chandeliers give it the feel of a palace.
They serve delicious Neapolitan sweets such as sfogliatella, the shell shaped pastries local to the region and Cannoli. I cannot resist the Cannoli, I still dream of the sweet ricotta oozing from the delicate pastry – YUMMO !
|Gran Caffe Gambrinus|
|Pastries at Gran Cafffe Gambrinus|
3. Castel Nuovo & Castel dell’Ovo (Castle of the Egg)
Castel dell’Ovo (Egg Castle) is a fortified castle perched in the Bay of Naples. Built on the small island of Megaride, it is now connected to the mainland by a causeway.
Take a stroll down to the harbour and visit the Castel dell’Ovo (the castle of the egg). It is Naples oldest castle. The legend says that Virgil (a poet & historian) buried an egg beneath the castle, if the egg ever cracks Naples will fall. As we walk around the Castle I see remnants of ancient cannonball attacks which have left their mark in the imposing 15th century bronze doors. If you have kids, they will the fairy tale aspect of the Castel.
|Castel dell’Ovo (Castle of the Egg)|
Castel Nuovo (“New Castle), often called Maschio Angioino, is a medieval castle located in front of Piazza Municipio and the city hall. It’s imposing size makes the castle, one of the main architectural landmarks of the city.
4. Eat Pizza
If you are headed to Naples, it is one of the best places in Italy to eat Pizza. Neapolitan pizza has a very specific dough recipe (which is dictated by law in Italy).
Slabs of pizza are served blazing hot, no frills, and straight from the wood fire oven and are made pretty much the same way they have been for more than a century. There’s a trade association that certifies pizzerias as “authentic” and Neapolitan ingredients and cooking must follow the guidelines and the dough must only be made with flour, yeast, salt, and water.
Mt Vesuvius towers over the city, defining daily life, with many of Naples pizza ovens being made of volcanic rock from the mountain. The ovens are hot like the lava the city floats above and pizzas are served fast and furious !
You will never forget your first bite of a Neapolitan Pizza Margherita. It is how I imagine food in heaven to be. Made with local tomatoes , fresh water buffalo mozzarella cheese and fresh basil, it is pizza mana.
|Pizzeria da Michele|
We chose Da Michele, made famous by Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love and eaten by Julia Roberts, Forest Whittaker and Diego Maradonna, it is an old school pizzeria serving only two types of pizza – marghertia or marinara. There is of course a queue (a common thing in Italy, people queue at popular restaurants, complete with doorman who takes names and directs proceedings), however, if you are happy to have take away you can skip the wait. I watch a woman who looks local, she heads to the counter and asks for take away. I follow her lead , order at the cash register and take my ticket to the man who is receiving the take away orders, he winks and smiles, a man who loves his job –“ marghertia or marinara bella signora”, and opt for the Margherita, he smiles and nods. I move to the corner to watch the chaos.
Behind the counter, two men furiously knead and throw dough on marble bench tops. One guy dresses the pizzas with the toppings and one guy is constantly rotating and wielding giant wooden paddles to place and remove the pizzas from the wood fired oven.
|The busy ovens at da Michele|
|Pizza being placed into the woodfire at da Michele|
After 10 minutes the take away guy points to me and hands me the piping hot pizza box.
I push my way through the crowds waiting to be seated and find Mr 77. There are no seats, we sit on a ledge of a nearby building and eat the pizza while it is still hot. It is honestly the best pizza I have ever eaten. Doughy in the right places, rich tomatoes and basil countered with the creamiest mozzarella I have eaten – divine.
5. Catch a taxi – Seriously !
Yes, catching a taxi in Naples is an adventure on its own. We hail ours and the taxi driver turns to me as I put on my seat belt, he laughs and shouts “ signora, this is Napoli, don’t worry, no problem, no need to worry here”, it does not provide any comfort as he then steps on the accelerator and roars into the traffic barely missing 3 scooters and a minivan.
My knuckles are white and it is the most hair raising ride I have been on.
The traffic is chaotic at best, life threatening at worst. Multiple lanes merge in all directions, locals honk their horns to overtake, merge, show annoyance or as a get the hell out of my way you “@%$£ ! warning usually with words yelled out the window and mad gesticulating hands.
Cars are dented, scratched, sideswiped with broken mirrors. Fenders hang like Christmas bauble decorations. Headlights are taped up and mufflers are tied on. I am guessing that Naples has pretty lenient car registration tests.
Vespa’s and scooters carry two, sometimes three people, shopping bags are flung on shoulders or backs, dogs hang on for dear life as their masters weave in between the buses, trucks and cars at full throttle. There are near misses everywhere.
Our driver turns out to be an excellent tour guide, he points out the sites and as we practice our basic Italian he nods encouragement and yells “bella bellisimo, you are italiano” with each phrase or word we stumble over!”
We wind through the bustling streets of the Centro Storico, we see most of the main sites and after very entertaining ride, escape unscathed at our destination the Museo Archaeological Nazionale.
6. Museo Archaeological Nazionale
Once you have filled up on Pizza and after your hair raising taxi ride , be sure to visit the Museo Archaeological Nazionale. It houses a wonderful collection of Greco Roman artefacts, sculptures and statues from the Baths of Caracalla and beautiful cameo jewelled collections from the Farnese Family.
It is worth stopping before you visit Pompeii and Herculaneum.
There are Etruscan and Egyptian relics, but the main draw card is the mosaics and relics from Herculaneum (Erculano) and Pompeii.
|Museo Archeological Nazionale|
We take our time wandering around the intricate tiled artworks and stumble across the “secret room”.
Called the secret room as those modicums of dignity The Bourbon Kings were embarrassed that that noble men and women from England and France, when visiting on their “Grand Tour” clambered to giggle and poke fun at the frescoes perpetuating the myth that Napoli (and Italy as a whole) was a place of loose morals and free living.
Whilst it may have been true, a clever PR campaign to clean up Naples image meant the artworks were hidden from the public and general viewing. Only a privileged few could see them and only by appointment and approval of the King.
|Museo Archeological Nazionale|
The collection has caused enormous controversy over the years and there are many letters of complaint declaring the works “filth” that should be destroyed.
It certainly might not be a room to take the younger kids to, but it is modest by today’s standards. Giant clay phalluses salute the sky from the walls, in strange formation. I stifle my own giggles as I wonder if they ever used them as hat racks ? I receive a stern look from the museum staff!
There are pictures, paintings and mosaics of varying sexual positions, a kind of ancient Roman Karma Sutra. There are phallic wind chimes and jewellery a few early “appendages” cast in bronze and some fantasy artworks of Lucifer having his way with wayward young Romans. Overall however, it is very tame.
The shame of Naples, a piece of erotica which has created uproar over the centuries, it is a picture that I can only describe as a faun like (half human half faun) creature servicing a goat.
We leave the museum with our heads full of history and eyes opened to the ancient ways.
7. Centro Storico
Having wandered through history we take to the streets and walk through the Centro Storico.
|Alleyways and shops of Centro Storico|
It is a winding maize. The alleyways are filled with shops, cafes, restaurants, antique shops and places selling the best Pizza in Italy.
|The alleways of Centro Storico|
8. Gelato – Gay Odun
It has been a busy day so we finish with a Gelato from Gay Odun. A well-known chocolate shop that sells the best chocolate gelato ever made. As they say on their Facebook page, a gelato a day keeps the Dr away ! Just got there, eat Gelato and be happy.
9. Get your Volcano on – Visit the Solfatara – Campi Flegrei (Phlegraean Fields) or Hike up Mt Vesuvius.
Get as close as you can to the bubbling volcanic heart of the city.
Before you visit Pompeii or Herculaneum, make your way to the suburb of Puozoli, take the train to the Pozzuoli-Solfatara station and follow the signs the site, The suburb of Puozoli sits on the rim of an active volcanic crater called the Solfatara . There are also numerous Greek and Roman ruins including the 3rd largest amphitheatre in the world. Be sure to check out opening days and times as these regularly change.
Campi Flegrei (Phlegraean Fields), legend has it that these fields are the home of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. It certainly smells like I imagine hell would. If you can stand the sulphur and heat it offers a unique experience. The Solfatara is a dormant volcanic crater covered by a congealed lava cap. The landscape is a mass of sulphuric steam and bubbling mud unlike any other I have seen in a residential area.
If Volcanoes are more your thing, be sure to do a half day tour to Mt Vesuvius.
You can drive or take a bus part way up Vesuvius, but you can only get to the top is by hiking. If you are not fit it’s challenging, but it’s worth it. Stunning views of the crater, Naples, the bay and the Mediterranean Sea.
10. Take a ferry to the Islands of Procida or Ischia
If the city gets too much, take the ferry to Procida or Ischia.
Mr 77 and I chose to stay on the island of Procida (a 30 minute ferry ride) from Naples. Procida is rustic and authentic, a wonderful place, not as touristy as Ischia but equally stunning. Il postino and parts of the talented Mr Ripley were filmed here and it makes for a wonderful day trip from Naples.
Here is a link to beautiful Procida – Decide for yourself. http://www.visitprocida.it/en/locations.html
There are beaches, lemon groves, fishing nets and boast weaving among harbour side restaurants, gorgeous cobblestone streets, castle, volcanic beaches and oodles of unmanufactured charm.
Island of Ischia – On Ischia you can experience thermal day spas and treatments galore – we visited Negombo which offers 30 different types of thermal experiences. Set in manicured gardens filled with artworks leading down to a picturesque beach it is a tropical paradise of relaxation that looks like it belongs in Thailand. The perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of Naples.
|Ischia – Negombo|
Negombo has the highest mineral contents of the thermal waters of Ischia you will leave in a type of thermal coma but feel amazing afterward. If you have kids they can play in the pools or on the beach for a very relaxing day.
While Naples is not an easy place to navigate and you may not always feel 100% safe it is a fascinating city. Built in the shadow of an active volcano on unstable earth that is always shifting, Naples is ever evolving as it is slowly sinking into the sea. With ancient cities submerged in water and volcanic mud, you can’t help but feel the ghosts of history here.
Its Patisseries have sweets that will give you instant tooth decay. The coffee is strong, hot and sweet. The foot fast, uncomplicated, fresh and flavoursome.
It is a crazy cornucopia of life melded above lava pulsing underneath the surface bubbling and boiling away like the blood and passion in the local’s veins. It truly is worth it.
If you want to visit a beautiful vibrant city full of delicious food, where life relatively untouched by mass tourism but you want to feel alive, then Naples is for you.
Why Go? Food, history, myth, passion and volcanoes !
Map for Castel Nuovo, Gran Caffe Gambrinus, Piazza del Plebiscito and Castel dell’ Ovo
Map for Archaeological Museum, Centro Storico, Pizza places and Gay Odin
Where to Stay ?
Il Convento – 14 Rooms start at £65 per night.
A 16th-century former convent, offering comfortable rooms with fantastic breakfast and private balconies at a reasonable price. It’s friendly sweet modern-rustic guesthouse in an authentically Neapolitan neighbourhood.
Wooden staircases, tiled floors, mosaic tables, lots of fresh flowers. A great choice for families and those on a budget.
Recommended by – Frommers, Hotel Guru, Bookings.com, Trip advisor
Bookings.com Rating – Fabulous 8.9
Trip advisor Rating – #4 out of 186 hotels in Naples.
Cheerful, modern B&B in an excellent location. Rooms have bright colours, paintings, giant bedheads, and parquet floors. A great choice for those who want to explore Naples from the thick of it, on a budget.
Recommended by – Hotel Guru, Bookings, Expedia, Trivago
Bookings.com Rating – Superb 9.1
Trip advisor Rating – #3 out of 186 hotels in Naples.
Villa San Martino – Via Giuseppe Bonito, 76, Vomero, 80129 Naples, Italy
Housed in an elegant Art-Nouveau building, Villa San Martino is situated in the prestigious Vomero neighbourhood in Naples,
Recommended by – Hotel Guru, Bookings, Expedia, Trivago
Bookings.com Rating – Superb 9.1 – Great for Couples.
Trip advisor Rating – #161 out of 627 B&Bs and Inns in Naples.
Desiderio Napoletano is an apartment listed on bookings and AirBnB. Situated in Naples, 350 m from Dante Metro Station of Line 1 and a 10-minute walk from Montesanto Cablecar Station. Free WiFi is featured throughout the property
Recommended by – AirBnB, Bookings
Bookings.com Rating – Exceptional 8.9
Trip advisor Rating – not rated – reviews on AirBnb
The Grand Hotel Vesuvio has long been one of the best places to stay in Naples, with immaculate service and luxurious facilities right on the water. They have a private yacht and chauffeur driven Daimler on hand if you need them. Just saying !
Recommended by – Hotel Guru, Bookings, Expedia, Trivago,Tripadvisor
Bookings.com Rating – Fabulous 8.9
Trip advisor Rating – #7 of 186 hotels in Naples
La Ciliegina Lifestyle Hotel – La Ciliegina has a rooftop terrace and spa where you have panoramic views of Naples and Mount Vesuvius. Castel Nuovo castle is just 300 m away.
Ultra-modern rooms , hydro massage showers and LCD TV, each room is decorated with handmade local furniture.
Recommended by – Wotif, Hotel Guru, Bookings, Expedia, Amoma
Bookings.com Rating – Fabulous 8.9
Trip advisor Rating – #1 out of 186 Hotels in Naples.
How to get there:
Plane: Naples is served by Naples Airport, also known as Capodichino Airport. From the airport you can take a bus for €3 (called Alibus) which has two stops only: Stazione Centrale (Central station) and Piazza Municipio, near the main ferry port
Train: The main station is Napoli Centrale – Piazza Garibaldi Station. This is connected to the Naples subway system.
Boat: Cruise Ships dock at Stazione Marittima, a large terminal located right in the city centre, near Piazza Municipio.
Car: Naples is connected with Rome by the A1 highway. The trip takes up to 2 hours. Due to traffic and parking shortage in city centre, leave your car in a parking lot near the motorway exit or at your hotel, traffic is seriously chaotic so it is best to use public transportation.