I have been to Naples three times now and each time found new delights in this most marvellous and misunderstood of Mediterranean cities. It is such an affordable and rewarding city break with a spectacular setting on the Bay of Naples. So here are my top things to do in Naples, Italy:
Strolling along the seafront
During a walk along the seafront promenade of Naples you will see children playing football, girls in confirmation dresses and bridal couples having photos taken, as well as utterly immobile sunbathers and fishermen on the rocks. There are stalls selling the freshest seafood, pretzel things and pig’s feet. There are a series of small marinas with shiny yachts and dilapidated fishing boats. And of course there is Castel dell‘Ovo.
The ‘Egg’ Castle enjoys views around the Bay of Naples from the hillsides of Posillipo to Vesuvio itself. Tucked just under the walls of the castle is a tiny former fishing village that is a lovely place for an apperativo.
This tiny promontory of land is the site of the original settlement founded by the Greeks in the 8th Century BC that evolved into the Greco-Roman city of Neapolis. Legend has it that an egg is buried in the castle and if it is broken that will herald the end of Naples. In the 13th and 14th centuries a new castle was built as the seat of power moved from here to the central city and Castel Nuovo.
Exploring the Historic Centre of Naples
A great way to explore the World-Heritage-listed Centro Historico is to walk up the Spaccanapoli. This straight-as-a-die thoroughfare once ‘split’ old Naples – spacca means splitter – and would have been a significant street on the grid of Neapolis.
There are many interesting sights to be seen walking from Piazza Gesu Nuovo (there is a tourist office here) along the spaccanapoli and it is a great place to get a feel for this gritty city that has more churches than any other in Europe. Antique shops spill out onto the pavements and motorbikes buzz through the famous narrow streets, where the houses and their laundry tower over dark urban canyons.
You will soon come to the Santa Chiara Convent, a masterpiece of Provençal-Gothic architecture built in the early 14th century. Here well born ladies became Clare nuns and enjoyed the vineyards and shady pergolas of the garden behind the church that is decorated with delicate 18th-century frescoes and gorgeous majolica tiles.
Visit the narrow Via San Gregorio Armeno where workshops create and sell nativity scenes (presepi in Italian) and terra cotta figures that are an important part of Christmas in Italy. These go far beyond the traditional baby Jesus in a crib!
Drop in to the baroque Sansevero Chapel, just near the palace of the Severo princely family. It contains the expected family tombs and many works of art but also some interesting stories. A knobbly-kneed Jesus under a diaphanous shroud is just one example of the incredible skill of carver Giuseppe Sanmartino.
More surprising is in the crypt, where Prince Raimondo di Sangro studied anatomy with the help of Giuseppe Salerno in the mid-18th century and left a series of anatomical models, including petrified nervous system that was claimed to have been created by injecting liquid into the bodies of live servants. This may not be true but it is amazing to see and I promise it doesn’t look any more grotesque than a skeleton!
The busy streets of old Naples hides a whole other world of caves and underground tunnels created in soft tufa stone over centuries of mining, as well as ancient city infrastructure and catacombs. There are ancient Greco-Roman reservoirs. Experience the subterranean city from Via dei Tribunali at the Napoli Sotteranea.
Experience past grandeur
A wander through the Piazza del Plebiscito is a must when sightseeing in Naples to get a feel for just how important this city has been in the past. The main square is bounded by the Royal Palace and the grandly colonnaded church of San Francesco di Paola.
Nearby is the Teatro di San Carlo (Italy’s oldest opera house) and the 19th century (former palazzo) Galleria Umberto shopping centre, which also contains the Coral Jewellery Museum.
Up the hill is the Castel Nuovo built for the first king of Naples Charles I. Another Bourbon palace is now the Museo di Capodimonte, a gallery featuring major art works by Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio and El Greco.
The Museo Archeologico Nazionale is another must see in Naples, containing an amazing collection of relics from the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Eat, eat and eat again in Naples
Naples is the home not only of pizza but of mozzarella cheese (the real stuff made from buffalo milk) – both protected DOC species. I have never eaten a bad meal during my travels in Italy but the food in Naples certainly tops everything else. From the street stalls of the Centro Historico to the hillside restaurants of Posillipo, the food here is amazing.
Day tripping from Naples
The excitement doesn’t just stop with the fascinating city of Naples. When you are considering what to do in Naples, don’t omit to plan a few day trips. Take a ferry out to one or all of the islands of Capri, Ischia and Prochida in the Bay of Naples. Visit the Unesco World Heritage sites at Pompeii and Herculeum, as well as the magnificent royal palace at Caserta.
By Natasha von Geldern
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