Pizzas, Vesuvius and phone-wielding scooter drivers are just part of the picture. Bury any pre-conceptions about Naples, slip on some comfortable shoes and explore one of Italy’s most vibrant cities.
Southern Italy’s largest city is big, hectic and endlessly fascinating. In the historic centre, ageing palazzi crowd narrow, cobblestone streets draped with freshly-washed laundry and cars squeeze through impossibly narrow gaps while down near the waterfront, there are smart restaurants, designer boutiques and wide open views across the Bay of Naples.
When is the best time to go?
The city is at its best in spring or autumn, without the summer crowds and heat. December is a great time to visit San Gregorio Armeno, a street in the historic centre where the year-round craft of creating hand-made figures for nativity scenes has become an art form.
Historic centre highlights
Top spot is the baroque Cappella Sansevero (Via Francesco de Sanctis 19), built around the end of the 16th century to house the tombs of the di Sangro family. There are several notable statues and frescoes but once you have seen Giuseppe Sanmartino’s incredible sculpture, Cristo Velato (Veiled Christ), everything else pales into insignificance.
Despite its unusual exterior comprised of mini stone pyramids, nothing quite prepares you for the opulent interior of the Gesù Nuovo Church. Originally the 15th century Palazzo San Severino, and the former residence of the Prince of Salerno, it was transformed by the Jesuits in the late 1700’s.
By contrast, the nearby gothic Basilica di Santa Chiara, in the heart of a peaceful monastery complex, is relatively unadorned even if monumental. One of the highlights of the complex is the magnificent cloisters, framed by well-preserved fresco paintings dating from the early 1600’s and criss-crossed by majolica tiled columns and benches decorated in shades of blue, yellow and green and depicting rural scenes.
Less elaborate but definitely worth visiting are the cloisters at San Gregorio Armeno. A baroque fountain adorned with dolphins and sea horses takes centre stage and at the convent’s old bakery, the original cooking utensils are still on display. Watch out for the cloisters’ pretty hideaway Cappella della Madonna dell’Idria.
A network of tunnels and catacombs opens up another intriguing dimension to the city. Slip away from the chaotic, graffiti-scrawled streets and burrow 40m underground with Napoli Sotteranea which runs English-language tours several times a day beneath the city’s streets, through an underground world of tunnels, hidden rooms and Greek and Roman cisterns. Travel back in time, starting with the foundation of Neopolis 2400 years ago, continuing up to the period of WWII when these underground spaces were used as air-raid shelters. Toy cars and beds, and wall drawings of bombs and planes from this period are all on display.
Still underground, take a trip to the Catacombs of San Gennaro, southern Italy’s largest catacomb complex. Tours to this maze of tunnels and chapels, which extends over three underground levels, are run by a group of young people from the Rione Sanità neighbourhood, working to promote the local history, art and culture in an admirable effort to revive a highly deprived area.
Is Naples easy to get to?
Flights depart daily from several UK airports. Naples airport is just 20 minutes from the city centre.
Where’s the best place to eat in Naples?
Start in true Neapolitan fashion and join the queue at Pizzeria Gino Sorbillo (Via Tribunale 32), a cult-status pizzeria where giant wood-fired pizzas overhang the sides of dinner plates and dinner for two costs from around €15, including drinks.
Simple, traditional food made with great ingredients is on the menu at the family-owned Locanda Ntretella, hidden away in the quiet backstreet of Salita Sant’Anna di Palazzo, just off Via Chiaia. A good lunchtime stop is at Jamón in Piazza San Domenico where lovingly prepared cheese and ham platters are on the menu.
If you can manage to say sfogliatelle (local pastries with a sweet ricotta and citrus filling), you deserve to eat them. Drool at the displays in the windows of Scaturchio (thoughtfully located at key points throughout the city) and at La Sfogliatella Mary (Galleria Umberto 1) and join the pasticceria-loving locals propping up the bar over a mid-morning cappuccino.
Where’s the best place to stay in Naples?
Location is the key. The Hotel Decumani de Charme is in the heart of the historic centre, within minutes of all the main sights. Alternatively, the Hotel Chiaia is just off one of the main shopping streets, close to the waterfront.
Music and opera
The Teatro di San Carlo is amongst the oldest and most beautiful opera houses in Europe, the perfect place to take in an opera, ballet or concert. Daytime tours are also available.
When the narrow streets of the historic centre become too much, make tracks for the 3km Lungomare where you can stroll along the seafront, from Mergellina to the end of Via Partenope, taking in views of Vesuvius, Capri, castles and Liberty-style villas. This is also a good place for al fresco dining and a ‘love-locked’ declaration of undying love.
Round and about
Time on your hands? Unlikely, but just in case, there are trips to Pompeii, Herculaneum and Capri to squeeze in.