Naples – busy, frenetic, colorful, lively, gritty. This city in Southern Italy that sits in the Bay of Naples with Mount Vesuvius as its backdrop is seen as the passionate, intriguing cousin of its business-like northern counterparts. Naples is a living, breathing city, a place where real people work and get on with their daily lives as opposed to a museum city.
However, this doesn’t mean it has a lack of historic monuments; quite the contrary – it’s UNESCO World Heritage historic city center alone has 448 churches. And we can’t forget that Naples is the birthplace of one of the most wonderful Italian culinary creations: pizza, which Neapolitans are fiercely proud and protective of. A stroll around the third largest city in Italy will give you a glimpse into its character and its people. Here are some ideas on how you can spend a day in this most intoxicating of Italian cities.
Go to the City Center
Reaching the city center is straightforward and fast. From the airport, the Alibus or the local S3 bus takes around 20-30 minutes to reach Stazione Centrale, the main railway station which is just east of the historic center on Piazza Garibaldi. The bus station is right next to Stazione Centrale, and if you arrive on a cruise ship you will dock in the center at Stazione Marritima, close to Piazza Municipio.
Morning in Naples
Stroll around Spaccanapoli: crumbling churches, dusty dolls and pretty piazzas
A walking tour of Naples will take you through Spaccanapoli, the ancient heart of Naples’s, and the city as its liveliest. Don’t expect to see an immaculate neat and tidy historic center with elegant, sweeping boulevards like so many other European cities – you will see lots of dust, grimy buildings with plaster peeling off, graffiti, hoards of Vespas nipping around the narrow streets, and general chaos. But that’s part of its charm and character. Its main narrow thoroughfare follows an ancient Roman street and cuts through the heart of the city, changing its name several times from Via Vicaria Vecchia in the east, to Via San Biagio dei Librai, then Via Benedetto Croceto the west. In this area you will find churches, university buildings palaces and piazzas, and the tiny dark winding back streets present their own surprises, with artisan workshops, market stalls, and tucked-away cafes. Look up to see the strings of laundry hanging above your head.
Strolling through this district from east to west you will come across the grand Duomo just off the main street, otherwise known as the Cattedrale di San Gennaro (Saint Janaurius) – the cathedral houses a vial of the saint’s dried blood which is brought out twice a year and liquefies. This is the main church of Naples and one of its most wonderful structures – inside you can see some beautiful artwork including frescoes by Domenichino and Lanfranco. The cathedral is closed between 12.30 and 4.30 Monday to Saturday, and between 1.30 and 5.30 on Sundays – this is often the case for churches in the city. On Via Duomo is the Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore, one of the oldest churches in Naples, dating back to the 4th century and built on an old pagan temple. The apse is ancient; it’s from the original basilica and the only part that was saved from a 1640 earthquake.
Pop into the quirky Ospedale delle Bambole on Via San Biagio dei Librai, one of the most buzzing streets in this district – this is a doll’s hospital, and the sight of all the dusty dolls heads in the window is quite a sight to see. Have a look inside at all the mannequins with limbs placed in odd positions and pop into the basement. It’s a unique, bizarre place.
Continue down this narrow street and you will pass colorful churches built in Baroque, Renaissance and classical styles, as well as artisans’ shops which tumble into the nearby maze of side streets – this area is famous for presepi, or nativity scenes, and you will see artisans making figures out of wood in open doorways around Via San Gregorio Armeno, especially around the run up to Christmas.
You will soon reach Piazza di San Domenico Maggiore, a pedestrianized square lined with pavement cafes and Baroque buildings with a guglia, or obelisk, in the center, topped by the saint’s statue. This is one of the prettiest squares in the historic center – grab a coffee and pastry in Scaturchio, said to make the best cakes in the city, and take in the action on the square. Once refreshed, pay a visit to the Gothic Chiesa di San Domenico Maggiore, a massive structure which dominates the piazza – inside there are Renaissance sculptures as well as 45 coffins of nobles including the princes of Aragon. For a complete contrast, visit the simple Capella di Sansevero, just off the piazza, with its beautiful Baroque interior, frescoes all over the ceiling, and wonderful sculptures including Sanmartino’s Cristo Velato, showing Christ in a seemingly translucent veil. There are also two well-preserved human skeletons displayed in the lower chamber, with reconstructed organs.
For some peace and quiet amidst the hustle and bustle, behind the medieval Basilica di Santa Chiara, you will find the lovely cloister garden, the Chiostro delle Clarisse. Around the garden there are beautifully painted columns and tiled walls and benches showing scenes of 18th century inhabitants of the city, and you can also visit a museum there.
Midday to Late Afternoon in Naples
Castles, museums, palaces and galleries
Head north up Via San Sebastiano and Via Santa Maria di Constantinopoli to reach Piazza Museo Nazionale – here you will find the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, housing one of the best collections of Roman and Greek artifacts in the world as well as treasures from Pompeii and Herculaneum. This museum is massive – make sure you don’t miss the ‘secret room’ displaying erotic statues from Pompeii (adults only!). The museum is closed on Tuesdays.
Head down Via Toledo, Naples’ main street of fashionable boutiques, towards the seafront and the popular Santa Lucia neighborhood – you can’t miss the imposing Castel Nuovo with its round towers. A 13th century castle ruled by the French stood on this spot, but the present structure was built in 1279 and was restored in the last century; the only remaining part of the original castle is the chapel. There is an impressive two-tiered Renaissance triumphal archway at the entrance. Inside you will find the Museo Civico, which houses Neapolitan paintings and frescoes dating from the 15th to the 20th century.
Head down Via San Carlo to elegant Piazza Trento e Trieste – you’ll see the city’s opera house here, Teatro San Carlo, with its gilded exterior; this is considered be one of the most beautiful opera houses in Europe and has the most amazing acoustics. Guided tours are offered should you wish to look inside. The glorious Galleria Umberto is a few steps away – this 19th century galleried shopping arcade is one to rival Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele; some believe it is actually more impressive. It certainly is breathtaking, especially gazing up at the enormous steel and glass dome. The mosaics and columns decorated in Roman and Greek sculptures are equally as impressive. This gallery houses jewellery shops, designer stores and expensive cafes. It is closed on Sundays, and the shops generally close between 1 and 4 pm.
If you are feeling peckish head to the historic literary café on the corner of the piazza, the elegant Café Gambrinus, a famous meeting place for artists, writers and VIPs; Oscar Wilde once frequented this cafe with its lovely art-nouveau interior. This place is great for people watching, but be warned, it’s not cheap. Around the corner the piazza suddenly opens out into one of the most important squares in Naples, the Piazza Plebiscito, the heart of the modern city and a large public meeting place, surrounded by historic buildings and monuments. Take a tour of the Palazzo Reale, or Royal Palace, a stately and ornate palace whose royal apartments house a museum displaying tapestries, paintings and sculptures. The marble ceremonial staircase inside is well worth seeing. The palace is also home to the Biblioteca Nazionale, which is free to enter, and houses over 2000 papyruses from Herculaneum.
Stroll over to Castel dell’Ovo, or Egg Castle – you can’t miss it; it dominates the harbor at Santa Lucia and is located on the former island of Megaride which is connected to the mainland by a causeway – this was where the Greeks founded Naples in 6th century BC. The fortress is one of the most photographed landmarks in Naples and now houses the Museum of Prehistory, which is only open for special events. There are fantastic views of the city and harbor from the castle. The surrounding fishing village, Borgo Marinari, is worth exploring, with its pretty narrow streets and marina which is home to many bars and restaurants.
Late Afternoon to Evening in Naples
Hilltops retreats and city views
Head back to Via Toledo and take the Naples funicular railway to the well-to-do district of Vomero, perched up on a hill. This is where the wealthy middle class of Naples live, away from the chaos of the city below. From here there are spectacular views of the city, the sea and Vesuvius. This makes for a great retreat from the city, especially in the summer as the air is a lot fresher. Take a stroll down the pedestrianized Via Scarletti with its stylish stores, and visit the Mercato di Antignano, a colourful local market which sells, textiles, fruit and veg, shoes and handbags.
Castello Sant’Elmo dominates Vomero and the city; this castle was built originally in 1329 and rebuilt by the Spanish in 1538, creating the start-shaped fortress we see today. It was used as a prison in 1799 – the prison can be visited as well as special exhibitions in the castle. From the roof terraces the views are incredible and are worth visiting the castle for alone. It costs €5 to enter, and it is closed on Tuesdays.
Below the castle is the Certosa di San Martino, this white building being another iconic sight in Naples. This was once a monastery but it’s actually more like a palace; it now houses a museum displaying Spanish and bourbon artefacts as well as a wonderful display of presepi. Take a stroll around the lovely Grand Cloister and the garden terraces for more amazing views of the sea and city below.
End your day in Naples eating some of Naples’ famous pizza. Jump in a taxi for a short ride to Pizzeria La Notizia on Via Michelangelo da Caravaggio for a wonderfully crispy and light pizza made with the highest quality ingredients, washed down with an Italian craft beer. One thing is for sure – after this, pizza will never taste the same again. Buon appetito.
If you are lucky enough to have more time, check out this 3-day Naples itinerary.
Editor’s Note: Viator recently held a contest to “Win Your Dream Travel Job” where we selected 4 finalists to travel the world shooting video. For 60 days, these teams traveled and filmed in some of the world’s top destinations, documenting their experiences along the way. Go here to read more about their Naples adventures!