Naples is a city of contrasts. It’s a place of stunning piazzas, small cobblestone streets, spectacular views and delicious food. It’s also incredibly chaotic, neglected, smelly and polluted. But whether you hate or love this city, there’s no denying that it is a fascinating place.
My first encounter with Naples was a couple of years ago and I was lucky enough to go back there for nearly a month last summer. A month may seem like a long time, but believe me, I could have stayed there twice as long and still not have seen everything there is to see. In Naples, a new discovery awaits you behind each corner.
These are some of my favourite Naples discoveries:
1. Morning rituals Napoli style: caffè and sfogliatella
2. Piazzas, churches, palaces
3. Eat, eat, eat. And eat
4. Go underground and discover a side of Naples you’ve never seen before
5. Gelato time!
6. Picturesque panoramas
7. Go for evening drinks at Piazza Bellini and get lost in the maze of streets in downtown Naples
8. Take a plunge in the Mediterranean Sea
9. Be wowed by Roman ruins
10. Escape the chaos and pollution and head to the seaside
- Morning rituals Napoli style: caffè and sfogliatella
Forget your Tall Soy Milk Vanilla Frappuccino – this is Italy and Italians are the masters of coffee. So, when in Naples, get your morning caffeine shot in the local bar around the corner. Typically, people would get a caffè (= an espresso shot) or a coffee with milk, such as a caffè macchiato, cappuccino or latte macchiato. Alternatively, you could go for something ‘cooler’, like a granita di caffè or a shakerato – both different, and delicious, versions of sweet iced coffee.
Neapolitans have a sweet tooth and for breakfast you can choose from an almost endless array of sugary pastries. My favourite? Sfogliatella – a heavenly creation of incredibly thin layers of puff pastry with an orange-ricotta filling. You can’t leave Naples without having tried a sfogliatella and although you can get them in a lot of coffee bars, the best sfogliatelle are served at the stylish Gran Café Cambrinus, near the Piazza del Plebiscito. You’ll pay tourist prices here, but as a one-off experience it will be more than worth it (believe me).
- Piazzas, churches, palaces
Naples has an infinite number of stunning squares, churches, city palaces and castles. You could write a collection of books if you wanted to cover all of them, but I’ll stick to a few highlights here.
Not to miss is the Piazza del Plebiscito, with the with the Royal Palace and San Francesco basilica. Just behind it are the opera house and Castel Nuovo. Walking up the main shopping street Via Toledo you’ll find the hectic and slightly intimidating popular Spanish Quarter on your left side, which itself has many hidden little squares and churches. A bit further north on the right is the beautiful Piazza Dante. Cross the old city gate Port d’Alba just behind it and you’ll get to the oldest part of Naples. Here, along Via Tribunali and the parallel Spaccanapoli – two of the city’s oldest streets – you’ll find some gorgeous squares, including the Piazza del Gesù, Piazza San Gaetano, Piazza Gerolomini and Piazza San Domenico Maggiore. Just behind this last square is one of Naples’ hidden highlights: the Alchemical Chapel (Cappella Sansevero). Located in a small alleyway, this building may look like ‘just another’ European church from the outside, but the chapel’s interior is filled with mesmerising and mysterious pieces of 18th century art, including a number of incredibly realistic sculptures.
Halfway through Via Tribunali or Spaccanapoli you get to Via Duomo. Turn left and you get to the city’s gothic cathedral, turn right and you will head towards the elegant Piazza Nicola Amore. If you take a right turn there and follow the busy Corso Umberto I via Piazza Giovanni Bovio you’ll eventually get back to Via Toledo.
There is also plenty to see and do in the neighbourhoods surrounding the old city centre. Do some (window) shopping around the Piazza dei Martiri in the posh Chiaia district, for instance, or join local families for an evening stroll at the Piazza Vanvitelli in the bourgeois hilltop neighbourhood of Vomero.
- Eat, eat, eat. And eat
Make sure to arrive in Naples with an empty stomach, because this city is ALL about food. Of course, it’s the home of the pizza and you will find a-ma-zing pizza in any part of town. Everyone has their own favourite pizza place, but I’ve had the best pizzas ever in: Starita (try their famous fried pizza), Ciro Oliva Concettina a Tre Santi (outside the centre, but therefore hardly any tourists), Da Michele (made famous by Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love) and Sorbillo. But you’ll also find good pizza at less hyped places such as Vesuvio (various locations). Be warned though: once you’ve tasted pizza in Naples, any other pizza just won’t do anymore!
Pizza isn’t the only great food in Naples though. If you’re in need of a carb top-up or fancy some meat, then Tandem is a must – they have some of the best pasta con ragù (pasta with tomato and meat sauce) or polpette (meatballs) in town. And along the seaside boulevard Lungomare you’ll find plenty of restaurants that serve great seafood pasta. Also make sure you visit a friggitoria (fry shop) to try Naples’ famous fried street food, including crocchè di patate (potato croquette).
But the food marathon doesn’t stop there. When in Naples, you HAVE to try the local dessert specialty babà. It’s a mushroom-shaped cake drenched in syrup and rum, sometimes filled with whipped cream and dried fruit (but I like mine plain). It’s not everyone’s favourite sweet dish, but I love it!
- Go underground and discover a side of Naples you’ve never seen before
Is Naples too hot for you to handle? Is the sweltering heat taking control of you? Find your escape underground! No, I’m not talking about some sweaty underground club, but about Naples’ incredible underground scenery. Thousands of years of history are hidden beneath the streets of Naples and the only way to see these secret treasures is by taking a guided underground tour. There are several operators that run such tours in various parts of the city. I had an amazing experience with Naples Underground, which takes you on an underground journey along an ancient Greek-Roman aqueduct and the remains of a Roman amphitheatre. For me, this was one of my highlights during my time in Naples and I highly recommend it. A nice additional benefit is that the temperatures down below are pleasantly cool!
Staying with the underground theme, Naples also has a number of beautiful modern metro stations. The most famous one (and unfortunately one of the few well-maintained stations) is Toledo underground station. The station’s stairway is an Instagram heaven and definitely worth paying the single ticket fare for.
- Gelato time!
It’s time for an afternoon sugar shot and what better way to get your sugar kicks than a deliciously refreshing gelato? This is Italy after all and Naples is full of great ice cream shops and chains. Casa Infante has some of the city’s best artisanal gelato. Fantasia offers an astonishing range of different flavours. And Mennella sells incredibly smooth, creamy buffalo-milk-based ice cream. Oh, and always top up your gelato with a spoonful of whipped cream. Yummm…
- Picturesque panoramas
Situated at the foot of the volcano Vesuvius, with the sea on one side and hills on the other, Naples is surrounded by beauty. One of the best places to admire the stunning views that this city has to offer is from the Castel Sant’Elmo, a medieval fortress on a hilltop, close to the Vomero neighbourhood. Go there at the end of the afternoon so that you can visit the castle (closing time: 19:30) and see the sun set over the Bay of Naples.
Not too far away from here is Villa Floridiana, a lovely park in Vomero with beautiful views of the Mediterranean Sea and even the island of Capri. In a city that is not known to be very green, this is a wonderful oasis and offers a welcome escape from the heat and traffic.
- Go for evening drinks at Piazza Bellini and get lost in the maze of streets in downtown Naples
After aperitivo, dinner and dessert it’s time to digest. In other words, an evening drink and a stroll through central Naples. One of the most popular places to go for drinks is Piazza Bellini, just off Via Tribunali. After sunset, this square gets crowded with students and young locals ready for a night out.
Regardless of the number of drinks you’ll have had, it’s not unlikely you will get lost on your way home. Central Naples is a maze of small streets and alleys, which at night time appear even more similar. But Naples by night is an experience on its own. The narrow streets, the dim street lights, guys crossing by on their mopeds, neighbours shouting at each other from across their balconies – it all might seem quite intimidating, but that doesn’t mean it’s unsafe. Quite the opposite, it’s a perfect way to get a taste of local life in southern Italy.
- Take a plunge in the Mediterranean Sea
Unfortunately there are no nice city beaches in central Naples. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t take a dive in the sea. Do as the locals do and go for a swim in the harbour near Castel dell’Ovo. The water might not be the cleanest, but the views are to die for.
For a proper beach experience you’ll have to go further out of the city centre. There’s a beautiful (paid) beach in the elegant residential neighbourhood of Posillipo. Entrance to the private Bagno Elena beach will cost you €15-20, but that comes with a sun bed and spectacular views.
Even further down the coast is La Gaiola, a pretty public beach that’s part of a natural reserve. It’s tiny though, so if you want to find a space to sit down make sure to be there early. But it’s free and the water is probably as clean as it gets in Naples. To get there, take a bus from Mergellina station (if they run). Or just get a taxi.
- Be wowed by Roman ruins
A trip to Naples is not complete without visiting the Roman ruins at Pompei. Take an early morning train from Garibaldi station and plan at least half a day for the site visit. You can easily combine it with a trip to the beautiful seaside town of Sorrento (see more details below), which is on the same train line. And if you really want to be efficient, you could even finish your daytrip with drinks at the fancy island of Capri, which is connected to both Sorrento and Naples by ferry. I did this during my first trip to Naples and although it’s a full day programme, it’s perfectly doable!
If you can’t get enough of Roman treasures, you could also visit Herculaneum (Ercolano). Just like Pompei, this Roman town was buried by the ashes of the irrupting Vesuvius volcano and has been remarkably well preserved. However, it’s much more compact and less crowded than Pompei.
And finally, for the diehards there’s the option to see ancient Roman ruins whilst scuba diving. Wait a minute… Scuba diving? Yes, that’s right. Just north of Naples is the sunken city of Baia, a Roman city that was abandoned and swallowed by the sea. It is now one of the few underwater archaeological parks in the world and can be visited on of a guided scuba diving tour. I have yet to discover this marvelous place myself, but it’s high on my list!
- Escape the chaos and pollution and head to the seaside
Naples can be rather overwhelming. Luckily, the surrounding region has plenty of opportunities to get away from busy city life. The Amalfi Coast, just south of Naples, is one of Italy’s most beautiful coastal areas and is spoiled with incredibly picturesque seaside villages and splendid rocky beaches. The area is named after the cliffside village of Amalfi, which I haven’t visited myself but is supposed to be gorgeous. Probably just as famous is Positano, with its pastel coloured houses, steep little streets and lovely pebble beach. This is serious Instagram material and you hence won’t be surprised to find yourself surrounded by other travellers. In fact, it can get so busy that it starts to get annoying. When I was here in August, the town was flooded with tourists and there was not a single corner where you wouldn’t hear English or see tourist shops and restaurants with inflated prices. Personally, I’d recommend going there for a couple of hours before heading to the supposedly quieter town of Ravello or finding a nice (quiet?) beach somewhere.
Also busy, but better able to absorb the crowds is Sorrento. Situated on top of a cliff it offers magnificent views over the Bay of Naples. The town itself has a couple of lovely squares and lots of nice bars and restaurants – perfect for al fresco dining!
How to get there? Regular trains run from Naples Garibaldi to Sorrento (via Pompei). From there, you can catch a bus to some of the other towns on the Amalfi Coast. Sita busses connect Sorrento with Positano, Amalfi and Salerno, but in high season the queues can be long and busses don’t always show up. There’s also a tourist bus, which is slightly more expensive, but less busy. The alternative would be to rent a car or a moped.
Want to escape the big crowds? Then I’d suggest you go to one of the three islands just off the coast of Naples: Capri, Ischia and Procida. Capri is probably the most well-known of the three because it has become a magnet for the rich and famous with its secluded beaches and exclusive hotels, shops and bars (which even for a posh backpacker like myself were a bit too exorbitant). Ischia is where the Italian families go on holiday and offers beautiful beaches, ancient thermal baths and cosy little towns. Procida, finally, is the smallest island and closest to Naples. It’s therefore perfect for a day trip.
Naples’ best (IMHO):
- Sfogliatella: Gran Café Gambrinus
- Pizza: (in this particular order) Starita, Ciro Oliva Concettina a Tre Santi, Da Michele, Sorbillo
- Pasta: Tandem
- Gelato: Casa Infante and Mennella
- Hostel: La Controra (with spacious dorms, nicely designed private rooms and an amazing patio garden)
- View: Castel Sant’Elmo, Vomero
- City beach: Bagno Elena or La Gaiola
- Seaside escape: Ischia