Mafia wars, gargabe crises, petty crime… Naples has a bit of a reputation, but don’t be too quick crossing it off your bucket list. Once you look past its flaws, the city will win you over with its energy and beauty.
There is a saying about Naples we Italians often repeat: “Vedi Napoli e poi muori” – which means that, once you have seen this wonderful city, you can die content. I was there earlier this year and I am luckily still around, but let me tell you there is certainly something to the saying… Napoli is one of the most unique places I have ever seen.
Here’s a list of 9 things you should do on a weekend escape in Naples.
1. Walk down Spaccanapoli
The nickname of this busy and picturesque street – officially called Via Benedetto Croce – literally means “Naples-splitter”, because it clearly divides the north and south of the city. In many ways, Spaccanapoli represents the heart of Naples. Follow it and you will find some of the city’s prettiest piazzas (my favorite is Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, not just for Scaturchio and its delicious sfogliatelle – Naples’ signature pastries).
Just off Spaccanapoli, don’t miss the statue of the Veiled Christ at Cappella Sansevero and the colorful majolica tiles of the cloister of the Basilica di Santa Chiara. In Piazza del Gesù Nuovo, walk to the majestic obelisk in the center of the square and look around… you’ll understand why Naples’ historical center is a UNESCO site. I love the bugnato façade of the palazzo Sanseverino, which hides the impressive church of the Gesù Nuovo.
Did I mention Naples has the highest concentration of churches and religious buildings in the world?
2. Ride the metro
In a city with so much history, it may seem ludicrous to suggest one does something as mundane as riding the metro… but there is a reason. In 1995, the city government decided to ask famous artists and architects to design the stations of the growing metro network.
Two decades later, Naples boasts 14 “Art stations” that have made the city’s metro system an important example of urban regeneration. From the neon spiral at the Vanvitelli station to the four bronze sculptures of women at Quattro Giornate station, there are dozens of works of art across Naples’ metro system. The most famous stations are probably Garibaldi, with its steel pillars and “hanging escalators”, and Toledo, with Oscar Tusquets Blanca’s monumental hall covered in tiny blue tiles that will make you feel like you are in a swimming pool (pictured above) – truly spectacular. If you have time, also take a look at the Università and Salvator Rosa stations.
3. Marvel at the city’s diverse architectural heritage
If you are going to see one more church while in Naples, make it the Duomo. It’s an architectural masterpiece of many styles that will leave you speechless. Walk down the central nave to the main altar, and then check out the baroque chapel dedicated to Naples’ patron saint, San Gennaro (you can see his golden bust). It will be like walking into an art history book. If you happen to visit on September 19, December 16 or the Saturday before the first Sunday of May, you can join the thousands of people flocking here to witness the “miracle” of San Gennaro’s blood liquefying. It (almost) always does.
Another sight of great artistic and historical value that you really don’t want to miss is the gargantuan Castel Nuovo (often called Maschio Angioino) – the residence of the King of Naples built in the 13th century. Its imposing towers overlook the port, and its rooms and halls have witnessed some of the most important events in European history – from sieges to the election of popes. Make sure you stop by the 35-metre-high marble triumphal arch at the entrance, which was added in 1470 to celebrate the arrival of the new king, Alfonso of Aragon, twenty-seven years before.
Should you feel like seeing something more modern, walk up to the exquisite Galleria Umberto I (pictured on the right) – this huge cross-shaped structure, surmounted by a glass dome, was built at the end of the 19th century as a public space with shops and cafés. While walking under it, one could be excused for feeling like they have travelled back to those years.
4. Watch the nativity scenes in San Gregorio Armeno
Italian families (not just the religious ones) build a nativity scene every year at Christmas – and it feels as if all of Italy could buy their statuettes and model buildings in Via San Gregorio Armeno.
This one-of-a-kind alley will be one of the highlights of your trip to Naples – it is where local craftsmen make figurines of all kinds by hand, year-round. Peek in one of the bottegas and you’ll see them at work, chiseling and painting tiny shepherds, street vendors, fishermen, Wise Men, Holy Marys and baby Jesuses.
A curiosity: San Gregorio Armeno’s artists always create figurines of famous people that make the headlines, next to evergreens like football players, actors and politicians. Go now and you will even find Hillary and the Donald!
5. Explore the city’s underbelly
There is a whole city behind the city, and you would need days to see all of Underground Naples. When I was in town, I visited the impressive Galleria Borbonica – a tunnel built in 1853 by King Ferdinand II of Bourbon, who feared a rebellion and wanted to ensure he’d have easy access to his army’s barracks from the Royal Palace. The tunnel was never completed and during World War II it was used as an air raid shelter, and later as a warehouse for impounded vehicles (many of which you can still see). It was very touching to read the messages left by people who lived down here during the war.
The €10 tour starts in Via del Grottone 4 – you will find the guides are wonderful and incredibly knowledgeable about the tunnel’s rich history. This is a truly unique experience, if you are looking for something a bit different.
Once you are done with the tour, let your eyes readjust to the city’s powerful sunlight by leisurely wandering about in Piazza del Plebiscito, a gorgeous public square dominated by the dome and colonnade of the church of San Francesco di Paola – my favorite spot in Naples. Get an espresso at Gambrinus!
6. Take in the view from San Martino
You don’t quite realize how big Naples is until you go up to one of its best lookouts, the Belvedere di San Martino. From up here, among smooching couples and photo-snapping tourists, Naples looks almost peaceful and you will forget all about pollution, noise and traffic. Even Mount Vesuvius seems to hold the city in a sweet embrace – which we know can be deceiving… just ask the Pompeiians.
7. (Don’t) get lost in the Spanish Quarters
Get off the subway at Toledo and you’ll find yourself in one of Naples’ main thoroughfares. Busy Via Toledo is a constant flow of tourists, shoppers and honking cars – it will give you a good sense of why everybody complains about Naples’ crazy traffic and lack of rules, but unless you are interested in chain stores, move along.
If you are after a slightly more authentic experience, head west of Via Toledo into the infamous Spanish Quarters. It is a poor and dirty area with high unemployment rates and youth crime, but it is also quintessential Naples – with its tiny shops and the laundry hanging on lines spanning narrow and rather smelly alleyways underneath. The area has undergone considerable regeneration in recent years and is not nearly as dangerous as it used to be, but you should still use caution: go only during the day, don’t flash money or valuables, don’t talk with strangers, and in general try not to look too much like a clueless tourist.
8. Bask in the late afternoon sun by Castel dell’Ovo
Head to the Via Partenope lungomare, buy yourself an ice cream at ROL Gelateria and sit by the rocks. You will be able to enjoy amazing views of the Mediterranean Sea and the Castel dell’Ovo. Legend has it, Latin poet Virgil once placed a magical egg in the foundations of this imposing seaside castle to support the structure… had the egg broken, terrible tragedies would have befallen Naples. This is what the fortress got its name from (uovo in Italian means “egg”).
Don’t forget, you are in the exact spot where the body of siren Parthenope supposedly washed ashore after she failed to entice Ulysses and drowned. Bad luck in love, I suppose, but she did get to link her name to Naples’ forever – in ancient times, Naples was known as Partenope, and people still call it “la città partenopea”.
9. Eat as much pizza as you can
No trip to Naples would be complete without pizza, the city’s signature dish and the most amazing gift the world has ever received. Every Neapolitan will claim to know where the “best pizza in Naples” is served, and there is so much choice that deciding where to go to try it can be a rather daunting task.
My favorite pizza was at L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele, a Naples institution and a fantastic experience all around. You get a number and join the line outside the restaurant (a lively mix of students and tourists, workers and families) – as soon as a table frees up, you will be whisked in by rather surly waiters. This is not a place where you come for the service – the décor is spartan (to say the least), you sit with strangers, and the menus are glued to the walls. It won’t take you long to pick what you want anyway: the restaurant only serves two types of pizza – margherita and marinara. Nonetheless, the atmosphere is great and the pizza is absolutely delicious (and incredibly cheap, at €4).
Practical information – click HERE