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Loomed over by the brooding Mount Vesuvius and with a reputation as more than a little rough and ready, Naples is often omitted from the standard tourist itinerary. However, those that skip Italy’s third-largest city – or just use it as a springboard for exploring the glamorous Amalfi Coast – are missing out. Here’s 15 reasons to book a ticket to Naples immediately.
Naples is the birthplace of pizza and as such at least 50% of any trip should be spent devouring it. Authentic Neapolitan pizza must be made according to stringent criteria – such as only using certain varieties of tomato and mozzarella made with buffalo milk, rather than that of cows – the result of which is unlike any pizza you’ve tasted before. Every local has their favourite pizzeria but aim to visit as many as possible and make up your own mind.
As one of the oldest cities in Europe, Naples has a rich history to discover. Start by visiting the city’s castles built to house royals and defend from foreign invaders. There’s Castel Nuovo and its magnificent marble arch, Castel dell’Ovo, said to have a magical egg in its foundations, and the hilltop Castel Sant’Elmo and its famed vistas across the city.
While the streets are busy, noisy and chaotic, a quieter side to Naples can be found 40 metres underground. The city is built on volcanic tufa limestone and the extraction of this rock has created a series of winding tunnels and caverns. From an ancient Greek aqueduct to a Roman theatre, as well as more recent artifacts left by people sheltering from allied bombings during World War II, Napoli Sotterranea provides a unique glimpse into the city’s previous residents.
Art appreciators should make the Museo di Capodimonte their first stop. This one-time royal palace is one of Italy’s largest art galleries and contains a number of must-see masterpieces. Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo, even Andy Warhol – you’ll find them all here.
Italians are well known for their obsession with coffee and Naples has a reputation for serving some of the best. Visit one of the city’s many coffee shops and try out their specialty – the rich, syrupy and caffeine-laden espresso.
The perfect partner for a shot of espresso is a sfogliatella – layers of thin, crispy pastry with a rich ricotta filling. This sweet treat is said to originate from the Santa Rosa monastery in the nearby province of Salerno. The most traditional recipes include a topping of whipped cream and cherries, just like the monks used to make.
More than just a way of getting from A to B, the ‘art stations’ of Naples’ metro are filled with contemporary installations by internationally-renowned artists and architects such as Dominique Perrault and Oscar Tusquets Blanca. Found on metro lines 2 and 6, the stations bring both form and function to everyday commuters and chance passengers.
Compared to the UK and US – and even other big cities in Italy – Naples is cheap. An entire pizza can cost as little as €4, so even those on the tightest budgets can indulge in the city’s culinary offerings. The Napoli Artecard affords further savings – for just €21 holders receive free entrance into three major attractions, up to 50% off the fourth site, and free public transport.
Neapolitans are said to have been making presepi, or nativity scenes, since the 13th century. Not just for Christmas, many are on display all year round across the city, with Via San Gregorio Armeno, otherwise known as Christmas Alley, the most popular spot dedicated to this artisanal craft turned art form.
While the nearby sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum are well worth a visit, most of the artifacts originally uncovered there have long since been removed. Many of the frescoes, sculptures and mosaics are now on display in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, considered one of the best archeological museums in the world.
There are around 500 historic churches in Naples, many ornately decorated and filled with religious art. The Duomo is the most important – famous for housing two vials of miraculously liquefying blood of the city’s patron saint, San Gennaro – but the church of Gesù Nuovo and its unique grey façade is a must-see too. The Cappella Sansevero, home to the incredibly realistic Veiled Christ sculpture, should also be on your list.
The lively street market of Porta Nolana takes place daily from around 8am onwards; with most of the food stalls wrapping things up by 1-2pm. Come to browse the rows of fresh fish, clams, squid, prawns and other seafood, all resting on ice, waiting to be snapped up and transformed into a delicious Neapolitan lunch.
Even if an evening at the theatre sounds like the opposite of a fun night out, the Teatro di San Carlo still merits a visit. This lavish venue opened in 1737 and has been delighting audiences ever since – save for brief breaks to restore and redecorate after a fire, and later, bombing damage. Take a guided tour to admire the frescoed ceilings and gilded stucco detailing that give this theatre such a regal atmosphere.
As well as exploring the museums and monuments, be sure to carve out some time to spend in the piazzas of Naples. Do as the Italians do and socialise with a spritz at Piazza Bellini, admire the grandiose architecture of Palazzo Reale and the Basilica of San Francesco di Paola at Piazza Plebicito, or simply partake in some people watching at the busy Piazza Dante.
Come face to face with the city’s past residents at the Catacombs of San Gaudioso and of San Gennaro. See the large, bespoke tombs where the wealthy were buried and the floor tombs the unfortunate poor had to make do with. For more spooky adventures head to the Fontanelle Cemetery in the Materdei neighbourhood. Thousands of anonymous remains, many plague victims, were laid to rest in these volcanic caves.