Overlooked by the still-active Mount Vesuvius, Naples has a reputation as gritty, dirty and abrasive. But there’s beauty to be found among the chaos – the city boasts top-class museums, galleries packed with neoclassical antiquities and grandiose piazzas perfect for people watching. Lets take a look at the unique collection of sights that make Naples so worth a visit.
Naples’ National Archaeological Museum is home to the remarkable Farnese Collection – one of the world’s finest hauls of Greco-Roman art and artefacts. Don’t miss the striking Toro Farnese, or Farnese Bull, a Roman copy of an original Greek sculpture depicting the death of Dirce who was tied to a raging bull by her sons Amphion and Zethus.
Opened in 1737, Teatro di San Carlo is the oldest working opera house in the world. Opera season runs from January to May while ballet takes place from April to June. Classical concerts and events are also scheduled throughout the year but if a live performance doesn’t appeal, take a guided tour instead – with a frescoed ceiling, gilded stucco detailing and red velvet upholstery, the venue is simply breathtaking.
Churches and chapels are everywhere in Italy, but Cappella Sansevero is unlike any other. Deep in the crypt are the macchine anatomiche – real human skeletons embellished with arterial and nervous systems made from beeswax, iron wire and silk. In the nave of the chapel, the Veiled Christ, an incredibly realistic marble sculpture of Christ’s tortured body, adds to the eerie atmosphere.
Serving up pizza to the same recipe since 1870, L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele has become an attraction in its own right. It’s no tourist trap though – globetrotters and day-trippers sit elbow to elbow with locals all enjoying traditional Neapolitan pizza. There’s only two options to choose from – margherita with tomato, mozzarella and basil or marinara with tomato, oregano and garlic.
Construction of the Royal Palace of Naples began in 1600. It was originally intended to house King Philip III of Spain who ruled Naples at the time but as he never got around to visiting this corner of his kingdom it later became the royal residence of the Bourbons instead. As well as a lavish collection of baroque and neoclassical furnishings and artworks, visitors can also see the Biblioteca Nazionale. The 1,800 papyrus scrolls uncovered in Herculaneum are one of the library’s most treasured artifacts.
To climb the volcano that provides a brooding backdrop to the city of Naples, set aside a minimum of half a day. Going direct to the park entrance by tour bus is probably the easiest option, but even by public transport the park can be reached from the city in about an hour. A number of nature walks around the volcano offer a pleasant change from the chaos of the city, but the star attraction is of course Monte Somma – Vesuvius’s oldest (and now inactive) crater that affords stunning views across the Bay of Naples and beyond.
The Museo D’Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina, or MADRE Museum for short, takes its name from the historic palazzo that hosts it. The 19th-century Palazzo Donnaregina was converted into a contemporary art museum in 2005 and boasts work by Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol and Anish Kapoor in its permanent collection. Standing proud on the roof of the museum is Cavallo, a horse-shaped installation by Italian sculptor, painter and printmaker, Mimmo Paladino.
Twisting and turning 40 metres beneath Naples is a maze of underground tunnels and caves. The ancient Greeks created vast subterranean quarries here when they extracted tufa limestone in the 3rd century BC, but artifacts dating back 5,000 years have also been discovered. The most famous tour meets at Piazza San Gaetano and takes in a Greek-Roman aqueduct, the remains of a Roman theatre and a candle-lit collection of items from when the caves were used as an air-raid shelter in World War II.
New Castle, as the name translates in English, was completed in 1282 and so called to distinguish it from the older Castel dell’Ovo that sits on a peninsula just one mile down the coast. Fragments of Giotto frescoes can still be seen around the chapel windows while the museo civico houses a number of artworks (mainly Neapolitan paintings) in the castle’s upper levels.
Inside the Wes Anderson-esque peach and grey Palace of Capodimonte is one of Italy’s largest art galleries. The collection is vast, spanning over three floors and including classical works by Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio with contemporary artists well represented by the likes of Alberto Burri, Andy Warhol and William Kentridge. A walk through the lavish Royal Apartment rooms gives a glimpse into the lives of the royals who once lived here.
The catacombs of San Gennaro, Naples’ patron saint, are the oldest in the city and the largest in all of Southern Italy. It’s estimated around 3,000 burials took place here, although the figure could be higher as parts of the site remain unexcavated. The wealthy were buried in large open rooms adorned with bespoke frescos while middle classes made do with smaller niches carved into the walls. The resting place of the poor? Floor tombs.
Atop the Vomero Hill is the Certosa di San Martino, a former Catholic monastery and baroque church decorated with vivid ceiling frescoes and a marble altar. The museum also contains a collection of presepi, or nativity scenes, including the famous Presepe Cuciniello that features 162 characters, 80 animals, 28 angels and over 400 miniature objects.
It might be nearly 30 years since Napoli won a scudetto, but the city’s passion for football shows no signs of waning. Shirts bearing the name of the club’s most iconic player, Diego Maradona, can be found at souvenir stands across the city – as well as ashtrays, figurines and other miscellaneous tourist tat. For a more rousing experience see the current squad in action at the 60,000-seater Stadio San Paolo.
This lively street market takes place daily from 8am to 2pm around the Porta Nolana, a medieval gateway to the city. Skip the knock-off handbags and dodgy DVDs and head straight for the fresh produce instead – in particular the fish and seafood caught daily. The vendors might seem brash but they’ll happily share their expert knowledge of how best to prepare their prized produce.
As the focal point of the grandiose semicircular Piazza del Plebiscito, the Basilica of San Francesco di Paola is one of Naples’ most iconic churches. With a 53-metre-high dome and an Ionic columned portico, the structure is a neoclassical nod to the Pantheon in Rome.
Piazza Bellini’s proximity to a nearby university makes it a favourite hangout of students as well as the young crowd of Naples. Grab a coffee and admire the ruins of 4th-century Greek city walls by day or hang out in the bustling square with a spritz for a low-key night out.
Situated on the edge of the grand Piazza del Plebiscito, Gran Caffè Gambrinus is one of Naples’ most historic and prestigious coffee shops. A favourite haunt of writers, poets and musicians around the late 1800s and 1900s, the décor evokes the glamour of the Belle Epoque. First timers should order espresso and a classic sfogliatella, then sample as many other Neapolitan pastries as possible.
It’s not often public transport makes it into the guide books, but the ‘art stations’ of Naples’ metro are truly deserving of their place. Designed by the Spanish firm of architect Oscar Tusquets Blanca, the most impressive stop is undoubtedly Toledo. Covered in varying shades of blue mosaics, the light and airy space transports passengers into a dreamlike underwater world.
The Church of Santa Chiara is an oasis of tranquility in the heart of Naples – well worth a visit in its own right. However, its chiostro, or cloister, is the real show-stopper. Bright majolica tiles painted with figs, lemons and oranges adorn the 72 octagonal columns that cut through the garden. The adjoining ceramic benches are painted with scenes of rural life while the frescoed cloister walls are no less charming despite their decay.
Another of Naples’ underground attractions, the Bourbon Tunnel takes visitors through an ancient aqueduct turned emergency escape route. Fearful of rebellion, King Ferdinand II ordered construction of a tunnel in case he ever needed to flee Palazzo Reale; however, the collapse of Bourbon dynasty meant his project was never completed. Later, the tunnels were used as a rubbish dump and, in World War II, as an air-raid shelter and makeshift hospital. Today the jumble of decaying classic cars, motorcycles, and children’s abandoned toys make for a moving experience.