Naples, Italy is not for the faint of heart. Its rough exterior and unapologetic demeanor may turn the casual tourist away. But Naples is rich in history and culture, and it has contributed much to the significance that Italy bears…not the least of which is the pizza and gelato! Plus it’s the perfect spot to start your adventures to nearby Pompeii, Mt. Vesuvius, and Capri island. If you can find time to visit Naples, I would recommend it. Give this city a chance and you’ll see all that it has to offer. And in the words of Mr. Dean Martin…In Napoli beside the sea, It happened on a night like this, In Napoli our hearts were free, And we surrendered to a kiss…
1. Eat the pizza
Naples is the birthplace of pizza, and it certainly lives up to the expectations! You could spend a lifetime exploring all the pizzerias around Naples, and tasting every different masterpiece. But when you’ve only got a weekend or a week, you should focus in on the small pizzerias on the side streets, where at most one person in the restaurant speaks English. It is these hidden gems that have preserved the original perfection of Napoli pizza, unwilling to cater to the demands of tourists. In an act of pizza destiny, I stepped into a pizzeria one evening where I ordered by pointing to the menu, showing with my hands what I wanted to the waiter that spoke not one word of English. It didn’t matter, I couldn’t have ordered a bad meal at this place. Hours of pizza and wine, music and dancing, and chatting between tables later, I felt I had been welcomed into the Napoli family. You can’t go wrong with pizza in Naples, but some of my favorite spots are L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, Pizzeria Brandi, and Pizzeria Sorbillo!
2. See Mt. Vesuvius
On a clear day, you can see Mt. Vesuvius off in the distance, and you can feel the impending power of this mighty volcano that looms over the city of Naples. The famous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius is AD 79 destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and goes down in the history books as one of the most famous volcano eruptions in history. In fact, this is still an active volcano which means that you could be in danger just by visiting. But it hasn’t erupted since 1944, and is considered a relatively safe tourist destination. I for one didn’t want to get too close and I just opted to appreciate the powerful volcano from a distance in Naples. For those more daring travelers, you can visit the volcano and hike up to the crater! You can get to Mt. Vesuvius by taking the Circumvesuviana train from Garibaldi Central Station to Ercolano Scavi and then a bus to the volcano, and hike from there. Otherwise you can book a half-day or full-day tour with one of the local tour providers to explore this national park in greater comfort.
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3. Visit Pompeii
When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, it engulfed the city of Pompeii, and in one movement both destroyed the population and preserved the city. What remains of the ancient city of Pompeii is an archaeologist’s dream, a city preserved in time. In wandering around the ruins and the grounds at Pompeii, you can take a look back in time to what the city once was, even imagining what ordinary citizens were doing when the lava overcame them. A visit to these ruins is moving, a sobering reminder of the morbid fate met by the town’s former inhabitants. You’ve studied Pompeii in history class and now you can walk the hallowed grounds where it all happened. To get to Pompeii, simply hop on the Circumvesuviana train at Garibaldi Central Station and take it all the way out to Pompeii. Or you can buy a day trip tour package with a guide and transportation included. While you’re out there, you should also consider touring Herculaneum, the lesser-known city that was also devastated by the eruption.
4. Climb Castel Sant’Elmo
A beautiful, high vantage point over the city, Castel Sant’Elmo can be reached by the funicular trolley, or by walking up the winding side streets to reach the top of the hill. The castle was constructed in 1329 and it continues to be used to this day. Inside the utilitarian walls of the castle is housed a collection of art, the Museo del Novecento. But it was previously used as a military stronghold, a church and chapel, and a military prison. Standing upon this medieval fortress, you’ll feel the history of Napoli come alive, see how it continues to influence the city. And those that reach the top of the fortress are rewarded with sweeping views over the city, a direct sightline to Mt Vesuvius, and gusts of fresh sea air wrapping around you and filling your lungs.
Besides the famous pizza, Naples’ other claim to fame is gelato, which is said to have been invented here as well. That’s as much of an excuse to eat gelato as I need! There are really more gelato shops than you could ever possibly try here in Naples, and you’ll get a great treat no matter which you choose. But my favorites are Casa Infante, Il Gelato Menella, and Gran Caffe Ciorfito! Gelato is the perfect sweet treat to enjoy when it’s hot out, or after a big meal just to melt on top, or for an afternoon pick-me-up, or really at any time. I don’t know for sure if Naples is where gelato was created, but I know they make it well. Whether they created it, had their hand in the creation, or just copied their neighbors, the result is the all the same. The gelato here is sweet, rich, and perfectly refreshing!
6. Tour the underground city
There is a city beneath the city here in Naples, Italy. The Napoli Sotterranea is the ancient underground city that belies the history of Naples. As the city was built up and around these ancient ruins, they were almost forgotten. But step down just 40 meters below the city streets and you’ll find the ancient Greek-Roman aqueduct and what remains of a Roman theatre. This space was used throughout the war as an air raid shelter, and has continued to serve the city. When you enter the Napoli Sotterranea, you will see an entire ancient world that rests below the modern city. The Roman ruins that rest just meters below the streets will astound you, and will give you a sense of the significance this port city has always had.
7. Take the ferry to Capri
Napoli is perfectly positioned as a port city and launching point for some island adventures, to such beauties as Capri, Cagliari, and Palermo. With white washed homes dotting the hillside and mosaic tiled walkways lined with lemon trees, Capri is a blissful retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life in Napoli. Take the ferry out to Capri for a day trip, or the weekend if you can! An exercise in contradictions, Capri is famous both for its rugged landscape shaped by the seas and for its upscale shopping and lifestyle. Once you’re out on Capri, take a boat tour around the Faraglioni rock formations jutting out of the water, walk along the trail out to Arco Naturale, and sip espresso in the Piazza Umberto. Capri will certainly charm you!
8. The Churches
Napoli takes its religion very seriously, which you’ll see displayed all over the city in the form of religious shrines and angelic ornaments in nearly every shop. The Catholic religion is a central pillar of the social and cultural scenes here in Naples. There are literally dozens of churches to explore when you’re in Naples, including the Church of San Domenico Maggiore which dates back all the way to 1255. There are also more recent additions to the Catholic landscape in Naples, such as the Basilica of San Giacomo degli Spagnoli which was built in 1540 and the Church of San Francesco di Paola built in 1817. Try to wander around and see how many you can find!