The colder it gets and the shorter the days here, in Poland, my mind drifts back to the beautiful, warm places I had the opportunity to visit. The places which, for various reasons, have a special place in my heart and fill me with inspiration and love for life. Italy, as you already know, is one of the countries I simply adore, along with its culture, history and the people and of all the more and less popular travel destinations I’ve already reached, I’ll definitely never say no to going back to Naples.
Why Naples? Because of the friends I made during my Erasmus experience in Spain, where the majority of students were Italians, or rather Neapolitans, who sparked my curiosity about this particular Southern region of the Apennine boot.
While the predominant opinion is that of an extremely dangerous and dirty city ruled by the infamous Camorra, having been there 3 times already I’ve always appreciated the more appealing side of Naples with its numerous monuments and breath-taking views surrounding the city. One of the oldest and largest cities in Italy has a lot to offer to tourists hungry not only for its trademark cuisine, but also for the unforgettable experience of letting themselves get lost in the maze of lovely narrow streets and exploring archeological treasures. I’m not going to give you a “professional” travel guide or so, so let’s just go for a walk around Naples as seen through my eyes!
The first thing that strikes you upon arrival in the city center is definitely crowds. First at the airport, then stuck in a traffic jam, at the train station, on every piazza. If you’re not prepared for a confrontation with a flood of loud, overly vivacious, crazily gesticulating Neapolitans, it’ll be a shocking experience. And yes, dirt. Piles of trash left in the middle of a street are not an uncommon view and may indeed work as a deterrent for more sensible visitors…
Fret not, though! After a while you’ll find yourself accustomed to the hustle and bustle and ready to discover the treasures of Naples. It’s a good idea to begin your sightseeing around Piazza Garibaldi (just ignore the omnipresent shady characters and the traffic), where the central railway station is located. From there, you’re within walking distance from the very heart of Naples, the so-called old city, and close enough to the marina, where the main tourists attractions are located.
Personally I’d start with the monuments – mostly churches and museums – located in the city center, as it’s better to visit them during the day and then spend a lovely evening by the shore. There’s a lot to choose from, especially if you’re a fan of architecture and art in general, for instance, Il Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (The Naples National Archaeological Museum), one of the most important archeological museums in the world, where you’ll find an impressive collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. Having been three times already and staying in close vicinity to the Museum, I still haven’t found enough time to visit it and you’d need to devote an entire day for the best experience, so I’ve heard. Still, yet another reason for me to come back there one day!
Among the numerous churches, the one worth visiting is Duomo di Napoli. The gothic cathedral is famous for the relic of Naples’ patron saint, San Gennaro, whose blood is brought out in a vial three times a year. Legend has it that if it liquidates it means another prosperous year for the city, but if it doesn’t… fears are held for the safety of Naples. Still, nothing bad happened when the miracle did not take place back in 2016, so it’s just yet another superstition, albeit quite an original one.
Already acquainted with San Gennaro, it’s worth to see Le Catacombe (Catacombs). Highly recommended to hide underground when summer heat strikes and take a short history lesson. Surprisingly enough, the guides speak very good English and really know they way around, so the tour is by no means boring. On the contrary, they really incite your interest and leave you hungry for more stories of the lesser-known side of the old Naples. The entrance is paid, but 9 EUR does not seem over-the-top for such a unique experience.
San Gennaro’s body was interred in the oldest and the most sacred catacombs of Naples in the 5th century, to become a Christian pilgrimage site visited by a myriad of tourists until today.
Speaking of the old days, this time I had the opportunity to take my mum to the nearby Pompeii Ruins and it was a truly unforgettable experience! Again, there wasn’t enough time to really explore the area (the map we were given had two routes, one for 2 hours and one for a whole day…), but I’m happy to have caught at least a glimpse of how people used to live there until the violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed the city in 79 ce. What we can see know are the remains, serving as a unique document of Greco-Roman life, first discovered late in the 16th century and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997.
Enough of history and walking? Time for food! Mangiare is an integral part of Italian culture and Naples has a lot in store when it comes to traditional cuisine. Of course pizza is the centerpiece and I promise you, once you try the traditional, “real” margherita, no pizza will ever taste the same…
For a true Neapolitan experience I recommend you to book a table (in advance!) in the oldest restaurant Da Michele, also seen in a popular movie “Eat, pray, love” starring Julia Roberts. I bet you won’t be disappointed, just don’t get discouraged by the long queues at the entrance.
If you have a sweet tooth, local pastries are not to be missed, especially Sfogliatella, a shell-shaped filled Italian pastry native to the region of Campania. For the best experience, just grab them from a street food stall, there are plenty of them everywhere you go.
Well fed and full of energy, it’s time for another stroll and shopping. Starting with the iconic street in the historic center, Spaccanapoli, literally meaning “Naples splitter” since it seems to divide the city in two parts, then down all the via Toledo, which is filled with both designer stores and small, no-name boutiques and souvenirs shops. It leads to the large, public square in central Naples, Piazza del Plebiscito, and two admirable monuments of the city: Palazzo Reale di Napoli (the Naples Royal Palace) and the Church of San Francesco di Paola.
The seaside is just a few steps from there with the oldest standing fortification, Castel dell’Ovo (Egg Castle) located on the former island of Megaride. Curious about where the peculiar name from? To quote Wikipedia:
“The castle’s name comes from a legend about the Roman poet Virgil, who had a reputation in medieval times as a great sorcerer and predictor of the future. In the legend, Virgil put a magical egg into the foundations to support the fortifications. Had this egg been broken, the castle would have been destroyed and a series of disastrous events for Naples would have followed.”
The views are simply breath-taking, especially in the evening, with Il Vesuvio overlooking the city. On your way back to the center, don’t miss Castel Nuovo a medieval castle located in front of Piazza Municipio (the main meeting point). First erected in 1279, the imposing castle is one of the main architectural landmarks of the city.
Right, now I see that I’ve shown, in fact, the most obvious attractions of Naples, but truth be told I haven’t yet discovered everything that the city has to offer. Still, I’d say that to get the true taste of not only Naples, but the entire region of Campania, it’s best to just wander around, interact with the citizens, let them sing “O sole mio” and praise your beauty… 😉 And do not limit yourself to Napoli only. There are some lovely little towns and villages worth visiting in Campania, like Aversa or Caserta. The latter can pride itself on Reggia di Caserta (The Royal Palace of Caserta), the largest royal residence in the world constructed for the Bourbon kings of Naples. It’s only 1,5 h tops from Naples by train, so feel free to plan an entire day for the trip to this vast, magical place, whose beauty is bound to leave you awe-struck.
DO’s and DON’Ts
- Don’t expect Italians to speak English. Just don’t. Better buy a phrasebook or Basic Italian for Dummies. And use your hands a lot.
- On the other hand, do not let other tourists, who do not speak a word in Italian, know that you can communicate with Italians in their native tongue. Unless you enjoy being treated like a two-legged Google Translate.
- Better leave your Pandora bracelet at home – applies to any other expensive jewellery. The urban legends might be overdone, but I do like my wrists, how about you? And listen to my mum who keeps nagging about my keeping the (Michael Kors) bag always closed – no one has ever robbed me, but she’s right – better safe than sorry.
- Haggle, especially over the price of souvenirs. It’s fun! And you can buy 15 magnets for the price of 10 if you’re (a girl) pretty and stubborn enough 🙂
- Be careful when crossing the street. Italians drive like pazzi and they do not pay attention to confused pedestrians, so a pleasant walk around the city may easily turn into a survival in a cacophony of car horns and shouting.
- If you’re planning to stay longer in the Neapolitan Riviera, take a ferry to get to Capri (or Ischia, Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi…). They depart from Molo Beverello (opposite Castel Nuovo) quite often and for ~ 20 EUR you can buy yourself a truly unforgettable experience!
Extra for fellow bookworms:
If you feel like reading a good book sett in Naples, there are only two titles I’m familiar with, but I can recommend them in all good conscience:
- “L’amica Geniale (The Neapolitan Novels)” by Elena Ferrante: critically acclaimed series of 4 books revolving around the lives and difficult friendship of Elena and Lila transforming over the course of the years along with the transformation taking place in their neighbourhood. and the entire country. A beautiful study of the relationship between two protagonists and a faithful portrayal of difficult, at times violent life in Naples.
- “Gomorrah” Roberto Saviano: a gripping – and terrifying – nonfiction account of the decline of Naples under the rule of the Camorra. There’s also a TV series made based on the book, to be found eg. on Netflix.
All these are in fact just glimpses of what Neapolis really is and no photo or description will suffice to render the peculiar air surrounding the city and its irresistible charm. I’m sure I’ll go back there again, so let me just summarize this post with this tribute song to one of my favourite places in the world and see you soon in Naples!