You should visit Naples because it’s everything that makes Italy wonderful, surrounded by everything that makes Italian unlike anywhere else. It’s hot and sticky and loud and vibrant, with plenty of chances for a quiet, calm, cool escape. If you truly love Italy, you’ll love Naples. Naples is old, young, and absolutely charming.
First off, a word about words. It’s tempting to use “Napoli” instead of “Naples,” but let’s be honest: I’m an American living in Minnesota. So Naples it is.
Naples is a city best experienced at a relaxed pace. It’s a city ready to distract you around every turn. Let it. Follow an interesting sign down an alley. Stop to watch a band go marching by. While there are sights to see, the best sight is life in the city. Don’t focus on your itinerary and miss out on that.
Let’s get the bad bits out of the way as well. Yes, there’s more crime in Naples than elsewhere in Italy. Be a smart traveler, and don’t open yourself to pickpockets and petty criminals. It’ll be OK. Sometimes the city stops functioning properly (or, functions even less well than usual). Go with the flow. You’re not going to be kidnapped by the Mafia, and seeing an uncollected pile of trash on a street corner shouldn’t detract from the fun.
Escaping the Bubble
Naples will welcome you, especially if you’re exploring on a weekend. It’s not a city overrun by tourists (they’d love to have a few more tourists in fact). The people you’ll find in the squares and markets are Neapolitans. Naples has one of the most intact Roman street plans of any city in Europe. There are lots of tiny lanes for you to follow, and only an occasional car or scooter to dodge. That’s especially true in the Spanish Quarter, above Via Toledo.
As you wander Naples, you won’t feel like you’re on display. Unlike Florence, you aren’t just another token in the tourism slot machine. You’re just you.
Naples gets a bad rap as unbearably chaotic – the kind of place where only crazy people drive. It’s a big city with small streets and an infrastructure that predates just about everything. As long as you go in with that understanding, you’ll be fine, even if you’re driving. And you’re more likely to be driving than in other parts of Italy, as many of the sights in the area as best accessed with a car.
That said, Naples is a great city for pedestrians. There are affordable parking garages on the outskirts of town, so if you’re only visiting for a day, you can leave your car behind. For many folks, trains, subways, trams and other forms of rail-based transit are less stressful than riding the bus. You can study the map of the lines, and know exactly where you’re going, even if you miss your stop. Busses can take surprise turns, or require more local knowledge. Fortunately, Naples is full of nice, predictable, rail-based transport. Whether you ride the subway, the tram, or the funicular, you can easily move around the city. There’s even a special tourist card which gets you multiple days of transit access, plus admission to city sights.
Much of the city is pedestrian only, or effectively pedestrian only (streets too narrow to be useful for anything but local delivery Piaggios). Lace up your sneakers and go for a wander.
If you’re headed to Naples, you’ll presumably want to visit nearby Pompeii, Vesuvius, and Herculaneum. Those are pretty self explanatory – if you need to be convinced to visit Pompeii, you probably need to rethink your priorities. Don’t shortchange yourself on those either – you need at least half a day at Pompeii, but a full day would be a lot better. Further afield, you’ve got the Amalfi coast with its twisty roads and gorgeous villages. It can be either a day trip destination from Naples, or a great home base for day trips in to Naples. Take your pick.
While the big name sights deserve their reputation, don’t ignore the sights in the city. The vast majority of the items excavated from Pompeii are actually at the National Archaeological Museum. The Museo di Capodimonte has one of the best collections of art in Italy (and that’s saying something). Being Italy, there are of course amazing churches, like the Museo Cappella Sansevero. And owing to its very long history, Naples has an amazing underground, which you can experience through sights like the Catacombe di San Gennaro.
There are plenty of “lesser” sights throughout the city. Carry your guidebook, and keep an eye out as you wander the city. Don’t hesitate to spend half an hour and a few euros popping into a small church or museum, even if it’s not on any “Top 10 Sights to See” list. That’s where the best stories come from.
Well, pizza obviously. It really is better in Naples. You can’t go wrong with Pizzeria Starita, or pretty much any other place in town. And you’ll want to try a warm, fresh, sfogliatelle. Don’t stop at the pizza and pastries though – you’re just a few hundred feed from the sea, and the seafood is fresh and affordable. The climate means Naples is blessed with amazing fruits and vegetables. And, because it’s Italy, the bread, meat, and cheese is to die for.
Take some time to visit a local market, like the Pignasecca market (open every day). Hopefully, you’re doing such a good job in your wandering that you don’t need to seek a market out – you’ll stumble upon one. Buy a peach. Eat it on the spot.
Get Yourself to Naples
Should Naples be the only city you visit in Italy? No, probably not. Places like Rome and Florence get their reputations for a reason. But too many people are afraid of Naples, without reason. If you need a break from feeling like a tourist, need to see some amazing sights, and need to eat some awesome food, set your course for Naples. It’s a city you could return to year after year, just for a break from the mundane. Be thankful that you live in a place where the garbage routinely gets collected. But be thankful that there’s so much beauty in a place where it doesn’t.