The saying goes “Chi viene a Napoli piange due volte: quando arriva e quando parte.”
In Naples you cry two times: when you arrive and when you leave.
We had just spent the previous week up in northern Italy, admiring the extravagant Italian villas on Lake Como and the beautiful art and architecture of one of Italy’s richest cities, Milan. To say stepping off the train at the Naples Central Station was jarring is a bit of an understatement. We had planned to stay a full week, and five seconds in I was already feeling like that it was a huge mistake.
We had done our research on Naples like we do on pretty much every place we visit. I was well aware of Naples’ bad rap: the trash, the crime, the smell. But it also seemed that it had been cleaned up in recent years. I didn’t want to miss out on real Neapolitan pizza, the chaotic and lively centro storico, and the literal layers of history (Naples is built on Greco-Roman ruins dating back thousands of years) just because of a little grit.
With Hudson strapped to my chest, we started down the street, strewn with garbage, covered in graffiti, and surrounded by a few people that I admit made me nervous. It didn’t come to tears, but I almost whispered to Aaron, “what did we do!?!” When we finally crossed over into the historic center, the buildings still showed their wear, but it was dirty in the romantic sort of way an ancient city is. We passed ornate baroque churches and busy pizzerias, and all of the pastry cases filled with baba, graffa and sfogliatelle facing the street were enough to cheer any sugar-loving person up. This is the Naples we had come for, and we weren’t disappointed.
Here are the foods to eat, places to see and experiences you can’t miss while in Naples.
1 Walking tour with Napoli That’s Amore
We think there’s no better way to be shown around a city than by a native resident, so we took a walking tour with Napoli That’s Amore. I always thought of Italy as one unified country and didn’t think much more about it. On the tour, we learned about the distinct divide and accompanying animosity between the north and south. Up until the late 1800s, Italy was made up of several sovereign nations each with their own government, culture, food and even language. To understand Italy, don’t skip over Naples!
If there’s one thing we learned from making friends with real Italians, it’s that we shouldn’t go to Italy and eat any kind of Italian food in any Italian city. Just like most countries, the epicurean scene is regional. This means save your pesto dishes for Liguria, your bucatini all amatriciana for Rome, and, of course, your pizza for Naples.
After eating pizza about three times a day for a week, we narrowed down our favorite pizzerias and shared them here.
Usually there’s one or two pastries we want to try when visiting a new city, but in Naples the list kept growing. Maybe my stomach needed more carbs to keep the pizza company, or it could’ve had something to do with the street-side location of the pastry cases. Don’t miss out on local favorites, baba and sfogliatelle. And of course, there’s plenty of gelaterias.
4 Underground Tour
Naples seems to have a problem. Whenever they start to build something new, especially deep underground like subway stations, the construction site turns into an archaeological dig. During the excavation for a new metro station near the port, four ancient Roman ships were uncovered along with thousands of artifacts. That’s because modern Naples is built on layers and layers of ruins and compacted volcanic ash and rock called tufo. The oldest findings date back to Greco-Roman aqueducts dug over two thousand years ago, 40 meters below street level.
We went on the 2 hour guided Napoli Sotternaea tour, descending into aqueducts once filled with water, cleared out areas used as bomb shelters during WWII, and even traditional Napoletana apartment buildings with an ancient Roman theater in the basement.
After the tour, I wondered if our Airbnb apartment, with its first floor curved ceilings, could have used the tops of another ancient Roman building as its foundation, simply plastering over the old brick arches. At first, that might sound a bit ridiculous, but there really are ruins everywhere in Naples.
Other places to go underground in Naples:
- Greco-Roman ruins beneath the San Lorenzo Maggiore Basilica
- Roman thermal baths, a sauna area and parts of an aqueduct beneath Church of Santa Chiara
- Catacombs of San Gennaro behind the Church of Madre del Buon Consiglio
- Catacombs of San Gaudioso
Even though we didn’t stop in Rome on this trip, we could definitely tell we were not far from the center of the Roman Catholic Church just by the sheer number and size of Cathedrals in Naples. All are worth a visit, but here are a few we included on our list not to miss.
- Duomo di Napoli: Main church of naples and seat of the Archbishop of Naples
- Church of Gesù Nuovo – Originally the Sanseverino Palace, the richly decorated baroque interior is in stark contrast to the quirky grey façade in the bugnato style
- Church of San Domenico Maggiore – Gothic 14th century church and original seat of the University of Naples
6 Veiled Christ Statue
The Sansevero Chapel was built as the private chapel of the Sansevero family. It houses over 30 works of art, including the Veiled Christ by Giuseppe Sanmartino, one of the most moving and celebrated statues.
7 Porta Nolana Market
I love markets of all kinds and this fish market is one of my favorites. I wish we had set aside time to buy fish or clams to take back to our apartment to cook, because everything looked so incredibly fresh. It’s where locals come to shop for their seafood dishes, open everyday from 7am – 1:30pm just south of Piazza Garibaldi. Not very many tourists stop by, so we stuck out with our baby and pram. It was fun to watch the fishmongers unloading their haul on ice, and the clams in the water buckets shooting water up like little fountains.
8 Naples National Archaeological Museum
Even if you make it to one of the archaeological sites like Pompeii or Herculaneum, this museum is worth a visit. It houses many of the mosaics and artifacts that have been removed from these ancient cities.
9 Piazza del Plebiscito
To take part in a bit of Neapolitan tradition, visit Piazza del Plebiscito. The story goes that a long time ago, the Queen would set her prisoners at the entrance to the Royal Palace on the edge of the piazza and give them a test. If they could walk blindfolded across Piazza del Plebiscito and end between the two equestrian statues on the other side, they could go free. The myth is that she knew this to be absolutely impossible and it was only for show.
It seemed easy enough to us. The equestrian statues have to be at least 10 meters apart, so we gave it a go! Do you think either of us passed the Queen’s test!?
10 Castel dell’Ovo
This seaside castle is the oldest standing fortification left in Naples. It’s a great starting point for a stroll down the port into the Chiaia district, which recently closed to traffic to make the whole area pedestrianized. We enjoyed climbing the castle ramparts for a view over the port.
The name translates to Egg Castle, coming from the myth that the poet Virgil hid a magical egg in the foundations and tied the fate of Naples to the survival of the egg. If the egg broke, Naples would be destroyed.
11 Climb to Castel Sant’Elmo through the Vomero neighborhood
Naples is known as crazy and chaotic, but head over to the Vomero neighborhood and you’ll find an upper-middle class neighborhood that seems to be perfecting the art of slow living. We enjoyed the hike through large Art Nouveau style apartments and tree-lined streets of this hilly neighborhood, up to the lookout in front of Castel Sant-Elmo. The whole of Naples is spread out before you, and the street Spaccanapoli splits the city right in half.
12 Toledo Metro station
Touted as one of the most beautiful metro stations in the world, we were going up and down the escalator just for fun!
13 Christmas Alley
Via San Gregorio Armeno, otherwise known as Christmas Alley, is lined with little shops selling presepi (nativity scenes). Some are handmade with terracotta and wood. Neapolitans get creative with their characters, so you can include the butcher, the baker and a real pizza maker in your manger.
14 Day trips
Many people visiting the Campania region stay in Sorrento and day trip to Naples, but I’d argue that it’s better to stay in Naples and take day trips from there. Plus, if you really want to experience the Amalfi Coast after you visit Naples, it’s better to stay in one of the more central coastal towns, like Positano or Amalfi Town. From there, it’s much easier to explore this beautiful coast. Convenient day trips from Naples include: the islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida; archaeological sites Pompeii, Herculaneum and Paestum; and the royal palace in Caserta.
Campania Arte Card
If you plan on doing any number of the things listed above, like visiting museums, Pompeii, and using public transit, the Campania Arte Card can be a pretty good deal.
3 day campania>artecard Tutta la regione for €32
The Tutta la regione card works for sites and transportation throughout the Campania region. We purchased this card and used it to cover the entrance fees to Pompeii and the Naples National Archaeological Museum. The website notes you receive a discount of up to 50% from the third site. The key words here are up to; we tried to use this for a third site, but the discount was relatively small, so I wouldn’t include that in your calculation to determine if this card is worth it. This card also covers public transit throughout the region; see the website for the full list. We used it for the metro and funinculars in Naples, the train to Pompeii, the train to Salerno, and even the bus on our first day in the Amalfi Coast.
7 day campania>artecard Tutta la regione for €34
With the 7 day Tutta la regione card, you have a few extra days to use the cards and entrance into your first 5 chosen sites free. The main drawback here is that this card does not include any transportation.
3 day campania>artecard Napoli for €21
If you’re not planning on leaving Naples for day trips, the Napoli card may be a better deal. It covers entrance into 3 sites in Naples and transportation within the city.
If you do cry in Naples, we hope it’s only tears of joy.
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