I love Italy but just not Naples. Honestly, I would recommend to avoid it. There are much better things to see and spend your money on. Should you have already booked a trip to Naples and/or not be able to avoid it, for example because of work, then better make the best out of it. Here are my tips for sightseeing, accommodation, getting around, etc.
To read all about why I feel visiting Naples is a bad idea, please check out my earlier article: Naples: the bad and the ugly of the Italian city that is hard to love. If you cannot avoid it, decided to go anyway, or your boss makes you do so, please continue to read.
My honest opinion
Locals and other Naples lovers (yes there are) may not be happy with this article, or agree with it. It is my personal opinion after three visits to Naples. After the first visit I made up my mind; I do not like Naples. So what made me come back? Work led me to Naples a second and third time, so I could not avoid it. At least I gave it two more chances. But my general opinon stayed the same, the 2nd and 3rd visit confirmed my thoughts about Naples. Nevertheless, if you are stuck there anyway, better check out the things that are perhaps worth seeing?
NAPLES: THE GOOD SIDE
There are good sides on Naples, it is not 100% bad. I just do not find the city in general worth visiting, so would recommend to avoid it if you still can. But I shall not deny that Naples does have interesting and relatively pretty things to see. I personally do not love it, I am rather annoyed by its imperfections. Let’s say that it simply did not work out between us, Naples and I. But who knows, you may like it?
In case you are determined to visit Naples anyway – to see this city with your own eyes and make your own judgement about it? Fair enough. Or you already booked accommodation in and flights to Naples and can no longer cancel it? You have to go to Naples for work? Well, then better make the best out of it, right?
Italy is known for its great food and visitors have high expectations of. Also in this perspective the North and South of Italy are different. In the North, I always had excellent food experiences. Delicious meals, excellent wine, friendly staff, quick service. But here in the South of Italy, the food is simpler. The basic pizzas here are a typical embodiment of Naples. Expect no friendly “prego” or olive oil and salt served with bread like in Tuscany for example. The good side: it is cheap. One night we ate pizza and had a bottle of wine at Michelin guide restaurant Gino Sorbillo and the total bill with 4 people was 54 euro only! And friendliest waiter during our entire one week stay in Naples. The best pizza we had was at Lombardi 1892.
Tip: the Campania region is famous for its delicious fully flavored mozzarella made from buffaloes originally from Iran. Get a box to take home from La Marchesa at Naples airport (after security).
Naples gave birth to the Pizza Margherita one day and annually hosts a world pizza-making championship (the real one is held in Parma). It actually hard to find anything else than pizza or pasta in restaurants here; apparently there are more than 800 pizzerias in Naples! Following the expression “Vedi Napoli et poi muori”, freely translated as “First see Naples and then die” in English or “Eerst Napels zien dan pas sterven” in Dutch, Julia Roberts goes to Naples to eat pizza in Eat Pray Love. Pizzeria Da Michele clearly benefits from it, looking at the long lines in front of the place. Not sure whoever came up with that bloody expression anyway, too much credit.
Want something else than pasta or pizza? For tasty meat balls go to La Taverna di Santa Chiara but avoid the smoked mozzarella balls, yuk!
Naples has its very own street food culture. If you are in Naples any way, you better try some. A nightmare for gluten free allergists and low carb diets, but whoever can, go ahead and taste.
- Pizza Portafoglio rolled up or folded Pizza Margarita to go, try for example at Pizza A Portafoglio Di Gennaro Salvo
- Pizza Fritta fried pizza, try for example at Da Fernanda or Pizze Fritte da Gennaro
- Paste e Patate a mix of different kind of pasta and potatoes, looks a bit like mac & cheese
- Baba rum-soaked cake in the shape of a thick mushroom, optionally filled with chocolate or cream, which originates from Poland yet is considered typical Neapolitan nowadays
- Sfogliatella thin layered puff pastry with cream inside, I liked the one with lemon flavor most
- Friarielli vegetable eaten as tapas snack, for free with a drink at Cisterna Café & Bistrot
Have a drink
Alcohol can make things look a lot better. Italians produce their own wines of course, but also local and imported beer, distilleries like grappa, etc. The most poured wine here is the Falanchina. Should you be stuck in Naples anyway, better make the best out of it and check out some of these bars, see also below map.
- Oak wine & craft beer, open from 17:00h
- Cisterna Café & Bistrot wine, beer & antipasti in style
- Scio outdoor wine & street art
- Libreria Berisio cocktails & books
- Il Birraiuolo craft beer bar
One of the places where you can find the real Naples life is at the local market. Watch the people shouting at each other over veggies, living the Neapolitan way! See the map for suggestions, such as Mercato Antignano that is held at Piazza Antignano on Monday to Friday. Prices are even lower than in the supermarket.
Something else you can get surprisingly cheap in Naples: clothes. The city has a history of clothing production. Several shops are closed on Sunday or for lunch.
The streets around San Lorenzo Maggiore (below) form the heart of Naples’ city center. The next door Via San Gregorio Armeno is full of small shops selling hand-made Christmas stalls and famous characters (miniatures).
Creepy sights in Naples
Whenever talking to people about Naples, I often mention that, to me, Naples is a bit of a grim city. The waste, bad maintenance, graffiti tags etc. definitely contribute to that feeling, but also the particular tourist attractions. Naples has a long history and centuries ago, people had customs that we find strange or even lugubrious or creepy today. For example, who would hang a dead human body on the wall to bleed out? Or steel hundreds of graves’ doors? Or pile up thousands of skulls? Only in Naples!
Cimitero delle Fontanelle
A covered cemetery, originally an old quarry, with 3,000 m2 the size of half a soccer field, filled with more than 40.000 human skulls, plus several bones. Yikes! Cimitero delle Fontanelle felt like an unpleasant and uncomfortable place to walk around, goosebumps. We heard two stories about where the skulls and bones came from, not sure which one is true, possibly both are.
- When the city was plagued by various epidemics, the death toll increased so much that the regular cemeteries became overcrowded.
- After the marble doors of the Catacombs of San Genaro were stolen, the remains were brought to this cemetery as a final rest place.
And who knows the Camorra added some more, these skulls are anonymous anyway… Admission free! The Rione Sanita district where the Cimetero delle Fontanelle is located, is a bit grim, sad, poor area but during day light you should be fine to walk through, especially in company.
Catacombe di San Gennaro
The Catacombs of San Genaro, or Catacombe di San Gennaro in Italian, are a must see when in Naples. Walk around in an underground grave system, so it is a bit dark and grim, but to me the most interesting site. During a one hour guided tour, you travel back in time for more than a century and explore the most important catacombs of at least southern Italy. What started as a group of friends with 5 volunteer guides in 2008, is now 40 paid guides and 40K visitors per year.
Back in the day, when the holy saint San Genaro was buried here, local people literally started to fight over getting a place in this covered cemetery, where graves look more like a small cave room with very old frescos. Only the rich and famous were able to get the last spots in the Catacombs of San Genaro. Nowadays the catacombs are empty, the bodies were removed after the marble doors were stolen in Napoleon’s time here. Also, these catacombs were used as shelter for refugees during World War 2. How creepy that must have been!
And there is more…
- Catacombs of San Gaudioso the 2nd most important yet possibly the creepiest early Christian underground cemetery (catacomb) in Naples with mysterious burial rites and macabre rituals, frescoes and lurid tombs decorated with skulls. Yikes!
- Galleria Bourbonica – The Bourbon Tunnel with the remains of statues dating back to the fascist period as well as cars and motorcycles
- Napoli Sotterranea (Naples Underground) network of Greek and Roman style streets, caves, catacombs, tunnels, an aqua duct and even a Roman theatre 40-metres below the streets with over 2400 years of history
City under ashes and mud
You may know that Pompeii (part of Naples metropolitan area) is a place that got covered in ash as a result of the eruption of the Vesuvius volcano in the 1st Century. Underneath the San Lorenzo Maggiore in the center of Naples there is an ancient Greek-Roman city called Neapolis, which was buried under a meters high layer of mud and ash at the end of the 5th Century. You can still feel the ash on the walls! Underneath the courtyard and chapel hall with frescoes upstairs, there is a 1st Century Roman market called Macellum of Naples with workshops, optical illusion corridor, classrooms, etc. I guess this is every archeologist’s wildest dream.
To enable the Romans to see where they were walking at night, the streets consisted of a mix of big white and black stones; the moon reflected on the more expensive white marble stones.
With Rome and the Vatican at a distance of only 1.5 hours by train, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church is pretty obvious in Naples. The city has numerous churches and monasteries, the most well-known are:
- Duomo di Napoli (Naples Cathedral) with a vial of blood of San Gennaro (Saint Januarius) which is checked 3x per year to see if it is dry or liquefied, if dry the legend says a disaster will befall Naples. Neapolitans really believe in this so-called ‘Miracle of Blood’ and attach great importance to it
- Certosa di San Martino a Carthusian monastery with museum and city view
- Santa Chiara complex with church, monastery, tombs, museum and garden full of orange and lemon trees and benches with colorful yet badly maintained Majolica tiles
Several royalties have had castles and palaces built in Naples, such as Palazzo Real Napoli (Royal Palace of Naples), Castel Nuovo, Castel dell’Ovo, etc. For all see map below.
Besides ugly graffiti tags, Naples definitely has good street art as well. Join a street art tour in which a local will show the best ones! Some metro stations like Toledo are a piece of art on itself. Teatro San Carlo is the place to be for musical, dance and theatre forms of art.
Besides Naples has a lot of museums and galleries; with art but also archeology finds for example. See below map for 10 museum options. Cappella Sansevero and the Donna Regina Museo Madre are the prettiest.
Areas and views
Centro Storico, Quartieri Spagnoli, Vomero, Chiaia, San Ferdinando and Posillipo are supposed to be the best neighborhoods of Naples. Well I did not visit them all but so far could not discover any area that I thought was really pretty or fun… but hey taste is very personal of course. What can be fun is people watching from for example Piazza Bellini or Piazza del Plebiscito. Or stroll along the waterfront of Caracciolo Boulevard on a bright sunny day, where also some better fish restaurants can be found.
For the best city view go to the hill top where the National Museum and Monastery of San Martino and the Castel Sant’Elmo are located (see map). On a clear day you can even see the Vesuvius volcano. Parco Virgilano offers a unique view on the Bay of Naples. Naples is not a particularly green type of city, but if you want to escape the city chaos for a while, visit one of the parks or gardens (see map).
Possibly you worry about the safety in Naples. For safety recommendations, please chek my earlier article Naples: the bad and the ugly of the Italian city that is hard to love.
Whenever I walk around Naples I always get the same feeling: I want to escape. Flee to a better place. Luckily, nearby Naples there are definitely good places to visit, especially when the sun shines, the reason that the region attracts many tourists especially in summer. Get out of Naples as soon as you can, to see better places. In a future article I will write more about these, but the main ones are:
- The Amalfi coast (Costiera Amalfitana)
- The islands Capri and Ischia
- Vesuvius volcanic national park
Pompeii & Capri are worth visiting
How to get there & around
Most international flights to Naples go via Rome or Milan, but for example to Amsterdam there is a direct connection with KLM. To search flight options and costs check out Skyscanner. In November a flight from Amsterdam to Naples costs around 100 euro, but no good weather guaranteed (rain).
Rent a car
My personal advice would be: skip Naples, rent a car and drive off to the interesting places outside of Naples, or grab a taxi to the harbor and hop on a ferry to one of the nearby islands. A rental car gives a lot of freedom and flexibility. Italian road users are a bit annoying (pushy) but overall the roads are pretty good and road signs are present. Use Google Maps to navigate and use Naples as and end point because of its central airport.
In Italy most rental cars are damaged due to narrow streets and parking so inspect the rental car thoroughly before signing anything and make sure you have a good insurance. Sunny Cars is an all-inclusive worry free car rental concept I use whenever going to Italy, after some bad experiences with other rental companies. I would suggest to rent a car that is not the cheapest to avoid getting a 1.1 engine car that will roll back down the hill because it does not have enough power. Believe me, I have been there.
During the day, the cheapest way of getting from Naples airport to Naples center will be by train. You may already sense a bit of the grim atmosphere I describe in this article, trains full of graffiti tags. Take the Campania Express instead of the Circumvesuviana and stay away from the doors, where pickpockets often operate. Avoid riding the train before or after sunset and avoid the area around the main train station for the rest of your stay.
Neapolitan taxi drivers at the airport tend to rip you off by overwhelming you when you get in the car, switching off the meter and confirming a fixed price of 2x too much while driving. Unfortunately I could not find a cheaper airport shuttle online; they ask EUR 49.50 for 1 person, a ridiculous price! For that kind of money you can also get a transfer to Positano or Sorrento at the Amalfi Coast. Try to negotiate with a taxi driver at the airport either to drive by the meter or a fixed price for 2 people of max EUR 25 in total (possibly shared with someone else). Uber is not available in Naples.
Coming from Rome Fiumicino (FCO) airport to Naples center, you can take either the train or direct bus. In Naples center walk around and/or get on a Hop-On Hop-Off bus. Alternatively, you may want to go Sightseeing by Vespa. Tours with a local guide are always a good option as you can learn and show you a lot more than what you would on your own.
Where to stay in Naples
If you are determined to spend some nights in Naples, or have to go there for work for example, the question is: how much can you or do you want to spend on accommodation? Should you want to keep things cheap, I suggest staying at B&B Donna Anna, it was only EUR 33 p/n and centrally located. For those who are willing to spend a bit more, or going to Naples for business, I would suggest take a look at the more luxurious and historic MGallery Palazzo Caracciolo, starting at EUR 110 p/n.
This mobile friendly map includes most things mentioned in this article and is smartphone friendly. You can use it easily via Google Maps. Click on the top left icon to open the menu. You can (un)select categories/areas to customize the map to your needs. Via Google Drive you can copy it to your folder of My Google Maps.
Should you have any great tips for Naples, please let me know, who knows one day I may end up there for 4th time there, voluntarily or not.
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With a special thanks to Melissa and Martijn for taking some of these photos of me!