Along with many other people, Italy is a beloved holiday destination of mine. Rome, Florence, Venice… I bet you have them on your bucket list if you have not been there yet. Naples – or Napoli in Italian – may sound just as nice and exotic, but believe me: Naples is different. Naples is the type of city: you hate it or you love it. What makes Naples hard to love?
Neapolitans may hate me for writing this article about their beloved city. Several times I have carefully thought about whether I should write it or not, sensing I may step on some toes. However getting the same feeling every time I visit Naples, it felt legitimate to write this subjective article. To set the expectations, according to my repetitive experiences, and having heard the same from many others many times.
This was my third time to Naples, and this time I even stayed for 7 days, so I honestly tried. But when other Italians with embarrassment apologize for this city, you know there is something going on. Not nice but the cold hard truth. I feel like they can do so much better!
Walking around the streets of Naples I always get the feeling: I want to escape!
Honestly, I have never met someone who loves Naples… But of course there are. Like I said: you hate it or you love it. Somehow these Naples lovers see the charm in of all of it; the rawness, the imperfections, the chaos, the special character, the flavors, the history and the culture. A place that ignores rules that the rest of the world adheres to? It takes time to get to know the city and try to appreciate? Are Naples lovers simply blindly in love? Perhaps it is like that grumpy old aunt you grew up with; no matter how ugly, noisy, recalcitrant or unfriendly she is, you are going to love her forever anyway, right?
Should you not be able to avoid visiting Naples, please read my other article What to do in Naples if you cannot avoid it? If you can still avoid, please continue to read why I suggest to do that.
NAPLES: THE BAD & THE UGLY
Now the above described grim sites lean on then past, current reality can look bad and ugly too…
Italian vs. Neapolitan
I am not sure to what extend you are familiar with Italy, its culture, politics, economics and such? Like the stereotype Italian, Neapolitans also tend to be loud, theatrical, passionate and proud. However, North and South Italy are culturally and economically divided and different. Neapolitans have their own culture, art, dialect, etc. “I am not Italian, I am Neapolitan! It’s another thing!” is a famous expression of Sofia Loren, who has a house in Naples.
The South of Italy is lagging behind compared to the wealthier North of Italy, showing more similarity with southern countries like Greece and Turkey than with Milano for example. Campania, where Naples is the regional capital of, has one of the highest unemployment rates in Italy. Young people pull away due to a lack of jobs and decent salary. Honest Neapolitans would admit they have serious problems.
Big city problems
With close to a million inhabitants, Naples clearly qualifies as a big city – with big city problems. Part of Naples’ problems are quite obvious, only a blind man will not notice upon arrival. The ugly graffiti, bad maintenance and piles of waste are simply hard to ignore. Vagrants begging for money and seeking shelter for the night, a problem in almost every big city. Wishful thinking Naples’ issues would end there. Some voluntarily organizations attempt to work on them, like removing graffiti tags. But to me, for Naples specifically, it feels a bit like trying to empty the ocean with a thimble, when the mentality stays the same.
Houses, buildings, streets, cars, steps, everything seems broken or at least damaged or neglected and in the urgent need of maintenance and repair. Balconies that look like they may break off any day. Walking underneath, a piece of brick dropped on my face, small but ouch!! Open electric sockets and messy wires. Walls, window frames and doors that have not seen any paint brush for decades. Tiles and plaster fallen off shops, houses and other type of buildings. Holes in the asphalt road so deep they may damage your car’s rims or break off a shock absorber. Even if you are poor, maintaining property means showing some decency, municipal or not. And these (photos below) are definitely not the worst examples.
Hordes of smoking people, people throwing things like chewing gum from their balcony while you walk underneath, kids throwing their ice cream papers on the floor. Scooter and car drivers who do not stop for pedestrians at a pedestrian crossing, scooters parked on the side walk making this city a nightmare for someone in a wheelchair. Yelling truck drivers, taxi drivers ripping off tourists asking twice as much for a taxi ride from the airport to the city. Taxi and scooter drivers who almost run you over in busy shopping streets and fill the streets with exhaust gasses. Neapolitans are known to wear their hearts on their sleeves; don’t be surprised if shouted or called names at, especially in traffic.
Rarely any “prego” (please) in restaurants and bars when serving customers, aggressive and impolite waiters. Waiters literally throwing your plate in front of you on the table. Not rarely, almost everywhere. Starting to swear in Italian if you refuse a standard served pasta dish in a group dinner because you eat gluten free. Well-behaved people with proper manners seemed hard to find in Naples. Possibly a big city thing in general, yet for sure different from many other places I have visited in Italy. Such a letdown. Friendliness and a smile does not cost a dime people.
Be aware of uncivilized driving behavior by scooters and taxis in the narrow, poorly maintained and crowded streets of the city center. This may remind some of cities like Addis Abeba or New Delhi.
Graffiti in Naples
I love street art and there is definitely good street art in Naples to be found. Nevertheless, most of the graffiti on walls, doors, statues, etc. are just stupid tags no one can even read or will like, it is simply ugly as hell. Beautiful old doors are disrespectfully scribbled. It is everywhere, all over the place. The inhabitants seem to have lost courage to do something about it, get it cleaned off or repaint. Such a waste. Smart decision to put the Banksy Angel behind glass yet sad it is necessary.
To some, Naples may be like Mick Jagger; so ugly and raw it becomes pretty again, in a certain way.
Naples definitely has a serious waste problem, up to the level where EU threatened to fine. The streets are full of papers and plastics on the ground. I lost counting how many times I saw huge piles of waste material on the street, not rarely right next to garbage containers, almost everywhere. It is grose and disgusting! In this city small garbage bins are hard to find, which could possibly help keeping things a bit more cleanly? The smell of rotting garbage in summer is repulsing. Is this in Europe?!
Over the last decades, Naples has dealt with several waste crisis; city waste that piles up, the municipal waste service cannot cope. Once a political party won the municipal election simply by promising to solve the waste problem. As a reaction, the local mafia dumped waste all over the city and shot at garbage trucks. According to the Italian environmental association Legambiente, hundreds of companies have dumped some 10 million tons of waste, including radioactive waste, in the region over a 20+ years’ period of time, a humanitarian drama. As a result of the illegal waste dumping, mortality rates and diseases rose.
Criminality in Naples
As mentioned in the previous paragraph already, the mafia causes problems in Naples and its surroundings. Comorra is the Neapolitan mafia, a big secret criminal organization active in drugs, weapons, extortion, dumping waste, etc. As an average tourist you will probably not see much of, but mafia wars are definitely reality in Naples, sometimes also affecting normal civilians and children. Sometimes it just happens on the street in bright daylight, as you can see in this YouTube video.
A few years ago, British news tabloid The Sun ranked Naples as one of the 10 most dangerous cities in the world, which I think is non-sense. There are definitely worse on the planet. According to this recent article by the Independent with the top 17 most dangerous cities in Europe, Rome and Milan are more dangerous than Naples. In the Numbeao Crime Index 2019 Naples ranks as #89 in the top 100 of most criminal cities around the world, so not something to be too shocked or scared about. For example Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro and Chicago rank much higher. So yes, there is criminality, corruption, drugs, etc. but not worse than or equal to many other big cities.
Safety in Naples
Every time I visited Naples I had some company with me; a female friend, a male colleague, etc. which helped to feel safe. We saw municipality police on the streets. African street sellers running away from their blanket with fake leather bags to avoid a big fine for illegal street-selling.
Be extra aware or avoid the extra poor, dodgy areas in Naples, for example Scampia, the Naples neighborhood famed for its vast drugs market. Avoid dark alleys and wandering the streets alone after sunset, common sense in any big city. Be alert for pickpockets / robberies. Especially in the tourist high season, many people fall victim to this. Pay extra attention to this in public transport, at airports and at popular attractions.
In any big city, so not only Naples specifically, take the following precautions for your safety:
- Carry money, credit cards and other valuable documents unobtrusively on your body. For example in a hip bag (money belt) or bra belt. For some suggestions see my earlier article about travel stuff. Keep the larger bills separate from the smaller ones and pay for your purchases with the small bills, or with your debit or credit card if possible.
- Pay attention to your belongings. Wear a cross-over bag and preferably wear a bag that is theft-proof. Do not wear flashy, expensive jewelry. Leave at home what you don’t really need. Like every big city, pickpockets are very active.
- Keep your passport, airline ticket and money that you do not need immediately in a safe place. For example in the hotel safe.
- Always report criminality to the local police authorities.
- Do not offer resistance in the event of a robbery or robbery. If you fall victim to this, better hand over your belongings, unless you are a Krav Maga champion of some sort? Resistance often leads to (more) violence.
- Walk around with confidence, chest and nose forward, try to avoid too look too much like a tourist, take self-defense classes at home if you feel too afraid, paranoid or shy.
- Never buy anything from a street vendor, often it is fake and illegal. And try not to show the content of your wallet if you have to pay anything.
San Lorenzo Maggiore is a safe place to visit in Naples
Italy has three active volcanoes: the Etna, Vesuvius and Stromboli. On 3 July 2019, the Stromboli volcano erupted, killing one person and injuring a few. Stay alert of your environment, follow the news and the weather and make sure you have the right condition and gear to hike up a volcano. The last time Vesuvius became active was in 1944. Always take your health and travel insurance papers with you.
Like elsewhere in Italy, posters to announce someone’s death and funeral hang on every wall.
Did you visit Naples yet? If so, what do you think about it, did you like it? Not everyone loves every city or place, and that goes for me too. Paris is a city I do not like either while others love it. I really tried to like Naples, visited muliple times and stayed a whole week the last time but it did not get any better.
Should you not be able to avoid visiting Naples any more, decided to go anyway, or your boss makes you do so, please check out my other article What to do in Naples if you cannot avoid it?
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With a special thanks to Melissa and Martijn for taking some of these photos of me!