A hive of activity, an extravaganza of colour – Naples is a living museum, an alluring city like nowhere else on Earth.
Established by the Greeks in the second millennium BC, Naples is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. Today, its Centro Storico (historic old town) is the largest in Europe and the labyrinth of alleyways, basilicas, catacombs and underground caves are collectively listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
For instant immersion, head for the Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish Quarter), which, belying its name, is one of the most authentically Neapolitan areas of the city.
Traversing the Centro Storico from the Quartieri Spagnoli to Forcella, dividing the city in two, Spaccanapoli (literally ‘Naples splitter’) is the longest and most famous street. Lined with traditional caffès, bars, pastry shops and pizzerias, it hums day and night with the sounds of local life and the incessant buzz of scooters (often weighed down with three or even four people at a time).
Stop for coffee and ‘sfogliatella’, the local’s signature crispy puff pastry filled sweet ricotta, and soak in the theatre of the street.
Jutting off Spaccanapoli, Via San Gregorio Armeno is one of Naples’ most charming little passageways. Affectionately known as ‘Christmas Alley’, it’s the home of the city’s famous Neapolitan ‘presepe’ (nativity) workshops, where you can see artisans hand-crafting their intricate nativity scenes from terracotta and wood.
The tradition dates back almost two centuries, when it became fashionable for the rich and royal to decorate their homes for Christmas. Today however, you’ll find all sorts of colourful figurines coming to life all year-round, depicting the characters and spirit of modern Neapolitan life.
Naples’ pizzaioli have been perfecting their signature thin-crust pies since the late 18th century, when it’s thought the dish was invented for Queen Margherita of Savoy. The red tomatoes, green basil and white cheese was intended to represent the Italian flag.
Proper Neapolitan pizza must be made with San Marzano tomatoes, which grow in the volcanic soils south of Mount Vesuvius, and local Mozzarella di Bufala Campana.
You really don’t need to go far find the nearest pizzeria in Naples, but for a taste of the very best, simply head Da Michele. Dating back to 1870, this unassuming pizza parlour only serves two types of pizza: the Margherita with tomato, basil and mozzarella, and the Marinara with tomatoes, garlic and oregano – cooked to perfection in less than 60 seconds in a huge wood-fired oven. Order a whole one (these are way too good to share) with a bottle of Nastro Azzurro beer and prepare to go to heaven.
One of the world’s most famous volcanoes, Mount Vesuvius last erupted in 1944 and is still technically active, though it’s widely thought to have reached the end of its eruptive cycle.
Standing over 1,200 m above sea level, the moon-like peak offers spectacular views over the Bay of Naples, the Amalfi Coast and the Vesuvius National Park, which occupies a surprisingly verdant belt of the volcano’s base.
A road allows you to drive up to 1,000 m, where you can park your car and ride a shuttle bus (€2) up to the ticket office. Tickets to reach the peak of the volcano (on foot) are €10. The hike is roughly 200 m, and suitable for almost all levels of hikers (though you’ll want sun cream and lots of water in the warmer months and a light rain jacket in the cooler months). A number of shacks stock food, drinks and souvenirs along the way – the final destination even offers local ‘volcanic wine’ so you can celebrate reaching the summit.
More info here / Entry €10
The ancient Roman city of Pompeii was buried under an avalanche of molten rock and ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in In A.D. 79, killing some 2,000 people.
During excavations, liquid plaster was poured into the voids of ash that once cradled human and animal bodies, capturing haunting scenes of their last moments.
The city itself is impressively preserved. Visitors can now stroll the Roman streets, ancient temples, houses, shops, amphitheatres, and even a brothel – Mount Vesuvius looming malevolently in the distance all the while.
More info here / Entry €15
Built over volcanic vents, the 2,000-year-old city of Baia was famous for its healing hot springs. It was infamous for being a playground for the richest and most powerful Romans – often described as the Las Vegas of the Roman Empire.
As fate would have it, however, the volcanic vents that attracted so many here in the first place would eventually lead to its demise. Seismic activity meant the city had to be abandoned, and it slowly sank beneath sea level.
Today the ancient remains rest some 10 metres beneath the surface, where snorkellers and scuba divers can trace the ancient streets and remnants of ornate spas and villas, where elegant statues and mosaic floors rest in spectacularly-pristine condition.
Whether you’re a newbie snorkeller or a veteran scuba diver, the friendly experts at the Centro Sub Campi Flegrei dive school will whizz you out to the ruins and get you up close and personal with this hauntingly spectacular archeological site.
Just one-and-a-half-hours away from Naples lies a completely different world, a tranquil, lemon-scented coast where colourful cliffside villages tumble into the deep blue sea. The epitome of ‘la dolce vita’, there is nowhere more glamorous or more romantic than the 50-kilometre, cliff-snaking stretch of coast that is ‘La Costiera Amalfitana’.
From Sorrento to Salerno, Amalfi to Ravello, these dashing little towns are all postcard-perfect, but whatever you do, don’t miss the cascading, pastel-hued paradise of Positano, which is the main protagonist of the heart-wrenching love story.
Follow the narrow steps down to the beach and park yourself at one of the waterfront restaurants for giant bowls of ‘scialatielli ai frutti di mare’ (the local take on seafood linguine) and bottles of prosecco.
Sip zesty limoncello (the ubiquitous liquor made with local lemons) on the beach and boat ride out to the hedonistic playground that is the Isle of Capri. Here you can while away a few hours with cappuccinos, sorbet and whatever else your capricious little heart so desires.
Naples is at its best as day becomes night, when the graffitied piazzas fill with the rumble of Peroni-sipping, ice-cream-licking, pizza-scoffing locals. Head to Piazza San Domenico Maggiore for Aperol spritzers, before sitting down for an al fresco feast at Trattoria Da Nennella. Here you can indulge in an authentic ‘antipasto, primo, secondo’ dining experience, with plates of prosciutto and mozzarella, steaming pasta of the day and meat or fish dishes that’ll have you saying ‘Mamma mia!’ in no time. An absolute bargain at €15 with wine, water and bread!
If you can still move after your feast, follow the crowds along streets like Vico Lungo Teatro Nuovo for a hot and sticky night of birra, gelato and that famous Italian bravado.
Where to Stay: Ben stayed in the elegant-but-affordable Fontanina Suites – a fantastic bed & breakfast option located right in the heart of Naples, with modern facilities, friendly staff and plenty of dining options nearby.
Rent a Car: Rent your car from Ryanair Car Hire to explore the best of Campania.
More Info: Find out more about things to do and see in Naples on the official Visit Naples tourism website.
Flights to Naples
- Ben Holbrook