Naples has a bit of a reputation as a dangerous and dirty city, due to its mafia history. And although the mafia is still around and there are certainly parts of Naples I wouldn’t walk home alone at night, it’s so much better than it used to be. These days, Naples is a beautiful city with just the right amount of grit and edge to be fun.
Unlike big tourist destinations like Venice and Florence, Naples has not fallen prey to gentrification. Even in summer, the city is filled with Italians going about their life, not paying much mind to the tourists. People chatting on the street, leaning on their scooters, yelling out of windows and lounging in the sun: Naples is the perfect place to observe the authentic Italian lifestyle.
Beside this Italian cultural authenticity, Naples is also home to impressive historical artifacts, from Roman times to the Renaissance and Baroque, you can find details from days gone by everywhere in the city. I absolutely loved Naples and if you like to see what Italy is really like without the shine of polished up tourist places, you will too.
Here are some of the things you have to do when visiting Naples:
1. Visit Pompei
About 45 minutes by train from the centre of Naples lies the archeological site of Pompeii. Pompeii is one of the most famous Roman cities, due to its tragic history. In 79 A.D. the volcano Vesuvius erupted, covering the city of Pompeii in ashes. As time went by, people forgot about the existence of the city, until it was discovered by accident in 1594. When excavations began they realised that the volcanic ash had perfectly preserved Pompeii. The discovery of Pompeii has brought a wealth of knowledge about Roman life and visiting the site is an awe-inspiring experience.
To visit Pompeii, take the Circumvesuviana train from Napoli Centrale (it will be packed!) to Scavi. From there, it’s a 10 minute walk to the entrance. If you want to do a guided tour, book one at the train station where they are only 12 euro per person. Alternatively, book a tour with a guide from the visitor centre for 20 euro or get the audio tour for 8 euro. Tickets to Pompeii itself are 15 euro or 8 if you are an EU citizen younger than 25. This ticket grants you access to the whole of Pompeii. In summer, make sure you get there early to avoid the heat and the biggest crowds.
Now, here’s why Pompeii is so amazing: it is huge! I thought it would be a collection of ruins, but no, it is a whole city. You can walk along the streets (get a map at the visitor centre) and go into houses and mansions. You can see artifacts and fresco’s perfectly preserved and it is easy to imagine what life looked like here. Unique to Pompeii are the casts of people who died during the eruption. During the excavations, the archeologists found that while the bodies themselves had completely decayed, the ash had hardened around them, acting as a mold. There are two locations where you can see these casts, with information about who they were. I found it extremely jarring to see them and had to look away to keep myself from crying.
Although everything is absolutely beautiful, after 2,5 hours of walking around I was starting to get tired and numb to all of it. I recommend doing a guided tour (2 hours) to really know what you’re seeing as information around Pompeii is scarce.
Bonus tip: at the welcome centre you can watch a short video on Pompeii that shows what it would have looked like and what certain buildings were used for, highly informative!
2. St Elmo
Naples has been built in a bay and onto slopes. For the best view over the city and the harbour, head up to St. Elmo Castle. You can take the stairs, but I would recommend the funicular. It runs from Via Toledo up to Piazza Cimarosa. Stepping out of the train, it feels like you’re in a completely different city. Up here, you are far from the noise and bustle of Naples and surrounded by a quaint and quiet neighborhood. Explore a bit and then follow the signs to St. Elmo. The best view is from the top of the castle, but if you don’t feel like paying entry, you can also stay in the little piazza next to the castle. The views are gorgeous and from here you can take the stairs down, which is a lot easier than going up.
3. Walk around
Naples is a big city and the traffic is crazy. The further south you go in Italy, the more aggressive the drivers. Navigation can also be tricky with a lot of winding, narrow streets and stairs. But it pays to walk around as there is so much to see. The best way to explore the city is to a free walking tour. You can do one of Old Town or of the Harbour (or, of course, both). This will give you the background information you need to truly appreciate all the cool little details of Naples.
4. Go to the beach
Although Naples is a seaside town, there is not really a beach, only a harbour. In summer, you can find some locals hanging out on a few tiny patches of beach, but I wouldn’t recommend going for a swim.
Instead, head out of the city to the Amalfi coast. This means taking a metro, bus, train or driving. Getting to the Amalfi coast from Naples by public transport will take at least 2,5-3 hours. So it’s better to visit it overnight. Alternatively, take a boat to Ischia or Capri island. Note that all of these places are touristic and expensive.
For a cheaper option, Gaiola, Miseno or Lo Scoglione.
In between sightseeing you can do my favourite thing to do in Naples: eat. The most obvious choice is pizza, as Naples is the birthplace of the delicious pies. Try the classic Margherita as well as a pizza fritta (fried pizza). Desert lovers will appreciate the rum soaked Baba from any pasticceria and the buffalo milk ice cream from Il Gelato Manella. You can also get lemon granita at street vendors all around Via Toledo.
Have you ever been to Naples? Or is it on your list? I hope this post will inspire you to visit this beautiful city.
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