As COVID vaccines become more widespread and businesses begin safely reopening, many of us are already planning our next vacations. I am waiting for the moment that I can hop on a plane back to Italy. While Rome, Florence, and Venice usually get all the fame and glory, Naples is an under-rated gem. The stereotypes when it comes to the Italian South are pervasive: dirty, backwards, unsafe (the Mafia!) Yet, after living there for nearly a year researching for my PhD dissertation, I can safely say that Naples is so much more than these misconceptions convey. In addition to its amazing sites and delicious food, my favorite thing about the city is its unpolished quality. Naples does not try to primp and clean to a present a sanitized, tourist-friendly version of itself the way that Venice does. Whenever I am in Naples, I feel like I am getting to experience what life is really like in the Italian South: beautiful, difficult, wild, and vibrant. And this is a life worth seeing, if only for a few days.
Where to stay in Naples and How to Get Around
Naples is an expansive city on a hill with a variety of neighborhoods. When it comes to choosing a place to stay, follow the general rule of the higher up the hill, the nicer the area. The Spanish Quarter and the area around the central train station feel seedier and more industrial, while the areas Chiaia, Vomero, and Arnella feel more residential and relaxed. Finding an Airbnb in these areas is easy and affordable. With the availability of apartments of various sizes for rent, in general, hotels in Naples aren’t worth your time or money.
Don’t worry about staying out of the historic center. With a series of funiculars (or trams) and metro lines, getting around Naples is easy, quick, and cheap. You can buy one-day, three-day, or one-week passes that work for all public transport in the city. The expiration countdown on the passes starts once you use and validate it for the first time, so hold onto it for the rest of your stay. Like all cities in Italy, keep an eye on your belongings on buses and the metro. I’ve never been robbed, but petty theft can happen.
Sights to See
The Archaeological Museum in Naples might be one of the top five favorite museums I’ve ever been to. If you don’t have the time to visit Pompeii, this museum is your next best bet. It holds a huge collection of the materials found in Pompeii and Herculaneum, especially some of the more fragile objects. It also houses the Farnese Collection, an impressive group of ancient statues from the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. A pro-tip for this museum and any others you visit in Italy: Rick Steves, the famous travel author, has an app, Rick Steves Audio Europe, which contains a series of audio guides for certain museums. I downloaded his guide about the Archaeological Museum, and then listened to it while strolling through the site (without using any precious international data). The guides are informative, free, and fun. Save the euros you’d spend on museum audio guides and use them for gelato instead!
Even as a historian of religion, there are only so many old churches I can see in Italy without them all blending together. However, the Duomo in Naples is one church that will always stand out. The city is famous for the miracle of its patron saint, San Gennaro. Three times a year, the saint’s solid, crusted blood is brought into public view in the Duomo, where it is supposed to liquefy. The liquefication is seen as a powerful omen for the city; if it remains solid, bad things may occur in Naples in the following months. Every day of the year visitors can see the treasure of San Gennaro, a massive display of beautiful and precious relics and objects. Every time I visit the Duomo, it refreshes my perspective on the influence of Catholicism on Neapolitan culture. It shows the visitor just how important and world-defining Catholicism was, and continues to be, in the city. For religiously and non-religiously minded tourists alike, the Duomo helps them get at the heart of what makes Naples what it is.
Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano
While Naples has a variety of terrific art museums, this small gallery — housed in a former palace — is a must see, especially if you are a fan of baroque art. It holds the famed Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, a powerful painting by Caravaggio. The piece depicts the legend of Ursula, who is killed after refusing to marry the king of the Huns in order to protect her virtue. The dramatic work is worth at least a few minutes of quiet viewing and consideration; it displays an emotionality that arrests the viewer’s attention.
Museo di Capodimonte
For a larger, more diverse collection of works, the Capodimonte Museum is a terrific way to spend an afternoon. The museum is a bit out of the way of the city center and tricky to get to, but doable by bus. This institution houses works by the Italian Dream Team: Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, Masaccio, Simone Martini, and Bellini. I found myself wandering through the museum for hours; leave yourself plenty of time to be immersed by the vast collections at the Capodimonte.
Good, Cheap Eats
Naples is probably most famous for, and is most proud of itself for, one thing: pizza. The Neapolitan style is simple: a crust fired at a very high temperature, a simple, uncooked tomato sauce, a light amount of mozzarella di Bufala Campana cheese, and a bit of basil and olive oil. Good Neapolitan pizza should be light and fresh, with a crispy, chewy crust. Various places around the city will all claim that they have “the best,” pizza. While in Naples, I embarked on a not so scientific study; I went to every famous pizzeria and then tried and rated their Margherita pizza.
The best, bar none, is Antica Pizzeria di Michele. It serves only two kinds: one with cheese and one without. I had never truly understood Julia Robert’s line in Eat, Pray, Love (“I’m having a relationship with my pizza”) until I came here. It is simple, cheap, delicious, and awe-inspiring. The line grows quickly here, so be sure to arrive at least fifteen minutes before it opens for lunch at 11.
As a student, my budget sadly did not allow for fancy meals very often in Naples. The best friend of budget-conscious travelers in Naples (and all of Italy for that matter) is the supermercato. Reliable grocery store chains like Coop and Carrefour carry everything you need for a delicious on-the-go lunch: prosciutto, cheese, freshly-baked bread, and fruit. Buying the ingredients separately and making the sandwich yourself is an equally delicious alternative to buying a sandwich from a café that comes at half the price.
This delicious specialty of Campania consists of a crispy, buttery shell-shaped pastry filled with a rich cream with the flavor of your choice. Common fillings include almond paste and citrus flavored ricotta. My favorite spot for this must-try desert is Pintauro on Via Toledo. Close to two major metro stops (Toledo, Municipio), this small bakery is easy to get to and great at what it does. Come to this place early in your trip, because you’ll want to return.
These are just a few of the many wonderful experiences available in Naples. If you want to spend time in a culturally rich, vibrant city full of energy and life, Naples should definitely be a stop on your next trip in Italy. Benvenuti al Sud! (Welcome to the South!)