Essential tips on what to see and do in the seductively archaic city of Naples, as well as a few pointers on where to go once you feel the urge to escape.
From advice on the best day trips to Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii to advice on exploring the lemon-scented Amalfi Coast and underwater city of Baia, this is how to do Napoli like a true Napolitano.
Understand / Mentally Prepare Yourself
The capital of the Campania region in southern Italy, Naples is not simply a destination. No, Naples is a state of mind. It’s an attitude, a way of living.
It’s raw and unfiltered, a real bruiser of a city that makes Rome look stiff and boring.
Dolled up lovers sting their way through the choked traffic on battered old scooters, smoking cigarettes and texting their friends all the while.
Families mount their mopeds to traverse their way from school to Nonna’s house. Not a helmet in sight. Everyone for themselves. A ballet of bravado.
“Is not Italy, eh, is Napoli. Is different.” ~ Matteo, my Roman travel companion.
A visit to Naples is no holiday. Instead, it’s an antidote to the monotony of modern life. A way to reset your nervous system.
But somehow, despite the chaos, this modern day ‘Wild West’ is still one of the most alluring cities in Europe. It is precisely that punch in the gut we all crave from a cultural crusade in Italy.
Here’s how to survive it.
1. Immerse Yourself in Naples’ Ancient Centro Storico (Old Town)
Founded by the Greeks in the second millennium BC, Naples is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth.
This becomes increasingly apparent as you wander the ancient alleyways, basilicas, catacombs and underground caves of the Centro Storico (historic old town), which is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Start your exploration in the Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish Quarter), which despite its name is the most Neapolitan districts in all of Napoli.
Here you may notice the locals speaking a unique dialect that even Italians from other parts of the country can’t understand. I say speaking, but it’s more likely you’ll hear them yelling it into a phone while smoking a cigarette and spanking a child balanced on the handlebars of their Vespa.
Tip: I didn’t have time myself but I would have liked to have done this bike tour of Naples. There’s a lot to see and you’ll be able to see more of it on two wheels (and with the help of a local guide).
The Quartieri Spagnoli is also where you’ll find the longest and mosts famous street in Naples. The Spaccanapoli (literally ‘Naples splitter’) carves through the heart of the Centro Storico from the Quartieri Spagnoli to Forcella and divides the city in two.
If you want to make sure you don’t miss anything then you might want to consider joining this walking tour, which explores the famous Cappella San Severo where the Veiled Christ is housed.
This whole area offers a fantastic insight into local life, with a seemingly endless selection of caffès, pastry shops and pizzerias, the omnipresent buzz of scooters.
I’d also highly recommend taking this food tour if you’re interested in exploring the local delicacies, of which there are many.
Join the locals for an espresso and ‘sfogliatella’, the city’s famous crispy puff pastry filled sweet ricotta, and watch the chaos unfold.
You have arrived.
2. Thank God it’s Christmas on Via San Gregorio Armeno (AKA ‘Christmas Alley’)
Splintering off Spaccanapoli, Via San Gregorio Armeno is one of the most famous streets in Naples.
Better known as ‘Christmas Alley’, this narrow passageway is where you’ll find Naples’ famous ‘presepe’ (nativity scene) stalls and workshops.
This two-century tradition came about when the city’s rich and famous started showing off their wealth by decorating their homes with elaborate hand-crafted nativity scenes for Christmas.
As time passed, the artisans began diversifying and crafting satirical figurines of politicians and characters from everyday Neapolitan life.
If you’re looking for a souvenir from your time in Naples, look no further.
3. Eat, Prey and Love a Proper Neapolitan Pizza
The moment you’ve been waiting for…
The origins of Naples’ famously thin-crusted pizza pies dates back to the late 18th century when it’s said the dish was invented for Queen Margherita of Savoy at Pizzeria Brandi, which I can highly recommend.
Apparently the red of the tomatoes, the green of the basil and white of the cheese were combined to resemble the Italian flag. The fact that this is arguably the greatest flavour combination of all time was, in a sense, a happy accident.
Did you know: For a Neapolitan pizza to be a Neapolitan pizza, it has to be made with San Marzano tomatoes from the volcanic plains of Mount Vesuvius. And the cheese must Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, but you already knew that.
The Best Pizza in Naples
As you might imagine, you rarely have to take more than a few footsteps to find your nearest pizzeria in Naples. And, this being the very birthplace of pizza, you’ll struggle to find a bad one.
However, if you ask the locals where to find the best pizza in Naples, you’ll almost certainly be pointed in the direction of Da Michele. If it seems familiar, it’s because you might recognise it from that scene in Eat, Pray, Love when the gorgeous Julia Roberts falls in love with pizza and her new life in Italy.
Opened in 1870, this unassuming pizza parlour serves only two varieties: their classic Margherita pizza with tomato, basil and mozzarella, and the Marinara with tomatoes, garlic and oregano.
Order a whole pizza for yourself and a bottle of Nastro Azzurro beer scoff it down with.
This, for me at least, is the epitome of ‘la dolce vita’.
Essential tip: Due to the fact that this is the most famous pizzeria in Naples, and the prices are kept commendably low (€10-15 per person), there is rarely a moment when there isn’t a queue down the street to get into Da Michele. You can’t book a table and you’ll likely have to wait at least 20 or 30 minutes, but it’s worth it.
Also note that you might be sat on a table with others. This is a good thing – we had the pleasure of dining with a local father and son who told us they dine at Da Michele once a week. “The best pizza in Napoli!”
4. Dig into Dinner and Naples’ Gritty Nightlife
As night falls in Naples, the graffitied piazzas fill with the sound of clinking Peroni bottles, with the scent of too much cologne and youthful ambition.
Fresh tattoos on olive skin. Bible-black locks turned silver under veils of smoke. The aching hope of romance. That Neapolitan hubris.
The service is rough and ready and diners sit, quite literally, under a canopy in the street, but the food is as authentic as it gets.
Order the classic ‘antipasto, primo, secondo’ set menu (prosciutto and mozzarella, pasta of the day, meat or fish), which is an absolute bargain at €10, or go for the €15 menu which includes all-you-can-drink house wine.
Once the staff have packed away the tables and chairs, and the restaurant has been transformed back into a street, it’s time to follow the crowds along Vico Lungo Teatro Nuovo for a long and sticky night of birra and gelato.
5. Climb Mount Vesuvius (Yes, the Volcano!)
Located just a 40-minute drive away from Naples, Mount Vesuvius is one of the most famous active volcanoes on Earth. But don’t worry, it hasn’t erupted since 1944 and scientists more or less agree that it has reached the end of its eruptive cycle.
It’s not a difficult hike to the top, although I did nearly melt as there was no shade whatsoever. Once you reach the top, which is some 1,200 m above sea level, you can peer into the crater and soak in the spectacular panoramic vistas over the Bay of Naples, as well as the Amalfi Coast and the surprisingly leafy Vesuvius National Park.
Top tip: There’s a little cafe/gift shop/shed at the top where you can buy a sandwich and a drink, but I would highly recommend taking your own food and water as they have quite the racket going on here. Even the porta potties are a €1 a pop.
Get there: This excellent full-day tour will pick you up from your doorstep in Naples and take you to both Vesuvius and Pompeii for the day, with guided visits included.
Vesuvius and Pompeii are only 30-minutes apart so it makes sense to do them both in the same day. I would definitely encourage you to do this rather than rent a car and drive yourself (more on this below).
Driving yourself? If you’re driving yourself there (God speed), you must first drive up the winding road that takes you up the first 1,000 m of the volcano. Here you have to park your car and jump in the shuttle bus (€2) up to the ticket office (you can also walk but I wouldn’t recommend it). To use the footpath to hike 200 m up to the peak of the volcano you need to buy a ticket for €10.
5. Travel Back in Time at Pompeii
Located 30-minutes out of Naples (by road), Pompeii was an ancient Roman city that was infamously buried under a cloud of molten ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, killing some 2,000 people.
Historians carrying out the excavations made a series of heart wrenchingly bleak discoveries when they poured liquid plaster into the voids of ash to find out what was inside.
The resulting casts depict the terrifying last moments of the people and animals who met their lava-layered fate.
Today you can trace the ancient Roman streets and temples, and enter the shops, houses and amphitheatres (oh, and there’s even a brothel).
Get there: This excellent full-day tour will pick you up from your doorstep in Naples and take you to both Vesuvius and Pompeii for the day, with guided visits included. Vesuvius and Pompeii are only 30-minutes apart so it makes sense to do them both in the same day. Again, I would definitely encourage you to do this rather than rent a car and drive yourself (more on this below).
6. Swim Down to the Underwater City of Baia
This was one of the biggest highlights of my time in Campania.
The 2,000-year-old city of Baia was built as a sort of wellness resort for the rich and royal, but it soon became something resembling the sin city of Las Vegas.
What happens in Baia stays in Baia.
It was built over volcanic vents that fuelled its healing hot springs. But the vents also caused the city to sink slowly but surely beneath the waters and the remains now sit some 10 m beneath the surface (although apparently this is in constant flux).
Whether you’re a pro scuba diver or first-time snorkeller, it’s possible to swim down to the city to see the remains of the luxury villas and spas, as well as the eerily beautiful statues and mosaic floors.
Make it happen: The team at Centro Sub Campi Flegrei dive school are fantastic – genuinely enthusiastic and knowledge about what they do. As far as I understand, they have had a lot to do with the research and preservation of the site, so they’re the best people to take you there and tell you all about it.
7. Live La Dolce Vita on the Lemon-Scented Amalfi Coast
Located just an hour and a half away from Naples, ‘La Costiera Amalfitana’ is quite possibly the most beautiful place I have ever visited.
It’s the epitome of ‘la dolce vita’ and I honestly can’t think of anywhere more glamorous or romantic.
Tip: The Amalfi Coast is within day-tripping distance from Naples but I would highly recommend staying here for a couple of nights if you can. Sorrento is the main town, although Positano is the one that adorns most of the local postcards. I have also stayed in Praiano, which is basically just a cluster of little houses and old bars where the locals hangout on their days off (most of them work in the bigger tourist towns like Positano, Ravello and Amalfi.
Short on time? If you only have a day to see as much of the Amalfi Coast then check out this fantastic full-day tour from Naples, which stops at Positano, Ravello and Amalfi – lunch and guide included.
Hop on a Vespa and do your best Hepburn impersonation as you zip from Sorrento to Salerno, or put the roof down on your Alpha Romeo and cut a dash like Cary Grant or Grace Kelly as you skirt from Amalfi to Ravello.
But whatever you do, and whoever you want to be, don’t miss the cascading, pastel-hued paradise (no exaggeration) of Positano.
Follow the narrow steps down towards the sun-bleached church of Santa Maria Assunta to the waterfront restaurants for giant bowls of ‘scialatielli ai frutti di mare’ (the local take on seafood linguine) and see it away with a few bottles of prosecco and a couple of galvanising shots of limoncello (Amalfi’s famous lemon liquor).
If you have time, definitely take a boat trip out to the Isle of Capri to kick back with a dessert of cappuccinos, sorbet and whatever else your capricious little heart so desires.
Getting to the Amalfi Coast from Naples: Either take a day-trip tour from Naples or take the bus to Sorrento and rent a car/Vespa. Driving the Amalfi Coast itself is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of experience. The over-confident bus drivers and hairpin corners mean you have to pay attention, but it’s by no means the cauldron of chaos that Naples is. You can also get a shared minibus transfer directly from the airport to the Amalfi Coast at a reasonable price.
Make it Happen
Getting to Naples
Naples International is the main airport for the region and is located about 15-minutes out of the city. Matteo, my colleague from Rome, told me to be careful when taking a taxi to and from the airport as the drivers sometimes charge “tourist prices”.
I insisted agreeing on a fee (€25) before beginning the journey, which my snappy taxi drivers didn’t seem to appreciate too much. You can also book a private transfer in advance for about €10 more.
Where to Stay in Naples
I stayed at the fantastic Fontanina Suites, a modern and comfortable option within easy walking distance of Naples’ Centro Storico (great breakfast too) – ideal for couples.
The 3-star Hotel Piazza Bellini is housed in a 16th century house right in the historic centre – ideal if you’re looking for somewhere with a bit of local character.
The 4-star Neapolitan Trips Hotel Royale is located right in the heart of Naples and offers good value for money. The rooftop terrace is pretty impressive too.
The 5-star Grand Hotel Vesuvio is an impressive property located right on the waterfront, with views out over the Isle of Capri and Mount Vesuvius.
How to Get around Naples and the Region of Campania
My biggest tip of all: don’t drive in Naples unless you absolutely have to.
Driving in and around Naples was one of the most stressful things I have ever experienced in my life, and I was only a passenger. Thankfully my colleague Matteo, who was born and bred in Rome, did all the driving on our trip, but even he nearly crumbled.
As well as the chaos and apparent lack of rules on the road, parking in Naples is extortionate – we were paying €25 (per day!) to park our rental car. Annoyingly, we had to be there by 10pm before they locked up for the night.
With this in mind, I would highly recommend joining the various tours I have mentioned above (or any others you like the sound of). They might appear to be a little more expensive at first, but they’ll likely save money (and a whole lot of stress) in the long run.
Please note: I flew to Naples with Ryanair to help my friend Matteo shoot the destination promo video (see my cameo appearances below). All opinions and recommendations in the post are however my own.
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