“It’s bloody anarchy,” says Manuela, a Neapolitan for the past 20 years, as we sit drinking coffee outside a cafe close to Piazza Garibaldi, the chaotic heart of Naples. “Don’t come to Naples and think you’re going to find Milan,” she warns, as a horn blares and a Vespa, driven by a young man with a death wish, cuts in front of a lumbering lorry.
Home to nearly a million people, and a melting pot for nationalities from across the world, Naples is like no other city in Europe. Closer to Tunisia than to mainland France, there’s a whiff of Cairo amid its noisy, crowded streets, and a hint of Havana in the shabby chic of it’s crumbling architecture.
There are no half measures here — you’ll either love the gritty, sometimes edgy, urban landscape, and vow to return the moment you leave, or you’ll most probably hate it. The city has had a bad press over recent years, and while the much publicised waste management problems have ended (“They simply ran out of places to put it,” says Manuela), Naples’ streets are still a dumping ground. And that’s odd given the strong, southern Italian pride of its citizens, but also a two-fingered salute to visitors — “Hey, this is our city, and we’ll do what we like!”
Naples is a sprawling place as you’ll discover when you catch the bus or taxi from Capodichino airport, about four miles north of the centre. The drive takes you past tenements and high-rise blocks and derelict factories, but what great city doesn’t have a less salubrious side the guidebooks choose to ignore?
But give Naples a chance, and take the time to glance through an ornate but graffiti-covered doorway or edge down one of those dusty side streets, and you’ll discover a city of baroque churches, ancient castles and a mysterious subterranean underworld.
Naples is one of Europe’s oldest cities and a former staple of the Grand Tour. Chances are you’ll spend much of your stay within the confines of the city centre, with its historical quarter, boutique shopping along Via Chiaia and, of course, the famous bay. It’s also worth catching the funicular railway up to the Vomero district, on the hill overlooking the city, or the Circumvesuviana train service to visit Pompeii and the looming Mount Vesuvius.
Alongside a raucous nightlife, you’ll also find a growing modern art scene, and between April and July, Naples is staging the Forum Universale delle Culture 2013, a series of events including what’s been billed as the largest archaeological exhibition in the world. And all that before you’ve even sampled your first slice of pizza.
See & do
Centro storico: The tight, narrow streets of Naples’ historical centre buzz with mopeds and heated conversations, while the washing lines strung high up between the buildings are testament that the heart of this city is still very much alive and kicking.
Madre: The city’s temple to contemporary art hosts a mixture of permanent and temporary exhibitions by the great and the good, including Jeff Koons and Anish Kapoor. www.museomadre.it
Underground Naples: The city has a deep, dark underground history. It rests on a labyrinth of caves and tunnels — a legacy of its mining past — and there’s a clutch of suitably macabre catacombs, as well as Fontanelle Cemetery, a huge ossuary dug into the Capodimonte hillside. www.catacombedinapoli.it
Capodimonte: Carry on from the catacombs and you’ll stumble into the great green spaces and leafy avenues of Capodimonte. It’s a part of the city famed for its porcelain, with many pieces on display in the National Museum of Capodimonte, a true treasure trove of the decorative arts.
Castles: Despite its name, work began on Castel Nuovo in 1279, and it’s now home to the Museo Civico, as well as impressive frescoes and Renaissance sculptures. On the waterfront stands Castel dell’Ovo (‘Egg Castle’) — legend has it the castle was built on an egg, and should it break, Naples will fall. Climb to the top for some of the best views of the city and its famous bay.
Pompeii/Herculaneum: Opinion is divided as to which of these archaeological wonders takes top spot. Both succumbed to the fury of Vesuvius when it erupted in 79AD and for many, Pompeii takes the plaudits, perhaps because of its sheer size. However, the fact Herculaneum was engulfed in mud and lava, not ash, means many of the buildings and their contents have been better preserved. Take advantage of a combined ticket to see both, and if you’ve an appetite for more, many artefacts from both sites are now housed in the Archaeological Museum of Naples. www.pompeiisites.org
Vesuvius: Naples is dominated by the ominous silhouette of Vesuvius. It’s a steep climb to the crater but worth it to peer down into the only active volcano in continental Europe. It last blew its top in 1944, meaning another eruption is long overdue. There’s not much at the summit bar a few souvenir shops, but the slopes have been turned into a national park, with trails zigzagging through forests flourishing in the rich, volcanic soils.
As well as pizza, be sure to sample Naples’ other staple, baba — small rum-soaked cakes which go perfectly with coffee. And if you’ve never eaten proper buffalo mozzarella, now’s the time to try some.
£ Di Matteo: Simple, basic and loved by Neapolitans — recommendations don’t come much higher than that. Big on take-aways, but you can opt for a seat inside, too. T: 00 39 81 455 262.
££ La Bersagliera: Enjoy classic Neapolitan cuisine in a fantastic setting, as the restaurant’s history plays out in the form of hundreds of sepia photos all round the walls. Known for its seafood, the octopus salad and spaghetti with clams are among the signature dishes. www.labersagliera.it
£££ Rosiello: Beautiful terraced restaurant on the western edge of the bay, with its own vegetable garden, vines and fruit trees sloping down towards the sea. Its reputation has been built on freshness, and scialatielli con melanzane e provola (fresh pasta with local cheese and aubergine) brings a whole new life to this humble vegetable.
Some of the best small boutique hotels are clustered around the centro storico. There are also dozens around Piazza Garibaldi, although this is far from the most wholesome part of the city.
£ Parteno Bed and Breakfast: This stunning seven-room pension is full of character and epitomises the faded grandeur of Naples. Also an excellent base from which to explore the city. T: 00 39 81 245 2095.
££ Hotel San Francesco al Monte: A former monastery that looks down from the hills above the city. The shady garden and pool make this the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of the streets below. www.sanfrancescoalmonte.it
£££ Hotel Excelsior: You’ll pay a premium for a room with a view at this slice of old style elegance in the heart of Naples, but you won’t regret it as you enjoy a sundowner on your balcony overlooking the bay. www.excelsior.it
The Chiaia district, along with the centro storico, are where you’ll find most of the city’s finest bars. Clubs, on the other hand, come and go, often closing for the whole summer or suddenly reappearing in a completely different venue. It’s worth hunting down one of the free listings magazines such as Zero to find out exactly what’s going on. Local by-laws mean you may have to become a member of some clubs to get in.
Kinky Jam Bar: Fast becoming a Neapolitan institution and much beloved of the student crowd, this late night bar plays a mix of dub, roots reggae and ska, often very loudly. The bartender often doubles as a DJ. T: 00 39 81 335 547 7299.
S’move: This upmarket but relaxed venue is home to the city’s ‘in-crowd’. The eclectic music policy moves from house and techno to Latin sounds and beyond. T: 00 39 81 764 5813.
Bourbon Street Jazz And Spirits Bar: One of a trio of jazz clubs in the city — the others being the Otto Jazz Club and Around Midnight — this spacious venue hosts international and local performers. T: 00 39 81 328 068 72 21.
Both British Airways and EasyJet fly daily from Gatwick to Naples. EasyJet also offers daily flights from Stansted and Bristol, in addition to services from both Edinburgh and Liverpool. Thomson Airways flies direct from Birmingham, Bristol, East Midlands, Glasgow, Gatwick, Manchester and Newcastle. www.ba.com www.easyjet.com http://flights.thomson.co.uk
Average flight time: 2h45m.
Driving in Naples isn’t for the faint-hearted. Much better to walk or for longer distances, take the small metro system, which is currently being extended with new stations opening this year. Don’t miss Line 1 — ‘The Art Metro’ — where ticket machines jostle with eclectic works of art. www.metro.na.it
When to go
Either side of July and August is best, when you’ll avoid the stifling heat and the height of the Italian holiday season. December is also a good time to visit, as Naples does Christmas in style.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.16.
International dialling code: 00 39 81.
Time difference: GMT +1.
How to do it
A three-night break at the four-star Grand Hotel Santa Lucia with breakfast is from £214 per person, based on two people sharing. This includes return flights with EasyJet from Gatwick. www.expedia.co.uk
Published in April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)