Less film-set-perfect than its city-break rivals, but surrounded by big-hitting sights, Napoli has a peppy energy thanks to its always-on-the-move locals and perpetually fired-up pizza ovens, says Becki Enright
Synonymous with the birthplace of pizza and devotion to football legend Maradona, Naples has an (outdated) bad rap. This hangover from a history of grime and crime means people dismiss Italy’s third-largest city, favouring more picturesque towns along the southern Amalfi coast.
But Naples is hugely underrated – you’ll kick yourself for not visiting sooner. Because what those coast-dashing visitors skip over is a city whose historical inventory is a mix of grit and grandeur, easily retraced on its Unesco listed Greco-Roman streets, with the architecture and art of its Imperial city era, and a labyrinthine underground. This is real-life Italy, not putting on a show for tourists: the city’s districts brim with street life, street food and street art.
Find yourself in a maze of heady lanes and alleys, leading to the calm of hilltops and harbour bays of the wider area and immerse yourself in the unparalleled passion, pride and vibrant pace of the Neapolitan lifestyle. It won’t take long for you to see the city differently.
What to do
Street art, shrines and spritzes in Quartieri Spagnoli
Step off the old street of Via Toledo and into one of Naples’ most vibrant districts. The “Spanish Quarter” (named for its role in housing the Spanish military in the 16th century) is a densely packed, tight-knit neighbourhood that became a no-go area under former mob control. Naples’s clean-up over the past decade has put it on a path of creative revival. Step off the old street of Via Toledo and into one of Naples’ most vibrant districts – start at Via Emanuele de Deo and work your way up the long, sloped lane. You’ll accidentally peer into fabulous open houses as you follow a self-guided street art trail to the city’s Maradona Shrine. Then work your way through the dozen or so blocks on the grid streets on either side, dodge the mopeds and follow the booming Latin American beats to dive bars serving the strongest Aperol Spritz in the city.
Walk the historical laneways of the Centro Storico
Work your way through the historic centre’s labyrinth of narrow stone streets, tiny lanes, and converted alleys – you’ll see a conveyor belt of Roman ruins set against graffitied walls and the grand facades of buildings containing world-renowned art, including the marbled Veiled Christ at Museo Cappella Sansevero. Start at the western end at the fresco-filled Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo basilica before seeing the painted tiled complex of Complesso Monumentale di Santa Chiara; then walk along the oldest street, the Via San Biagio Dei Librai. It’s known as “Spaccanapoli” as it appears to split Naples in half when seen from above.
Watch sunset at Lungomare
Grab some street kiosk granita or a slice of pizza and go join the locals on the rocky seafront promenade along Via Partenope. Perch yourself on one of the jetties at Borgo Marinari for a sunset picnic, from where you’ll see the Castel dell’Ovo fortress glowing in the harbour lights after dark.
Day trip to Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius
The looming hump of Mount Vesuvius behind the Naples skyline reminds you how close Pompeii is. Take the 30-minute Circumvesuviana train south to the world-famous historical site, where archaeologists are still unearthing the Roman city submerged by volcanic ash by the devastating AD79 eruption. Arrive early and hire a guide on arrival to tour the best-preserved locations and newly discovered artefacts. If you start in Pompeii in the morning, you can squeeze in the short but steep trek up Mount Vesuvius in the afternoon for views over the Gulf of Naples before sunset. Pre-book your time slot ticket online and jump on the bus at the archaeological site that takes you on a winding drive up to the volcano entry gate.
Where to stay
The Art Nouveau Pinto-Storey Hotel is the pinnacle of chic Chiaia neighbourhood elegance. Rooms are decorated with dark wood furniture, wrought iron beds and tiled floors, keeping to the property’s 1878 period origins. From €78 (£66), room only. pintostorey.it/en
A tranquil side of Naples exists on the hillside of Vomero. Check into Weekend a Napoli – an Italian Liberty-style villa with a beautiful patio garden. The owners of this historic, family-run B&B are praised for their personal touch in showing you the very best of their city. From €117/£99, B&B. weekendanapoli.com
Want to be right in the city’s historical heart? Try The Church B&B – the Centro Storico is chock full of B&Bs, but this one has extra lashings of character. It’s found on the roof of San Gennaro all’Olmo church, with eco-minded wood and metal design trims and a rustic terrace. From €71/£60, room only. thechurch.it
Where to eat
Start sweet with a shell-shaped, flaky Sfogliatella pastry and an espresso. For a traditional setting, head to Gran Caffe Gambrinus off Plaza Plebiscito – a classic coffee house with wooden chairs, framed art and chandeliers, with views of the Royal Palace.
Support a tiny business by buying lunch from one of the street food vendors in the historic centre – most serve fried treats, such as a cuoppo (a cone of fried, bite-sized seafood and vegetables) from La Sicilia Di Serafino Napoli and arancini (stuffed and fried rice balls) from Di Matteo along the Spaccanapoli.
For a traditional-feeling dinner, Tandem Ragu serves up an authentic menu heavily featuring the tomato-based, meaty Neapolitan sauce – with tender chunks of meat rather than mince in a thick, stew-like liquid. Finish with the syrup-doused yeast cake Baba al Rum.
In this, the birthplace of pizza, there’s an extensive list of doughy treats to work through. One of the best Neapolitan-style creations is at L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele – immortalised by Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love and known for its margheritas and marinaras.
For a slice of history, head to Pizzeria Brandi (Salita S. Anna di Palazzo, 1/2), which invented the margherita in 1889 in honour of the Queen of Italy; or Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, the oldest pizzeria in Naples. Or switch up the thin crust for one of Naples’ famed fried pizzas – Sorbillo is the place to try it.
Where to drink
To blend in with the locals, stand and sip an espresso at the family-run Centrale del Caffe coffee bar. It’s been a fixture of the historical centre since the 1960s, roasting its own blends onsite. It’s also a great place to buy freshly ground beans – try the classic Neopolitan Espresso blend – as a gift or souvenir.
The Libreria Berisio in the Dante neighbourhood is a bookshop-meets-cafe by day that turns cocktail bar by night. Read or sip in its atmospheric floor-to-ceiling library before moving on to the nearby bar-lined square, Piazza Bellini.
With a focus on local brews, tap into Italy’s microbreweries and peruse a changing menu of local wines at OAK Napoli Wine and Craft Beer. It’s one of several youthful bars hidden on a side alley away not far from Via Toledo.
If you want an under-radar, hidden bar, you should head to the Chiaia district. In keeping with the antique store collection around the neighbourhood, the window display of L’Antiquario blends in. Behind its doors you’ll find an old-fashioned, speakeasy-style cocktail bar with velvet seats and sultry low lighting. It opens daily from 7.30pm-3am.
Where to shop
Designer brands, boutique clothing stores and Italian tailors like Ex Voto and Deliberti jostle with the likes of Gucci and Emporio Armani in the Chiaia neighbourhood. Start in Piazza dei Martiri, in the eastern cluster of polished streets above the Villa Comunale di Napoli park, and take any path outward from there.
Neapolitan craftsmen showcase their trade year-round on Via San Gregorio Armebo – aptly named “Christmas Alley”. Wander this 150-metre-long street of artisan workshops and craft stores to gawp at the full gamut of traditional nativity scenes and novelty figurines, including some where you can add your favourite footballers, politicians or music stars to the holy scene.
Artistic creation extends beyond architectural facades and museum collections in the cramped side streets of the historic centre. Criss-cross the laneways between the main arteries of Via Tribunali and Via San Biagio Dei Librai and you’ll find glass, pottery and ceramic stores, leather artisans and tailors. There’s even a Doll Hospital – a centuries-old repair workshop that’s become a bizarre cavern of doll parts (Via San Biagio Dei Librai, 39).
You don’t have to shop to admire the stunning 19th-century Galleria Umberto I shopping arcade with iron and glass-domed ceilings, marble-columned, vaulted galleries with mosaic floors. Hop off at the Municipio metro stop and find this magnificent structure opposite the Teatro San Carlo, Italy’s oldest opera house (Via San Carlo, 15).
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
What language do they speak?
Italian, though English is spoken widely.
Should I tip?
Tipping is appreciated for excellent service. Aim for 10 per cent.
What’s the time difference?
One hour ahead of GMT.
How should I get around?
Naples is a walkable city, but spread out and hilly. For longer cross-town journeys, the metro system and funicular are the easiest to navigate, rather than the buses and trams.
What’s the best view?
Get a sweeping panorama of the seafront and historic district, with a bonus backdrop of Mount Vesuvius, from the medieval ramparts of Castel Sant’Elmo on the Vomero hill. Entrance tickets are €5 (£4.30).
Walk 15 minutes north of the historical centre to the neighbourhood of Rione Sanita – a former no-go area transformed into a bustling neighbourhood with street markets and street art, wine bars and pizzerias, rejuvenated after tourists increasingly passed through it to visit the Catacombs of San Gennaro archaeological site.
Trying to fly less?
Like much of Italy, you can get to Naples entirely by train. Take the Eurostar to Paris’s Gare du Nord, before transferring to its Gare de Lyon. From here there’s a twice-daily train on to Milan, northern Italy, from where you can catch a train onwards to Napoli Centrale.
Fine with flying?
Airlines including British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair fly from UK airports direct to Naples.