In the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, Italy’s third largest city, ancient queen of the Mezzogiorno, the country’s south, is a glorious contradiction. The face of Napoli is luminous, yet sports plenty of wrinkles, scars, and squalour. History, good eating (hey, pizza was invented here), and high culture – right alongside the sinister machinations of the notorious Camorra, as the local mafia is known. Where the traffic is chaotic (even more than in Rome, some claim) and the locals live in the streets, with Madonnas gracing facades, laundry hung from building to building and the shouts of Neapolitan mammas echoing down the lanes.
The local colour provided by the colourful locals is supplemented in spades by the gorgeous monuments harboured in the streets of Naples, starting with notable churches such as the 16th-century Cappella Sansevero, with more than two dozen spectacular works of religious art such as the famous Veiled Christ; San Giorgio Maggiore, , dating in its current form from the 17th century; and Santa Chiara Basilica, including a 14th-century monastic complex. Then, too, there are grand palazzi, as well, such as the 14th-century Palazzo Filomarino, later remodeled in Baroque style, and the 18th-century Rococo Palazzo Riario Sforza, home to an aristocratic family that included a powerful archbishop and now a luxury boutique hotel).
A key part of the Naples experience is wandering the dim but beautiful lanes off Spaccanapoli (right), traversing the old quarter, bustling with ordinary folks going about their daily business. You’ll pass through plazas like Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, with a basilica and four palazzi, and Piazza Bellini, where you’ll find the remains of walls of ancient Greek Neapolis, the former Monastery of Sant’Antonio (now a university library), and and Intra Moenia, a charming little café with a literary bent. Meanwhile, masks, puppets, and crafts line the doorways of various artisans’ shops (and if you’re looking for more stuff to buy, a great Naples shopping destination is Via Toledo, right alongside the somewhat seedy Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish Quarters), where you’ll want to have a care with the steep slopes and sticky-fingered pickpockets).
If you’re a museums maven, Naples will impress – but above all its National Archaeological Museum, a trove of ancient treasures, especially from nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Stroll through the Piazza del Plebiscito and get an eyeful of the grandiose dome and colonnades of the basilica of San Francesco di Paola as well as the grand 17th-century Palazzo Reale, dating from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies period. While you’re in the centre of the city, don’t forget to take in Castel Nuovo (below) in Piazza Municipio across from the city hall; with its doughty crenellated towers and marble triumphal the most impressive of Naples’ four castles is quite a sight. Right below it each morning a colourful Mercato dei Fiori (flower market is held.
Another highly recommendable section in the west of the city is the Mergellina, once a fishing village, now still fairly redolent of the sea with its lungomare (seafront promenade), fishing boats, seafood restaurants, and another doughty castle, the Castel dell’Ovo, on a small offshore island.
Visitors to Naples should also leave a two or three days if possible for the marvelous Amalfi coast to the south, including Sorrento and the isle of Capri. And of course, if you’re a history/archaeology buff, you won’t want to miss a visit to Pompeii and/or Herculaneum, the ancient cities buried – and impressively preserved – by Mount Vesuvius. Just think of it as, well, going with the (pyroclastic) flow. 😉
Naples has just over a million inhabitants, rising to 4.3 million in its greater metro area.
The climate is Mediterranean and mild, with average January temperatures of 8° Celsius (46° Fahrenheit) and 73°C (°F) in July.
The currency is the euro.
More information in English: Comune.Napoli.it.