As I’ve said before, I never really expected to fall in love with Naples – but that’s what happened. I could have spent ages just wandering slowly around the historic alley ways in the historic center, and would someday love to know it so well as to have the cobblestones memorized. I’d like very much to know the guys at Pizzeria Di Matteo by name, and I wouldn’t mind picking up some of the Neapolitan dialect while I’m at it. But those are dreams for future trips.
Despite my admittedly narrow fascination with one tiny part of a vast and sprawling city, however, I can still deliver a list of my suggestions for the top 10 things to do in Naples. This is partly due to the fact that I think most visitors to Naples need not stray far from the old center, and partly due to the good advice of trusted Naples-loving friends.
I fully expect to feel the need to expand upon the 10 items featured here as I get to know Naples better, so I’m going to call this list “subject to change.” It’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind, right?
Top 10 Things to Do in Naples (According to Jessica)
- Eat Pizza
If you do nothing else during your time in Naples – and I’m talking about even if your cruise ship docks in Naples and gives you a paltry two hours of free time – you must eat pizza in Naples. It may sound weird that the first thing to do or see in a city is actually something to eat, but this is, after all, the birthplace of pizza (probably Italy’s most popular food export) and the locals take their signature dish very seriously. Make sure you go to a pizzeria that’s serving “pizza vera napoletana,” true Neapolitan pizza, and you’ll be good to go. Some people rave about Da Michele and its whopping two different kinds of pizzas on offer, but I’m a Di Matteo girl myself. Wherever you go, savor the experience, and know that you may very well be spoiled for pizza for the rest of your life. Trust me, you’ll be glad about it. Oh, and if you don’t have time for a sit-down meal, you could do worse than to order a pizza fritta, or fried pizza, to go – it’s deep-fried pizza dough with (usually) cheese and (sometimes) meat inside, folded up and ready to be munched on the move.
- Wander Aimlessly in the Historic Center
Just as I think the best way to see Venice is to get lost there, I think just about the best way to enjoy the historic center of Naples is to wander without a plan. The only difference between the two cities is that a map is actually helpful in Naples’ old center, and you should carry one. The storico antico is at once ancient and modern – the street plan is older than the hills and the buildings have contained shops and apartments for centuries. But unlike some kind of preserved museum piece, the old center is very much alive. What’s spilling out of those shops may have changed over the last several hundred years, but the fact that it’s a storefront hasn’t. It’s a densely populated area and the locals don’t slow down for tourists. It’s frenetic, it’s not advisable to wander alone at night, and there are parts of even the small historic center you probably don’t want to visit without a guide. But this is easily one of the most exciting ways I can think of to see history as a living thing. (Plus, these streets are eye-candy for photographers.)
- Visit the National Archaeological Museum
Okay, so you’re taking a day trip to Pompeii and Herculaneum (of course you are, because it’s listed at #4 below) – but if you want to see all the “stuff” that used to be at both of those locations before they were excavated, you don’t even need to leave Naples. The city’s National Archaeological Museum houses one of the most remarkable collections of Roman art and artifact anywhere, including massive fresco and mosaic panels as well as sculpture taken from Pompeii and Herculaneum. The pity is that the museum’s descriptions are borderline abysmal, the audio-guide is meh, and the entire building’s layout so confusing that it’s possible to miss an entire wing and never realize it. Still, it’s absolutely one of Naples’ top sights and you don’t want to miss it – just come equipped with a self-guided walking tour from a good guidebook, or sign up for a guided tour with a reputable tour company.
- Take a Day-Trip to Pompeii & Herculaneum
Many people who choose to spend a night in Naples do so only because it’s a great base from which to explore two of Italy’s most popular tourist sights – the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Either combined into one long day-trip or split into two, this look into ancient Roman life is unforgettable and well worth the effort it takes to get there and back. Pompeii is the more famous of the two archaeological sites, although some say Herculaneum is the more interesting one due to its smaller size and the fact that more of the artifacts remain in situ. But even if you only make it to Pompeii, you’ll still get a feel for what the city looked like, and you’ll be seeing much of the stuff that used to be there when you visit the National Archaeological Museum discussed above. Frankly, the order in which you do #3 and #4 on this list is kind of up to you – it just depends on which you’d rather see first: the location where the stuff was, or the stuff itself. The important thing is that you see both in order to put the puzzle together. And if you want help with the puzzle, there are great guided tours of Pompeii & Herculaneum that you can book from Naples or before you leave home.
>> Read more about Pompeii & Herculaneum Visitors Tips
- Eat Sfogliatelle
Yes, another food thing is making an appearance on this list. (Hey, you’re lucky I didn’t add more.) But any good meal has to include something sweet (at least in my book), so I can’t make this list without talking about Naples’ signature sweet pastry, the sfogliatella (sfogliatelle is the plural; the singular is pronounced zfohl|yah|TELL|ah). It’s a study in contradictions – light layers of flaky pastry dough on the outside hide a dense filling of sweetened ricotta cheese on the inside. You’ll usually find two varieties – called riccia (REE|chah) and frolla (FROHL|lah). The former has the flaky exterior (and is more difficult to make), the latter has a smooth outer crust (and is no less delicious). They’re often eaten for breakfast, but I enjoyed them as a snack any time of the day. They’re sweet enough to satisfy a dessert-like craving, but not so sweet as to make you ill. In fact, if you wanted to have a dessert after you’d eaten your sfogliatella, I wouldn’t tell anyone. Given how much the Neapolitans like their sweets, I’m beginning to wonder if I wasn’t Napolitana in a previous life.
- See the Veiled Christ at Capella Sansevero
Tour guides and art books often use words like “the statue seems to come to life” to describe well-carved marble figures, but I think that phrase is so overused as to feel meaningless. It’s exactly what springs to mind, however, when you get a look at the Veiled Christ sculpture in the center of the Sansevero Chapel. Carved in 1753 by Giuseppe Sanmartino, it shows the figure of Christ lying under what looks like a piece of the thinnest of fabrics. The facial features are clearly visible, as are the body and even the crucifixion wounds, but the entire body is covered by the delicate folds of a cloth. The visual effect is truly stunning. There are two other sculptures of note in the Capella Sansevero, each dedicated to one of the parents of the man who commissioned them and built the chapel, but it’s the Veiled Christ which rightfully commands all the attention. I defy you to not leave the chapel in awe of that kind of sculptural skill.
- Tour Naples Underground
If you’re reading the words “Naples” and “underground” and thinking I’m referring to the city’s “seedy underbelly,” then think again. I’m talking about the area literally underneath your feet as you’re walking around the historic center. Rome isn’t the only city that’s a honeycomb of ruins below street level – Naples also has trouble building Metro lines! There’s a tour in Naples that’s just about what lies underfoot, called Napoli Sotteranea, which includes ruins from Greek and Roman times and can be worth a stop. But my favorite glimpse at centuries past is underneath the San Lorenzo Maggiore church where you’ll find the remains of a Roman market. What’s extra cool about the ruins under San Lorenzo are that, unlike something like the Roman Forum where you have to really use your imagination to picture what the streets and buildings once looked like, the Roman market that’s been excavated under San Lorenzo includes storefronts with walls and ceilings intact. What’s more, you can walk into them to get a peek at the Roman laundry (one basin for washing, another for rinsing) and Roman bakery (the bread oven in the back looks essentially like the pizza ovens in Naples do today). Plus, it’s not just the Romans who are represented – there are Greek ruins under San Lorenzo, too. The whole thing gives you chills – and not just because it’s downright cold underground.
- Take a Day-Trip to the Amalfi Coast, Sorrento, or the Islands
Even if you end up falling in love with Naples like I did, there’s no reason not to take advantage of the city’s proximity to the stunning Amalfi Coast or nearby islands – especially if you’re staying for four or more days. You’ve got a few choices when it comes to soaking in the coastal sun, and a few ways of getting to your chosen destination. Sorrento isn’t on the Amalfi Coast proper, but it’s quite Amalfi-like and only 40 minutes from Naples by boat. If you want to see the actual Amalfi Coast, then towns like Amalfi or Positano are also pretty easy to get to (if a bit further away). And the islands of Ischia, Capri, and Procida are great options as well. Some of these spots are more touristy than others, and you may feel like the town’s been invaded by incoming cruise ships (and often, it has) – but the bright colors, stunning views, and excellent seafood make it worth the trip. Oh, and don’t forget to sample some of the local dessert liqueur – limoncello.
>> Read more about getting from Naples to Sorrento
- Pick Up a Figurine for Your Nativity
If you’re visiting Naples in the summer (or anytime other than November or December, for that matter), Christmas might be the furthest thing from your mind. But one turn down Via San Gregorio Armeno in the old city center will change all that – it’s the presepi (pronounced PREH|seh|pee) street, where craftspeople have been making and selling nativity scenes and the accompanying figures for decades. The nativity scene has long been the centerpiece of an Italian home’s Christmas decorations, and you’ll also see them in front of just about every church in the country and lots of city squares as well. And while you might not want to cart home the life-sized versions popular in outdoor displays, the vendors along Naples’ presepi street have smaller figures, too. Keep an eye out for figures that don’t exactly look Biblical – there lots of recognizable modern-day faces among the shepherds, including politicians (Italian and foreign), athletes, and pop stars.
- Go Modern at MADRE, the Museum of Contemporary Art
Naples is swimming in antiquities and priceless art from centuries past, but did you know that there’s also a thriving modern art scene in Naples? If you’re tired of looking at old stuff, or you just want a different take on Italian art, then head straight for the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina – affectionately known as MADRE. The museum’s permanent collection features both Italian and international modern artists, and there are regular temporary shows as well. The museum is within walking distance from the historic center, so it’s easy to reach, and if you’re up for something old and something new in one day it’s also not too far from the Archaeological Museum. For those of you who are night owls but want a cultural option instead of a dance club option, MADRE is open until midnight on Saturday and Sunday. And for those of you who are cheap travelers, admission is free every Monday.
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There are, obviously, many more things you could add to your to-do list in Naples – including three castles, an opera house, countless more churches, and several more museums. And I’m not even mentioning that big volcano looming over the city, either. If you thought Rome could occupy your itinerary for a month, the same can easily be said for Naples.
But don’t knock yourself out trying to do everything in one visit – you’ll get tired and cranky, which isn’t pleasant in general, and may mean you harbor bad feelings toward the city. It’s not Naples’ fault there’s so much to do there.
Instead, do what you can – from the top 10 list above, or from this list of things to do in Naples, or from any other list of sights in the city you choose – and plan on coming back someday. Naples has been here for a good long time, and she’ll wait for you to return. I promise.
photo credits: Naples & Vesuvius by clydeye, Di Matteo pizza by dawvon, Herculaneum by Rita Willaert, sfogliatella by LexnGer, Veiled Christ from Wikipedia, San Lorenzo underground by Martin Dixon, Procida by J.Salmoral, MADRE from official MADRE site – all others by Jessica Spiegel & may not be used without permission