Things You Should Know About Naples

by Jessica on November 30, 2009

by | November 30th, 2009  

thingsnaples1I admit that I was apprehensive before my first visit to Naples a few months ago. Armed with great pre-trip advice from people who know and love the city, bolstered by on-the-ground help from a local tour guide, and taken in by the warmth of the people I met along the way, I ended up falling in love with Naples and have been dreaming about a return ever since.

But often when I tell people how much I enjoyed my stay in Naples, I’m met with a knee-jerk reaction or surprise and/or resistance, sometimes from people who’ve never even been there. Why? Well, Naples is a city preceded by its reputation. Sure, some of the rumors about Naples are true – but not all of them. And, in my opinion, none of them are reason enough to not go to Naples. This city may require that you pay a bit more attention as a tourist, but that doesn’t mean you should scratch it off your list.

In the months since my trip to Naples, I’ve encouraged others to visit the city – and I’m pleased to say they’ve returned with stories of how much they loved it, too. So I wanted to put some of the advice I gave them in an article here for all of you.

Here are some things you should know about Naples before you go.

Sure, Naples is dirty – but so are many other big cities in the world.

thingsnaples2One of the stereotypes you may hear about Naples is that it’s dirty, and people even use this as an excuse to not visit the city. What, I wonder, constitutes a clean city? Would any of the people who screw up their noses as they say, “Naples is dirty” say the same things about New York or London or Paris? Because I don’t know about you, but if I drop a piece of food on the ground in any big city around the world, I’m sure not going to pick it up and eat it.

Okay, I’m being a little flippant here, but anyone who expects a city the size of Naples to be “clean” (whatever that means) is expecting too much. There is definitely room for improvement in the overall cleanliness department in Naples, but the grittiness of Naples is no reason not to visit.

The streets in the tourist areas of Naples are not piled high with garbage.

thingsnaples3This point is related to the first one, but it deserves to be called out on its own. Naples is often in the news we get in the U.S. for not the best of reasons, so you may have heard about the garbage collection strikes last year and how there were burning piles of trash in the streets.

There are certainly problems with the garbage collection in Naples, and there have been for years – that wasn’t the first time there’s been a strike of the trash collectors, and it’s likely not to be the last. But the vast majority of the “piles of garbage” were not in the tourist areas of Naples, even at the height of the problem last year. Most of the trash piles were in some of the more modern parts of the city, and even further out, into the suburbs.

But an even more important point is that you probably never heard the conclusion of that story, so you may think that the people in Naples are still dodging piles of trash. Let me assure you, they’re not. It’s back to business as usual in Naples now, so go without fear of having a burning pile of garbage obstructing your view of the historic sights.

>> Note that this was true when it was first written, and also that the garbage-in-the-streets problem comes and goes with some regularity in Naples. I’ve since been there when there was, in fact, garbage in the streets of the historic center – and life went on as usual. It’s disconcerting, but that alone shouldn’t keep you from going.

Is there a Mafia problem in Naples? Absolutely. Will you even notice it as a visitor? Probably not.

thingsnaples4Another common stereotype you hear about Naples is that it’s dangerous. This stereotype, like many, has some truth behind it, but let’s break it down a little bit so that it’s useful from the traveler’s perspective – because your experience as a visitor is going to be very different from the experience you’d have if you lived there.

Naples (and the region) has a serious historic and ongoing problem with organized crime. There’s no getting around that. But for the most part, that level of crime doesn’t impact tourists. You might hear reports about how the Camorra (the Naples Mafia) controls certain local industries (such as garbage collection) which are then completely corrupt. But as big of a problem as that may be, if you’re just visiting you probably don’t care what happens to the trash after you drop it in your hotel room’s waste bin.

On the other hand, Naples also has a higher-than-average rate of petty theft, which does impact tourists. The two most common crimes in Naples are purse snatching and jewelry theft, and you should absolutely take precautions against both. Naples isn’t unique in this department, since there are pickpockets and purse snatchers targeting tourists in big cities around the globe every day, but if you’re a careful person you’re less likely to look like – or become – a victim.

As I said earlier, Naples’ reputation reaches you long before you reach the city, so it’s natural to arrive with your guard up. And, as fate would have it, that’s probably not entirely a bad thing. But having your guard up and having a chip on your shoulder are two different things.

The pizza really is better in Naples.

thingsnaples5Some pizza lovers will say they prefer the pizza in Rome, but don’t listen to them. There’s perfectly good pizza in Rome, don’t get me wrong – but the pizza in Naples is an entirely different beast. And since it was Naples where the pizza originated, I’m gonna go with Naples on this one.

Now, depending on who you talk to, you’ll get pointed to different pizza places in Naples as the ones with “the best pizza” or “the most authentic pizza” or what have you. I have a favorite, but I also know passionate and smart people who have a different favorite, so I’m willing to believe there’s plenty of great pizza to be had in Naples. In fact, I encourage you to try several places and pick your own favorite.

There are places serving bad pizza in Naples, but keep your eyes open and you’ll be able to steer clear of them. Any pizza joint with a crowd of locals milling out front is a good one to try, and if the sign overhead says “vera pizza napoletana” that’s usually a good omen, too.

>> And here’s a bonus bit of pizza knowledge for Naples – did you know you can order a small pizza if your appetite isn’t up to the standard size? Thanks to a tweet by @ABrushWithItaly I found out that you can order a “mignon” pizza (pronounced like the French, meen-YON). Good to know!

Naples is an enormous and sprawling city – but the historic center is fantastically compact and ideal for exploring on foot.

thingsnaples6It’s hard to get an idea of how big Naples is when you’re in it, but if you have the good fortune of taking a boat to Sorrento or one of the islands off the coast and can look back at the city from the water, you’ll see just how gigantic it is. Buildings crawl practically halfway up the side of Mt. Vesuvius, and fill every visible nook and cranny of the land.

It’s overwhelming, and I’m quite glad I didn’t see that view until I’d been in the city for a couple days and already taken a liking to it.

The thing is, as is the case with many historic cities in Italy and elsewhere, there are two sides to Naples – an historic side, and a modern side. The modern city of Naples is the sprawl, and although there are some things tucked into that sprawl that visitors might find interesting (especially more intrepid travelers and/or those who have visited the city before), the majority of the stuff that tourists will want to see and do in Naples is in a pretty small part of the city.

The area called the centro antico (the “ancient” center) is incredibly compact and makes a great base for a visit. Beyond the boundaries of that maze of ancient streets there are lots of museums and galleries that are within walking distance or reachable by a short bus ride. In other words, don’t let the hugeness of Naples freak you out. Just concentrate on the historic parts and ignore the rest of it.

Naples is hilly.

thingsnaples7Having said all that about exploring the historic center on foot, let me at least warn you that before you glance at a tourist map and determine that a certain distance “looks walkable” you should probably consult with someone local. Naples is deceptively hilly, and although most of the centro antico is fairly flat it’s a walk either uphill or downhill to get to the port, to the National Archaeological Museum, to the train station… Just about anywhere.

In fact, there’s a popular palace and museum bearing the name “Capodimonte” that’s well worth a visit – but you should know that the name “Capodimonte” means “top of the hill.” And they’re not kidding about the hill. Luckily, there are a few “funicular” cable cars that scale the hillsides so that you can visit things like the Capodimonte Museum and the Vomero neighborhood.

If you like the whole stepping back in time experience you get in Rome, you’ll love Naples.

thingsnaples8One of the allures of Rome is all that “old stuff” – the Colosseum standing proudly at the end of a modern street full of modern traffic, buildings from a few centuries ago overlooking the Forum ruins of a couple millennia ago. It’s heady stuff. But even though ancient Rome is very much a part of the Rome of today, it still feels a little bit like a museum piece, what with the un-crossable rope lines and admission fees and whatnot.

Naples, on the other hand, is a museum piece that’s still very much alive. It’s one of the oldest cities in the western world, and was an important Greek city as far back as the 8th century BCE. In the historic center of today’s Naples, you walk down ancient streets alongside speeding Vespas, and wander in and out of shops in historic buildings – and there’s not a rope line in sight. Those shops, businesses, and apartments you’re walking by have been there for centuries – it’s only the people in them (and the stuff they’re selling) that has changed.

Like Rome (and many cities in Italy), much of Naples’ history is also underground – and it’s history you can visit with a trip into the basement of the San Lorenzo Maggiore church where you’ll find a partially excavated Roman market. What’s more, it’s not just ancient Roman ruins you get a glimpse of right in the heart of Naples but also the Greek ruins that are buried underneath the Roman ones. There are layers of history here, and a visit in Naples is bound to make anyone feel a little bit like an archaeologist.

Y’know how in many cities the neighborhood around the train station isn’t a place you’d want to hang out? That’s even more true in Naples.

thingsnaples9In just about every city I’ve ever been to, the area right around the train station isn’t exactly the prettiest part of town. But in many of those places, that neighborhood is reasonably safe and even where I stay when I visit. In Naples, however, I don’t recommend that.

There’s nothing so dangerous about the neighborhood around the Naples train station that should make you afraid to arrive in the city by train, but this is one of the parts of town where some of the people I met in Naples (the ones who live there) said I shouldn’t go after dark, especially as a woman traveling alone.

In addition to the generally unsavory atmosphere around the train station, I also think it’s unwise to book a room in a hotel in this area because it’s too far from the historic center (where you want to be – trust me). You aren’t likely to want to make that trek on foot in the daylight, and it’s even less appealing at night. I know there are a bunch of cheap places to stay right around the train station, but I still suggest you find a place in the historic center. You’ll be happier, and the chances are better that you’ll like the city, too.

The cabbies in Naples are not all out to rip you off.

thingsnaples10There are well-documented stories of how taxi drivers in Naples (and Rome, for that matter) charge unsuspecting tourists exorbitant fares. But if you ever hear “all the taxi drivers in Naples overcharge passengers,” you can call that what it is – baloney.

Most of the ugly stories you’ll hear about cabbies in Naples involve them either not turning on the meter or claiming it’s broken, and then demanding some outrageous fare when they’ve already driven you where you wanted to go. Every taxi I got into in Naples had a working meter that the cabbie turned on immediately, and I’ve heard from other travelers that they didn’t have problems with the taxis, either.

It’s likely that there are still some taxi drivers in Naples who will try to pull this stunt, but there’s an easy fix for it – if they don’t turn on the meter when you’re getting in the cab and they won’t turn it on upon request, get out of that taxi and choose another one. But please don’t assume all taxi drives in Naples are cheats. And you never know, some of them might just entertain you.

Naples lets you get off the beaten path – without getting off the beaten path.

thingsnaples11Many travelers to Italy don’t go south of Rome. And many who do venture south avoid Naples because, let’s face it, the city has a bad rap. So if you’re one of the people who’s trying to avoid tourist crowds but doesn’t want to rent a car and drive to some tiny and remote town in Basilicata to do so, look no further than the city of Naples.

Naples is the big city that’s hidden in plain sight. Depending on what stats you look at, it’s either the 2nd or 3rd most populous city in Italy, and yet even at the height of tourist season you won’t find the same crowds as you do in Rome, Venice, or even pint-sized Verona. Heck, miniscule Sorrento is crawling with tourists (and kitschy souvenir shops) when nearby Naples is not.

As I’ve noted above, some of this is easily attributed to the reputation Naples has as being dirty or dangerous. But as I’ve also explained, those alone are not reason enough to skip Naples – and the absence of crowds actually makes it more desirable to go.

photos, top to bottom, by: the pink sip, Daveness_98, Jessica Spiegel (and may not be used without permission), Schantzilla, dawvon, Argenberg, Jessica Spiegel (and may not be used without permission), feline_dacat, scalleja, Patrik Axelsson, Sami Keinänen


{ 21 comments }

marina de martino November 30, 2009 at 9:57 am
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Ciao Dear Jessica
Naples thanks you again because of your clever way to consider the aspect of a city …that will always reborn.Thanks again!
I wait for you to visit the Phlegraen fields …the place where Jupiter fought against the giants’Titani’,where Ulisse and Aeneas met the shadow of the death , where the Sibilla pronounced the God will.
marina de martino

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Peter November 30, 2009 at 8:42 pm
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So is Naple really worthy enough to visit, maybe someday, we’ll travel there together.

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Susan Van Allen November 30, 2009 at 11:51 pm
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Grazie for setting the record straight about Naples. The city needs more reports like yours–too many people are playing the broken “it’s dangerous” record. I was lead to believe I’d be ransacked the moment I got off the train, and instead fell in love with the city and was absolutely won over by the beautiful and generous natives. You have it absolutely right, Jessica. And an addition to the Weird & Wonderful is a sculpture called The Venus of the Beautiful Buttocks, in the Museo Archeologico–something to look forward to the next time you visit!

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Jessica December 1, 2009 at 8:11 am
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I’m guessing I saw that statue, Susan, because I spent a long morning in the museum… I’ll have to go back and see which one that statue is to make sure. The labeling in that museum isn’t exactly fantastic. ;)

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nyc/caribbean ragazza December 3, 2009 at 5:33 am
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Excellent article and advice.

The thing I noticed immediately about Naples was the absence of American tourists. There were a few German and British tourists at the Archeological Museum.

Naples can seem overwhelming but I loved it. I hope to get back there soon and spend more time there. So far I’ve been twice. Both were only day trips.

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Valerie December 3, 2009 at 6:05 am
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Great article, Jessica! Naples is one of those cities that draws you in. All the stereotypes are cliched and -IMO-just excuses to not venture out of the main tourist areas. They can say Naples is sprawling, dirty, and congested but so it the periferia of Rome or the industrial wasteland of Mestre (all the same things going on out there!) The pizza and coffee really are better in Naples!

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Carol December 5, 2009 at 8:48 am
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Great article. Naples is my favorite Italian big city for all the reasons you mention. It truely is a hidden gem in plane sight. I love the way it’s full of life- not with tourists-but with locals out enjoying their own city.

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Lori Hoag May 18, 2010 at 7:56 pm
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Jessica, I’m trying to find correct spellings of the villages that my grandparents came from that are now, I think, suburbs of Naples. Is there somewhere that I can go to get that information. At this point, I only have phonetic pronunciations that my mother (maiden name, Rocco) told me.

They were – Formigal and Camigal, she said they were called Formigalan and Camigalian, again phonetic.

However, when I was in Naples in the mid-80s, a tour guide, who was a native, told me that he knew the villages, but they had become suburbs because the city had spread out.

Could you reply by email?

Thanks,
Lori

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Jessica May 19, 2010 at 12:09 pm
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Hi, Lori:

I don’t know where the best place to go to get that information would be, but I’d suspect that starting with the tourism office in Naples might be a good start – they might be able to point you in the right direction.

http://www.inaples.it/eng/home.asp

Have you also tried just looking at a Google map of the Naples area, to see if there are towns around Naples that look like they might fit the pronunciations you have?

Ciao,
Jessica

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Tricia June 11, 2010 at 1:28 pm
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As a current resident of Naples (my husband is in the Navy and we are stationed here for three years) I have to say that I was both scared to death and intrigued before arriving two months ago, due to all of the horror stories I had heard. While parts of Napoli are certainly dirty and run down it is not at all like I had expected. It possesses a charm that no other Italian city can compare to. Thank you for providing a list of important sights- I am embarrassed that I have not seen most of them yet and plan to follow your lead!

Ciao,
Tricia

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Jody March 17, 2012 at 3:23 pm
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Hi Tricia, I just scanned your blog. Sooo exciting. You’re living my dream. Even the trip to Prague. (Would love to go.) Husband, John & I will be in Naples over Easter 2012 and following week. I hear there is quite the celebration on Sunday and Monday. Any suggestions? Stay in Naples or try to venture out to other areas of interest (Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi). Any chance you’d be willing to meet for pizza in Naples for more advice? Our treat. P.S. We’re from Eagle, Wisconsin (originally Chicagoans) in our 50′s. Married 31 years. Good folks who like to travel. P.S. Congrats on the baby. Bet you’re busy!

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Jessica March 22, 2012 at 4:57 pm
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It’s unlikely Tricia will be checking back on this post for comments, Jody, so if you want to get in touch with her it’s probably best to do that on her blog! :)

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Jessica June 11, 2010 at 2:17 pm
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I’m glad you’re finding the charms of Naples, Tricia – you’re going to know the city FAR better than I do at the end of your three years. :)

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Anna June 18, 2010 at 2:14 am
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I am going to Naples at 14th of July, and the information I got from you Jessica,is really very important for me & it’s worth to know………….Everybody tells me be careful otherwise u will be robbed….and all these make me feel a bit afraid…but after my trip i HOPE I will change my mind)))

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Denise January 28, 2011 at 3:25 pm
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Hi, love your site and all the great info. Was wondering if you had any advice for a single woman traveling in Naples? I plan to stay in a hotel in the historic center and try to avoid any sketchy areas, but in terms of just daytime sightseeing, is it OK to wear a backpack and bring my (relatively) expensive camera? I’ve also heard stories about women being harassed–is it ok to dine alone, sit on the plazas and people watch, etc. or are single women seen as targets? Any help would be much appreciated!

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Jessica January 31, 2011 at 10:49 am
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I did my first trip to Naples solo, & was nervous. In the end, staying in the historic center, not staying out too late, & being *really* aware of my surroundings made me feel more comfortable and made it so Naples didn’t frighten me in the least by the 2nd day.

I didn’t wear a backpack – I carry a small-ish cross-body purse when I travel – and I wore my big DSLR around my neck at all times. When walking through crowds or whenever I wasn’t using the camera, I usually held one arm across it in front of me. I also decided to leave my watch in my hotel room (the only jewelry I wore out and about in Naples on that first trip was my wedding band).

I opted to be back in my hotel room around when it got dark, so I did miss out on the general hubbub of evening Naples, and I was almost always the only person in restaurants for the “tourist” dinner hour – but I figured if that made me feel safer, that was okay.

And with all of the above precautions, I felt perfectly fine walking around Naples by myself. I did stick to the historic center, but I happily people-watched, took pictures, dined alone, etc. without feeling like a target at all.

On my first visit I stayed at the Hotel Europeo (on this list): http://www.italylogue.com/accommodation/hotels-in-naples-historic-center.html

And if you’d like to be well taken care of by a tour guide friend of mine for a few hours one day, Marina is lovely: http://www.italylogue.com/featured-articles/a-passionate-naples-tour-guide-marina-de-martino.html

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Denise February 3, 2011 at 10:06 am
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Thanks Jessica! One more question–I know sometimes people in some European cities tend to dress up more–would wearing jeans and t-shirts for my romps through the city during the day and dining at night be ok, or would it be a sure sign that I’m a low-class American :-)

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Jessica February 4, 2011 at 1:59 pm
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Italians definitely dress up more than many people I know, but they’ll still often wear jeans (nice jeans!) out in the evenings. You can read a bit more about what to wear in Italy here:
http://www.italylogue.com/featured-articles/what-to-wear-in-italy.html

In most cases, however, you’ll only have particular dress code “rules” in certain situations – churches, high-end restaurants – and the rest of the time, provided you’re not trying to linger over a nice lunch in the same clothes you went hiking in, you’ll be fine.

:)

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Denise February 7, 2011 at 12:50 pm
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thanks! Doubt I’ll be going to any high end dining establishments so my jeans should be fine!

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Alek August 25, 2011 at 8:39 am
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Bravo! One of the best articles I’ve read recently.
And actually great point for taxi drivers in Rome and Naples, of course there are always rotten apples, but majority (in my own experience) are the best taxi drivers in the world. They know their routes and streets and shortcuts, and the best ones are those without the GPS! So instead of ripping you off, they will actually save you money and time, by taking you the best possible route and very fast! Even more fast than you would like to :) Of course make sure that they are official and have taximeter working and that it’s on. Also a good point for the absence of the mass crowds. On my first ever visit to Italy, I noticed the same in Verona, and it made me like the town very much so… unlike Florence where you literally have to jump over the tourists to pass in the street and the queues are horrible and the food not so great because every second place can be considered a tourist trap. Of course Florence is a beautiful town as well but it’s still more pleasurable when you don’t have those massive crowds around you! :)

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Avalondave October 18, 2012 at 6:34 am
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Sorry to be a contrarian, but I’ve traveled all over Italy and after four days in Naples I couldn’t wait to leave. Yes, the pizza and history are great, but the filth, traffic, motorcycles on the sidewalks, hustle and over charging in restaurants, hypodermic needles on the sidewalks (I have photos), thieves, beggars, rudeness and grafitti were too much for me. Why on earth would anyone want to spend time here when there are so many beautiful places in Italy? Sorry, hate to be negative, but that has been my experience.

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