In all the years I had been going to Italy, I had always refused to go to Naples. I was convinced that it was a hotbed of crime and corruption, with filthy streets, and that there was nothing to see anyway. But eventually, lured by the offer of a cheap flight, I decided to find out for myself. As I walked along cobbled streets, catching the occasional glimpse of the Bay of Naples or Mount Vesuvius in the distance, I reflected on the friendliness of the people, and realised how wrong I had been. I felt perfectly safe, and there was plenty to see… So why should you visit Naples, and what is there to see and do there?
Reasons To Visit Naples
I discovered several reasons to visit Naples. Firstly, this is one of the oldest cities in Italy, a historic sea port founded by the Greeks in 470 BCE. And, as indicated by the proximity of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the area was also important to the Romans.
You will find the elegant shopping streets and multitudinous restaurants that you would expect in Italy, with the added bonus of a seafront area. Then there is the city’s enviable location on the Bay of Naples, sandwiched between the mountains and the sea. It is also ideally situated for a variety of day trips.
An Authentic Italian Town
One of the best reasons to visit Naples is that the relative lack of tourists means that this is still very much a place where people live. Even the medieval streets of the historic centre, which you might expect to be a tourist hotspot, is full of people going about their daily business. And the shops are more likely to be selling everyday provisions than gifts or souvenirs.
One thing that surprised me was that this is a deeply conservative family centred community, even to the extent that many of the restaurants remain closed on a Sunday. I had read this in the guide book, but refused to believe it until I found out – to my cost – that it was true. (This may have changed a bit in recent years, but check in advance before heading off to your chosen restaurant.)
World Heritage Pizza
Naples is the birthplace of pizza. Unlike other parts of Italy, pizza here is not just for tourists: it is a part of the local culture. So much so that in 2017 Naples pizza-making was granted World Heritage status, and it is now included in the UNESCO list of intangible heritage, which aims to preserve local traditions.
The classic Neapolitan pizza is the margherita, with tomato sauce, mozzarella and fresh basil (reflecting the colours of the Italian flag). Another local favourite is the marinara, with a simple topping of tomatoes, olive oil, oregano and garlic. Today you may find all manner of other toppings, but they are not so traditional!
What To See And Do In Naples
If you take advantage of everything the city and the region have to offer you could spend several days in Naples. The city has a rich historical and archaeological heritage, modern shopping and a spectacular setting on a hillside that slopes down to the sea.
Start by exploring the historic centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Goggle at the dazzling collection of gold and silver in the medieval Cathedral before exploring a rather unusual church and the most photographed spot in Naples (read more about The Historic Centre of Naples).
Then take in some of the more modern architecture around the main square, the19th century Piazza del Plebiscito. Here you will find the Royal Palace (now a museum) and the Basilica di San Francesco di Paola, a colonnaded church full of artworks. Nearby is another must-see building, the 13th century Castel Nuovo.
A walk around the harbour gives you panoramic views of the Bay of Naples. This area is popular with the locals, and you will find lots of bars and restaurants along the seafront promenade.
If shopping is your thing, try the Via dei Mille and surrounding streets for designer clothes and jewellery; to shop as the Neapolitans do, go to the Via Toledo. Here you can find everything from chain stores to street hawkers selling an astonishing variety of goods and designer fakes. The nearby Galleria Umberto I is the classic Italian version of the shopping mall: a splendid 19th century glass-roofed structure with mosaic floors, a place to meet people and be seen in, as much as it is for shopping.
Day Trips From Naples
For many visitors Naples means the possibility of a trip to Pompeii, the ruined Roman city that was rediscovered in the 18th century. The nearby site of Herculaneum is smaller but equally interesting, and can be combined with Pompeii for a day out. It is also possible to take a bus to the top of Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed both towns in 79CE.
Alternatively, take a day trip to Capri by ferry, or a train to the seaside resort of Sorrento. If you want to go further afield, take a bus from Sorrento along the Amalfi Coast to Positano. All-inclusive day trips to the Amalfi Coast are also available.
But Is Naples Safe… And Is It Clean?
It is true that the Pulite Strade (“clean streets”) campaign has not always been taken literally and that, in some parts of the city, rubbish is piled up on the pavements. However I felt just as safe here as in any other major city (although you are advised to watch out for pickpockets on the trains). And everyone I met was polite and friendly.
The Naples traffic deserves a mention: crossing the road is an art form. The technique (which takes a bit of mastering) is simply to walk into the road, without looking, blithely assuming that the traffic will stop or go round you. Which it does. Even the vespas. I watched a young couple, obviously from another part of Italy. The man plunged into the traffic, leaving his girlfriend hovering nervously on the side. “Ma questo è Napoli,” he said, urging her forward. They do things differently here.