When it comes to Italy it’s really hard to elect the most beautiful city of the country. If you ask to ten different Italians, they will probably give you ten different answers! This is partially due to the biases Italians have on regions, or even cities, they are not originally from. One just needs to know that, for instance, in the same region of Tuscany every town has fought its neighbours all throughout the Middle Age. And in the same city of Siena every neighbourhood team fights with the other neighbourhoods in the famous palio, the horse race occurring every year. The biases Italians have on other regions or cities are still alive today, as well as the differences in language and traditions, peculiar to every regions. However, biases apart, there is an idiom recurring in Italian: “You first see Naples, then you die”. The astounding beauty and the feeling of belonging Neapolitans have for their town is well known in all Italy. Most of the famous Italian songs musicians play on the streets are Neapolitan, a large part of the Italian theatre is Neapolitan, and most comedians and actors come from Naples, together with cuisine and ancient traditions. So, the question is: “I wanna see Naples, but I have little time, what do I do?” Well, here is a short guide on the most beautiful places you can see in Naples in less than two days.
Historical City Centre
Whether you arrive by train, at the Garibaldi Central Station, or by plane you will end up in the heart of the city. In fact, Naples is one of the few towns in Italy with the airport in the centre. Thus, even a taxi can be really cheap, ranging from €10 to €20 to move within the city centre. The historical city centre is comprised of relatively narrow alley, where lively shops and bakeries would call you in to try and buy their products. From Largo S. Domenico till Piazza Dante or Forcella, all the area crawls with warm and colourful pastries and pizzas or little, cornetti rossi (red, little horns), typical Neapolitan apotropaic symbols. Here, you might find some of the most beautiful churches and visiting sites of all the South of Italy, in what is considered the capital city of the Mediterranean. In this section all the monuments and places reported are extremely close to each other. It will probably take 2 hours or less to walk to each of them. Also, the metro in Naples works regularly, with a train coming around every 10 minutes There are two lines, Linea 1 and Linea 2. Plus, the metro stations of Naples are known to be among the most beautiful of Europe. Every station is decorated with pieces of art, representing several different things, from the memory of the holocaust to verses of the Divine Comedy.
Piazza Dante might be a good starting point. You can get there by metro from the Garibaldi Central Station, running with Linea 1. It connects the historical centre with Via Toledo, the main shopping street of the city, which also brings to the seafront. In the middle of the square lies the statue of the greatest Italian writer: Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy. Watching the front of the statue, walk towards left and you’ll find a covered walkway. That is Port’Alba, the street of books. Here, books are the cheapest (costing around €1, €2 or €3) and the libraries are old and beautiful inside. At the end of Port’Alba there is also a nice place to eat the typical “pizza a portafoglio” (wallet-like pizza). It is probably the most famous Neapolitan street food and it is a four-time folded small pizza, comfortable to eat while walking and admiring the town. After having crossed Port’Alba, on your left you will find Piazza Bellini, one of the centres of the night life. If staying in a hostel for the night I highly suggest to come and have a drink here. You will find out that Neapolitans are really friendly and keen to try to speak English when needed. Also, Naples is extremely chosen for Erasmus programmes, thus Piazza Bellini is also packed with exchange students. On your right, instead, you will see Via S. Sebastiano, while in front of you there is Vico S. Pietro A Maiella. Let’s suppose you take your right and go all the way down Via S. Sebastiano. After 5 minutes you will see a white tower with a gothic writing upon. That is the Monastero di S. Chiara, an amazing, beautiful, gothic church. It has all the features of a gothic style church, non-richly decorated inside, with a relaxing chiostro behind, high and majestic, reaching towards the sky. When finished visiting S. Chiara, exiting from the main door, straight on your left you will find another church, this time of an astonishing baroque beauty, Indeed, the Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo is completely different from S. Chiara, preferring red, pompous marble and decorated on every inch of its internal walls. You can spot it easily, since outside it will be covered in stone bosses.
Going back to Port’Alba, walking on Vico S. Pietro A Maiella you will find your way to Forcella and the surrounding area. It is another typical area of Naples, with also two of the best pizzerias of the city: Sorbillo and the Antica Pizzeria da Michele. Sorbillo lies right on Via dei Tribunali, near one of the most beautiful attractions: Napoli Sotterranea (“Underground Naples”). It is the ancient catacombs, first used by the Greeks and the Romans, to extract minerals to build the city, then it served as an underground tunnel system to help the Neapolitan people free the city from the Nazi German occupation. Tours are both in Italian and English, and the guides are really well prepared. Walking past the entrance of Napoli Sotterranea, moving straight on Via dei Tribunali, you will see on your right the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, or Cattedrale di San Gennaro (or simply the Naples Cathedral). It is better known with this second name and is the main cathedral of the city. Indeed, the cathedral is consecrated to the protector of Naples, S. Gennaro, and you can visit the reliquary where his blood is treasured. There is a really peculiar tradition taking place in this cathedral. Thrice a year during a special holy mass, the bishop of Naples announces whether the blood of S. Gennaro liquefies or stay clotted. The liquefaction of the blood is a sign of good luck, and the Neapolitan people are reassured by the propitiatory event. But if it doesn’t liquefy, God knows what might happen in the next few months. If you ask around, every Neapolitan will tell you that before the earthquake that shook the South of Italy in 1980 the blood of S. Gennaro did not liquefy.
Going back on Via dei Tribunali, towards Napoli Sotterranea you will find on your left another important alley rich in tradition, namely S. Gregorio Armeno. It is the centre of the ancient tradition of the presepio, the representation of the nativity scene. On this narrow alley you will find a plethora of holy figures inhabiting little models of houses and villages. But the very interesting fact about this is that S. Gregorio Armeno crystallises the irony of the Neapolitan people, since besides holy figures as Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, you can also see football players, politicians, musicians, trending public figures, and so on. In the nativity scene you might admire the new-born Jesus, lying between the Virgin Mary and Joseph, together with Berlusconi, Hamsik or Michael Jackson! Going down S. Gregorio Armeno, proceeding on the right you will find Largo S. Domenico Maggiore. Facing the obelisk, walk across the square towards right, and follow the alleys until Cappella di S. Severo. Inside this little chapel there is one of the most awe-inspiring statues of all Europe and a pride for the city of Naples: the Cristo Velato (the Veiled Christ). Carved in marble by Giuseppe Sanmartino, the main characteristic of the statue is that the layer of marble covering the dead body of Jesus Christ is so thin that it seems an actual veil of cloth, rather than solid marble. Underneath, the corpse of Jesus is so well sculptured that one can see every detail of his body under the “veil”. On the left of Largo S. Domenico, instead, there is the alleyway of Spaccanapoli, one of the main and most typical alleyways of the city, where you can find every sort of food and sweet. As in all Naples, you can eat well in every place you want to stop by.
Going back to Piazza Dante this time, always facing the statue, take your right and walk towards Via Toledo. The Toledo Metro Station is considered to be the most beautiful of Europe. The walls depict a journey from the surface all the way under the ocean. What makes it beautiful is the game of lights you can see while going down the escalators to jump on the train. Anyway, Toledo is the main shopping street of Naples. Walking past shops, bars, restaurants, museums, churches, and palaces you will end up seeing the Galleria Umberto I. In the gallery, right besides the entrance from via Toledo, there is a little shop where you can taste the best sfogliatella of the city, a typical sweet, craved by all the tourists visiting the city. On via Toledo there is also the possibility of taking the funicular railway to get to Castel S. Elmo. From the castell you can admire the entire city and the gulf of Naples, apart from being of high historic interest. Moreover, you can also descend the castell hill via the Vomero neighbourhood, the richest neighbourhood of the city, one of the shopping ad eating centres of the city.
Following your path on via Toledo, then, you will end up in the main square of Naples: Piazza Plebiscito. Embracing the square ther is a colonnade of the Basilica di San Francesco di Paola. In front of this church we find the Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace). Near the Basilica we can see two horse statues. This is a nice curiosity of Naples: it is impossible to walk between them, starting from the Royal Palace and moving toward the Basilica with closed eyes. This is due to the inclination of the square. Indeed, the square is really close to the seafront. With the Basilica in front take your left, and after 5 minutes of walking you will end up seeing the Gulf of Naples. It is a show-stopping view on the crystal-blue Mediterranean Sea, with the Vesuvius overcoming the horizon on the left. Straight on the right there is the Castel Dell’Uovo, a castell lying in between waters, connected to the promenade via a bridge. It is free to enter. If you climb it you will be able to see Naples from the top. It is useless to say how beautiful it will be. Another castell near Piazza del Plebiscito is the Maschio Angioino. You need a ticket to enter, but it is really interesting to see the Middle Age architecture inside it, and the view it offers. It is really well kept and the tour is of the utmost interest. A little curiosity of Naples is that it is considered the city with the best coffee in Italy. And it is actually true, not only a stereotype. Near Piazza del Plebiscito walk towards Piazza Trieste e Trento. There, you will find the Gambrinus, a really important bar, since Gabriele D’Annunzio, one of the most famous Italian writers, used to sit there and write his masterpieces. It is not an expensive bar though. You will find that Naples is actually a really cheap town, even in the classic “touristic” places. Another amazing view from the seafront are the promenades of Mergellina and Posillipo on the sunset. If you may, try to get there at the sunset, you surely won’t be disappointed. Biking all the way down can be an attractive solution. But also the metro is a option. Mergellina and Posillipo are a bit further and reaching them might take 1 hour or so, while all the other monuments in this section about the seafront are extremely close to each other. Walking to each of them can take half an hour if you don’t stop by, with the only exception of Castel S. Elmo.
If you get to see Posillipo, then you are near the park where two of the most influential authors in the history of Italy are buried: the poet Giacomo Leopardi and the author of the Aeneid, Virgil. This is the Parco Virgiliano (Vergiliano Park). It is a really nice walk, climbing all the way up the hill where the park is built upon. The place crawls with nature and grottos. It really resembles an oasis in the midst of the city.
Remember we started our journey from Piazza Dante? At first I suggested you to move towards the seafront. However, on the other direction of the street, on the left facing the statue of Dante, there is the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Archeologic National Museum), with also the Museo metro station right besides. The museum is really well organised and the pieces of arts it hosts are of the highest interest, covering centuries of history. One metro stop ahead is the Materdei section of the city. Here there is an extremely evocative place to visit, the Cimitero delle Fontanelle (Fontanelle Cemetery). It is an ossuary, where skulls of unnamed persons rest. The entire ossuary and the chapel inside are dug in a tuff hill, making it also a cool, relaxing and silent place to take a rest while connecting with a strong sense of interiority.
Many tourists, then, would love to see Pompeii when around Naples. It is not hard to reach, but it will take half a day day at least, since there is a lot to see and you need to wait for the Circumvesuviana train to get there. You can take this line in Garibaldi Central Station, and stop at Pompeii Scavi (Site of Pompeii). Don’t get confused with the other Pompeii stop. That is an actual town were people reside, you definitely want to go down at Pompeii Scavi. Many also stop at Ercolano though, the other town that was hit during the volcano eruption of 79 AD. This is also another option to see an ancient archaeological site. However, as in the case of Pompeii it might take a bit of time to reach it.
Hope this short guide on how to visit Naples in a short time has been useful and I wish you to enjoy one of the oldest and most beautiful cities in all Italy!
Freelance journalist, graduated at the London School of Economics and Political Science. My main specialisation is China and the Asian region, its politics and how it will develop in the next decades.
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