Napoli, bella Napoli... What to say about Naples? The birthplace of pizza is lively, loud and chaotic, but at the same time calm, religious and artistic. Its streets reflect the true Italian spirit, but his old houses and rich underground preserve something deep and mystical. With almost a million inhabitants, Naples is the third largest municipality in Italy and the regional capital of Campania. It's the city many have fallen in love with (including us), many had sung about and it's the protagonist of numerous movies (e.g. L'oro di Napoli, Il matrimonio all'Italiana).
What to see?
1) Via dei Tribunali
Via dei Tribunali is the heart of Napoli's historical center. It's the street where the typical life of the city takes place. It's always loud, busy and full of local Neapolitans, curious tourists or kids playing football, of small cars and numerous motorbikes, street stands that are selling delicious and cheap pizza cuts, fried pizza or sweet Neapolitan specialties (baba, sfogliatelle).
Here you'll see the typical Italian small balconies with linen and laundry hanging from them, you'll hear a fight between spouses and you'll witness the process of delivering food or other goods using a bucket on a rope straight to the people's balconies. Another similar street is Spaccanapoli (the name literally means divides Naples), a longer parallel street that leads from the historical center until the foot of the mountain where castle Sant'Elmo lies.
2) Napoli churches
People of Naples are extremely religious and it's believed that the city contains almost 500 churches. This doesn't include small family altars that you can find on almost every corner of the street. Via dei Tribunali, as lively and chaotic as it seems, is a home of many churches, where the noise stops and the silence and respect for the sacred begin. However, there are few of the most important churches that are a must-see.
Il Duomo or Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta is the city's cathedral and the seat of Archbishop. It's located near the Central Station and it preserves the relics of San Gennaio, the patron of the city.
The biggest Gothic basilica is Basilica di Santa Chiaia, reached by Spaccanapoli street, and it preserves the remains of some of Giotto's frescoes.
One of the most popular tourist attraction is Capella Sansevere, home of one of the most beautiful examples of baroque architecture and plastic art, as well as the mysterious Rococo sculpture of Veiled Christ made by Giuseppe Sanmartino. The entrance to the chapel museum costs 7€, but it's definitely worth a visit. Other important churches are Church of San Lorenzo Maggiore, Church of San Gregorio Armeno, Church of Gesú Nuovo, etc.
3) Piazza del Plebiscito, Royal Palace and Theatre San Carlo
Piazza del Plebiscito is the largest square in Naples (25 000m2) and one of the landmarks of the city (you'll find it on postcards, calendars, illustration books). It's closed by the Neoclassic Church of San Francesco di Paola, which with its colonnade resembles the Church of San Pietro in Rome, and the three palaces (della Prefettura, Palazzo Salerno and the Royal Palace).
The building with a pink facade, Palazzo della Prefettura, was built in the 19th century on the place where a Dominican convent once stood. Today it's a seat of the region and on his side stands the luxurious and prestige café Gambrinus, the historical and the most famous bar in Naples.
The spacious Royal Palace on the west part of the square was one of the four residences of Bourbon dynasty in the 18th and 19th century during the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. Today it's open for tourists every day except Wednesday (12€) and inside, you'll see the marble „great staircase“, the Royal Gardens, luxuriously decorated chambers of Kings and Queens and lots of examples of the 18th-century frescoes and ancient furniture. The statues on the palace's facade show rulers of Naples from the 12th century until Vittorio Emanuele II in the 19th century.
The Royal Palace also hosts the National Library of Naples and the San Carlo Theater. San Carlo Theater is the oldest continuously active opera house in the world opened in 1737. Its unique architectural value and magnitude (it hosted a public of more than 3000 spectators!) served as a model for theatres all around Europe.
4) Napoli castles
Not only churches but also the 3 castles are the city's artistic jewels and heritage. Castel Nuovo, Castel dell'Ovo and Castel Sant'Elmo fit perfectly into the town's panorama. The first two you can find on the cost of the Tyrrhenian sea, on which Naples lies, while the last one found his place on the hill Vomero above the city.
Castel Nuovo is a Medieval Castle from the 13th century, visited by the most important Italian artists and writers such as Giotto, Petrarca, and Boccaccio. The entrance cost 6€, but it's more interesting to admire the castle from outside.
Castel dell'Ovo is a 12th-century fortress, whose name means „castle egg“ because the famous Roman poet Virgil supposedly strengthened the castle walls with the magical egg. According to an old legend, if the egg brakes, the city of Naples will fall too. There is no entrance fee and from the castle, there is a great view of the city harbor and coastline.
Castel Sant'Elmo is a Medieval star-shaped fortress named by the 10th-century church of Saint Erasmus, which stood inside its walls. It was used for military and offensive purposes under the Charles d'Anjou, Aragonese governor Don Pedro de Toledo and the Bourbons. It continued to be military prison until the middle of the 20th century and now it hosts a museum with several exhibitions and a magnificent panoramic view of the whole city from the fortress walls. The entrance fee is 5€ (2,50€ on Tuesday and every day after 16 p.m.).
5) Archeological museum
The Naples Archeological museum is one of the most important archeological museums in the world. If you're planning to visit Pompeii, a town destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius in the 79AD, the museum would be a nice addition to the archeological site. Many ancient Roman objects (amphoras, mosaics, etc.) from Pompeii and Ercolano are stored in this museum, thus forming a collection of extreme archeological value for Italy and the whole world. The museum contains many objects from the Bourbon dynasty collection, as well.
The entrance fee is 15€, although there are many discounts (young people until 25 years old coming from EU) and free days (every first Sunday in the month from October to March) when you can visit the Archeological museum for a more affordable price.
6) Napoli Sotteranea
If you thought that Naples has a lot to offer on the ground, considering its colorful streets and squares, uncountable churches, castles, and archeological sites, you'll be surprised to hear that its underground life is as much as rich. There are many tours offering a peak to the Naples underground, but the official one has the entrance on the left side of the Basilica di San Paolo Maggiore on the Piazza San Gaetano. The entrance fee is 10€ and you'll definitely enjoy this attraction. But first, a warning – this tour is not made for people with claustrophobia or overweight people, since you'll be passing through very very narrow (even with a bigger backpack, you cannot pass!) and dark tunnels and walk down the slippery stairs.
If you decide for the tour, your guide will lead you through the many tunnels and secret hideouts and explain you the history and the purpose of the place. The story of the Naples underground goes back to the 4th century BC when Greeks built here Neapolis, or the „New Town“. Later the Romans used this 450km long subterranean network to build aqueducts, which provided water for the city.
The people working in aqueducts were called pozzari, they climbed into the wells to enable the water flow to the city's fountains. They were small and thin to enter the narrow wells, they climbed using the holes in the walls and nobody knew the underground better than them. Pozzari were dressed in white with a hood on their had and were similar to small monks, thus they obtained a popular name munaciello. An old popular legend says that munaciellos like to sneak into people's houses and if they like the owners, they'll hide the money in their room, but if they don't, they'll steal from them, brake their dishes or steal their women. 😀
During the bombing in the Second World War, the aqueduct was closed and the people from Naples used the underground passageways as a shelter. Our guide showed us some of their belongings that were found later on (clothes, toys, etc.).
In the modern era, the question emerged - what to do with all those underground spaces? There was a concurs, on which won the project of a botanic – he wanted to make an underground garden. He believed that the natural humidity of the place and artificial lights are enough to make the plants grow without the need to water them. What's left from the project is only a mini garden, but the guide showed us a much larger greenhouse of the basil plant, which is used as a condiment for pizzas in the pizzeria above the ground.
7) Piazza Garibaldi and Central Station
Piazza Garibaldi is a large square on which the Naples Central Station lies. There is actually nothing special to see, except for the „darker“ and „dirtier“ side of the city. It's a playground and office for many immigrants from Africa or Muslim countries and a home for many Italian homeless people.
All around Piazza Garibaldi, you can find small shops, owned by immigrants, selling „universal stuff“ (groceries, electronics from all parts of the world), kebab places or stands with bags, wallets, and sunglasses. It's an adventure to pass Via Maddalena street, a lively street filled with African shops and stands with a sound of Gospel from the African church nearby. If you found yourself in the neighborhood, make a stop to the Naples market to buy some fresh vegetables, fruits or fish near Corso Umberto avenue.
Where to eat pizza?
One of the most popular dishes in the world, pizza, was born in Naples. First mentions of pizza take us back into the 18th and 19th century, when Italian cook Raffaele Esposito prepared the first pizza Margherita in honor to the Queen Margherita di Savoia. He made the pizza from three basic ingredients – red passata, white mozzarella cheese, and green basil leaves – to represent the colors of the Italian flag. Nowadays in Naples, pizza Margherita is still the most popular kind of pizza and the best pizza in Italian pizzerias is usually the one with the least ingredients.
When we were preparing for our trip, we asked an Italian friend to recommend us places with the best pizza in Naples. He said that everywhere you can find a good pizza, otherwise, the Italian pride wouldn't allow them to sell it. However, here are some of the most popular pizzerias in Naples:
1) L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele (Via Cesare Sersale 1) – a very popular pizzeria where celebrities go (it was also used as a movie set for Eat, pray, love!). They rely on the traditional Naples pizza and the simplicity, thus they have only two types of pizza (Margherita and Marinara) for 4-5€, depending on the size. Inside there are few tables, which are almost always full, and often, people are even standing outside on the street, patiently waiting to be seated. If you choose pizzeria Da Michele, be prepared to wait a bit longer and eat your pizza quickly.
2) Di Matteo (Via dei Tribunali 94) – Another historical pizza place in the center of the city, where the line of people waiting for their order is also common. They have more different types of pizza to choose from, but they are especially famous for their fried pizza (pizza fritta) for only 3,50€.
3) Pizzeria Trianon da Ciro Leone (Via Pietro Coletta 44/46) – If you want to chill and take your time enjoying Naples delicious pizza, this is a place for you. You can choose from different types of pizza for an average price of 6-7€, which is prepared right in front of you. The pizzeria has two floors, so you won't have trouble finding a place to sit. We went there two nights in a row and had some of the best pizza in our lives.
As a city on the sea coast, Naples is also famous for its fish and seafood delicacies. For example, spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with mussels), calamari, shrimps or an octopus in casserole. If you want to eat fish and seafood, you should browse amongst the restaurants near the coastline, around the Piazza dei Plebisciti. We found a small typical Trattoria and pizzeria Nardones in Via Nardones. I had octopus in a spicy tomato sauce a la luciana and a local Napoli beer and my friend had fried pizza filled with ricotta. We enjoyed a lively dining atmosphere with cooks making pizza just in front of us and street musicians playing on accordion.
What and where to shop?
The street to buy your souvenirs is the narrow picturesque San Gregorio Armeno Street, full with small shops and traditional workshops.
You're wondering what to bring from Naples as a gift for your loved ones? Well, the most typical souvenir is small terracotta figurines of religious characters, ordinary people, animals, food and drink, even complete little houses that represent various professions. Naples is famous for its presepio or the nativity scene – small figurines of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus – which they put under the Christmas tree. However, Christmas is only once a year and Neapolitans are talented in making terracotta figurines, so they make it all year around and „store“ them in small wooden houses similar to doll houses. Depending on the size of a figurine, you'll spend from 1-30€ for one. I bought a figurine of a couple sitting around the table and dining. 🙂
The other most typical Neapolitan souvenir is the mask of Pulcinella, a fictive character that appeared for the first time in 1300 in Naples. It represents a positive man or woman that faces all of his/her problem with a smile, thus a true Neapolitan spirit. In the San Gregorio Armeno Street, you can find black Pulcinella masks with a bent nose, wrinkled face and small eyes or the Pulcinella figurine dressed in a white robe, carrying a pizza (two symbols of Naples!) or playing an instrument. You'll see Pulcinella character on many postcards or magnets, as well.
The patron saint of Naples is San Gennaio and lots of souvenir shops sell small figurines of the saint with a big hat, looking like a cardinal.
The last typical souvenir that you'll find in every souvenir shop, in all forms and shapes (pendants, earrings, bracelets), is a small red horn (curniciello), that is a Neapolitan good luck charm. And why exactly the red horn? From the times of ancient Romans, the horn has been a symbol of good luck, since it's similar to phallus, a symbol of virility, fertility, and life. Red color represents the bond with the blood and fire, the strength.
Nowadays, there are many ways of acting around curniciello. Some of the Neapolitans carry the horn with them, some of them hang them in their stores and some of them rub the curniciello before some important event or a game of football where Napoli club is playing. The small lucky charm can be made of different materials – terracotta, coral, plastic or even gold and silver in the jewelry stores. The important thing is not to buy it for yourself since it has to be given as a present.
If you are a football fan, you can buy T-shirts, baseball caps, scarfs or magnets with the logo of the S.S.C. Napoli or with Diego Maradona, the legendary Argentinean player who played for the club. There are a few football souvenir shops near Via Nilo in the city center, where you can also grab a cup of coffee in the small Bar Nilo, decorated with photos of Maradona and scarfs of the football club.
Where to stay?
The last, but not least is the accommodation in Naples. We stayed in two hotels, but only one is worth the recommendation – Maddalena Suites in Via Postica Maddalena 36/e. It's actually one apartment with three rooms (one with a balcony, from where you'll have the feeling that you have the whole city under you!) and the common kitchen with all the necessary appliances, dishes, coffee maker and toast and jam for breakfast. The apartments are run by a very likable and open-minded guy, Giuseppe, who will tell you everything he knows about Naples, give you some recommendations about good pizzerias and help you whenever you need it.
The price of the room is about 50€ per night and the rooms are suitable for couples or friends, as well as for the whole families. I strongly recommend this hotel, because it's the best place in which I stayed for a long time now and we really felt like at home!