“The Italian proverb says “See Naples and die” but I say, see Naples and live; for there seems a great deal worth living for.”
― Arthur John Strutt
During my 24-month trip around the world I’ve met thousands of people and the most common reaction when I said I was Italian was: “Really?!??!! OMG! I LOOOOOOOVE ITALY! I have been to Cinque Terre, Rome, Venice, Milan, Tuscany…OMG ITAAAALY!!” And yes, most people were shouting while saying the above. I guess Italy gives some strong feelings to people and they can’t hide it when speaking about it. What can I say? Italians do it better LOL! But, jokes aside, among the travellers I’ve met, only a very few mentioned Naples as a must-see. The truth is that the public image of this city is still that of a mafia-troubled city and I cannot deny it, but there is so much more in Naples than what you’ve seen in TV series and movies.
Whether you are departing from Milan or Rome, Naples is only a few hours away making this Italian gem the perfect destination for a weekend away.
Day 1 – Above the Surface
Wake up early and make the most of your weekend by heading to the famous Gran Caffè Gambrinus where you can try the delicious sfogliatelle napoletane with an espresso. Opened in 1860, this celebrated establishment has been a literary salon, a famous art gallery as well as the cultural center of the city.
After breakfast, head to Piazza del Plebiscito, a vast square that features the Basilica Reale Pontificia San Francesco da Paola on one end and the Royal Palace of Naples on the other. After exploring the church and the palace, go to the San Carlo Theatre, a world-famous opera house where you can book a guided tour (multiple languages) during the day if you are not a big opera fan. It is really worthy since this is the oldest continuously active venue for public opera in the world, opening in 1737, decades before La Scala in Milan.
Once you’ve seen the theatre, it’s time to admire the Galleria Umberto I, another magnificent Neapolitan architecture gem inspired by the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan and now a public shopping gallery. From there, head to Via Toledo, the shopping street in Naples where you can find all the international fashion brands as well as local shops.
Here, it’s the perfect place for people watching and if you get peckish after all that walking about, head to any of the take-aways for a quick bite. Leave the pizza for the evening and try the fritti (fried food) instead: a cuoppo (dialect for a cone of straw paper filled with fritti, remember that cuoppo is also quite a heavy insult for less attractive women, so be careful using it while in Naples!), a crocchetta or even a slice of fried pizza which is similar but also totally different from actual pizza.
Next on our itinerary, right on the other side of Via Toledo and is the Spanish Quarters, so called because they were created in the 16th century to house Spanish garrisons, who were in charge of quenching revolts from the Neapolitan population. It soon became an infamous area that attracted criminality and prostitution, but today it is a vibrant neighborhood filled with people of all ages and backgrounds.
And now….it’s pizza o’clock! For once, forget your diet, American-style pizzas (sorry Americans but yours is something…erm, different!) and carb-related worries: Naples is where pizza was invented and, as I say, you haven’t visited Naples if you don’t eat pizza there every day. Since the 19th century, Naples has been the global capital of this simple but delicious meal. Some of the best pizzerias can be found on Via dei Tribunali, a kind of Holy Grail for pizza-lovers. I tried a few while I was in Naples recently (yes, I had pizza at lunch AND at dinner and yes, I put on 12 kg in 5 days) but my favourites are: Da Michele (the one visited by Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love - a bit touristy nowadays, but the pizza is still good), Di Matteo (Via Tribunali 94) and Pizzeria Brandi (Salita S. Anna di Palazzo 1/2). But don’t just trust me! Ask the locals - as I did - and follow their recommendations.
If you still have energy to spare and desire to see Naples’ nightlife head to the University area or go to Spaccanapoli (literally meaning breaking Naples), a long, narrow road that breaks Naples’ historical center in two parts. To be completely honest, Spaccanapoli isn’t the real name of a real road, it’s the name that Neapolitans have given to this stretch composed by seven streets starting from Piazza Dante and including Via Pasquale Scura (up in the Spanish Quarters), via Maddaloni, Via Benedetto Croce, Via San Biagio dei Librai, Via Vicaria Vecchia, Via Forcella and Giudecca Vecchia. Walking up and down Spaccanapoli is like taking a trip into Naples’ rich of contrasts and controversial history.
Day 2 - Under the skin of Naples. Literally.
Regardless of where you are staying in Naples, you must visit a couple of the brand new underground stations. After many years of refurbishment and several delay, the new system features incredible architecture alongside artworks of international and local artists. Università station was my favourite. So after your metro ride, head to a cafe for the usual caffè and sfogliatella combo and then step further below Naples’ skin by joining a tour with Napoli Sotterranea. I did not know that Naples was built on tuff, a soft, volcanic stone and that for the past 2,500 years, Neapolitans have been digging chambers and passageways beneath the city. Today, exploring the ancient underground city you will find Greek aqueducts, catacombs and World War II air raid shelters. After that, it’s time for some very remarkable sculptures at the Museo Cappella Sansevero where I found one of the most fascinating and realistic artworks of my entire life: the Veiled Christ by Giuseppe Sanmartino.
It’s now time for more street food: what about a pagnutiello (Neapolitan soft bread with lard and filled with salami, cheese, boiled eggs and black pepper which is the most traditional mid-morning “snack” in Naples), a calzone fritto (literally fried trousers, a half-moon fried pizza filled with tomato sauce, ham and mozzarella cheese) or an Arancino (little orange, traditionally from Sicily, this is a rice ball stuffed with Bolognese sauce made with mincemeat, green peas, tomato sauce and mozzarella)? You choose!
In the afternoon, head up to Castel Sant’Elmo, where you can see all of Naples’ beauty in its grandeur, including stunning views of the Bay of Naples and the Spaccanapoli from above. You can choose to hike up or to comfortably let the funicular do the hard work. One beautiful site to visit right next to the Castel Sant’Elmo is the Certosa di San Martino, a former monastery complex and now a very fascinating museum.
While you are up there, don’t miss the opportunity to stroll around the Vomero area, a former agricultural hub and now a luxurious residential area filled with bookshops, boutiques and fancy design shops.
If you have another night in Naples, spend it in a less chaotic place than the old center and head to the Lungomare instead where you will sense that magical atmosphere of those old Italian movies and songs. Admire the Mount Vesuvius right on the other side of the port and let the reflection of the city lights on the water make you dream of the old days for a bit. If you still have the energy, you can visit Piazza Bellini, the center of late nightlife in Naples which is full of bars, live music and clubs.
HOW TO GET TO NAPLES
You can fly with Alitalia, Easyjet and Meridiana from Milan to Naples. Otherwise, you can also catch an Italo or Trenitalia train which will take you there in under 5 hours. There are also several bus options but the journey takes between 8 and 12 hours. You can check price tickets here: FlixBus, Cotral and Baltour.
The average journey time between Rome and Naples is 1 hour and 30 minutes and the fastest is 1 hour and 7 minutes. Trains leave from Termini Station or Tiburtina Station. A bus journey from Rome to Naples takes about 2 hour and 30minutes. You can check price tickets here: FlixBus, Cotral and Baltour.