If you’re interested in lavish palaces, stunning cathedrals and churches, and spooky underground catacombs, we highly recommend devoting a few days to exploring Naples, Italy’s southern metropolis.
One of the oldest cities in the world to be consistently inhabited, Naples is a magical, though sometimes a bit chaotic, stop on your Italian adventure.
Read on for our expert tips on what to do in Naples, Italy.
1. Don’t miss Pompeii, Herculaneum and Paestum
Only a 30-minute train ride away, Pompeii is one of the must-sees in Naples for a reason. The whole bustling Roman city was frozen in time when Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried it under ash and pumice in 79 A.D., leaving a revealing glimpse into Roman daily life at the time. Before you go, make sure you read our tips for a successful visit to Pompeii.
Just a couple of train stops away from Pompeii is the less famous but equally intriguing site of Herculaneum. A smaller but wealthier town, it also succumbed to the rain of ash in 79 AD. Unlike Pompeii, the pyroclastic flow carbonized, which meant that organic materials were preserved, leaving behind wooden roofs, bed frames, clothes and even food.
Want to visit a historical site that doesn’t involve tragedy and volcanic ash? Head to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Paestum about an hour and a half by train south of Naples. Founded by the Greeks in the 6th century B.C., Paestum is renowned for having the world’s best preserved ancient Greek temples — two temples dedicated to Hera and one to Athena. It also boasts a fantastic museum filled with thousand years of ancient frescoes, ceramics and other artefacts that paint a picture of the lavish lifestyle of Paestum’s ancient inhabitants.
2. Find your muse in Naples’ museums
Now that you visited Pompeii and Herculaneum, head back to Naples and check out the Naples National Archeological Museum (Museo archeologico nazionale di Napoli) where you’ll find many of the mosaics and other works from the sites themselves. You’ll also find a huge collection of ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts, including mummies and death masks. For the less, ahem, prudish, check out the Secret Cabinet, or Gabinetto Segreto, a repository of erotic art found in Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Moving forward to the 17th century, the Gallerie d’Italia, housed in the Baroque era Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, boasts an awe-inspiring collection of art works from the 17th to the 20th century. The highlight of the collection is Caravaggio’s final work, the haunting Martyrdom of Saint Ursula,, which seems to predict the alleged manner of the artist’s death.
If you’re looking for something more recent... say, from the last hundred years, Naples has an amazing museum of contemporary art, the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea DonnaRegina (MADRE). Housed in a 19th century palazzo in the historic center, the MADRE boasts one of the best modern art collections in Italy and is one of the best kept secrets of what to see in Naples. Wander its elegant halls and gaze at works by Anish Kapoor, Marina Abramovic, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Cindy Sherman as well as an amazing collection of more recent Italian artists. When you’re done getting your mind blown by this elegantly curated collection, head to the rooftop terrace for a breathtaking view of Naples.
3. Visit Naples’ magnificent churches
It’s nigh impossible to truly know a city in Italy without visiting its churches, and Naples is no exception. The Duomo di Napoli, or Naples Cathedral, was completed in the 14th century, built atop the foundations of two paleo-Christian basilicas. Highlights include the gilded coffered ceiling, the interior of the Cappella di San Gennaro (also known as the Chapel of the Treasury) with frescoes by Giovanni Lanfranco and altarpieces by Domenichino, Stanzione and Ribera.
The royal church of the Angevins, the Church of San Domenico Maggiore was built in 1324 under the reign of Charles I of Anjou. Take the guided tour and visit the sacristy with its frescoed ceilings by Francesco Solimena. Opt for the longer tour and get a glimpse of Thomas’ Aquinas’ monastic cell and the bell he rang to call his students.
From the San Domenico Maggiore head northwest and you will find the Cappella Sansevero. The smaller chapel is like a geode — deceptively plain on the outside but dazzling on the inside. Built in 1590, the chapel is decorated with works by some of the most famous 18th century Italian artists. Don’t miss the ceiling fresco, the Glory of Paradise painted by Francesco Maria Russo.
In a more macabre twist, the Cappella also exhibits two anatomical machines, the hardened skeletons of a man and a pregnant woman thought at one time to represent the process of “human metallization”. More recently they were found to be very well done representations of the circulatory system made by overlaying wire and wax laid on two human skeletons.
4. Explore castles, palacios and fortresses
Naples is one of the oldest cities in the world to be consistently inhabited; the Greeks first settled on the site in the second millennium B.C. An important cultural center and port under the Greek and Romans led to its role as the capital of the Duchy of Naples during the Middle Ages (691-1139), the Kingdom of Naples (1282-1816), and then capital of the Two Sicilies until Italy was unified in 1861. All to say, Naples has been inhabited by some pretty important people, and important people like their castles and palazzos. Here are a few castles that are worth the trek.
The Castel dell’Ovo, or Castle of the Egg, gets its name from the poet Virgil who, legend has it, buried an egg under the foundations of the castle. His claim: if the egg breaks, the Castle and Naples will fall. Perched on the tip of Naples' waterfront, this 12th century fortification is the oldest standing castle in Naples, offering a spectacular view of the Naples waterfront and surrounding area.
The Castel Nuovo, or New Castle, located in the Piazza Municipio near City Hall, will satisfy all your medieval castle fantasies. Located near the water, its five crenulated towers are an important part of Naples’ cityscape. The castle was first erected in 1279 and was the royal seat for all the various kings until 1815. Check out the Torre della Guardia, the Renaissance triumphal arch at the entrance of the castle that commemorates Alfonso I of Aragon’s victory in Naples. Inside you will find some fragments of frescoes by Giotto, who lived in the castle at one time.
Located in the Piazza del Plebiscito, The Royal Palace of Naples, or the Palazzo Reale Di Napoli combines art, architecture and all the confusion of Italy’s political history. Construction of the palace began in the 17th century for King Philip III of Spain, who incidentally never visited. Highlights include the ‘power’ façade, so called because of the eight statues of Neapolitan rulers from the 12th to19th centuries adorning its walls, the Baroque frescoes painted by the likes of artists such as Giovanni Balducci, and the exquisitely decorated rooms used by its queens, Maria Carolina and Caroline Bonaparte.
Less than an hour’s train ride away from the city center, is the sprawling and elegant Reggia di Caserta di Caserta, or Royal Palace of Caserta. Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, it is not only the largest Italian Palace, it is one of the largest palaces erected in Europe in the 18th Century and still one of the largest royal residences in the world. The castle boasts 1,200 rooms spread over five floors, designed to accommodate not only the royal family, but also the Neapolitan court and government. Climb the magnificent staircase, designed by renowned architect Luigi Vanvitelli with its multi-coloured marble and its seamless blend of baroque and classical elements. And be sure to meander through the extraordinary royal gardens. Inspired by Versailles, Vanvitelli designed the gardens with a telescopic effect stretching it out over 120 hectares, making it look like the gardens stretch into the horizon.
5. Go underground to the catacombs
The San Gennaro Catacombs are an important paleo-Christian burial site located in the northern part of Naples, in Rione Sanità. The catacombs are the result of a three-cemetery mash-up and date as far back as the 3rd or 4th centuries. The site has been lovingly restored and visitors can now wander this crazy underground world of tunnels, passageways and vestibules that contain more than 300 burials. Highlights include 2nd century Christian frescoes, 5th century mosaics and a 5th century portrait of San Gennaro himself, the oldest known in existence.
Just in case you haven’t seen enough burial sites, the caves of the Fontanelle Cemetery will surely satiate you. Located in the Materdei section of the city, the Fontanelle cave was used as a secondary burial site when the other churches and crypts began to overflow. Though the offloading of corpses to the cave began earlier, most of the 40,000 skulls found in the cave were victims of the 1656 plague and the cholera epidemics of the 19th century. Because so many bodies were dumped in the cave all at once, the poor souls of the dead were not given proper burials under Catholic law. In 1872, Father Barbati began the daunting task of cataloguing the remains and enlisting women in his parish to care for the bones. Thus began a strange but beautiful “cult of the dead”, where women go to the cave, wash their adopted skull and place wishes in their eye sockets. The caves were also used as a bomb shelter during World War II.
The Galleria Borbonica, or Bourbon Tunnel, was originally conceived as an escape route from the Palazzo Reale to what was then the military barracks. Commissioned by King Ferdinand II in 1853, the underground passageway was never completed. Part of the 17th century aqueduct system that also incorporates the 16th century cisterns, the tunnel was used during World War II as an air raid shelter and military hospital. A tour of the tunnel reveals a ton of historical debris, including vintage motorcycles and cars.
6. Set sail on a boat tour
Once you’ve had enough of the hectic but grandiose chaos of Naples, take a boat tour to one of the surrounding islands. Head to the famously picturesque Capri and meander the streets of its quaint villages. Gawk at the view atop Mount Solaro and watch the sunlight illuminate the waters in the famous Blue Grotto Cave.
Alternatively, head toward the less touristy but just as beautiful volcanic island of Ischia and stroll through the car-free streets of Sant’Angelo. Treat yourself to a dip in one of the island’s many thermal springs or take a walk through the stunning La Mortella Gardens.
7. Climb to the summit of Vesuvius
A trip to Naples wouldn’t be complete without a hike up Vesuvius, the notorious volcano that lulled villagers into thinking they were safe, then erupted and spewed ash over entire cities. Vesuvius is only six miles outside Naples; take the train to Pompeii, then board a bus to the Vesuvius parking lot. From there, it takes about half an hour to climb the volcano. Come prepared — the temperature is often much cooler on the top of the mountain. Bring layers, sunscreen and plenty of water.
8. Taste the inimitable pizza Napoletana
If you visit Italy’s southern metropolis and do not sample a pizza from the birthplace of humanity’s favourite food, then you have not been to Naples. Go for the classic pizza Margherita, named after the queen of Italy who requested this exact dish of dough, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and basil. You’ll find a quality pie almost anywhere in Naples, but if you want to be doubly sure, head to Sorbillo Pizzeria, Pizzeria del Presidente, L’Antica Pizzeria di Michele, or Pizzeria di Matteo. Top off your pizza feast with one of these famously Neapolitan desserts.
9. Make a toast in the shadow of Vesuvius
Sipping a glass of Lacryma Christi is like sipping a glass full of history. Produced on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, experts claim that this is as close as we are going to get to knowing how wine tasted in ancient Rome. Available in white, rosé and red varieties, you can pair this wine with pretty much anything (including pizza Napoletana).
10. Last but not least: Lose yourself in Naples
In many ways Naples is the epitome of Italy — passionate, chaotic and raucous. To get a real taste for the city and the people who inhabit it, the most important thing to do in Naples is wander its streets. Meander down alleyways strung with clotheslines; check out an open air market with its abundance of wares; stroll the Naples harbor and the Spanish quarter; soak in the local culture in the District of Santa Lucia.
Wind up your day of wandering with a drink in one of the city’s historic piazzas. The Piazza Bellini, with its 4th century Greek city walls, is known as a great place to chill with a spritz after a hard day of work or sightseeing.