Before I went to Naples, a few different Italian people shared this anecdote with me and it stuck deeply, so I thought that I would share it with you too. Scooters and Vespas are fairly popular forms of transport all of Italy. Of course, helmets are recommended for safety reasons. However, in Naples, riding with the visor of the helmet down signifies that you’re trying to hide your identity. The police will shoot you because they think you’re on your way to assassinate someone. On the other hand, what’s the point of riding with your visor up? If you get into an accident you’re not going to be too well off. Either way, you’re doomed! As morbid as it sounds this anecdote was always told with great mirth and a wry smile.
Through this story, I got the sense that there was more to Naples than people were letting on. Naples might be dangerous and chaotic to some, but within that, there’s a certain warmth and joie de vivre that’s difficult to express. With this in mind, my first stop after a month in Florence was Naples.
Naples station is actually one of the most modern and whimsical in all of Italy. The ticket machines were a little bit dated but the charming art more than made up for it. As an added bonus Sfogliatelle Attanasio is very close to the station, so you don’t need to go far to try one of the most famous Naples foods. My first taste of Sfogliatelle and I could immediately tell why so many love it. Crispy layers of warm sweet pastry with a soft ricotta filling is all that you can ask for.
Toledo station was another interesting station, and worth a peek into even if you’re not commuting through it. Going up the escalators to street level made me feel like I was slowly ascending from the seabed to the surface.
I stayed in an Airbnb in the Spanish quarter. The narrow and steep alleys and stairs weren’t exactly the easiest the navigate with a heavy suitcase. Somehow I managed and was rewarded with one of the most artistic and spacious rooms that I have encountered. The Spanish quarter has a bit of a maligned reputation as a place of petty crime and dirt. Although the traffic was fast and the streets not all that well lit I never felt like I was in danger, even when it was dark and I was returning back to the apartment. Of course, it helps to stay on the larger roads and veer away from totally empty ones at night.
By day you can catch some quirky street art and locals putting out laundry to dry on the balconies. As it starts to turn dark, residents will start to open their windows and sprawl out onto the streets, eating dinner, watching TV and playing with the kids.
If you keep walking down Via Toledo instead of the veering into the Spanish quarter, you’ll see a seemingly endless row of stores and cafes, before finally being greeted by the sea. Upon hitting a very large roundabout with an impressive fountain in the middle, you can head left towards Teatro di San Carlo (the longest continually operating opera venue in the world!) and the constantly under renovation royal palace. Alternatively, you can turn right, onto the very spacious Piazza del Plebiscito. Even without knowing what it is the San Francesco di Paola church and piazza make for an impressive and imposing sight.
Instead of lingering at either of this places, I made my way straight down the coast. I noticed that closer to the waterfront a lot more upmarket hotels and posh cars started appearing. The people melted away and I was almost entirely alone by the time I reached Castel dell’Ovo. This little castle is free to enter. There isn’t much in the way of explanation for what anything is, but it was still extraordinarily pleasant to wander around and look out at the Naples gulf and port as the wind picked up and the sun started to go down. If you choose to go a little further inland there’s a number of classier stores, and the grittiness gives way to a more ordered Naples with cute cafes and chic shoppers.
If you’re going to visit Pompeii or Herculean Naples National Archaeological Museum is a must. Many of the artworks and artifacts that were found in those areas are now preserved in this museum. Some of the most impressive were the statues that were excavated from the Roman Baths. On an interesting note, at the time I visited there was also a much more modern exhibit by Adrian Tranquilli called Days of Future Past. This featured many superheroes and other pop culture artworks interspaced between the more traditional works. I found this really refreshing. It’s with considerable wit and irony that the heroes and stories of today are juxtaposed with those of the past.
A short walk down and you’ll hit the Historic quarter of Naples. The whole area is designated as a UNESCO world heritage site. Walking through the cobbled streets and wide arches is a real treat. There are plenty of touristy stores selling more or less the same iconic Naples goods, but it is also filled with gorgeous churches and I am told, some of the best pizza in all of Naples.
Sorbillo is one of many said pizza establishments. It’s also one of the most famous and busiest. I managed to snag a table after around 25 minutes of waiting early on in the night. I did however, end of sharing my table with another solo diner, who turned out to be excellent company. Unlike some of the other well known pizzerias in town, Sorbillo offered a considerable range of pizza toppings. I settled on something with mushrooms and was confronted with a truly giant pizza. I manged to eat most of it, enjoying half and slowly suffering through a remaining third before calling it quits because I was just too full.
Photographs are not allowed in Cappella Sansevero, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that the sculptures inside this little church are completely stunning. The marble for each of the figures was carved with such skill. They looked incredibly delicate and life-like. Although the museum itself it tiny, in a way this is a good thing as you can get up very close to the statues and admire them. There’s also a bit of a surprise in the lower levels that I won’t spoil for you!
Gesù Nuovo church isn’t much to look at from the outside. The flat facade doesn’t reveal much of the wide cavernous space and artworks within. As many churches are, this was dimly lit and intensely atmospheric.
Complesso Museale di Santa Chiara. This was probably my favourite place in all of Naples. The cloister, decorated with colourful majolica tiles and lemon trees is utterly serene. While I was slowly making my way around the garden I could hear the tinkering of a piano and voices in song. If it weren’t for the rather modern garden tools it would have felt like I had slipped back in time, to an older and simpler Naples. I imagine that in its heyday this cloister must have hung heavy with the scent of lemon trees and been the most delightful place to sit in contemplation.
Ask any Italian, and they will tell you that the food is better down south. Therefore, I felt that it was my duty to try as much of it as I could!
Casa Infante was my very first gelato in Naples. Their ‘welcome to the South’ flavour was full of interesting textures courtesy of apricot and pistachio but also very creamy. Sadly, the intense heat of the afternoon meant that I lost some of it on my hands!
Il Gelato Mennella serves up a beautiful cone of gelato. The freshly made waffle cones smell amazing and are worth every sinful bite. I had a very large serve after dinner but still finished it all. They state that the gelato is made from all natural ingredients and sourced from a farm not too far from Naples. It’s hard to get any better than that.
Da nennella is touted as a typically Neapolitan experience. I’m not sure how accurate this is, but the atmosphere is incredible. The waiters were constantly bursting out into song and dance together. Both locals and tourists crowded around the red and white table cloths to partake in some very homey cuisine. For 12 euros, you get a fantastic feed of starters, mains and breads. The food is decidedly not upmarket, but it has a lot of charm and definitely feels like something you could eat at an Italian grandmother’s house.
Gay Odin has stores all over Naples. I believe that they were originally chocolate makers, before making heads into gelato and other sweet treats. With this in mind I couldn’t resist trying one of the chocolate gelatos that they had on offer. This was intensely chocolate, in the best way. It tasted slightly of cherry like a good dark chocolate is wont to do.
Naples is known for a lot of things. It is one of the oldest cities in Italy, home of pizza and organised crime. To understand Naples is to understand this dichotomy. Italians will raise their eyebrows and say that it a dirty, chaotic place, nothing really works and that Napolitan Italian is like a completely different language. All of this is true to some extent, but that doesn’t stop Naples from being interesting. Unlike a lot of the other famous Italian places that I visited I really got a sense that Naples was full of locals. There’s so many extraordinary buildings and monuments to see. You get the sense that if only it was cleaned up a bit (or a lot) it would be the jewel of Italy, but the people certainly aren’t going out of their way to accommodate this. In a way, that’s all part of the charm!
Another popular destination that I didn’t get to visit is the Naples Underground. Make sure you know what time the tours are so that you can take part!
Naples has a bit of a reputation for being unsafe but I never felt like I was in danger. As always it’s important to be vigilant of your surroundings and possessions but I acted much the same as I would in any other Italian city and got by just fine.