The most jaw-dropping collection of treasures I have ever seen under one roof is at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. Even more incredible, the museum is often empty of visitors. It's almost a crime how few people visit this collection, which is why you should go right now.
Part of the reason this museum isn't jam packed as it should be is that Naples is often only a point of departure for travelers on their way to Capri or the Amalfi coast. Recently tourism to Naples has spiked thanks to a phenomenon called "Ferrante Fever". A quartet of novels by the pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante has inspired readers to visit Naples and see the sites so vividly described in the books. The museum is mentioned in the second novel in the series "The Story of a New Name", when Elena, anxious to overcome her poor background, spends time in the museum to educate herself before leaving Naples for university in Pisa.
Pompeii is only a short distance from Naples and the museum is the repository of the greatest treasures from Pompeii, Stabia and Herculaneum. Founded in the 1750s by the Bourbon King Charles III of Spain, the building has also served as part of the University of Naples.
Here is a short list of what you will discover inside:
- The Alexander mosaic, made for a house in Pompeii around 100 B.C.E. depicts a battle between Alexander the Great and Darius of Persia.
- The Farnese Collection of Roman copies of Greek sculptures. The Hercules is most famous while the Bull and Artemis will certainly look familiar as well.
- The Secret Cabinet, a special gallery for adult visitors that contains all the pornographic art excavated at Pompeii.
- Egyptian art from the Old Kingdom to the Ptolemaic period, the second largest collection in Italy.
One of the best travel experiences in Italy is a day in Pompeii followed by an evening at the Archaeological Museum and, of course, pizza.
- Wait until the morning rush hour is over and take the Circumvesuviana train, accessible from the Napoli Centrale train station. This Circumvesuviana is essentially the commuter rail line out to the suburbs of Naples, which, if you studied Latin, goes around Vesuvius. It stops frequently though it only takes about 30-45 minutes to reach Pompeii Scavi. Because the rail line is local, you can not purchase tickets in advance on TrenItalia. Plan to spend an entire day.
- Sleep in the next day, have lunch, then plan to spend the late afternoon and early evening at the museum, open daily until 7:30pm. Local school groups tend to go in the mornings as do the big umbrella led tour groups from the cruise ships.
- During the evening hours, you will truly have the museum all to yourself. One-on-one time with many of western art's most important and famous works of art is a tremendous experience.
- After the museum, have dinner at my favorite pizzeria in Naples, Pizzeria Starita a Materdei. Mind you, Naples is the city that literally invented pizza so saying this is my favorite is high praise. This pizzeria was a set for "L'Oro di Napoli" when Sophia Loren disguises herself as a pizza maker. Today, it also has outposts in New York and Atlanta which I can verify, are as good as the Neapolitan original. It also happens to be within a short walking distance of the museum.