A city that's been continuously inhabited since 1000 BCE is bound to have its fair share of historical attractions, and Naples, Italy, does not disappoint. Since its founding by the Greeks more than three millennia ago, Naples has been a prized possession of the Romans, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Normans, French, and Spanish. Today, Italy's third-largest city is home to about one million people, and it oozes history at every turn. To help you make a little sense of it all, here are our top picks for the best historical sights to visit in Naples, Italy.
Naples is full of castles, and waterfront Castel dell'Ovo is its oldest and most impressive, due in no small part to its position overlooking the Bay of Naples. It's on the small island of Megaride, the site first settled by the ancient Greeks. Later a Roman villa occupied the site, then a monastery, until the castle was built in 1154. It's so-named Castel dell'Ovo (ovo is egg in Italian) because Roman poet Virgil allegedly hid an egg in the castle foundations. When the egg breaks, disaster befalls Naples. Today, there's not much to do at the castle but walk around the ramparts, but it offers great views of Naples and the bay islands.
Piazza del Plebiscito
Though Piazza del Plebiscito is young by Neapolitan standards, it's witnessed a lot of history since it was completed in the early 1800s. Napoleon's brother-in-law, installed as King of Naples, first planned the square to honor Napoleon. that plan was short-lived, as Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena and the Bourbon kings regained control of Naples. Finally, the piazza was renamed in 1860 to commemorate the plebiscite, the people's referendum that made the United Kingdom of Italy under the House of Savoy, with Vittorio Emmanuele II as king. Today, it's a grand car-free space, flanked by the Palazzo Reale and close to several other sights. Be sure to duck into the 19th-century Basilica Reale Pontificia San Francesco da Paola, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome.
From Greco-Roman aqueducts to medieval storerooms to World War II air-raid shelters, the tunnels, cisterns, and catacombs that lie under Naples' historic center have borne witness to nearly 3,000 years of human history. The comprehensive tours offered by Naples Underground (Napoli Sotterranea) shed fascinating light on this mysterious underground world. Tours include a glimpse into a Roman amphitheater hidden behind the doors of a currently occupied residence, plus an optional shimmy through a very narrow corridor. Once you're back above ground, you'll never look at the streets of Naples' centro storico quite the same way, knowing what lies beneath them.
The bones of Naples' most revered saint rested in these underground catacombs before being moved to the Duomo of Naples. However, today, the Catacombs of San Gennaro still shed fascinating light on the city's subterranean history. The catacombs have existed since at least the 2nd century when they were first used as a Christian burial site. When Gennaro's remains arrived in the 5th century, the site was renamed after him. With preserved frescoes and carvings, the dramatically lit labyrinthine grid of niches, which once held thousands of human remains, is one of Naples's moodiest, most enigmatic historical sights.
Also known as the Maschio Angioino, 13th-century Castel Nuovo was built for the French Anjou kings, who ruled the Kingdom of Sicily, of which Naples was a part. Subsequent kings of Naples occupied the castle, which once hosted Giotto, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Its position on a hill overlooking the sea and its imposing turrets make this medieval castle one of the most important historical sights in the city. The area around the castle was once completely built-up, but since the 20th century, the castle has been isolated to return it to prominence. Today it houses the Civic Museum (Museo Civico), with an impressive collection of medieval art and historic chapels and halls that can be visited.
Sprawled across one end of Piazza del Plebiscito, the Palazzo Reale, or Royal Palace, was built in the early 1600s and was occupied by the Spanish, Austrian Habsburgs, and Bourbon rulers of Naples and finally, by the House of Savoy. Today, it's a history museum filled with elaborately decorated halls and ceremonial rooms, chapels, and royal apartments dripping with every imaginable material excess. Courtyards, historic theatres, and a roof garden are part of a visit to the palazzo.
Porta Capuano and Castel Capuano
Once a gate to the old city, richly carved, 15th-century Porta Capuana is now a freestanding gate that seems a tad out of place sitting on its wide clearance in the middle of crowded Napoli. It's the gateway to the neighborhood of the same and is close to Castel Capuano, which, along with Castel dell'Ovo and Castel Nuovo, is among the oldest in the city. While the much-renovated castle lacks some of its cohorts' dramatic appeal, it's still interesting to peek into the courtyard and get a hint of the medieval structure.
Castel Sant'Elmo & the Certosa and San Martino Museum
The journey is half the fun of getting to hilltop Castel Sant'Elmo, which is reached via a steep funicular. First constructed in the late 1200s, the blocky castle looms over the city and is one of the best places in town for sweeping views of the Bay of Naples, Vesuvius, and the islands of Ischia and Capri. The interior is now mostly used as exhibit space—check to see what traveling shows are on display. At the nearby Certosa and San Martino Museum is a stunning medieval monastery with a richly decorated church, a cloister, and a museum of Italian art.
Once the rural hunting grounds of the Bourbon kings, the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte is now one of the most extensive collections of Italian art—though truthfully, many of the works are lesser pieces, even if they are from the likes of Titian, Botticelli, Raphael, and Perugino. But the setting alone is spectacular, as you walk through centuries of Italian painting, sculpture, and ceramics set against the backdrop of grand halls and former royal boudoirs. The surrounding park, one of Naples' biggest green spaces, is a welcome respite from the urban maw of the city.
Fountain of Neptune (Fontana del Nettuno)
The prettiest fountain in Naples has a colorful history—of getting tossed around a bit. Designed around 1600, the monumental fountain of the sea god Neptune reigning over a bevy of sea creatures stood at the arsenal for nearly 30 years before it was moved to what is now Piazza del Plebiscito. It moved three more times in the 17th century, before resting for a few years at Naples' port. After another move in the 19th century, the fountain moved two more times in the 2000s. In 2014, it was placed at Naples' Piazza Municipio, where we hope it remains for a while. But just in case, make sure you take a photo since it might not be there the next time you visit.