As gritty and chaotic as it is beautiful and vibrant, Naples, or Napoli in Italian, is a city of many contradictions. Located in Southern Italy, or the Mezzogiorno (land of the midday sun), its bustling seaport sits on the edge of the Bay of Naples, in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed nearby Pompeii.
The celebrated historical center of Naples is brimming with architecturally stunning churches, fascinating museums, elegant palaces, and lively piazzas, all orbiting around a few major streets. The density of tourist attractions means you can easily get in touch with the cultural essence of Naples while still having time to enjoy its fine wines and delicious foods, such as... wait for it... pizza!
Here's a list of some of our favorite things to do and see in the historical center of Naples, Italy.
Dedicated to Naples' patron saint, San Gennaro, this 13th-century Gothic cathedral features Baroque frescoes and artwork, but most importantly holds the saint's relics, including two vials of his coagulated blood. Be sure to visit the archaeological area under the cathedral, with ruins from ancient Greece to the Middle Ages. Don't forget to check out the 5th-century baptistery, adorned with Byzantine-style mosaics. Each year on September 19th, thousands gather here on the Feast Day of San Gennaro to watch the miracle of the saint's blood liquefying. Processions and celebrations go on for eight days.
Erected on this site in the 14th century, Santa Chiara Church is part of a religious complex consisting of a monastery, tombs, and an archeological museum. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was remodeled with a Baroque facade, but after being destroyed by bombs in World War II, it was reconstructed to its original Provencal-Gothic style. The tombs of the Angevin monarchs lie here, as well as relics of Saint Louis of Toulouse, including his brain. Next to the church is the nun's choir with fragments of frescoes attributed to Giotto. The adjacent cloisters, designed by Vaccaro in 1742, contain intricate majolica-tiled columns and benches, and the courtyard walls feature 17th-century frescoes depicting saints, allegories, and scenes from the Old Testament. In the museum, you'll find a Roman bathhouse dating back to the 1st-century C.E.
Explore the Piazza San Domenico Maggiore & Sansevero Chapel
One of the most important squares in Naples, Piazza San Domenico Maggiore features an obelisk built by monks as a gesture of gratitude for having survived the deadly plague of 1656. On the square is the 15th-century Palazzo Petrucci, with its original entry and courtyard intact. Towards the back of the piazza sits the Church of San Domenico Maggiore, where you can see the remnants of an original 10th-century Romanesque basilica, and early Renaissance art—such as frescoes by Pietro Cavallini—as well as copies of works by Caravaggio and Titian (originals are in the Capodimonte Museum). Inside the church are the tombs of various members of the Anjou dynasty, as well as the 13th-century cross that was said to have spoken to St. Thomas Aquinas. Don't miss a visit to the Sansevero Chapel with marble sculptures and paintings of the 18th century, including the extraordinary and haunting Veiled Christ by Sanmartino.
A rare Gothic edifice, the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore has the excavated remains (scavi) of a Greco-Roman city underneath it, including a Roman forum. Several recreations have been set up to show what the city might have looked in Roman times. The museum exhibits works from the Greek and Roman periods through the 19th century, notably the frescoed ceilings in the Capitolare and Sisto V rooms.
Underneath the city lies a hidden labyrinth of ancient tunnels, aqueducts, cisterns, catacombs, and a Greco-Roman theatre where Emperor Nero had his dressing room. Naples Underground takes visitors on a captivating tour of the vast subterranean network of chambers and pathways buried below this modern city.
World-renowned for having an outstanding collection of Greek and Roman antiquities, including mosaics, sculptures, gems, glass, and silver, it also displays an impressive collection of finds from Pompeii. Allow at least half a day here, and don't forget to book ahead for the Secret Cabinet tour, where you can view erotic works from Pompeii.
Begun by Spanish Viceroys in 1600, Palazzo Reale was eventually expanded to become Naples' royal palace. Behind the handsome exterior are great halls and royal apartments filled with furnishings, tapestries, paintings, and porcelains. Visit the roof garden where the sweeping views of the bay remind you that it's good to be a king.
Walk Around the Piazza del Plebiscito
It was after the Unification of Italy in 1860 that Piazza del Plebiscito was named. Located right in the middle of Naples, the once disheveled square has been spruced up in recent years to reflect the grandeur of its important neighbors: Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace), and San Francesco di Paola, featuring a 19th-century dome modeled after the Pantheon in Rome. The piazza is further enhanced by Palazzo Salerno and Palazzo della Prefettura, along with several equestrian statues of King Carlo III and King Ferdinando I by master sculptor Antonio Canova. From the Piazza del Plebiscito, continue on Via Toledo (also called Via Roma): a pedestrian area that's one of the old town's main business and shopping streets.
If catacombs and crypts are not macabre enough for you, in the Anatomy Museum of the University of Campania Luigi Vanvitelli, part of the MUSA museum of science and art, you can see the preserved remains of actual human beings. For some, the exhibits are the stuff of nightmares, but for others, it's just another day at the museum.
Peer through formaldehyde-filled jars at an array of strange medical defects, or skip ahead to the more sedate anatomical section of the museum to marvel at the work of Efisio Marini and Giuseppe Albini, who created unique pieces of art using pickled or calcified body parts.
Walk Spaccanapoli in the Heart of the City
Spaccanapoli (Naples splitter) is the main street bisecting the historic and noisy heart of the city. Running east to west, it provides easy access to Naples' most popular sights. Teeming with people day and night, the boulevard is home to classical churches and old palazzi (stately buildings). Part of what was a Greek, and later a Roman city, the Spaccanapoli district has a network of narrow, winding streets — many pedestrian-only zones. Along the way, keep an eye out for small shops selling traditional Neapolitan street fare, like pizza a portafoglio (folded pizza) and deep-fried "balls of rice" (palle ‘e riso).
Shop on Via San Gregorio Armeno
Even if you're not into religious manger scenes, Via San Gregorio Armeno is definitely worth experiencing. Lined with a string of artisan workshops that make statuettes and scenery for traditional Neapolitan nativity scenes or presepi, the figurines and souvenirs spill out onto the street. About halfway up the Via San Gregorio Armeno is the church of the same name. On Tuesdays at the 9:30 am service, witness the miracle of Saint Patricia's liquefying blood.
Explore Ancient Arcades on Via dei Tribunali
Also known as Decumano Maggiore, Via dei Tribunali is another old street that ran through the ancient Greek city of Neapolis founded in the 5th century BCE. Along the way, visit splendid Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque churches that preserve numerous masterpieces, including a painting by Caravaggio in the Church of Pio Monte della Misericordia. The shady arcades (porticos) date back more than 1,000 years.
There isn't a dish more deeply linked to the city's cultural identity than pizza. First introduced to the world by the ancient Greeks sometime around the end of the 18th century, the round flatbread found its way to Southern Italy. A popular working-class staple primarily sold by street vendors, it gained worldwide attention at the turn of the 20th century, when Queen Margherita of Savoy developed a liking for the peasant delicacy. She summoned Chef Raffaele Esposito to the royal palace and pizza Margherita was born. In 2017, the craft of pizza making (pizzaiuolo) was officially recognized as a culinary art when it was added to UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.
Indulge at Scaturchio Pastry Shop
Don't miss the gastronomical delight that is Naples' desserts. Taste traditional pastries such as babà (rum-soaked dough) and Sfogliatella (flaky pastry filled with ricotta and candied citrus). The best of the best can be found at Scaturchio, Naples' oldest pastry shop.
Sitting in a prominent position on the harbor, Castel dell'Ovo is the oldest fortification in Naples. Built in 1154, the fortification occupies a small island facing the Santa Lucia district. Once the site for the city's shellfish trade, it later became the royal residence under the Normans and the Hohenstaufen. Today, the castle is primarily used for exhibitions and concerts.
See the Castel Nuovo
Erected for Charles of Anjou in 1279-1282, this massive Castle Nuovo today houses the Civic Museum (Museo Civico). Containing 14th- and 15th-century frescoes, paintings, and bronze sculptures from the Middle Ages to present, the castle is also known as Maschio Angioino. Built in Aragonese style (apart from the towers and the Cappella Palatina), it boasts a triumphal arch at the entrance built in 1454. The original bronze doors are now in the Palazzo Reale.
Italy's largest and oldest opera house, the Teatro di San Carlo is recognized for its perfect acoustics. Built for Charles of Bourdon in 1737, it was rebuilt in 1816, after a fire.
Among Italy's richest museums, the Capodimonte Museum started out as a hunting lodge for King Charles III. It prides itself in its outstanding picture gallery containing works by Titian, Botticelli, Raphael, and Perugino, as well as having an immense collection of majolica and porcelain pottery. You can wander around the royal apartments and the surrounding park, too.
Get a View From the National Museum and Monastery of San Martino
Offering magnificent views above Santa Lucia from Vomero Hill, the Certosa di San Martino was founded as a Carthusian monastery in the 1300s. The museum offers an impressive display of traditional presepi (nativity scenes) and splendid cloisters designed in 1623-1629 by Cosimo Fanzago, the father of Neapolitan Baroque.
Get Lost at the The Botanical Gardens of Naples
Considered one of the best botanical gardens in Italy, the 170-acre plot of land opened in 1810. It's a public park, as well as a research facility of the University of Naples Federico II, and among the oldest in Europe. The Orto Botanico is dedicated to the preservation of endangered species and the study of how plants can be used for medicinal purposes. On the premises is a restored 5,400 square foot greenhouse comprised of lecture halls, display rooms, and the Museum of Paleobotany and Ethnobotany.
Ride the Funiculars
The first funicolare (a form of railway transportation using a cable to move passengers up steep inclines) was built on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius in the late 1800s. It was abandoned in 1944, after a volcanic eruption severely damaged it. Today there are four funicular lines carrying Neapolitans up and down. One goes to the top of the Vomero district where fabulous views can be had from the Castle Sant'Elmo and the Certosa and Museum of San Martino. Funicolare Centrale, one of the longest in the world, leaves from Via Toledo by Galleria Umberto. The other two are Funicolare di Chiaia and Funicolare di Montesanto. Together they ferry nearly 4 million passengers up and down the inclines of Naples every year.