Naples and I were not immediate friends. When I first visited 25 years ago in a study abroad class, we were so severely cautioned and tutored against the city’s supposed criminality that we didn’t get to explore much. What we did see didn’t really appeal to me; I guess I was more of a Northerner, character wise. I returned a dozen years later leading my own study abroad group, with a desire to better understand the city but no particular love for it. Only in recent years have I been back with a bit more leisure to explore the city with the excellent guides of Context Travel. I also think I’ve grown into the city by becoming more Italian – more open to “casino” and more appreciation for different kinds of beauty (and food!). On my most recent trips, I’ve found that there are so many things to do in Naples Italy that one could easily spend a week or more exploring. From delicate Renaissance sculpture to gritty narrow streets, Baroque wonders, flavourful pizza and grand palazzi, here’s my guide to Napoli.

Fiorella Squillante is a licensed guide to Naples and she’s full of energy and love for her native city. Amongst other tours, she leads Context Travel’s Introduction to Naples tour. The tour’s description doesn’t promise much – a few castles and a primer on the city from Roman times to now. Don’t be fooled. Without entering into any museums or necessarily any famous churches, Fiorella gave us a great base with which to approach the city. Below is some of what we saw with Fiorella and some was “homework” from other trips I’ve taken to the city.

A city of contrasts: Naples history and neighbourhoods

piazza Plebiscito
Piazza Plebiscito

Piazza Plebiscito / via Toledo. We started off our day at the historic and very fancy Gambrinus bar, right near the Palazzo Reale (the bar is where they bring visiting presidents!). The Palazzo was built in the early 17th century, while the church in front of it, which echoes St. Peter’s in the Vatican, dates to 1816. We didn’t go inside either large structure; rather the point of starting here was to introduce the “thesis” of our walk with Fiorella – that Naples is a city of strong contrasts. Clinging to the hill that rises up behind the church is the Pallonetto area, one of the worst in Naples. We walked through a part, with windows opening at knee height, no urban planning, unhealthy and moldy construction; then we deek back down at a point beyond which Fiorella says is drug-dealing land.

We had arrived at piazza Plebiscito by walking down the long and wide via Toledo. Lined with somewhat cheap shops, this wide boulevard cuts through Naples, with the very authentic Quartieri Spagnoli on one side and the historic center on the other.

A few hundred meters to the south, I’m almost surprised to be on the coast and to smell the warming sea air. Between Pallonetto and Castel dell’Ovo, a promontory sticking out of the city, is Monte Echia, and this part of Naples is its first Greek settlement called Parthenope. The Castle is free to visit and provides an incredible view of the gulf of Naples. The islet of Megaris has history as a first-century pleasure villa of the Roman general Lucullus; it was later a monastery and then a castle. Surrounding it are some bars, restaurants (quite good, apparently) and some random housing – this was a fishermens’ settlement, and some original owners still hold fast amongst the otherwise gentrified homes.

The view from Castello dell'Ovo
The view from Castello dell’Ovo

Spaccanapoli and the Centro. The Greek settlement, Neapolis, dates to the 5th century or earlier. You can spot it on a map as the regular cross-streets of the part generally labeled as the historic center. Down its very middle is the crowded tourist street, Spaccanapoli (actually called via Benedetto Croce and via San Biagio dei dei Librai).


Packed with churches, if you have time, head into San Domenico Maggiore, whose important monastery and library attracted both St. Thomas Acquinas and Giordano Bruno. Caravaggio’s Flagellation, now at the Capodimonte Museum, was located in a chapel here; an Annunciation by Titian has also been moved to the museum.

San Domenico Maggiore
San Domenico Maggiore

While in central Naples, don’t miss the famous Christmas Street, San Gregorio Armeno, where it’s Christmas all year round. In December, this street gets so crowded that pedestrian traffic is limited to one direction. Here you can see the very important tradition of presepi (crèches), including some historic examples.

presepe details
Detail of items you can buy for your presepe at San Gregorio Armeno

Quartiere Sanità. Between the center and Capodimonte – one of the three hills of Naples – is an area called Quartiere Sanità (named for the fact that it was “healthy” – sano – to live there as it was once full of trees). The large boulevard that runs from Palazzo Reale up to Capodimonte (the summer residence of the Bourbon Kings) runs through the Sanità, and to ensure an attractive procession, it was lined with nice palazzi and churches. Fiorella took us to visit this area, where she’s chosen to live. It’s in a pre-gentrification phase but has a lot of potential in these grand 18th-century buildings, especially those by the architect Ferdinando Sanfelice. Palazzo dello Spagnuolo is the prime exponent, with a grand double ramp interior stairwell that the architect also used for his own home and that of his servants (just further down the same street).

Palazzo dello Spagnuolo
Palazzo dello Spagnuolo

Naples Italy things to do by historical period

I am an unusual tourist in that I like to organize my visits by historical period. Fun fact, this blog started in 2004 because I wanted to see Rome in chronological order and of course guidebooks organized sites by district, so I started listing things to see and writing notes about them online in my own way! Naples is an absolute mix of layered history (just like Rome, for that matter) as well as influxes of so many cultures, but I’ve organized a few things to see here below by art historical period because my mind still works in this strange way.

The Greek and Roman eras in Naples

san lorenzo maggiore
The courtyard of the complex of San Lorenzo Maggiore hides something underneath

Wherever you dig, you’re going to hit something Greek or Roman, which means in many sites in Naples, there’s a part that has been excavated to show elements of the ancient city of Neapolis, which was founded in 470 B.C by Greek colonizers. One particularly spectacular and recent find is an area underneath the convent of San Lorenzo Maggiore called La Neapolis Sotterrata (not to be confused with Napoli Sotterranea). In the 1960s, a chance renovation project at the convent unveiled a series of underground chambers that had been filled in during a mudslide; the subsequent 30 years were spent excavating what proved to be a 1st-century BCE city built upon earlier foundations.

Neapolis sotterrata
This area was likely a restaurant

Head ten meters down and you can explore an ancient roman shopping street complete with “botteghe” whose functions have been identified as things like a tavern and a laundry. In a long corridor, a series of rooms divided by arches contain slightly inclined “beds” with space for warming fires underneath, which historians believe was a restaurant (remember, Romans ate lying on one side). While signage indicates the function of each room, having a guide like Fiorella very much brings this space alive.

The Farnese Hercules (Ercole)
The Farnese Hercules (Ercole)

The richest Ancient treasures in Naples are those housed at the Archaeological Museum. For a Renaissance geek like myself, the most exciting part of this museum is the Farnese collection due to its connection with the Renaissance collecting practises of the Roman Farnese family. You can generally have the Toro Farnese sculptural group and the monumental Ercole Farnese to yourself as this is hardly a crowded museum, and can think about how these works influenced Renaissance artists. But this museum also holds some of the only Roman paintings in existence and they will break your heart open! Frescoes pulled from the walls of Pompeii when it was first discovered, as well as numerous panels of tiny mosaics, make up the mosaic and painting collections of the museum. Finally, there’s the “secret room” full of Ancient erotic art.

Renaissance art in Naples

Castel Nuovo or the Maschio Angioino
Castel Nuovo or the Maschio Angioino

When I first came to Naples as a student, I was in a fabulous 6-week traveling Renaissance art class with Syracuse University. We visited Florence, Rome, Naples, Venice, Urbino, Ravenna and a few things in between, always in search of “things Renaissance” – even in places less known for this period. Hence, one of the first things I saw in Naples was the sculpted triumphal gate of the Maschio Angioino, a late 13th-century fortified castle commissioned by the French King Charles of Anjou.

Triumphal gate of the Maschio Angiolino
Triumphal gate of the Maschio Angiolino

Giotto was hired to paint areas inside in 1328, though sadly, only a few fragments remain. Always a visual testimony to changing governments, when the Aragonese Kings conquered Naples in the middle of the 15th century, they commissioned a delicate, light marble entryway by Florentine artists that stands in contrast with the massive defensive structure.

Sant'Anna dei Lombardi houses 2 chapels by Benedetto di Maiano and Antonio Rossellino
Sant’Anna dei Lombardi houses 2 chapels by Benedetto di Maiano and Antonio Rossellino

The Florentine style never quite caught on in Naples, but it was appreciated by foreign rulers and Tuscan diplomats who commissioned primarily tombs from Florentine artists. Renaissance geeks like me will hence want to visit the church of Sant’Anna dei Lombardi, where the Piccolomini family’s (yes, the same as commissioned the library in the Cathedral of Siena) tomb was sculpted by Benedetto da Maiano and Antonio Rossellino.

Cappella del Succorpo or Carafa Chapel
Cappella del Succorpo or Carafa Chapel

In the Duomo, the Cappella del Succorpo or Carafa Chapel is located in the crypt and was commissioned in 1497 by Cardinal Oliviero Carafa, who that same year retrieved a precious relic, the bones of San Gennaro, through a military operation. The touching arrangement of the chapel shows a life-sized scupture of the cardinal in prayer, in pure Renaissance style. Some have attributed this space to Bramante while the sculpture is by Tommaso Malvito.

Another Renaissance destination that Fiorella recommended (but that I have to save for a future trip) is the church of San Giovanni a Carbonara, where there are 15th-century frescoes and sculptures.

Capodimonte Titian
Capodimonte Titian room

If you have at least half a day to dedicate to it, I suggest heading out to the Capodimonte Museum (and its beautiful gardens). Wonder upon wonder greets you as you roam through its extensive collection. Amongst my favourites is the rich roomful of Titians, but of course you wouldn’t want to miss the Flagellation of Christ by Caravaggio, originally painted for altar at the church of San Domenico in Naples.

Caravaggio, Flagellation, Capodimonte
Caravaggio, Flagellation, Capodimonte

Baroque art and Caravaggio in Naples

Caravaggio, 7 works of mercy, Pio Monte della Misericordia
Caravaggio, 7 works of mercy, Pio Monte della Misericordia

Caravaggio came to Naples with a price on his head. He worked in constant fear of being discovered and killed. Leaving only three works in the city, his impact on Naples and its artistic style was felt for decades. Context Travel has a tour on Caravaggio and the Baroque in Naples which I have written about in detail here. If you can only see one Caravaggio in Naples, I suggest the one in situ, at the Pio Monte della Misericordia. In 1607, they asked Caravaggio to paint the seven corporal works of mercy that they helped carry out in their own city over the seven altars of their church. In a show of mastery, the artist said he could easily fit all that into one canvas. The result is much more harmonious than you’d think considering how much he had to express in that space.

Certosa di San Martino, church
Certosa di San Martino, church

The most spectacular place to take in the full impact of the late Baroque style in Naples is probably the Certosa of San Martino, high up on the hill above the city. The Carthusian monastery was one of the richest of the city, attracting its best artists. Now a large museum, you can visit room after decorated room and marvel at the wealth.

Detail of the maiolica courtyard at Santa Chiara
Detail of the maiolica courtyard at Santa Chiara

Another important monastery to visit is that of Santa Chiara, smack in the middle of the city. Founded in the middle ages, it has a most spectacular cloister that was used by the clausura nuns. The Angevin King and Queen commissioned this unusual double monastery in the 14th century. Around a single church (destroyed in WWII) was a Franciscan monastery and a convent dedicated to St. Claire of Assisi. The two bodies were completely separated, and the women had the most extraordinary space to make up for being in clausura, it seems. A huge cloister with frescoes from the 17th century was decorated with sitting areas in historiated glazed maiolica in the 18th century.

Santa Chiara
Santa Chiara

Between columns with foliage decorations are benches with bucolic scenes that must have keyed up memories of happier times outside of the city – only one scene refers to convent life, showing a nun feeding rather large cats that look almost like panthers. The 6 euro entry ticket here is well spent, as the complex has a QR code info system, an archaeological area (they’ve dug up Roman baths) and nice bookshop/bathroom/bar area.

Of course, there’s the Duomo, a masterpiece of Baroque art. To the right of the entrance is the most important chapel, that dedicated to the patron Saint Gennaro. The bust of their patron saint is made in gold, while 54 other reliquary busts are made of silver and are the most astonishing thing I have ever seen. The light in this space encapsulates not only the late Baroque spirit but the spirit and spirituality of Naples. This is where an annual “miracle” takes place in which the blood of the saint, contained in a reliquary, liquefies. On the few occasions that it has failed to liquefy upon ostentation, tragedy has befallen the city.

Sansevero Chapel
Sansevero Chapel, Naples – photo credit

The top tourist attraction in Naples is probably the Veiled Christ (Cristo velato) in the Sansevero Chapel [photos not permitted], a mausoleum complex ideated by Raimondo di Sangro, seventh Prince of Sansevero. The iconography of the ensemble of sculptures to commemorate members of his family are thinly veiled in Masonic imagery and carved with great mastery. The centrepiece of the chapel and one of the symbols of Naples is the Christ at the center, a Deposition in which Christ seems to be taking his last breath. Here, too, having a guide to illustrate the iconography truly enriched the experience for me. When you know your Naples plans, don’t forget to book tickets at least a few days in advance, as lines are long and tickets do sell out.

Contemporary art in Naples

William Kentridge mosaic in the underground
William Kentridge mosaic in the underground statio of Toledo

Naples isn’t a big contemporary art destination, but there are two super things to see if you do want a modern dose. First are the “art stations” – the Metro stations with commissioned contemporary installations or directly designed by important architects. When you arrive at the central train station, admire the Garibaldi metro stop with a fantastic bank of escalators that criss-cross a central area, designed by the French architect Dominique Perrault. Toledo is most peoples’ favourite stop, by Spanish designer Óscar Tusquets Blanca and with a mosaic designed by William Kentridge. Dante station was designed by Gae Aulenti, a bit more austere than many others. Vanvitelli, if you head up to the Vomero area, has a really neat installation by Mario Merz with the series of Fibonacci numbers in it. I also love Università, with its psychedelic colours and patterns.

The other destination in Naples for contemporary art is the MADRE museum, with both temporary and permanent collections.

Pizza and sweets: where to eat in Naples

Just one of the pizzas we tasted
Pizza on the street at Concettina ai Tre Santi

No article about Naples would be complete without a mention of the food, which really does make up an important part of the experience. Pizza is unquestionably a centrepiece of local cuisine and something to schedule in for a few dinners. Not a fan of lining up, we tend to eschew the most famous tourist spots, but did test Concettina ai Tre Santi in the Sanità area, where, however, we didn’t sit down inside but went to the “street food” side – a super tip… most of the famous spots have a take-out side where you can get faster service, and in this case there are tables with proper plates and cutlery, if you can snag a spot (which we did!).

Every taxi driver we spoke with on our various trips to Naples has confirmed that it’s hard to eat badly in Naples, and prices remain still lower than in most of Italy (2023 update). The most remarkable restaurant we visited on our most recent trip was A’ Taverna d’e Zoccole (the prositutes tavern) on vico lungo del gelso in the Quartieri Spagnoli, where we ate our fill of fish-based dishes. Another restaurant worthy of art historical note is the Locanda del Cerriglio, located not far from the port and in an area that, centuries ago, was quite rough, hence it was frequented by lots of famous artists and writers. The most famous, and relevant to us, being Caravaggio, to whom the present decor is dedicated. Caravaggio was attacked outside this tavern by four men who left his face scarred; he also frequented the bordello above the tavern, now a classy privé that can be booked for groups and events.

Tommaso likes desserts
Tommaso likes desserts – this is a fiocco di neve

Last but least, the desserts. Or breakfasts, or snacks… The fiocco di neve is a light pastry filled with delicious fresh cream – in the photo above is one from Poppella in the Quartiere Sanità. Probably more famous is the sfogliatella, in smooth puff pastry or “riccia” version which is just delightful. At breakfast for something lighter, I discovered too late in life that a cornetto can be filled with crema and amarena, and it’s delicious. A classic to buy your Sunday pastries or to bring them home on the train is Pintauro near Toledo station.


Take a tour of Naples

Some of my readers already know that I’m a big fan of Context Travel. We’ve been partnering together for years but even before, I’ve always recommended them as top quality walking seminars. The links in this article are referral links, so they know I’ve sent you. It’s really thanks to them that I’ve started loving Naples. If you’re planning a trip, I’d recommend you check out the following travel options with them:

As preparatory reading, I highly recommend Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan novels” series or the tv movie adaptation.


This blog post was originally published Nov 29, 2017 and was updated in September 2023. Links may include referral codes, whose revenues help support this blog.

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