For many people, Naples is seen as a city you pass through, rather than somewhere you choose to stay.  Its location makes it a perfect stop-off point for people making their way to nearby archaeological sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum, or for the more adventurous souls looking to climb to the summit of Vesuvius.  It’s connected to the Amalfi Coast by both train and ferry, and has an abundant smattering of islands across its bay for those looking to soak up a little sun away from the noise of the city.

And yet what about the city itself?

As our train neared Garibaldi Station for the first time, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I’d heard mixed stories from fellow travelers, from outcries of adoration from foodies who’d taken to the ‘Home of Pizza’ to those who’d had their experience tarnished by pickpockets, run-ins with mafia-esque characters and just the general din which comes with a busy, sprawling Italian metropolis.  As we stepped out of the metro station onto Via Toledo, on what turned out to be Labor Day, I began to wonder whether we might find ourselves sympathizing with the latter.

Crowds lined the streets.  Vespas weaved through the throngs, coming precariously close.  Restaurateurs bartered to lure you into their premises, while bars spilled out onto the streets and the smell of warm, stale beer hung in the air.  Whatever came over the following days, I had a feeling that Naples was going to be an entirely different kettle of fish to Rome, or to the quieter towns I had visited in the North.  And certainly it was.

Labor Day, it turned out, was quite an anomaly in the Italian calendar.  In short, it had sent the city a bit nuts.  Once things had quietened down a little (and I say a little, because I can’t imagine Naples ever to be described as a restful place), we got to learn a bit more about what Naples was all about.  Y’know what?  I liked what I saw.

Naples isn’t perfect by any means.  It’s less pretty than some of its Italian cousins, and good bit noisier.  Every pretty piazza is enclosed by a network of narrow closes, which cars will belt down at an alarming rate, as lines of washing flap casually in the breeze overhead.  It’s a bit rough around the edges, and yet as I came to learn, that’s also part of its charm.

What Naples lacks in aesthetic appeal it more than makes up for in cultural richness.  Here’s just a few of the reasons why the city might just surprise you:

the reputation 

Naples has gained itself somewhat of a dodgy reputation over the years for its criminal associations and unsafe backstreets.  People still talk about the local mobsters – or Camorra – ruling the roost, but it’s perhaps a bit of an unfair and exaggerated association.  Are the mafia still in existence?  Sadly, yes.  Are they going to target you, as a tourist?  No.  High-level crime is certainly prevalent in Naples, but it’s largely restricted to certain neighbourhoods, and mostly boils down to long-standing rivalries between certain families and business-owners.  You’re extremely unlikely to find yourself on a hit-list, so if you’re feeling nervous then maybe just cut down on The Sopranos and remember that this is 2018.

The city’s been cleaned up big time over recent years, and crime levels, particularly towards tourists, have dropped.  That’s not to say you shouldn’t keep your wits about you though.  There’s still a significant problem with petty theft, and though we were lucky enough not to encounter any, I know plenty of travelers who’ve had their phones and wallets nicked, or at least witnessed brazen thieves dipping into folk’s handbags when they’ve had their head turned the other way.  As a rule of thumb, you’re better to keep the valuables on you to a minimum and to do your best not to stand out too much as a tourist (easier said than done, I know, when you’ve hoofing a backpack around with you and want to stop every two hundred yards to take a photo).  Be particularly careful on crowded public transport and the area immediately around Garibaldi Station.  Other than that, just keep a casual eye on things and enjoy the place.  Naples is no more dangerous than any other major European city, and there’s no reason why you should let its shady past put you off.

Garibaldi Station, one of Naples’ biggest transport hubs. It’s well laid out and fairly easy to navigate, but definitely somewhere you’ll want to keep an eye on your bags.

the location

I have to admit, when we decided to stay in Naples, it was largely a strategic decision.  The city made geographical sense, as we passed from Rome down to the hilltop village of Ravello on the Amalfi Coast and needed somewhere to break up the journey.  What I came to appreciate was just how perfectly located the city was for anyone looking to explore this region of southern Italy.  For a start, it took just one hour and 7 minutes to travel from Rome on one of the high speed Frecciarossa trains.  Anyone looking to hop between these capitals in one day could easily do so for just a few euros more than the slow train, which takes close to three hours!

The other train which came in incredibly handy was the Circumvesuviana line, which leaves from the central Garibaldi Station.  This line goes all the way down to Sorrento in just over an hour (the town which marks the start of the Amalfi Coast), but it also stops at the ancient villages of Herculaneum (Ercalano – 20 mins) and Pompeii (Scavi – 30 mins).  From either village, you can take a shuttle bus up to a drop-off point on Vesuvius, where after a steep but not-too-taxing walk, those brave enough can visit the crater and peer into the depths below.

The ruins of Pompeii. An excellent day out, as demonstrated by yours truly.

For those sea-faring sorts, there are excellent ferry connections from Molo Beverello, the city’s main port.  These can take you out to the nearby islands of Ischia, Procida and Capri, or also down to Sorrento, where you can catch onward connections to the Amalfi Coast and beyond.  The high-speed ferries nip along at a fare pace (and might induce a touch of sea-sickness if you’re so inclined…*cough, me*), but also offer stunning views of the coastline and old Vesuvius herself.

With so much to see and do on the doorstep, Naples turned out to be the perfect place to base ourselves for our Italian adventure.  Thankfully, there are cheap connecting flights to the UK with companies like Ryanair, Easyjet and Jet2, and because the airport is just a few kilometres from the city centre, you won’t break the bank if you decide to shell out for a taxi and maximise your time in the city.

the arts

 Naples is awash with cultural gems.  Those with an interest in visual arts won’t be short on places to go, with countless great galleries scattered across the city.  For classical art, head to the Museo Nazionale di San Martino or the Museo Duca Di Martina, which both house stunning collections of paintings and porcelain sculptures.  If contemporary art is more your thing, check out this great article by The Culture Trip, which gives you a run through of the best modern galleries.

It’s not uncommon to find street musicians dotted across the city, but if you’re looking for a more formal gig setting, there’s some pretty excellent concert halls to choose from.  For something a little special, head along to one of the classical music concerts at The Centro di Musica Antica Pieta de’ Turchini, a deconstructed church in the heart of the Spanish Quarter.  Or, for something a little closer to this generation’s taste, pop into Lanificio 25, a former woolen mill which is now a fairy-light-strewn and hipster-pleasing club.

If you’ve got a little time to spare, I’d highly recommend taking a tour of the Teatro San Carlo, one of the most beautiful opera houses in Europe.  Built in Neoclassical style (and owing some serious gratitude to reconstruction works after the war), the building and auditorium hall are just stunning.  For less than ten euros, you can have a guided tour through the history of the building, and are given access to the stalls, where even the greatest of philistines will struggle to control their enthusiasm at the opulent surroundings.  Top this off with a seat in the Royal Box and it’s hard to imagine a better way to spend an hour.

The stunning Teatro di San Carlo. Notice how each box has a mirror inside? That’s so the audience can get a sneaky look at the royal box at all times!

the food

Pizza and Naples: the two words are virtually synonymous.  Legend has it that the dough-based delicacy was invented in the heart of old Napoli, and so it’s hard to imagine a better place to get your margarita fix.  Don’t go expecting anything fancy though.  Traditional Napolese pizzas are not the thin, perfectly formed circles that you might find in Rome or down at your local Pizza Express.  These are rough and ready, hand-pulled and wood-fired creations, which often spill over the edge of your plate and where the thickness can vary depending on the speed they’re slung together.  They’re bloody delicious, and it’s not uncommon to see queues an hour long at some of the city’s most popular pizzerias.

We tried our luck at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele (rumored to be the first ever pizzeria and made famous for its appearance in the film Eat, Pray, Love) on our last night, but gave up pretty quickly after seeing the size of the scrum outside and settled on one straight across the road.

The bustling Pizzeria de Michele. Probably best avoided during peak season!

As much as I love pizza, even I have my limits.  Thankfully, Naples proved to be a bit of a foodie’s paradise.  There are countless great trattorias and open-air cafes serving fresh seafood (the locally-caught octopus was a revelation), gnocchi and pasta, and the quaint cobbled streets of the Quartieri Spagnoli had lots of tucked-away gems on offer.  Hosteria Toledo, a small family-run joint, was a particular fave.

If, like me, you’ve got a bit of a sweet tooth, you’ll be glad to know that you don’t have to venture far in Naples to pick up dessert.  Every block will be home to at least one gelateria (pistachio EVERY time), but it’s also worth popping into one of the many patisseries for a cannoli or a traditional Napolese sfogliatelle.

the architecture 

People talk about Naples like it’s not a pretty city, and while it might not be as grand and manicured as say Rome or Paris, I think the statement is a little unjust.  Naples has its gritty areas for sure, but it also has its fair share of impressive architecture.  There’s the stunning avenues lined with historic balcony-clad townhouses.  There’s the old cold cobbled streets of the Spanish Quarter.  There’s the ancient fortresses guarding the bay, and the glass-domed Galleria Umberto, which’ll have everyone gazing up in wonder at its impressiveness.

The Galleria Umberto

The city is peppered with gorgeous buildings of varying styles, and amongst the ones worth checking out are:

Castel Nuovo

Cappella Sansevero

Castel dell’Ovo

Piazza del Plebiscito, home to the Royal Palace & the Basilica Royal

Sam Domenico Maggiore

Cathedral of Duomo

the nightlife 

Given its ‘colourful’ reputation, I was a little nervous to see what Naples’ nightlife had in store for us.  I’d heard tales of friends who had been fallen victim to the risks of wandering the backstreets at 3am, and was perhaps a little more guarded than I ought to be.  Perhaps it was just our personal experience, but I didn’t find Naples to feel threatening at night.  If anything, I felt it had a really good buzz.  The most dangerous thing we encountered was perhaps the odd rogue vespa.

From early evening onwards, most bars and restaurants will offer the option of an ‘apperitvo’.  Basically you order a drink (usually from a set menu including beer, prosecco, wine and spritz) and they’ll bring you some nibbles to accompany.  This works well if you’re on a budget, or if you simply like getting your money’s worth, as often the nibbles will keep flowing for as long as you’re happy to keep the seat warm!

One of my favourite aspects of Italian nightlife; the apperitvo!

Late on the Saturday night, we found ourselves walking down Via dei Tribunali.  It wasn’t a deliberate decision, more of a spur-of-the-moment shortcut that we’d decided to take.  It turned out to be one of the more eye opening moments our trip!  This street, it turns out, is notorious for its late night pizzerias and sprawling network of bars.  It’s very much where the locals go, and what I found amazing was that you didn’t see anyone sitting down – instead, they stood in what must have been hour-long queues, waiting for their pizza and having a drink as they caught up with the pals.  I was amazed by the way they seemed so unfazed with the crowds, even as vespas and cars brushed past with barely an inch to spare, and as neighbours above hung out their washing and hollered down at the din below.  The atmosphere was somewhat electric, and only slightly hampered by the fact that Fraser was propositioned by a prostitute mid-stroll.  On the plus side, the street did open out on to Piazza Bellini, which had a great atmosphere and plenty of nice outdoor bars to catch our breath back in.

the islands 

Naples is a port-side town, which has many benefits; great seafood, ocean views and a proximity to several picturesque islands.  It’s ridiculously easy to escape the city for a day by heading down to Molo Beverello and jumping on a ferry.

One of the most popular trips is to the island of Capri, with its famous blue caves and celebrity holiday-makers.  While I’ve heard great things about Capri, I was also aware how popular it has become, and during the start of peak season, we weren’t particularly keen on the idea of battling the crowds.  Instead, we headed to the lesser-known Procida, little sibling to the also-popular Ischida.

The beautiful island of Procida, a 40 minute ferry ride from Naples.

Procida was the perfect choice.  Fans of The Talented Mr Ripley might recognise the colourful townhouses and craggy beaches as the fictional setting of Mongipello.  Despite its Hollywood connection, Procida is largely untouched by tourism, and is the perfect place to simply lose yourself in its hilly backstreets, admiring the unique doorways, Madonna shrines and lemon trees overhead.  This feels like true Southern Italy at its best; in fact, probably the best meal of our trip was had at the endearingly humble Caracale restaurant on Via Marina di Corricella.  Primely positioned on a quiet little harbour, this place served up delicious freshly-caught seafood and with the water lapping just feet away, it’s hard to imagine a more picturesque setting.

Beer with a view.

the hidden depths 

What many people don’t realise about Naples is that there’s a lot going on beneath the surface.  Literally!  The city is built upon volcanic landscape, which means the ground below is porous and full of deep, dark caverns just ripe for exploring.

One of the more fascinating day trips that you can take is to the Catacombs of San Gennaro in the northern part of the city.  This ancient paleo-Christian burial site dates back to the second century AD, and is a seriously creepy yet atmospheric way to learn about the growth of the city and how its ancient communities handled the rituals of death.

The eerie San Gennaro Catacombs

Also worth checking out is Naples Underground, a tour which takes you deep into the belly of the city.  After descending 40m below street level, you can find yourself exploring ancient caves, aquaducts, roman theatres and air raid shelters used during the Second World War.  I was gutted that we didn’t have time to do this tour, but it’s high on the list for next time I visit.  If you’d like to know a little more about Naples Underground, you can visit their website here.

the archaeology 

History buffs will not be disappointed with the treasure trove of archaeological gems on offer in Naples.  Of course, you’ve got the nearby ruins of Rome, Pompeii and Herculaneum, but it’s also possible to get your historical fill without having to leave the city itself.

The National Archaeological Museum has to be one of the best in the world, with a large display of Ancient Roman and Greek artifacts gathered from across the country.  It’s an absolute must-do when you’re in town.

Also worth checking out are the Roman thermal bath complex at Santa Chiara and the Hellenistic Necropolis of Neapolis which is a network of Greek burial tombs going back nearly 2500 years.  Napoli Unplugged has a great summary of some of the nearby historial ruins – check it out here!

The National Archaeolgical Museum in Naples. A building whose beauty echoes the significance of its artifacts.

the view 

My final point is a simple one.  I hadn’t expected to find Naples particularly beautiful, but where else in the world could you look out from your hotel window and find yourself gazing over terracota rooftops, while the sun sets over the bay and the dusty blue peak of Vesuvius casts long, sweeping shadows over the town below?  Despite the industrial port, bustling streets and imperfect ways, in a certain light Naples was more than capable of taking your breath away and being, yes, a little bellissimo indeed.

Credit: Andrea Schaffer

Have you been to Naples before?  What surprised you about the city?

For more Italian inspiration, check out my following features for things to do and places to stay:

Living ‘La Dolce Vita’ in Ravello: Apartment Review

A Review of Caruso Place Boutique & Wellness Suites, Naples

Conquering Rome Alone: A First Step into the World of Solo Travel

How to see the best of Rome in 3 days

My Secret Food Tour of Rome

About The Author

A twenty-something-year-old with a penchant for travel and a never-ending supply of terrible puns.

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