A playground for the rich and debauched, when ancient Romans sailed into the Bay of Naples, they saw a shoreline that sparkled with marble temples, opulent bathhouses, and vast imperial villas. From the 13th to 19th centuries, every famous personality stopped in the Kingdom of Naples. When Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited the city along his grand tour, he commented, “See Naples and die.”
Today, tourists often avoid Naples—and they miss a fall back in time, where streets accommodate ancient ruins, not traffic, and the modern buildings blend into the crumbling texture of medieval palazzos. Neapolitans are an ebullient bunch, addicted to frenetic bustle and at the same time covet ‘dulce far niente’ (the sweetness of doing nothing). They have an obsession with their local cuisine, which boasts many culinary inventions. They also hold onto an unusual idea in these high-tech times: that old is better.
One of the oldest cities in the western world, Naples is often associated with the mafia and trash-filled streets. However, in 2011 Neapolitans elected Luigi de Magistris as their new mayor with a striking sixty-five percent of the vote. He ran on a platform of law and order, determined to eradicate the city of crime and garbage. Since then, government initiatives and grass roots groups like Cleanap have together made the city cleaner and safer.
DAY ONE: Wake up in your sea view room at the Grand Hotel Santa Lucia. Built in the 1900’s, the décor is art nouveau and the Bay of Naples glitters outside your balcony. You’ll also see Via Partenope, the street named after the siren who mythically founded the city and possibly even lured Odysseus to these shores.
Don’t bother with breakfast. Neapolitans don’t take the time either. Instead, start your day with a brisk walk into the clutch of the city. At Piazza Trieste E Trentoyou’ll find Galleria Umberto I, considered an architectural wonder of the world. A glass dome and four glass vaulted wings turn the airy space into an impressive cast of sunshine. Wander past the upscale clothing shops until you reach Bar Brasiliano. Have the Neapolitan version of breakfast here. At the counter, order a caffè and cornetto (croissant). When you sip from your tazzino know that in the south, caffè is best known for its strong notes of bittersweet chocolate.
Take a short cab ride to Spaccanapoli (or “splitter Naples”), the main street that cuts the city in two halves. You have reached the Centro Storico that dates back to Greco-Roman times when the city was called Neapolis.
The narrow streets were erected by the Spanish viceroys who turned Naples into a metropolis starting in the 15th century. The population ballooned and buildings were created four to six stories high to accommodate the people. Artisans sold their wares on the bottom floors. Not much has changed. Laundry hangs from the balconies of overhead flats, food vendors wildly gesticulate to other shopkeepers and a dizzying number of museums and churches pull you right back into layers of history.
Approximately two hundred Catholic Churches exist in downtown Naples. You’ll pass by many until you wander down a little alley and find the Cappella Sansevero. Inside you’ll marvel at an 18th century wonder of the world: the Veiled Christ. Carved from a single block, the marble statue is draped in a translucent veil. Giuseppe Sanmartino sculpted the delicate piece, but very little is known about the artist himself.
Return to Spaccanapoli and head straight until you come to another cross street colloquially known as Christmas Alley. Open all year round, workshop owners sell their presepe or nativity cribs, which include carved figurines, moss-filled wooden houses and elaborate pastoral scenes.
Next, amble down the second ancient artery of Naples, Via dei Tribunali, and soak in the vendors who sell fizzy red wines, six hundred different types of pasta, and locally made mozzarella. Two thousand years ago, the Romans imported exotic animals from Africa for their lavish banquets, including ostriches, tigers, and buffalo. The buffalo stayed and the animals today create milk for the signature cheese of this region: mozzarella di bufala.
It’s time for lunch at Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba where pizza was invented. A small restaurant with crammed tables, this establishment started out as a street stall in 1720. Try the Napoletana made of fresh tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala, and basil leaves. Pizzaiolo’s (pizza makers) claim this is the only true pizza. The crust is always thin and you eat a whole pie with a fork and knife. A cold beer goes best.
When you leave, you’ll be very close to Piazza Bellini where you can view a snippet of the excavated Greek foundations of the city. Stroll over to Intra Moenia for caffèal baccio (cappuccino with nutella spread thickly around the inside of the glass). Peruse their dual-language book section and listen for a soprano singing at the Music Conservatory one block away. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Naples was known as the capital of European music and anyone who wanted to make a name for themselves came here, including Farinelli and Rossini.
Now walk to the Naples Cathedral or Il Duomo. In a side niche, the patron saint of the city, San Gennaro, has his blood hermetically sealed in an ampoule. Every September 19th the Cardinal gives a morning mass where San Gennaro’s blood is said to liquefy. Whatever you believe, the yearly celebration is what gives Naples its reputation for being the city of miracles.
Now head over to the National Archeological Museum, which houses the most important collection of ancient Roman artifacts in the world. Most of the items come from this region, including Pompeii and Herculaneum. The secret cabinet is particularly popular, with its ancient erotic frescoes. The museum also displays marble busts and artworks from the Villa dei Papyri, once the residence of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. Inside, archeologists found almost two thousand papyrus scrolls, most philosophical texts written in Greek.
Return to your hotel for a rest. Then, have a late dinner at La Bersagliera in walking distance from your hotel and along the marina. Salvator Dalí and Sophia Loren are among the famous personalities who once dined here. Waiters in tuxedoes serve many courses as you admire the boats along the lapping water. Try the spigola or bass fish, deboned next to your table and served perfectly moist.
End your evening with a stroll along the marina and enjoy the sight of families taking a walk with their children as well as libidinous teenagers escaping the protective eye of parents so they can cuddle… and more. Remember, Italy is the most populous country per square meter next to Japan, so privacy and personal space are always in short supply.
DAY TWO: Focus on eating, shopping and medieval museum visits. Go from your hotel to Via Toledo where you’ll enter Pintauro. Order the Neapolitan puff pastry sfogliatelle baked with many layers of thin dough that turn golden crispy brown. The pastry is filled with ricotta cheese infused with vanilla bean and orange rinds. Take it to go as you enjoy this street with its cornucopia of historical palazzos. You’ll pass the Spanish Quarter, named during the 16th century when the Spanish housed their troops here. A working-class seedy district now, it’s best to give it only a passing glance.
Stop inside the Galleria di Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano to see the impressive inside courtyard with a glass roof and balconies. Climb up the flight of broad marble stairs to see the Martyrdom of Saint Ursula painted by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Naples was not only a city where the famous came to play or perform, but also for those on the run. Caravaggio fled to Naples after killing a man in Rome and the Colonna family gave him protection as well as art commissions.
Now its time to take an easy turn into Via Pignasecca where the streets are glutted with open market vendors. Shoe and clothing merchants hustle for business alongside fish mongers. The open markets are one of Naples most delightful sights, and the locals swear they do all their shopping exclusively here. The prices are fantastic and a little bargaining won’t do any harm either.
Once you’ve finished browsing or buying, stop at Le Zendraglie E Fiorenzano. The restaurant owner is most proud of his tripe dishes. During the 13th and 14th centuries, poor people, known as the Zendralie from the French word for ‘entrail eaters’ gathered outside local castles and villas. After the rich had gorged themselves at their feasts, the poor collected the thrown-out scraps. Their dishes turned into street food and Le Zendraglie’s restaurant owner is determined to keep these food traditions alive through his menu that includes tripe in tomato sauce.
Head back to Via Toledo where you take the Funicular. A cable railway, this was built after the Italian government passed a law in 1885 for the Risanamento (or slum clearance) and the city received a major ‘face lift’.
Get out at the shopping district of Vomero and take a walk up the steep steps to the top of the hill. A libation is then in order at Arx Caffè. The granita or ice coffee is an excellent choice during the summer months, made of iced espresso flakes. Take a seat at a table by the windows and enjoy a view of Spaccanapoli and the Centro Storico.
After the pick me up, spend some time inside the Castel Sant’Elmo next door. Used as a prison for three centuries, the castle has an unusual hexagonal shape. The knightly clavicles house modern art exhibitions, including permanent sculpture installations by Mimmo Paladino. The courtyard is the absolute highlight, touting a 360 degree view of the city.
One block away, the Certosa San Martino has the same breathtaking views in its gardens. The charterhouse has a vast collection of 15th to 19th century art. A year-round permanent exhibition of precepe is the highlight, which includes an African King created by Giuseppe San Martino (sculptor of the Veiled Christ). Make sure to walk along the main cloister with its sixty-four columns and marble skulls.
Take the Montesanto funicular back down the hill and walk to your hotel for a rest. Neapolitans eat late, no earlier than eight o’clock, so never rush to get out of your hotel for dinner. Then take a cab to the posh district of Naples, called Posillipo, where Virgil is said to have had a villa during ancient times. Eat at La Sacrestia overlooking the sea. A long stairwell makes this restaurant seem remote, but inside it’s elegant, the view is stellar and the menu is superb. Any four course meal should include the schiafoni con totanetti (pasta with cuttlefish, black olives, capers and potatoes) and end with the region’s digestivo: limoncello. Made of grain alcohol and lemons, then served ice cold, the beverage is meant to aid in digestion after a long meal.
In anticipation of your classy art walk tomorrow, spend the rest of the night partying at MADRE where you’ll enjoy films, art lectures and different seasonal events. You can also admire Andy Warhol’s famous picture of Mt. Vesuvius inside the exhibition space.
DAY THREE: It’s all about the ritzy top-layer of this ancient city today. Walk from your hotel to CaffèGambrinus, famed as one of the first café-chantant or singing cafès in the city. Erected in the late 1800’s, the café hosted the likes of Oscar Wilde and Benito Mussolini. Sit at a table and order their signature caffè gambrinus topped with whipping cream. Select from their myriad of pastries too. Although the singers are gone, the artwork on the walls make up for the deficiency.
Now stroll past the shops of Via Chiaia, a pedestrian walkway that connects the downtown to the seaside. You’ll pass the Ponte di Chiaia, a 17th century gateway and then come to the Teatro Sanazzaro where actor Eduardo de Filipo performed. A Neapolitan original, he played beside Sophia Loren in L’Oro di Napoli. He also turned the Flip Over Coffee Pot from a French tinsmith invention into a Neapolitan coffee craze. You can still buy the stove top coffee pot around the city for about ten Euro.
You’ll spill into the Via Dei Mille, where you’ll browse stores like Emporio Armani, Prada, and Mario Valentino. The upscale Bulgari jewerly store might entice you to splurge. Then you might want to peek into PAN (Palazzo Arti Napoli), the modern art museum with roaming exhibitions by international artists.
Head from there to Moccia for a splash of caffè. Don’t worry that it’s your second this morning. Neapolitans drink upwards of four to six cups per day and portions are small anyway. I recommend ordering the Brasiliano, a sweeter rendition of cappuccino.
You’ll then spill into Lungomare by the sea whose broad avenue is closed to traffic. The stretch of seafront offers cool breezes, boats at the harbor, and two 17th century fountains. Villa Comunale is a serene park with benches, sculptures and one of the oldest aquariums in Europe.
At the end of Lungomare, you’ll walk up a slope to Via Posillipo (in the same district you had dinner last night). Take a villa walk overlooking the sea. Your first stop will be the Palazzo Donn’Anna where Princess Anna Carafa, rumor had it, murdered another woman in a fight for a man’s attention. The palazzo is still considered haunted. Keep walking past other villas and know that Villa Rosebery nearby welcomes the President of Italy whenever he visits Naples.
Eventually you’ll arrive at the fishing village of Marechiaro. Eat at A Fenestella and order the spaghetti alla vongole, a quintessenially Neapolitan dish made of pasta al dente, fresh clams, and parsley. For wine, ask the waiter about Lacryma Christi (The Tears of Christ.) Legend has it that when Lucifer fell from heaven, he plummeted into Mt. Vesuvius. Christ cried at the sight and his tears fell along the volcano, making the soil fertile for vitners. The restaurant is perched on a cliff so while you eat, you’ll admire the view of Mt. Vesuvius, the only active volcano on the continent of Europe.
Now ask the waiter to call a cab and go to Virgil’s Tomb. It’s somewhat walkable, but you want to be spright for tonight. You’ll hike up to a trapezoidal tunnel called the Cryta Neapoletana that meausres 700-meters long. The Romans constructed this tunnel during the first century B.C. and during medieval times it became a church. Look up to see the 14th century fresco of the Madonna and Child. Wind up the path a little further to come to an Apollo shrine where Virgil’s ashes once rested. By medieval times, people believed Virgil had foretold of the coming of Christ in his Eclogues. He was also believed to have had magical powers.Now, walk back to your hotel to get decked out.
It’s show time. You will have already bought tickets to the Teatro San Carlo, erected during Bourbon times as part of their massive architectural projects. Walk or take a cab to the theater and enjoy the show from just about any spot. See the mirrors in each opera booth? King Charles of Bourbon insisted they be installed so the audience could have a view of the stage and the king at all times. The mirrors are angled so that you can see the King’s booth in the back.
After the show, enough of the Italian everything already. Walk two blocks up to an alley and eat at the swank Japanese restaurant everyone is talking about, Kukai. They roll the sushi in front of you and the décor is elegant modern. Add a little tempura to your order and you’ll feel as though you’ve traveled across the world and through two thousand years.
ADDRESSES & TELEPHONE NUMBERS
- Grand Hotel Santa Lucia Via Partenope 48; Tel: 39 081 764 0666
- Galleria Umberto I Between Via San Carlo, Via Verdi, Via Santa Brigida, Via Toledo
- Central Storico From Via Benedetto Croce to Via S. Biagio Dei Librai
- Cappella Sansevero Via Francesco de Sanctis 19; Tel: 39 081 551 8470
- Christmas Alley Via San Gregorio Armeno
- Antica Pizzeria Port-Alba Via Port’Alba 18; Tel: 39 081 45 97 13
- Piazza Bellini V. S. Maria Di Costantinopoli
- Il Duomo Via Duomo 147
- National Archeological Museum Piazza Museo 19; Tel: 39 081 442 21 49
- La Bersagliera Borgo Marinaro 10/11; Tel 39 081 764 6016
- Pintauro Via Toledo 275; Tel: 0814 17339
- Galleria di Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano Via Toledo 185; Tel: 800 16052007
- Via Pignasecca Begins at Piazza Carita and Via Toledo
- Le Zendraglie E Fiorenzano Via Pignasecca 14; Tel: 081 551 19 93
- Funicular Centrale Augusteo at Via Toledo
- Arx Caffe Via Tito Angelini 57
- Castel Sant’Elmo Via Tito Angelini 20; Tel 39 081 558 77 08
- Certosa di San Martino Piazzale San Martino 5; Tel: 39 081 229 45 89
- La Sacrestia Via Orazio 116; Tel 39 081 66 41 86
- MADRE Via Settembrini 79; Tel: 39 081 29 28 33
- Caffe Gambrinus Piazza Trieste e Trento; Tel: 39 081 41 75 82
- Via Chiaia Begins at Piazza Trieste e Trento and ends at V.C. Caterina
- Via Dei Mille Between Via G. Filangieri and Via V Colonna
- Pasticceria Moccia Via San Pasquale a Chiaia 21/22; Tel: 081411348
- Lungomare Along Via Posillipo, Via Francesco Caracciolo and Via Partenope
- Palazzo Donn’Anna Via Posillipo
- A Fenestella Calata Ponticello a Marechiaro 23; Tel 39 081 769 0020
- Virgil’s Tomb Via Salita della Grotta 1, Naples
- Teatro San Carlo Via San Carlo 98d; Tel 39 081 553 4565
- Kukai Via Carlo de Cesare 55; Tel 39 081 41 19 05