Naples is one of the largest and most enchanting cities in the Mediterranean.
The city dominates the gulf of the same name, which stretches from the Sorrentine peninsula to the volcanic area of the Campi Flegrei and offers a very impressive view, with the imposing volcano Vesuvius and, in the distance, Capri, Ischia and Procida. Its historic centre was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.
Naples’ streets and neighbourhoods teem with life and monuments, from the Sanità and the Spanish quarters built in the 16th century, a popular area full of colour and folklore. The artery known as Spaccanapoli bisects the historic centre of Naples: a straight line from the Quartieri Spagnoli to the Forcella district. Vomero offers a splendid panorama of the entire street, which encapsulates the essence of Naples: the splendid monuments, the artisans’ shops, the shouting fishmongers and the chaos of people and mopeds whizzing by heedless of the traffic laws.
Along Spaccanapoli you can stop to admire the Monastery of Santa Chiara and its adjoining church, which is the largest Gothic complex in the city. Don’t miss a visit to the cloister of the Clarisse, which, with its frescoed walls and characteristic small walls decorated with majolica tiles, is one of the most beautiful parts of the complex.
The Cloister is a true oasis of peace right in the centre of Naples. Of the ancient fourteenth-century cloister, the colonnade with 66 arches has remained unchanged.
The current appearance of the garden is the work of Vaccaro, who restructured the cloister by arranging the central part of the courtyard into four large flower beds, divided in turn by internal pathways, and erected 64 small pillars embellished with hand-painted majolica. The famous decoration is the work of craftsmen Donato and Giuseppe Massa: polychrome majolica tiles painted with a play on perspectives and colours, which harmonise perfectly with the shades of the surrounding nature.
But don’t reduce Spaccanapoli to a tourist postcard. Spaccanapoli is the city, with its thousand resources and many problems.
In terms of beauty, however, Giuseppe Sammartino’s ‘Veiled Christ’ is worth more than many words. The sculpture, considered by many art critics to be the most beautiful ever made, is inside the Sansevero Chapel, behind Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, in Via Francesco De Sanctis. Sanmartino created a work in which the dead Christ, lying on a mattress, is covered by a veil that adheres perfectly to his form. The Neapolitan sculptor’s mastery lies in his ability to convey the suffering that Christ experienced, through the composition of the veil, from which one can see the signs on his face and body of the martyrdom he suffered.
At the foot of the sculpture, the artist also carved the instruments of the torture: the crown of thorns, a pincer and nails.
Over the centuries, the masterful rendering of the veil has given rise to a legend according to which the client, the famous scientist and alchemist Raimondo di Sangro, taught the sculptor how to calcify the fabric into marble crystals. For about three centuries, in fact, many visitors to the Chapel, impressed by the admirable sculpted veil, have mistakenly believed it to be the result of an alchemical “marbling” carried out by the prince, who is said to have placed a real veil on the statue, and that this became marbled over time through a chemical process.
In San Gregorio Armeno it is Christmas all year round: in all months the masters are at work building the typical cork nativity scenes and terracotta shepherds. The atmosphere in San Gregorio Armeno begins to warm up in November, but December is the month when the street is packed with people at all hours of the day.
Each crib master knows how to advise his customers perfectly about the meaning, symbol and use of each shepherd. Talking to them is a journey into the traditions of Naples.
Colourful and ancient, the workshops in Via San Gregorio Armeno parade one in front of the other, showing off the masterpieces of Neapolitan nativity art. Strictly handmade in terracotta, the shepherds of San Gregorio not only reproduce the physiognomy of the characters but also tell their souls, artfully painted in every detail and dressed in hand-sewn clothes. There is a magical atmosphere in which traditions and the Christmas spirit survive the hectic chaos of the ever-changing city.
By now, even show business personalities, politicians and even the Pope are part of the nativity tradition, animating the competition among craftsmen for whoever creates the most beautiful, truthful, successful figurine. Even today, it is still possible to walk around San Gregorio Armeno and watch the master craftsmen at work, modelling the terracotta or finishing the world-famous shepherds.
Majestic, imposing, the first bastion of the siren Parthenope for those who land on its shores: this is what Castel Nuovo (the Maschio Angioino) looks like, an Angevin fortress commissioned by Charles I of Anjou and built from 1279 onwards. The French monarch was keen to erect this building to make up for the lack of a real castle to guard the city.
The architect Pierre de Chaule was in charge of the design and construction of the castle in just five years, creating not only a fortress but also a new home for the monarchs.
Over the centuries, the ancient building underwent many changes, with extensions, enemy attacks and reconstructions. As we can see it today, it is the result of reconstruction by Alfonso d’Aragona, with five cylindrical towers (each with its own name) used as emplacements to scan the horizon.
Among the things to see and of particular beauty is the Triumphal Arch connecting the Torre di Mezzo and the Torre di Guardia, made of marble with rich decorations, reliefs and sculptures.
The only 14th-century element that remains in the entire building is the splendid Palatine Chapel, partially damaged by the earthquake of 1456, but faithfully restored and therefore still admirable in its original Gothic style.
Inside the castle are the splendid Sala dei Baroni, where meetings of the City Council are held, and the Naples Civic Museum.
From here you can move towards the famous Piazza del Plebiscito and, on the way, stop to see the Galleria Umberto I. This is a shopping arcade built between 1887 and 1890, with four different entrances and inside two streets that intersect orthogonally covered by a glass window and the dome and bordered by four buildings. Piazza del Plebiscito is a symbolic place in Naples. It owes its name to the popular plebiscite with which Naples ratified its annexation to the Kingdom of Savoy in 1860. Once the site of military ceremonies, today it is the venue for important events and art exhibitions. The square is bordered by the neoclassical colonnade of the Church of San Francesco di Paola and the Royal Palace. The latter was built at the beginning of 1600 in record time to accommodate King Philip III, who was to visit Naples.
Not far from the square you can admire the San Carlo Theatre, one of the most famous and prestigious in the world.
As Stendhal wrote, “There is nothing in all of Europe, which I will not say comes close to this theatre, but gives the slightest idea of it. The eyes are dazzled, the soul enraptured“, and when you visit it, you will certainly share the French writer’s words.
Europe’s oldest surviving opera house is, in fact, a triumph of gold with perfect acoustics.
To get from one neighbourhood to another, you will probably use the underground network, but in Naples, we recommend that you take your time between trains, look around and admire the works of contemporary art that the Naples administration has decided to display in the city’s metro stations.
The works are so interesting and fascinating that in 2012 the Toledo metro station was voted Europe’s most beautiful metro station by The Daily Telegraph.
Near Garibaldi station, you’ll find Attanasio, the temple of sfogliatelle, one of the traditional Neapolitan sweets. Get both the shortcrust and the curly: both are a treat!
Lovers of history and antiquities will surely already know that the Archaeological Museum of Naples is one of the most prestigious museums in Italy and houses one of the most extraordinary collections of antiquities in the world.
Here you can admire Egyptian, Etruscan, Greco-Roman and the treasures of Herculaneum and Pompeii, an unparalleled collection of frescoes and mosaics, statues, precious and everyday objects organised in 26 themed sections.
And for those who don’t blush, a visit should also be reserved for the famous Secret Cabinet, which contains frescoes and sculptures related to the theme of eroticism.
If you don’t suffer from claustrophobia, a tour of underground Naples is a must. This is a network of tunnels and cisterns that extend under the city at a depth of up to forty metres, allowing you to discover Greek and Roman influences and, above all, to relive the tragic days of the Second World War, when some 40,000 Neapolitans took refuge underground to escape Allied bombing and German reprisals.
You can still see some of the objects of daily life of the people who took refuge there during the war, as well as the greenhouse, the garden, the cistern and even the theatre, in short, a real underground city.
If you want to gather your energy before this dark tour or if you work up an appetite after the underground tour, you can quench your hunger with Naples‘ most famous dish: pizza, which is thin and has high edges, so much so that the Neapolitans sometimes stuff theirs.
You’ll be spoilt for choice here, but we recommend the Sorbillo or Di Matteo pizzerias. If you choose Sorbillo, don’t be surprised if there’s a queue at the door before it even opens: the pizza is uniquely good and is served within minutes, while at Di Matteo try the fried pizza, which is also a speciality not to be missed!
Don’t miss a walk along the seafront to Castel dell’Ovo: starting from the Mergellina district and walking along the seafront, it has a different feel to it than coming from the streets of the old town.
Strolling along the Caracciolo promenade and through the Villa Comunale, you can enjoy a wonderful view of the Gulf of Naples and, if the day is particularly clear, the silhouette of the island of Capri.
At the end of this walk you will be greeted by Castel dell’Ovo.
Built on a small island, it is one of the oldest castles in Naples and takes its name from the legend that Virgil placed an egg in its basement, the breaking of which could cause a series of misfortunes for the city.
From the terraces of the Castle you can enjoy a magnificent view of the entire gulf, while behind you you can admire the entire city.
The Duomo, the home of San Gennaro, is well worth a visit. To understand the visceral bond between the Neapolitans and their patron saint, it would be ideal to witness the ‘miracle of San Gennaro’, the liquefaction of the Saint’s blood in an ampoule. The event, to which Neapolitans have always attributed auspicious significance, is repeated three times a year: on the first Sunday in May, on 19 September and finally on 16 December. It would be worth attending the Mass to understand the transport, the pathos that binds the people of Naples. Miracle aside, the Duomo is especially worth visiting from an artistic and cultural-historical point of view.
A list of things to do in Naples must include the Capodimonte National Museum. This museum, commissioned in 1738 by Charles of Bourbon, is housed in the 18th-century palace set in what was then the Capodimonte forest, now a huge park with a magnificent viewpoint over the city.
The museum is spread over three floors and contains works of international prestige: on the first floor is the Farnese Collection that Charles of Bourbon received from his mother, with works by Titian, Botticelli, Raphael and many others.
On the second floor, a collection of works ranging from the 13th to the 18th century, including Caravaggio’s wonderful “Flagellation of Christ“.
On the third floor, finally, are exhibited artists active in the 19th century and in the modern and contemporary age with works by Warhol, Jodice and Burri, among others.