Two days in Naples on bureaucratic business doesn’t really do the city justice. We couldn’t climb Vesuvio (which would have been my second hike on an Italian volcano), and we skipped some other fairly obvious stops like Castel Nuovo. In fact I spent the better part of my time in glorious, flamboyant Napoli sitting in a squeaky plastic chair at the American consulate watching sallow faced officers grant people’s wishes and crush their dreams. (They granted my wish this time.) In my down time, I met an old friend who took me for a spectacular midnight drive along the coast, ate some amazing pizza, and made it up to Castel Sant’Elmo for some panoramic views of the city.
Naples is unbelievably dense. The steep hills surrounding the bay didn’t stop anybody in any century from building over every square inch, sometimes carving the palazzi straight into the rock. Our AirBnb in Fuorigrotta was, in fact, part-cave. On the street I expected a certain level of noise and confusion (because Naples is portrayed in TV and movies as a swirling vortex of barely controlled chaos) but I didn’t really find it to be much more daunting to navigate than Bologna or Catania or Rome. Swindlers seduce you with fake purses and broken electronics— Tell them you’re not interested, or save your breath and ignore them completely. Teenagers jostle you on the bus and the metro. Don’t sling your expensive camera around your neck— Put it away.
We revealed ourselves as tourists to an older couple who we asked for directions to the Basilica di Santa Restituta and their parting words to me were “Attenta alla borsa!” (watch your purse). Already tired of this mantra, I thought to myself, yes but in what city do I not watch my purse?
It is useless to feel threatened by Naples’ reputation when the reward of experiencing her is so much greater than the worst thing that could realistically happen to a tourist. If you don’t walk around at night, how will you take a peaceful evening stroll along the lungomare to see the castle lit up against the pitch black backdrop of the bay? If you snub overly crowded buses and trains, it’s going to be a mighty long walk to get out of the historical center and into the hills where stunning sea views are framed by dramatically sloping residential streets.
Naples rewards those who give her their full and complete attention, and she spurns those who don’t. It’s an immersive experience. In Rome and Florence and Venice you can observe the city from the outside, interacting with people, sights and restaurants that are there to serve tourists. In Naples there’s no dividing line. You become part of the city as soon as you enter it, weaving through residential neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, rich neighborhoods, and drivers who couldn’t care less if they live or die— So look both ways and for the love of god don’t stand in the street. You will be offered the same version of Naples as everyone else. She is a city that does not care to present a different side of herself to foreigners. Take advantage of that if you want to see the real Italy.
L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele
The famous Neapolitan pizza that lives up to the hype.
A 14th century fort perched high above the city center. The fort (and former prison) is interesting in its own right, but you’ll probably be more enchanted by the 360 degree view of the city, the bay and Mount Vesuvius. Ride the funicular up to Piazza Fuga because it’s easier than bussing or walking, but also because one of the most famous Italian songs of all time comes from Naples and no one in the English speaking world realizes it’s about a funicular.
Basilica di Santa Restituta
A gold-plated goldmine for art history nerds bearing decorations from nearly every century since the fifth. It’s next to the Duomo so visit that too.
Museo Cappella Sansevero
More art history nerding here, except you don’t need any context at all to appreciate the quality of the marble sculptures that draw your attention to every corner of the church simultaneously. The most famous one is The Veiled Christ (Giuseppe Sanmartino, 1753). Subject matter aside, the statue is probably the most dramatic and expert rendering of cloth in marble that exists anywhere in the world.