I have enjoyed several trips to Naples over the years I have spent living in Rome. They have all proven to be rich experiences that have led me to discover and learn so much. It feels like stepping into another world when you visit Italy’s third biggest city, especially if you have come from northern Europe. All of a sudden the rules go out the window. Everything is chaotic and wild. The scooters and cars that are constantly close to running you over can get annoying after a while, but the diversity of things to see makes up for it.
Most tourists have heard that Naples is dangerous. My Neapolitan friends like to argue that this is an unfair image, but unfortunately, I know several foreigners who have been robbed during their visits. I have escaped unscathed so far, and my strategy has been to wear no obvious jewellery or watches, to dress discreetly and not like a tourist, to always be aware of where my valuables are and keep them stowed away out of the sights of potential thieves, and to only take the bare minimum with me. When I am there I pretend to be a student at the university, and I walk around confidently as if I know where I’m going, which I believe also helps. Try not to stop and get your map out in the street!
Naples has a treasure trove of sights to see, which I would say are among the most impressive in all of Europe. You will certainly want to pay a visit to the National Archaeological Museum, which holds many of the mosaics and artwork from Pompei and Herculaneum, two towns which were buried when the Vesuvius volcano erupted in 79 AD. You should also walk around the historic centre and see the Duomo dedicated to the town’s beloved San Gennaro, and stroll along the Bay of Naples. But if you have a little bit more time, there are several other gems to discover.
My favourite place in Naples, and almost all of Italy, is the cloister behind the church of Santa Chiara, close to Piazza del Gesu Nuovo. It has gardens full of rose beds and orange trees surrounding a small fountain, and is a great place to spend some quiet contemplative time away from the chaos of the streets outside.
Dating back originally to the 14th century, it was revamped by artist/architect Domenico Antonio Vaccaro in 1742, who redesigned the layout of the gardens and added walls and columns that were decorated with brightly coloured majolica tiles.
Wondering along its beautiful arcades, you can admire faded frescoes depicting biblical scenes, before visiting an interesting museum about the history of the church of Santa Chiara, which was badly damaged during World War Two bombings. All in all it’s well worth the six euro (full-price) entrance charge.
My next Naples sight, the museum of Capodimonte, is probably one that deserves to be in the “hidden gem” category, as I believe it is often missed off tourist itineraries due to its location at the top of a hill above the town. I went to see the artworks there on my second visit to Naples, and had the place practically to myself. It is not too difficult to get to, you just have to buy a public transport ticket in a Tabacchi and wait outside the archaeological museum for a bus up the hill. The first thing to admire when you reach the site is the Bourbon palace the museum is in, which was built by King Charles VII of Naples (later King Charles III of Spain) in the eighteenth century. He originally planned it as a hunting lodge but in the end it was used to house the Farnese art collection he inherited from his mother.
Inside there are halls and halls of interesting art to see, including works by Titian, Caravaggio, Raphael, El Greco and many others. One of my favourites was El Greco’s “A Boy Blowing on an Ember to Light a Candle”, which he painted around 1570, when he was trying to forge a niche in portraiture. Like many of the works at Capodimonte, it is part of the Farnese collection.
The museum also contains a range of wonderful Flemish works of art. Among those I remember being impressed with was The Blind Leading the Blind, painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder around 1568. It is in a sombre style, but also quite comical.
The final gem I want to mention in this first post on Naples is the Fontana dell’ Immacolatella (or del Gigante), which is a spectacular fountain along the sea promenade, close to Castel Dell’Ovo. It was designed in the 1600s by Pietro Bernini and Michelangelo Naccherino, commissioned by the Duke of Alba Antonio Álvarez de Toledo, and originally placed in the Royal Palace of Naples. It was then moved to the Palace of the Immacolatella on the water’s edge, then shifted again to its present spot in 1905.
It consists of three arches, and is topped by the coat of arms of the city and the king at the time. There is a small fountain under the central arch and statues of two river gods holding “monsters of the sea” stand under the outer arches.
From here you can walk along the sea front and perhaps sit down for a pizza (Naples pizzas are the best in the world and good value!). Or you can stroll back up to Via Toledo, and enjoy a delicious espresso in Cafe Gambrinus, and a warm pastry from La Sfogliatella Mary, in Galleria Umberto I.