Naples for newcomers: A brief guide to the city
No other city in Italy evokes as many preconceptions as Naples. The capital of Italy's south, or mezzogiorno, Naples is at once beguiling and menacing, filthy and atmospheric. It is unlike anywhere else in the country, and you will either love it or hate it.
Naples for newcomers: a brief guide to the city
Home to opulent squares lined with grand buildings that sit cheek-by-jowl with dark narrow alleyways scribbled with graffiti, the city also boasts world-class museums and churches decorated with Baroque treasures. It spreads around the Bay of Naples, harbouring the ancient Roman sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried both in volcanic ash and pumice. Read on to find out more about Naples and how to make the most of it as a newcomer to the city.
The best way to navigate the city's narrow streets is on foot. Driving is not recommended as finding your way around the one-way streets and dealing with erratic temperamental drivers is best avoided. Renting a scooter is an option, but drive at your peril.
The old part of the city is the liveliest quarter and arguably its most authentic. Teeming with energy, the area's narrow crowded streets are criss-crossed with hanging laundry, scooters racing past and hawkers yelling for custom. With buildings rising high, it's dark and dingy, but it's the best place to get a sense of the city and is a must on any itinerary. Don't miss the Gothic Duomo dedicated to the patron saint of Naples, San Gennaro.
Museo Archeologico Nazionale
Located in a seventeenth-century building, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale houses an extensive collection of finds from nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum. With over three thousand displays spanning from the prehistoric era to late antiquity, the museum holds the country's richest collections of archaeological artefacts from sites in southern Italy, along with an impressive selection of classical works of art from the Farnese Collection.
Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte
The Palazzo Reale di Capodimonte was the former residence of the Bourbon King Charles III. Built in 1738, today it houses a superb collection of important works of Italian schools of painting, along with ancient Roman sculptures, fine porcelain, and majolica from the royal residences. It is the best place to see works by Campanian artists such as Luca Giordano and the Neapolitan Caravaggisti.
Immediately above the old city, the peaceful district of Vomero can be reached by funicular railway. A short walk from the station is Castel Sant'Elmo, a fourteenth-century fortification once used to incarcerate political prisoners. Lying at Naples' highest point, it offers spectacular views of the city and the bay. Nearby is the Certosa San Martino, a former Carthusian monastery home to the Museo Nazionale di San Martino, which displays paintings by Neapolitan masters. The views of the city and beyond from the terraced gardens are impressive.
Looming over the city is Mount Vesuvius, the only active volcano in mainland Europe whose most infamous eruption in 79AD reduced the nearby commercial centres of Pompeii and Herculaneum to ashes. It's possible to walk around the crater, a deep bubbling cavity that throws out plumes of smoke, while enjoying the impressive sea views.
Today one of Italy's major touristic sites, the ruins of Pompeii will take at least half a day to explore. Among the highlights is the Villa dei Misteri, Pompeii's best preserved building that is decorated with wonderfully-clear frescoes depicting initiation rites into the early imperial era cult of the Dionysiac Mysteries. Herculaneum is smaller than Pompeii, although has better preserved buildings, many featuring impressive mosaic courtyards and intricate wall paintings.
Neapolitan cuisine consists of simple dishes prepared with fresh seasonal ingredients. The city is the birthplace of pizza, baked in wood-fired ovens, a sloppy mouth-watering affair topped with juicy ingredients. Street food is readily available at friggitorie, with the likes of exquisite fiorilli (battered courgette flowers), panzerotti (potato croquettes) and zeppole (deep fried dough balls).
Founded in 1870, Da Michele is one of the city's most popular pizzerias - get there early as the queues start to form in the mid-morning. Di Matteo, in the heart of the Centro Storico, serves delicious pizzas - to tickle your appetite order a frittatina, a deep-fried speciality made with pasta, mince, peas and cheese. Fresh fish and seafood dishes are excellent too, paired with white wines from the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.
Located inside a restored ex-convent, Donna Regina B&B* offers spacious rooms furnished with antiques. Run by a family of artists, the walls are decorated with pieces of art, while ceiling-high shelves overflow with books. Guests are encouraged to socialise at the communal breakfast table, laid out with freshly baked pies, pastries and savoury delights lovingly prepared by the friendly owners. The B&B also organises fun walking pizza tours (3hr).
Naples is easily reached within around two and a half hours, and now Thomas Cook Airlines offers direct flights to the city from Birmingham, Manchester and London Gatwick*, giving people across the UK the chance to escape to this curious Italian city for less. You can keep an eye on the weather right here but we can tell you that it's lovely and hot in summer - perfect for a long weekend away or as the starting point of a road trip on the Neapolitan Riviera.
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