There are as many stories about Naples, Italy, as there are sides to the city, but there's one thing almost everyone can agree on: You either love it or hate it.
Unlike other Italian cities, Naples does not offer calm cobblestoned streets or a leisurely passeggiatta. Its streets are painted with graffiti, and to the untrained eye, there is very little leisure to be had.
Although Naples appears dirty and chaotic, luxury is prevalent in some areas. Scratch the surface and you will find spas, designer shopping and fine-dining restaurants with some of the best views in the world. Each Neapolitan neighborhood has its own character.
Naples is located in the beautiful Campania region, and many visitors use the city as a base to explore the surrounding areas, particularly Mount Vesuvius, the amazingly preserved cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the Amalfi Coast and the island of Capri.
Within Naples itself, historic sights are so numerous that you can't help but come across them. The National Archaeological Museum is one of the best in the world, and the Museo di Capodimonte houses a collection of art that includes the Farnese Collection and rivals the Uffizi in Florence. Strolling along the Gulf of Naples with Mount Vesuvius in the background, you can quickly forget the chaos of the Centro Storico.
Then, of course, there's the food. Naples has some of the best cuisine in all of Italy. From espresso and biscotti to dishes of pasta overflowing with fresh seafood, Naples does it like no other city. True Neapolitan pizza cannot be found anywhere else, and even the street food is worth sampling, especially when served piping hot from storefronts.
The stress of Naples can be overwhelming, and the city is not for everyone. But if you can pick up the pace, it's possible that you might just fall in step.
Naples wraps along the coast of the Bay of Naples. The central train station is on the eastern edge of the city, and the hilly Posillipo neighborhood constitutes the western side. The Vomero neighborhood is located on the hills that compose the northern portion of the city.
The city's center is large and contains numerous alleyways, nooks and crannies. The most important neighborhoods are the Centro Storico, Chiaia and San Ferdinando. Via Toledo runs north to south and divides the city in two with Centro Storico to the east and Chiaia and San Ferdinando to the west.
The Centro Storico and San Ferdinando neighborhoods are where most historical monuments and museums are found, including Castel Nuovo and Castel dell'Ovo, Piazza Plebiscito, the Duomo, Sotterranea (Naples Underground) and the National Archaeological Museum. The Centro Storico is the best place to find true Neapolitan pizza, although its tiny streets and hectic traffic can make it stressful to walk in. Alternatively, Chiaia is more modern and relaxed, featuring Villa Comunale and Naples' best waterfront area, which is full of fine-dining restaurants.
From the central train station, a 30-minute walk through the Centro Storico gets you to Via Toledo; from there, it takes another 20 minutes to walk to the heart of the Chiaia neighborhood, which is accessed by taking Via Chiaia. For this reason, using Naples' public transportation is paramount when crossing the city.
The Greeks founded Naples in the sixth century BC. The settlement was located in what is today the Centro Storico neighborhood, and it was named Neapolis, which literally means "new city." The Romans claimed Neapolis in 326 BC and ruled until AD 800, when Naples became an independent city. This independence lasted until AD 1100, when the city was briefly controlled by the Lombards before falling under Norman rule.
The Normans began to make Naples a world-renowned cultural center. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II built the first state-run university in Europe, the University of Naples, in 1224. Subsequently, the Angevin dynasty built Sant'Elmo and Castel Nuovo. Artists of all kinds came to Naples during the 13th and 14th centuries, creating an influx of Spanish Gothic and Renaissance-inspired works. Byzantine-influenced art also entered the region when fugitives from Constantinople came to the city. These three styles are still present in the city's architecture. Because the city drew musicians, poets, philosophers, writers and scientists, such people as Handel and Goethe held it in high esteem.
The Golden Period came when the Spanish Bourbons took control in 1734. They named Naples the capital of their southern kingdom, which included southern Italy and Sicily. Charles of Bourbon, better known as King Charles III of Spain, became "king of the two Sicilies." He was king of Naples from 1734 to 1759, during which he accomplished an extraordinary number of artistic feats. He united the Farnese Collection, financed the unearthing of Pompeii and Herculaneum as well as the retrieval of their impressive artworks, and built Capodimonte palace, Regina di Caserta palace and Teatro San Carlo.
Also, for the first time, Naples developed its own unique school of painting, exemplified by Ferdinando Galiani, Pietro Giannone and Giambattista Vico. Charles of Bourbon left Naples in 1759, when he became king of Spain, passing down the throne of Naples to his son, Ferdinand I.
In the late 18th century, Naples's political allegiance switched from Spain to Britain, just in time to unite against Napoleon. The Bourbons were forced to flee in 1798. They returned a few years later, after signing an agreement with Napoleon, and promptly broke the agreement by ruthlessly executing everyone sympathetic to the French. These atrocities and others are attributed to the royal leaders King Ferdinand I (son of Charles of Bourbon) and Queen Maria Carolina, who is known to have greatly influenced her husband. (Perhaps some of their cruelties toward the French can be explained by the death of her sister, Marie Antoinette.)
Public opinion eventually turned against the iron-fisted Bourbons, making the city sympathetic to Giuseppe Garibaldi, who united Italy in 1860. This marked the beginning of the downfall of Naples. The Piedmont region confiscated the city's massive gold reserves, and heavy taxes were leveled by the north. This downfall was further facilitated by a cholera outbreak in 1884 and the severe destruction of World War II.
However, things have begun to look up for Naples. The city's museums and tourist sites have been revitalized. Former mayor Antonio Bassolino spent more than 30 million euros on the tourist industry and fixing inner-city traffic congestion. He also has been blamed for the famous garbage strikes of the 1990s and 2000s, for which the Camorra (the local organized crime ring) shared the blame. The strikes have since stopped.
Naples has an astonishing number of museums and churches. If you have only a day or two, make sure to visit both Pompeii and the National Archaeological Museum. The oldest of its kind in Europe, this museum houses the most impressive artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum, greatly complementing a visit to the ancient cities. Visit Pompeii first for a complete appreciation of the museum.
Naples is famous for its Farnese art collection, begun by Pope Paul III and inherited first by Elisabeth Farnese, then by her son Charles of Bourbon. When Charles of Bourbon inherited it, the collection was scattered across Rome, Pisa and Naples; he brought it to Naples. The bulk of its works, numbering more than 200 and including works by Botticelli and Raphael, is divided between the Capodimonte Museum and the National Archaeological Museum. The Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace), located in the sweeping Piazza del Plebiscito, contains the National Library and many important works of art.
Contemporary Naples is built upon Greek and Roman foundations, which have been unearthed over the years. Archaeological remains are visible in both the Duomo and the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore, and a tour of underground Naples gives insight into the city's long and eventful history. Most of Naples' churches appear unremarkable from the outside; however, they are rich in art and history on the inside. Make sure to pop in one or two when passing.
With so many options, a traveler with a tight schedule can easily become overwhelmed. To make planning easier, purchase a Campania Artecard, which groups sites into 11 cultural itineraries and offers considerable discounts. Different versions of the Campania Artecard specialize in specific sites and attractions.
The most comprehensive Campania Artecard is the three-day "Tutta la Regione" (Entire Region) card. It costs 32 euros and includes free access to two sites and 50% off all subsequent sites. The seven-day version of the card is a bargain at 34 euros, with free access to the first five sites and 50% off all subsequent sites. Both cards also take care of corresponding public transportation for three days. The rechargeable card is activated upon entry to the first site or first use of public transportation. It can be purchased online, through the call center and at all participating museums and archaeological sites. Phone 800-600-601; from cell phones and abroad, call 81-1973-7256. http://www.campaniartecard.it.
Naples has a vibrant nightlife during the winter months (October-March). In the summer, many clubs close their doors, prompting an explosion of outdoor parties that fill the streets, piazzas and parks. Most clubs are located in two areas: Chiaia and Centro Storico.
Chiaia is home to top-of-the-line nightclubs, and most have strict policies when it comes to what to wear. Many clubs are located around Piazza dei Martiri and Piazza San Pasquale. Doors close around 3 am, but that doesn't mean that the party stops. Clubbers stay inside until dawn and beyond. The most popular wine bars in Naples are also there, with decors as refined as their wines.
In the Centro Storico, Via Bellini is lined with clubs and bars, many offering live music. With an alternative, university crowd, this area is always busy and offers a more funky style of nightlife than Chiaia.
Naples is known as the home of the true pizza (pizza vera napoletana
), and a trip to the city can easily be eaten away at its many pizzerias. Pizzaioli
(pizza makers) do not toss the dough in the air; they work it with their hands into a very thin crust, then top it with sauce or tomatoes and mozzarella. The Italian government classifies pizzas in a similar way to wine: Pizzas can be D.O.C. (denominazione d'origene controllata
). To qualify, the pizza must be made according to precise standards, including the thinness of the crust and the weight.
Try the pizza fritta (fried pizza), which resembles a calzone and is filled with tomatoes and mozzarella or ricotta and pancetta. When you arrive at a busy pizzeria, push through the crowd to get your name on the list; there's no such thing as a line in Naples. Locals eat their pizza al fazzoletto (folded and eaten with the hands).
Buffalo mozzarella is one of Campania's most delectable specialties, made with milk from buffaloes that graze in the nearby countryside. Order it on pizza (most pizzerias will make any of their pizzas with mozzarella di bufala, for a slight surcharge), but it is also delicious on a sandwich or on its own. Look for D.O.P. (denominazione d'origine protetta). Fior di latte is another local cheese, similar to mozzarella di bufala but made with cow's milk.
Breakfast, as in the rest of Italy, consists of coffee and a pastry, generally eaten while standing at the bar (al banco). Food and drinks al tavolo (at the table) often cost twice the price, so if you're not staying long, do as the locals do and stand. Espresso napoletano is arguably the best espresso in Italy, richer and creamier than most. Just order un espresso or un caffe; the napoletano part is understood.
Pastries in Naples are also some of the best, especially the sfogliatella (a flaky pastry, shaped like a seashell, filled with ricotta and a touch of lemon) and the biscotti all'amarena. Baba, a rum-soaked, spongy pastry, is very popular among Neapolitans, although it may be an acquired taste. Around Easter and Christmas, pastry shop windows feature glorious and strange concoctions, such as the casatiello (bread with hard-boiled eggs, salami and cheese).
For lunch on the go or a midday snack, the street food in Naples is unbeatable—and cheap. Stop at a street vendor for arancini (breaded, deep-fried balls of risotto stuffed with mozzarella). They generally cost 1 euro-2 euros. Any deli or supermarket will make you an inexpensive sandwich (2 euros-3 euros) with cheese and meat (try salame di napoli, the traditional salami of Naples) or vegetables; just ask for un panino and choose your fillings.
Most Neapolitans eat dinner after 9 pm. The seafood in Naples is outstanding; try the risotto alla pescatora (seafood risotto) or frittura (fried seafood) at one of the restaurants on Borgo Marinari, near Castel dell'Ovo—they look touristy, but they serve delicious seafood, and their prices are surprisingly reasonable.
Pair your meal with one of Campania's excellent white wines—in fact, it is hard to find a bad one. Falanghina, Fiano di Avellino D.O.C.G. and Greco di Tufo D.O.C.G. are especially notable. The reds are also delicious, especially Lacryma Christi ("tears of Christ") and Taurasi D.O.C.G.
Keep in mind that credit cards aren't used as commonly in Italy as elsewhere, but most major restaurants accept them readily. If you are having a sandwich and a glass of water in a bar, you will generally be expected to pay in cash.
Although many restaurants serve both lunch and dinner, with a break in between (usually 2-6 pm), make sure you call ahead, particularly if you're travelling in the summer when many restaurants close for several weeks between late July and early September. It's not unusual for a restaurant to close its doors for the entire month of August, for example.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, excluding drinks, tax and tip: $ = less than 20 euros; $$ = 20 euros-35 euros; $$$ = 36 euros-65 euros; $$$$ = more than 65 euros.
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