Naples is unlike anywhere else you’ll go in Italy. It’s loud and chaotic, sure, but it’s also one of the most fascinating places you’ll find here.
Winter is perhaps one of the most rewarding times to visit the city, thanks to mild temperatures and fewer tourists. I stayed at Bruno’s Historic Home, a cozy B&B that proved to be an excellent base to explore Naples. It’s only a few steps away from Naples’ Cathedral and Bruno is the most helpful host.
Now, let’s see what I did during my weekend in Naples…
After a feast of sfogliatelle for breakfast, I went to the Cathedral, home to the relics of San Gennaro, the patron saint and protector of Naples. It is here that the famous ceremony of the miracolo di San Gennaro is performed every year. Basically, the dried blood of the saint is kept in special ampules inside the Cathedral and its liquefaction during such ceremonies is considered a sign of good luck for Naples.
Right next door there’s the Museum of the Treasure of San Gennaro, which contains what is considered to be the richest treasure in the world: an incredible collection of jewelry, statues, paintings and textiles donated over the centuries as an act of devotion. The most important pieces on display include San Gennaro’s mitre, decorated with over 3,600 precious stones and necklaces covered in pearls and gems.
My next stop is Forcella, one of Naples’ historic neighbourhood. There’s is a fantastic open-air market animated by loud street vendors and fishmongers. Not to miss is the giant mural dedicated to San Gennaro, next to the tiny Church of San Giorgio Maggiore. This church may be a little off the tourist radar but I recommend stepping inside and learning about a certain XVII-century fresco hidden behind a painting (although you must ask the custodian to show it to you).
While in Forcella, L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele is the must-go place for all pizza lovers. The only pizzas on the menu here are Margherita and Marinara and you’ll most probably end up sharing table with other patrons, which makes the whole experience even more fun. The downside is that the waiting time can be long, but trust me, it’s well worth it!
After a delicious pizza margherita, I make my way to via dei Tribunali in search of the little Piazza San Gaetano to take part in an underground tour of Naples. Napoli Sotterranea, takes visitors through a fantastic maze of ancient tunnels and aqueducts above which the lively streets of modern Naples had been built. Across the street there’s the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore, underneath which it is possible to visit an ancient Roman road with the remnants of a series of shops that once animated it.
The Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore is next to another major landmark, San Gregorio Armeno, the street of the nativity scene markers. Beware though, you’ll have to make your way through crowds of tourists that come here all year around to admire the beautiful nativity scenes and terracotta figures.
After the Christmas shopping, I grabbed a coffee at Bar Nilo, the temple of all football lovers and Maradona worshippers, before heading to the Sansevero Chapel to admire the Veiled Christ, Naples’ famous masterpiece. This statue is considered of the world’s most remarkable artworks because Neapolitan artist Giuseppe Sanmartino sculpted the block of marble with such realism to perfectly portray the wavy fabric drapes and even the veins in Jesus’ body.
Another favourite of mine is the Church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco, only a couple of minutes walk from the Sansevero Chapel. It is believed that the cult of the dead started here and skulls of the poor souls are still kept in the crypt. I think this church is a must-see if you really want to immerse yourself in the Neapolitan culture.
After a fascinating guided tour in the crypt of the church, I kept walking along via dei Tribunali and browsed the secondhand bookstalls of Port’Alba before reaching Piazza Dante, Naples’ elegant open space. The piazza is named after Dante Alighieri (there’s a big statue of the poet at the centre of it) and is dominated by the massive semicircular facade of the Convitto Nazionale high school and a big clock showing the equation of time. It’s a nice spot to have coffee and do some people watching before dinner.
I spent the rest of the evening at Don Maccarone to take a break from pizza and enjoy some traditional local dishes. I had a fritturella (a mix of fried snacks), pasta patate e provola (with potatoes and provola cheese) and a delicious slice of pastiera (a traditional Neapolitan cake with wheat and ricotta).
Before the trip I reserved a spot in one of the tours of the Farmacia degli Incurabili, an ancient hospital complex founded in the XVI century to care for those afflicted by syphilis. It’s a fascinating journey through the history of medicine and the role of Naples in the development of healthcare, with a renowned medical school that was a reference point in Europe in the XVI century. Tours are run by a group of volunteers and include a visit to one of the oldest apothecaries in the world.
The Sanità district is just a stone’s throw from the Farmacia degli Incurabili and I highly recommend spending some time in this vibrant neighborhood, which is home to a number of very interesting sites. I started my exploration at Borgo dei Vergini, a picturesque corner dotted with tens of stalls selling everything from fruits and vegetables to clothes and housewares. Highlights include Palazzo dello Spagnuolo with its elegant staircases punctured by vaults and stuccos, and the Basilica of Santa Maria della Sanità, at the centre of Piazza Sanità, with the super interesting Catacombs of San Gaudioso. I also stopped at Pasticceria Poppella to taste their famous fiocco di neve (literally, snowflake), a fluffy pastry ball filled with the most delicious cream. Pure poetry!
Another 15-minute walk further into the heart of this lively district took me to one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen, the Fontanelle Cemetery. Another key site for the cult of the dead, this cemetery is an ossuary containing hundreds of bones and skulls of the so called anime pezzentelle, the lost souls of those who died without a burial. Ok, maybe it’s a little creepy, but I believe it should be included in any tour of Naples because it represent an important aspect of the city’s soul.
For my late lunch I joined the queue at Pizzeria Concettina ai Tre Santi (yes, pizza again…I’m in Naples after all!), but I’ve heard that nearby La Taverna di Totò (named after the Italian comic actor that was born in this neighborhood) is really good, too.
On Sunday morning I hopped on a train to Mergellina, a delightful seafront neighborhood overlooked by the hill of Posillipo. Here I indulged in a delicious breakfast at Chalet Ciro, which is said to serve the best graffe (Neapolitan donuts) in town, followed by a lazy passeggiata along the seafront towards Castel dell’Ovo. This promenade is completely car-free and offers picture-perfect views. I stopped countless times to capture the imposing mt. Vesuvius, the colorful fish stalls and the neon-light cafes, so have your camera ready!
After a good 1-hour walk I reached Castel dell’Ovo, Naples’ oldest standing fortification. According to the legend, its name (literally “castle of the egg”) derives from the magic egg that was hidden in its foundations by the poet Virgil with the idea that as long as the egg remained intact, the city was safe. Entrance to the castle is free and you can enjoy the breathtaking views or visit one of the temporary exhibitions that usually take place here.
Close to Castel dell’Ovo is Piazza del Plebiscito, the heart of Naples city centre. It’s a semi-circular shaped square faced by Palazzo Reale, the seat of the Bourbon monarchy, on one side and by the imposing Basilica of San Francesco di Paola on the other side. While in the area, you can also explore Teatro San Carlo, the oldest opera house in Italy and one of the most prestigious in Europe, and visit Castel Nuovo (better known as Maschio Angioino) the fortress built by the French Angevins in the XIII century as an expression of their power.
Then I browsed some shops along via Toledo and then I turned in one of the narrow side streets leading to the Spanish Quarter. This is another super atmospheric neighbourhood packed with street art, religious shrines of all shapes and sizes and eye-catching washing lines everywhere. However, for me the best site here is the Church of Santa Maria Francesca delle Cinque Piaghe, which has a reputation for helping couples having a baby. Stepping into this tiny church and seeing the queue of people waiting to sit in the magic chair to receive the nuns’ blessing is simply fascinating
That was the last stop of my wonderful weekend in Naples. I collected my luggage at Bruno’s Historic Home and jumped onto a taxi to go to the airport (there are fixed prices and I paid €20, more information are available on the Capodichino airport website).
Here are a couple ideas in case you have some extra days at hand:
- visit Pompei and Ercolano
- take a day trip to Procida or Salerno
- climb mt. Vesuvius
Do not leave Naples without tasting a traditional pizza, some pizza fritta, a sfogliatella and a babà. Here are some tips for restaurants and eateries:
- warm sfogliatelle an Pintauro, Scaturchio, Attanasio, Leopoldo or Mignone
- traditional Neapolitan cuisine at Mimi alla Ferrovia, A Taverna o’ Re, Caseificio Marigliano, Trattoria Da Ettore, Osteria Don Maccarone
- pizza at Da Michele, Sorbillo, Concettina Tre Santi, La Figlia del Presidente and Starita
- fried pizza at Da Zia Esterina Sorbillo, La Masardona, or Dé Figliole
- a red horn-shaped good-luck charm – like a real Neapolitan would say “lu malocchio se n’ pozza ye!” (may the evil eye go away!)
- a terracotta figure from the San Gregorio Armeno artisan shops
- one of the unique ties from Marinella, the leading address in Naples for men’s fashion
- a bottle of limoncello
Until next time,