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 and you shouldn’t miss it. Winter is perhaps one of the most rewarding times to visit the city, with mild temperatures and fewer tourists. Here’s my idea of a perfect weekend in the city.
First thing first, where to stay. I chose Bruno’s Historic Home, a cozy B&B in a super convenient location only a few steps away from Naples’ Cathedral, which proved to be an excellent base to explore the city.
And now let’s see what you can do…
Step out of your b&b and go to Naples’ Cathedral, a key site of local religiousness featuring paintings by important artists like Francesco Solimena, Giorgio Vasari and Parmigianino, and some beautiful mosaics in the baptistry. Inside the Cathedral you’ll find the The Royal Chapel of the Treasure of San Gennaro, which contains the houses the relics of Naples’ patron saint, including his silver bust, the mitre decorated with over 3,600 precious stones and an ampoule containing his blood. This latter piece is the protagonist of the so-called “miracle of San Gennaro”, an important feast that occurs three times a year (first Saturday in May, 19 September and 16 December). This is the moment when – or some scientifically inexplicable reasons – the blood of the saint is supposed to liquefy and if the miracle doesn’t occur, then something bad will happen in Naples… fascinating, isn’t it?! Entrance to the chapel is quite pricey but keep in mind that San Gennaro’s treasure is said to be even richer than the jewels of the Crown in London!
No trip to Naples is complete without a visit to one of the many local markets, so your next stop could be the nearby Forcella, one of Naples’ historic districts (as well as the set of many scenes of Gomorra 3…). Here you can immerse yourself in its colorful open-air market filled with all kind of street vendors and fishmongers. You’ll also be able to see the incredible mural dedicated to San Gennaro right 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 (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 share 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 is well worth it!
With full bellies, now you can take a walk to the heart of the historic center and join a tour of underground Naples at Napoli Sotterranea, where you can explore a fascinating maze of narrow passages and cavities of the subterranean city above which modern Naples is built. Across the street there’s the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore, underneath which lie some extraordinary Greek-Roman ruins, and then you can visit San Gregorio Armeno, a charming cobbled street known also as the Christmas Alley because of the many artisan shops and stalls selling beautiful nativity scenes and terracotta figures.
After the Christmas shopping, you could grab a coffee at Bar Nilo, the temple of all football lovers and Maradona worshippers, before heading to the Sansevero Chapel to admire Naples’ famous masterpiece, the Veiled Christ. This marble statue is one of those artistic jewels that should be seen at least once in a lifetime, renowned all over the world for the way the hard stone is sculpted with such realism to resemble wavy fabric.
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.
From here you can continue on via dei Tribunali, pass through the secondhand bookstalls of Port’Alba and reach Piazza Dante, Naples’ elegant open space named after Dante Alighieri, with 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.
Book in advance a tour of Farmacia degli Incurabili and take a fascinating journey through the history of medicine in this amazing hospital complex founded in the XVI century to care for those afflicted by syphilis. Tours are run by a group of volunteers and you’ll be able to see a small museum that retraces the city’s medical history, as well as one of the oldest apothecaries in the world.
The Sanità district is just a stone’s throw from here and I highly recommend spending some time in this vibrant neighborhood, home to a number of very interesting sites. You could start your exploration at Borgo dei Vergini, a picturesque corner dotted with tens of stalls selling everything from fruits and vegetables to clothes and housewares. Look for Palazzo dello Spagnuolo with its elegant staircases punctured by vaults and stuccos. There is a similar building further up in via Sanità, Palazzo Sanfelice, but this one is much better preserved. Before reaching the heart of Sanità, stop by Pasticceria Poppella and order a “fiocco di neve” (literally, a snowflake), a mouthwatering fluffy pastry ball filled with the most delicious cream – I’m sure that even those without a sweet-tooth will love it! The Basilica of Santa Maria della Sanità is located in Piazza Sanità, the heart of this neighborhood, and incorporates the Catacombs of San Gaudioso, above which the church was built.
A further 15-minute walk will take you to one of the most incredible places ever, the Fontanelle Cemetery, another key site for the cult of the dead. It 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 – perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, but I believe this should be a must-see attraction in every tour of the city.
From here you can either go back to the city center and indulge in some window shopping along Corso Umberto and via Chiaia, or take one of those City Sightseeing buses to Museo Capodimonte, an enormous museum that includes Caravaggio’s “Flagellation of Christ” as well as pieces by artists such as Masaccio, Raphael and Andy Warhol.
On Sunday morning I suggest to hope on a train to Mergellina, the charming seafront neighborhood in the shadow of the hill of Posillipo. Here you can indulge in a delicious breakfast (Ciro is the best) followed by a lazy passeggiata along the car-free promenade towards Castel dell’Ovo. Warning: this stretch of lungomare offers picture-perfect views and you’ll want to stop several times to capture the imposing mt. Vesuvius, the colorful fish stalls and the neon-light cafes, so have your camera ready at hand!
Castel dell’Ovo is the oldest standing fortification in the city and 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.
A short walk will then bring you to Piazza del Plebiscito, the famous semi-circular shaped square faced on one side by Palazzo Reale, the seat of the Bourbon monarchy, and on the other side by the imposing Basilica of San Francesco di Paola. While in the area, take a tour of 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.
With merenda time soon approaching, you’ll have plenty of choices to satisfy your belly, from the delicious pastries of the historic Café Gambrinus, to Gennaro Salvo’s “pizza a portaofglio” (literally “folded pizza”). If you opt for a late lunch instead, you could try Osteria Don Maccarrone, a tiny restaurant in a side streets of Via Chiaia serving excellent Neapolitan specialities.
Browse the shops in via Toledo and then turn in one of the narrow side streets leading to the Spanish Quarter. You could easily spend a good couple of hours exploring this part of Naples filled with amazing street art, religious shrines of all shapes and sizes and eye-catching washing lines everywhere. But to me the highlight of any visit here is the Church of Santa Maria Francesca delle Cinque Piaghe, which has a reputation for helping couples having a baby. It’s fascinating to step into this tiny church and see the queue of people waiting to sit in the magic chair and receive the nuns’ blessing.
Probably by now it will be time to leave. Catch the metro at Toledo station and reach the central station to go to the airport.
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 and enjoy the breathtaking views over the Gulf of Naples
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
- Neapolitan dishes at Mimi alla Ferrovia, A Taverna o’ Re, Caseificio Marigliano, Trattoria Da Ettore, Osteria Don Maccarone
- traditional pizza Da Michele, Sorbillo, Concettina Tre Santi, La Figlia del Presidente and Starita
- fried pizza at Da Zia Esterina Sorbillo, La Masardona, or Dé Figliole
Bring home with you:
- a red horn-shaped good-luck charm, because 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
- and don’t forget to stash a bottle of limoncello in your luggage
Until next time,