If you revel in cities that wear their heart on their sleeve, go to Naples.
Whilst it has all the gems of famed Italian cities – the massive churches, large piazzas and beautiful architecture – it’s considerably rougher, edgier and has that ‘lived-in’ look that stirs up polarising opinions. It’s often said you’re either going to love or hate Naples. I love it and what’s more, there’s so much to do in the surrounding area. Though I regrettably didn’t get a chance to explore the Amalfi Coast, I took the opportunity to visit the historical sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii, both famously wiped out by the devastating eruption of Vesuvius.
In this 3-day itinerary I’ve brought together a little bit of everything to ensure you get to experience various facets of this city which often gets overlooked for reasons that are beyond me.
Day one – Explore the Old Town
Start by walking up the alleyway of Port’Alba, a well-known passage that begins in Dante Piazza and leads through to Naples’ historic centre. The most immediate attraction is Piazza Bellini where you’ll find excavations of the city ruins and a collection of cafes. Due to the nearby university, the area is popular with students making it prime time to perch your bottom and enjoy a quick coffee and chilled atmosphere. One of the first things you’ll notice about Naples is the cafe culture followed by the graffiti which is omnipresent around the city – not all of it is good either, but it does give the city a curious edge.
For the next few hours get lost within the maze of the old town, making sure to potter down the city’s narrow alleyways and picturesque courtyards filled with cobbled stones and monuments. Don’t miss the following:
Spaccanapoli – This street is easily spotted from any vantage point in Naples as the pedestrian walkway that cuts a straight line through the historical centre. Mentioned often in Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, it is still a bustling street where locals spend their leisure time.
Capella Sansevero – This museum houses some incredible sculptures; the Veiled Christ is the most famous and the Disillusion is equally impressive.
Church of Gesù Nuovo – This church blew the socks off my feet. No words can do it justice so take a look at the photo below for proof.
Lunch: On your first day delve straight into the very thing Naples is most famous for: Pizza! There are many joints to get the perfect slice of pizza but head to L’ Antica Pizzeria da Michele, this pizzeria was featured in the book Eat, Pray, Love and is considered the city’s finest.
Nearby L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele take the short walk to one of Naple’s most most famous pieces of street art. The Neapolitan artist Jorit Agoch has made a huge mural of an ‘ordinary’ local worker dressed as San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples.
In the late afternoon make your way to Fontanelle cemetery. There are several crypts and various kinds of cemeteries in Naples but this one is probably the most striking, plus it’s free to enter.
Currently holding an estimated eight million bones, it was first used during the plague in 1656, before becoming the city’s main burial site during the cholera epidemic of 1837. Now it is a place to worship the dead and pray for their souls. Admittedly I didn’t do any praying but it was no less a feast for the eyes!
Dinner: After you’ve had a little rest after a day of sightseeing head back out to explore the culinary offerings of Naples. I recommend booking a table at Osteria Da Carmela for a delicious selection of seafood and Neapolitan dishes.
For more information on places to eat read my earlier post, Eating in Naples: From Pizza Pilgrim to Coffee seeker.
Day two – Hike Vesuvuis and Explore Herculaneum
In the morning take the 25-minute train from Garibaldi Station to Ercolano Scava which is the nearest station to Mount Vesuvuis (the volcano) and Herculaneum. Upon exiting the station you’ll see a bus company that offers trips to the volcano. They depart quite frequently so there’s no need to buy advanced tickets, we simply rocked up and paid 20 Euros for a return ticket which also included the entrance fee for the hike.
By any standards the hike up the volcano is pretty easy and takes about 25-minutes to reach the top and even less walking back down but the landscape is stunning. Unfortunately it was a pretty cloudy day when we arrived, I imagine the view across the whole of Naples on a clear and sunny sunny day looks breath-taking. Though clouds or no clouds, the craggy cliffs, volcanic rock and striking views of the volcano offered a rewarding experience and some pretty fun photo opportunities.
Once the bus drops you back off by the station make the short walk down the main street to Herculaneum’s excavation site. It is a sister-site to Pompeii; buried by the same eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 which also destroyed Pompeii. Smaller, and with less tourists, you can really get up close and personal with the tragedy that engulfed the area here. Perhaps because we were in Naples at the end of January, we saw visually no other visitors.
After you’ve finished sightseeing, hop back on the train to Naples before evening.
Dinner: Head to one of the restaurants nearby Plaza Bellini. I suggest seafood pasta at La Stanza del Gusto which is typically served al dente followed by a few cocktails at Libreria Berisio located a short walk away inside the alleyway of Port’Alba.
Day 3 – National Archaeological Museum and Pompeii
The National Archaeological Museum has a lot of the treasures recovered from Pompeii over the years and it’s a good complement before your visit to Pompeii. It has many of the artefacts from Pompeii and the famous large mosaic of Alexander the Great and King Darius and the Farnese Bull, the largest single sculpture yet recovered from antiquity.
Following the same route as yesterday, take the 50-minute train from Garibaldi Station to Pompei Scavi-Villa dei Misteri (passing Ercolano Scava).
Pompeii was a small prosperous town, little did the residents know that the mountain in their vicinity was actually a volcano that loomed above. In 79 AD, Mt. Vesuvius erupted. While the magma and heat blast burnt and destroyed the neighbouring city of Herculaneum, Pompeii got poisoned by an ash rain. Everyone in town suffocated and died due to the eruption. The ash rain continued and buried the whole town.
The town stayed buried under till 1599. Then it was excavated. Because of the ash cloud, the ancient city remained preserved for centuries. Over years the city has been excavated and now has been restored to a great extent.
To get back back into Naples, simply travel on the train back to Garibaldi Station and onwards to the appropriate station near your hotel (if it’s near Dante Piazza / Bellini Piazza, you’ll want to get off at the station called Dante Piazza).
Dinner: On your last night I suggest heading to Trattoria Speranzella. Like many restaurants in Naples, it’s particularly small and intimate so I suggest calling up first to avoid disappointment. They offer a selection of home made wines, the perfect indulgence to end your trip in Naples!
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