Italy is a country I love. But so far, I was somewhat reluctant to visit the southern part of Italy because I knew that that was different. Just like being another country indeed. And I have heard many bad things about Naples, including being dangerous and dirty. Until the late stages of planning my trip to the Amalfi coast with landing in Naples, I was not clear how much time to spend in Naples or maybe no time at all. Finally, I decided to give it a chance and was not disappointed. Naples will captivate you with beautiful places like stunning metro stations, fascinating museums, lovely churches, etc. Even though Naples has pickpockets and petty thieves, it is not much more dangerous for visitors than most big cities. So make sure to check out my suggestions for a DIY old town and Castel Sant’Elmo walking tour with maps included.
But let’s start with the Toledo Metro station.
Toledo Metro station
For lovers of contemporary art, there is a whole underground world to discover. The Art Stations, distributed along the lines 1 and 6 of the Metro network, have more than 180 pieces of art created by 90 international and local authors. The Toledo station is the most famous of them. In addition to many awards, the Daily Telegraph and CNN have elected it the most beautiful metro station in Europe, leaving behind the gorgeous metro stations of Stockholm. Designed around themes of water and light, this station has colours that symbolically mark the passage from earth to the sea. The massive cone called Crater de luz, by Robert Wilson, from the street level continues to the underground. Inside the station, everything is about the history of Naples. On the first floor, you can admire the remains of the Aragonese walls from medieval times. In the atrium, you can find two colourful mosaics: a procession guided by San Gennaro, the patron saint of the city, and a scene that recalls the works of the construction of the subway.
Then take the train from Toledo to the Dante Metro station, and let’s start the exploration of the old town from there.
Previously a large market, Dante Square ġot its current look in the second half of the 18th century. The square was redesigned, restructured and redeveloped again during the construction of the metro that ended in 2002. An impressive white statue of Dante stands in the centre of the square. He is the author of the epic Divine Comedy and one of the establishers of the modern-day standardised Italian language. From there, make your way to the Port’Alba, the entrance to the old town.
The Port'Alba is the remnant of one of the city gates in Naples. It is located on the northwestern edge of Dante Square, just north of the Vanvitelli colonnade. The gate leads from the square into a pedestrian alley, Via d'Alba, where you can find restaurants and shops selling musical instruments and books. After that, make your way to the Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo.
Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo
The Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo is one of the biggest churches in the city and also one of the most beautiful. Jesuits turned the former Palace of Sanseverino into a church in the 16th century. From the outside, you can admire its unusual façade decorated with pyramid-shaped stones. Once inside, look at the ornate columns topped with vaulted ceilings covered with intricate frescoes, and admire the beautiful baroque paintings on the walls. To avoid disappointment, keep in mind that the church is closed during siesta time from about noon to four o’clock in the afternoon, so check opening times before your visit.
Just across the church is the famous Santa Chiara complex, which stands at the edge of the historic street known as Spaccanapoli.
The Monumental Complex of Santa Chiara, also known as the Monastery of Santa Chiara, is among the most appreciated monuments of the artistic heritage of Naples. The complex extends over a vast area that includes the Gothic Basilica, the monastic rooms, the archaeological site with the remnants of the Roman bath, the large area occupied by the Franciscan Opera Museum, the famous Majolica Cloister, and the large bell tower. The original church was in traditional Provençal-Gothic style before being decorated in Baroque style by Domenico Antonio Vaccaro in the 18th century. After the church was almost entirely destroyed by the Allied bombings during World War II, it was restored in Gothic style and reopened in 1953.
The cloister, which is accessible for a fee, has a separate entrance located behind the church. I definitely recommend including it in your visit. The splendid cloister consists of 66 arches resting on as many pillars, which, in turn, are connected by benches. The pillars and benches are covered with painted majolica tiles depicting famous, rural, maritime, and mythological scenes. Inside the monumental complex, you can access a room where there is a Neapolitan nativity scene with shepherds from the 18th and 19th centuries. It depicts characters and scenes from everyday life at the time reproduced with meticulous care.
Then head to the Sansevero Chapel Museum. You should know two things in advance: first, book your entrance tickets at least a few days before the visit, and second, you are not allowed to take photos inside.
Sansevero Chapel Museum
The chapel is a small, private museum open to visitors for a fee. It is well worth the visit, especially if you are interested in art. This mausoleum admirably reflects the multi-faceted personality of its ingenious architect, mysterious Raimondo di Sangro, the seventh Prince of Sansevero. It contains some of the best marble sculptures ever made. Here baroque creativity, dynastic pride, beauty and mystery blend to create a unique and almost timeless atmosphere. Placed right in the centre of the chapel, the veiled Christ sculpture— made in 1753 by the young Neapolitan artist Giuseppe Sanmartino—is famous for the mystery linked to the very realistic marble veil that covers Christ. On the lower floor of the museum, you can see the famous Anatomical Machines, the sceletons of a man and a woman, which depict the human body's arteriovenous system in great detail. No pictures are allowed inside the Chapel.NB! If you want to visit the Chapel Museum, make sure to buy your ticket at least a few days before your visit.
Then continue your way to Via dei Tribunali to see one of the symbols of Naples.
Via dei Tribunali
Via dei Tribunali, also known as Decumanus Maggiore, is one of the oldest streets in Naples. This is the high street of the old town as it is constantly busy during the day regardless of the weather. At the very end of Via de Tribunali, there is a Castel Capuano which has become the home of the civil courts (tribunali). Via dei Tribunali is where you can find the oldest and best pizzerias in the city. Soon you will see the Pulcinella statue on your right.
Pulcinella is a mask with origins from the 14th century and the symbol of Naples and its people. It is often pictured in different artworks. According to the Neapolitans, Pulcinella represents the simple man who tries to face all his problems with a smile. He is making fun of the mighty ones and is clever. Since it is hard for him to be quiet, there is an expression “Il segreto di Pulcinella” (“Pulcinella’s secret”) used to indicate the fact that everybody knows. It demonstrates the mentality of people living in Southern Italy. Legend says that if you rub his nose, it will bring you good luck!
After a short while, turn to Via San Gregorio Armeno.
Via San Gregorio Armeno
Nicknamed Christmas Alley, Via San Gregorio Armeno is the famous street of Naples, where handicrafts for the Neapolitan nativity scene are made and sold all year round. You will love the handmade terracotta statues with tailor-made clothes of the shepherds and all the characters of the Christian cribs like the ox and the donkey, the fishmonger, the greengrocer, the fisherman, the gipsy, and many others.Artisans also create caricatured statues of famous people from politics, sports and show business of the present and the past. Remember to bring some cash if you want to go shopping. Even if you have no intention to purchase any souvenirs, the overall ambiance of the street is perfect for a coffee and/or ice cream, all the while having a chance to get an intriguing glimpse into Naples' culture.
Your next stop will be a mural of the city’s patron San Gennaro.
San Gennaro mural
Wherever you look in Naples, you will see artworks, even in the streets. Jorit Agoch (b.1990) is the most famous Naples street artist. He has created murals of San Gennaro (the city’s patron saint), Diego Maradona, and Che Guevara. Recently many more of his works have been displayed on the city walls. Jorit is now focusing exclusively on the human face and specifically portraying the human face in the most realistic way possible. He marks his portraits with two red stripes on the cheek as a symbol of struggle and social resistance.
Address: Via Vicaria Vecchia 33
Then continue to the Naples Cathedral.
Built in the early 14th century, the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, called the Duomo, is Naples' main church with important artistic, cultural, and historic heritage.It is also called Duomo San Gennaro or San Gennaro Cathedral because the relics of San Gennaro, the saint patron of the city, are housed there. Its façade dates back to 1876 and retains 15th-century portals by Antonio Baboccio. The Gothic interior, with three naves separated by ancient columns, has the tombs of important people, such as Saint Aspreno, the first bishop of Naples.
Then continue your way to the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.
The National Archaeological Museum of Naples
The National Archaeological Museum in Naples, considered among the world's top archaeological museums focused on ancient Rome, holds one of the most important collections of archaeological artefacts in Italy. The cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii were discovered by kings of Naples of the Bourbon dynasty in the 18th century when they explored the territory destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Their findings and inherited artefacts from the Farnese family allowed them to establish this museum. It was named the Royal Bourbon Museum before being renamed the National Museum in 1860. Built as army barracks in the 16th century and converted to a museum in the 19th century, the four-storey museum displays a giant collection of Greek and Roman antiquities and pieces from Ancient Egypt. There is also a "Secret Cabinet" where the Bourbon Monarchy housed the extensive collection of erotic items from the Pompeii and Herculaneum excavations.
After visiting the museum, head to the nearby Museo Metro station and take the train to the Vanvitelli station to get to Castel Sant’Elmo. You can also take one of three funiculars to get up to Vomero hill, but the metro is your best option if you want to save time. The castle is a 10 to 15-minute walk from the Vanvitelli station.
The hilltop fortress of Castel Sant'Elmo is one of the most unmissable sights in Naples. This fortress, located on the highest point of Vomero hill, offers one of the most spectacular views over the city and the gulf. Originally a medieval castle, it was rebuilt in the 16th century. In the 19th century, the fortress served as a prison. After restoration works, Castel Sant'Elmo became the headquarters of the Polo Museale della Campania, the museum network of Campania. While visiting the castle, you will walk past the watchtowers and have fantastic views of the city and the Gulf of Naples.
If you have time, combine the visit to the castle with the adjacent monastery Certosa di San Martino. You can also walk down instead of taking the funicular or train. Across the monastery, you can descend by using steps of the path in poor condition. Such a fascinating way to discover another part of Naples!
Your visit to Naples would be incomplete without tasting Neapolitan pizza and Aperol spritz.
Pizza and aperol spritz
Naples is known worldwide for many things, such as its vast history, religious traditions, authentic bustling streets and, of course, for being the homeland of pizza. During the 18th century, pizza was a dish mainly eaten by the lower classes of Naples. It was simple and consisted of dough, olive oil, and tomatoes. However, the dish soon became very popular among the wealthy, and Naples turned into a food haven for all classes. Naples has its very own style of pizza: the classic Margherita, which consists of a thin base of pizza dough topped with tomatoes and mozzarella; and the Marinara, which does not have cheese but oregano and garlic instead; and; lastly, the deep fried Pizza Fritta. If you want to taste the best pizza in Italy, Naples is where to try it!
Aperol spritz, a combination of bittersweet liqueur, sparkling wine and seltzer, the champagne of the poor, has been the king of cocktails in Naples for a few decades. In the early 2000s, many Neapolitan bars switched from serving the traditional wine aperitif to the spritz. The success of the spritz was immediate. Even though the name implies it is a pre-meal drink, Neapolitans enjoy the spritz and some snacks every single day. One of the most popular spritz bars in the city is Peppe Spritz; the bar is located on Bellini Square and is particularly popular with Neapolitan students.
Where to stay in Naples
I am always quite picky about hotels I recommend, and this hotel was a bit of a question mark because of its location. Still, as the hotel was good, you decide whether its location is convenient for you. I stayed at the recently opened 4-star Gold Tower Lifestyle Hotel, located in an industrial part of Naples. It has a lovely design, spacy rooms, comfy beds, and good service.
Address: Via Brecce a S. Erasmo, 185
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About the author
Anita is a part-time traveller, passionate photographer and a retired career woman from Latvia, travelling mostly solo for more than 15 years. She is a skilled travel planner who plans and executes her travels by herself. Anita wants to show you how to travel the world and open your mind to new experiences. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and Bloglovin.