Along with many other people, Italy is a beloved holiday destination of mine. Rome, Florence, Venice… I bet you have them on your bucket list if you have not been there yet. Naples – or Napoli in Italian – may sound just as nice and exotic, but believe me: Naples is different. Naples is the type of city: you hate it or you love it. What makes Naples hard to love? And what to do if you have already booked a trip to Naples?
Neapolitans may hate me for writing this article about their beloved city. Several times I have carefully thought about whether I should write it or not, sensing I may step on some toes. However getting the same feeling every time I visit Naples, it felt legitimate to write this subjective article. To set the expectations, according to my repetitive experiences, and having heard the same from many others many times.
This was my third time to Naples, and this time I even stayed for 7 days, so I honestly tried. But when other Italians with embarrassment apologize for this city, you know there is something going on. Not nice but the cold hard truth. I feel like they can do so much better!
Walking around the streets of Naples I always get the feeling: I want to escape!
Honestly, I have never met someone who loves Naples… But of course there are. Like I said: you hate it or you love it. Somehow these Naples lovers see the charm in of all of it; the rawness, the imperfections, the chaos, the special character, the flavors, the history and the culture. A place that ignores rules that the rest of the world adheres to? It takes time to get to know the city and try to appreciate? Are Naples lovers simply blindly in love? Perhaps it is like that grumpy old aunt you grew up with; no matter how ugly, noisy, recalcitrant or unfriendly she is, you are going to love her forever anyway, right?
NAPLES: THE GOOD
Let’s start with the good side of Naples. I shall not deny that Naples does have interesting and relatively beautiful things to see, it is just that so far I do not love it, rather I am annoyed by its imperfections. But who knows, you may love it?
In case you are determined to visit Naples anyway, to see this city with your own eyes and make your own judgement about it? Fair enough. Or you already booked accommodation in Naples and can no longer cancel it? Well, then better make the best out of it, right?
Italy is known for its great food and visitors have high expectations of. Also in this perspective the North and South of Italy are different. In the North, I always had excellent food experiences. Delicious meals, excellent wine, friendly staff, quick service. But here in the South of Italy, the food is simpler. The basic pizzas here are a typical embodiment of Naples. Expect no friendly “prego” or olive oil and salt served with bread like in Tuscany for example. The good side: it is cheap. One night we ate pizza and had a bottle of wine at Michelin guide restaurant Gino Sorbillo and the total bill with 4 people was 54 euro only! And friendliest waiter during our entire one week stay in Naples. The best pizza we had was at Lombardi 1892.
Tip: the Campania region is famous for its delicious fully flavored mozzarella made from buffaloes originally from Iran. Get a box to take home from La Marchesa at Naples airport (after security).
Naples gave birth to the Pizza Margherita one day and annually hosts a world pizza-making championship (the real one is held in Parma). It actually hard to find anything else than pizza or pasta in restaurants here; apparently there are more than 800 pizzerias in Naples! Following the expression “Vedi Napoli et poi muori”, freely translated as “First see Naples and then die” in English or “Eerst Napels zien dan pas sterven” in Dutch, Julia Roberts goes to Naples to eat pizza in Eat Pray Love. Pizzeria Da Michele clearly benefits from it, looking at the long lines in front of the place. Not sure whoever came up with that bloody expression anyway, too much credit.
Want something else than pasta or pizza? For tasty meat balls go to La Taverna di Santa Chiara but avoid the smoked mozzarella balls, yuk!
Naples has its very own street food culture. If you are in Naples any way, you better try some. A nightmare for gluten free allergists and low carb diets, but whoever can, go ahead and taste.
- Pizza Portafoglio rolled up or folded Pizza Margarita to go, try for example at Pizza A Portafoglio Di Gennaro Salvo
- Pizza Fritta fried pizza, try for example at Da Fernanda or Pizze Fritte da Gennaro
- Paste e Patate a mix of different kind of pasta and potatoes, looks a bit like mac & cheese
- Baba rum-soaked cake in the shape of a thick mushroom, optionally filled with chocolate or cream, which originates from Poland yet is considered typical Neapolitan nowadays
- Sfogliatella thin layered puff pastry with cream inside, I liked the one with lemon flavor most
- Friarielli vegetable eaten as tapas snack, for free with a drink at Cisterna Café & Bistrot
Have a drink
Alcohol can make things look a lot better. Italians produce their own wines of course, but also local and imported beer, distilleries like grappa, etc. The most poured wine here is the Falanchina. Should you be stuck in Naples anyway, better make the best out of it and check out some of these bars, see also below map.
- Oak wine & craft beer, open from 17:00h
- Cisterna Café & Bistrot wine, beer & antipasti in style
- Scio outdoor wine & street art
- Libreria Berisio cocktails & books
- Il Birraiuolo craft beer bar
One of the places where you can find the real Naples life is at the local market. Watch the people shouting at each other over veggies, living the Neapolitan way! See the map for suggestions, such as Mercato Antignano that is held at Piazza Antignano on Monday to Friday. Prices are even lower than in the supermarket.
Something else you can get surprisingly cheap in Naples: clothes. The city has a history of clothing production. Several shops are closed on Sunday or for lunch.
The streets around San Lorenzo Maggiore (below) form the heart of Naples’ city center. The next door Via San Gregorio Armeno is full of small shops selling hand-made Christmas stalls and famous characters (miniatures).
Creepy sights in Naples
Whenever talking to people about Naples, I often mention that, to me, Naples is a bit of a grim city. The waste, bad maintenance, graffiti tags etc. definitely contribute to that feeling, but also the particular tourist attractions. Naples has a long history and centuries ago, people had customs that we find strange or even lugubrious or creepy today. For example, who would hang a dead human body on the wall to bleed out? Or steel hundreds of graves’ doors? Or pile up thousands of skulls? Only in Naples!
Cimitero delle Fontanelle
A covered cemetery, originally an old quarry, with 3,000 m2 the size of half a soccer field, filled with more than 40.000 human skulls, plus several bones. Yikes! Cimitero delle Fontanelle felt like an unpleasant and uncomfortable place to walk around, goosebumps. We heard two stories about where the skulls and bones came from, not sure which one is true, possibly both are.
- When the city was plagued by various epidemics, the death toll increased so much that the regular cemeteries became overcrowded.
- After the marble doors of the Catacombs of San Genaro were stolen, the remains were brought to this cemetery as a final rest place.
And who knows the Camorra added some more, these skulls are anonymous anyway… Admission free! The Rione Sanita district where the Cimetero delle Fontanelle is located, is a bit grim, sad, poor area but during day light you should be fine to walk through, especially in company.
Catacombe di San Gennaro
The Catacombs of San Genaro, or Catacombe di San Gennaro in Italian, are a must see when in Naples. Walk around in an underground grave system, so it is a bit dark and grim, but to me the most interesting site. During a one hour guided tour, you travel back in time for more than a century and explore the most important catacombs of at least southern Italy. What started as a group of friends with 5 volunteer guides in 2008, is now 40 paid guides and 40K visitors per year.
Back in the day, when the holy saint San Genaro was buried here, local people literally started to fight over getting a place in this covered cemetery, where graves look more like a small cave room with very old frescos. Only the rich and famous were able to get the last spots in the Catacombs of San Genaro. Nowadays the catacombs are empty, the bodies were removed after the marble doors were stolen in Napoleon’s time here. Also, these catacombs were used as shelter for refugees during World War 2. How creepy that must have been!
And there is more…
- Catacombs of San Gaudioso the 2nd most important yet possibly the creepiest early Christian underground cemetery (catacomb) in Naples with mysterious burial rites and macabre rituals, frescoes and lurid tombs decorated with skulls. Yikes!
- Galleria Bourbonica – The Bourbon Tunnel with the remains of statues dating back to the fascist period as well as cars and motorcycles
- Napoli Sotterranea (Naples Underground) network of Greek and Roman style streets, caves, catacombs, tunnels, an aqua duct and even a Roman theatre 40-metres below the streets with over 2400 years of history
City under ashes and mud
You may know that Pompeii (part of Naples metropolitan area) is a place that got covered in ash as a result of the eruption of the Vesuvius volcano in the 1st Century. Underneath the San Lorenzo Maggiore in the center of Naples there is an ancient Greek-Roman city called Neapolis, which was buried under a meters high layer of mud and ash at the end of the 5th Century. You can still feel the ash on the walls! Underneath the courtyard and chapel hall with frescoes upstairs, there is a 1st Century Roman market called Macellum of Naples with workshops, optical illusion corridor, classrooms, etc. I guess this is every archeologist’s wildest dream.
To enable the Romans to see where they were walking at night, the streets consisted of a mix of big white and black stones; the moon reflected on the more expensive white marble stones.
With Rome and the Vatican at a distance of only 1.5 hours by train, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church is pretty obvious in Naples. The city has numerous churches and monasteries, the most well-known are:
- Duomo di Napoli (Naples Cathedral) with a vial of blood of San Gennaro (Saint Januarius) which is checked 3x per year to see if it is dry or liquefied, if dry the legend says a disaster will befall Naples. Neapolitans really believe in this so-called ‘Miracle of Blood’ and attach great importance to it
- Certosa di San Martino a Carthusian monastery with museum and city view
- Santa Chiara complex with church, monastery, tombs, museum and garden full of orange and lemon trees and benches with colorful yet badly maintained Majolica tiles
Several royalties have had castles and palaces built in Naples, such as Palazzo Real Napoli (Royal Palace of Naples), Castel Nuovo, Castel dell’Ovo, etc. For all see map below.
Besides ugly graffiti tags, Naples definitely has good street art as well. Join a street art tour in which a local will show the best ones! Some metro stations like Toledo are a piece of art on itself. Teatro San Carlo is the place to be for musical, dance and theatre forms of art.
Besides Naples has a lot of museums and galleries; with art but also archeology finds for example. See below map for 10 museum options. Cappella Sansevero and the Donna Regina Museo Madre are the prettiest.
Areas and views
Centro Storico, Quartieri Spagnoli, Vomero, Chiaia, San Ferdinando and Posillipo are supposed to be the best neighborhoods of Naples. Well I did not visit them all but so far could not discover any area that I thought was really pretty or fun… but hey taste is very personal of course. What can be fun is people watching from for example Piazza Bellini or Piazza del Plebiscito. Or stroll along the waterfront of Caracciolo Boulevard on a bright sunny day, where also some better fish restaurants can be found.
For the best city view go to the hill top where the National Museum and Monastery of San Martino and the Castel Sant’Elmo are located (see map). On a clear day you can even see the Vesuvius volcano. Parco Virgilano offers a unique view on the Bay of Naples. Naples is not a particularly green type of city, but if you want to escape the city chaos for a while, visit one of the parks or gardens (see map).
NAPLES: THE BAD & THE UGLY
Now the above described grim sites lean on then past, current reality can look bad and ugly too…
Italian vs. Neapolitan
I am not sure to what extend you are familiar with Italy, its culture, politics, economics and such? Like the stereotype Italian, Neapolitans also tend to be loud, theatrical, passionate and proud. However, North and South Italy are culturally and economically divided and different. Neapolitans have their own culture, art, dialect, etc. “I am not Italian, I am Neapolitan! It’s another thing!” is a famous expression of Sofia Loren, who has a house in Naples.
The South of Italy is lagging behind compared to the wealthier North of Italy, showing more similarity with southern countries like Greece and Turkey than with Milano for example. Campania, where Naples is the regional capital of, has one of the highest unemployment rates in Italy. Young people pull away due to a lack of jobs and decent salary. Honest Neapolitans would admit they have serious problems.
Big city problems
With close to a million inhabitants, Naples clearly qualifies as a big city – with big city problems. Part of Naples’ problems are quite obvious, only a blind man will not notice upon arrival. The ugly graffiti, bad maintenance and piles of waste are simply hard to ignore. Vagrants begging for money and seeking shelter for the night, a problem in almost every big city. Wishful thinking Naples’ issues would end there. Some voluntarily organizations attempt to work on them, like removing graffiti tags. But to me, for Naples specifically, it feels a bit like trying to empty the ocean with a thimble, when the mentality stays the same.
Houses, buildings, streets, cars, steps, everything seems broken or at least damaged or neglected and in the urgent need of maintenance and repair. Balconies that look like they may break off any day. Walking underneath, a piece of brick dropped on my face, small but ouch!! Open electric sockets and messy wires. Walls, window frames and doors that have not seen any paint brush for decades. Tiles and plaster fallen off shops, houses and other type of buildings. Holes in the asphalt road so deep they may damage your car’s rims or break off a shock absorber. Even if you are poor, maintaining property means showing some decency, municipal or not. And these (photos below) are definitely not the worst examples.
Hordes of smoking people, people throwing things like chewing gum from their balcony while you walk underneath, kids throwing their ice cream papers on the floor. Scooter and car drivers who do not stop for pedestrians at a pedestrian crossing, scooters parked on the side walk making this city a nightmare for someone in a wheelchair. Yelling truck drivers, taxi drivers ripping off tourists asking twice as much for a taxi ride from the airport to the city. Taxi and scooter drivers who almost run you over in busy shopping streets and fill the streets with exhaust gasses. Neapolitans are known to wear their hearts on their sleeves; don’t be surprised if shouted or called names at, especially in traffic.
Rarely any “prego” (please) in restaurants and bars when serving customers, aggressive and impolite waiters. Waiters literally throwing your plate in front of you on the table. Not rarely, almost everywhere. Starting to swear in Italian if you refuse a standard served pasta dish in a group dinner because you eat gluten free. Well-behaved people with proper manners seemed hard to find in Naples. Possibly a big city thing in general, yet for sure different from many other places I have visited in Italy. Such a letdown. Friendliness and a smile does not cost a dime people.
Be aware of uncivilized driving behavior by scooters and taxis in the narrow, poorly maintained and crowded streets of the city center. This may remind some of cities like Addis Abeba or New Delhi.
Graffiti in Naples
I love street art and there is definitely good street art in Naples to be found. Nevertheless, most of the graffiti on walls, doors, statues, etc. are just stupid tags no one can even read or will like, it is simply ugly as hell. Beautiful old doors are disrespectfully scribbled. It is everywhere, all over the place. The inhabitants seem to have lost courage to do something about it, get it cleaned off or repaint. Such a waste. Smart decision to put the Banksy Angel behind glass yet sad it is necessary.
To some, Naples may be like Mick Jagger; so ugly and raw it becomes pretty again, in a certain way.
Naples definitely has a serious waste problem, up to the level where EU threatened to fine. The streets are full of papers and plastics on the ground. I lost counting how many times I saw huge piles of waste material on the street, not rarely right next to garbage containers, almost everywhere. It is grose and disgusting! In this city small garbage bins are hard to find, which could possibly help keeping things a bit more cleanly? The smell of rotting garbage in summer is repulsing. Is this in Europe?!
Over the last decades, Naples has dealt with several waste crisis; city waste that piles up, the municipal waste service cannot cope. Once a political party won the municipal election simply by promising to solve the waste problem. As a reaction, the local mafia dumped waste all over the city and shot at garbage trucks. According to the Italian environmental association Legambiente, hundreds of companies have dumped some 10 million tons of waste, including radioactive waste, in the region over a 20+ years’ period of time, a humanitarian drama. As a result of the illegal waste dumping, mortality rates and diseases rose.
Criminality in Naples
As mentioned in the previous paragraph already, the mafia causes problems in Naples and its surroundings. Comorra is the Neapolitan mafia, a big secret criminal organization active in drugs, weapons, extortion, dumping waste, etc. As an average tourist you will probably not see much of, but mafia wars are definitely reality in Naples, sometimes also affecting normal civilians and children. Sometimes it just happens on the street in bright daylight, as you can see in this YouTube video.
A few years ago, British news tabloid The Sun ranked Naples as one of the 10 most dangerous cities in the world, which I think is non-sense. There are definitely worse on the planet. According to this recent article by the Independent with the top 17 most dangerous cities in Europe, Rome and Milan are more dangerous than Naples. In the Numbeao Crime Index 2019 Naples ranks as #89 in the top 100 of most criminal cities around the world, so not something to be too shocked or scared about. For example Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro and Chicago rank much higher. So yes, there is criminality, corruption, drugs, etc. but not worse than or equal to many other big cities.
Safety in Naples
Every time I visited Naples I had some company with me; a female friend, a male colleague, etc. which helped to feel safe. We saw municipality police on the streets. African street sellers running away from their blanket with fake leather bags to avoid a big fine for illegal street-selling.
Be extra aware or avoid the extra poor, dodgy areas in Naples, for example Scampia, the Naples neighborhood famed for its vast drugs market. Avoid dark alleys and wandering the streets alone after sunset, common sense in any big city. Be alert for pickpockets / robberies. Especially in the tourist high season, many people fall victim to this. Pay extra attention to this in public transport, at airports and at popular attractions.
In any big city, so not only Naples specifically, take the following precautions for your safety:
- Carry money, credit cards and other valuable documents unobtrusively on your body. For example in a hip bag (money belt) or bra belt. For some suggestions see my earlier article about travel stuff. Keep the larger bills separate from the smaller ones and pay for your purchases with the small bills, or with your debit or credit card if possible.
- Pay attention to your belongings. Wear a cross-over bag and preferably wear a bag that is theft-proof. Do not wear flashy, expensive jewelry. Leave at home what you don’t really need. Like every big city, pickpockets are very active.
- Keep your passport, airline ticket and money that you do not need immediately in a safe place. For example in the hotel safe.
- Always report criminality to the local police authorities.
- Do not offer resistance in the event of a robbery or robbery. If you fall victim to this, better hand over your belongings, unless you are a Krav Maga champion of some sort? Resistance often leads to (more) violence.
- Walk around with confidence, chest and nose forward, try to avoid too look too much like a tourist, take self-defense classes at home if you feel too afraid, paranoid or shy.
- Never buy anything from a street vendor, often it is fake and illegal. And try not to show the content of your wallet if you have to pay anything.
San Lorenzo Maggiore is a safe place to visit in Naples
Italy has three active volcanoes: the Etna, Vesuvius and Stromboli. On 3 July 2019, the Stromboli volcano erupted, killing one person and injuring a few. Stay alert of your environment, follow the news and the weather and make sure you have the right condition and gear to hike up a volcano. The last time Vesuvius became active was in 1944. Always take your health and travel insurance papers with you.
Like elsewhere in Italy, posters to announce someone’s death and funeral hang on every wall.
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, whenever I walk around Naples I always get the same feeling: I want to escape. Flee to a better place. Luckily, nearby Naples there are definitely good places to visit, especially when the sun shines, the reason that the region attracts many tourists especially in summer. Get out of Naples as soon as you can, to see better places. In a future article I will write more about these, but the main ones are:
- The Amalfi coast (Costiera Amalfitana)
- The islands Capri and Ischia
- Vesuvius volcanic national park
Pompeii & Capri are worth visiting
How to get there & around
Most international flights to Naples go via Rome or Milan, but for example to Amsterdam there is a direct connection with KLM. To search flight options and costs check out Skyscanner. In November a flight from Amsterdam to Naples costs around 100 euro, but no good weather guaranteed (rain).
Rent a car
My personal advice would be: skip Naples, rent a car and drive off to the interesting places outside of Naples, or grab a taxi to the harbor and hop on a ferry to one of the nearby islands. A rental car gives a lot of freedom and flexibility. Italian road users are a bit annoying (pushy) but overall the roads are pretty good and road signs are present. Use Google Maps to navigate and use Naples as and end point because of its central airport.
In Italy most rental cars are damaged due to narrow streets and parking so inspect the rental car thoroughly before signing anything and make sure you have a good insurance. Sunny Cars is an all-inclusive worry free car rental concept I use whenever going to Italy, after some bad experiences with other rental companies. I would suggest to rent a car that is not the cheapest to avoid getting a 1.1 engine car that will roll back down the hill because it does not have enough power. Believe me, I have been there.
During the day, the cheapest way of getting from Naples airport to Naples center will be by train. You may already sense a bit of the grim atmosphere I describe in this article, trains full of graffiti tags. Take the Campania Express instead of the Circumvesuviana and stay away from the doors, where pickpockets often operate. Avoid riding the train before or after sunset and avoid the area around the main train station for the rest of your stay.
Neapolitan taxi drivers at the airport tend to rip you off by overwhelming you when you get in the car, switching off the meter and confirming a fixed price of 2x too much while driving. Unfortunately I could not find a cheaper airport shuttle online; they ask EUR 49.50 for 1 person, a ridiculous price! For that kind of money you can also get a transfer to Positano or Sorrento at the Amalfi Coast. Try to negotiate with a taxi driver at the airport either to drive by the meter or a fixed price for 2 people of max EUR 25 in total (possibly shared with someone else). Uber is not available in Naples.
Coming from Rome Fiumicino (FCO) airport to Naples center, you can take either the train or direct bus. In Naples center walk around and/or get on a Hop-On Hop-Off bus. Alternatively, you may want to go Sightseeing by Vespa. Tours with a local guide are always a good option as you can learn and show you a lot more than what you would on your own.
Where to stay in Naples
If you are determined to spend some nights in Naples, or have to go there for work for example, the question is: how much can you or do you want to spend on accommodation? Should you want to keep things cheap, I suggest staying at B&B Donna Anna, it was only EUR 33 p/n and centrally located. For those who are willing to spend a bit more, or going to Naples for business, I would suggest take a look at the more luxurious and historic MGallery Palazzo Caracciolo, starting at EUR 110 p/n.
This mobile friendly map includes most things mentioned in this article and is smartphone friendly. You can use it easily via Google Maps. Click on the top left icon to open the menu. You can (un)select categories/areas to customize the map to your needs. Via Google Drive you can copy it to your folder of My Google Maps.
Did you visit Naples yet? If so, what do you think about it, did you like it? Not everyone loves every city or place, and that goes for me too. Paris is a city I do not like either while others love it. I really tried to like Naples, visited three times and stayed a whole week the last time but it did not get any better. It simply did not work out between us, Naples and I. Should you have any great tips for Naples, please let me know, who knows one day I may end up there for 4th time there, voluntarily or not.
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With a special thanks to Melissa and Martijn for taking some of these photos of me!