With a history that stretches back to the Bronze Age, Naples is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on Earth. The city boasts the largest Old Town district in Europe and has more historic churches than any other city in the world. There are plenty of cultural tourist attractions in Naples, often hidden behind the dirt, noise and chaos of everyday life in Italy’s third largest city.
From impromptu arias in cafés to domestic squabbles in the streets, Neapolitans aren’t shy about expressing their feelings. Built around the beautiful Bay of Naples, the city sits under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, which perhaps explains why residents embrace life with such unpretentious and uninhibited attitudes. While it’s not as polished as other tourist destinations, Naples offers every visitor a rich and authentically Italian travel experience.
Located in the city’s historic district, this street is the best place in Italy for “presepi,” Italian nativity displays. Using wood or clay, street artisans create manger scenes here that range from the traditional to the deeply personal, often crafting figurines to represent family members or people from popular culture. While the Neapolitan style of presepi began in the 18th century when Charles III commissioned woodcarvers to depict the royal family, the tradition dates back to a time when the street was home to a Greek temple to Ceres where devotees offered figurines made of clay.
Located near the city’s Archaeological Museum is one of the most unique attractions in Naples. Originally built in 1590 as a chapel for the Sansevero family, the structure was remodeled in the Baroque style in the 18th century by Raimondo di Sangro, the seventh prince in the dynasty. An eccentric aristocrat, inventor, alchemist and freemason, Raimondo commissioned the artist Giuseppe Sammartino to craft a series of sculptures full of symbolic meaning and mystery, including a statue of Christ covered with a transparent veil made from marble. Beneath the chapel is a room where the prince is said to have conducted experiments on his servants. The preserved bodies of two of his presumed victims are on display.
The Real Teatro di San Carlo in Naples holds the title as the oldest continuously active opera house in Europe. Built by King Charles of Bourbon, the red-and-gold theater is connected to the Royal Palace. Completed in 1737, the opera house established a standard that subsequent architects would strive to follow. Six tiers of box seating surround the horseshoe-shaped orchestra seats, with an extravagantly decorated royal box jutting out in the rear of the house. A multi-million dollar renovation of the theater was completed in 2010.
Representing a time when the House of Bourbon ruled Naples, the Palazzo Reale is a showpiece of pomp and power. Construction for the royal palace began in the 1600s, but most of the 30 rooms on display were completed in the 18th when Charles III of Bourbon took up residence. Visitors climb a sumptuous marble staircase to view the court theater, throne room, the royal bedrooms and an assortment of other chambers, all lavishly decorated with tapestries, frescoes, porcelain and portraits painted by the likes of Titian and Francesco Liani.
Dedicated to the city’s primary patron saint San Gennaro, the Duomo di Napoli is best known for the ceremony held within its magnificent structure three times each year. On these dates, the faithful crowd into the cathedral to see if a relic of the saint’s blood will liquefy as a sign that all is well in the city. Built in the 11th and 12th century, the cathedral was later renovated using more than 100 columns salvaged from ancient Greek temples. A 4th-century church and 5th-century baptistery were incorporated into the cathedral as well.
Dedicated to Gennaro in the 5th century when the saint’s remains were entombed there, the Catacombs of San Gennaro are actually three different cemeteries that have blended together over the years. The catacomb’s lower level includes tombs dating back to the 2nd century. Unlike other ancient underground burial sites, the catacombs feature spacious passageways with tombs that range from burial chambers for the wealthy to wall niches and floor graves for the less well-to-do. Frescoes are adorned with pictures of saints and families. An early image of San Gennaro features Mount Vesuvius looming the background.
This pizzeria located the historic city center was famous long before Julia Roberts was featured munching on a slice in the movie “Eat, Pray, Love.” In business for more than a century, Da Michele has earned a reputation for making the best pizza in Italy. Every day, locals and tourists line up to sample one of the two kinds of pizza the establishment offers: marinara, served with tomato and spices, or margherita, which features the addition of creamy mozzarella. Both types are cooked in a wood-burning oven until the soft crust is crisply singed around the edges.
The oldest castle in Naples, the “Castle of the Egg” owes it name to the poet Virgil who supposedly placed an egg under the foundations of the fortress. As the legend goes, the city will be protected from disaster as long as the egg remains intact. Perched on a promontory jutting into the sea, the 12th-century castle is worth visiting for the breathtaking views offered from its ramparts. The castle is also home to the Ethno-Prehistory Museum, which features ceramics, earthenware and metal artifacts from the earliest days of Naples history. Entrance to the castle and museum is free.
A long narrow street that bisects the historic center of Naples, Spaccanapoli gives visitors an introduction to the sights and attractions of the vibrant southern capital city. The street of many names has occupied the same place since the Greeks first established a colony in the region in the 6th century. Representing 27 centuries of history, the neighborhood is a crowded mix of historic churches, lively piazzas, open-air cafés and one-of-a-kind shops. It’s also home to local inhabitants whose boisterous lives often spill onto the streets, providing visitors with a glimpse of what it means to be Neapolitan.
One of Naples’ top attractions, the Naples National Archaeological Museum is the best place to view art and artifacts recovered from the Mount Vesuvius eruption of 79 A.D. Alongside the bronze statues, frescoes and mosaics rescued from the buried sites are everyday objects like shop signs and cookware. The museum’s most famous artwork is the Alexander Mosaic, dating from circa 100 BC, originally from the House of the Faun in Pompeii. It depicts a battle between the armies of Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia. Other exhibits include relics unearthed from archaeological sites in and around Naples. The museum is also home to the Farnese Bull, the largest single sculpture from antiquity ever recovered. The Hellenistic piece featuring Dirce tied to a wild bull dates back to the 2nd century B.C.