Nestled on the Bay of Naples and a popular stopping off point for Mediterranean cruises, Naples is one of the jewels in Italy’s crown. Its historic centre is an officially designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and the entire city is a veritable gold mine of significant art and architecture dating back to the 2nd millennium.
From the still-active Mount Vesuvius volcano to the nearby archaeological site of Pompeii, where fossilised human remains can still be observed, there is a well-trodden tourist trail in and around Naples that could keep your itinerary filled for weeks. But for those seeking a more off-the-beaten-track introduction to this fascinating city, below is our pick of the best and most unique things to see and do.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
There are a wide number of hotels dotted across Naples, from budget to luxury. Many of these can be found near the airport, while the main train station is a popular spot for more affordable options. For something more upscale, the city’s historic centre and the Lungomare/Bayfront areas are both worth checking out. If you’re looking for a cheap room in Naples, check out our editor’s selection, which you can read here.
1. Il Metro dell’Art
Naples’ metro system is nothing out of the ordinary – until, that is, you venture into a particular phalanx of stations that have been transformed into a vibrant arts project. Several years ago, with the construction and expansion of several of the city’s metro lines, the municipality of Naples proposed Il Metro dell’Art, which gave contemporary artists and architects blank canvasses on which to create unique and unusual artistic designs, from wall art to full blown instillations, inside a number of the network’s stations. Distributed along the lines 1 and 6 are more than 180 pieces of art spanning a number of different artistic styles, and he result is both beautiful and in harmony with its environment, adding a whole new dimension to the normally humdrum experience of riding a city metro.
2. Fontanelle Cemetery Caves
A combination of natural caves, tufa mines, and ancient Greek and Roman tunnels, the Cimitero Fontanelle is best known for the assortment of human skulls that lie here. The history behind the 30,000 square metre ossuary is best outlined by expert guides who run regular tours, but essentially the story goes like this: centuries ago the site was used as a place to “offload” remains due to overcrowding in traditional burial sites such as churches. For a price, undertakers either pretended to bury the dead overground or would dig up old remains, put them in a sack and throw them into Fontanelle or other caves in the area. Tumultuous events such as the plague of 1656 meant that these numbers stacked up over the years, resulting in the skull and skeleton-laden site we know today. The caves reopened to the public in 2006 after being moth-balled for several decades due to concerns that it was being misused by religious cultists. Today it is one of Naples’ most fascinating and unusual places of interest.
LOCATION Via Fontanelle HOURS Mon-Sat 9.30am-4.30pm
3. Ospedale delle Bambole
In Naples, there are only so many souvenir shops and leather boutiques you can peruse before the urge for something a little more quirky awakens your retail radar. And for quirkiness, there’s nothing quite like the Ospedale delle Bambole, a ‘dolls hospital’ that is both a shop and a museum. Filled with dolls, figurines, and traditional toys for sale, the shop is also somewhere people can bring their broken dolls to be fixed. The idea dates back to a time when dolls were made of porcelain and easily breakable. A local marionette maker called Luigi Grassi was often asked to fix the dolls and due to the high demand he continued with this tradition, passing his skills to future generations, eventually resulting in the opening of the now-famous Naples doll’s hospital.
LOCATION Via San Biagio Dei Librai HOURS Mon-Sat 10am-3.30pm
4. “Secret Cabinet” at the National Archaeological Museum
Not for the prudish, Naples’ National Archeological Museum is home to an erotically-charged collection of Roman artefacts that recall a time when concepts of sexuality were weighed down with taboos and puritanical social mores. Featuring everything from erotic frescoes to penis-shaped wind chimes, the collection, which was unearthed during excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum, has remained encased in a Gabinetto Segreto (or ‘secret cabinet’) since 1849 to keep it away from the innocent, corruptible eyes of women, children and the general public at large. It was finally opened to the public in 2000 and today can be observed freely by visitors to this museum.
LOCATION Piazza Museo HOURS Weds-Mon 9am-7.30pm
5. Via San Gregorio Armeno
A brief glance at the bric-a-brac on display along Via San Gregorio Armeno may give the impression of a conventional street market – but closer inspection reveals something altogether more distinctive. That’s because the shops along this bustling avenue in the heart of Naples are dedicated exclusively to the Christmas Nativity. Inevitably, Christmas sees the street consumed by a heaving mass of people, but throughout the year visitors come to marvel at the myriad miniature figurines on display. You can even watch the artisans at work as they concoct their delicate hand-crafted creations in front of prying eyes.
6. Spazio Nea
In a city awash with vibrant nightlife venues, Spazio Nea is one of the most unique. Nestled on the outskirts of Piazza Bellini in central Naples, this fashionable whitewashed gallery features its own cafe-bar dotted with books, flowers, cosmopolitan crowds and al fresco seating at the bottom of a baroque staircase. Visitors can peruse exhibitions of contemporary Italian and foreign art by established and emerging artists, then relax with a caffé or a Cynar spritz, depending on their predilections.
LOCATION Via Santa Maria di Costantinopoli HOURS Weds-Mon 9am-2am
7. Piazza San Gaetano
The bustling intersection of Via dei Tribunali and Via San Gregorio Armeno is Piazza San Gaetano, the epicentre of Naples past and present. The meeting and marketplace of the ancient Greco-Roman city of Neapolis, a quick look around the piazza today and one might quickly conclude that things haven’t changed that much in the last few millennia. Shops, cafesand eateries line this “T” shaped piazza, while ruins of their ancient predecessors lurk beneath. There are two underground tours here: Napoli Sotteranea and Naples Ancient Marketplace at San Lorenzo Maggiore, while a third underground site is just a few hundred metres up Via dei Tribunali at Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco.
LOCATION Piazza San Gaetano HOURS Tours throughout the day in Italian and English
8. Caffè sospeso
In Italy there is said to be one coffee bar for every 490 Italians, and nowhere is coffee imbibed with more enthusiasm and regularity than in Naples. But for those who consider it an indulgent vice, there is a time-honoured tradition that will add a sense of altruism to your addiction. This tradition is called caffè sospeso, or suspended coffee, and is a simple, anonymous act of generosity whereby customers toss receipts in an unused coffee pot on the counter, so that those who cannot afford to buy their own can pull them out and use them. Alternatively, customers can pay in advance for an extra coffee, and the cafe keeps a list or hangs the receipts in the shop window. The tradition was popularised in Naples during World War II and has found a revival in recent years during hard economic times, even spreading across the rest of Italy. But for a truly authentic caffè sospeso experience, you must come to Naples.