Why Naples Should Be On Your Radar
There’s an old expression “see Naples and die”. Well I’ve just been there for a few days and I think I did, many times as I ‘died and went to heaven’! Naples is an explosion of delicious food, beautiful culture, art and history, and stunning views over crystal clear waters.
Many may know Naples as the birthplace of the pizza however there is much more to this city and its surrounding sights. I first ‘died and went to heaven’ when my taste buds exploded sampling the freshest, most delicious, Pizza Margherita I have ever had. Then when I became riveted to the spot standing over the most sublime marble sculpture I have ever seen. And then there was the heart-stopping view from Castello Aragonese over the crystal clear waters of the Marina Pescatore on the island of Ischia.
A Grand City
Naples is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe and dates back to the Bronze Age. The real attraction is the city heart which grew and thrived for some 600 years as the capital of the rich and powerful Neapolitan Empire. It gothic ‘centro storico’ (historic centre) is one giant UNESCO World Heritage listed site full of world class museums, art, monuments and royal palaces, and it has more churches and religious monuments that any other city in the world.
The UNESCO listed old centre of Naples is a mass of narrow streets and alleys, some even with washing strung across the apartments above. It seems on every corner there is a monument or church flanking numerous squares and piazzas. Everywhere old merchant palaces have been converted into apartments and wandering through the large arched doorways you often find yourself in a courtyard oozing with faded grandeur. You know that behind the frescos and statues, and sometimes-grimy balconies, the Neapolitans live as they have for centuries.
The Palazzo Reale, Royal Palace, is one of the most magnificent palaces in Europe and dates back to the 17th Century. Behind the grand walls you will walk past giant marble staircases and elegant staterooms and galleries. Then there is Piazza Plebiscito to see, with its dramatic, white colonnaded church and ominous lion standing guard.
A standout which I recommend to anyone visiting Naples is to allow time to explore Cappella Sansevero. I have explored numerous churches, cathedrals and chapels and they are all so different. Whilst I like good statue, or two, I am not an art historian or critic. This chapel however stands out to me as it is truly breathtaking. Whilst it is not large, the ornate painted ceiling and walls are certainly very lavish. What is truly mesmerising in the chapel is the extraordinary statue of Il Christo Velato, the Veiled Christ, laid out as ‘in state’ in the centre of the chapel before the altar. With so few tourists in the chapel we were able to closely view the intricate detail of the sculpture. Created by local artist Giuseppe Sanmartino, he managed to carve the statue as if there was a transparent marble shroud covering the face. You seem to see underneath and through a separate, transparent marble shroud. But it is just one piece of stone. Now how did he create that?
Naples is the perfect city to wander and explore and there is so much to see. We passed the Public Gardens, walked along the sea front to the 12th century Castel dell’Ovo (meaning egg castle) and took in the dramatic views of Naples and out across the bay. To our left Mount Vesuvius brooded and to our right was the broad, pedestrian Via Partenope dotted with colourful umbrellas and seafront cafes and restaurants. The perfect spot for a gelato!
A Burst of Food Sensations
And the food…. mama mia! We wandered through the elegant Chiaia district seeking out the perfect pizza. Starting at the Palazzo Alabardieri hotel near Piazza dei Martiri, we wandered past designer shops, boutiques and on to the Via Chiaia towards the Royal Palace. We easily found Pizzeria Brandi which is situated up a bustling side street and settled down in anticipation of experiencing true, authentic local Italian pizza. Pizzeria Brandi is famous for inventing the quintessential tomato and cheese Pizza Margherita. Created for Italy’s Queen Margherita of Savoy in 1889, it was often taken back to the Royal household, so you could also say it is also possibly the first Pizza takeaway! This cosy restaurant is full locals and tourists alike feverishly awaiting their first mouthfuls at this Napoli institution.
Italian pastries and desserts are absolutely incredible. From cannoli and biscotti to tiramisu, your mouth will certainly be watering whilst walking the streets of Naples. If you do have a sweet tooth I would definitely recommend making a designated stop at Caffè Gambrinus. An opulent coffeehouse, steeped in history, situated opposite the lavish San Carlo Theatre (opera house). Whilst the service is a bit…. distant… the location and elegance is undeniable. This will definitely be a memorable stop in Naples.
Stunning Napoli Islands
Off to the Italian islands! Capri is only an hour away by direct hydrofoil however there is another island which is said to be more beautiful without the tourist crowds, the island of Ischia. The ferry ride along the craggy coast was quite spectacular, passing small islands along with way we soon arrived on Ischia. During the day we did a complete island circuit, first starting with a visit to Castello Aragonese, a medieval castle set dramatically on a rocky outcrop connected by stone causeway.
From Castello Aragonese we made our way to Sant’Angelo which is the perfect seafront location to enjoy lunch watching the local Italian fisherman prepare for the nights charter. Before departing back to Naples we made sure we visited the world famous gardens of ‘Giardini la Mortella’ which is abundant with stunning garden displays that will make you stop in your tracks. To cap it off, on the ferry ride back to Naples we stopped in at the small island of Procida. The whole day was so special and the complete absence of tourist hordes was a bonus!
Endless Sightseeing Opportunities
There is simply so much to do in Naples. On our final day we were conflicted with the decision to take the cable car up to Castel di San Martino or visit the world class Naples National Archeological Museum full of Pompeii artifacts. In the end shopping won! There’s not much to recount about a day like this, however just off Via Toledo was the must see Galleria Umberto, a striking glass roofed arcade which is so similar to the golden, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II arcade in Milan.
Naples… ‘Napoli’… As the UK’s Sunday Times advised “Go now, before everyone else wises up.” I can’t agree more. But having just written this, I’m now wondering if staying for 4 nights in Naples on our Italian Grande tour is enough!