Destinations

48 hours in Naples: things to do in Naples in two days

Grand architecture, a wealth of culture and brio to boot, do you need another reason to spend a couple of days in Italy’s forgotten city? Oh, it’s the birthplace of pizza.

By Penelope Green
The island of Capri, off the coast of Naples (photography: Nicola Ianuale)
The island of Capri, off the coast of Naples (photography: Nicola Ianuale)

See Naples and die, the old saying goes, suggesting that life isn't worth living without visiting this vibrant and chaotic city, the third-largest in Italy. Problem is, many tourists fear for their safety visiting this undisputed wild child, more known for its plethora of pickpockets and links with organised crime than for its many, albeit sadly overlooked, charms.

To drop Naples from your Italian tour, however, would be a mistake. This is a city with brio to burn and an underbelly Rome, Venice and Florence couldn't possibly hope to emulate. And with a bit of common sense (don't go flashing that new Rolex while you wander lost through the backstreets, for example) you'll wonder why you didn't make the effort to visit years ago.

Once the capital of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, Naples boasts a wealth of art, culture and architecture rivalling Italy's biggest tourist cities, and includes the world's most famous archaeological site at Pompeii. It's home to countless churches, majestic castles and lavish palaces and from whichever angle you look at it, the Gulf of Naples offers one of the most splendid panoramas on earth. And the icing on the cake? Naples is the birthplace of pizza. Pizza so good, it makes Rome's version seem like cardboard.

Neapolitans are known for their hedonistic attitude - the still-active volcano, Mount Vesuvius, which buried Pompeii in 79AD and last erupted in 1944, dominates the city skyline, a constant reminder that life is meant to be lived to the full. This devil-may-care attitude is evident in the cuisine (at times, not even pizza escapes the deep fryer), such as creamy mozzarella di bufala and ricotta-rich sweets. Of course, the freshest seasonal vegetables, fruit and frutti di mare is available everywhere, but kiss the diet goodbye when you visit because the golden rule is to embrace excess like the locals.

Getting to Naples is a cinch. The high-speed TAV train from Rome takes just over an hour and once you arrive, there is a host of upmarket hotels lining the Gulf of Naples to choose from. For a slice of luxury looking over the pristine water, you can't go past Grant Hotel Vesuvio, which has hosted guests such as Grace Kelly, Jude Law and Pavarotti in its time. Spend the evening at the rooftop terrace restaurant with an Aperol Spritz in hand.

Once the bags are dropped in your luxury room, grab a city map and head for the bustling centro storico (historic centre), which received a world heritage listing from UNESCO in 1995. For Naples at its anarchic best, fork off Via Roma and the Piazza Carita to the Pignasecca market in Montesanto where you'll find terrific delis, seafood and fruit stalls. The adventurous can try a plate of raw tripe with a drizzle of lemon served at a tripperia or pop in to Friggitoria Fiorenzano for a sample of those ubiquitous Neapolitan fried foods.

Backtracking to Piazza Carita, look for Gelateria della Scimmia (the latter word meaning monkey), because it's never too early to eat ice-cream. A stone's throw from here is the Spaccanapoli; a long, knife-straight street which takes its name from the fact it splits Naples in half. Walk past the black market stalls and shops, through Piazza del Gesù with its beautiful spire of Guglia dell'Immacolata and pop in to the 14th-century church of Santa Chiara. Hidden out the back are ornate gardened cloisters, a Baroque oasis offering a break from the incessant noise outside.

Once you've regained your mojo and you're back on the Spaccanapoli, stop at Scaturchio, a coffee shop and pasticceria on Via Portamedina, to order a sfogliatella, the city's most famous sweet (alongside the rum-soaked, spongy baba). The ricotta and candied fruit-filled sfogliatelle comes in two forms: the scone-sized frolla, made with a kind of shortcrust pastry, or the shell-shaped riccia, made from puff-pastry. Wash it down with another espresso: Italians concede that the further south you go the better it gets, with Naples considered the bean queen. When ordering your coffee, ask for it amaro (bitter) if that's the way you like it, because sugar may be added even if you don't ask, as in the local favourite of sugar beaten with cream and coffee.

After your coffee stop, take a peek up Via San Gregorio Armeno, a hilly stretch which exclusively sells nativity figurines and presepe (cribs), before arriving at the intersection of Via Duomo. Up the hill is the famous church where the city's faithful flock in thousands twice a year to see the 'miracle' of San Gennaro, when the blood of the city's patron saint is said to liquefy.

To head back towards the city and the sea, take Via dei Tribunali, which runs parallel to the Spaccanapoli, and duck in to the lavish Cappella Sansevero. Built about 1590, its highlight is the Veiled Christ, a delicate marble masterpiece by local sculptor Giuseppe Sanmartino. Note too, La Pudicizia (modesty), the statue of a woman whose belly obviously inspired the modern-day Neapolitans.

For a spooky contrast, walk down a set of stairs to find the standing skeletons of a man and a woman whose vital organs remain intact, said to be the work of the alchemist who built the chapel. In keeping with the theme, the nearby church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco holds the bones and tombs of the city's lost souls, while at the church of Pio Monte della Misericordia glimpse Caravaggio's Le Opere di Misericordia (Seven Acts of Mercy).

If the sfogliatelle stop is already a dim and distant memory, there are a stack of pizzerias in the vicinity. Neapolitans argue over which pizza place is best, but if the queue is any indication, L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele wins. (The author has visited three times but is yet to find the patience to wait for at least an hour for a table.) Locals say the only way to get a seat is to pass the pizzeria at 11.30am and return an hour later - to wait another half an hour. Da Michele serves only two flavours of food and beverage: Margherita and marinara pizza, Peroni beer and bottled water. Other good pizzerias in the area include Di Matteo and the family-run Sorbillo.

Pizza that's worth the wait at Pizzeria Sorbillo (photography: Nicola Ianuale)
Pizza that's worth the wait at Pizzeria Sorbillo (photography: Nicola Ianuale)

To walk off the extra calories, take the number 460 bus from Piazza Dante and hop off at the palace and museum of Capodimonte. Built by King Charles III to indulge his passion for hunting, the sprawling park is full of joggers and art lovers visiting the museo, where Botticelli, Raphael, Bellini and Caravaggio jostle for space with modern wunderkinds including Andy Warhol, whose red Vesuvius gushes with yellow lava against a green, pink and purple sky.

Bus back to Piazza Dante and walk towards the sea along Via Toledo, lined with elegant and wasted palazzi. Have courage and veer right to walk up into the Quartieri Spagnoli, or Spanish Quarters, which doesn't deserve its unsavoury reputation. Built for troops during the city's Spanish occupation, the sunlight-deprived rabbit warren of narrow streets is crammed with food shops, bars, barbers and beauty salons and offers a glimpse of life that has not changed much over the centuries. The locals tend to leave their doors wide open so you can stare into the bassi, the traditional, tiny Neapolitan street-level home. Who knows, you might just score an invitation to share an espresso with a grandmother propped on her window ledge.

With your first day in Naples all but over, you could head to one of the ristoranti in the Quartieri for dinner, including local favourite Cantina della Tofa, but if your feet can carry you for another 15 minutes, head for Trattoria Dell'Oca in Via S. Teresa in Chiaia. You can't go wrong with any of the home-made pastas, while the soufflé, served with a piping hot dark chocolate sauce, is worth the wait.

You should kick-start your second day in Naples with yet another delicious pastry or sfogliatella, and though you can enjoy these pretty much anywhere, for a touch of class head along Via Toledo (pop in to the Galleria Umberto, not unlike Milan's huge domed Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II arcade) and enter the Neapolitan café favoured by the city's intellectuals and nobles for centuries, the chandeliered Gambrinus. Nearby, you can wander the gardens of the Royal Palace and admire the entrance to the Teatro San Carlo opera house.

When you finish, head across the sprawling Piazza del Plebiscito, dominated by the Pantheonesque church of San Francesco di Paolo, until you hit the Gulf of Naples, overshadowed by Vesuvius in the distance.

Who needs an excuse for lunch after a morning walk? Steer right and look out for the Michelin-starred La Cantinella, listed as the city's finest noshery, combining kitsch, bamboo-heavy décor and old-style service with home-made pasta, a few modern twists on flavour and superb meat and seafood.

A few metres further, step down to the seaside promenade of Borgo Marinaro, opposite the magnificent Castel Dell'Ovo (egg castle). Splurge at La Bersagliera restaurant or move onwards along the bay to stop for a pizza or frittura (fried seafood) at the string of eateries, including the popular and charming Mammina Pizzeria e Cucina Genuina, with its million-dollar views.

Naples, home to the Margherita pizza (photography: William Meppem)
Naples, home to the Margherita pizza (photography: William Meppem)

Stroll along the bay until you reach the ferry port of Mergellina, where a string of chalet bars offer sweets and savoury treats served by white-tuxedoed waiters. Meander back through the Villa Communale public park and take a left up Via Calabritto, lined with the likes of Gucci and Armani, to Piazza dei Martiri. If you're in the mood to shop, hook left and follow the grid of small streets which comprise swank Chiaia, stopping for a vino in Enoteca Belledonne or any of the hip clubs in the zone.

Before you know it, it's time for cena (dinner) already and if you still haven't managed to eat Naples's most famous dish, walk up Via Chiaia towards Piazza Del Plebiscito until you reach Brandi, the city's oldest pizzeria, which claims to have invented pizza Margherita (for Queen Margherita in 1889). Or try Trattoria 'Ntretella nearby, a tiny quaint basement trattoria dishing up local food.

If you want to get off the tourist trail at night, swill an aperitivo at Superfly, a groovy little bar not far from Piazza del Gesù, then make a beeline for Il Buongustaio, a one-room trattoria with a cupboard-sized kitchen near the Pignasecca market in Montesanto, to eat authentic local dishes. One thing worth doing before you leave Naples is catching the funicular from Montesanto or Via Toledo to Vomero and visiting Castel Sant'Elmo. From its rooftop you just may have an inkling as to why everybody should see Naples at least once in their lifetime.