Naples is… harsh. It is like the Bangkok of Italy: frenetic, noisy, its air often full of unidentifiable odours, and its streets as though a plane flew over and sprinkled them with trash. The locals can be abrasive and even more dismissive of tourists than the Romans (if that’s possible); and yet, I loved it. It is authentic, vibrant, and raw; the real Italy despite the flood of visitors it receives every year. Neapolitans live, eat and play in the street, and neighbours greet each other with a kiss on the cheek as they bump into each other at the corner. Of course, it also has the best pizza in the world; so, there’s that… During a week-long trip traveling through Southern Italy, I only spent 24 hours in this energetic city, and it turns out this is all you or I need to really enjoy it.
9:00 am: Sweet, sweet breakfast
Start the day right with sfogliatelle, a pastry that’s native of Naples and is best when served straight from the oven. Flaky and light on the outside, with ricotta-and-cream filling on the inside, it’s a good source of fuel for the full day of walking that lies ahead. Try it from Napoli’s oldest pasticceria, Scaturchio
(Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, 19
9:57 am: Hit the Piazzas
Get ready to walk! I found this was the best way to see the city and really soak it all in. The metro isn’t very well connected and the historical centre is a close-knit cluster of buildings, so its best to see it on foot. Start at Piazza Gesù Nuovo where the University of Naples is located and then head up Via Roma to Piazza Dante, dominated by the statue of the poet after which it takes its name. Walk back down Via Roma to the grandest plaza of them all: Piazza del Plebiscito. Vast and empty this early in the morning, it is a stark contrast to the narrow and overcrowded streets Naples is so famous for. When I arrived, there weren’t many souls in sight. A little boy kicked a ball to his grandpa with glee, while tan businessmen in smart suits crossed the cobbled square on their way to work. On the plaza’s south-eastern corner sits the famous Caffè Gambrinus
(Piazza Trieste & Trento
); once the Royal House of Savoy’s official pastry supplier. This is also where literates like Hemingway and Oscar Wilde hung out, as they gazed over the immense, haunting piazza. Next, take a walk through Galleria Umberto I – the oldest indoor shopping plaza in Italy, built in 1887. Forget the shops and look up at its impressive glass domes instead.
11:32 am: Set sail
From the Piazza del Plebiscito, walk down Via Cesario Console towards the sea, with the Bay of Santa Lucia ahead. Veer left and keep going until you reach the port where you’ll find the hustle and frenzy of tourists trying to get on the next ferry out. There’s one almost on the hour going to the small paradises of Naples’ gulf: Ischia, Capri, or Sorrento. If you have more than just a day in Naples, I would go and spend it exploring one of these islands that are only a couple hours away.
12:45 pm: Pizza at Da Michele
By now you have walked off breakfast, so it’s time for what you came to Naples for to begin with: pizza! From the port, head up Corso Umberto and consult a map or a smiling Italian until you find Da Michele (Via Cesare Sersale, 1) – the birth place of the best margherita your taste buds will ever find. Julia Roberts made this no-frills joint an instant star after her pizza scene in ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, and the owner is certainly reaping the benefits long after. You’ll only find two varieties here: margherita and marinara; and you might have to share a table with strangers, but as you sit within its green and white tiled walls wondering just what the secret to the unbelievable dough is, you might even forget where you are for a moment.
2:00 pm: Weave through Spaccanapoli
Stroll down the narrow and lively Via Benedetto Croce, where souvenirs, knick-knacks and non-Italian eyewear are sold. If you’re looking for something a little more local, head up the tiny Vico San Domenico Maggiore where you’ll find real Italian vintage eyewear at Pepi Vintage, made-to-measure and custom designed leather bags at Bottega 21, and curious vintage furniture and interior decor at Linea d’Arte. Then, if you’re not lost already, weave your way through Spaccnapoli (“Split Naples”): the alleys that halve the city center in two. Look up for endless tiers of hanging laundry and then left and right for the speeding Vespas coming your way. If you’re lucky, you might see a mother on a balcony, dropping some change in a bucket on a pulley and lowering it to her son on the street below.
3:43 pm: Gelato at Gay Odin
For your daily gelato fill, stop at Gay Odin – a chocolatier and institution that has set up a tiny gelateria in the heart of town. Go for – obviously – the chocolate flavors, such as ciocolatto sacher with nociolla (hazelnut) or, if you’re really daring, cioccolato & peperoncino (chocolate with chilli). Eat it as you walk, or sit along the wall behind the Saint Chiara Cloister for a moment of peace and quiet.
4:55 pm: Ride the Funicolare
Give your feet a rest and hop onto the cable car at Piazza Augesteo, for a ride up the hill to Piazza Fuga. Now in the more affluent part of town, wander over to the bougainvillea-filled Piazza Amedeo and then down through the steep alleyways towards the sea. Here you’ll come across antique shops with their contents spilling out onto the street, and furniture restorers busy at work. The Bay of Naples now within sight, walk through the gardens of Villa Comunale, one of the largest green spaces in the city that is home to both an old aquarium and ornate fountains that could make Rome jealous.
7:30 pm: Sunset at Castel dell’Ovo
If you still have it in you, walk along the boardwalk of Via Caracciolo where you’ll find great views of the whole bay, with Mount Vesuvio looming in the distance. Make it to Castel dell’ Ovo (“Egg Castle”), which sits out on a tiny island that is attached to the mainland via bridge. This was where Naples all began; where it was formed and founded by Greek colonists in the 6th century who built the hilly fort. Watch the sun set from the top and track the day’s path through the city as you admire the skyline of Naples before you. As you leave the castle, head to Caffè al Barcadero
, tucked under the bridge, for a well-deserved drink that might just lead right on into dinner.
12:00 am: Crash!
Fall into bed (or a bunk-bed in my case) as the yells of neighbours and whizzing of mopeds become fainter with every second. As a budget traveler, I stayed at Mancini Hostel
, with its bright rooms, helpful staff and close proximity to the train station. Other places I was considering were cheap and charming 6 Small Rooms B&B
(which prides itself on being one of the most centrally located), and the artfully restored monastery that is also home to Casa del Monacone Guesthouse
[Photo credit: all photos are mine unless otherwise stated.]