Piazza Dante at dawn: the street sweeper shoots across the square, veering off a wall at the last second, then speeds over to a lamppost, spinning around it several times before swerving off in a new direction. In Naples, street cleaning resembles the dance of the fireflies. First-time visitors often find the city unfathomable, but there’s no denying the feast of sights: Maradona shrines outside Baroque churches, priceless statues on pallets by the bathroom of the archaeological museum, and more castles than anyone can keep track of. As one of the oldest cities in Europe, Naples claims one of the most densely-packed urban landscapes anywhere. After three days, we were overstimulated and slap-happy. I was ready to stay forever.
With multiple districts qualifying for UNESCO World Heritage status, Naples can become overwhelming quickly. With limited time, we recommend focusing on monuments in and around the historic center.
Two main arteries, set in a T-shape, form the core of old Naples. The Spaccanapoli anchors the most ancient part of the city, known as the Centro Historico. This thoroughfare stretches parallel to the shoreline, from the Via Toledo towards the Garibaldi train station. The Via Toledo runs back from the water, along the base of Vomero hill and the Spanish Quarter. Beginning at the Piazza del Plebiscito, the Via Toledo reaches up to the Piazza Dante, where it becomes the Via Enrico Pessina and goes past the Archaeological Museum.
All of the following sites lie within walking distance of one another and are marked on our Google map. Click on a link to jump to a specific area.
Centro Historico: Spaccanapoli, Santa Chiara
Piazza dei Plebiscito and Environs: Palazzo Reale, Galleria Umberto I, Castel Nuovo
Museo Archeologico and Environs: Galleria Principe di Napoli, Piazza Bellini and Piazza Dante, Rione Sanità
A Brief History of Naples
Naples was an international port when Rome was still a backwater. The original colony of Parthenope, established as part of Magna Grecia by the eighth century B.C.E., picked up the name Neapolis, or New City, when it was rebuilt several centuries later. While Romans later settled the area extensively, local inhabitants preserved Hellenistic culture.
Christianity arrived in the later years of the Empire and has played a prominent role in the city ever since. After several centuries of tumult following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Naples arose as the glittering capital of southern Italy in the 13th century. A long succession of foreign dynasties – most French or Spanish – left much of the population living in devastating conditions while the aristocracy developed a reputation for decadence. Naples became the most glamorous city in Europe, especially during the Baroque period around the seventeenth century.
Napoleon invaded the peninsula in 1799, paving the way for Naples to join Italy’s unification movement in 1861. But the new government favored the north when allocating resources, and Naples went into a decline. After a difficult twentieth century, the outlook remains mixed. High unemployment, corruption, and convoluted bureaucracy persist, and attitudes about civic life can carry a jaded undertone. On the other hand, the 1995 declaration of Naples as a World Heritage site prompted a slew of renovations alongside new projects like the art-filled metro stations. The last few decades have seen a revival of appreciation for Naples, and Napoletanos remain justifiably proud of their city.
The city’s most famous thoroughfare doesn’t officially exist: it’s actually a continuous string of small streets beginning around the Piazza del Gesù Nuovo, running straight through the historic center towards the train station. From the hilltop, the Spaccanapoli appears to slice the old city, hence the name “Split-Naples”.
The Piazza San Domenico Maggiore’s obelisk is one of several erected to commemorate the end of a plague.
Very few cities show the influence of so many periods of history, all in the same spot. The streets around the Spaccanapoli were laid out over two and a half thousand years ago. Perhaps because residents remained proud of their Greek cultural heritage, they preserved the layout even as they added ever-higher buildings. The narrowness of the streets feels medieval, as do many of the churches and small piazzas. But the Renaissance is here also, in the form of palazzos built by aristocrats attracted to the city’s classical roots. When the Counter-Reformation hit, many more churches and ecclesiastical structures were added in the Baroque and Rococo styles.
The Spaccanapoli formed the backdrop for countless religious processions and spectacles – over 500 in the 17th century alone – which some scholars see as a means of appeasing the underprivileged masses. Overcrowding seems to have been even worse in Naples than in other European cities, partly because the high number of religious institutions took up so much space. Families who couldn’t afford a dowry for female children typically sent them to a convent, exacerbating the problem.
A 2015 Caravaggio-esque mural depicts San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples, in the guise of a factory worker.
Although the Spaccanapoli rivals Rome in the density of its churches, it also reflects Naples’ secular traditions. Cafés and shops stretch along its length. Various side streets feature local specialties like the precepe figurines, which include celebrities along with traditional Christian Nativity characters. (Via San Gregorio Armeno, a.k.a. Via dei Presepi.)
Santa Chiara Complex
Of the many churches along the Spaccanapoli, the Santa Chiara is surely the most enchanting – and also the most unique. With a Gothic church, a pair of monasteries, archaeological remnants, and a nativity scene, the complex presents a microcosm of the city. But the true star is the Rococo cloister garden, covered in Majolica tiles.
Sancia of Mallorca, the pious wife of King Robert the Wise, founded the compound and supervised its construction between 1310-1338. Both monarchs had ties to Provence and Catalonia, so a southern Gothic style was a natural choice. Because of its size and prominence, the king and most of his descendants chose the church as a burial-place. The church was included in an 18th-century overhaul of the complex, but its Rococo layers were not restored after heavy bombing in 1943.
While the church’s interior went back to a “pure” Gothic style, renovation of the cloister garden wisely returned it to Rococo splendor. Architect Domenico Antonio Vaccaro covered surfaces with Majolica tiles whose pastoral scenes associate the Bay of Naples with Arcadia. Then he tempered the wealth of form and color with the simplest, most classical layout. The Persian four-part garden plan, with a pair of walkways crossing in the middle, anchors the fanciful tiles and abundant greenery. Along the edges, octagonal columns covered in tiles emphasize the symmetry. By leaving them free-standing, he also echoed the newly discovered Roman ruins at Herculaneum and Pompeii.
Entrance at Via Santa Chiara, 49/c. Note that tickets may be purchased only at the entrance, no advance or online reservations. For more hours and pricing, see website.
Piazza dei Plebiscito and Environs
Named after the 1860 vote to join the new Kingdom of Italy, the Piazza dei Plebiscito symbolically connects Naples with the peninsula’s classical heritage. The San Francesco di Paola church echoes Rome’s Pantheon, while the sweeping colonnade evokes the arms of San Peter’s.
After several decades of use as a parking lot, the piazza has been tidied up and now hosts the occasional concert.
Palazzo Reale di Napoli
The Royal Palace of Naples began as a residence for the Spanish viceroy, and kept on growing under the Bourbon and Savoy dynasties. Domenico Fontana, the recently exiled creator of many Roman monuments, started the building early in the 17th century. Over the years, many prominent artists and architects contributed to the complex, which eventually included a theater, the royal printing press, rug and porcelain factories, and multiple archives. Today one wing of the Palazzo Reale houses the Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli, with over 2,000 papyri from Herculaneum amongst its artefacts.
The complex also contains a garden area, whose massive trees make it a popular respite for locals. The website refers to it as the “Romantic Gardens”, not to be confused with the “Hanging Gardens”. The latter is a rooftop terrace overlooking the sea, and requires an additional limited-time ticket.
Galleria Umberto I
The Galleria Umberto I was the showpiece of the Risanamento, a movement to cleanse and rehabilitate Naples in the last few decades of the 19th century. Emanuele Rocco’s design used the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan as a model. The cross-shaped plan creates an impressive amount of space without disturbing the historic buildings around it. With an expansive scale and dramatic vistas, it also evokes the great cathedrals.
Across the street lies the legendary Teatro di San Carlo, Naples’ opera house since 1737.
During its medieval heyday, the Castel Nuovo’s court hosted some of the brightest thinkers and artists of the 13th century as well as several progressive monarchs. King Robert the Wise famously quizzed scholar Petrarch for a full three days before a standing-room-only crowd, while author Boccaccio wrote extensively about Queen Joanna I (Giovanna I) and the city at large. Sadly, the glory years are no more – and not much of them survived subsequent earthquakes and remodels. For example, it takes an expert to detect the fragments of Giotto’s frescoes on some window jambs.
The Hall of the Barons picked up its nickname as the place where King Ferdinand I arrested and killed some barons conspiring against him. Later, he commissioned the bronze doors with battle scenes to show his victory; they now reside in the museum.
Probably the most arresting part of the castle is the Sala dei Baroni, or Hall of the Barons. Originally constructed for King Robert as a throne room, it was expanded by the brilliant Guillem Sagrera in the mid-1400’s. The architect designed a spectacular star-shaped vault which, at over 26 meters in diameter, is probably the largest of its kind in Gothic architecture. Small windows near the dome in the former throne room allowed soldiers to discreetly watch over the king.
Unfortunately, the site’s presentation leaves something to be desired, both in terms of the surviving work and general organization. Visiting requires reserving a spot online in advance – by using a QR code from the ticket office. Upon arrival at the designated time, visitors must wait for up to half an hour while a staff member moves down the line explaining ticket options. The guided tour, which includes access to the dungeon and royal apartments, gets mixed reviews.
Museo Archeologico and Environs
The building which now houses the Archaeological Museum was once the seat of the University of Naples, one of the oldest and most prestigious institutions of its kind.
The Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (a.k.a. MANN) tops the list of landmarks in Naples. Almost everything from Pompeii, Herculaneum, and nearby sites which required safe-keeping wound up here; even with many items on loan to other institutions around the world, the collection is staggering in its depth.
Roman art went beyond architecture and sculpture, with exquisitely-crafted furnishings and delicate glass vessels, still-life paintings, and mosaic portraits.
Galleria Principe di Napoli
Across the street from the Archaeological Museum, the Galleria Principe di Napoli makes a perfect spot for a coffee break. Back when the kingdom’s wealth came from grain production, the spot held wheat storage pits. Later, it was used for a prison and military barracks. A wave of urban renewal projects in the late 1800’s led to the site’s redevelopment as a shopping arcade modeled after the glass-and-steel structures developed in London and Paris. By 1965, lack of maintenance led to the collapse of its façade. Since then, the Galleria has undergone several restorations, at least one of which involved replacing glass broken by local children playing soccer. Although it’s been used for fashion shows, the space generally remains almost eerily silent with shuttered storefronts used as municipal office space.
Around the Piazza Bellini and Piazza Dante
A small piazza lies at the foot of the Galleria, adjacent to the Academy of Fine Arts. With lion statues, striped buildings, and tropical greenery, it became one of our favorite spots. A pedestrian street across the avenue fills up with bars and restaurants in the evening.
The area around the Archaeological Museum and the Piazza Bellini has long been referred to as the “intellectual center” of Naples. A theater and a piazza honor the composer Bellini, who studied nearby. Classical instrument dealers fill the Via San Sebastiano, and the neighborhood is home to a major conservatory.
An oasis of greenery surrounded by colorful palazzos, the Piazza Bellini maintains a laid-back feel even when the bars and restaurants fill up in the evening. Besides the Bellini statue, the square features a submerged area with remains from 4th century B.C.E. walls of Greek Neapolis.
The Via Port’Alba, a passage filled with used-book sellers, connects the Bellini to the larger, louder Piazza Dante. The latter fills up at night with an almost carnival-like atmosphere.
Just above the archaeological museum, the Sanità neighborhood has become one of Naples’ hotspots. See our post on its Rococo staircases for more information.
The Piazza Bellini’s central location and relaxed atmosphere make an ideal base for staying in Naples. When our jet lag kicked in and Naples became overwhelming, the Hotel Piazza Bellini gave us a refuge. We especially appreciated the front courtyard, with a peaceful lounge area and a nice breakfast spot.
Jordan Lancaster’s In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Cultural History of Naples is a good starting point for non-fiction readers.
Nancy Goldstone’s fascinating biography of Giovanna I (a.k.a. Joanna or Joan) finally gives one of history’s most under-appreciated monarchs her due.