Best Things to Do in Naples, Italy

Napoli

This article was published on Mamablip in december 2021

What does Campania mean?

The name says it all:  a flat land, where people cultivate produce, and live off the results of their agricultural efforts.  Campania historically was known as the Ager Campanus of the Romans, and based on historiographical information, we may be inclined to believe that the Campania likely had its origins in the city of Capua, the region’s primary city in the 1st century B.C. 

Ager Campanus was indeed the territory of Capua, according to the ancient Romans.  The area voluntarily gave itself over to the Romans for domain to prevent the overtake of the area by the hated Samnites.  This territory represented the largest city in the Italian nation. 

Records show that Pliny the Elder preferred a different approach, referring instead to the Campania Felix.  This was done specifically to underscore the area’s fertility, thanks to its proximity to the nearby volcano, Mt. Vesuvius, as well as to differentiate the two different Campania regions: the ancient Campania (Campania that included CApua), and the-then contemporary Campania, which included a portion of today’s Lazio region.  

Campania, Positano
Positano, Campania

Why come to Campania?

Campania is at the top of the Italian regions in terms of UNESCO World Heritage sites (10 sites have been awarded this recognition). Let’s kick off with one of the regions’ most entrancing areas, Naples. This treasure trove of Italian culture contains 3000 years of stratified life, and is the city with the largest historic city center, 17 square kilometers – it’s also one of Europe’s largest city centers.   

Although its layers and appearances are indeed ancient, few cities enjoy a combination of ancient and contemporary as much as Naples does, for better or for worse. 

Just a short time ago, French newspaper Le Figaro stirred up a hotly-contested controversy when it declared Naples a “third-world city.” Be that as it may, Naples also is the backdrop for the marvelous Paolo Sorrentino film, “The hand of God,” nominated for Golden Globe award (and practically the gateway award to the eventual Oscar nominations) for Best Foreign Film. 

In Sorrentino’s (Neapolitan by birth) feature film, Naples demonstrates a powerful, sinuous and beautiful figure at dawn, a blinding city at noon, and a mysterious, illusive city by night.  

A rewarding way to explore Naples is to avoid trying to define the city, a task that becomes at turn both elusive and contradictory. Instead of trying to understand Naples, let’s start by simply experiencing the city. 

What should I not miss in Naples Italy?

Thanks to the city’s abundance of memorable sites to visit, you could simply write down a bunch of different sites, toss them into a bowl and pick randomly what to visit. Trust me, you’d be more than satisfied with the results.   

For the sake of argument however, we’ve limited your recommended sites to just 5 unique sites in Naples’ city center. Keep reading to check out Must-See sites. 

Maschio Angioino

The Maschio Angioino Castle, one of Naples’ architectural icons together with the Palatine Chapel. The castle that we love and enjoy today is the end result of Charles I of Anjoou’s efforts to transfer the Angevin capital from Palermo to Naples. Following the defeat of the Swabians in 1266, Charles was ensconced onto the throne of Sicily, and successfully lobbied to adjust the capital of his reign to Naples. Sadly, the Palatine Chapel is today’s sole surviving architectural example of the Angevin period.

Wander around and get lost in two of the most important museums in the world, the MANN and the Museum of Capodimonte 

As you enjoy the visit, you’ll definitely want to roam the halls of two of the most important museums of the world, the MANN and the Museum of Capodimonte.   

The Archeological Museum of Naples, or MANN, was inaugurated in 1816, and is today one of the world’s most important museums thanks to its massive, high-quality and perfectly-preserved collections. 

The MANN is the result of King Ferdinand IV’s efforts, who wanted Naples to house an impressive arts institute, and on the tail of two centuries of existence, we can confirm that Ferdinand’s efforts have justly paid off.   

In addition to housing the resulting relics from the Pompeii excavations, the museum is also home to the astonishing Greek-Roman era Farnese collection, the Egyptian and Etruscan antiquities from the Borgia collection, and the ancient coins belonging to the Santangelo collection. 

Want to get off the beaten path for a second? Don’t overlook the “Secret Cabinet” series, a gathering of ancient frescoes and sculptures dedicated to the risquè erotica side of ancient art.  

The Capidimonte Museum is the result instead of another Bourbon noble, Charles. In 1739, Charles transformed this former hunting lodge into a royal palace and then museum intended to house the collected works of his mother, the owner of the acclaimed Farnese collection. 

These museums bring us to the very confines of Naples’ historic city center, and it’s a bit disorienting to discover so many masterpieces in the same structure. Spread out over three floors, we can find works by masters like Titian, Masaccio, Botticelli, Raphael, Guido Reni, Brueghel the Elder, Andrea del Sarto and many others.  

Heading further into the collection, we find another awe-inspiring collection of master artists like Ribera, Goya, Pinturicchio, Vasari, Mattia Preti, Ribera and the extraordinary “Flagellation of Christ” by Caravaggio.  

The final floor of the museum is dedicated to a collection of 19th century and contemporary art by acclaimed artists like Andy Warhol, Mimmo Jodice, Alberto Burri, Mario Merz, Joseph Kosuth, Enzo Cucchi, and Michelangelo Pistoletto.   

As you explore this unprecedented formerly private collection, you’ll also discover an impressive collection of household objects once belonging to the Bourbon families residing in this Palace.  

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Naples’ Intriguing Underground Soul

Naples has a hidden, deeply-rooted hidden side we don’t always have the chance to explore. Made of tuff, this building material largely accounts for the construction of the city’s external layer, exposed to the scorching conditions of the city’s heat and population. 

Below the surface however, Naples is composed of a dense maze of ravines, caves, and tunnels that tells a story running in parallel with its surface tale. 

The first cave typically entered is that of Napoli Sotterranea, which can be visited along two primary routes. Starting from Via dei Tribunali, you can follow the classic route crossing over the Greek-Roman aqueduct. You’ll also come across air-raid shelters, underground museums, the War Museum, and the Seismic station “Arianna.” 

The second route is the Galleria Borbonica, implemented in 1853 at the behest of Ferdinand II of Bourbon. The objective in the construction of this second underground route was to create a quick access and escape route if it became necessary, for the Neapolitan sovereigns to flee the city. In fact, this underground viaduct route links the Royal Palace with Piazza Vittoria, and would allow the ruling royals undetected passage to the bay, perfect for a sea-based escape. 

The Gallery, throughout the passage of time, has been used as an air raid shelter and judicial deposit, to name a few of its functions. Dotting the underground road, one can find wells, cisterns, and cavities attesting to the city’s everyday life during the war. Huge fragments of impressive statues and old vehicles from the 1950s,’60s, and ‘70s also dot the cave-like interiors. 

The Metro’s Open-Air Museum

As we follow Naples’ unusual logic of up and down, empty and full spaces, it’s not entirely surprising that even the city’s subway lines have become a series of open-air museums complete with an underground exhibition space. 

The project is called the Metro dell’Arte, and its stated goal is to make the city’s places of public transportation welcoming and pleasant. In our impression, the most beautiful stations are those along the Line 1 route, which runs from Piscinola to Piazza Garibaldi.   

Some examples to check out? Materdei Station designed by Atelier Mendini to start off with. Continue with the Mimmo Paladino-designed Salvator Rosa Station. The Museum stop bears the signature of renowned Gae Aulenti, whereas the Dante Station is embellished with Intermediterraneo by Michelangelo Pistoletto. 

The most spectacular of all however, is the Via Toledo stop. The stop was awarded the honor of Most Beautiful Station in Europe thanks to the presence of the Crater de luz, a large cone that intersects each level of the station, reaching down 40 meters into the ground. The cone is thoroughly illuminated by the work Relative Light, an artistic endeavor of Robert Wilson, and is further enriched by mosaics by William Kentridge.  

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In San Gregorio Armeno, It’s Always Christmas 

Neapolitan locals will warn you off visiting this particular street during the winter holidays as a certain level of local confusion and mayhem usually make this district impossible to navigate. 

Locals also know that it wouldn’t be Christmastime however, without at least one foray into San Gregorio Armeno, the most famous Nativity Scene street in the world. This tiny street measures no more than 200 meters, and is located in the oldest part of Naples, the Decumani area. No matter its size and location – this street is an absolute ode to Christmas 365 days a year. 

In San Gregorio Armeno, the artisans behind the sought-after crèche work toil 12 months a year to produce the crèches, statues, and decorations that make this narrow street such a visual spectacle.   

The local shops selling their crèche-related wares are thriving, and each guards the secrets of their artisanal work, keeping their trade secrets close at hand. There are local competitions to see which boutique is able to most faithfully replicate current trends and celebrities into their crèches. This years’ hotly-copied personalities include Mario Draghi, the medical workers of Italy’s vaccination centers, and the musical rock band Maneskin. Certain classic figures are eternally present, including adopted son Diego Armando Maradona.