When people think about visiting Italy, they usually think about Rome, Milan or Venice. Visiting Naples (or Napoli in Italian) is not the first choice. However, that is not a reason to stay away. Napoli is a city with a rich history, wonderful buildings, castles, museums and squares. It is located about 200km south of Rome and definitely worth a visit. Next to Napoli lies the most dangerous volcano on Earth, Vesuvius, waiting to erupt.
We arrived in Naples by a one and a half hour train journey from Rome. After stepping out of the train we walked for about 20 minutes to arrive at our Airbnb host. Our apartment was located parallel to Corso Umberto I, one of the main roads crossing the centre of Naples and home to the University.
At a first glance, the city did not look that impressive and rather a bit dirty and scary. It was not until the second day that we fully got to appreciate the city. In the morning we woke up and walked to the harbour, passing a few gigantic cruise ships. We were on our way to the start of the bike tour. As we told you before, a bike tour is a quick way to explore a city and our favourite one. Well, quick is not the best word to describe our tour, lasting for about 4 hours. But it did take us past loads of interesting locations.
The bike tour
We started out by cycling past the coast and stopped near the only part of sandy beach in Napoli. A tiny beach which would be full with about 25 people on it. Our guide explained but in the meantime, a few fishermen were selling freshly caught fish and octopuses. This took our attention so we went over to inspect.
Afterwards, we continued to Piazza del Plebiscito, a big square with on one side the royal palace and on the other the church of San Francesco di Paola. During the reign of Queen Margherita, she would once a month take a prisoner to complete a challenge if succeeded he would be released. The challenge was to walk blindfolded from the palace in between two statues on the other side of the square. This is way more difficult as it sounds, during her reign, no prisoner has ever passed the test. We tried to complete this challenge also but unfortunately did not pass the test either. If you decide to visit this square, you will see many tourists with a blindfold walking around in circles trying to complete the challenge.
Teatro di San Carlo
Next to the royal palace is a theater called Teatro di San Carlo. It is one of the most beautiful theaters in Italy. You are not able to enter this building unless you have a ticket for one of the performances there. This is definitely something you should do if there is an event while you are visiting. We went to see the ballet of Alice in Wonderland and were astounded by the insides of the theater. We got some cheap tickets so we sat on seats on the 5th floor. The ballet was still pretty well visible from this height. Definitely recommend visiting this breathtaking place.
Visiting Pompeii and Vesuvius
When you are in Naples, you absolutely have to visit either of these impressive locations. Vesuvius is visible from the harbor of Napoli and it looks big, like a sleeping giant, waiting to be woken up. It is about 10km away from the historic center of Naples, but there are people living way closer on the slopes. Scientist calculated that in the event of an eruption, millions of people could die. When you take a look at the volcano from Naples, you see a higher part on the right and a lower part on the left side. The higher part is where the current crater is and where you can sometimes see smoke rise. The original mountain was 2000m tall, whereas the volcano currently is 1280m tall. It collapsed during a massive explosion in the year 79 when Pompeii was buried under tons of ash.
Nowadays it is one of the busiest tourist attractions alongside the archeological site Pompeii and Herculaneum. If you want to visit Vesuvius then you have to take a car or bus up the swirling roads to the car park on the mountain. From the central station in Naples, we took a train to Ercolano. The train we took is the circumvesuviana, this train also goes directly to Pompeii and Sorrento. From the train station in Ercolano, we took a bus up to the Vesuvio car park which took about 30 minutes. It costs €20 per person including the entrance to the volcano. Once you are at the car park, your journey begins.
The climb up is steep and in summer, very hot. Along the way up you will see plenty of spots to take nice panoramic shots of Naples and its’ bay. On top of the volcano are a few shops, at the first shop you can wait for a guide to explain the story behind the mountain. However, we walked up on our own because we prepared ourselves with watching a documentary on the Discovery Channel. When you look into the crater, you can sometimes see smoke rise from the deep. This reminds you that this is really an alive volcano and can erupt at any point in time. While you are up there, you will mostly enjoy the views and be amazed at the power of our planet.
To look at the effects of what Vesuvius did, you should definitely visit Pompeii. It is the world most visited archeological site, and not without reason. This means that it can be really busy there, so try to avoid peak time hours and arrive in the early morning. Be sure to pick up a free map and some leaflets at the entrance as this will explain some stories of the people of Pompeii. We started from the southwestern entrance near the train station Pompei Scavi. From here you will soon come up to the main square (Forum) and probably the busiest place on the site. Take your time and any route you prefer as this site is gigantic 67 hectares. Some of the locations you should definitely visit are:
- The bathhouses – which are similar to current spas with multiple thermal pools. Bathhouses were a place to relax and socialize. There are small erotic paintings in the chaining rooms that advertise the activities held in the halls of the upper floors.
- The Grand Theatre – a cultural place with great acoustics.
- House of Octavius Quartio – a villa of an aristocratic elite with a beautiful garden and traditional atrium.
- House of the Oven – one of the 30 well-preserved bakeries in the city.
- Via dell’Abbondanza – the Main Street of Pompeii. There are many pubs and shops with decorated counters. There are so many bars on this street that walking here reminded us of walking at Temple Bar in Dublin
Food of Naples
When you think of Italian food, you think about pasta and pizza. That is not different in Naples, but the history of the famous Pizza Margherita started here. A baker wanted to innovate and created a new dish to please Queen Margherita. This dish was made with a base of bread, tomato sauce as a background, mozzarella placed on top and a sprinkle of basil. This symbolizes the colors of the Italian flag. When the Queen tasted this she approved this new invention and the pizza was named after her.
One of the most famous pizza places in Naples is L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, because of the delicious pizza and the movie ‘Eat, pray, love’. One of the scenes of the movie was shot in this pizzeria. If you want to enjoy one of the pizza’s of da Michele then you should get there early or be patient. The restaurant uses a ticket system to seat people. You need to grab a number and once your number is called, the table is ready for you. This can take around half an hour. However, the waiting time is totally worth it. The pizza is the best we have ever eaten. It was simple, delicious and really cheap, €4 for a normal size.
Next to pasta and pizza are pastries. Two popular Neapolitan pastries are the rum baba and the sfogliatella. The rum baba is yeast cake saturated in rum and tastes very sugary, like rum and is soft. It is similar to a Polish cake called babka which means old woman or grandmother. The sfogliatella is a layered pastry filled with ricotta cheese. It is much more crunchy than the baba.
The city next to the volcano
Naples had the reputation of being dangerous and dirty. That is not the case and it is a beautiful city in Italy which is definitely worth visiting. The volcano Vesuvius and Pompeii are a must see to remind us what might happen to Naples. If you want to visit, be sure to visit it outside of the summer months. It will be way too warm and busy. It is always wise to do research when travelling so before visiting Pompeii we recommend watching this Pompeii with Michael Buerk documentary. Are you traveling to Napoli? Read our post about the amazing Amalfi coast which is not far from Napoli and worth a visit!