Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Naples
In a city that can be as overwhelming as Naples, it’s nice to have the expanse of a public square like the enormous Piazza del Plebiscito. This is one of the biggest public piazzas in Naples, and it sits right next to the bay on the edge of the city’s historic center.
The Piazza del Plebiscito and the church of San Francesco di Paola, which borders the square to the west, were both planned in the early 19th century as monuments in honor of then-emperor Napoleon - his brother-in-law being the King of Naples at the time. Construction of both the piazza and the church were completed in 1816, after Napoleon had been exiled.
On the opposite side of the Piazza del Plebiscito, you’ll find the Royal Palace of Naples, a former residence of the Bourbon Kings who ruled in the 18th-19th centuries. The side of the palace that faces the piazza contains niches where the statues of major rulers over the Kingdom of Naples are displayed.
The entire city of Naples can be overwhelming - it sprawls away from the bay and even up the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius - but visitors need only concentrate on the historic center, the “Centro Storico,” to enjoy the best of what Naples has to offer.</ Naples’ historic center was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, including 14 city districts and more than 2,425 acres. Even this area is too much for most tourists to tackle in a short visit, but thankfully most of what you’ll want to do and see in the city is concentrated in the heart of the Centro Storico.
Radiating away from the Bay of Naples, the Centro Storico spans more than 2,500 years of history. Even today you can see some ruins of the Greek city that once occupied this spot. More plentiful are monuments from the Roman-era, including the roads that run straight as an arrow through the historic center and the treasures from Pompeii and Herculaneum that are kept in Naples’ spectacular archaeological museum.
Naples' opera house, the Teatro di San Carlo, is not only Italy's oldest opera house—it's also the longest-running opera house in Europe, open since 1737.
The site was built under King Charles VII, a member of the Bourbon monarchy, so the theater was originally called the “Royal” opera house. In November 1737, the opera house opened its doors for the first time, but an 1816 fire consumed the entire interior of the building—only the outer structure was left standing. The theater was rebuilt, and it reopened the next year. Today, the opera season begins in late January and continues through May. You can also see ballet performances at the theater—that season runs from April through the beginning of June.
It's too much to try to take Naples as a whole. This city is all noise and speed and grit, thrown at you from the moment you step out of the train station or off of a cruise ship, and the greater metropolitan area of Naples spreads so far it even creeps up the sides of the surrounding mountains, including one very famous volcano – Mount Vesuvius. If you're willing to look beyond the sensory overload, however, you'll see why UNESCO named the historic centre of Naples a World Heritage Site in 1995.
The historic centre of Naples – sometimes called the “centro storico” or “antico storico” in Italian – is made up of more than 10 different city neighborhoods that funnel down the hills to the port. Walking through this historic centre gives us a chance to walk back in time – Naples is something of a museum piece, one that's never been off-limits behind red velvet ropes. This is the sort of museum that rewards those who dig in.
If you've been to the city center of Milan, you've no doubt seen the Galleria Emanuele II, which is one of the oldest shopping malls in the world – as well as one of the prettiest. So it's not surprising that when Naples wanted a shopping arcade built, the designer took his cues from Milan's building. Walking through Naples' Galleria Umberto I, you'll feel momentarily like you've been transported to Milan.
The Galleria Umberto I was built starting in 1887. It's in the shape of a cross, with the roof of each wing made from glass. Like the Galleria in Milan, the one in Naples is also topped by a glass dome. One of the wings opens onto Via Toledo, a main thoroughfare in Naples, and another feeds onto the San Carlo Theater.
One of Naples' more interesting religious sites is the church of Gesù Nuovo in the city's historic center. Its spiky stone facade overlooks the wide open Piazza del Gesu, a popular spot for Neapolitans to meet, mingle and enjoy the fine Mediterranean weather.
The piazza used to be one of the main entrances to the city of Naples, while today it is notable for the two churches that face onto the square and the spire at its center. The 15th-century church of Gesù Nuovo, as mentioned, has an intimidating stone facade that belies its ornately decorated interior. The 14th-century church of Santa Chiara is a monastery and also houses an archaeological museum.
The center of the Piazza del Gesu is marked by an ornate statue called the “Guglia dell'Immacolata,” or Spire of the Immaculate Virgin. It was commissioned in the 17th century to ask the Virgin Mary to protect the city from the plague.
Palazzo Reale was the royal palace located in downtown Naples, still the heart of Naples today. Built around 1600 when Naples was under Spanish rule, it was not completed for two centuries. Inside, a beautiful double staircase leads you up to the royal apartments which these days house the palace's museum of furnishings and etc. Don't miss the huge 18th century nativity scene in the Cappella Reale (Royal Chapel). The Palazzo Reale also houses the national library which contains thousands of papyrus scrolls found at Herculaneum and the remains of a 5th century Coptic bible.
The palace is situated on the elegant Piazza Plebiscito, the largest square in Naples and named after the vote in 1870 which brought Naples into the unified Kingdom of Italy. The palace makes up one side of this square, alongside the domed church of San Francesco di Paolo and the elegant curve of Doric columns.
More Things to Do in Naples
It’s Christmas all year round at San Gregorio Armeno. The fun, colorful and sometimes crowded alley offers a place to wander and see Naples famed nativity settings and figures called Presepe or Presepio.
First displayed in monasteries in the 16th and 17th century, nativity scenes made their way into aristocratic homes, eventually becoming a tradition for all. Many people put up their nativity scene December 8, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, but wait until Christmas Eve to add baby Jesus. Displays often go beyond a manager scene, and can represent the life of an entire community or village.
Originally built as a palace, the Gesú Nuovo Church was converted into a place of worship by the Jesuits. It stands in a square by the same name in Naples historic city center.
Built in 1470, the original palace façade was left intact when construction began to convert it into a church. The bugnato style exterior is characterized by pyramid-shaped stones on the façade, however, its outward appearance can lead to confusion, sometimes causing unknowing visitors to walk right by, not realizing what’s tucked inside. The Church’s Baroque interior is ornate with 11 Chapels and frescos throughout that represent bible scenes and the stories of Saints. The church’s construction was a lengthy process, started in 1584 but not completed until 1601.
The Duomo is the main church of Naples. A wonderful Gothic cathedral built in the 13th century, it stands on the site of an earlier church dating from around 570 AD. It is dedicated to Naples' patron saint, San Gennaro, whose blood is brought out in a vial three times a year - on the first Saturday in May, September 19 and December 16. If it liquefies, all is well. If it doesn't...fears are held for the safety of Naples. Luckily, it nearly always liquefies.
The cathedral contains some excellent artworks including frescoes in the Chapel of the Treasure of San Gennaro and some 4th-century mosaics. To one side of the Duomo is the 4th century Basilica Santa Restituta, the oldest chapel in Naples, containing columns believed to be from the Temple of Apollo. Under here is an interesting archaeological site tracing the Greek, Roman and early Christian city.
Located on the vibrant street of Spaccanapoli, which cuts through the heart of Naples’ centro storico, the ethereal Cappella Sansevero had its origins in the tail end of the 16th century, when it was the mausoleum of the patrician Di Sangro dynasty. The name translates into English as the ‘alchemist’s chapel’ and it was extended by the eccentric Raimondo di Sangro, the seventh Prince of Sansevero, who lived between 1710 and 1771; he was an extraordinarily gifted man but as a Mason, he was considered by contemporary Neapolitans to have made a pact with the devil. Clad in ghostly white marble, with a multi-colored marble floor and ceiling frescoes of almost frenzied ornateness by Francesco Maria Russo, the chapel is stuffed with works by some of the greatest names on the 18th-century Naples art scene – among its treasures are Giuseppe Sanmartino’s amazingly realistic sculpture Cristo Velato (The Veiled Christ).
At one point in history, Naples was divided into more than two dozen neighborhoods. Present day city geography breaks Naples into 10 municipalities, but the neighborhood names like Saint Lucia are often still used when referring to various parts of the city.
Saint Lucia refers to the area surrounding the Castel dell'Ovo or Egg Castle. The neighborhood has been the subject and inspiration for some traditional Neapolitan songs, the best-known simple titled Santa Lucia. Numerous lyric renditions are known and recognized around the world.
Often regarded as being one of the most important museums in Italy, the Capodimonte Museum is the leading depository to everything related to Neapolitan paintings and decorative arts. It also hosts several important works from other Italian schools of painting, as well as some important ancient Roman sculptures. Some of the collection’s highlights include the Portrait of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese and the Baronci Altarpiece by Raphael, the Antea by Parmigianino, the Transfiguration by Giovanni Bellini, the Annunciation and the Mary Magdalena by Titian, to name just a few.
The first and second floors are entirely dedicated to the 100+ Neapolitan School paintings (which date back from anywhere between the 13th and the 18th centuries), while the other rooms of the palace are dedicated to antique 18th-century furniture and the porcelain and majolica collections.
The ancient Roman poet Virgil didn't die in Naples, but the city had stolen his heart and he said he wanted to be buried there. At least that's what the Neapolitans say. On the pretty Posillipo Hill, there are three attractions associated with Virgil – two parks, and his supposed tomb. Both parks have variations on the same name – Parco Virgiliano.
At the base of the Posillipo Hill, the Parco Virgiliano a Piedigrotta (also known as the Parco Virgiliano a Mergellina, the neighborhood below Posillipo) includes a winding path up the side of the hill, with plants on either side and great views over the Gulf of Naples and beyond. Partway up the hill, the supposed location of Virgil's tomb is at the end of a long tunnel. Although it's less of a pilgrimage destination now, it's still popular with some visitors.
If you go to one archeological museum in the world, make it this one in Naples. They have incredible finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum, lots of classical sculpture and a treasure trove in the Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Chamber)!
The museum has one of the best collections of Greek and Roman antiquities, mosaics, gems, glass and silver. They even have some Egyptian and Etruscan treasures in amongst it all. Opened in the late 18th century to house King Charles VII's private collection, it became the property of the state in 1860.
Naples is an enormous, sprawling city, and although some of the population lives in the historic center – where most visitors spend their time – most live in neighborhoods surrounding the city center. One of the prettiest and wealthiest neighborhoods in Naples is Posillipo, located on the northern side of the Gulf of Naples atop a hill that overlooks the water.From the port in Naples you'll wind your way north through the city center and then along the coast to Posillipo Hill, where you'll see some of the city's most beautiful houses. In some cases, these villas have been broken up more recently into apartments – but many of them are still private homes for elite Neapolitan families. Without a car, you can take the funicular from the Mergellina neighborhood below up to the top of Posillipo Hill.</[>
With a warren of narrow alleyways and roughly cobblestoned streets, crammed with small stores, barber’s shops and dimly lit bars, the Quartiere Spagnoli is one of Naples’ most atmospheric local districts. Built to house troops during the Spanish occupation, the historic quarter might be somewhat rundown these days, but it still buzzes with life, with colorful laundry flapping from the balconies, residents sipping espresso on their doorsteps and motorbikes juddering by at all hours of the day and night.
Despite earning itself a rather unsavory reputation in recent years due to an abundance of petty crime and pickpocketing, the Quartiere Spagnoli is still one of Naples’ most characteristic areas and makes a unique addition to a tour itinerary. As well as offering a unique glimpse into everyday life in the city, it’s home to landmarks like the Baroque church of Santa Maria degli Angeli and the 18th-century Palazzo Serra di Cassano..
Construction of Santa Chiara dates back to 1310. Founded by King Robert of Anjou and his second wife Sancha of Majorca, the church was opened for worship 30 years later in 1340. Two convents were also built; one for nuns and one for monks.
In the mid-1700s, the church interior was remodeled in Baroque style, however most of Santa Chiara was destroyed in August of 1943 during World War II bombings. When it was rebuilt 10 years later, it was returned to its original gothic style. The Monumental Complex of St. Chiara also includes the Opera Museum, which along with covering Neapolitan history, also exhibits items that survived the WWII bombings. Save time to visit the archaeological area at Santa Chiara. The remains of a Roman spa were discovered in the aftermath of the war. The spa is similar to those of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
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