Napoli Street - by Angelo DeSantis (creative commons)

Napoli Street – by Angelo DeSantis (creative commons)

Before my first trip to Naples, I had – like you, I’ll bet – heard stories. Naples, I heard, was dangerous, edgy, and full of garbage. What I found on that first visit – and on every visit since – was that like most stereotypes there is some basis in fact for most of the rumors. I also completely fell in love with a city so unabashedly itself, catering to no one, that I still try to convince travelers to give Naples a chance.

Naples can require something of a cautious approach, but as long as you don’t go in blindly – as long as you’ve got some information about the city beforehand – you can have a truly spectacular time. And there are so many reasons to go to Naples, from its proximity to major tourist attractions like Pompeii or the Amalfi Coast to its incredible archaeological museum to (omigod) the pizza. It’s a shame to skip it just because you might have heard stories.

What charms me most about Naples, to this day, is that it feels more like a genuine Italian city than nearly any city in the north. Is it edgy? Absolutely. Can it be dangerous? Yes, if you’re flashing expensive jewelry or plan to join an organized crime syndicate. Should you go? Yes, yes, a hundred times yes.

A quote from a Rick Steves guidebook on Italy has stayed with me for more than a decade. In talking about the north/south divide in Italy, and why the south inspires such strong opinions (both good and bad), he says:

If you like Italy as far south as Rome, go further south. It gets better. If Italy is getting on your nerves by the time you get to Rome, think twice about going further. Italy intensifies as you plunge deeper.

I can think of no better way to explain it than that.

How to Get to Naples

The Naples International Airport (NAP) (sometimes called Capodichino for the neighborhood in which it sits) is the main airport for the city and the region of Campania. It’s a short six miles from the city center, which means you won’t need to worry about an airport hotel even if you’ve got an early flight, nor will a taxi ride cost you a week’s wages. The Naples airport is the one to use if you’re staying in Naples, Sorrento, or on the Amalfi Coast.

Taxis are plentiful at the airport, and there’s a fixed rate fare of €16 between the airport and Naples’ historic center. Ask the driver what the fixed rate is based on your destination (some hotels are outside that zone), and be aware that luggage and extra passengers can carry a surcharge. You can also take the Alibus Airport Shuttle, which connects to the main train station as well as the main port for cruise ships. UnicoAlibus tickets for the bus are €3 if you buy them before you get on the bus, and €4 if you buy them on the bus. The shuttle leaves from the airport every 20-30 minutes starting at 6:30am, and goes until 11:50pm Monday-Friday and 11:39pm on weekends and holidays.

Because Capodichino isn’t one of Italy’s major airports, chances are good that you’ll arrive in the country via Rome or Milan. If your trip is entirely in the south, I’d recommend taking the short flight to Naples rather than the train, as it’ll save you time. You can sometimes find deals on budget airlines for one-way flights within the country – easyJet and Meridiana both fly to Naples from Milan, and Alitalia connects Naples with both Milan and Rome. You can also check the train schedules and fares, especially if you fly into Rome – the high-speed train can be under two hours one way.

Naples’ main train station is Napoli Centrale, from which you can get anywhere in Italy. The station is connected to Stazione Garibaldi, which is the station from which you’ll get trains to Sorrento or Pompeii.

What to Do & See in Naples

Where others might say Naples is dirty and dangerous, Naples is what I would call gritty and realistic. It rolls out the red carpet for exactly no one, and doesn’t even regard its own historic buildings and streets with reverential awe. Those narrow alleys where cars barely fit and scooters race by are old Roman roads, still very much in use. And the buildings that line those streets, where there’s a pizza shop and a butcher and a guy selling toilet paper – I imagine those storefronts have been storefronts for hundreds of years. They are not on pedastals. They are a part of living history.

With its high pitch and fast pace – not to mention its huge, sprawling size – Naples can feel like the room you don’t quite know how to enter. I’d suggest sticking to the historic center, pretending the sprawl doesn’t exist, and venturing out when you feel good and ready to do so. There is, as you’ll find, so much to do and see in the historic center that you can spend several very happy days never leaving that small area.

Here are some of Naples’ most popular sights – you’ll find more details about each, plus some of the city’s odd attractions, in my article on what to do and see in Naples:

  • National Archaeological Museum
  • Duomo
  • Castel dell’Ovo
  • Castel Sant’Elmo
  • Castel Nuovo
  • Naples Underground
  • Capodimonte Museum
  • Palazzo Reale
  • Church of San Francesco di Paola
  • Cappella Sansevero
  • San Carlo Theater

Naples is also the perfect base from which to explore the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum; islands like Ischia and Capri; the royal palace and gardens at Caserta; the pretty town of Sorrento; and the sparkling Amalfi Coast.

And if you don’t have “eat pizza at least once per day” on your Naples to-do list, then I believe I have failed you in some grievous way. This is the city where pizza was born, and you’ll be forever spoiled for the stuff once you’ve sampled it from the pizzerias in the historic center.

Guided Tours in Naples

Where to Stay in Naples

As mentioned, Naples sprawls. Thankfully, the areas which are usually best for visitors are concentrated in the historic center. There are sometimes more bargains available in Naples than in other big Italian cities, but you’ll still pay more for a room overlooking the sea, or steps from a major attraction. If you’re on a budget, or you’re just not interested in spending so much on a hotel room, here are some things to consider:

  • As is the case in many cities, there’s budget accommodation a-plenty to be found near the main train station – and that’s an area to avoid, if you can. It’s more on the gritty side than the rest of the historic center, and some travelers aren’t comfortable walking around there at night. Instead, head further into the historic center, using the rough borders of the Via Toledo and Via Monteoliveto at the west, Via Duomo at the east, and Piazza Cavour at the north. You can essentially use the waterfront as the southern border, with the understanding that you’ll want to be a few streets from the port for a quieter experience.
  • Bear in mind that star ratings on hotels in Italy don’t always correspond to the star ratings you might know. When historic buildings are turned into hotels, they have smaller rooms by default – and that means they get fewer stars for their hotel, even if those smaller rooms are quite luxurious. If you’re interested in a particular location of the city, don’t be afraid to look at two- and three-star hotels in that area.
  • Naples also has hostels, so if you’re really on a budget look for those, too. Some hostels have private rooms, so staying in a hostel doesn’t have to mean sleeping 20 to a room.
  • If you’re staying in Naples more than a day or two – and especially if you’re traveling with a family or other group – you might want to look into renting an apartment. Having a kitchen at your disposal can be a life-saver when traveling with kids, or if you’re inspired by a spin through the market to cook something.

I was introduced to an enthusiastic Naples native many years ago, who has led me through the city and surrounding area twice, more as a friend than a tour guide. Marina de Martino can be your Naples friend and tour guide, too. Visit Marina’s website and tell her Jessica sent you.

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