What to Do & See in Naples

Given Naples’ proximity to places like Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast, it’s an easy call to include Naples on an Italy itinerary. Too many travelers, however, treat it like a day trip that they take from a base in Sorrento or even in Rome because they’ve heard too many negative things about the Campania capital and think it’s not a good idea to stay.

Yes, Naples can be a little tougher to love than – say – Positano or Siena. And? This city is absolutely worth a few days of your time, so you can properly explore its many treasures (and gorge yourself on the best pizza in the world while you’re at it).

I’ve got my favorite spots in Naples, but your interests may be different. This, then, is meant to be an overview of some of the top attractions in Naples so you can make your own must-see list. I’ve also included some of the city’s weird attractions, too, as I find they always add a little interesting color to travel memories.

Your job is to use this as a starting point – it is by no means a comprehensive list – and create your own priority list of things to do and see in Naples during your trip. You probably won’t get through the whole list, but you’ll make a good start and can pick up where you left off next time you visit.

For more help in planning your trip, don’t miss my Naples travel guide.

Naples’s Top Attractions

Piazza del Plebiscito in Naples || creative commons photo by valeria preci

Piazza del Plebiscito in Naples || creative commons photo by valeria preci

  • Historic Center – The entire historic center of Naples is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, including the famous Spaccanapoli street that cuts a straight (ancient Roman) line through the middle.
  • National Archaeological Museum – A visit to Pompeii and Herculaneum should be combined with a visit to the National Archaeological Museum, where most of the mosaics, frescoes, and statues removed from those excavations are on display.
  • Napoli Sotteranea – There’s an ancient city underneath Naples’ modern streets, and there are daily guided tours with Napoli Sotteranea (which means Naples Underground).
  • Capodimonte Museum – The huge hilltop palace-turned-museum is the place to go in Naples to see most of the city’s artistic masterpieces, including works by Caravaggio, Titian, and Bellini.
  • Castel dell’Ovo – Naples’ oldest castle, dating from the 12th century, gets its funny name (Castle of the Egg) from a myth that the Roman poet, Virgil, hid a magic egg underneath the castle’s foundations. The legend said that as long as the egg didn’t break, the castle – and city – would be safe. Nevermind that Virgl lived long before the castle was built.
  • Castel Nuovo – This impressive castle started as a 13th-century fortification and later got more frilly decorations – such as the 15th-century triumphal arch between two of the imposing towers. There’s a museum inside, but most people are content to snap photos of its fabulous exterior.
  • Castel Sant’Elmo – This 13th-century castle sits on the Vomero hill and offers spectacular panoramic views over Naples, the bay, and Mt. Vesuvius looming over everything. Part of the fortification houses a museum.
  • Teatro San Carlo – Naples’ opera house is one of the oldest in continuous operation in the world, open for business since 1737. Performances in the sumptuous red-velvet-and-gilded theater include opera and ballet.
  • Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo – This church was originally built to be a palace, and its strange facade was meant for the palace. Today, the almost-menacing exterior belies an ornate Baroque church inside.
  • Santa Chiara – On the same square as the Gesù Nuovo church is Santa Chiara, with a church, monastery, and its own archaeological museum. It’s the colorful cloister decorated with majolica tiles, though, that’s the main attraction.
  • Duomo – The main church in Naples is its cathedral, also known as the Duomo, built in the 13th century. It contains a vial of blood of the city’s patron saint, San Gennaro. Twice each year, the blood is presented to the public and, if the dried blood turns to liquid, it’s said to be a miracle and signal good tidings for Naples. If the blood stays dry, it portends bad luck for the city.
  • Certosa di San Martino – Once a monastery, now a museum, the building stands on the Vomero hill near the Castel Sant’Elmo. The museum has one of the best collections of Neapolitan nativity scenes – called presepe in Italian – in the world.
  • Piazza del Plebiscito – The enormous Piazza del Plebiscito has the Pantheon-esque Basilica di San Francesco di Paola at one end and St. Peter’s Square-ish colonnade arms reaching out to embrace you. It’s used for organized festivals, concerts, special events, protests, and – most commonly – space for a pick-up soccer game among the kids.
  • Basilica di San Francesco di Paola – The huge church anchoring one side of the grand Piazza del Plebiscito is relatively recent, finished in the early 19th century, and wasn’t originally meant to be a church.
  • Palazzo Reale – Naples’ Royal Palace holds down the opposite end of Piazza del Plebiscito from the Basilica di San Francesco di Paola and its arches are filled with statues of the Kings of Naples. Visitors can see the former royal apartments and throne room inside.
  • Galleria Umberto I – If you’ve been to Milan, you may recognize the design of Naples’ Galleria Umberto I, an arcaded shopping center with a glass roof (it was modeled after the Galleria in Milan).

Guided Tours in Naples

Weird Attractions in Naples

Contemporary presepio figurines || creative commons photo by Umberto Rotundo

Contemporary presepio figurines || creative commons photo by Umberto Rotundo

  • Capella Sansevero – The upper floor of the Capella Sansevero contains one of the most exquisitely-carved sculptures I’ve ever seen: The Veiled Christ by Giuseppe Sanmartino. It’s a must-visit just to see that, if you ask me. Downstairs in a tiny room beneath the chapel is where things get weird. Two so-called “anatomical models,” built in the 18th century, show veins and arteries on human skeletons. The bones are real, but the veins and arteries are made of metal, silk, and wax.
  • San Lorenzo Maggiore – The church itself is fine to visit, but the best part is in the church’s basement. San Lorenzo Maggiore was built in the 13th century over an ancient Roman market, and the Roman ruins are still there. You can walk down an ancient Roman street and poke your nose into ancient Roman shops. It’s awesome.
  • “Christmas Alley” – Naples is famous for its nativity scenes, and on Via San Gregorio Armeno it’s Christmas year-round. The street is lined with shops selling everything you’d need to create your own presepio at home, from the backdrop to each little figure. The best are hand-made, carved from wood or sculpted from clay, and it’s a delight to see modern figures among the traditional ones. Look for athletes, musicians, and politicians to see who you recognize.
  • “Secret Cabinet” at Archaeological Museum – There’s one room in the Archaeological Museum that is only open at certain times, otherwise closed and padlocked. It’s known as the “Gabinetto Segreto,” or “Secret Cabinet,” and displays ancient Roman erotica recovered from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Some of it once decorated brothels, but much of it was considered perfectly acceptable household decor, too. If you want to see it, ask at the ticket window about its open hours before you go in. You can also request that they open it especially for you, if there are no public hours during your visit.
  • L’Ospedale delle Bambole – The fine folks at this hospital for dolls have been repairing and restoring beloved playthings since 1800. The little workshop is open to the public (with an appointment), outfitted with little hospital beds and everything. Utterly delightful.
  • Catacombs – The Catacombs of San Gennaro likely date from the 3rd-4th century and contain the former tomb of San Gennaro himself. Visits are only allowed with a guided tour.
  • Piazza Bellini – To be honest, there’s not much that’s special about this little piazza, until you look down through the gaping hole at one end. Those are not ancient Roman ruins (though there are plenty under Naples’ streets) – those are ancient Greek ruins, dating from when the city of Neapolis was founded in the 6th century B.C.E.

2 responses to “What to Do & See in Naples”

  1. Nice summary – there’s SO much to see in Naples! I think people don’t realize how long it’s been a big, important city with its incredible layers of history. Then you put, as you say, “Weird Naples” on top of it all, and it’s quite a cocktail! And once again, we were drawn to the same photo! I chose the contemporary presepio figures photo for my post about nativities:

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