I spent three days in Naples, Italy mainly to see Pompeii and to eat all the food. As far as the city itself was concerned, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Perhaps that’s why I was so pleasantly surprised. Yes, it’s gritty and covered in graffiti, but first impressions can be deceiving. The Neapolitan people are so kind and welcoming that it’s easy to overlook those superficial features.
When I first arrived, I couldn’t find the entrance to my hotel so I popped into a café to see if anyone could help. A guy behind the counter immediately ran out and pointed me in the right direction. (Turns out, the entrance was up a staircase at the back of a sporting goods store. I would not have found it without him.) Everyone I encountered in Naples, from ticket sellers to wait staff, were just as friendly. And the Neapolitan cuisine is as delicious as I dreamed it would be. It didn’t hurt that there was a stellar gelato stand next to my hotel.
There’s a ton of things to do in Naples, so you’ll need a few days to make the most of the experience. This is especially true if you plan to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum like I did. The following itinerary shows you how to spend three days in Naples. But knowing what I know now, I would definitely stay longer!
Naples Day 1: Explore the Old Town
Founded by the Greeks in 470 BC, Naples is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe. Romans, Byzantines, Aragonese, and Bourbons all left their mark. The resulting cultural mishmash is most noticeable in the architecture, with medieval castles rubbing shoulders with Gothic churches and Baroque palaces. It is so unique that the historic center of Naples is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In addition to the major sights listed below, the area is great for souvenir shopping so allow plenty of time for browsing. Note that the red chili peppers you see everywhere actually represent the hat of Pulcinella, Naples’ mascot gnome. Don’t ask me why. If you need a new nativity set, head to Christmas Street which has them stocked year round.
If you visit only one attraction in the historic center, it should be the Naples Cathedral. Every centimeter is elaborately decorated, from the frescoed ceilings to the inlaid marble floor of the crypt.
The Chapel of San Gennaro is especially stunning. You’ll need to buy a €10 ticket to enter the treasury, but it is well worth it. The Museum of the Treasure of San Gennaro holds one of the most valuable jewelry collections in the world. It’s said to be on par with the British crown jewels! An 18th-century bishops hat encrusted with emeralds, rubies, and over 3,000 diamonds is the star of the show. It’s accompanied by a matching necklace, golden chalices, bejeweled crosses, and a large number of solid silver statues.
Don’t miss the Basilica of Saint Restituta on the opposite side of the cathedral. Here you’ll find gilded 4th-century mosaics and the oldest baptistry in Western Europe.
Santa Chiara Monastery
This Franciscan monastic complex was constructed in the early 14th century by the reigning king of Naples. The cloister was given a Renaissance makeover in the 1700s, its façade painted with pastel scenes of the Old Testament. Its central courtyard is filled with lines of pillars and benches that are covered with beautiful majolica tiles.
The attached basilica was heavily restored after being nearly destroyed by bombs during WWII. Artifacts salvaged from the original church are displayed in a small museum. The complex includes an archeological dig site of a Roman bath dating to the 1st century. There is also a very nice gift shop. Click here for ticket prices and opening times.
Another top attraction in Naples is Cappella Sansevero, but I never made it inside. If I had, I would have seen the Veiled Christ which is considered one of the finest sculptures in the world. The marble masterpiece has pride of place in the Sansevero family’s private chapel, itself a work of art. If you want to visit and not waste a whole day waiting in line, buying tickets online is a must.
Dinner: Gino Sorbillo Pizzeria
Pizza was reportedly created in Naples in the 1700s, so of course that’s what I had to eat first. And Gino Sorbillo Pizzeria is considered by many to serve the very best. Sorbillo’s grandparents opened the pizzeria in the historic center in 1935. It was taken over by Gino and his brother Toto who perfected their craft using local organic ingredients.
Gino has been recognized as a pizza master by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and has been featured on several US cooking shows. Thus, word has definitely gotten out. I showed up right when the doors opened at 7pm and was seated right a way, but there was a long queue when I left. The surrounding bars have capitalized on this and serve drinks to the waiting crowd.
Drinks: Libreria Berisio
I left the throngs behind to enjoy a nightcap in a much cozier spot. A used bookstore by day, Libreria Berisio turns into a cocktail bar once the sun goes down. With sultry red lighting, good jazz on the sound system, and the smell of old books, the atmosphere is as intoxicating as the drinks. But don’t knock back too many as we’ve got an early start in the morning.
Naples Day 2: Pompeii Excursion
The ruins of Pompeii are located a mere 25 kilometers from Naples and are a major reason people visit the city, myself included. You can sign up for a pre-packaged tour, but it’s pretty easy to get there on your own. I took a train direct from Montesanto station in downtown Naples, and less than an hour later I was walking through the remains of a 2,000-year-old city. Allow several hours to explore the sprawling ruins, which include restaurants, villas, an amphitheater, and the infamous brothel.
Pompeii is remarkably well preserved given its catastrophic history. After being buried beneath several meters of volcanic ash and pumice stones, the city was all but forgotten. There are signs of some looting early on, but the ruins were left largely undisturbed until excavations began in the 18th century. Note that most things of value were moved to the Naples Archeological Museum for safekeeping. (You’ll be visiting that on day three of this itinerary, below.)
Once back in Naples, stroll down Via Toledo towards the bay. The architectural mix in this part of the city is especially striking. Be sure to pop in Galleria Umberto I, a large shopping arcade topped with a ribbed glass dome. It dates to the late 1880s and is named for the king at the time of construction, Umberto I.
A few blocks away sits the imposing Castle Nuovo, a medieval fortification erected in 1279. This served as the main seat for various royal rulers until the Bourbons built themselves a fancy new residence next door. The Royal Palace of Naples, which has been partially restored and turned into a museum, faces Piazza del Plebiscito, the city’s main square.
Dinner: Osteria il Gobbetto
Head to Osteria il Gobbetto to dig into the Neapolitan cuisine. The waiter suggested we start with the appetizer sampler and we had a good laugh over the amount of food that soon landed on the table. We also devoured every morsel. Memorable bites included the bruschetta, meatballs, and a flavorful bean soup. For the main course, you can’t go wrong with gnocchi, the house specialty, or pasta with clams. Reservations are recommended.
Naples Day 3: Herculaneum Excursion
Naples Archeological Museum
Many of the treasures unearthed in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum now reside in the Naples Archeological Museum. Fully intact mosaics and wall panels, delicate gold jewelry and glass vessels, bronze busts, and a horde of silver tableware are just a few of the items on display. It’s unbelievable how much survived the eruption.
Erotic frescos and other objects found in Pompeii’s lupanare (brothel) are tucked away in a so-called “Secret Room.” The content is considered so scandalous that it’s only been on public view since 2,000. Fair warning: the image of a man getting frisky with a goat can never be unseen. Honestly, I’m surprised religious leaders didn’t have that particular statue destroyed.
The museum was created in the 1700s by the Bourbon kings, who also funded the excavations. They added their own Farnese collection of colossal marble sculptures to fill out the space.
Hop on a Salerno-bound train at the Museum station and get off at Ercolano. Here you can tour the extraordinary ruins of Herculaneum, a seaside resort for wealthy Romans. Unlike Pompeii, which was covered in ash and pumice, Herculaneum was completely submerged beneath a sea of magma some 16 meters deep. This fossilized the buildings like insects in amber.
Strolling along the streets of Herculaneum today, you won’t believe how well it’s been preserved. Wood beams and furnishings were carbonized, retaining their shape. Upper floors of the grand villas remain relatively intact, with staircases to reach them. Most impressive of all, though, are the vibrant hues of the mosaics and frescoes, which weren’t sanded down by corrosive material. Pompeii gets all of the fame and glory, but Herculaneum is where you should go if you want a glimpse of ancient Roman life.
Dinner: La Locanda Gesu Vecchio
For your final meal in Naples, reserve a table at La Locanda Gesu Vecchio in the historic center. This charming restaurant serves up top-notch versions of Neapolitan classics. I asked my waitress which dish was the most popular, and she steered me towards the ziti alla genovese. The al dente pasta was topped with a flavorful ragu of onions, carrots, celery, and ground beef and is a specialty of the region. Highly recommend!
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Want to check out another hidden gem Italian city? Check out my guide to Padua!
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