Italy was on my “places we will travel” list since the moment I started it. However, we debated which Italian cities we would visit first. It was important for us to visit the graves of two family members in the American Cemetery near Rome, so Rome seemed like an obvious choice. (It being the capital city, ancient, and full of historical significance helped, too.) Since my husband also wanted to follow the path of his grandfather’s WWII flight logs in areas south of Rome, we decided we should start our trip in Naples and end in Rome, with a road trip in between and some day trips along the way.
We flew to Naples and rented a car for the entire trip. We tried not to drive in the cities too much because driving in Naples and Rome is crazy, but having the car came in handy for the day trips and road trip we took. Otherwise, we did a lot of walking and made use of trains and metro. I give all driving credit to my husband. He handled the chaos and stress well.
While I don’t recommend driving in Naples or Rome, if you must do it, be ready to be fluid, flexible, and calm under pressure. It will come in handy while navigating ever-changing lanes and dodging other cars (some parked, some moving), scooters, motorcycles, and pedestrians! In Naples, people park wherever they want, be it sidewalks, curbs, or open traffic lanes. Seemingly, it’s all good if you just put your hazards on!
Naples has a reputation for being a bit seedy or gritty. In one of Rick Steves’ videos about Italy, he says that Naples is “Italy in the extreme” because Italy’s Italianess “intensifies” the further south you go. He describes Naples’ “loveable chaos” which may not be loveable to everyone. Of course we opted to start here. Why not go all in?
I totally understand Steves’ description and I LOVED Naples! Apparently, I have a thing for scrappy, rougher around the edges cities. I prefer our tobacco-stained hometown of Durham, North Carolina to its clean-cut, preppy neighbor, Chapel Hill. I prefer our realistic, lived-in current home of Gent to the nearby, fairy-tale quaint tourist favorite, Brugge. While I don’t dislike the more refined cities, I just feel more comfortable in the more down-to-earth ones. Naples is crowded and impassioned and imperfect, and was a perfect introduction for me to Italy.
What We Did
We spent most of our time in the Chiaia area where our hotel was, in the Centro Storico (Old Town) area, or in the Quartieri Spagnoli area in between the first two. The Chiaia area was a bit calmer than the Centro Storico. It was also home to more upscale shops. Chiaia was where I noticed many beautiful, sophisticated, impeccably dressed Italian women, giving my self-esteem a bit of a gut punch.
Walking the Streets of Naples
I loved walking around Naples, especially in the Centro Storico. It is densely populated. The streets are narrow. The buildings rise above on both sides. Laundry hangs drying from almost every balcony. The sun rarely reaches the ground level, though you can see it shining above (posing an annoying lighting challenge for photography).
Houses at the ground level are called bassi (singular is basso). Their doors were usually open and their inhabitants were often hanging their heads out windows or sitting in the street.
Daily life was in full swing and it felt intrusive walking through it, but at the same time, no one seemed to notice or care that we were passing through.
Many frontages and corners were decorated with religious monuments and personal memorials.
Death announcements, large white posters with black text, were hung on busy streets.
On the busier streets with businesses, it was clear that tourists abounded, but locals were just as prevalent, having loud conversations (arguments?), their hands saying as much as their voices. It was an energizing sensory overload.
Here’s a video I took while walking around. All of a sudden, this man started singing from his balcony. I am sure he would accept tips via a hanging bucket, a common method for transporting small items up several floors onto balconies.
Many streets are filled with shops, cafes, restaurants, and gelaterias. Two big shopping streets we enjoyed were the Via San Gregorio Armeno and the Via dei Tribunali. Via San Gregorio Armeno is known for its sales of Christmas nativities, ornaments, and other figurines.
On the Via dei Tribunali, we enjoyed finding a statue of Pulcinella, a popular character from Neapolitan puppetry and Italian theater. His mask with its long nose is a popular symbol in Naples, as is the red pepper which is believed to ward away evil. Anywhere you looked, you could buy figures or ornaments with these symbols.
In between shopping, we visited the Napoli Sotterranea. This is a series of caves and tunnels (2 million square meters!) dug underground, some of which date back 5,000 years. These were dug by the Romans who used the stone to create the city walls. Later, the spaces underground were used for cemeteries, cisterns, and more. The caves were closed in 1884 due to a cholera outbreak and digging stopped around that time. Some also became closed off having been filled by waste.
During World War II, the caves were used as air raid shelters. Some caves and tunnels are now being rediscovered through archaeological preservation. We took the guided tour though some of the caves. One part of the tour went through a particularly narrow passageway that required (battery operated) candle lighting and a lot of gut-sucking-in.
Additionally, this tour took us to remains of one section of a Greco-Roman Theater that operated from the 4th Century BC to 2nd Century AD, where Nero often performed.
The Napoli Sotterranea is just one of many series of tunnels and caves below the city. It amazes me to think that this huge, densely populated, bustling city is sitting on top of all these tunnels and caves. Never mind the fact that they are all right next to a dormant volcano. Also fascinating is that the tours of these locations start in shop fronts and homes. The entrance to the theater is in a basso that is now owned by the tour company, through a trap door under where the previous owner kept her bed. But most of the homes nearby are still privately owned. They are sitting on top of and adjacent to centuries old archaeological sites, likely covering access to all sorts of history. The tour ended in a room with a huge display of Neapolitan Nativity cribs. These apparently reached their peak of popular use in the 18th Century but are still clearly a popular item for tourists to buy.
After the tour of Napoli Sotterranea, we were drawn into the nearby Limoné, a limoncello distillery and store for a variety of lemon-based products. Limoncello is a popular liqueur in the region, suggested as an after-dinner disgestiv. We didn’t realize it at the time, but you can tour the distillery here. We only shopped!
The man working in the shop was very friendly and talkative – either very nice, or a very good salesman, or both. We sampled their Limoncello and Limoncello con Crema before buying some to take home, along with lemon candy, lemon cookies, and limoncello soaked babà (a Neapolitan cake).
Piazza del Gesu Nuovo
Gulf of Naples
Our hotel was close to the Gulf of Naples, so we walked down to the waterside a couple of times. We passed through a city park that looked to have some nice areas and activities during the day, but was more closed off in the evenings.
This area, along the Via Francesco Caracciolo, was a popular tourist hangout that got more and more lively as the night went on. We didn’t stay late. Just long enough to take in the views of Ovo Castle, Mount Vesuvius, and the sunset.
We took a day to visit Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. Because Pompeii is a city and a destination in its own right, and because I have so many pictures of it to share, I wrote an entirely separate post about our visit there. Here’s the link to that post!
In addition to seeing Pompeii, we visited Mount Vesuvius, the source of Pompeii’s demise. My son was really excited to see a real volcano.
It is relatively easy to get to Vesuvius from Pompeii. The EAV bus departs from the Piazza Anfiteatro in Pompeii every 50 minutes from 8:00 to 15:30. It takes you to a drop off point from which you walk a bit further to reach the ticketed entrance to the summit. We planned to take this bus, but as we waited at the bus stop, we were approached by a ticket agent from a local tour group that convinced us to buy tickets with them that included summit entrance tickets, a drive up to a closer entrance point, and a quicker schedule. It cost a little bit more, and we knew it was potentially dodgy, but we went for it because a quicker journey was appealing. It worked out fine for us, but some fellow travelers on the same van were sold a different package that didn’t included summit entrance tickets which became an issue at the top. All that is to say, be wary and careful of the private tour companies, and get explicit information up front about what you are buying and what is included.
Sadly, our visit to the summit of Mount Vesuvius was disappointing due to the weather. It was a beautiful day at sea level, but the summit was under heavy cloud cover and fog. (This seems to be a trend for us, as it also happened at Mont Ventoux in France!) We had very low visibility and had to use our imagination. Still, we are glad we went and can say we’ve been on top of a real volcano!
What We Ate
I cannot talk about a trip to Italy without discussing food. Breakfast was included in our hotel package, so we ate all our breakfasts there. Fortunately, they had a regional breakfast specialty there I wanted to try, sfogliatelle, a ricotta filled pastry.
Some of our favorite food in Italy was street food we bought to snack on while walking around. My husband and son loved trying different kinds of tarallini, crackers that are like little round breadsticks and can be baked with sweet or savory toppings or glazes. We found them in local markets and specialty shops. My favorite snack was fried mozzarella balls and rice balls from a snack stand, Il Cuoppo Friggitori Napoletani.
We had a quick, unremarkable lunch one day at Caffe Letterario near Napoli Sotterranea, I can’t find a web link for them, but that’s not really a loss. It is one of many cafés available.
Our first dinner in Naples was at Pizzeria Mattozzi (Via Gaetano Filangeri 16). There is at least one other place in Naples with a similar name, hence me clarifying the address! It was a perfect introduction to Naples and Italy. We tried traditional pizza and pizza fritta, a fried pizza specialty. The pizza fritta was interesting, but the traditional pizza was better. We finished the meal with our first try of limoncello.
We enjoyed another dinner at Triclinium, a small restaurant/café that had a counter full of pre-made dishes to choose from. They have dine-in and carry-out options. It felt like going to a pot-luck at someone’s house, in a good way. We chose a baked rice dish and a lemon chicken dish, both delicious.
Now, dessert. We ate gelato every single night we were in Italy and I am not even sorry about it. As they say … when in Rome! I recently read this Bon Appetit article, “The Gelato Flavor to Measure All Gelato Shops By”, and wish I had this information before our trip. I did not try al fior di latte anywhere, but if we visit Italy again, I will.
We tried Il Gelatiere, Il Gelato Mennella, and our favorite in Naples, Casa Infante. I totally busted the staff there for laughing at my husband for something, I have no idea what, probably something super American, but I forgive them because their gelato was delicious.
Where We Stayed
We stayed at the Hotel Exe Majestic. It was in a good location in the Chiaia district, close to the Gulf. The hotel was clean and provided good service. We had an awesome view from our room of the city and Mount Vesuvius. I would stay there again based on quality and service, though I might prefer to be closer to the Old Town.
What We Missed
I am not too stressed about having missed things in Naples. What I loved most about this city was its street life, so just being there and walking through it and taking it all in was fun for me. That said, here are a few things I had noted that were of interest, but we didn’t visit.
I am sure the National Archeological Museum is full of interesting things!
Like the Napoli Sotterranea, there are more tunnel systems to see including the Cappella Sansevero arterial systems and Galleria Borbonica tunnels.
I mentioned that we tried to go into the Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo, but it was closed. We also missed the Duomo.
Naples is an animated, genuine city. All the stereotypes of Italians I can imagine were alive and real in Naples and I thought it was fabulous. Some travelers think it isn’t fancy or classy enough, but for me, it was a fun introduction to Italy. From Naples, we headed to Rome, via this road trip.