This three-millennia-old metropolis is eternally scrambling to keep its priceless patrimony from crumbling, while at the same time trying to play catch-up with modernity. Grand prix-style traffic, raucous squabbles, urchins’ impromptu football games in dusty, litter-strewn piazze: the sheer, frenetic energy here is astonishing.
There’s no denying that Naples can be unnerving. As Neapolitan wags are prone to tell new arrivals, welcome to the jungle. But they always say it with a broad smile, evoking a sense of what matters most in Neapolitan life: friends, family, good food and an inexhaustible sense of fun. Look beneath the city’s entropic, squalid surface and you’ll discover a dazzlingly rich cultural heritage, with a wealth of galleries and museums alongside architectural and archaeological treasures.
So raggle-taggle and helter-skelter is Naples that any guide to the area inevitably focuses as much, or more, on what lies outside the city. Certainly, as you venture further from the urban stew, the contrast couldn’t be starker. While Naples languishes in the shadow of its reputation, celebrated destinations such as the Amalfi Coast and Capri exert a powerful allure and exude a consummate sense of serenity, drawing multimillionaires and lovers
of beauty from around the world. The islands of Ischia and its tiny neighbour Procida are earthier yet equally charming havens, with a tranquility all of their own.
Then, of course, there are the outlying archaeological sites, at least a dozen of world-class stature. Take your pick, depending on your time constraints: Pompeii, Herculaneum, the Campi Flegrei or Paestum, to head the list. With extra time, you might try the little-visited enclaves to the north of Naples, such as Benevento, whose flawlessly beautiful ancient Roman arch is the most perfectly preserved of them all.
Whether you’re taking an inaugural trip or visiting for the tenth time, staying in the city or exploring the region, there’s plenty here to hold your attention. And don’t be surprised if you fall under the spell of gritty, nefarious, magnetic Naples, as so many of even her most unforgiving detractors ultimately do.
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A more dramatic history than that of Naples is hard to imagine, from the epicentre of classical culture to the terrors of Vesuvius and the brutality of today’s Camorra. The city has been the pleasure-dome of emperors, the jewel in regal crowns and a political football of the unscrupulous, as well as Europe’s most taboo backwater. The centuries have left their mark on Naples’ architecture and art; although much has been lost, untold riches remain.
World-class attractions include the unparalleled magnificence of Naples’ setting (what other city can boast its very own volcano?) and the treasures on display in its stunning museums. Splendid churches and dignified palazzo vie for tourists’ attention; below ground lie ancient, darkly atmospheric catacombs and burial grounds, and the remains of Greco-Roman Neapolis.
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One taste of genuine Neapolitan pizza and you will know that, until now, you’ve been a pizza virgin. La cucina napoletana is justly celebrated, as are its caffè and gelato – to say nothing of such delicacies as babà and limoncello. Shopping mavens, meanwhile, will appreciate the city’s unique artisanal goods and street markets. Accommodation options suit all pockets, from princely palazzi to budget B&Bs.
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Most exciting of all, perhaps, is the city’s dynamic contemporary art scene, with a wealth of private galleries and two ambitious public museums. Naples’ rich opera, Baroque music and theatre traditions stretch back for centuries, although the language barrier can be tricky to negotiate. Nightlife of all kinds is mostly ad lib, and for most recreational activities – aside from a run in the park – you have to get out of town.
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Islands and resorts lie around the Bay of Naples and Campania. Indeed, many visitors bypass Naples altogether in favour of more scenic locales, such as the Sorrentine peninsula or Amalfi Coast; not necessarily a bad decision, especially if time is limited.
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