20 great things to do in Naples

Eat perfect pizza, marvel at 'Seven Acts of Mercy' and adopt a skull

20 great things to do in Naples Teatro San Carlo - © De Agostini Picture Library
By Time Out editors

1. Train your palate with pizza perfection

Naples is the home of pizza. Wherever you are in the city, you’re never far from an oven, crackling wood and the delicious aroma of freshly baked pizza. They take it so seriously that in 2004, the ministry for agriculture issued regulations outlining how a real Neapolitan pizza, pizza verace napoletana, should be made.

Look for the sign outside pizzerie to sample one of the three authentic types: pizza napoletana marinara (San Marzano tomatoes from Vesuvius’ slopes, garlic, oregano and olive oil), pizza napoletana margherita and pizza napoletana margherita DOC (the latter distinguished by its use of buffalo mozzarella).

Many of the best pizze are to be found in inexpensive places with huge queues where you simply cannot book. Don't be deterred: the turnover is often remarkably quick. Try Ettore, renown for their speciality, pagnottielli, rolled pizza dough stuffed with tasty fillings; Di Matteo, one of the few places where ripieno fritto (fried calzone pizzas) is to be recommended; Friggitoria-Pizzaria Giuliano, probably the best pizzette (snack-sized pizza) in town; Sorbillo, the best Sorbillo, for truly excellent dough and the finest topping ingredients; Da Michele, unbelievably cheap; La Cantina di Donna'Elena, where pizzaiola Vincenzo Esposito is a master of his craft, and a bit of a showman.

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2. Adopt a skull

Neapolitans have unique traditions for dealing with their dead, the origins of which have been obscured by time. Although many of the ritual observances – of which the modern Church takes a dim view – are on the wane, some locals still practise rites that to outsiders can seem downright macabre.

The Neapolitan cult of the dead involves caring for the skulls – capuzzelle, in local dialect – and bones of the unknown dead. People ‘adopt’ skulls in the city’s hypogea (underground tombs), bringing the bones gifts, clothes, pillows and flowers, or even building small wooden houses for them. In return, the souls belonging to the skulls are supposed to protect and grant favours to their caretakers. Such rituals were practised for centuries in the catacombs of Santa Maria della Sanità and Cimitero delle Fontanelle, which holds about 40,000 skulls and bones, all in need of some tender loving care; some still endure in Santa Maria del Purgatorio ad Arco and San Pietro ad Aram. Although the Church forbade the worship of non-saintly human remains in 1969, a visit to the hypogeum of the Purgatorio church (open only on Saturday mornings) reveals that such practices live on: a few skulls with their attendant bones are surrounded by flowers, jewellery and ex-votos, giving thanks for boons granted.

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3. Take a view on the Caravaggio years

Although Caravaggio spent less than four years in Naples, he left a rich artistic legacy. Having made his name in Rome in the late 1590s, Caravaggio was as famous for his innovative compositions and extraordinary ability to recreate lifelike detail as for his unconventional behaviour. He fled Rome in 1606 with a price on his head, having killed a thuggish playboy, Ranuccio Tomassoni, in a duel. He ended up in Naples.

Of the works he painted in Naples, three remain in the city. Seven Acts of Mercy, a life-sized, dark and chaotic painting, hangs in the Pio Monte della Misericordia; The Flagellation, in which a shaft of light illuminates Christ’s extraordinarily lifelike form, tormented by a pair of dodgy-looking characters, hangs in the Capodimonte museum; and The Martyrdom of St Ursula, which can be seen in gallery of the main branch of Banca Intesa Sanpaolo on Via Toledo (no.185, www.palazzozevallos.com).

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4. Pompeii & Vesuvius

For history lovers, no trip to Naples would be complete without a trip to Pompeii and Vesuvius. The archaeological sites of the former (especially those involving fleeing figures frozen in volcanic lave), have remained firmly embedded in most people's memories since history class at school, whlle the sight of the latter towering over the bay has always held visitors spellbound.

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5. Horse around with your eyes closed

It is a tradition in Piazza del Plebiscito to close your eyes, with your back to the Palazzo Reale, and try to walk between the two bronze horses. It’s not half as easy as it seems, due to the imperceptible slope of the piazza.

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6. Enter the epicentre of coffee culture

Any gourmand with even a passing knowledge of Italy’s food culture will know that Naples is famous for more than pizza: there’s coffee, too.

Neapolitan coffee is short and very, very strong. News articles have told of unfortunates who drank ten espressi in one day and keeled over dead as a result. The edge is taken off its bitter strength with sugar; if you don’t want your coffee to come already sugared, ask for it amaro – although pre-sugared coffee is no longer the rule in many bars.

Try a brew in one of these critic's choice cafés: Gran Caffè Aragonese for friendly service and daily newspapers; Intramoenia Cafffè Letterario for rubbing shoulders with Naples' hip intellectual coterie on the city's most beautiful piazza; Mexico, for arguably the best espresso in Naples; and Caffè Amadeus, where any message can be inscribed in your cappuccino's foam.

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7. Become an opera devotee

A place of pilgramage for opera devotees, the stately San Carlo remains one of Italy's finest opera houses and the oldest active opera house in Europe. Celebrated composers such as Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini have all served as its director, and many of the world’s greatest operas have seen their debuts here – among them La Donna del Lago, Lucia di Lammermoor and Luisa Miller. A vision of gilded opulence, the regal grandeur of its design, lighting and decoration have enchanted visitors for centuries.

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8. Find love on the Lungomore

The long seafront stroll from Santa Lucia to Mergellina is a classic Sunday promenade. Keep an eye out along the Lungomare (seafront promenade) for clusters of padlocks attached to poles, painted with the names or initials of couples – the modern equivalent of true love knots.

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9. Have a religious experience, or four

Duomo, Naples’ cathedral, dates from the fourth century, when the basilica of Santa Restituta was founded. The Cappella di San Gennaro – the city’s patron saint, or Museo del Tesoro, contains the relics of San Gennaro and a large number of bronze and silver statues of saints. The most famous remains of all are kept in a 14th-century French silver bust and two vials in a strongbox behind the altar. The bust contains Gennaro’s skull; the vials his congealed blood.

Three times a year the blood allegedly liquefies. Vast crowds gather to witness the phenomenon at at the Festa di San Gennaro.

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It was at San Lorenzo Maggiore that 12th Century Italian author Boccaccio fell in love with Fiammetta (the married daughter of King Robert of Naples), who often appears as a character in his romantic works; Petrarch (scholar, poet and one of the earliest Renaissance humanists) stayed in the adjoining convent, which served as the headquarters of the Parthenopean government in 1799. The left-hand transept chapel has two paintings by Caravaggio’s disciple Mattia Preti.

Cappella Sansevero, the funerary chapel of the Di Sangro family was built in 1590. The figures in the crypt are downright macabre. Obsessed with embalming, eccentric prince of Sansevero, Raimondo di Sangro supposedly carried out experiments on defunct domestics, injecting their bodies with chemical substances to preserve them. Local lore has it that they were not always dead when the operations took place. By another account, the figures are only models – though no one can say exactly what they’re made of.

The church and convent of Santa Chiara was built for Robert of Anjou’s wife Sancia in the early 14th century. Its Gothic features were hidden by Baroque restructuring in the mid 18th century, before a direct hit in an air raid in August 1943. The museum has salvaged bits and pieces, including some superb 14th-century friezes and busts, plus an archaeological area revealing a gymnasium and baths from the old Roman city.

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10. Hit the beach party

For Neapolitan clubbers, summer means the sound of the surf mixed with top quality DJs in one of the many nightclubs along the coast.

At Arenile, the closest beach club to the city centre, crowds gather in the evenings to hang around the bar, catch the great sunsets and enjoy live music (BB King and Suzanne Vega have played here, although the focus is generally indie and dance), followed by a disco on the sand. Vibes on the Beach is more about chilling than raving and attracts a slightly older crowd. The bartenders mix superb frozen cocktails, accompanied by a downbeat/nu-jazz soundtrack. The nearby Lido Turistico feels more like a glorified beach bar, where the sea comes almost to the row of tables and chairs. Upping the style ante, Nabilah is the summer version of S’Move. Inviting sofas are arranged around low, white tables with designer candles, surrounding the DJ console. Alternatively, enjoy an aperitivo under the white canopied gazebos at the Sohal Beach Club, a little further along the beach, before dancing the night away.

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11. Tour the underground art scene

Certain stations on the city’s underground system act as a forum for rising artistic talents – yours to peruse for the price of a metro ticket.

The best place to start is Piazza Dante, which features some works by big international names including Joseph Kosuth’s 15 metres (49 feet) long neon rendition of a quotation from Dante’s Il Convivio, entitled Queste cose visibili (‘These visible things’); Jannis Kounellis’s untitled piece in which train tracks bisect the wall, crushing toy trains and abandoned shoes as they go; Michelangelo Pistoletto’s signature mirror pieces: an outline of the Mediterranean sea, Intermediterraneo, and finally, there are Nicola de Maria’s gloriously vibrant mosaics.

For full details of participating stations on lines 1 and 6, see www.metro.na.it.

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12. Slurp your way to gelato heaven

Neapolitans are passionate about ice-cream, so you can expect the best. When it comes to flavours, most gelaterie offer a bewildering array, broken down into crema (creamy) and frutta (fruit) varieties. Some of the most popular include nocciola (hazelnut), stracciatella (plain ice-cream with fragments of crunchy chocolate), the super-sweet zabaglione, made with eggs and Marsala wine and the classic frutta combination fragola e limone (strawberry and lemon).

Then there’s granita di limone, a rough-cut sorbet found at stalls around the city. An even rougher sorbet is la grattata, with ice scraped on demand off a large chunk and doused with flavoured syrup or lemon juice.

The best gelaterie in town is Gay-Odin. Gelato here achieves the perfect balance between creamy and light, with the best chocolate flavours in town.

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13. Master some tarantella moves

Although the tarantella is often seen as a Neapolitan dance, it has its roots further south. Wherever its origins lie, the dance was brought to Naples and formalised in the 17th or 18th century, becoming a dance for couples or groups at the Bourbon court.

The accompanying music is as celebrated as the dance itself. Always in six-eight and four-four time and usually in a minor key, pieces bring to mind flamenco, Arabic and gypsy music. Sung pieces for the tarantella are invariably sad tales of lost or thwarted love, and endless longing for lovers far away over distant seas.

Dancers take alternate steps, moving ever closer – though never quite touching – in time with the ever-increasing speed of the music. Forearms seem to weave shapes around one another while the dancers’ wrists dart back and forth, fingers snap and castanets clack.

Women (and the occasional man) wind long scarves and handkerchiefs suggestively around their partners, or swirl them in time with the melancholy crescendos of the music. Long skirts are obligatory for women – though thankfully, the traditional knickerbockers are no longer de rigueur for men.

The tarantella is still best witnessed in the many small feste di paesi, or local saints’ days, in the small towns that run between the Vesuvius as far north as Caserta and up into the hills around Benevento and Avellino.

14. Brush up on the contemporary art scene

With the opening of two impressive contemporary art museums – the Palazzo delle Arti Napoli (PAN), which describes itself as a 'centre for arts and documentation' has hosted more off-the-wall shows including a selection of Lou Reed's snapshots and Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina Napoli (MADre), which houses site-specific installations by international artists Jeff Koons, Richard Serra and Anish Kapoor – and the increasing international presence of its commercial galleries, Naples has once again emerged as one of the cultural capitals of the world.

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15. Buy into a Neapolitan institution

Family counts for just about everything in Naples – and that translates into traditions and skills that have been passed down through the generations. Few cities can compare with Naples’ consummately talented seamstresses, tailors and leather-workers, and several small enterprises have made their mark on the international fashion scene through their unswerving dedication to quality and impeccable workmanship.

Most famous of all, perhaps, is Marinella. This tiny, elegant boutique, always thronged with customers, has been making ties since 1914. The likes of Prince Charles, Bill Clinton and Aristotle Onassis have all sported the shop’s designs. Another Neapolitan institution, Talarico, is famous for its silk umbrellas, which come complete with a lifelong guarantee. Shirts from Anna Matuozzo bear price tags of around €1,000. The style is staunchly conservative, and adheres to the strictest standards of haute couture. Another Neopolitan classic is Fratelli Tramontano, which has been producing handmade leather goods for well over a century. David Bowie, Neil Jordan and Bono are among its clients.

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16. Stroll through royal Naples

Three stops are critical for any visitor interested in the history of the Napeolitan royalty: Castel Nuovo was built in 1279 by Charles of Angiono, and today houses Naples' museo civico, with Neopolitan artworks spanning the 15th-20th century – don't miss the views from the fortres towers. The numerous apartments at Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) today house a collection of paintings, frescoes, tapestries, chandeliers and furniture from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Designed by Luigi Vanvitelli, Villa Comunale was inaugurated in 1781 as the garedini reali (royal park). There is a magnificent bandstand, built in 1887, and the small-is-beautiful Stazione Zoologica.

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17. Escape the smog

Despite the constant roar of traffic below, and the proximity of the vast, rat-infested remains of the Albergo dei Poveri, the Orto botanico provides a surprising – and welcome – haven of peace in an otherwise overwhelming city.

It now boasts some 9,000 species: palms, aquatic plants, cacti, ferns and shrubs, carefully collected in the last two centuries from all over the world. Labelled and arranged according to type, the plantings include an extensive cactus section, a lush fern grove, and a veritable orchard of every type of citrus.

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18. Dance to a local beat

Alex Colle, one of Naples’ most popular DJs, has had Neapolitans shaking their stuff to some of the best music around. In 2000, Colle became a DJ on Radio Ibiza, Southern Italy’s most popular radio station. Despite being a fixture on the international club circuit, his heart has remained in Naples, where, he says, the audiences are ‘just unparalleled’.

His musical creations are best described as deep minimal and tech house – the kind of music that can pack a dance floor in minutes, and persuade even the most reluctant of dancers to get on their feet. For a taster, visit www.myspace.com/alexcolle.

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19. Sleep in neoclassical splendour

Three hotels capture Italy's neoclassical era perfectly: Excelsior, a Neapolitan landmark, exerts a heavy glamour and has welcomed royals, film stars and jet-setters; Grand Hotel Parker's, a favourite with 19th-century British travellers has been restored to its orginal grandeur – chandeliers, antiques, apintings and staues abound; and Palazzo Decumani, having had its belle époque edifice recently renovated provides another fine example of the period.

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20. Get out of town

Capri, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast all lie within striking distance of Naples. Capri, an area famous for its villas, vistas and VIPs attracts thousands of daytrippers from Naples each day, eager to spend their Euros in the cafés, chichi butiques and souvenir stores, before making the obligitaory visit to the famous Blue Grotto (081 837 0973). It's easy to forgive Capri for being so popular. Glinting waves, merging into an azure sky, lemon groves, bourgainvillea-draped terraces and rocky, heather-strewn slopes exude a wild natural beauty, sending even hardened city dwellers into reveries.

Sorrento is enshrined in myth as the land of the sirens; it was here that Odysseus was enchanted by the mermaids’ beguiling song. The city became a magnet for the grand tourists of the 18th and 19th centuries, and although these days it is sometimes considered slightly passé, it remains understandably popular. A fine base for visiting the area, it has kept its looks, and makes for a welcome escape from chaotic Naples.

The Amalfi's weaving and winding coast road hugs the cliff as tightly as any lover. John Steinbeck described it as ‘carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side’ in a piece he wrote for Harper’s Bazaar in 1953, admitting that ‘in the back seat, my wife and I lay clutched in each other’s arms, weeping hysterically’. Back then, Positano (the title of Steinbeck’s feature) wasn’t much more than a rarely visited hilltop village.

These days, the area’s immense popularity means that traffic generally proceeds at a painfully slow pace. Passengers are more likely to experience awe and wonder than Steinbeck’s terror: it’s no overstatement to say that the Costiera Amalfitana is one of the most beautiful and dramatic stretches of coastline in the world.

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