Exploring the cuisine and culture… of Naples
Naples, the capital of Italy’s Campania region, is often overlooked as a city as people head straight from the airport to the spectacular coastline and islands. The traffic is notoriously bad – some of the driving even worse – and as the city is fairly spread out, it’s difficult to cover a lot in a short amount of time. But, with a guide and driver, you can discover the city’s main highlights as well as pick up useful tips from a Neapolitan for where to eat and what to see and do.
What to do
The narrow streets of the historic centre are a Unesco-designated world heritage site, with plenty of churches, shops and restaurants to catch your eye. We discovered a courtyard where the craftsmen specialised in making nativity houses that each home will display at Christmas. The scenes – presepi – are more than just the figures around a manger and instead a traditional village can be recreated, with pizzerias, markets, water features and lighting. Modern day figures are commonly added too; you’ll see Maradona and Elvis for sale standing alongside the Royal Family, President Putin and Kim Jong-Un. Via San Gregorio Armeno can be visited any time of the year, but to see the best displays of the presepi – and when they are being made – visit in September and October.
A good place to start for a cultural fix is the archaeological museum. You’ll find the original objects from Pompeii and Herculaneum as well as one of the best collections of Graeco-Roman artefacts. The mezzanine floor also has a superb collection of mosaics most of which are from Pompeii. Just opposite is one of the city’s beautiful galleria’s. Although the shops are currently derelict, its grandeur can still be appreciated and is often used for film sets. The Palazzo Reale showcases an eclectic collection of porcelain, tapestries, paintings and sculptures in the royal apartments. Another stop to make is the city’s cathedral. There are fourth-century mosaics in the baptistery, a fine fresco by Giovanni Lanfranco in the Capella di San Genaro and other exquisite paintings. For art enthusiasts, there are many galleries and churches – and even metro stations – that can be visited showcasing Italian art across all ages. Universita and Toledo stations have some of the most impressive contemporary installations.
Surrounded by mountains, the many hills provide excellent natural viewpoints across the city and bay. Castel Sant’Elmo, a medieval fortress overlooking the city, is worth a look inside and the views from the piazza in front of it are among Naples’ best. During the summer months, wait until the afternoon to allow for the city’s haze to lift and give a clear view of Vesuvius.
One of the best ways to really experience Naples is just to wander. There’s life around every corner giving a taste of a real Italian city.
Where to stay
We stayed at the Grand Hotel Santa Lucia on the waterfront overlooking the 12th-century Castell dell’Ovo – Egg Castle. The pedestrian-only promenade, lined with bars and restaurants, is the perfect spot for an evening stroll. The hotel has very comfortable rooms but upgrade to a sea-view room with a balcony or you’ll be stuck with an inner courtyard and inevitably a view of washing hanging out of windows to dry.
Grand Hotel Santa Lucia
What to eat – and where
Naples is the home of the Margherita pizza and people will congregate outside hole-in-the-wall pizzerias and queue up for a slice of the finest. For one of the city’s best pizzas – that you don’t have to wait outside for and eat while you walk – head to Lombardy near the archaeological museum. Popular with locals and tourists alike, the selection and quality of pizzas is second to none.
La Masardona is another stop worthy of a visit. The family-run restaurant has been perfecting just one thing since 1945: deep-fried pizza. Whilst there are different flavour combinations on the menu, the signature recipe includes ricotta, fatty pork, provola cheese and tomato. Until recently you had to perch on bar tables outside, but a restaurant has opened next door. If you just want to try it, there are half pizzas available and the latest addition to the menu is deep fried pizza dough with chocolate sauce drizzled over.
If you have a sweet tooth, sfogliatelle – egg-custard filled pastries – are as much a Naples institution as a Margherita. Neopolitans favour Sfogliatelle Calde Fratelli Attanasio for their morning sweet treat.
For a coffee break during your sightseeing, try Gran Caffe Gambrinus on the edge of Piazza Plebiscito and near to the royal palace. Originally opened in 1890, the cafe was once the meeting point of the city’s nobility, politicians, journalists and artists. Today it is renowned for serving one of the best cups of coffee in Naples. You can either perch at the bar for a quick espresso, or sit for longer in one of the grand art nouveau drawing rooms lined with fine art and statues: try and get a window seat in one of the bays overlooking the bustling piazza.
Outside the city
Sant’Agata de Goti
35km inland from Naples, Sant’Agata certainly knows how to make an impression. The old town, which dates back to medieval times, is perched on top of a sheer rock face above a river gorge. As you cross the bridge from the new town and wander the town’s narrow cobbled streets to explore tiny piazzas, pretty shops and restaurants, you really do get the feeling of stepping back in time.
Sant’Agata de Goti
The 13th-century Santissima Annunziata church has some well-preserved frescoes including one behind the main door, which depicts who will have eternal life. Noblemen and women, the clergy and kings all fared well. Lawyers, judges, bankers, millers and tailors were less fortunate. Palazzo Mustilli is an 18th-century palace built above a wine cellar that dates to the 14th century. Still owned and run by the Mustilli family, they offer wine tasting and cookery lessons.
The Royal Palace of Caserta is one of the largest royal palaces in the world. Designed by Luigi Vanvitelli in the 18th century, the palace was the centrepiece of a new city. 36km north of Naples, it isn’t often included on a visit to the city. Inspired by the Palace of Versailles, the impressive palace has five floors, 1,200 rooms and 24 state apartments.
The Royal Palace of Caserta’s gardens
The vast gardens extend for as far as the eye can see and are famous for their beautiful fountains and cascades, which rival Peterhof outside St Petersburg. The English Garden is an interesting contrast to the rest of the formal and structured Italian-style gardens as its relatively wild and more freely growing. It was considered a botanical garden for the wealth of plant varieties on display and the gardener had his own house – the English Mansion – where he lived and also created rare hybrids. Close by is the Vanvitelli Aqueduct, which was built to feed the palace’s gardens and fountains, surrounding farms and the cities of Caserta and Naples. It’s hard to appreciate the sheer magnitude of the aqueduct, which in total measures 38km although much is buried, but it’s quite a sight, with a main road passing right underneath the 529-metre-long bridge.
Discover the city of Naples and its surroundings on Cox & Kings’ new Italy: The Culture & Cucina of Campania private tour.