Face it—Naples is likely not the first destination to come to mind when planning a trip to Italy. I take that back—you may decide to go to Naples, but only as a jumping-off point for Capri or the Amalfi Coast. I mean, grit, grime, and crime are not the best calling cards for tourism.
So imagine my surprise, on a recent trip there, when I discover a dynamic, architecturally and artistically interesting city with enough world-class sights to keep me occupied for days. The city has devoted itself to cleaning up its act over the past decade, and while it retains elements of the old Naples (including the garbage strike that took place during my stay), today’s Naples is well on its way to reclaiming its 2,800-year birthright as one of Italy’s most important centers of art, gastronomy, architecture, and culture. Here’s a sampling of what I mean.
Inside a gorgeous neoclassical palazzo on top of a greenery-draped hill, this artistically rich national museum is notable for two reasons: Its artwork rivals that of the Prado and the Met; and there is hardly anyone there. Entire rooms are devoted to the best of the best—Caravaggio, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Goya, El Greco, Michelangelo, even an Andy Warhol of Mount Vesuvius erupting. Bourbon King Charles VII built the palace in 1738 upon inheriting his mother’s Farnese art collection and needing a place to put it. Well, he created a glorious one.
Possessing a striking mix of paleo-Christian and Christian worship, the most important south of Rome, these recently renovated catacombs are nothing like the scary, dark, dripping-wet ones in Rome or Paris. You’ll see no bones or skulls here—thank goodness! You enter the tufa-stone labyrinth of broad, high-ceilinged passageways and vestibules, where graves carved into the floor and walls date at least as far back as the 2nd century A.D., when Christianity was just emerging. Beautifully preserved frescoes decorate some of the passageways and chapels—I was struck by one portraying a woman in black, interpreted to be a deacon and possible proof that women indeed served in the early church.
Gran Caffè Gambrinus
Italy is famous for its coffee, of course, and one of the best places to celebrate its esteemed heritage is Gambrinus, a café near the Piazza del Plebiscito that’s been beautifully restored in all its palatial, art nouveau glory. Surrounded by Empire-style caryatids and classical columns and large frescoes depicting local outdoor scenes, sip your (pricey) espresso or cappuccino just as artists, writers, and intellectuals once did, that is, until Fascist officials were alerted to the disgruntled political discussions taking place and closed its doors. The café opened again in the 1950s.
Walk behind the Gothic/baroque Santa Chiara church to the tiled cloister of the Clarisses, and you’ll be immersed in a colorful, happy world of majolica columns and benches, effervescent fountains, and flourishing orange trees, grape vines, and wisteria. I strolled around its fresco-adorned, arched ambulatory, serenaded by the otherworldly singing of a young nun, and instantly relaxed in this epitome of baroque peace and quiet in the bustling heart of the centro storico.
The best finds of Pompeii aren’t at Pompeii but here, 15 miles south of Naples, in this fascinating museum founded by Bourbon King Charles VII in the 1750s. Among the Pompeii treasures (as well as those from Herculaneum, Stabiae, and Cuma) are gladiator helmets, ceramics, glassware—and an amazing mosaic, measuring 215 feet square, depicting the earliest known rendition of Alexander the Great.
But perhaps the best thing of all is Naples’s lungomaro, or promenade, that runs along the sparkling Bay of Naples, where I take my daily morning run—among very fit and tanned Neapolitans, no less. Off in the distance, the isle of Capri floats on the horizon, while pastel villas march up the tree-lined peninsula ahead. I run past the Castel dell’Ovo (“Egg Castle”), a medieval fortress said to have been built on a magic egg for protection; fishermen arranging their nets and others purveying their daily catch (including squiggly squids and octopuses); deeply bronzed locals sunbathing on the rocks, a few doing laps in the azure waters. As I’m panting along in the blazing sun, I have no doubt in my mind that this is the place to be.
Barbara A. Noe is a senior editor for National Geographic Books. Read her last post for Intelligent Travel, “Ghosts of Gettysburg.”
Photo: Enrica Picarelli/My Shot