This is my intensive one-day walking tour of Naples. It gives you the flavor of the city, the third largest in Italy, and perhaps the last city in Europe that feels like old Europe. The tour takes you to both the old and picturesque historic center of the city, with its narrow streets, airy piazzas, and spectacular Baroque churches – Spaccanapoli – then through the modern commercial center, taking in some of it historic landmarks, too, and eventually it gets you to the chic residential and shopping district, where you can sit in exhaustion at one of the city’s most elegant cafes. Along the way I suggest places and things to eat.
One day is hardly enough for Naples, however. It would be a sin to leave without going to the Archaelogical Museum, one of the most important in the world. You may want to choose to do that instead of the after-lunch segment of my walk. In that case, if you only want an hour or two in the museum, head directly to the Farnese sculptures, among them the Hercules from the ancient Roman Baths of Caracala, then see the mosaics from Pompeii and Herculaneum, and wind up with a quick walk through the “Secret Room,” the Camera Segreta, with its displays of ancient Roman erotica. (‘Nothing but a bunch of clay dildos,” said an 80-something woman I once guided through.)
On a second day in Naples, I would definitely recommend the Capodimonte museum, with the Farnese Renaissance painting collection, among other exquisite things, including gold and silver from the Borbone royal court. The museum is, in fact, in a former Borbone royal palace, and it is set in a park at the top of the city – hence Capo (head or top) di (of) Monte (mountain). It is from this palace that Capodimonte porcelain gets its name. But Naples’ porcelain museum, with, in truth more Meissen than Capodimonte, is in another park at the top of another hill, Villa Floridiana in Vomero.
Vomero is a 19th and 20th century community on a high hill. It is mainly middle class residential and shopping, with the good restaurants, gelaterias, cafes, etc., that a middle class community would have, but it also has San Martino, a former monastery now museum with many wonderful things, including antique nativity figures, and a splendid view of the city and Gulf of Naples. The medieval fortress of Castel Sant’ Elmo is also in Vomero, next to San Martin. Illuminated at night, Castel Sant’ Elmo, is a symbol of the city but, frankly, not much to see up close – unless you’ve never been to a medieval fort before or are fascinated by them.
HERE’S THE TOUR:
When I do this with my groups, we start at the Duomo because Via Duomo is, for Naples, a wide street, and our bus is allowed to stop and leave us off, which is not the case in some other central areas.
The Duomo, which is the seat of the city’s Archbishop, is where the Miracle of San Gennaro takes place; where San Gennaro’s blood liquefies, or not, several times a year, most notably on Sept. 19, when the Feast of San Gennaro is celebrated in New York’s Little Italy. In New York it is more about the feast. In Naples it is all about the miracle.
The cathedral itself is not Naples’ most awesome (I think that would be San Domenico Maggiore, to be seen later), but the side chapel of San Gennaro is splendid, and there is a small museum next door where the “Treasures” of San Gennaro are displayed. If you love silver and gold, take a look. It doesn’t take much time, just a few too many euros.
Leave the Duomo. One long block down from the Duomo, crossing Via Duomo, is Via dei Tribunali (aka Via Tribunali).
Make a left on Tribunali and walk about one block to Pio Monte della Misericordia, on the right, opposite a piazza with one of Naples famous guglia, the Baroque decorative street monuments. In the chapel, there is a major Caravaggio – the Seven Acts of Mercy. It is not to be missed. Use a good guide book to explain it, and Pio Monte della Misericordia, a 500-year-old charitable organization. The chapel, by the way, has free entry. There is a door on the street, under a loggia, leading directly into it. Do not use the door to the upstairs museum at the end of the building. You pay for the museum, and it is something wonderful to see, but you don’t have time.
After Pio Monte della Misericordia, walk back to Via Duomo, cross to the other side of the street and continue down Via Tribunali. You are now in Spaccanapoli, the oldest quarter of the city, with a street grid organized by the Greeks in something like the early 5th century BCE. It is a short distance (one block?) to Il Pizzaiolo del Presidente, an off-shoot of Di Matteo on the next block. Bill Clinton ate his Neapolitan pizza at Di Matteo when he was here in the mid ‘90s, so when the two owner-brothers who owned Di Matteo recently feuded, the pizza-maker brother opened his own place and called it Presidente. Somehow, Matteo is much better. I don’t care for the pizza at Presidente. Don’t eat pizza here, but do have a snack of the fried stuff – rice balls, potato croquettes, fried pizza and, my favorite, breadcrumbed and fried squares of pasta in béchamel with bits of ham and cheese, tortino di pasta, which you can order and eat on the street, as you will see. Don’t waste time by taking a table. If you must eat pizza at this early point in the day, try Di Matteo.
To digress slightly, my favorite pizzeria on Tribunali is “Sorbillo Esterina” dal 1935, but it is way at the other end of the street, at number 35, a long way from where you are. It is also tiny and, I believe, it doesn’t open until 5 or 6. (Be warned, there is another Sorbillo just doors away. It’s okay, but specializes in fried pizza.) I also have a soft spot for Lombardi Santa Chiara, which you will encounter later in the walk, and is definitely open for lunch, and it the most comfortable pizzeria of the several on Tribunali. You can eat only pizza at Sorbillo. At Lombardi, there’s a fuller menu, but pizza is the thing. I have often ordered other things – vegetable or fried antipasti, some pasta. Sometimes they are good, sometimes disappointing. But I love the staff, who knows me, and the pizza is excellent, so is the air-conditioning in summer (and they are open in August), and the rooms are nicer than most pizzerias, not that that counts as much as the air-conditioning.
Back to the walk:
Next, walk down Via Tribunali to Via San Gregorio Armeno, and turn left. This is a street lined with workshops that make, and stores that sell the figures that are used for Christmas nativity scenes. In Naples, where such scenes were first created in the early 18th century, they are called presepi (presepe is singular) and the craft is often an art. You will see some fine workshops, with men at work, even though what you see on the street seems kitschy. Still, I think the souvenirs you can find on this street are better than in most places. In particular, for a nice cheap item you can take home in quantity – they are light -- look for papier-mâché Pulcinella masks.
The street Via San Gregorio Armeno is named for the church of San Gregorio Armeno, which is attached to a convent. Unfortunately, it closes at noon, unless it doesn’t close at noon. This being Italy, there is little consistency, but lately it is closed at noon. You might have to rush to get here in time. It is, however, worth seeing, all gilded wood with heavy Baroque carving. It has, near the front on the right, one of those rotating windows from which the nuns used to sell their baked goods. It also has a cloister with a fabulous fountain.
At the end of Via San Gregorio Armeno, you will find the other main artery of Spaccanapoli, San Biagio dei Librai, which runs parallel to Via Tribunali.
Make a right on San Biagio to Via Nilo. At Via Nilo make a right, then a left on a small street called Via Sangro to the Capella Sansevero (there should be a sign on the street), what used to be the private chapel of a totally weird, rich, 18th century Neapolitan noble. It is totally over-the-top with amazing Baroque marble sculptures, including the famous “veiled Christ.” For the really weird stuff, evidence of his Frankensteinish experiments, go to the basement.
After the Capello Sansevero, make a right out of the chapel door, then a left on Vico San Domenico Maggiore. You will end up in the Piazza San Domenico Maggiore. Most importantly, here is, besides two good book stores, another guglia (a Baroque decorative tower), and the church of the same name as the piazza, Scaturchio, the pastry shop and café-bar that reputedly has the best sfogliatella in Naples, a city where the pastry was invented, and maybe the best pastiera. The baba ain’t shabby either.
There is no seating inside, but there is waiter-service at tables under umbrellas outside in the piazza. I love the pastries here. Everything is top-notch. But I wouldn’t swear that this is the best sfogliatelle. I have them elsewhere as good, maybe even an edge better. By any standards, these are terrific. It’s not important if they are the absolute best. There are two kinds, the kind Americans know – ricce, with a crisp crust, and frolla, with a soft pastry. By the way, they are always kept warm, and as they are mainly a morning pastry, they are often gone or not worth eating in the afternoon. As someone with more a salt tooth than a sweet tooth, I always get a tortino di pasta, fried pasta squares with ham and béchamel, instead of pastry. They are great here, even better than at Presidente.
After Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, continue on Via San Biagio dei Librai, which has now changed its name to Via Benedetto Croce. At Via Santa Chiara, make a left and walk down about a half a block to the entrance (through a wall, into a courtyard) to the cathedral and cloister of Santa Chiara. On the corner, however, note the Gay Odin chocolate and gelato shop. The chocolate gelato is fabulous. The rest is just good – the chocolate is of the unforgiving Italian dark and hard kind, although the chocolate comes in bars wrapped in beautifully printed paper sleeves of antique design, it is formed into the shape of Mt. Vesuvius, and it can be packaged in gorgeous boxes – so it makes good gifts.
The Cloister of Santa Chiara has benches and columns made of majolica – yes, ceramic. It was restored recently – and, in fact, there was more work being done when I was here last fall – and it is a restful, beautiful place to spend some time after the hectic morning. Around the cloister, on the walls of the building, are frescos depicting scenes from the lives of the saints, which are not in such good condition but worth seeing. And in a side room as you walk into the cloister you’ll find a fine antique presepe (nativity scene) on permanent exhibit. If it is not Christmas, this may be the only one that you will see, although there is another permanent presepe in the Royal Palace (later on this tour). By the way Neapolitan nativity scenes are more genre art than religious art. It is sometimes hard to find the holy family for all the hams and salamis, peasants and craftsman that are depicted in a presepe.
Now, walk back up to Benedetto Croce (the corner with Gay Odin) and continue on to the next piazza, Piazza del Gesù Nuovo. The church of the same name, the one with the rusticated façade, is my favorite – over-the-top Baroque.
Next is lunch. You can walk from here to Europeo di Mattozzi, 34 Via Campodisola, my strong recommendation, but it is a bit of a trek. At the edge of Piazza del Gesù Nuovo is a main thoroughfare, Via Toledo (also called Via Roma), and you should be able to find a cab there.
After lunch, we like to take our groups to the Royal Palace, with room after room of royal “stuff.” It is a decorative arts museum. You can walk from Mattozzi (sorry, you’ll have to use a map for this, or ask in the restaurant for the way to go) to the main commercial and historic hub of the city, Piazza Trieste e Trentino. On the way, walk by another historic landmark, Castel Nuovo, locally called Maschio Angioino, which is now essentially the city hall. It is a 13th century castle with a grand Renaissance-era entrance. You can tour the inside, which is worth doing, but you don’t really have time and the outside is the main event.
When you get to Piazza Trieste e Trentino, you’ll find several historic sites. The Royal Palace is there, and it is across the street from the Galleria, the first indoor shopping mall – from the late 19th century. The clothing stores that mainly fill it are not great, or are too expensive – although you can get a mediocre gelato or pastry (baba stuffed with pastry cream is THE thing). The main interest is the building itself. Go inside.
Upstairs in the Galleria building, however, is the best coral shop this side of Japan. Ascione is the name. You need to have an appointment to get in. Aside from retail jewelry, they have a museum of coral work – pieces done for royalty or made as art for exhibition only. If you are lucky, one of the Ascione brothers, both of whom speak English (well, enough), take you around and explain how coral is fished and worked. Very interesting. Unbelievable stuff.
San Carlo opera house is at one end of the Palace, and across from the Galleria. You can get a tour – sometimes. It’s the oldest and largest opera theater in Italy.
Also on this main piazza – Piazza Trieste e Trentino – is Gambrinus, the chic, historic café. Here is where the city’s powers gather, and shoppers, as you are at the beginning of two main shopping streets. The café is huge with comfortable seating inside and out. I prefer out, for the people-watching.
The two shopping streets are Via Chiaia and Via Toledo (which the locals call Via Roma). Chiaia is always pedestrian only, and eventually leads from Trieste e Trentino to Piazza dei Martiri, the chicest shopping neighborhood in the south of Italy – Madison Ave. type designer stores and on the side streets off the piazza, great little boutiques.
The other street, Via Toledo/Roma, has a good mix of middle class and expensive shops. The people watching is fabulous during the passegiata hour, when the street is closed to traffic, from about 5:30 to 8.
If given a choice, I prefer to walk Via Chiaia. Even if you don’t, however, check out Leo across the street from Gambrinus on Via Chiaia. It is a tiny shop, an outpost of Leopoldo bakery on Via Toledo, that sells the best taralli in Naples. These are the local version of the ring-shaped snack – made with lard and spiked with black pepper and almonds. They are sold warm and should be eaten warm.
As you walk across Via Chiaia the shops will get more fashionable and expensive as you get closer to Piazza dei Martiri, the hub of the fancy shopping and residential district. You may want to check out L.U.I.S.E., an excellent fancy grocery and tavola calda.
In the piazza itself, find La Caffetiera, with indoor and outdoor seating. Enjoy an aperitivo before dinner, or before just collapsing. The people watching is great. This is an after-work, after-shopping gathering place in one of the most affluent areas of town.
For dinner, you are not far from Da Dora, which is arguably the best fish restaurant in Naples. It is not much to look at, although it is charming, but the seafood is the freshest in the city that day. For this you pay. A typical dinner will cost about 70 euro, about $110 a person, with the current horrible exchange rate. You must have a reservation.
See my Restaurant Guide to Naples for phone numbers and other recommendations.