Even if you've been to many Italian cities, nothing prepares you for the exuberant, colorful, and sometimes chaotic hubbub of Naples. The entire population seems to be in the streets that spill down into its harbor, and they're all talking at once. Colors here seem brighter, and aromas of pizza—Neapolitans claim to have invented it—waft through the air, along with operatic areas (everyone here is a tenor waiting to be discovered), laughter, and maybe an argument or two. It's a city that will keep all your senses busy.
That's not to say it doesn't have a bounty of things to do and attractions for tourists. One of the world's finest archaeological museums holds the treasures of nearby Pompeii, and much more. For centuries, Neapolitans have lavished attention and riches on their magnificent churches, while royalty of several great houses of Europe have decorated its palaces.
The city's long history, dating back to the Greeks in the eighth century BC, included Byzantine, French, Spanish, and Austrian rule, each of which left its mark. And beyond the churches, palaces, and museums, the narrow neighborhood streets, broad promenades, and parks you'll find while exploring Naples are sights in their own right. Find more great places to visit here and nearby with our list of the top tourist attractions in Naples.
Along the waterfront, at the historic gateway to the Mediterranean and the world, you can get a feel for this vibrant city. Naples harbor is divided into separate docks and basins by a series of piers and breakwaters, and is always bustling with activity. The Lungomare is a beach promenade that follows the shore for about 2.4 kilometers along Via Partenope and Via Francesco Caracciolo in the Chiaia neighborhood, with beautiful views across the bay to Vesuvius and plenty of cafés and ice-cream shops. Stroll here, enjoy the views and lively atmosphere, and sample Naples' contribution to food history—margherita pizza.
Sitting on a promontory at the end of Via Francesco Caracciolo is the 12th-century Castel Ovo, the oldest castle in Naples. The views of the harbor, ferries, bay, and Mt. Vesuvius are even better from its ramparts, and inside is an Ethno-Prehistory Museum with ceramics and other artifacts from ancient Naples. There is no charge for admission to the castle and museum, which, like the Lungomare, are among several free things to do in Naples.
Beyond the castle lies the busiest part of the Port of Naples, with the cruise port and departure point for ferries to Sicily, Sardinia, and elsewhere. Farther south, from the quay on the Calata di Beverello, boats sail to Ponza, Capri, and Ischia. Naples is the principal port for southern Italy, and the harbor is its heart.
The Cappella Sansevero was built in 1590 as the private chapel of the Sansevero family and later became its burial chapel. In the 18th century, it was elaborately embellished in Baroque style by the eccentric mystic Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero. Of the sculptures that he commissioned, the most outstanding artistic features are in the ethereal Veiled Christ by Sammartino (1753) and two others that show the figures draped in what appears to be a translucent tissue of marble. Another, also carved from a single block of marble, shows a male figure partially wrapped in a net, free falling in places and so intricately carved that it seems impossible that it's really made of stone.
The chapel's most unusual exhibits are the pair of Anatomical Machines, demonstrating the human circulatory system and muscles, built on actual skeletons using wire, silk, and beeswax. Needless to say, the Prince's strange collection, added to all the Masonic symbols he incorporated into the chapel, gave rise to dark rumors about him and the scientific experiments he carried out in his adjoining palace.
The second-century Catacombs of San Gennaro, like the Roman catacombs, are a maze of passages and tomb chambers but are more ambitious architecturally and have finer paintings than their Roman counterparts. There are two levels of these, and in the upper catacomb's vaulting are frescoes from late in the second century. Here, too, is the small Crypt of the Bishops and the large underground basilica, with three naves cut into the stone and decorated with frescoes from the fourth through sixth centuries.
The basilica was built near the catacombs in the fifth century, and although it has undergone several changes, it is a rare example of early Christian architecture. Even after major renovations during the Aragonese era in the 14th and 15th centuries, its basic structure of three naves and a semi-circular apse remains.
The Museo Archeologico Nazionale holds one of the world's finest collections of antiquities, many of which were brought here from early excavations of Pompeii. In fact, more of the city's artistic highlights are here than at the site itself. In addition, it has the art treasures of the kings of Naples, the Farnese collections from Rome and Parma, the collections from the palaces of Portici and Capodimonte, and material from Herculaneum and Cumae.
The ground floor is devoted mainly to marble sculptures, including the Farnese Hercules, a colossal 3.17-meter statue found in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, and the Farnese Bull, the largest marble group that has come down from antiquity. On the mezzanine is the collection of ancient mosaics from Pompeii, including the famous 6.20-meter Alexander's Battle.
On the first floor (second floor to Americans), in the central Salone dell'Atlante, is the Farnese Atlas. Here, too, is the collection of bronze sculpture from Pompeii (recognizable by the green oxidation) and Herculaneum (with a dark patina). Look especially for Apollo Playing a Lyre, a 5th-century original from the Peloponnese, found in the Casa del Citarista in Pompeii. Also on this floor is the remarkable collection of ancient wall paintings, mainly from Pompeii but also from Herculaneum and Stabiae. The bronze household utensils and other bronzes, terra-cotta vessels, and a large model of Pompeii are worth seeing, too.
Intended originally as a hunting lodge for King Charles III, the Palazzo Reale di Capodimonte grew to become the royal residence and a place for the king to house the Farnese collection, which he had inherited. The collection includes portraits of members of ruling families by Titian and formed the basis for the National Gallery (Galleria Nazionale), one of the finest art collections in Italy, now housed here. Its more than 500 pictures include, in addition to the Titians, works by Mantegna, Caravaggio, Raphael, Botticelli, El Greco, Bellini, and Neapolitan artists of the 17th and 18th centuries.
In the royal apartments, you'll find furniture, tapestries, and porcelain used in the palace during the Bourbon and Savoy dynasties. The small room, Salottino di Porcellana, is completely lined with porcelain.
In the park that surrounds the palace, which was the royal hunting grounds, King Charles III founded the Capodimonte workshops to produce ceramics. This highly decorative work became quite famous, and you'll see products of the workshop at the convent Santa Chiara. Wander in the beautiful park, along avenues shaded by huge trees, past battered statues and a pond.