Naples is a metropolis in southern Italy that sits on a bay overlooked by the looming, active volcano, Mount Vesuvius. For thousands of years, people have been visiting and inhabiting this mysterious and complex city that holds much of Italy’s treasures and magic.
Naples: Capital of the region of Campania. Population: 2.2 million. Established: circa 400-600 BCE.
Naples was founded by Ancient Greeks first as Parthenope, named after the sirens in Greek mythology, then as Neapolis which means “new city”. It was part of Magna Grecia, a Greek colony that spanned across Sicily, Calabria, Puglia, and much of southern Italy. It was an advantageous and strategic settlement as it provided a port for trade and transport in a time when the Greek Empire could really use it.
Fast forward to 2022. As the heart of southern Italy and the unofficial capital of the Mezzogiorno (the south), Naples is often misunderstood and criticized by people who have not taken time to really get to know the place.
These are all things I have seen in various Facebook travel groups when people ask where to stay in Naples or how to get from Naples to the Amalfi Coast. The truth is, Naples (like many places) might not be for everyone. Some people adore Rome, and others hate it. The same can be said for Naples.
So what’s the big deal? Why is this city constantly being bashed and why are tourists continuously deciding to cross it off their itinerary?
In order to understand Naples, you have to understand its history.
Naples was conquered and controlled by many different civilizations over the course of history. The Greeks, the Romans, the Normans, and the Spanish just to name a few. Due to its strategic position, Naples was always an important part of the historical and cultural scene across the span of its many civilizations that rose and fell over the centuries.
In 1861, Italy was united as a country for the first time and Naples was incorporated as a new state. During the industrial boom, the central and northern regions of Italy became more industrialized while Naples continued to rely on its agricultural and fishing industries. When World War II started, Naples was the first city to rebel against the Nazis. The city was decimated by bombings and many people lived underground for several years to escape death. In 1944, Vesuvius erupted, leading to further damage in the city and surrounding areas.
Due to this perfect storm and the overall neglect of Naples by the Italian government, the city was left in a disastrous state with little to no help from the Italian government. The Camorra (Italian mafia established in the 1700s) became more prominent in Naples in the 1800 and 1900s, controlling many of the socioeconomic aspects of the city and region.
In the late 1900s and early 2000s, Naples became notorious for a horrible garbage problem that left enormous piles of trash on roadsides due to government failures and illegal Camorra trash practices.
This crisis spun out of control leaving the situation completely unmanageable. What most people don’t know is that the mafia controls lots of public works projects throughout the region and this is done in close correspondence with the Italian government.
Part of the deal includes northern Italian regions sending their waste and toxic waste to Campania where it is buried in fields outside of Naples. This has led to increased levels of biohazardous materials in the earth, resulting in extremely high cancer rates in animals and humans.
All of these factors contribute to a less than pristine reputation of the city often agitated by negative comments from people who have never actually spent any time there.
As travel became more accessible, Italy’s tourism industry grew exponentially. Still today, for first time travelers to Italy, the “Big Three” usually make up most of the itinerary: Venice, Florence, and Rome. There is no doubt as to why these three cities are eternally etched on every tourist travel plan. Some of the most famous artworks, monuments, and city layouts have their homes in these cities.
With overtourism cramming the streets of major Italian cities, there is no longer and “off the beaten path” experience that can be found in any of its capitals.
Cities like Florence and Venice have changed parts of their identities to accommodate tourist. Florence, for example, has torn up its cobblestone streets to build a tram including a direct line form the airport to the city center. Venice has started to tax tourists who only visit the city for the day.
Then there’s Naples. Despite the world class historical and cultural sites like the Archeological Museum, Vesuvius and Pompeii, and the Veiled Christ statue, Naples remains true to itself. The streets are still chaotic, the population still densely packed into every nook and cranny, and music in dialect blasts from in-home speakers and pours down onto the open streets.
Part of travel is understanding the context of the place you are visiting as well as getting many opportunities for authenticity and cultural immersion. Naples is one of the capital cities left in Italy where this is still possible.
The intensity of Naples is unavoidable. Tiny restaurants line the streets with tables and chairs, shops display their goods roadside, whole families prancing down tiny alleyways in competition with motorbikes and cars, there is barely room for anyone. This can be a sharp contrast between cities like Florence which barely have any alleys or motor traffic inside the historic city center.
I traveled to Italy for ten years before I made it to Naples. As soon as I arrived, I wondered why the hell I waited so long.
While Italy’s “Big Three” have transformed into tourist hubs where it is difficult to get a glimpse at real, authentic, daily life (you REALLY have to know where to go), the opposite is true in Naples. Tour groups walk by intimate hanging laundry off low balconies, the fish market drips salty water on pedestrian streets, and Vesuvius harrowingly towers its dominance over the tourists wandering through the Pompeii ruins.
Life is everywhere in Naples. Real, authentic, Neapolitan life and mystery cascade out of homes and onto the streets. At night, the piazzas fill with locals, plastic cups of Aperol spritz in one hand, and maybe a cigarette or a joint in the other.
So what’s there to do in Naples? Why even go when it has such a bad rep?
Naples is one of the only cities in Italy with layers of history. In fact, locals often call it “lasagne” due to the literal subterranean slices of different periods of history laying one right on top of the other. In one small square, you can see ancient Roman, renaissance, and Byzantine architecture.
Here are some of the major things to do in Naples:
Napoli Sotterranea – Take an underground tour of the Ancient Roman markets
Museo Archeologico – Head to the Archeological Museum to see amazing artwork, statues, and artifacts from Pompeii that can’t be see on-site.
Cristo Velato – See this amazing, life-like statue of Christ in the San Severo Chapel.
Pompeii – Just a short train ride away from Naples, visit the ancient Roman city buried by the volcano Vesuvius
Guided tour – In order to understand the intensity of the city, consider booking a guided tour
Street food – Naples is famous for its street food. Try “o’ cuoppo’, a paper cone filled with fried delicious treats
There is so much to do in Naples that I will be writing a separate blog post so you can organize your trip there. I also have a reel on Instagram.
Will you be adding Naples to your Italy itinerary? I hope so!