For years, whenever I was asked if I liked everywhere I traveled, my stock answer was, “Except Naples. Naples sucks.” I spent a single day in Naples in 2009 as part of a western Mediterranean cruise, and while I only really saw the city between the cruise terminal and train station (on my way to see Pompeii), it made a pretty poor impression. I found it to be dirty, overly crowded, and seemingly unsafe. To top it all off, I lost my sunglasses. So yeah, I didn’t like Naples.
Fast forward fourteen years. I am a new Jonathan. I have made significant progress on my mental health. I am more comfortable in less pristine places. I am a travel writer, and it is my job to try to find the good and unique in places. So it was time, time to return to the place I claimed was the worst I’d ever been, to see if there are, in fact, second chances in travel or if my initial impression would be reinforced.
Getting off the train from Rome, the city seemed as I remembered. While Naples Centrale station itself (and the adjoining Piazza Garibaldi metro station) is fine, the area just around it is a bit rough. This was reinforced during my walk to my hotel which, while safe, was certainly not a lovely stroll through a clean neighborhood. There is trash here. There is graffiti. There is either a plethora of dogs running loose or a lack of cleaning up after pets by their owners. Naples certainly wasn’t off to a great start in terms of redemption.
Naples is Italy’s third largest city and metro area, with a population of about a million in the city, and three million or so in the region. It is a place looked down upon by Italians from elsewhere, much as Marseille is by French. It is a major port, and a regional hub, but doesn’t really have the white collar industry that Rome and Milan claim, hence its reputation being a bit more working-class and a bit more rough around the edges.
However, the city also has some immense positives. First among those is its spot on the beautiful Bay of Naples, and as the gateway to Italy’s islands, Pompeii, and the Amalfi Coast. Second, there is the food. Besides pizza (click here to read more about pizza), Naples has more Michelin stars than any other Italian city. Bet you didn’t see that coming! It also has one of the largest old city centers, one recognized by UNESCO. So there are some little glimmers that would bely its reputation.
Despite Naples’ less than stellar first (second?) impression, it is that pizza that draws me into the city from my hotel. I hop on the metro – a comfortable and clean train – and make my way from the Piazza Cavour stop to Via dei Tribunali, the main pedestrian drag that is just packed with restaurants and shops. The walk is through tiny streets and alleys. Despite having to occasionally leap out of the way of a Vespa speeding around a blind corner, I find this area fascinating. I’d probably not want to walk it alone at night, but in daylight with pizza at the other end, it has a beauty to it.
After gorging on pizza and gelato, and visiting the beautiful Duomo of Naples, the city is growing on me, and even my walk back to my hotel doesn’t seem quite so dodgy.
My next day is an early wake up for a blisteringly hot August Saturday in Pompeii. While many choose to take a guided tour, if you are staying in Naples, it’s pretty easy to do solo. Follow the signs at the central station to the Circumvesuviana line, buy round trip tickets from the window for €6, and it’s a semi-express to the ruins. But as for Naples, it would have to wait for Sunday for me to explore.
Sunday dawns clear, and it’s going to be hot, mid-90s Fahrenheit. Today is the day to explore Naples as a city, to see if redemption is in the cards. A coffee at the hotel, and a metro ride up to Museo, and it’s a morning date with – to me – the top attraction within the city itself, the Naples National Archaeological Museum. The museum is large, and features vast collections of artifacts found here in southern Italy, ranging from Roman times to Greek and Egyptian collections. (After all, the Bay of Naples has been a central point for trade for millennia.)
I am ostensibly here to see the collection of precious frescos, mosaics, and “stuff” from Pompeii to add to my experience from the prior day at the ruins. (Click here to read all about Pompeii.) And wow, that part is amazing. Each artifact is labeled as to which part of the city it came from. Most are just an address which is meaningless to me, but some are a named house, like the House of the Faun. It is truly incredible to see that those things I was so in awe of while at Pompeii are just the tip of the iceberg.
Despite the vastness of the Pompeii collections, that wasn’t even my favorite part of the museum. On the ground floor sits an exhibit of a collection of Roman sculptures owned by the Farnese family, paired with drawings by Pablo Picasso inspired by them. (Signage tells visitors not to take photos of the Picassos, and I respect that, so sadly I don’t have pictures of that side of it.) The exhibit focuses on two major pieces: Farnese Hercules and the Farnese Bull. The former inspired a series by Picasso of an imagined sculptor with some of the features of the statue, while the latter delves into the artist’s fascination with the myth of the Minotaur. It’s an incredible exhibit, and a reason alone to pay the entrance fee.
A spectacular two hours later, it’s time for more pizza, but first a corner pastry shop beckons, along with a recollection that Stanley Tucci had a thing called lemon delight during his Naples episode of Searching for Italy. Sure enough, the shop has one, and I sit on the steps of a nearby building diving into a rather boozy lemon mousse and cake concoction that I could easily eat three of. Naples is looking up!
A slice of fried pizza and a gelato later, I’m well fed and wandering down to the waterfront. The sidewalks are crowded, even on such a warm day. And while the city is cleaner than I remembered (and cleaner than the area around the central station), Naples is definitely not a clean city. Trash is left on pretty much any flat surface, and nearly every wall has graffiti. Dumpsters overflow. Some buildings are definitely in need of power washing and some TLC.
The Naples waterfront is part recreational area (with locals all over the rocks and in the water looking like they are having a blast), part tourist zone with a ton of cafes and some lovely looking hotels, and part historic wonder. Remember, for centuries Naples was itself a capital city, partially of the Kingdom of Naples, partially of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, depending on the time period.
I try to find shady spots along the walk, and end up at Castel Nuovo. Built in 1279, the castle is gorgeous, with a white marble facade against the darker stone of the battlements. Sadly it is closed on Sundays, but I walk up to the door to get a closer look and to watch the locals diving from boats into the water along the side.
From here, the historic and public monuments are all lined up. I grab a cool drink at a cafe inside the stunning Galleria Umberto I, named for the second king of the united Italy. Few things are open inside, and I wonder if that is due to it being Sunday, it being August (much of Italy goes on vacation in August), or just closures.
Next is Piazza del Plebiscito, the city’s main square. Fronted on one side by a basilica reminiscent of the Pantheon and on the other by Naples’ royal palace, it is large, concrete, and hot. So I duck into the palace to see the former royal apartments. It is a palace, one of any number of similar palaces in Europe, and nothing to write home about, although it does talk a bit about the complicated history of this part of Italy, leading me to go down a Wikipedia rabbit hole later in the evening. It has been occupied by Aragons, Bourbons, and French imperial forces, before being one of the royal palaces for the new Italian kingdom. But the highlight is the main staircase, done up in pink marble.
I’ll be honest; I didn’t really expect so much of Naples’ history to be intact. Heck, I didn’t even realize it had so long and complicated of a history. I head back into the sun, and continue down the waterfront, contemplating my astounding lack of real knowledge of this city before now.
I pass Bernini’s Fountain of the Giants and the Castel dell’Ovo. I grab another cold drink at a waterfront cafe, then enjoy a pizza dinner before heading back to the Metro and my hotel.
I don’t think Naples will ever be my favorite city. And that’s ok. But after spending a weekend here, I will no longer claim that Naples sucks. The city has a lot going for it. Yes, it is still dirtier than some others and still has a higher crime rate (although that’s coming down rapidly). But there is a spirit here that is palpable. There is great food. There are some amazing things to see. So yes, there are second chances in travel, and I’m grateful to Naples for giving me a second chance.
Thank you to the Naples National Archaeological Museum for graciously sponsoring my admission.
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