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Beauty Amid the Chaos in Naples, Italy

Naples is a diamond-in-the-rough, offering stunning landscapes, historical monuments and a burgeoning art scene.

 

Located between Europe’s second-largest active volcano (Vesuvius), the blue bay of Naples and the warm springs of the Campi Flegrei (Phlegrean Fields) to the west of the city, Naples has it all in terms of geography and climate. The city itself is chaotic, loud, lawless and poverty-ridden in parts, but it also vaunts a rich history, friendly locals, a chic shopping and vibrant world-class dining scene, and the aforementioned mesmerizingly beautiful natural backdrop of sea, lush hills and sky.

Naples Then and Now

Under mayor Antonio Bassolino in the 1990s, the city was cleaned up and the transport system and infrastructure improved. The renaissance was short-lived, however, and more recently, organized crime and Naples’ protracted trash crisis in 2008 has dominated the news agenda again, blighting the city’s economic prospects and hurting tourism.

But the city is fighting back in small but significant ways, and aside from gorgeous monuments, churches and palazzi, it also offers a lively and groundbreaking contemporary art scene and puts on an ever-expanding array of cultural festivals. The popular Maggio dei Monumenti festival is held in May, during which many of the monuments and palazzi that are usually closed to the public fling open their doors; the Napoli Teatro Festival, which runs from early June to mid-July, hosts performances in unusual indoor and outdoor venues around town.

Though Naples is not a touristy city in the same sense as Venice, Florence or Rome, it should be. This is a city teeming with grandiose monuments, piazzas, churches and museums, and some of Italy’s finest and best-value-for-money cuisine.

Sights and Landmarks

Some of the most memorable and iconic monuments in Naples are the late 19th-century Galleria Umberto I (Via San Carlo), a cross-shaped arcade with a 60-meter (200-foot) high glass-and-iron dome and four glass-vaulted wings; the monumental Castel dell’Ovo (Borgo Marinari, tel. +39-081-246-4334); and the grand and iconic Piazza del Plebiscito, is enclosed on one side by the 17th-century royal palace (designed by architect Domenico Fontana) and on the other by the monumental neo-classical church of San Francesco di Paola, built on the model of the domed Pantheon in Rome and prolonged by a curving colonnade.

Two attractive palaces form the other two sides of the piazza, one of which houses the legendary Caffè Gambrinus (Piazza Trieste e Trento, tel. +39-081-41-7582), the city’s oldest café featuring marble, antiques and mirrors and waistcoated waiters serving up delectable coffees and pastries.

Offbeat Attractions

Other must-see attractions in Naples, and places where you can get away from the traffic and hubbub of the city, include the 18th-century Teatro San Carlo (Via San Carlo 93/f, tel. +39-081-797-2412), the oldest working theater in Europe which is renowned for its near-perfect acoustics, and the vast network of underground caves known as Napoli Sotterranea (Vico Sant’Anna di Palazzo 52, tel. +39-081-400-256). Napoli Sotterranea began life as quarries dug by the Greeks (who used the stone to build the city walls and temples), were transformed by the Romans into aqueducts and streets, and, much later, were used as air-raid bomb shelters during World War II.

See also the stunningly situated Certosa di San Martino and Castel Sant’Elmo (Via Tito Angelini 20, tel. +39-081-578-4030), which stand atop the highest part of the Vomero hill and afford views of the Sorrentine peninsula, the Vesuvius, Ischia and Procida.

World-Class Museums and Memorable Churches

The Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Piazza Museo 19, tel. +39-081-440-166), and its collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman artifacts, mosaics and frescoes are a must-see, as is the Museo Nazionale di Capodimont). [Read more about Naples’ Museums and Art Scene.]

The 12th-century Duomo (Via Duomo 147, tel. +39-081-449-097) contains the relics of the city’s patron saint San Gennaro; the Church of San Gregorio Armeno (Via San Gregorio Armeno 1, tel. +39-081-552-0186) is a good example of the Neapolitan Baroque style; and the opulent Church of Gesù Nuovo (Piazza del Gesù 2, tel. +39-081-551-8613) is filled with multi-colored marble and altars inlaid with semi-precious stones.

The Gothic Church of Santa Chiara (Via Santa Chiara 49, tel. +39-081-957-5915) boasts a majolica-tiled cloister transformed into its present-day appearance by Domenico Vaccaro in 1742. Octagonal pillars, vine-covered pergolas and seats show Neapolitan landscapes and mythological scenes; two octagonal fountains add to the luxuriant, tranquil ambiance.

A five-minute walk northwards is the haunting and macabre Cappella di San Severo (Via F. De Sanctis 17-21, tel. +39-081-551-8470), a spectacular example of the Neapolitan late-baroque. An array of trompe l’oeil frescoes and marble sculptures are on display here that will remain etched in your mind for their technical brilliance and sheer over-the-top theatricality. Highlights are Antonio Corradini’s “Modesty,” Francesco Queirolo’s allegory of “Disillusion” and Giuseppe Sanmartino’s “Veiled Christ,” a work that has aroused superlative reactions since its creation in 1753 (Italian neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova is supposed to have said he would have given 10 years of his life to have been the author of such a masterpiece).

Architecture

The Greeks, Romans, Spanish and Bourbons are just some of the settlers that have left their mark on the architecture and urban development of the city of Naples. More recently, the city’s massive government-sponsored risanamento (“making healthy again”) project of 1889 to 1918 was designed to clear large sections of the city that had been riddled with overcrowding and disease for centuries.

Unfortunately it resulted in the full-scale destruction of many historic areas and medieval and Renaissance buildings, though a few beautiful buildings were also erected. This is when the elegant Galleria Umberto I was built, and the wide Corso Umberto, (also known the Rettifilo, the “straight line”) running from Piazza della Borsa to the main train station at Piazza Garibaldi.

Under Mussolini, the city’s urban face changed again, with the area in and around Piazza Matteotti becoming a showcase for the rationalist style, such as the Palazzo delle Poste e Telegrafi (Piazza Matteotti).

Modern Construction

In recent decades there have been few constructions of note, other than the gleaming but rather unloved business and residential district (east of the center and north of the station) known as the Centro Direzionale completed in 1982 by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, and the rather happier renovation of the industrial area of Bagnoli, which houses the Città della Scienza (Via Coroglio 104, tel. +39-081-735-2202), the city’s hi-tech science museum.

On the Amalfi coast, the dreamy hilltop town of Ravello is set to inaugurate a small but eye-catching music auditorium by 102-year-old Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in late 2009. It features an overhanging canopied roof and a window through which the audience can admire the shimmering blue sea while they listen to the music.

Parks and Leisure

The ideal Naples stroll is along the lungomare, a 1.5-mile stretch of seaside that runs from the luxury hotels and open-air restaurants and bars of Via Partenope, along Via Francesco Caracciolo and the palm tree- and fountain-lined Villa Comunale park, to the harbour of Mergellina and the small chalets where you can enjoy aperitivi or a gelato at sun-down. On Sunday mornings, Via Francesco Carraciolo becomes a car-free parade of skaters, joggers, bikers and passeggio aficionados, and on any sunny day of the week locals sun themselves on the massive white rocks perched on the edge of the water.

Stylish Gardens

Some of the city’s most attractive parks are the Villa Pignatelli (Riviera di Chiaia 200) with its lawns and English-style gardens, the former royal hunting grounds of the Bosco di Capodimonte (Via Miano 2), the Parco della Floridiana (Via Domenico Cimarosa 77) and the Villa Comunale (main entrance from Piazza Vittoria), a former royal garden-turned-city park. Created between 1778 and 1780 by Bourbon King Ferdinand IV to provide entertainment for Neapolitan aristocracy and royalty, the Villa Comunale runs for almost a mile between Piazza della Repubblica and Piazza Vittoria and hosts the oldest aquarium in Europe.

Day Trips From Naples

From the ancient towns and archaeological sites of Paestum, Cuma, Pompeii and Herculaneum to the stunning Amalfi coast and outlying islands, there are countless beautiful and interesting places to visit on day trips (or slightly longer excursions) from Naples. [Read more about Archaeological Tours.]

Capri

Though it has become a daytime stopover on the mass-tourism circuit in the last few years, Capri is still the most sought-after of local destinations and a magical and mostly unspoiled place, especially if you head to the smaller and quieter town of Anacapri, on the western side of the island.

Gulf of Naples

Other islands in the Gulf of Naples are Ischia, known for its restorative thermal waters and varied scenery, and Procida, a small and charming island with quiet streets, colorful villages built on the rocks and plenty of rich vegetation.

Amalfi Coast

The Amalfi Coast offers some of the glitziest and most attractive seaside destinations in Italy. After Sorrento, the main road leads to super-picturesque and ever-popular Positano, which looks out over the sea from the top of a cliff. Farther along the coast, there is the charming town of Praiano. Amalfi itself is the largest and best known of the coastal towns; lofty and serene Ravello is built atop a hill and has the best view of the coast, and farther on, past Trani, are the Roman ruins and picturesque beaches of Minori.

Naples Accommodations and Restaurants

Stylish lodgings in the area are the cool nautical-themed JK Place (Via Prov. Marina Grande 225, tel. +39-081-838-4001) on Capri and the stylish but quirky Maison La Minervetta (Via Capo 25, tel. +39-081-877-4455), which is built into Sorrento's cliffside and offers 12 rooms, an outdoor jacuzzi and one of the most extensive and sumptuous hotel breakfasts that I consumed on an almost indecently large rooftop terrace. [Read more about Naples Hotels.]

If you’ve come this far, then a visit to the gastronomic haven of chef Alfonso Iaccarino, Don Alfonso (Corso Sant’Agata 11/13, tel. +39-081-878-0026), in the tiny town of Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi at the western tip of the Amalfi coast, is in order. Most of the produce comes from the organic farm that the Iaccarino family tirelessly cultivates on their clifftop farm stunningly situated in nearby Punta Campanella (which is the extreme tip of the Sorrentine peninsula).

This is one of the best restaurants south of Rome with a staggeringly extensive wine cellar housed in ancient Roman tunnels (you can visit them if you ask). Alfonso and his wife Livia recently opened eight very elegant suites (and one apartment) for guests in the adjoining buildings. [Read more about Naples Restaurants.] 


Destinations: Italy, Naples

Themes: Art and Museums

Activities: Arts and Entertainment, Museums, Sightseeing


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