Naples is a name that everyone knows, and it is no wonder. Not only is it the 3rd most important port in the country (after Genova and Venice), but it is also home to unique historic and cultural monuments of the last millennium and even more. Every epoch has left a mark in Naples, and many of them can still be seen today.
The story of Naples started in the 8th century BC, when, according to legend, the Greeks settled the city of Partenope – at the place of the future Castel dell’ Ovo. Very soon, the settlement was abandoned and people started calling it “Paleopolis”, which means “old city”. The “Neapolis” – new city – was settled in the same territory, and the name has not changed since then.
The economic and cultural development of the city was conditioned by the big port and fortunate strategic location of the city. The development of Naples peaked in Roman times, and after that, it became a part of the Byzantine empire (6th century). Naples suffered a multitude of governmental changes; for the next five hundred years, it went through times of peace and war, until these ended under the Emperor Federico II (13th century) under whose government, Naples went back to a period of growth and developed as an economic and cultural center. From the 13th to the 18th century Naples was under the Spanish (Aragon) government, which was probably the most prosperous time for the city – it was a time of growth for arts and culture; architecture peaked as well – many new buildings and churches were constructed under the Aragon government. By the 18th century, Naples had become the second biggest city in Europe (after Paris). Naples, along with the whole region of Campania was incorporated into Italy, as we know it today, in 1860.
Throughout its history, Naples has gone through contrasting times. Today it is still a mix of poverty and prosperity, high culture and decadence. Today the historic center of Naples is included on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The city of Naples today is still the capital city of Southern Italy, a large port and industrial center.
Main things to see in Naples
A visit to any Italian city should start with visiting its castles; the historic center of Naples has two. The first, Castel dell’Ovo, or Egg Castle, is famous for the legend, according to which, the city will exist as long as the castle stands in its place. The New Castle – Castel Nuovo – is less mysterious but visually impressive. It’s took 5 years to construct from 1279, and served as the main castle for King Carl Angevin’s family. (Read more about the castles here).
The Cathedral of Saint Januarius is the center of religious life in Naples. It is the main church in the city, and was built during the Angevin government. The inside of the cathedral is decorated by famous Italian artists from the 17th century. The cathedral is home to an important holy relic; the vessel holding the blood of Saint Januarius, which is the reason for a constant flow of religious tourists to this church. Another important church is the Basilica San Francesco di Paola, which was built following the example of the Pantheon in Rome. It is located in the very center of Naples – Piazza del Plebiscito. The Basilica was built in the 19th century, and is decorated with many frescoes, paintings and statues. The facade of the basilica is decorated with the statues of Carl III and Ferdinand I on horses.
Across the square from the basilica, is another must-visit place in Naples – the Royal Palace of Naples (Palazzo Reale di Napoli). It is a large 3-floor building, whose construction took roughly 50 years in the 17th century. It is open as a museum now; you can go and see the rooms, beautiful hall with statues, and also visit the National library, which has taken over the major part of the palace.
The Umberto I Gallery (Galleria Umberto I) is another famous landmark of Naples; a large and elegant neoclassic building, it was constructed in the 19th century in order to block a few streets in the Spanish quarter of Naples, which had an unpleasant fame back then. The building has a glass roof, large stained glass windows, and it is decorated with a compass and Zodiac circle under the dome.
If you are passionate about history and archaeology, it is recommended to visit the National archaeologic museum of Naples. It has a great collection of Greek and Roman artifacts and is an important cultural center in Italy. This Museum houses unique artifacts from Pompei and Herculaneum, Agrigento and other archaeological zones around Italy.
For a one of a kind experience visit the Catacombs of Naples – Napoli Sotteranea. Hard to believe, but under the streets and buildings of Naples there is an entire underground town, with caves and tunnels. This underground system has existed since ancient times and has been developed age after age. This is where the citizens of Naples would take tuffo stone for their construction projects. But that is not all: there are also tombs, aqueducts, secret pathways and sanctuaries.
Probably the most controversial and, therefore, interesting area of Naples are The Spanish quarters (Quartieri Spagnoli). Starting from the street of Toledo – one of the most touristic places in Naples – the Spanish quarters go several blocks uptown. Historically it was a poor area, where it would be unsafe to walk alone. Today it is still an unpopular place to live, however this is now due to it being a busy area with many restaurants and trattorias. Here you will also find the traditional image of the southern city; laundry hanging over the balconies and front doors of the ground floor apartments wide open to the street. This is the area to visit if you would like to experience the real Naples, with all its chaotic spirit; untidy but lively and dynamic.
The transport system in Naples is quite well organized. Buses, trolleybuses, metro and taxi are available for locals and tourists. As for the metro system, it has four lines and it is operated by a funicular (due to the landscape of the city). You can also rent a car, but keep in mind, that Naples is famous for its chaotic traffic and you can easily be stuck on the street in rush hour. Parking is also hard to find, so if you are staying in the city, it is better to rent a bike – or walk!
Visiting Naples, don’t miss a chance to visit the nearby places – Pompei and Herculaneum (tourist shuttles go there several times a day), Sorrento and the Amalfi coast. Take a day to visit the north of Naples – Caserta, with a huge royal palace (Reggia di Caserta), which will stun you with its size and beauty.
And of course, don’t forget the famous islands – Capri, Ischia and Procida – a must if you visit in summer!