12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Naples
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 must-see attractions for tourists. One of the world's finest archaeological museums holds the treasures of 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 adorned 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 are sights in their own right.
See also: Where to Stay in Naples
1 Naples Harbor
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. Extending east from the Piazza del Municipio is the Molo Angioino, with the Marine Station. To the west of this is the Eliporto (Heliport), from which there are regular helicopter services to Capri, Ischia, and Capodichino Airport. 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, 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.
2 National Archeological Museum
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, terracotta vessels, and a large model of Pompeii are worth seeing, too.
Address: Piazza Museo 19, Naples
3 Capodimonte Royal Palace and Museum
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.
Address: Via Milano 2, Naples
Although dating back to the late 13th century, the cathedral has been altered considerably due to earthquakes and restoration, especially after the one of 1456, but the 1407 doorway in the center of the front has survived. In the south aisle is the sumptuous 17th-century chapel of San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples. On its main altar, a silver bust contains the skull of the saint, who was martyred in 305, in the time of Diocletian. In the tabernacle are two vessels containing the saint's blood, which is believed to have the power of liquefaction, celebrated with solemn ceremonies in the cathedral each September 19. You can see the saint's tomb in the richly decorated Confessio (1497-1506) under the high altar, and in the underground archeological area, you can see the 4th-century Basilica Santa Restituta, the oldest church in Naples, with excellent ceiling frescoes and columns from a Roman temple.
The Archbishop's Palace and several other churches surround the cathedral, among them the Gothic Santa Maria Donnaregina (fine 14th-century frescoes by Giotto's contemporary Pietro Cavallini in the elevated nuns' choir); the Baroque churches of San Filippo Neri and San Paolo Maggiore; and the restored Gothic church of San Lorenzo Maggiore (1266-1324), with the fine tomb of Caterina d'Austria (d. 1323) and an adjoining Franciscan monastery with a cloister and a chapter-house decorated with frescoes.
Address: Via del Duomo, Naples
5 San Martino Monastery and Museum
The former Carthusian monastery of San Martino, built in 1325 and rebuilt in the 17th century, also houses the Museo Nazionale di San Martino. The church, where you should also be sure to see the sacristy and treasury, is richly decorated with marble, ceiling frescoes, and paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries.
There are two cloisters, the Chiostro dei Procuratori and the main cloister, which is surrounded by 60 white marble columns. The monastery makes a good setting for the museum, which contains porcelain, an 18th-century state coach of Charles III's reign, and various historical relics from Naples and southern Italy in the 18th and 19th centuries. If you're not in Naples during the Christmas season when most churches are displaying the magnificent Nativity scenes (presepi) for which Neapolitan craftsmen are famous, you'll have a chance to see a collection of them here. It includes the Presepe di Cuciniello, an astonishingly detailed depiction of the Nativity with finely-carved animals, buildings, and figures dressed in intricately ornamented fabric costumes. From the Belvedere, superb views of Naples and its bay extend to Vesuvius and the island of Capri.
Address: Largo di San Martino 5, Naples
6 Catacombs of San Gennaro
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 renovation during the Aragonese era in the 14th and 15th centuries, its basic structure of three naves and semi-circular apse remain.
Address: Via Capodimonte 13, Naples
7 Castel Nuovo
On the south side of the Piazza del Municipio, the five-towered Castel Nuovo, also known as the Maschio Angioino, was the residence of kings and viceroys of Naples. Its history reflects the various rulers - French, Aragonese, Spanish, and Austrian -- each adding and renovating to suit the times. It was originally built by Charles I of Anjou in 1279-82, and was enlarged by Alfonso I of Aragon, who had the grand Early Renaissance Triumphal Arch between the towers added between 1453 and 1467 to celebrate his victorious entry into the city. Parts of it are used for events and expositions, but the Armoury Hall, the southern courtyard, the Charles V Hall, and the Sala della Loggia are usually open. In the courtyard is the Gothic church of Santa Barbara (or Cappella Palatina).
Address: Piazza Castello, Naples
8 San Domenico Maggiore
San Domenico Maggiore, built about 1300, is among the most beautiful and interesting churches in Naples, filled with Early Renaissance work. The ornate paneled ceiling leads your eyes directly to the high altar by Cosimo Fanzago. Each of its 24-sided chapels contains something of interest, especially the Chapel of San Michele Arcangelo a Morfisa at the end of the right nave, which incorporates a 10th-century church. In the Cappellone Crocifisso are a 13th-century Crucification and the 15th-century Burial of Christ.
Beyond the chapel dedicated to Saint Thomas Aquinas (who studied here) is the sacristy, with a frescoed ceiling, Triumph of Faith over Heresy by the Dominicans, and a gallery of 45 sarcophagi belonging to members of the house of Anjou.
Address: Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, I-80100, Naples
9 Santa Lucia
To the west of the Piazza del Plebiscito, on the slopes of Pizzofalcone and extending down to the sea, lies the district of Santa Lucia. South of the wide Via Santa Lucia, this is an area of modern streets laid out on a regular plan, but to the north, it is a picturesque huddle of narrow stepped lanes where you can see - and be part of -- traditional Neapolitan life. It would be a shame to miss this very real neighborhood of shops and bakeries, artisans' workshops, little cafés where locals down their espresso, and streets where children play. Laundry usually hangs overhead, and conversations are carried on between balconies and windows across the narrow streets. It's a colorful place any time of day, but especially lively in the evening.
10 Santa Chiara
The cloister of the Monastery of Santa Chiara, founded in 1310, looks more like a park in a seaside resort town than a solemn retreat for nuns. Majolica tiles made at the Capodimonte workshops, in vivid colors and lively designs, cover the 66 octagonal columns surrounding its cloister, and between the columns are long benches also covered in tiles. These seem to bring the secular world inside the monastery walls, with scenes from everyday life of their period - the mid-1700s. Under the porticos, the walls on all four sides of the cloister are covered with 17th-century frescoes of Old Testament scenes.
There are more reasons to visit Santa Chiara besides its surprising and beautiful cloister. Inside on the right is a presepio (nativity scene) set in a Roman ruin, incorporating mundane daily Neapolitan life along with the sacred creche scene. The figures are dressed in typical local 18th- and 19th-century clothing. The setting in a Roman ruin is thought perhaps to reflect the intense interest in the discovery of Herculaneum in the early 18th century. While repairing damage after World War II, the intact remains of a first-century Roman thermal spa were discovered, probably part of a villa. This and other finds from the first through fourth centuries make up a small archaeological area and museum.
11 Cappella Sansevero
The Cappella Sansevero, now a somewhat bizarre museum, 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.
Address: Via De Sanotic 17/21, I-80100 Naples
12 Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace)
Along the east side of Piazza del Plebiscito is the former Royal Palace, begun in 1600 by Domenico Fontana and restored from 1837-41. It is one of four palaces in the area that were used as residences by the Bourbon kings. On the long facade are eight marble statues of the various kings who ruled Naples. Inside, you can see the grand staircase of white marble, built in 1651, a theater, and more than two dozen rooms in its state apartment, with furniture, tapestries, porcelains, and sculptures. It's rarely crowded, inexpensive, and you get a free audio tour. Many visitors consider this one of Naples' most interesting and under-sung attractions.
Connected to the palace is Teatro San Carlo, one of the largest theaters in Europe and one of Italy's premier opera houses. Along with its outstanding acoustics, San Carlo has the reputation of attracting the noisiest and worst-behaved audiences in Italy. Woe betides the tenor who misses his high C here.
Address: Piazza Plebiscito, I-80132 Naples
Where to Stay in Naples for Sightseeing
Popular attractions in Naples are widely scattered, but two areas are convenient to several of them. These areas are not far apart, so your choice may depend on whether or not you enjoy being in a typical - and colorful - Neapolitan neighborhood throbbing with city life. If you like feeling the pulse of a passionate city, crowded Decumani is for you, close to the Duomo, Archeological Museum, and several churches. The quieter option is the waterfront Chiaia neighborhood, the part of the more colorful Santa Lucia district, near the Palazzo Reale and the San Carlo opera house. Here are some highly-rated hotels in and around these areas:
- Luxury Hotels: A Naples landmark for its elegant style and seafront setting in Chiaia, Grand Hotel Vesuvio caters to film stars and royalty. Its top-floor restaurant is the place for celebratory occasions, with its romantic views of the twinkling harbor lights. In the same upscale area and close to chic shops and dining is the Hotel Palazzo Alabardieri. By contrast, the luxury Hotel Palazzo Decumani sits surrounded by busy, narrow streets in the heart of the old city, between the National Archeological Museum, Cappella Sansevero, and San Domenico Maggiore.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Although close to the Archeological Museum and Cappella Sansevero, many rooms at Hotel Piazza Bellini overlook a quiet courtyard, and from its uppermost rooms you can see Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples. Closer to the bay and with water views from many of its rooms is Eurostars Hotel Excelsior. Between Chiaia and Decumani and within walking distance of both, in the atmospheric streets of the old Spanish quarter, the boutique Hotel Il Convento is in a former convent.
- Budget Hotels: In a quiet harbor area, near the landing point for ferries to Capri, Ischia, and Procida, Hotel Rex is steps away from the waterside promenade. The convenient and hospitable Hotel Europeo & Flowers is a no-frills option on a quiet back street, around the corner from Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, in the heart of Decumani. Farther from other attractions but handy to the main station and trains to Pompeii is the reliable ibis Styles Napoli Garibaldi, which is also near shopping and restaurants.
Day Trips from Naples
A visit to the National Archeological Museum in Naples will surely whet your appetite for seeing the city's almost more famous neighbor, Pompeii. Several centuries of excavations have uncovered homes, shops, temples, and public buildings of a prosperous city of 20,000 engulfed and frozen in time by the cataclysmic eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79.
- Read More:
- Exploring Pompeii: A Visitor's Guide
Unlike neighboring Pompeii, the Roman resort town of Herculaneum was engulfed by molten lava instead of ash in the AD 79 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, and its buildings were supported by the lava as it rose in depth. The difference had two results: organic materials were preserved in a dry airtight environment, and the cooled stone was so deep and hard that the site was protected from early plunder until modern techniques and sensibilities could preserve its treasures. What you see today gives an even more intimate view of Roman life than Pompeii.
Rearing abruptly out of the plain, 15 kilometers southeast of Naples on the shores of the bay of Naples, Vesuvius is the only volcano on the European mainland that is still intermittently active. It is best known, of course, for the disastrous eruption in AD 79 that destroyed both Pompeii and Herculaneum. Its last major eruption was in 1944, and there have been signs of only mild activity since. Drive or take a bus from Pompeii or Herculaneum to the Vesuvius National Park lot at about 1,000 meters altitude. Trails lead up the final 200 meters to the rim, which can be followed along its entire perimeter. As you would expect, the views are spectacular.
Caserta Palazzo Reale
Opposite the station in Caserta is the former Royal Palace, a magnificent 1,200-room residence often compared to Versailles. It was built by Luigi Vanvitelli for King Charles III of Naples and Sicily, beginning in 1752, and today, its interior, well-preserved decoration, and furnishings form a museum of the Bourbon dynasty that ruled here from 1734 to 1860. Particularly fine are the Grand Staircase of 116 steps, the Cappella Reale, the Royal Apartments, and the theater. In the Second World War, the Palace served as the headquarters of the Allied Middle East Command, and on April 29, 1945, the German armies in Italy signed the surrender document here. Behind it stretches a park with impressive fountains and the Grand Cascade. From the terrace beyond the English Garden, about a 45-minute walk north of the palace, are sweeping views.
Regular ferries carry passengers from the Naples harbor across the bay to the island of Capri. It's a favorite day trip for locals, and the ferry from Naples is a good way for tourists who don't plan on visiting Sorrento to see this fabled island and its prime attraction, the Blue Grotto.
- Read More:
- 11 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Capri
At the entrance to the Bay of Naples, the volcanic island of Ischia was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who were attracted by its hot springs and the luxuriant flora. Today, it's less crowded with day trippers than nearby smaller Capri, and has much nicer beaches. The town of Ischia, on the northeast coast, is made up of Ischia Ponte, where the imposing Castello stands on a 91-meter rocky crag accessible by a stone causeway, and the busier spa and seaside resort of Ischia Porto. The island's oldest harbor here is a former crater lake. From Forio, on the west coast, a beautiful road leads to the southern part of the island, past La Mortella, beautiful gardens created by Susana Walton and British composer Sir William Walton and well worth a stop. The southern shore is the quietest, where the village of Sant'Angelo sits picturesquely on the slopes of a promontory. Frequent boats connect Ischia to Naples harbor and to the smaller island of Procida, almost too cute to be real, with its taffy-colored houses.
Benevento and the Arch of Trajan
About 50 kilometers northeast of Naples, Benevento commands a beautiful setting on a flat-topped hill between two rivers, at the junction of the Via Appia with four other Roman roads. This position made it one of the most important towns in southern Italy, and for five centuries, it was the seat of powerful Lombard dukes. It has a 14th-century castle and the remains of a Roman theater now used for opera performances, but its major tourist attraction is the magnificent Arco di Traiano (Arch of Trajan), also known as Porta Aurea, dedicated by the senate and people of Beneventum to the "best of princes" in AD 114, in anticipation of his return from the Parthian wars. The arch, built of Greek marble, stands 15.5 meters high and is one of the finest of its kind. The entire arch, including the marble reliefs glorifying the emperor, is very well preserved.
Castellammare di Stabia
About 30 kilometers south of the city, on the Bay of Naples, Castellammare di Stabia is adjacent to the ancient city of Stabiae, destroyed by the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius. You can visit the excavated Roman villas, which were very well preserved by the "rain" of volcanic ash that buried them. Frescoes and mosaics are intact, as is the swimming pool in its colonnaded atrium. A cable car from the Castellammare Circumvesuviana station climbs Monte Faito, from whose summit there are walking trails and magnificent views of the Bay of Naples and Vesuvius.
Modern Capua is built adjacent to the ancient city of Capua Vetere, destroyed in the ninth century. In the center of town, near the Volturno River, the cathedral's campanile and 11th-century forecourt with third-century columns survived after the building itself was destroyed in World War II. Nearby, the Campanian Provincial Museum is the region's most important archeological museum after the National Museum in Naples. Outside of town is a Roman amphitheater, built under Augustus and restored by Hadrian, one of the largest remaining, with many of its subterranean passages intact. On the Via Appia, which connected the town to Rome, are two well-preserved Roman tombs.