10 Ways To Stop Worrying And Experience Naples Better
Naples doesn’t make everyone’s Italy itinerary and it almost didn’t make mine. Over 40 million travelers pour into Italy each year but many visitors tragically dodge Naples, the city’s reputation for crime and trash heaps preceding all else. The Bay of Naples was the mythological home to the sirens, singing mermaids who lured sailors to shipwreck in The Odyssey; the city is the non-fiction birthplace of pizza and Sophia Loren. My Italian friends in the north of Italy encouraged me to ignore the present-day stigma of Naples. They promised Naples would be a raw but rewarding travel experience — that Naples is a city where beauty and seediness live side by side.
I had been through Rome, Florence and Venice but I was anxious to see some of what many Italians call “Real Italy,” which allegedly begins below Rome. I decided that seeing the south of Italy was a compulsory assignment for being alive: You have not lived until you stand above the Bay of Naples or until you bite into a ball of mozzarella like an apple. Naples would be the perfect gateway to the Italy I hadn’t seen. Messy, bustling and beautiful, Naples is fittingly the South’s unofficial capital.
As a lone female traveler who survived and thrived in Naples I offer the following tips on how to enjoy Naples while keeping your cool and your stuff.
1) Travel in the Middle of the Day
Do your traveling to, from and around Naples in the middle of the day. Naples on any afternoon is packed with pedestrians, cars and whirring Vespas. The crowds give you Naples at its safest and its best. Neapolitans do their living in the streets, especially in the Spanish Quarter where you will find friendly shopkeepers, hear loud conversations in Neapolitan between pizzeria busboys and where you’ll likely accidentally interrupt a two-on-two soccer game.
2) Dress Like a Traveler, Not a Tourist
Fielding stares and jeers is the norm for women in Italy no matter what you’re wearing, but I did well dressing in baggier clothes and flat sandals. A backpack is better than a bag; it may signal that you’re from out of town, but in Naples purses are known to disappear on the backs of speeding Vespas. Same goes for large cameras. I smartly chose to leave my DSLR at home and take pictures with a small point and shoot.
3) Sleep Outside Naples
There are some great hostels in Naples if you need them, but there’s little point in staying in Naples when you can stay in the villages surrounding Sorrento. The Circumvesuviana extra-urban train makes it easy and inexpensive to get from the city to Pompeii and Herculaneum and Sorrento within an hour.
Though teeming with tourists, Sorrento is a coastal idyll with views of the bay and streets lined with lemon trees. Agriturismos in villages like Piano di Sorrento offer affordable accommodations with perks like free meals prepared with olive oil pressed on-sight. By staying outside Naples you can get high-impact urban Italy by day and seascape south Italy in the evening. Watching the sun set over the Bay of Naples alone is worth the entire trip.
4) Eat Traditional Pizza
Stick to traditional margherita or marinara (without cheese). Antica Pizzeria Da Michele and neighboring rival Pizzeria Trianon are renowned veterans of the pie tradition. You will not forget your first Neapolitan pizza.
Once you’ve had a pizza (allowing some hours in between) go and grab yourself a sandwich. Groceries and delis will make you a finger-licking ham and mozzarella sandwich for under four euro and occasionally throw in some extras like tomatoes or roasted eggplant. Prepare for your wrists to be soaked with dripping water from the fresh mozzarella di bufala.
6) Be Superstitious
Naples is a city of superstition and shrines. It didn’t happen to me, but many people wandering the Spanish Quarter say that slow-walking nonnas will pull down their lower eyelid to warn them of bad luck. Windowsills and stoops in the Spanish Quarter are often cluttered with saint cards in frames and religious figurines. Nearly every street has a shrine to Jesus, Madonna (Mary, not the singer) or football star Maradona.
7) Ancient Naples
Pompeii’s surviving frescos, mosaics and erotic art and artifacts are nearly all housed in Naples’s Archeological Museum. Nearby the museum descends 121 steps to Napoli Sotterranea, an archeological labyrinth of passageways and ruins from Greek and Roman settlements.
8) Jaywalk in the Shadow of Locals
In Naples, traffic lights are something like the modern day Catholic Church: more decoration than law. Watch out for Vespas zipping toward you in tight alleyways. You dodge them, not the other way around.
9) Save Money by Splurging Here
If you’re going to splurge in Italy, splurge here. Naples is cheap compared to Italy’s main cities so it’s okay to indulge a little. You won’t spend much more than four euro for the world’s hands-down best pizza so spring for a step above the table wine. Lost? Relax and hail a cab to save yourself time and peace of mind. Cabs are less likely to up-charge tourists like they do in Rome.
10) Eat Sweets
Try some literal sweet life in Naples. In addition to pizza, the city is said to have spawned the coffee culture of Italy, beginning as a treat for the wealthy. Gran Caffe Gambrinus adjacent to Piazza del Plebiscito is the perfect place to get a Neapolitan coffee and pastry no matter how hot it is outside. Sfogliatella, a flaky layered pastry loaded with a sweetened ricotta center is a must. Baba, also known as baba rum, is a cake soaked in rum, and is another great option. Gambrinus is the Neapolitan equivalent of Paris’s Les Deux Magots and will transport you to Naples’ heyday of the 1860s.
If you tuck your inhibitions aside you will relish Naples. Urban Naples is Italy at its rawest while outside you find a sweeping sunny bay dotted with blockbuster Roman ruins. Naples delivers the elegance of Venice by way of the chaos and disorder of Mumbai. Budget friendly, tasty and energetic, Naples is deserving of the top of your Italy bucket list.
By Charlotte Hammond
[Narrow Streets of Naples by Seth Pipkin/Flickr; Remaining Photos by the Author]
About the Author
Charlotte Hammond is a writer, English teacher and budding Italophile currently who is next planning to live and travel in Asia. You can find her personal travel blog at TheHammondAtlas.wordpress.com.