Pizza and archaeology figure strongly for readers who’ve visited the southern Italian city, but so do Vespa tours, literary spots, football and a cult of the dead.
Winning tip: A relic of Maradona
There are different ways of expressing personal spiritual beliefs. In Naples there’s football. On Sundays Neapolitan streets fall silent when the city football team plays. Still, nothing compares to the late 1980s team, the one that won Serie A twice thanks mainly to one player: Diego Armando Maradona. He’s still worshipped in town – just take a walk to Piazzetta Nilo in the city centre, where you will find a light-blue reliquary in which a strand of curly black hair is preserved. Whose is this relic? Maradona’s of course, available to all devotees in search of a miracle for the next Sunday’s match.
Spaccanapoli – the best street food in Europe
Want to taste the famous pastry masterpieces like sfogliatella (a crispy little cake filled with ricotta-cheese cream), pastiera (orange-flavoured cake made with wheat grains, yes wheat grains) or babà (soft cake literally drowned in rum and syrup)? Fancy trying the frittatina (deep-fried cubes of pasta with tomato sauce and cheese)? And of course, you would want to taste pizza in its original crêpe-like form, folded and ready to eat on the street. You can do it all simply by walking in Spaccanapoli, the tiny, rowdy alley cutting through the historic centre of Naples: enjoy your walk!
For a day out from Naples, head off to the small island of Procida, about one hour by ferry. The island is still a well-kept secret. Marina Corricella is surrounded by picturesque houses that seem to have fallen into an artist’s colour pot; they are painted in the brightest pastel pink, yellow, blue and white. Wander the cobbled streets to get a feeling of local life, without the tourist crowds of more popularIschia or Capri, and enjoy a relaxing hour on one of the pretty beaches. Before the ferry heads back to Naples, have a seafood dinner offered in many of the Marina’s lovely restaurants.
The home of pizza
Pizzeria Brandi in Naples is, according to some, where the Neapolitan pizza was invented. The place is not too dissimilar to Pizza Express, and may disappoint some. However, this is the spiritual home of pizza, and has to be visited if you are visiting Italy for its culinary history.
The Gran Caffe Gambrinus. Photograph: Alamy
An inspiring day for a writer: Stay atImmagineazione B&B, an inspirational budget B&B owned by two photographers (doubles from €49).Gran Cafe Gambrinus is a great place for coffee where it is thought that Wilde, Hemingway, and Sartre loved to visit. Go to theBiblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele IIIand admire the sublime architecture. Afterwards meditate in the beautiful garden. Finally, enjoy drinks atLibri e Caffè (on Facebook) where everything is made from recycled cardboard. In addition to the literary atmosphere, there are live music performances, DJ shows and book readings.
National Railway Museum of Pietrarsa
Transport buffs should not miss theNational Railway Museum of Pietrarsa, in what were originally the old Bourbon workshops founded in 1840 at the command of Ferdinand II. Visitors are taken on a history of railways in Italy from the mid-19th century to today’s high-speed trains. There are lots of locomotives on display and much of the museum is covered, making it perfect if you’re in the area on a rainy day. It lies just to the side of the Naples-Portici railway line – Italy’s first railway line – and is very close to Naples itself.
The side streets
Photograph: Steve Ryan/Getty Images
The real fun in Naples is down the side streets. In the main shopping areas, just look for the little turnings and you will find small family shops with excellent goods, the local cafes and restaurants that the people of Naples use, and real home-cooked food for themselves not for the tourists. No trip to Naples is complete without a trip to the city of Pompeii, the whole atmosphere of the city once you bypass the tourist areas is fun. In the middle of Pompeii there is a building that many Italians eat in: it’s just wall-to-wall tables with no charge for use. Like an indoor picnic area.
Visit Herculaneum and Pompeii
Herculaneum is a must, but don’t go on any tours booked through your hotel or travel rep. It’s easy to get there and hire your own private tour guide: there are plenty waiting. You get a more personal tour and go at your own pace, often learning and seeing more than when part of a larger group. The cost either works out the same or not much more, depending on how many there are of you. The same goes for Pompeii: it’s a vast place, and if you’re part of a large group you miss so much.
Legendary pizza pie
Hidden behind an unassuming entrance of gaudy plastic signs and graffiti-clad walls on Via Cesare Sersale, L’AnticaPizzeria da Michele is the stuff of legends when it comes to the Neapolitan pizza pie. Its name had been uttered in hushed, reverent whispers to me as I had made my way through Italy from the north, touted by many as the finest place to try the south’s most famous culinary export (even by biased northerners!). It did not disappoint. Mounds of buffalo mozzarella and fresh-cut peppers hid the chefs in the open kitchen at the back; an earthy, stripped-down interior gave way to a roaring wood-fired oven; and the locals appeared to enjoy the food and atmosphere as much as the visitors. The pizza was top-notch, complete with a fresh passata top and a dough that had bubbled up to mimic the topography of Vesuvius itself.
Guided Vespa tour of Naples
I went on a brilliant tour of Naples on the back of a scooter with a little operation calledVespAround(half-day tour €140). Local archaeologist and tour guide Emiliano Tufano picked me up from my hotel on his red Vespa. It was great fun bumping over cobbles, weaving through traffic and nipping down tiny streets. We toured the main sights, stopped off for a coffee at a marble-topped bar, popped into a church where human bones are worshipped, met some craftsmen who were carving Christmas decorations and bought a Lotto ticket from a backstreet shop where the owner interprets dreams into Lotto numbers. The whole time Emiliano patiently answered my stream of questions. It was the perfect way to see this notoriously chaotic city.
A spooky church where people pray to skulls
Go underground at the church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco in the historic centre of Naples (on Via dei Tribunali) and you’ll discover a death cult that still exists today, even though the church tried to ban it in the 1960s. Followers pray to skulls and bring them offerings, even putting them on cushions to bring them a little bit closer to heaven. Brides-to-be pray to a skull wearing a tiara – “Lucia”, a 16-year-old girl who died shortly after getting married. Yes, it’s macabre, but it’s also perhaps the most fascinating church in Italy.
The Mergellina Bay area of Naples is a great place to stay in the city. The shoreline path really comes to life for the evening passeggiata. Fish restaurants, pizzerias, (tryToto Sapore for its €10 giant specials) and ice-cream cafes are busy and atmospheric. Standing at the foot of the Posillipo Hill, Mergellina has great views of Vesuvius and the Castel dell’Ovo. Stay at theyouth hostel (from €16pp B&B a night) and if you can be there in the build-up to the Feast of San Gennaro on 19 September – a local holiday – you are in for a spectacular Neapolitan firework display lighting up the night sky.