Old Town Naples, Italy, was the first historic center to be named a UNESCO site. Stroll down Via dei Tribunali and within walking distance is a veritable treasure trove of sites to discover. View centuries of history under your feet, visit historic churches, enjoy the Mediterranean cuisine, visit year-round Christmas markets, and marvel at the acclaimed greatest museum in Europe. There is so much to see in Naples.
I am focusing on Historic Old Town Naples. My niece and I rented an apartment right in the center of the old town, just off the main street, Via dei Tribunali.
Once crime-ridden and dirty, I am here to tell you that Naples has put on a new coat! It is now acclaimed as one of the most beautiful Italian cities.
The cultural heritage is present in its art, churches, castles, museums, and dining.
Naples has layers and layers of history -- from ancient times to the present.
It is best discovered on foot. We walked all over. You could always take cabs if you prefer not to or are not able to spend your days walking.
Here are 12 gems for you to discover.
1. Stroll The Narrow Cobblestone Streets
Take at least one day where you stroll and discover the narrow cobblestone streets.
The tiny streets are shared by vehicular traffic, pedestrian traffic, parked vehicles, and restaurant tables. The main vehicles are the scooters. We loved watching the scooters -- with their varied passengers, from women to children to dogs. Do be aware of your surroundings as you wander. The scooters literally whiz by!
Look for ancient ruins right out in the street and/or incorporated into new buildings. You may notice the remnant of an ancient Greek wall.
Look for ancient ruins out in the street, as well as incorporated into building walls.
Marvel at the variety of fish markets -- see how many fish you recognize. Stop at vegetable and fruit markets to sample and purchase the goods.
For a mid-morning pick-me-up, stop at any of the numerous coffee shops. Stand up to the bar, and you will be served a small glass of sparkling water and a delicious, strong Neapolitan coffee.
2. Explore The Year-Round Christmas Markets (Christmas Alley)
Old town Naples celebrates Christmas all year with permanent Christmas Markets just off the Via dei Tribunali and Via Gregorio Armeno.
Presipi is the term given to the Neapolitan nativity scenes. These have been family traditions for centuries. As well as figurines depicting daily life, you will also find classic figurines of the Holy Family, the Magi, and shepherds. Chuckle at the caricatures of politicians, football stars, and the comedian Toto. To add to the scene, there is vegetation, fruit and vegetable stands, and period architectural pieces.
During the month of December, live nativity scenes are showcased throughout Christmas Alley. Locals of all ages -- babies to seniors -- take part, all dressed in 19th-century garb and singing religious hymns.
3. Look For Street Scenes And Street Art
Admire the murals, posters, and signs of street art around Naples. Full of meaning and symbolism, the art often depicts political and social messages. Street art ranges from beautiful portraits such as a painting of Sophia Loren to bold political statements and subdued economic messages. Locals stress that this is not graffiti.
One poster we saw sends the message to keep McDonald’s out of historic Naples.
Look also for the mural of Fidel Castro, which is seen as a tribute to the value of resistance.
4. Visit The Church Of San Lorenzo Maggiore
The complex of San Lorenzo Maggiore is located in the precise geographic center of the ancient Greek-Roman city of 470 B.C. It consists of La Neapolis Sotterrata, a 14th-century gothic church, and a museum. In the cloister of the gothic church, rebuilt in 1771, is the statue of San Lorenzo, one of the most famous in Naples. The ceiling frescos are particularly beautiful.
Most impressive is the underground area of La Neapolis Sotterrata -- an archaeological find where you can walk along an ancient Roman street market. Explore the remains of old bakeries, laundries, wineries, and even the old tax collectors’ office!
Only about half of the market has been excavated. The layers of the structure show various settlements over time, from Greek to Roman to medieval to modern age.
Although some of the ruins are nearly 30 feet down, the ceilings are very high and it is well lit. I felt very comfortable underground. Be sure not to miss this experience. Guided tours are available.
5. Visit A Toy Hospital
Less than two blocks from our apartment, we found Ospedale Della Bambole -- a doll hospital (Editor’s Note: This site may take a few moments to load. Once it does, if you are using Google Chrome, you can opt to translate the site from Italian to English by clicking the “Translate this page” option to the left of the URL and the right of the bookmark/favorites star). In operation since 1800, four generations of the Gassi family have specialized in the restoration of dolls, teddy bears, and other childhood companions. The tour begins with a multimedia presentation focusing on childhood mementos from yesteryear. Then, wander through the museum looking for toys from your past. Enter the laboratory or hospital, and you will see hundreds of doll parts waiting for “surgery.” You can watch as repairs are made. A lovely site. Do visit! Ospedale Della Bambole is perfect for children of all ages!
6. Look For Images Of Toto
Notice throughout the souvenir shops the photos and trinkets honoring Neapolitan comedian Antonio Vincenzo Stefano Clemente, who went by the stage name of Toto. Near the area where he lived, there are monuments and remembrances to his life even though he died in 1967.
7. Explore The Museo Archeologico Nazionale
One of the gems of Naples that folks often miss is the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. It houses a scale model of Pompeii, relics from Pompeii and Herculaneum, and fine collections of Greek sculptures and Egyptian art. One of the guides said that the museum is very unappreciated and not many visit. I’m here to tell you it is a must! Be sure to visit before you visit Pompeii.
The second floor is my favorite, with the collections of mosaics from Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Also visit the “Secret Cabinet” -- closed from 1967 to 2000 because of “Neopolitan prudery” -- which features images of erotic art from Pompeii.
8. Feast On Delicious Dining
We have two restaurants and a favorite corner meat shop to recommend, all within a block of our apartment.
My favorite restaurant is Cala La Pasta. All dishes are prepared on-site and it is fun to watch the three chefs working. Prices are moderate and the dishes are delicious! My favorite dish is the pasta with baby clams. We returned again to enjoy the same dish. They also have a good choice of local wine and beer. They have three inside tables and two outside tables.
We also recommend Pizzeria Trattoria dal Cardinale for the fish plate. As you enter the premise, the fresh fish are on ice for you to peruse. Four inside tables welcome guests. It is pricey but well worth a special occasion. Without a doubt, this fish plate is one of the best dishes I have ever enjoyed.
Stop also by G. Librano e Figli -- a corner meat, cheese, and wine market. Enjoy the cheese plate with delicious buffalo mozzarella. There are two outside tables. We enjoyed being in the middle of the local life with a vegetable and fruit market across the street and locals out carrying on with their daily lives on the street beside us.
9. Visit The Basilica Di Santa Chiara
A religious complex consisting of a church, monastery, tombs, and an archeological museum, the Basilica di Santa Chiara is a must-visit. There are four parts that are particular gems.
First is the beautiful cloister, which dates back to 1742. Biblical frescos surround the central courtyard. Although the surroundings were destroyed during Allied bombings in WWII, the cloister was undamaged.
The tombs of Neopolitan royalty -- many from the 13th and 14th centuries -- are the second gems.
The third unique gem is the site’s current archeology. The digs are protected by glass walkways so you can literally walk on top of them.
I also enjoyed the museum and the collection of baroque presipi (nativity scenes). Here you will see what the nativity scenes of yesterday looked like.
Overall, the site deserves at least a 3-hour visit. You won’t be disappointed!
10. Taste Fried Pizza
Naples is famous for its Neapolitan pizza, but have you tasted or even heard of the fried pizza? Visit the renowned Pizzeria De Figliole. Fried pizza is quite delicious -- to me, it tastes more like a calzone. It is the only dish on the menu. Nine fillings are available, ranging from various cheeses, salami, olives, and mushrooms to Nutella. The pizzeria dates back to 1860 when it was started by the family’s grandfather. Today, it is run by three sisters. The pizzeria is close to the harbor and the central train station. It’s a unique fun afternoon experience -- whether you are on a cruise or staying in Naples.
11. Enjoy The Tour and Tasting At Limone Factory
Located in the heart of historic Naples, another must-visit is the Limone Factory. It is interesting to discover the Limone production process. Of course, there is a tasting also! There are other lemon products available on-site, too.
As well as touring the small factory, the tour includes descriptions of archeological surroundings including the Fountain of Dioscuri and a Greek-Roman aqueduct.
There is a small entry fee and advanced booking is required.
12. Learn The Secrets Of The Church Of Skulls
Santa Maria Delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco (Saint Mary of the Souls of Purgatory) is known to locals as the church of the skulls. Located right on Via dei Tribunali, the small baroque church was built in 1638 to bury the poor and unfortunate souls who did not receive a proper Catholic burial. There was no room in the overcrowded churches. The need increased substantially after the Black Death in 1656 killed more than 150,000 people (half the population of Naples).
In the small church, marvel at the beautiful marbles and the masterpieces of the 17th-century artists.
The big surprise is the downstairs hypogeum (Lower Church), a cemetery where locals go to worship human remains of the unknown. Some folks believe that the skulls here are special messengers to heaven and direct their prayers, wishes, and desires to the remains.
Tours are available. Entrance to the church is free, but there is a small fee to visit the hypogeum and museum. No photos are allowed of the underground.
With its new coat, Naples is now a must-visit destination. There are 27 centuries of life that you can experience here.
I highly recommend spending at least a week in historic Naples. After an 11-day stay, we look forward to returning!
The way to get to know the life and culture of a region is to rent an apartment in the area and stay for an extended time. I mostly rent through Airbnb. I have rented apartments for extended times in London, Paris, Malta, and Naples.While in Naples, the restaurateurs and shop owners greeted us like locals once they got to know us.
A great time to visit Naples is early October -- the crowds are gone and temperatures still pleasant. Headed to Naples, or elsewhere? Read our pro tips for getting to know any neighborhood when traveling.