History never really says goodbye. History says, ‘See you later.Eduardo Galeano
The history of Naples (or Neapolis) all started with the Greeks, and it’s still alive and well today. To quote Eduardo Galeano, “History never really says goodbye. History says, ‘See you later.’” Naples is an amazing example of that! It still shows signs of Greek and Roman infrastructure, not only in the museums, but also right underneath the roads you walk on and the churches you can visit today.
Thank you Fred for showing us around Naples and helping us appreciate it even more. This is the tour that he took us on — we recommend you take it too while you are here.
NOTE: Wear comfortable shoes because there are a lot of cobblestones.
Here is a map to help guide you on your tour.
A Self-Guided Walking Tour of Naples
Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II
We started at the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, located in Piazza Giovanni Bovio at the Universita metro station. Vittorio Emanuele II was crowned King of Italy in the 6th century and was the first king to rule over a united Italy.
Obelisco di San Gennaro
During the tour, we saw three notable spires. The first spire is dedicated to San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. He was executed by the Romans in 305 AD for protecting early Christians. The spire celebrates San Gennaro’s legendary role in ending a terrible volcanic eruption in 1631, more than 1,000 years after his death. On December 16-17 of 1631, a series of earthquakes shook the foundations of Naples, causing Mount Vesuvius to erupt. Legend states that the archbishop of Naples ordered all the city’s religious relics of San Gennaro to be paraded throughout the city. Many writers and eye-witnesses during that time agree that Mount Vesuvius calmed down once the statue of San Gennaro was turned toward it. Later that day the lava flow stopped altogether.
Duomo di Napoli in the Cathedral Santa Maria Assunta
The Cathedral Santa Maria Assunta is the main church of Naples and is a must-see location. It is so intricate and there is so much to look at. Make sure you look up to see the beautiful paintings on the ceiling and go to the altar to see the stunning sculpture. This cathedral is also known as the Cathedral of San Gennaro because his crypt is here, along with a vial of his blood. Three times a year (the first Sunday of May, September 19, and December 16) they take out his vial of blood to see if the dried blood liquefies. If it does not liquefy, then legend has it that a disaster will fall upon Naples. They also bring out the vial whenever popes come to the city. If the blood liquefies during that visit, it means San Gennaro approves of him. It is said that the blood liquefied when Pope Francis came to visit, but it did not liquefy when Pope Benedict XVI visited.
The Neapolis Buried
The next stop on the tour was one of our favorites: the Neapolis Buried exhibition, which gives visitors a glimpse of the old Greek and Roman streets beneath the bustling alleyways of the modern city. Archeologists find more and more structures under Naples every day and we have often seen displays of ancient ruins or pottery inside government buildings, metro stations, and even grocery stores, which builders uncovered during construction. The Neapolis Buried exhibit uncovers the area that served as the central square (agora) of the Greek city and the marketplace (macellum) of the Roman city, remarkably preserved by a mudslide in the 5th century. The exhibit allows you to stroll through the ancient streets, passing what would have been textile and food shops, an ancient laundromat, and what is believed to be an early hotel. We were told that you can see the transition between Greek and Roman construction because the Greek stone was laid in rectangular blocks, while the Roman bricks on top were set in a diamond pattern. Another interesting (and slightly gross) fact that we learned at the laundromat was that the inhabitants of these early cities would use ammonia in the process of cleaning their clothes. The best way to obtain ammonia at the time was from human urine, which was carefully collected, measured, and taxed at the laundromat (think about this the next time you complain about your job). If you do visit the exhibit, don’t miss the beautiful mosaics on the floor, which have been around for more than a thousand years. When you are done looking around, make your way to the gift store with an incredible selection of cameos (typically a portrait or religious scene hand-carved onto a seashell against a dark background). Even if you don’t want to buy anything, be sure to watch the video of how this intricate process works.
Across the square from Neapolis Buried (past the statue of San Gaetano and the San Paolo Maggiore church where he is buried), the Limonè Shop is a working limoncello factory. They offer handmade limoncello, cream limoncello (a must- try!), lemon pasta, limoncello chocolate, lemon cookies, and more. Also, the owner and his staff were so friendly. They are happy to explain to you in detail their process for making limoncello (and let you try some). I would highly recommend the limoncello frozen drink. It was so refreshing and delicious! They do not always have it readily available, especially during the cold months. We also did extensive tasting (ahem, research) of the cream limoncello, lemon pasta, and limoncello chocolates. We enjoyed it all! You can visit their website to check out what else they have and perhaps you can find a souvenir take back with you.
Via San Gregorio Christmas Alley
We crossed the square again and started down the world-famous Via San Gregorio Armeno, or Christmas Alley. People come from all over to see the gorgeous, handmade Nativity scenes (also known as crèche or presepe in Italian). The best part is that the alley is open all year round! The alley (and surrounding side streets) are entirely devoted to selling Christmas ornaments, Neapolitan gifts, and especially the handmade Nativity scenes. The Nativity scenes can be incredibly detailed, often featuring lights, moving figures, and even running water. Shops along the alley do not limit themselves to the traditional figures of the Nativity either. You can find well-known Neapolitan figures (like the Neapolitan clown Pulcinella), countless football and sports stars, and nearly every world leader. If you ever wondered what the Nativity would’ve been like if Vladimir Putin and Diego Maradona had attended, this is your chance to find out. If you do wish to buy a Nativity scene, we would advise that it might be cheaper to not go in December, or to explore the surrounding side streets for deals. However, the Christmas Alley is well worth a visit, even if you don’t want to buy anything for yourself. It is very impressive to see how they make the figures and watch the scenes come to life.
La Statua del Nilo
After exiting the Christmas Alley, we turned right onto via San Biagio Dei Librai and stopped briefly at the Statue of the Nile God. A lot of people come here specifically to take pictures of this statue because it dates back to the 2nd or 3rd century AD. Although the age of the statue is impressive, it is less detailed and much smaller than a similar Nile statue in the Vatican Museums (both of which are based on a now-lost statue in ancient Alexandria). It might be worth a quick stop, as it is not something you see every day.
Piazza San Domenico Maggiore
Take a moment to stop and look at the Piazza San Domenico Maggiore. You’ll see a lot of restaurants, a church, and right in the middle there is the second obelisk or spire of Naples: the Obelisco di San Domenico. This spire was erected to commemorate the end of the plague epidemic of 1656. They wanted it to be finished right after the plague; however, it was not fully completed until 1737.
Museo Cappella Sansevero
You can’t visit Naples without going to the Museo Cappella Sansevero. Pictures are not allowed inside, so make sure you commit everything to memory because it is absolutely breathtaking and unbelievable what artists can do with marble. It used to be someone’s private chapel of many amazing work of art by the famous Italian artists of the 18th century. There is much to see, but the most notable ones are the Veiled Christ, Pudziaia, and Il Disinganno. Also, make your way down to the bottom of the stairs to take a look at the anatomical machines (or anatomical studies). No one is quite sure how they were able to get such a vivid and perfect reproduction of the arteriovenous.
The Spaccanapoli and Gelato
Return to the Piazza San Domenico Maggiore and walk along the main road you were on before. This is the famous Spaccanapoli (literally the “Naples splitter”). The Spaccanapoli lies along the same path of the historic Roman Decumanus Inferior, which crossed the ancient city from east to west. Today, the street serves as a useful point of reference in the chaotic jumble of alleys and side streets in the historic center of Naples, splitting the city from Via Toledo to the Garibaldi Train station. The street is lined with some of our favorite shops, including the amazing gelateria, Casa Infante. Don’t get me wrong, I think you should stop at as many gelato shops as you can, but make a special point to stop at this one. It’s been around since the 1940’s and has expanded to several stores across the city. Check out their flavors ahead of time on their website or make a spur-of-the-moment choice. Either way, you’ll love it.
Basilica Church of Santa Chiara
This church is not as elaborate as some of the others we have been into, but it has so much history and charm. It was impacted the most by bombs during WWII and you can see a shell of a bomb when you go inside to the right. You’ll also notice a lot of tombs for kings, queens, and a national hero Salvo d’Acquisto, a carabiniere during WWII, who died saving 22 civilian hostages. Also, in the warmer months the cloister gardens are open to the public. We haven’t been yet, but it’s on our bucket list.
Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo and Obelisco dell’Immacolata
Before it Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo was a church, the building was a royal palace for the Prince of Salerno in 1470. It was later given to the church and completed in the 1600’s, but the interior artwork wouldn’t be finished for another three centuries. The outside of the church is nothing to rave about, but the inside… I’d say those three centuries were worth the wait. Your eyes are drawn right to the front of the church where you will see the statue of Mary on the altar and stars circling around her head. You can’t help but move closer to get a better look. Then make your way around the rest of the church and you’ll find a bronze statue of San Giuseppe Moscati, who was a Naples doctor and a biochemistry professor. Many people touch his outstretched hands or pray to him, asking for healing for themselves or for loved ones.
Outside the church, in the Piazza del Gesu Nuovo, you’ll see the third obelisk, Obelisco dell’Immacolata. It is dedicated to the Immaculate Virgin. Construction began in 1747 and was completed in 1750. It has the same likeliness as the statue on the altar of Gesu Nuovo church.
Osteria Da Antonio
By now, you’ll be hungry and we have the perfect place to stop. Osteria Da Antonio is right across the street from the Municipio metro, on Via Agostino Depretis, really close to the port. Make sure you get there right when it opens or call to make a reservation, if you have a big group. It tends to get packed quickly and there are a limited number of seats. It is well worth it because not only is the place really cute inside, but the owner is so sweet! We got the privilege of meeting him and he was so kind to all of us. One of the girls in our group was cold, so he took the sweater off his back to give to her. If you are in a big group, then be prepared to only order at most three different dishes. Since everything is made fresh, they don’t have the time to make each person’s individual request. That has happened to us in a few restaurants we have been to in Italy with big groups. I am perfectly okay with that though because everything is handmade, fresh and simply delicious. The dishes that stood out to me were the frutti di mare (or, seafood pasta) and the prosciutto with melon.
Fontana del Nettuno
The Fountain of Neptune (or, Fontana del Nettuno), located in the Municipio Square, was sculpted partially by Pietro Bernini (father of the famous sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini). It is definitely something to stop and look at. I find it so impressive too that it still looks as good as it does when it has been moved to various locations multiple times. There is so much detail in this fountain that it is just nice to stop for a second and enjoy it.
Galleria Umberto is by far one of our favorite buildings in Naples! We not only love the outside of it, but going inside is just as spectacular. Also, it is just so bright no matter what time you go there. There are some cute restaurants and pastry shops in here including one of our favorites: Sfogliatelle Mary.
Gran Caffé Gambrinus
If you have some time to just sit down, enjoy a coffee or pastry, and take in the amazing ambiance, then look no further than Gran Caffe Gambrinus. It makes you feel like you are in an art exhibit or palace with all of the the elaborate decorations. Even if you don’t have time to sit, take a look around as you order a pastry to go or down an espresso.
Piazza del Plebiscito, Palazzo Reale di Napoli, and Teatro di San Carlo
Around the Gran Caffe Gambrinus you will see three beautiful and historical buildings. One of them is called the Piazza del Plebiscito. It was named after Naples becoming part of the Kingdom of Italy on October 2, 1860. Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Murat, started the construction of the piazza and a large building in the early 19th century in honor of Napoleon. While it was being built, Napoleon was deposed and the House of Bourbon came into power, it was turned into a church, San Francesca di Paola. The church has a strong resemblance to the Pantheon in Rome. The piazza often hosts a lot of activities, including yoga classes and performances.
On the other side the Piazza del Plebiscito is the Palazzo Reale di Napoli, the Royal Palace of Naples, with status of the House of Bourbon along the front. To the left of the palace is the opera house, Teatro di San Carlo. It opened in 1737, making it the oldest opera house in the world still in operation. We have yet to go in there, but from what we have heard it is breathtaking inside and the performances are amazing. Something else to put on our to do list!
Castel Nuovo (or New Castle) is in between the port and the Teatro di San Carlo. This medieval castle started being built in 1279 and was finished three years later. For many years the castle was used as a place for guests of the royal court to come and stay. Previous guests include Giovanni Boccaccio, Pope Boniface VII, and Pope Celestine V. Come and see why so many well-known people of history would stay at this castle.