Naples vacation planner

When they say "See Naples and die," they mean its beauty is so breathtaking it can stop your heart (not that you shouldn't still watch for pickpockets)

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Naples is a distillation of Italy's glorious chaos, a city where the sun seems brighter, the food tastier, the traffic crazier, the baroque churches more elaborate, and the people more boisterously friendly.

Naples is also a major port, which entails a certain degree of seediness (the central rail station and bus-clogged Piazza Garibaldi out front constitute Italy's epicenter of pickpocketing) and some dicey neighborhoods (the dingy, narrow alleys of the Quartiere degli Spagnoli overflow with colorful street life by day, but are best to avoid after dark).

However, this also means prices are generally lower than in other Italian cities, especially on the fantastic seafood. Spaghetti with clams is a local classic, but don't ignore Naples' single greatest contribution to world cuisine: pizza.

Naples sights in brief

The intensity of Naples' noisy carnival of life means most visitors are happiest spending only a day or two here.

That's time enough to hit the major sights—the stupendous Archaeology Museum with its riches from Pompeii, the dramatically moody canvases by Caravaggio and his followers in the Capodimonte Galleries, the cloisters of medieval Santa Chiara and the fancifully baroque Sansevero chapel. » more

If it's the season and you can get tickets, try attending an opera at the renowned Teatro San Carlo.

Then scurry along to some of the outstanding (and notably calmer) destinations around Naples Bay.

Sights near Naples

Looming over Naples to the southeast, the still-active volcano of Vesuvius famously blew its top in A.D. 79, blanketing the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in ash and lava. Now excavated, these two ancient Roman ghost towns offer an amazing glimpse into daily life during the empire just 15 to 30 minutes from downtown Naples by commuter train.

Just beyond Pompeii lies the resort of Sorrento, gateway to the amazing Amalfi Drive, a thrill ride of a road strung along sea cliffs between the fishing towns of the Amalfi Coast: Positano, Amalfi, Ravello, Vietri sul Mare, and, farther south, the Greek temples of Paestum.

Ferries from both Naples and Sorrento cross the bay to the famed jet-set holiday island of Capri.

A Naples introduction

Un gran cassino it the Italian term for a great big teeming noisy mess. It also describes Naples perfectly, a seething cauldron of humanity showcasing the quicksilver Southern Italian character at its warm, friendly best and its temperamental, bureaucratic worst. It's a city of unmissable (if a bit antiquated) art and archaeology museums showcasing a rich 2,500-year history. Naples is the birthplace of pizza, a city of lively markets and a lifestyle lived outside in the street and squares, surrounded by fabulous churches, cloisters, and vistas.

The original Greek colony of Parthenope was transformed into the Neapolis of the Romans, but little remains of the Greco-Roman epoch other than the overall street plan—plus a few, partially excavated walls sunken in city squares (which people seem to regard more as public trash bins) and in some church basements.

That ebullient street life takes place amid snarling, chaotic traffic and garbage blowing through the streets. The old center is made up of decrepit baroque palazzi sloppily shored up in the hopes the next earthquake won't send the whole city crashing to the ground. And it's all run by a largely ineffectual, if earnest, municipal government that wages a continuous war against both its own Byzantine bureaucracy and the Camorra, the nastiest organized crime network this side of the Sicilian Mafia.

Naples is one of the most densely populated cities in Europe. Almost three million inhabitants live within less than 47 square miles—that's like taking the entire population of Oregon and squeezing it into San Francisco.

The city suffers from one of Italy's highest crime rates and lowest standards of living, the bulk of citizens shoehorned into the tall tenements of the old city and Quartiere degli Spagnoli or the slapdash cement high-rises of the growing suburbs. Unemployment is high, and pickpocketing of tourists rampant. While one Neapolitan will hug you with genuine friendliness as he welcomes you to his city like a long-lost relative, the next is a likely to reach into your pocket while he does so and relieve you of your wallet.

There's an old saying, a sighingly romantic take on the city from an era when everyone arrived scenically by boat and the bel canto was a thriving singing tradition and not a busking tourist industry: "See Naples and die." Many modern visitors wonder whether this isn't meant to be a warning instead. But all of that describes Naples at its worst, and aside from the dinginess of Piazza Garibaldi outside the train station, you're unlikely to run into any of it.

Above all, don't let Naples' reputation keep you away from this remarkable city, at once vibrant and decaying, marvelous and menacing. Naples may have a bit more edge to it than your average Italian town, but far from being a sleepy backwater or fossil of a metropolis it throbs with life and activity. Its people are more animated and alert, by turns more serious and more playful than you'll find in Italy's other large cities.

Some visitors will revel in the thrilling, visceral pulse of Naples' colorful lifestyle and teeming streets. Others will find the closeness of the buildings and the people and the carnival swirl of life around them suffocating, and a speedy escape to Capri or the Amalfi Coast a welcome respite from the craziness.

Just keep your wits about you as you navigate from the stupendous Archaeology Museum and Capodimonte painting gallery to the medieval, Renaissance, and baroque wonders of the churches, castles, and palaces downtown. And always keep one hand on your wallet.

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This article was written by Reid Bramblett and was last updated in August 2010. All information was accurate at the time.

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