I woke up missing Naples this morning, so I thought it was as good a day as any to answer the question, “Is Naples, Italy worth visiting?” My answer: absolutely!
Naples is set along the Italian coast, and was part of the location for the “Eat” portion of Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling book, Eat Pray Love. In the movie, the protagonist, Liz, traveled to Naples and famously ate pizza in Pizzeria Da Michele while on a world tour after leaving her husband. If you, like Liz, are in the middle of some big changes, you can read my guide for traveling during a life transition.
Back to Naples. Before writing this post, I felt like I needed to read what others had said about the city. Not because I didn’t trust my own experience, but because there’s something about it that’s hard to put your finger on. Naples feels woven together, as though you were creating a tapestry of history, architecture, conflict, fortunes, and religion. It also has a distinctive bustle throughout the day, so you feel as though you’re moving through crowds like a fish might move through its shoal (cut to me Googling, “Do fish always swim with the same shoal?”).
Is Naples, Italy worth visiting?
Yes, Naples is definitely worth visiting! Naples is a great destination for any World Traveler. It has incredible food, beautiful harbors, and fascinating and beautiful nearby sites like Pompeii and the island of Capri. There were seemingly endless things to do and see, and I left feeling as though I’d only scratched the surface of the city during my four day trip.
Since visiting in December 2021, I spent a while digesting the city and talking to others about it. What follows is my attempt to capture and convey why I love Naples, Italy.
It’s a lively city with plenty to do
Naples is brimming with activity. Walking around, I got the sense that the city is like a symphony and everyone seemed to know their place in it. To cross the street, you simply choose your moment and start walking, and the cars know to slow down to accommodate. Note: if you’re going to try this, first watch a few locals so that you get the hang of it.
Something to know about me is that I love a little bit of chaos. I love a city that keeps me guessing, that spins me around and says “Nope, you’ve got it all wrong; go back and try again.” I wasn’t bored for a solitary second of my time in Naples.
I found that the longer I wandered through Naples, the bigger it felt. The city of more than 3 million people is covered in art, from the clothing people wear to the spray paint on the streets to the ceilings of the ornate churches scattered throughout the city. It feels like a place that draws out our innate creativity, catching your eye with an artful display of fruit or a perfectly positioned pastry or a beautiful pair of leather boots.
You feel the presence of people even when you can’t see them. This is most evident into the evenings, when locals hang their clothes on lines above the streets. All through the night you see freshly washed clothes hanging above your head, drying in the evening air. I couldn’t help but wonder how often they fall from their lines onto the pedestrians below. You could almost believe that it’s never happened, like it’s a perfect system that has kept clothes far above the streets for decades and decades in a sort of magical living dance.
The truth, I’m sure, is that they fall all of the time and there’s some sort of “normal” response. Either you leave them in their place, drape them over a doorknob nearby for their owner to find, or keep them for yourself. Maybe someday I’ll stay in Naples long enough to know the answer.
It’s full of contrasts
Naples feels referential, like something out of time. The city feels like a living, breathing museum; a time capsule of some other time in European history, when people used to hang clothes out over the sidewalks and carry loaves of bread home under their arms and call out to their friends on the street through their kitchen windows. It’s all of those things, and they’re happening right now as you’re reading this.
As you walk through the city, you’ll see tons of contrast and variety in short distances. Delicious, affordable pizzerias are located throughout the city, but if you step into a boutique that sells clothing you’ll see many pieces sell for hundreds of euros. You’ll hear stories about how difficult it is to live in Naples, but the locals’ pride for their city struck me most vividly.
There’s plenty of drama
Anytime you mention Naples, the response is usually something like, “It’s sketchy there” or “that’s a rough city.” In a way, it’s true. Naples has long gotten a bad wrap, from organized crime to a trash fiasco in the 1980s and 1990s to being one of Europe’s least safe cities. The result is that it’s sort of off the beaten path, which, of course, is where all the best stuff is. Today, Naples is definitely safe for travel.
I tried to think of a way to describe the feeling of Naples, a city that has been built on top of itself so many times, and over such a long period, that the new seems to flow seamlessly into the old. It’s bones on bones on bones. The city grows on top of itself, with buildings built into bridges.
While in Naples, there was one moment when we were almost robbed. We were walking through the historical center and a man with dreadlocks started walking up to me. He asked where I was from in English and started to list off countries, “Canada, United States, England, South Africa.” I said yes to one of them and didn’t engage him in further conversation, but I saw that my travel companions weren’t paying much attention. He didn’t respond to me, but he did continue to talk. He asked me questions about our visit in a deadpan way, seemingly without any interest in whether or not I answered.
From the corner of my eye, I saw a woman approach us from the other direction, pushing a handcart. When she started to get close, I firmly told my travel companions that we were late and urged them to start walking. I’m confident that the woman with the cart was planning to steal something from us, probably using the cart.
We checked our pockets and backpacks, moving on when we were confident that we had all of our belongings. We were lucky that time, but it was a good reminder to always pay attention to your surroundings. The truth, of course, is that this sort of rouse could happen anywhere, so as World Travelers we need to keep our guards up a bit while out and about.
There are wonderful people
One night, we wandered into a rather famous restaurant for dinner. It was packed, but the staff found us a table all the way in the back. While we ate, a song and dance broke out amongst the staff, presumably part of their bit to engage tourists in their fun. They pulled a woman from a nearby table to her feet and danced with her for a full song, whirling her around and singing at the top of their lungs. When the song ended, they looked to our table and I sank deeply into my seat–being pulled up to dance in front of a crowded dining room is a sort of personal hell for me–but, luckily for me, they pulled in my friend, Lara, who was eating with us.
She smiled and danced without batting an eye. She whirled around the dining room for several minutes while the staff clapped and clammored around her and her dancing partner, all the while an upbeat song played at full volume in Italian. I smiled and recorded the whole thing. Her smile was as big and bold and bright as I’d ever seen it. It was one of those moments that makes you think, “Wow, this is…. This is special.” It’s special because you couldn’t recreate the impeccable energy of the place, with staff who exuded love and fun and joy. It was a moment sprinkled with the magic that you always know you can find when traveling, but it’s rare enough that it stops you in your tracks when you find it.
The coffee culture can’t be beat
I love coffee, and it’s always a treat to travel somewhere with a strong coffee culture. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my favorite moment from my trip to Naples was a visit to a coffee shop. Jake and I meandered through the cobblestones streets of the historical center to a cable car early in the morning, hoping to make our way to Cafe do Brasil for a morning coffee. On our walk, we passed vendors just setting up their stalls for the day, brimming with fresh seafood and vegetables and pastries.
When we made it to the cable car, it was shaped like a large train, and it went along a track next to a long set of stairs. When we reached the end of the line, we stepped off the train and walked up the hill and more or less straight through town. We reached a cafe full of older Italians sipping cappuccinos with their beautiful umbrellas. The cafe had a few patrons in it, and the espresso machine was a large contraption with large handles and a steam wand.
We ordered a coffee and the man made it quickly. The espresso was rich, and the milk had a foamy froth to it that was intentional. They asked us a question and, without understanding what they said, we answered, “Yes.”
The result was two cappuccinos sprinkled with cocoa powder. We saw small pizzas at the counter, presumably breakfast pizzas. We decided to skip them and just enjoyed our coffees. Perhaps the best part of the experience were the other patrons who quietly drank their coffees under the veranda, holding their beautiful umbrellas between their knees.
Everywhere you go in Naples, you see men walking with trays of coffee and water. I’ve been told that they do this because restaurants across Naples make deals with coffee shops to serve their coffee, as it’s important to offer high quality espressos.
There are fabulous pastries
I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who loves Naples without loving its pastries, and I’m no exception. My favorites were the Babà Napoletano, rum cakes filled with a ganache that had the texture of Nutella. While in Naples, I tried the chocolate, pistachio, and vanilla, but by far my favorite was the pistachio.
The best Babà Napoletano I had was from Pizzeria Sorbillo, the pizzeria we visited on our first night in Naples. It came in a small plastic shot glass, and underneath the Babà Napoletano was a small amount of salted caramel custard. It was divine.
I also tried the sfogliatelle, clamshell style pastries filled with sweetened ricotta. The outside of the pastry has a serious crunch from the many layers of pastry dough, and they’re typically topped with a small amount of powdered sugar. The pastry is often made with lard, so it has a slightly savory, almost bacon-like flavor. My favorite sfogliatella was stuffed with a chocolate ganache, which I preferred to the traditional ricotta. Regardless of the flavor, sfogliatelle is a must try when in Napoli.
There’s old world charm throughout the city
We went to the famous Gran Caffe Gambrinus, one of the most famous places in Naples. Opened in 1860, the Gambrinus has long been the premier spot for artists and intellectuals to gather. The Italian President always enjoys a coffee at Gambrinus while in Naples, as have many famous intellectuals, including Oscar Wilde.
When you arrive, you can choose to have your coffee while standing in a crowded, mirror-filled room or in the back parlor. We chose the parlor, and sat down to read through the extensive menu while surrounded by the old world decor of the place. Even without being told, I think one would get the sense that people have been sitting in this parlor and discussing life and politics and art for decades.
The waitstaff spoke English and treated us like tourists, bringing our very disparate orders of coffee, cake, and cocktails without judgment or fanfare. We returned the next day, instead choosing the standing option and opting for a breakfast pastry and coffee before our flight home. The cafe was bustling, and, with the cashier in a separate room from the pastries, we resorted to taking photos of the treats we wanted and pointing to them when it came time to order.
I drank my coffee and ate my pastry while taking it all in. I felt a sense that, in perhaps a small way, I was taking part in a shared history with intellectuals, politicians, and artists from bygone eras. It would be hard to say how many thousands of people have stepped into that mirrored room and sipped a sugary yet strong cappuccino in between bites of rum-soaked Babà Napoletano.
Before leaving, we made a point of buying a caffè sospeso or a “suspended coffee” for another patron who could not otherwise afford it. The suspended coffee is a longtime Neapolitan custom, and, in the words of Luciano De Crescenzo, “Offering a coffee to a stranger [is] like offering a coffee to the rest of the world.”
There are wonderful arts venues
After going to an opera on our first trip to Prague, my partner and I have fallen in love with exploring theater and music while traveling. On this trip, we knew that we wanted to visit Il San Carlo Theater of Naples, so we swung by and asked about their schedule. They had a classical concert scheduled for the second to last night of our trip, so we decided to buy our tickets.
The Il San Carlo Theater of Naples was built in 1737, and since it opened its doors it has hosted incredible musicians like Bach, Mozart, and Bellini. We opted for the cheap seats, selecting a box near the top level of the theater. We arrived almost late, with barely enough time to finish the Aperol spritzes that we’d ordered before realizing that we did not, in fact, have time to sit and enjoy them.
If you go, I’d recommend that you wear either formal attire or, if you didn’t bring any, an outfit that is all black. I got the sense that the Neapolitans who frequented the theater are rather sensitive about the dress code, and it’s always important to be respectful when you travel. Though my cheap H&M dress really ought to have been worn with stockings, people seemed to respect that I tried. it’s always important to be respectful when you travel
There are handmade umbrellas
It rained more in Naples than it has on any trip I’ve ever taken. There was a day when we went for a walk through the city and got caught in a torrential downpour that forced us to run through a piazza and take shelter in a church. Drenched, we stood underneath the veranda alongside about 10 others who suffered a similar misfortune, waiting together until the rain let up enough for us to continue on. Eventually, it did, so we did.
We could have gotten discouraged by the bad weather, but rule #4 of being a World Traveler is, “Always look for the beauty in everything.” There was beauty in the rain, we just had to find it. Looking around, we noticed that Naples was full of umbrellas, many sold by vendors who waited for the plentiful rainy days to stand on the streets and in piazzas for sad, wet folks like ourselves. We set off to find umbrellas, but we wanted to find the gorgeous, stylish ones that we’d seen locals carrying.
Jake, a skilled travel researcher, found Mario Talarico’s infamous umbrella shop, and it was exactly what we needed. The umbrella shop is run by a father/son duo that has been creating handmade umbrellas at a variety of price points for decades. The lower end of the umbrellas were about 30 euros, similar to what you might find in a drugstore. The higher end, however, consisted of handmade works of art; beautiful umbrellas with handles made of chestnut, ash, hickory, and hazelnut woods. The Pope has visited Mario Talarico, along with many other public figures. We were told that the shop was specially blessed by the Vatican, warding off the normal bad luck omens from opening umbrellas inside.
Determined to make the most of our trip to Naples, we each selected a beautiful, handmade umbrella. It was hard to choose, but after a while we submitted to the old Harry Potter adage, “The wand chooses the wizard,” and let the umbrellas come to us. I ended up with a golden yellow umbrella, which one of the shop owners proudly declared was colored, “The gold of Napoli.”
We walked through the streets feeling a bit more like locals than we had before. We quickly learned to lift our umbrellas slightly in the crowded pedestrian throughways to make way for umbrellas passing in the opposite direction. When it started to rain, we gleefully opened our umbrellas and practiced holding the wooden handles in different places, hoping our hands would learn to mold effortlessly around the handle. When the rain stopped, we carefully refolded them into their original umbrella shapes as we were instructed to do by the shop owners. It was probably the happiest I’ve ever been in the rain.
It’s the birthplace of pizza
Pizza in Naples is not a casual affair, which is probably why it’s so it’s so delightful. Watching the restaurant owners craft pizza Neapolitans reminded me of watching an expert microbrewer brew beer. You get the sense that they’ve been tinkering with the recipe for years, occasionally making a small tweak to ensure the best possible outcome. Pizza in Naples felt very festive. The tomato sauces nearly sparkled, they were so bright and sweet. Each one was special, thoughtful, artful. It’s a craft.
There are actually two styles of pizza in Naples, the traditional woodfired pie you’re probably picturing, and another fried version. The fried pizza, or pizze fritte, sort of resembles a sopapilla. It’s a thin dough stuffed with pizza toppings and fried until it is light and crispy. We took ourselves on a sort of self guided pizza tour one night and tried a pizze fritte with eggplant, marinara, and mozzarella. It was wonderful.
The other type of pizza in Naples bears the city’s name: Neapolitan. The pizza Neapolitans were truly memorable. As part of our aforementioned pizza tour, we tried many of the most famous pizzas in town. Unanimously, we felt that the best one was Sombrillos. Yes, we preferred it to Da Michele, the pizzeria popularized by Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love.
It was common to see the fried pizzas in small shops along the sidewalks. There seemed to be a sort of meal deal, with a fried pizza and a soda for 5 euros. Fried or Neapolitan style, people in Naples tend to eat a pizza by themselves. Instead of feeling bloated and sick, the pizza is a surprisingly perfect amount of food for one person. I ate a full pizza to myself most nights in Naples, and never felt like I needed to take a nap.
Naples will surprise you
In a way, our entire trip to Naples was a surprise. We chose the destination on a bit of a whim, after having found 15 euro tickets from Dublin. After arriving in Naples, we struggled a bit to figure out how to get to the apartment we had booked in the historical center of the city, but ultimately decided to take a bus and arrived without issue. The walk from the bus was through a quiet part of the city that reminded me slightly of Faro, Portugal.
Once we arrived, we entered through a small door on the street to a large outdoor courtyard. Our hosts spoke very little English, but they were remarkably friendly and kind. We had a slightly awkward exchange where they requested about 60 euros worth of tax in cash that goes to the city, a surprise to us because we hadn’t noticed that a cash payment was part of the booking. They made a point of telling us about a few of the nearby sites, including Sorbillo pizza and a plaza where Banksy had left a piece titled “Madonna con la pistola.”
After eating at Sorbillo that first night, our friend was hoping to find a bottle of prosecco, but all of the shops were closed. We wandered around until we found a large vending machine filled with a variety of small items, from cigarettes to condoms to snacks to, you guessed it, prosecco. She tried to buy a bottle from the machine, but you had to swipe your government ID to confirm your age. It wouldn’t accept any of the IDs that we had with us.
We were about to give up when a man from across the street asked if we were having trouble. We explained the situation and he whipped out a huge set of keys, explaining that he owned the machines. He sold us a few small bottles of prosecco and, after thanking him, we skipped off into the night to continue our exploration.
Final Thoughts: Is Naples, Italy worth visiting?
Naples feels like a place that has been referenced indirectly in so many ways that visiting felt like putting together some disparate puzzle pieces I hadn’t realized I was holding. When I was writing this post, it occurred to me that Caprisun, the juices I grew up drinking as a child in the US, might have been named after the island of Capri near Naples. This turned out to be correct.
There’s a festivity to the city that reminds me of visiting the North End in Boston on the first day of snow a few years ago. There’s stainless steel espresso machines, manned by experts who sling cappuccinos all morning, dusted with chocolate. There are the Aperol Spritzes, served up with little snacks of chips, peanuts, and pretzels. In Naples, it seems, everything is made with care; a welcome escape from America, where artisans are rare and most commerce is just a heartless attempt to earn a dollar.
If you go to Naples, treat it with care. Despite knowing embarrassingly little Italian, people seemed determined to make it work. We communicated through photos, pointing, expressions, and broken language. Challenge what you think you know about cities and people and art, and let Naples spin you around and send you back to the beginning. Find your place in the shoal. Bobble with your umbrella like the locals do, and drink your cappuccinos with a Neapolitan serving of sugar.
Have you been to Naples? What did you most enjoy?