Is Naples worth visiting? You can bet your whole buffalo mozzarella pizza pie that it is! This town is one of the most enthralling in all of Italy. Sat on the cusp of the Tyrrhenian Sea under the gaze of smoke-spluttering Vesuvius, it’s got an allure and a gritty charm unlike anywhere else on the boot-shaped peninsula.
It’s been that way since Roman times, when nobles came to set up villas in the resort towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Both of those now stand in ruins; UNESCO World Heritage Sites that both offer a window onto a glorious past. Back in the city center and you can sample pizzas in some of the oldest pizza joints in the world, walk maze-like districts, learn about the dark history of the Camorra, strut palm-fringed promenades – the list goes on.
This guide will answer your question – is Naples worth visiting? How? By running through five of the top highlights of the throbbing city on the shore. It’s got info on the enthralling Roman archaeological dig sites, details about the fantastic food and wine, and even tips on uber-romantic day trips that can take that honeymoon to the next level. Let’s begin…
For the food
Rome has deep-fried artichokes in oil and butter. Milan has saffron-infused risotto rice. Sicily has its arancini balls. In Naples, the eating anchors on one very special dish: Pizza. Welcome to the veritable birthplace of arguably the most iconic food ever created by human beings. It’s been made here in some shape or form for over 1,000 years, though the version that we know and love today probably emerged sometime in the 1700s.
Things evolved even more in 1889, when, legend has it, the dukes of Capodimonte requested that a pizza be invented to honor the arrival of Queen Margherita of Savoy. The product? A pie doused in passata and topped with cheese and basil, supposedly designed to mimic the colors of the Italian flag.
Fast forward to today and traditional Neapolitan pizza is still very much the backbone of the gastronomy in Napoli. It’s now made to very strict rules. First, the dough must be made with 00 flour to ensure it’s light and fluffy and full of air bubbles. Second, the only cheese you can use is denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) mozzarella from buffalos that graze in the Campania region. Third, the tomato sauce has to be produced with San Marzano fruits that grow in the volcanic soils around Mount Vesuvius.
The famous pizzaiolos of the city ply their trade in countless kitchens across town. However, there are some that stand out from the crowd. They include L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, one of the original pizza joints, and Sorbillo, which is known for using very local ingredients. Both of those are often heralded by long queues from lunchtime onwards, so be prepared to wait for your taste.
For Pompeii (and Herculaneum)
If you only have time to see one history site while in Naples, make it Pompeii. Arguably the most impressive Roman ruin and dig outside of Rome (and even with Rome included, some say), this was once a thriving ancient resort town. Back in the year zero, it would have bustled with life and action, sprouting grand villas and exquisite retreats with views of the Bay of Naples.
Then Mount Vesuvius went and erupted in 79 AD, spewing magma and lava and layers of ash and dust down on the town. Many died and the whole city was encased in strata of petrified rock. Archaeologists started to uncover the lot in the 1600s and launched excavations that would last several centuries. What they found was a town frozen in time; a snapshot of real life from two millennia ago.
A visit to Pompeii will take you around the bay to the south of Naples proper. It deserves a whole day in itself. There’s just so much to see – think a complete amphitheater, totally preserved streets with Roman shops, grand Roman villas, an ancient piazza, and even a brothel! Joining an organized tour is a great idea if you really want to learn the ins and outs of the history and the volcano itself.
Herculaneum is a second site that was also destroyed during the eruption of 79 AD. It’s closer to the center of Naples, a touch smaller than Pompeii, but no less impressive. Dedicated history buffs should be sure to see both places, especially since Herculaneum hosts locations of some of the key mosaic and relic finds, such as the House of Neptune and Amphitrite and the House of the Deer.
For the vibe
We remember the first time that we were on the way to Naples. First, we had to pass through Northern Italy. Whenever we told folks in Venice or Florence or Rome that were bound for the south, they’d grimace and ask, simply, “why?” The truth is that there’s long been a big rivalry between the heavily industrialized and richer north of the country and the poorer, more rural south. And Naples is often target numero uno for those who would cast their aspersions.
They’ll tell you that it is crime ridden, it’s dirty, it’s polluted, and it’s hectic. They’ll say “stick to the north, where the art is, the culture is.” But we say that the off-beat nature of Naples is all part of the charm. Yes, it is a touch hectic. Yes, there are marks of pollution staining the ancient churches. Yes, tales of the Camorra and petty thieves abound. However, what you can guarantee is an honest, unpretentious experience of a truly lived-in and authentically Italian town.
This will come through most when you take to the streets and start exploring. Districts like Spaccanapoli are like nowhere else on the boot. They showcase postbox-narrow lanes strewn with washing lines and peppered with cafeterias. Then you’ll suddenly emerge onto the grand Lungomare di Napoli by the Med, or drop into well-to-do Vomero to see leafy avenues and café-fringed piazzas. Forget what they say. This is an enthralling place!
For the Amalfi Coast
Is Naples worth visiting for its proximity to the uber-famous Amalfi Coast? Absolutely. In fact, we’d say that the perfect Naples itinerary should include at least a couple of days’ exploration down on this much-vaunted run of coastline. You can be there in less than 1.5 hours if you rent your own car, which is certainly the way to do it because there are winding, weaving roads to take the breath away in these parts.
Now tagged by UNESCO, the Amalfi Coast runs for roughly 50kms down the bottom side of the Sorrentine Peninsula. It’s been hailed as the most romantic corner of Europe. We’ll let you be the judge of that but suffice to say it’s all sheer-cut mountains dressed in olive and lemon woods, dotted here and there with medieval villages that roll in shades of pastel pink and yellow to a glittering sea below.
There are plenty of things to do on the Amalfi Coast. You’ll want to set aside some time to laze on the beaches if the weather allows. The best of those include Spiaggia di Tordigliano, Spiaggia di Recommone, and Spiaggia Cavallo Morto. Boat charters are a top way to get around and are sure to leave you feeling like James Bond or a jet setter. Then there are the historic towns, including lovely Amalfi itself and impossibly romantic Positano.’
Is Naples worth visiting if you’re on a budget? Arguably more than any other city in Italy. Mhmm…the prices here are not what they are in the north. The town has a reputation for being WAY cheaper than the likes of Milan and Venice, and certainly trumps Rome when it comes to low-cost vacationing.
Overall, we’d estimate that you’ll need something between $90-110 per person, per day in these parts. That includes around $60 for a hotel, which will bag you a good midrange option in close proximity to most of the main sites and attractions in the Centro Storico, and $30-40 for food and activities. Compare that to the $140/day we recommend for trips to Milan, or the $125/day we think works for Rome.
One thing to bear in mind is that you will need extra to spend if you’re planning on heading south to the Amalfi Coast or the isle of Capri. As we’ve mentioned, the top way to do that region is with your own car rental, which can be over $50 a day in the peak summer months. The hotels in that uber-romantic part of Italy also tend to cost more – you’re looking at around $100 just for a room!
Is Naples worth visiting? Our conclusion
Is Naples worth visiting? Totally. We’d say this city of the south is up there with the top three most enthralling Italian metropolises. It’s grittier and edgier than the artsy places in Tuscany and Lombardy but oozes lived-in charm and character. It’s also the birthplace of a certain dish that we’re pretty sure everyone likes: Pizza. On top of that, you can come to wonder at arguably the most amazing archaeological site on the planet at Pompeii, plus there are stunning beaches and resort towns down on the nearby Amalfi Coast. What’s not to love? Get booking now!