So many visitors to Italy fly into Rome and head north, towards busy tourist areas like Tuscany and Venice. But just two hours south of the capital, you’ll find Naples, one of the most interesting and engaging cities in Italy.
There are so many things to do in Naples that the city deserves several days, exploring the grandeur of the Historic Centre of Naples, the viewpoints from the hilltops, the local restaurants, and the impressive museums.
Some of the most popular Italian cities can seem a bit sanitised, a bit made-for-tourists. That’s certainly not what you’ll find in Naples, where walls are covered in graffiti, rubbish is piled up in the streets, and you need to be careful of petty crimes.
But, although that may not sound appetising, it’s what gives Naples its character and its grit, creating an authentic urban centre that is everything you would expect from southern Italy.
What is Naples known for?
Naples is the third largest city in Italy, about 200 kilometres south of Rome, and is full of character and things to see and do.
Naples is known for being the birthplace of pizza, for being the base for trips to places like Capri and the Amalfi Coast, and as the base for the mafia (although what ‘the mafia’ means has changed a lot over the years).
The city is known for being a bit dirty, a bit hectic, and a bit edgy – but it’s these elements, mixed with the natural and cultural beauty, that makes visiting Naples so enthralling.
Is Naples dangerous for tourists?
Naples can often have a bad reputation and it’s true that on face value it seems much grittier than the clean tourist cities in the north of Italy, like Florence, Milan, and Venice.
While Naples is not extremely dangerous for tourists, it’s definitely more dangerous than most other Italian cities. Pickpocketing, snatching, and mugging is unfortunately relatively common here and you need to keep your wits about you.
I’ve written a story about the dangers in Naples but the main piece of advice is to not stray far from crowds and keep your valuables tucked away.
Is Naples worth visiting?
This is an easy answer. Yes, Naples is definitely worth visiting. The city itself is full of beautiful and grand buildings and the chaotic daily life is just as interesting – its quite different from what you find in the northern cities.
But Naples is also worth visiting because of all the significant sites in easy reach, such as Pompeii, Mount Vesuvius, and the Amalfi Coast. I’ve got more details in another story about day trips from Naples.
What is there to do in downtown Naples?
Quite often tourists will just transit through Naples on their way to the Amalfi Coast or an island like Capri. But even if you don’t have a lot of spare time, there are lots of things to do in downtown Naples.
There’s a wealth of history in the tightly-packed streets of historic Naples. Some of the churches are absolutely stunning, plus there are castles, palaces, and some impressive museums.
I’ll mention quite a few of these sites in this story about the best things to do in Naples, but I’ve got another story with extra details about the Historic Centre of Naples.
When it comes to tourist attractions in Naples, you’ll find yourself spoiled for choice. Wander the streets through the centre or along the edge of the water and you’ll get a sense of what there is to see in Naples – but many of the city’s highlights are hidden through innocuous doors.
To help you plan your time, I’ve put together this list of the best things to do in Naples. There are lots of options here and I hope you get a sense of why this crazy and chaotic city grows on you, despite first appearance.
Castles and palaces
The history of Naples stretches back thousands of years, to early Greek settlements. And, while there’s some legacy from the subsequent Roman era, many of the opulent buildings you see today are from the Middle Ages onwards, when various European powers controlled the city.
If you arrive in Naples by ferry, one of the first structures you might see is Castel Nuovo, the large medieval fortification on the edge of the water. Despite its name (‘New Castle’ in English), it was built in 1279 and was a royal seat until 1815.
The castle is impressive from the outside, but you can also explore interior, climbing the staircases to the different floors and fortifications.
There is a small museum and a few artworks from different period, but it doesn’t have a lot of the furniture and decorations that would once have made it so grand.
Just along from Castel Nuovo and also set right on the seaside, the Castel dell’Ovo (don’t get confused by the similar sounding names) is one of the oldest structures in Naples. It was built by the Normans in the 12th century and changes were made to its fortifications over the years.
You can go inside and explore much of the castle, although its not lavishly decorated. It’s the structure and the stunning views from the ramparts that make it worthwhile. It also often hosts exhibitions.
From sea level, up to the top of Vomero Hill, you’ll find Castel Sant’Elmo looking out over the city centre.
This imposing castle with high steep walls was designed with an innovative hexagon shape in the 16th century by the Aragonese rulers. The large complex was used over the years for various purposes, including a prison, and was a military property until 1976.
There’s now a 20th-century art museum inside (Museo del Novecento) that has quite an interesting collection. But it’s the panoramic views across Naples, the bay, and the coastline that is particularly breathtaking.
The Royal Palace was built in the centre of Naples in the 17th century and was used as one of the main residences of the House of Bourbon during their period of control.
The exterior, with statues of rulers of Naples in alcoves, gives a hint to the grandeur that lies within. The Royal Apartments, Throne Room, and Royal Chapel are just a few of the extravagant rooms filled with artistic masterpieces.
The Royal Palace is open to the public most days of the week so you can explore the decorated rooms yourself.
Although not technically in the city, Caserta Palace is just past the outskirts and certainly one of the best things to do in Naples. This is another of the palaces built by the Bourbon Kings – but is much more impressive.
Caserta Palace is, by some definitions, the largest palace in the world. It covers a huge area and has enormous rooms that glitter with the opulent interior design. From the huge stone staircase to the intricacy of the bedrooms, there’s lots to see.
When you visit Caserta Palace, make sure you don’t miss the vast gardens behind it, with a water feature that runs for hundreds of metres.
I’m sure that, if you’ve done a bit of travel in Italy, you’ve seen plenty of churches. Often they are the most important sights in a city and Naples is no exception.
The churches are some of the best things to see in Naples, with some breathtaking interiors and extremely significant artworks. Try to see a couple, even if you’re tired of visiting churches generally.
Let’s start with Naples Cathedral, the most important church in the city. Walk through the large neo-gothic facade and you’ll find yourself in the large interior, 100 metres long and 150 metres tall.
The range of artistic decorations are a demonstration of the age of the cathedral – it was built in the 14th century – and show a variety of styles. With frescoes, altars, and chapels, there’s lots to see and it’s free to enter.
From the outside, Gesù Nuovo doesn’t seem like a church at first glance – in fact, it looks like the 15th century palace that it originally was.
But inside it opens up to a cavernous church that’s almost unbelievably large. It’s also sumptuously decorated with vibrant frescoes, a golden ceiling, and gorgeous altars.
If you only have time to visit one church, I would recommend this one. Gesù Nuovo is definitely one of the best things to see in Naples.
Across the square from Gesù Nuovo, you’ll find the Church of Santa Chiara, part of the larger Santa Chiara complex that fills most of the block.
The church itself is worth a look but, although it’s really big, it’s quite bare compared to some of the other lavish ones in Naples.
The highlight here is the cloister at the northern side of the church. It was originally from the 14th century but was transformed into a playful garden in the 18th century, filled with colourful majolica tiles and terracotta.
Basilica San Domenico Maggiore
Just a couple of hundred metres away, the Basilica San Domenico Maggiore dominates the small piazza that shares its name with the church.
Like much of Naples, there’s graffiti everywhere and it’s not the most grandiose of forecourts, but this is another one of those situations where you need to go inside to appreciate its glowing golden interior.
Next to the Basilica, you’ll see one of the most popular Naples attractions – the Cappella Sansevero (also known as the Chapel of Santa Maria della Pietà). Inside the small 16th century baroque chapel is an unbelievable collection of artworks that include sculptures and frescoes.
But the highlight of visiting Cappella Sansevero is seeing the ‘Veiled Christ’, a marble sculpture made by Giuseppe Sanmartino in 1753. The veil appears so delicate and lifelike that you would swear it’s not carved out of marble.
There can quite often be a long line for the chapel and I think a good option is taking this guided tour of central Naples that also includes priority entry to see the Veiled Christ.
I know I’ve already mentioned a few museums and art galleries in Naples that are found within castles and churches, but there are a few more of particular note that I want to tell you about.
National Archaeological Museum
Probably the most important of its type in all of Italy, the National Archaeological Museum of Naples has an incredible collection of artefacts from antiquity.
Wandering along the corridors and into the large rooms full of artworks, you’ll find statues and mosaics from across the country – and Europe, in fact. Some of the finest pieces from the Ancient World are here, and there’s just so much to see. To get the most from your visit, I would recommend doing this guided tour of the museum.
One of the most important areas is the collection of items found at Pompeii and Herculaneum. If you’re planning to visit one of the ancient cities preserved by the eruption, make sure you spend some time in this section.
Commonly known as Museo Madre, this museum’s official name is Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina (Donnaregina Contemporary Art Museum).
Housed in the Palazzo Donnaregina, it has modern artworks spread across four floors of the palatial building, with a roof terrace at the top. It’s not exclusively Italian works, with some big international names shown here, like Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, and Damien Hirst.
Museum of Capodimonte
The Museum of Capodimonte is found within Capodimonte Palace, another of the extravagant homes built by the Bourbon Kings in the 18th century.
The palace is worth seeing but it’s not nearly as impressive as the Royal Palace or Caserta Palace. The main reason for visiting is for the museum, which has the main collection of Neapolitan art.
There is also a good collection of major Italian works with artists like Raphael and Caravaggio. This is certainly a museum that will be of interest to art-lovers.
There’s so much to see on the surface of Naples, that you might not immediately consider what’s beneath the streets that you’re walking – but the underground of Naples also has some fascinating sites.
If you’re interested in going a bit deeper, there is this tour of the underground, which takes you to a few different places. Or you can just choose a couple of these highlights.
Fontanelle Cemetery is an intriguing site that began as a burial site in a cave outside the city walls in the 16th century and then became a mass grave for victims of a 17th century plague.
It’s now a vast underground site with bones – and skulls, in particular – stacked up throughout its caverns. Since the late 1800s, locals have been cleaning the skulls and assigning them names to help the souls reach heaven.
It’s an eerie cemetery but has a fascinating story behind it.
San Gennaro Catacombs
You need to go back much further in time to learn about the Catacombs of San Gennaro, which were first built under the city around the 3rd century.
The burial site was expanded over the years and has frescoes and paintings from about a thousand years ago. Spread over two floors, it’s a remarkable site full of history.
You can buy this skip-the-line entrance ticket in advance, which also includes a guided tour and entry to another site – the San Gaudioso Catacombs.
San Gaudioso Catacombs
Although quite similar, the San Gaudioso Catacombs have their own story and unique characteristics.
You reach the tunnels of tombs from the crypt at the Church of Santa Maria della Sanità. Once you’re underground, you’ll find ancient frescoes and mosaics depicting different tales, plus the skulls that remain from people buried here.
Like the other catacombs, you can buy a skip-the-line entrance ticket that includes a guided tour and entry to both sites.
The Bourbon Tunnel
Not everything underground in Naples is about dead bodies. The Bourbon Tunnel is very different.
The Bourbon Tunnel was built in 1853 by the city’s ruler as a way to escape from the Royal Palace to the nearby barracks. It was never finished but was used in World War II as a military hospital.
There are now all sorts of things to find in the tunnel, like abandoned cars and motorbikes. It’s very cool and you can learn all about it on this guided tour of the Bourbon Tunnel.
As you wander through the city, you’ll come across countless piazzas – big and small. These public squares each have their own charm but there are a few significant ones in particular to look out for.
I’ll mention a few piazzas where you might like to spend a bit more time. Sitting in one of them, having a drink and watching life go by is one of the best things to do in Naples.
Piazza del Plebiscito
In front of the Royal Palace, Piazza del Plebiscito forms an enormous space with the arc of colonnades on the other side leading to the Basilica di San Francesco di Paola, an impressive 19th century church that resembles Rome’s Pantheon.
The piazza doesn’t have any outdoor cafes so it’s not somewhere to linger over a meal or a coffee, but it’s probably the most spectacular piazza in Naples. Pop in and have a look at the Royal Palace and, if you’re lucky the basilica will also be open.
Piazza Dante is a bit more representative of a typical square in Naples, with a grand old building forming one side (it’s an old boarding school), outdoor dining on the pavings, and small newstands.
There’s a statue of Dante in the middle, but what I think is really interesting about this piazza is that it’s the start of an area full of tiny bookstores that extends into the alleys behind. They’re worth exploring.
Only a few hundred metres away, connected by one of those alleys lined with small bookstores, is Piazza Bellini, which has a completely different atmosphere.
Piazaa Bellini is much smaller and has quite a few trees, creating a green and (relatively) more tranquil atmosphere. It also has lively bars and restaurants and is busy day and night with people eating and drinking.
Galleria Umberto I
And, I know this isn’t a piazza, but it’s a good time to also mention Galleria Umberto I. This shopping gallery was built in the 1880s and has such a grand and beautiful design to it, with its glass dome as a focus.
Even if you don’t need anything from the shops, make sure you walk through and have a look at the impressive construction with decorations on the iron and glass-vaulted wings and mosaics on the tiled floor.
Food and drink
Naples has a rich food history, drawing influences from the various powers that have ruled the city over the centuries – as well as from local agriculture. There’s a focus on pasta, seafood, and vegetables… and pizza, of course.
While I’m not going to go into much detail about the best places to eat in Naples – that is worth a whole story on its own – I’ve got a few suggestions to get a general sense of what the city has to offer.
You can’t come here and not eat pizza. In the city where it was invented, eating pizza is certainly on the best things to do in Naples.
There are hundreds of places you can get pizza here and, to be honest, most of them are really good. Don’t be afraid to just choose one at random (as long as it doesn’t look too touristy) and you’ll probably be happy.
About ten per cent of the pizzerias in Naples have an official certification for doing things the authentic way, so look out for a sign from the AVPN above the door.
A couple of the most famous pizzerias in Naples are Sorbillo and Da Michele. Both usually have long queues, but the quality is undeniable and the prices are good too.
You’ll also find some great pizza on a street called Via dei Tribunali, which has the nickname of ‘Pizza Alley’. Look for the ones with lots of locals or just try your luck.
But you don’t have to just eat pizza, you can also learn to make pizza in the city where this great dish was invented.
There are a few options for good pizza-making classes, with local chefs able to walk you through each of the steps and share some special insider tips.
I’ve put together three fun options here:
With such a wide range of local dishes (and with such an overwhelming city centre), I think a great way to start your visit to Naples is with a food tour.
A local guide will be able to take you through the streets and point out the sort of restaurants and cafes you should be going to. They’ll introduce you to quick snacks, hearty meals, sweet desserts. I always find this a wonderful way to get to the heart of a new city.
I would recommend this street food tour, which is one of the best around. There’s also this night food tour, which shows you a different perspective.
And I’ve got a few more options here to also consider.
The good thing about Naples is that there’s so much to see, you can wander around by yourself and see a lot of the main sights.
The bad thing about Naples is that there’s so much to see, it can quickly become overwhelming and you don’t know the stories behind most of what you’re seeing.
I think guided tours are a great way to learn about a city. It’s not the facts and figures that make it a worthwhile experience, it’s the context and explanations of how it fits into the city’s history and society.
To get an overview of the city, I have some suggestions of a few general guided tours. It’s worth doing one of these soon after you arrive, to help get your bearings and learn what other things you can do in Naples.
This downtown tour of Naples is great and also includes entry to see the Veiled Christ sculpture, something that can otherwise be a bit annoying to organise.
And there are a few other options here that I would recommend:
While a general tour can be really useful, you might be happy enough exploring the main sights on your own. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something that will interest you.
Fancy doing a tour in a Vintage Fiat 500 or 600? Or how about a private tour on a Vespa?
Or maybe you want to focus on a particular topic? Having a guide with a deep knowledge about one area of interest can be really rewarding. I’ve got a few options to suggest here:
Personally, I like to walk around a city so I can take photos and not worry too much about the traffic. But bike tours have some real advantages – you can cover a lot more ground and it’s a bit more fun.
There are some great bike tours of Naples that will take you to the main sights but also use the opportunity to show you some Naples attractions a bit further out of the city centre.
My top suggestion would be this city bike tour which is safe and informative. But there are some other good bike tours here:
Day trips from Naples
As you can see, there are so many things to do in Naples itself, it’s easy to just spend a few days in the city. But one of the joys about basing yourself in Naples are all the day trips you can do to other impressive sites.
I’ve got a whole separate story with all the best day trips from Naples, so I’m not going to go into lots of detail, expect to mention the most iconic options.
The most famous site near Naples is the Ancient Roman city of Pompeii, preserved in time when it was covered during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Part of the city have been excavated, giving you an incredible opportunity to walk through the urban centre of a Roman city, through houses that still have frescoes, between the columns of temples, and into theatres.
You could spend all day at Pompeii if you wanted, but it can be a hot and tiring visit. I’ve got some tips on how to visit Pompeii in another story.
The volcano that froze Pompeii in time, Mount Vesuvius, looms over the landscapes of Naples and is the most prominent natural feature in the region.
You can hike to the top of Mount Vesuvius (don’t worry – there’s a road that takes you most of the way) and look into the crater and get dramatic views across the city and the Bay of Naples.
I’ve put together a whole story about how to visit Mount Vesuvius with tips on how to get there from the city.
Playground of the rich and famous, the island of Capri feels like a different world to Naples, even though it’s just a short ferry ride away.
Although you can stay overnight, Capri is an easy day trip from Naples, taking all the hassle out of soaking up the natural beauty, glamorous bars and restaurants, and cute towns.
Although there are quite a few activities on Capri (boat trips being the most popular), there’s no need to stress about doing much. In this story about doing a day trip to Capri from Naples, I’ve got some tips on what to see.
If you’re looking for a stunning coastline, lush nature, and colourful towns, look no further than the Amalfi Coast.
One of the upsides of visiting the Amalfi Coast from Naples is that it’s easy to get there – as well as direct ferries, you can get the train, a bus, or even drive.
There are also lots of different options, depending on what you’re looking for. You can just spend a day in the largest city Sorrento, and I’ve got lots of suggestions of what to do in Sorrento.
But you can also venture further afield to smaller villages or to the popular and picturesque town of Positano.
However you choose to spend your time here, I hope I’ve been able to show you some of the best things to do in Naples, exploring its heritage, nature, and modern life. You certainly won’t ever be bored here.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN NAPLES
It’s easy to find your own bit of heritage in the beautiful accommodation options in historic Naples.
If you’re looking for a budget option, I would suggest the really fun Hostel of the Sun.
There are a few good cheap hotels – I would suggest Hotel Europeo Napoli in the historic centre.
For something with a bit more style, I would recommend the modern Palazzo d’Auria ApartHotel.
And when it comes to luxury, have a look at the incredible Palazzo Alabardieri.
2 thoughts on “The best things to do in Naples”
Truly stunning – and some amazing photos. Fabulous!
What a great history to witness in Naples in the form of some opulent castles, the exotic churches, and the rave museums! The breathtakingly beautiful Piazzas are the icing! Thanks for this wonderful post and bringing Naples to the center stage. I understand it is a must visit and needs to get a shout!