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The city of Naples is found on the coast of south-western Italy and at the northern end of the Bay of Naples, where it is located in a natural amphitheater formed by the hills and the coast.
Naples has many places of interest to visit, both within the city and in the surrounding region, and is also an active modern town with a great deal of more recent development, noise and activity. While it is not generally seen as a principal holiday destination there are a good number of things to see and Naples is well worth a day trip from the coast when you are in this part of Campania.
The current city layout
Like all cities that have had a significant increase in population across the centuries, Naples has made significant changes to its original town layout. Therefore while the older neighbourhoods still retain their narrow streets, there are also attractive wide boulevards through the heart of the old medieval city.
From Campi Flegrei the very extensive urban area of Naples (population around 1 million) goes down to the sea and the bay which takes its name from the city. It also extends between San Giovanni a Teduccio and Capo Posillipo along the two parts of the coast which are divided by the tip of Saint Lucia.
The surrounding city, including the hill of Vomero, the Riviera di Chiaia, and the areas of Posillipo, Margellina and Saint Lucia have all been significantly renewed and changed over the years.
Many of the highlights in Naples are in the region to the south and south-west of the cathedral, along the Via dei Tribulani and in the streets to the south of that road.
The architecture and art treasures of Naples have developed over the centuries making it a city of great interest to tourists, and it is useful to appreciate the buildings in terms of this 'timeline', so below we present the important monuments approximately according to their date of construction...
Naples from Roman times to early medieval
From the first centuries AD Naples still has traces of paintings in the Catacombs of San Gennaro, while traces of architecture from this period can still be seen in the Basilica del Salvatore.
The basilica dates perhaps in origin from the age of Constantine, when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity. It was then combined with the nearby Church of Santa Stefania in the 5th century, and then radically transformed in the 18th century.
The less ancient churches of San Giorgio Maggiore, the Holy Apostles and of Santa Maria Maggiore are adorned with frescoes in the Byzantine style. The bell-tower of Santa Maria Maggiore is in the romanesque style, with the sculptures belonging to the same period.
The Castel dell'Ovo dates from 1128, and is so-called for its ovoid shape. The fortress was later expanded by both the Normans and the Aragonese, before being destroyed in 1503 and then rebuilt in 1691.
From the 14th century to the renaissance
From the 14th century onwards, when Naples became the capital of the noble family of Anjou, the city became a world-class arts centre. We can do little more than present a roll-call of the great and the good who helped shape the city and whose work you will see decorating the churches and building across Naples:
Two of the most important examples are the Church of San Domenico and the Cathedral and Church of San Lorenzo, where the greatest Italian artists of the time all worked, including Pietro Cavallini, Giotto and Simone Martini.
In the following century, during the Renaissance, some very highly regarded architects, sculptors and painters worked in Naples. In the 17th century Naples had its own school of art which was strongly influenced by the realism of Caravaggio and included Jusepe de Ribera (aka Spagnoletto), Salvator Rosa, Luca Giordano and Artemisia Gentileschi.
Some of the highlights you will see from this period include the magnificent facade of the Church of Santa Maria della Sapienza; the Palazzo degli Studi; the church of Santa Maria della Sanità, the church and cloister of San Martino; and Palazzo Carafa.
A particular jewel of architecture is the Royal Palace, built between 1600 and 1602 by Domenico Fontana (1543-1607).
Naples: from renaissance to neoclassical Naples
By the 18th century the buried towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum were starting to be unearthed near Naples and the temples at Paestum had been rediscovered, which together had the effect of bringing an end to the Renaissance period and ushering in the neo-classical period.
Under the rule of Charles of Bourbon many magnificent works were built in Naples including the Royal Palace of Portici; the Reggia di Capodimonte; the Albergo dei Poveri; the Foro Carolino; and the Church of the Annunziata, by Luigi Vanvitelli. (Note: Vanvitelli is also responsible for the beautiful Royal Palace of Caserta.)
In the 19th century two Neapolitan architects in particular, Antonio Piccolini and Pietro Bianchi, were responsible for many of the finest buildings of this period including the Villa Floridiana, the facade of the Teatro San Carlo and the Basilica of San Francesco da Paola.
For those who love the arts, Naples has about 30 museums. Among the highlights are:
- the Museum of Capodimonte, with antique furnitures, jewellery, porcelains and earthenwares,
- the Art Museum of the Pagliata foundation with paintings by El Greco, Giuseppe Bonito, Corot and Van Laer
- the Civic Museum, with works by Bernardino Luini, Jusepe de Ribera, Luca Giordano and Francesco Solimena.
Even shopping in Naples benefitted from the development of the city, with the Umberto Galleria one of the finest shopping experiences in the region.
Places to visit near Naples - Vesuvius and Pompeii
Most visits to Naples will also include a visit to Vesuvius and another to the Roman city of Pompeii.
The barren landscape of Mount Vesuvius also includes the landscapes of the Campi Flegrei, to which it is closely connected. This area, with 19 craters concentrated in an area of about 60 square kilometres, is unique and some of the craters now hold lakes, while the lake at Agnano was drained and a racecourse was built in its place.
When you think of Vesuvius you will most certainly think of Pompeii, and a visit to this city is highly recommended. The famous eruption of Vesuvius took place on the night of 24 August 79 A.D. and the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were completely buried.
Pompeii was covered by a layer of ash about 8 meters high, while Herculaneum was buried under a flow of mud and lava 20 meters thick, and it is of course the excavations of these towns during the last two centuries, and the buildings and artworks uncovered, that attracts great deal of visitors. See our Herculaneum guide and Pompeii guide for more details.
Naples cuisine - and pizzas
The typical Neapolitan cuisine is varied, with pizza being the best known local speciality. Other recipes to try include the 'Crostoni napoletani', the 'mozzarella in carrozza', the spaghetti with clam sauce, meatloaf, wraps, the struffoli, and countless other local dishes. For wines we suggest a taste of the white and red wines known as the Campi Flegrei.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Campania guide.