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Why go now?
At the start of the year, air fares and hotel rates are low, and the temperature is relatively high thanks to Naples’ southerly latitude. The narrow streets and tourist attractions are uncrowded between now and Easter. And if you indulge in a visit this month or next, you will be perfectly primed for the blockbuster exhibition of the year: Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum.
Fly from Gatwick on British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) or easyJet (0871 244 2366; easyjet.com); the latter also flies from Stansted. The city’s efficient Capodichino airport is just 6km north-east of the centre. The Alibus airport shuttle leaves every 20 minutes or so from the stop outside the arrivals hall; fare €3.
Within about 15 minutes it stops at Piazza Garibaldi (1), where the main railway station is located; 10 minutes later, it reaches the terminus at the ferry port (2), where ships depart for Capri and Sorrento. Returning, the Piazza Garibaldi stop is in the north-east corner of the square, at the foot of Corso Novaro. A taxi to the centre costs about €25; agree a price before you get in.
Get your bearings
Naples sprawls across a crumple of hills, and tumbles down to the corrugated shoreline. With a population of about a million people, all crammed into a tangle of streets, the city can seem daunting, but a mosaic of neighbourhoods makes it manageable.
With the Via Toledo as the main north-south axis, to the east lies the Centro Storico (historic centre) and Spaccanapoli (literally “split Naples”). Further east, north and south respectively of the station are Centro Direzionale and Mercato. In the hills west of Via Toledo are the Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish Quarters) and the upmarket residential area of Vomero.
There are three key piazze: besides Garibaldi (1), they are Piazza Dante (3) at the western end of the Centro Storico, and Piazza del Plebiscito (4) – south of which is the Santa Lucia district, with trendy Chiaia to the west. The most centrally located tourist office (00 39 081 551 2701; inaples.it) at Piazza del Gesu Nuovo (5) opens 9.30am to 5.30pm daily (10am to 2.30pm on Sundays).
The most lavish location belongs to the four-star Art Resort (00 39 081 497 6224; artresortgalleriaumberto.it), an extravagantly Baroque hotel that occupies part of the Galeria Umberto (6). While the furnishings look like they could be museum pieces, the service gets mixed reviews – reflected in the low rates. Doubles typically cost €100, including breakfast, but are sometimes cheaper at booking.com.
For a quieter location, overlooking the bay – with Vesuvius as a constant reminder of the power of the restless earth – the four-star Royal Continental (7) at Via Partenope 38 is a good choice (00 39 081 245 2068; bit.ly/NapHC). Online, doubles with breakfast are available for €109 – including use of the rooftop pool.
Naples has a number of good B&Bs too – sometimes more like small family hotels. The excellent B&B del Corso (8), near the station at Corso Garibaldi 340 (00 39 081 204 087; bnbnapoli.it), which in February and March offers clean and comfortable doubles for €49, with breakfast.
Take a hike
Start a circuit of the Centro Storico at the tourist office (5) at the Piazza del Gesù, dominated by the austere Basilica di Santa Chiara. The tiled cloisters preserve a garden in the city (9am-5.30pm daily, Sundays 10am-2.30pm; €6).
Walk east along Via Benedetto Croce, past the Piazza San Domenico. Pause for a coffee at the Piazzetta Nilo (9) – home to the Bar Nilo whose wall is a shrine to ex-Napoli player Diego Maradona.
The narrow street becomes the Via San Biagio dei Librai, lined with shops selling crafts and religious curios – many made in the workshops along Via San Gregorio Armeno (10).
Go left along the unlikely-looking Vico Zuroli and you emerge next to the Pio Monte della Misericordia (11) at Via dei Tribunali 253 (00 39 081 446 944; piomontedellamisericordia.it; 9am-2pm daily except Weds). This Baroque church houses Caravaggio’s Seven Acts of Mercy, which you should witness both from the floor of the church and the palazzo of which it is part (included in the €6 entry fee).
On the other side of Via dei Tribunali, the Duomo (12) cathedral echoes with a history dating from the 4th century (00 39 081 44 90 97; duomodinapoli.com; 8am-12.30pm and 4.30pm-7pm; 8am-1.30pm and 5pm-7.30pm on Sundays, free). Two glass vials filled with the dried blood of the city’s patron saint, San Gennaro, are kept here.
Go down Via dei Tribunali and see how far you can make it before giving in to the temptations of pizza in the city that invented it.
Lunch on the run
The city’s most popular venue is the Pizzeria Di Matteo (13) at Via dei Tribunali 94. For a historic alternative, continue along the street and through the arch. Immediately on the other side is Port’Alba (14), which claims to be the oldest pizzeria in the world. A marinara (topped with tomato, basil, oregano and olive oil) costs €4.
The Port’Alba (14) is full of booksellers as it winds down to Piazza Dante (3), from which you can follow the store-lined Via Toledo towards the cathedral-like Galleria Umberto (6), with an elaborate marbled floor and upmarket shops selling fashion and trinkets.
You are rarely more than 10m from the nearest café in Naples. The Chiaia district has a fair share – such as the rustic wine bar known as Enoteca Belledonne (15) at 18 Vico Belledonne a Chiaia (00 39 081 403 162; enotecabelledonne.com; open from 5pm, 7pm on Sun/Mon). The best local white wine is Greco di Tufo.
Dining with the locals
Tucked away at Via Solitaria 18 (00 39 081 764 4449), the Trattoria da Peppino (16) makes you feel you have stumbled upon the only restaurant in a southern Italian village – with a warm welcome, homely surroundings and prices on the menu that rarely get beyond €4 – the going rate for pasta in a thick chickpea sauce, just the thing for a winter night.
North of the station at the other end of town, a couple can easily dine for €20 including drinks at the Pizzeria Pellone (17) at Via Nazionale 93 (00 39 081 553 8614), where the queues testify to its popularity; go before 7pm if you want to walk straight in.
Sunday morning: take a view
The original Greek settlement of Neapolis, from which Naples takes its name, stood on the thumb of land jutting offshore from the city centre – and now supporting the Castel dell’Ovo (18), “ Castle of the Egg”. Walk up the ramps, or take the lift, for some formidable city views.
A walk in the park
Green space is at a premium in Naples, with the waterfront providing an alternative source of fresh air. Combine the two in the Villa Comunale, a shoreline park decorated with sculpture.
Go to church
The sculptures continue inside the most bombastic church in Naples: the Basilica Reale di San Francesco di Paola (00 39 081 764 5133), which dominates the Piazza del Plebiscito (4). Outside, curving colonnades mimic St Peter’s in Rome, while inside the church is a Neoclassical copy of the Pantheon.
For a true original, visit the Cappella Sansevero (19) at Via de Sanctis 19 (00 39 081 551 8470; museosansevero.it), where you’ll find Giuseppe Sanmartino’s miraculously sculpted Cristo Velato – the veiled corpse of Christ after he was taken from the cross, conveyed in eerie detail in stone. On Sundays, it opens 10am to 1.10pm; 10am to 5.40pm on other days (closed Tuesdays); entry €7.
Out to brunch
When Giorgio Napolitano, the Italian president, is in town, he calls in at the Gran Caffè Gambrinus (20) at Via Chiaia 1 (00 39 081 417 582; caffegambrinus.com). Dress up, and you can sample the Neapolitan speciality of sfogliatelle – sweet pastry filled with ricotta – with an espresso at the city’s most illustrious café.
The Museo Archeologico Nazionale (21) (00 39 081 564 8941; bit.ly/NapArch; 9am to 7.30pm except Tuesdays; €8) is slightly emptier than usual, with some of its collection en route to the British Museum (see “Travel Essentials”) . But there are still hundreds of fascinating relics from Pompeii and Herculaneum, not least the magnificent Toro Farnese, carved from a single marble block.
On the mezzanine, you can see mosaics that were buried in the volcanic disaster of AD79. Beyond them, the Gabinetto Segreto (“ secret room”) contains Classical soft porn. You are supposed to ask for a special ticket to this corner, but at quiet times this is not insisted upon.
Icing on the cake
Put on your shades and wander along Via Chiaia to the garish pinkness of Fantasia Gelati (22). A generous dollop of Naples’ best ice cream is €3.