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Why go now?
Naples last week looked magnificent, sunshine glinting on the waters of the bay, clear skies allowing views across to Capri, palm trees swaying in gentle breezes. Right now it is warm enough to have an aperitif outdoors without the need for patio heaters, yet you can still enjoy an energetic day exploring this effervescent city on foot without sweltering.
What's more, following January's public protests about the city's refuse problem, the centre of Naples is currently reasonably litter-free. So, get there before the main tourist season begins (with the Easter festivities), and you'll have the city's great sights and museums pretty much to yourself.
EasyJet (0871 244 2366; www.easyjet.com) flies to Naples from Stansted; British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Gatwick; Air One (00 39 06 4888 0069; www.flyairone.it) from London City; while BMI (0870 607 0555; www.flybmi.com) operates a daily service from April to October from Heathrow.
Naples airport is a mere 9km north-east of the city centre. The Alibus airport shuttle leaves at half-hour intervals from outside the arrivals hall, and stops at Piazza Garibaldi (1), where the main railway station is located, on the way to Piazza del Municipio (2). The 20-minute journey costs €3 (£2.30). A taxi to the centre costs around €20 (£15.40).
Get your bearings
Geographical position goes some way to explaining the bold, risk-taking spirit of Italy's third-largest city: Naples is set between two volcanic areas, to the west steaming Campi Flegrei, to the east Vesuvius – sleeping, but for how much longer? Its principal commercial street is via Toledo, running north from wide and elegant Piazza del Plebiscito (3). South-east is the working port area, while due south is the city's 12th-century fortress, the Castel dell'Ovo (4). West of this is the increasingly glamorous Chiaia quarter, with the quieter, tree-lined neighbourhood of Vomero above it. In the mid-east of the city, colourfully sprawling out from via Toledo, is the Old Town or centro storico.
Naples' two most central tourist offices are at via San Carlo 9 (5) (00 39 081 402394), opposite the Palazzo Reale, and Piazza del Gesu Nuovo (6) (00 39 081 551 2701). Both are open 9.30am-1.30pm and 2.30pm-6.30pm daily (Sundays, morning only; www.inaples. it). Here, and at numerous book and souvenir shops throughout Naples, you can buy an Artecard, which gives free public transport and admission to two sights, and half-price admission to others. The card costs €13 (£10) and is valid for three days.
In stately splendour, up by Vomero, the Grand Hotel Parker's (7), at corso Vittorio Emanuele 135 (00 39 081 761 2474; www.grandhotel parkers.it), is the city's oldest luxury hotel, having opened in 1870. Suitably romantic, it has 81 bright, spacious bedrooms and offers spectacular views over the Bay of Naples. Doubles from €255 (£196), including breakfast.
Wonderfully positioned right opposite the Castel dell'Ovo is the Royal Continental Hotel (8), at via Partenope 38/44 (00 39 081 245 2068; www.royalcontinental.it). Here you are within walking distance of everything in the centre, there's a rooftop pool, and a sparkling outlook to Capri. Doubles from €258 (£198).
For a cheerful, less formal option, book into the funky Port'Alba 33 (9), at via Port'Alba 33 (00 39 081 5493251; www.portalba33.it). Doubles at this delightful, three-room B&B cost €140 (£107), including breakfast.
Take a hike
The classic Naples walk is along Spaccanapoli (literally "split Naples"), the popular name for a narrow thoroughfare dating from Roman times that runs through the heart of the centro storico. The road officially changes name several times, but the exuberance of street life is pretty consistent all the way. Around this scooter-tooting road, and the via dei Tribunali running parallel to the north, is an astonishing number of remarkable churches. All are worth a look, but the very best are highlighted here.
Start the walk at the Piazza del Gesu Nuovo tourist office (6). Behind it is the Basilica di Santa Chiara (10). After a peep at its austere interior, walk around to the back of the church where entrance to lovely cloisters decorated with 18th-century tiles is included in the price of a ticket to the museum containing church treasures (9.30am-5.30pm daily, but Sundays 9.30am-2pm; €5/£3.80).
Continue on to the pretty Piazza S Domenico Maggiore (11), turning left up via S Domenico, then right into via De Sanctis. Just beyond this corner is Cappella Sansevero (12) (which is open 10am-5.40pm daily except Tuesday, Sundays to 1.10pm; €6/£4.60). This opulent chapel is a gem of baroque theatricality, and contains Naples' most famous sculpture: the Veiled Christ (1753) by Giuseppe Sanmartino.
Walk on to via Nilo and turn right back to Spaccanapoli – which by now has officially become via S Baigio dei Librai. Walk on past stores selling glorious Neapolitan kitsch – religious icons with light-up halos; endless figures for tiny nativity scenes, from donkeys to kings – until you reach via del Duomo. Turn left here and then right into via dei Tribunali, and walk back westwards, stopping at one the city's most absorbing sights. Beneath the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore (13) are some extraordinary excavations of Graeco-Roman streets, and here you can wander down underground cobbled streets past the remains of a bakery, a winery and more (excavations open 9am-5.30pm daily; Sundays to 1.30pm; €5/£3.80).
You could finish your longwalk at Port'Alba (14), the ancient gateway to the old town of Naples, which is crammed with second-hand book stalls.
Lunch on the run
Order an authentic pizza marinara (with tomato, garlic and oregano) or a pizza Margherita (with mozzarella, tomato and basil) at tiny Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba (15), at via Port'Alba 18 (00 39 081 459713; closed Monday and Tuesday). Dating from 1830, it is said to be the oldest pizzeria in town.
A short walk from Port' Alba (14) is the great treasure trove of the Bay of Naples. Amazing Roman frescoes and mosaics from Pompeii, Herculaneum and more, along with Etruscan relics are on display at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (16) on Piazza Museo (00 39 081 440166; www.market place.it/museo.nazionale; open 9am-8pm daily except Tuesday; €6.50/£5).
For antiques and bric-a-brac, browse the back streets around the archaeological museum (16). Via Toledo is where you'll find some of the city's best bargains in clothes, suitcases, homeware and more. Ambling south along this street, stop to admire the sheer elegance of Galleria Umberto (17), a glass-roofed arcade dating from 1887 and now housing Timberland and BluNauta stores, among others. For more upmarket shops, head down via Chiaia and along to Piazza dei Martiri (18). Running south from this square, via Calabritto offers the swankiest shops in Naples, including Gucci and Louis Vuitton.
The terrace of La Caffettiera (00 39 081 764 4243) on the Piazza dei Martiri (18) is ideal for people-watching as you sip a Campari and soda or a limoncello (€6/£4.60).
Dining with the locals
Make for Borgo Marinari (19), a marina and fishing- village-turned-café-complex at the foot of Castel dell'Ovo. The most ritzy and deservedly famous restaurant here is La Bersagliera (00 39 081 764 6016; www.labersagliera.it; closed Tuesday; booking essential) serving particularly good seafood – the likes of swordfish costs €15 (£11.50). However there are plenty of other options, including Ciro at via Luculliana 29 (00 39 081 764 6006; www.ristoranteciro.it; closed Wednesday) for classic Neapolitan dishes, and Pizzeria de Borgo at via Eldorado 4 (00 39 081 764 9993) for those on a budget.
Sunday morning – go to church
Behind an unpromising neo-Gothic façade, Naples' ancient and lofty cathedral (20) has much to offer, from gilded ceilings to frescoed chapels, and even an archaeological zone of Greek and Roman streets underneath the church. Sunday morning Mass is at 9am and 11am. The church is open to tourists 8.30am-1pm and 5-7pm on Sundays (other days 8am-12.30pm and 4.30-7pm). Admission is free except to the archaeological zone; this is open from 9am-12.30pm on Sundays, 9am-noon and 4.30-7pm on other days, admission €3 (£2.30).
Out to brunch
The cool crowd gathers at Piazza Bellini (21), and here, at number 70, the Café Intra Moenia (00 39 081 290 720; daily 10am-2am) is a relaxed, literary café (it has a small bookshop) serving great coffee and an all-day menu that includes bruschetta (€3/£2.30), and ham and cheese omelette (€7/£5.40).
Take a ride
Half the fun of visiting the leafy Vomero neighbourhood is getting there: from Piazza Duca d'Aosta (22), off via Toledo, a funicular will scoot you steeply up to the via Domenico Cimarosa for just €1 (75p).
A walk in the park
Just west of Vomero's two funicular stations are the lush and lovely gardens of Villa Floridiana (open during daylight hours, free admission). Amble through the grounds to the gracious, neoclassical villa itself, now housing the National Museum of Ceramics (23); open 9am-2pm daily except Tuesday, admission €2.50 (£1.90). Beyond it is a walkway offering panoramic views over the city and bay.
The icing on the cake
In the north of Naples, there's a glorious art gallery in a splendidly grand setting. Take bus 24 from Piazza del Municipio (2) to Capodimonte. Here, Palazzo Reale di Capodimonte (24) (00 39 081 7499111; open 8.30am-7.30pm daily except Wednesday; admission €7.50/£5.80) lies within a wonderfully exotic park. This 18th-century hunting lodge is home to a fabulous art collection, including works by Titian, Mantegna and Botticelli.