Founded by Greeks in the first millennium BCE, Naples is one of the most ancient cities in Europe. And it remains alluring to this day.

Situated on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, with Mount Vesuvius towering in the distance, Italy's third-largest city is home to an incredible wealth of art and architecture. Ancient Greek wall fortifications, a Roman-era theater and a Norman castle testify to its long, rich history. And around every corner in the city’s UNESCO-designated historical center, you’ll find baroque churches, splendid Renaissance-era piazzas and charming cafes.

“Rome is the heart of Italy, but Naples is its soul,” say the Italians – and, indeed, Neapolitans have mastered the art of la dolce vita. Get a taste of how they do with this list of the best things to do in Naples.  

Stroll Spaccanapoli, the beating heart of Naples

Spaccanapoli – literally, “Naples splitter” – is the bustling narrow street that traverses Naples’s Centro Storico (historical center). Buzzing Vespas, neighbors debating politics from opposing balconies, tiny artisan workshops humming with the noise of hammers: Spaccanapoli is the vibrant heart of this irresistible city. You’ll find some of the city’s most famous churches along this Unesco World Heritage designated street, too, including the circa 1470 Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo and the Cappella Sansevero, renowned for its marble sculpture Veiled Christ by Giuseppe Sanmartino.

Take a bite into a slice of pizza in the city where it was born

The delicious aroma of freshly baked dough wafts through the air in Naples, where pizza was born. Resident Raffaele Esposito is often credited with creating the first Pizza Margherita to commemorate the 1889 visit of Italian queen of the same name – though local street vendors had been peddling wood-oven-baked flatbreads with toppings long before then. Pizzeria Gino Sorbillo is one of the best in the city, thanks to its focus on organic ingredients and local produce from the surrounding Campania region. You’d be hard-pressed to find a mediocre slice of pizza in Naples, where the craft of pizza making has been elevated to a high art. 

A close up of the outside of a shop selling nativity figurines in Naples
Shopping on Christmas Alley is an iconic part of any visit to Naples © Angelafoto / Getty Images

Shop for holiday gifts year-round, along the narrow Christmas Alley

Naples has a tradition of presepi (nativity scenes) dating back 1000 years. Every year on the 8th of December, families prepare a presepe with statues of the Holy Family and the animals and townspeople of Bethlehem as a celebration of the Christmas season. And all year long, the narrow alleyway of Via San Gregorio teems with traditional presepe artisans. Here, you’ll find all the nativity figurines you need to create your own display

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See the treasures of the Naples National Archaeological Museum

Built as a cavalry barracks in 1585, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale was established at the end of the 18th century by King Charles VII. The museum is best known for housing the many treasures that survived the 79 CE eruption of Mount Vesuvius, an event that devastated nearby Herculaneum and Pompeii. Don’t miss the Farnese marbles, Roman copies of classical Greek sculptures, as well as the ancient Roman bronzes from the Villa of the Papyri. 

Explore the underground Catacombe di San Gennaro

Named after the Patron Saint of Naples, San Gennaro (Saint Januarius), who was once buried at the site, the Catacombe di San Gennaro are an underground paleo-Christian labyrinth of tombs. Over 3000 tombs were carved out of tuff, a porous stone, in what is the most extensive Christian catacomb complex in southern Italy. The lower level dates back to the 3rd century, and archeologists believe this site served as an even earlier pre-Christian cemetery.

Frescoes line the corridor of the baroque Santa Chiara religious complex
Escape the chaos of Neapolitan streets at the peaceful Santa Chiara religious complex © Jean-Bernard Carillet / Lonely Planet

See the colorful cloister of the Santa Chiara religious complex

Built in 1313–1340 by Queen Sancha of Majorca and her husband King Robert of Naples, the Santa Chiara monastic complex in Naples’s Centro Storico includes the Baroque-style Basilica di Santa Chiara, a monastery, tombs and an archeological museum. Take a breather from Neapolitan chaos and relax for a moment in the complex’s peaceful garden, the Cloister of the Clarisse. Transformed in 1742 by Domenico Antonio Vaccaro, the garden is dotted with citrus fruit trees and majolica-tiled columns and pergolas.

Indulge in Neapolitan pastries

You can’t visit Naples without sampling its pizza – or its delectable pastries. You’ll find a pasticceria on just about every street in the Centro Storico, and it will be hard to resist stopping into every one. Make a pit stop by Scaturchio for sfogliatella, a shell-shaped pastry filled with sweet ricotta cheese, or try the babà, small yeast cakes saturated in rum.

Stroll the Lungomare

The passeggiata is a time-honored Italian tradition that calls for taking a stroll in the evening, usually after dinner. This casual social event is a moment when friends spontaneously meet up, when lovers walk hand in hand, when kids are treated to a gelato by mom and dad. Naples’s Lungomare, a promenade situated along the Mediterranean Sea, is perhaps the most popular place for this evening ritual.

Sunset at historic Castel dell'Ovo in Naples, Italy
Castel dell’Ovo on the waterfront offers stunning view of the Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius ©HUANG Zheng/Shutterstock

See the Castel dell’Ovo, Naples’s seafront “Egg Castle”

According to legend, the Roman poet Virgil put a magical egg into the foundation supporting Naples’s seafront “Egg Castle,” the oldest fortification in Naples. Built up by the Normans in the 12th century, the site has housed a fortress, a royal palace and a prison over its long history. While the castle itself is closed, visitors can stroll the tiny island it occupies, the Borgo Marinaro – the same site where the Greeks first settled the area in the 7th century BCE. Expect gorgeous vistas of the Gulf of Naples, with Mount Vesuvius looming in the distance. 

Ascent 4167 feet on the Funicolare Centrale

Naples’s Funicolare Centrale zooms passengers 4167 feet upwards, from Piazza Fuga to Piazza Vanvitelli. In operation since 1928, the inclined railway is a major mode of transportation for locals. Spend some time shopping the many boutiques that surround the octagonal Piazza Vanvitelli, the final stop on the funicular. The trip from the bottom piazza to the top piazza takes about five minutes.

Climb the ramparts of Castel Nuovo

The striking medieval Castel Nuovo, first erected in 1279, was the royal seat for kings of Naples, Aragon and Spain until 1815. Take a tour of the castle and admire the Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel), where you’ll find frescoes by Giotto; admire the incredible collection of 17th-20th century masterpieces by Neapolitan painters; then climb the ramparts for stunning views of the city. 

Peek inside Naples’s Royal Palace 

From the 13th through 19th centuries, Naples was a kingdom that ruled most of southern Italy – and the Palazzo Reale was one of the sprawling dominion’s most lavish palaces. Step inside this lavish palace to see ornately decorated, outstandingly preserved rooms that evoke the opulent lifestyle of the kings, queens, princes and princesses who once called the magnificent palace home.

Catch a performance at the opulent Teatro San Carlo

The Teatro San Carlo is the oldest continuously active opera house in the world. Connected to the Royal Palace, it opened in 1737 and has been hosting world-class performances ever since. Take in a performance of a work by Verdi or Puccini from one of the auditorium’s gilded box seats to feel like a royal yourself.

Climb to the summit of Mount Vesuvius

The active volcano that towers over the Bay of Naples, Mount Vesuvius was responsible for destroying Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 CE. (The looming volcano last erupted in 1944, and no one knows when she will perk up once again.)

The best way to experience Mount Vesuvius is to hike to the summit along the four-mile “Gran Cono” Trail. At a fairly steep grade, the trail will take you about 20 minutes to hike from the base to the refreshment stand at the summit, where spectacular views of the Bay of Naples and the volcanic crater await. 

The ruins of Pompeii seen under a brilliant blue sky, with Mount Vesuvius in the distance
The ancient site of Pompeii is only 15 miles from central Naples © WitR / Shutterstock

Visit the ruins of Pompeii

When Mount Vesuvius erupted, poisonous gases and rocks were unleashed, burying the thriving city of Pompeii. The volcanic debris trapped the town’s unfortunate residents in ash that eventually hardened; archaeologists later filled the voids left by their decomposed bodies with plaster. Today, at the vast archeological park at the site of the ancient town, the result is a moving series of body casts that show the horror-stricken poses of these ancient citizens’ last moments. You can also tour excavated sites that offer a glimpse into what was once a thriving and sophisticated Roman city.

Located 15 miles south of Naples, Pompeii can be easily reached from downtown Naples by the local train, called the Circumvesuviana.

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