The beautiful thing about many cities in Europe is how incredibly walkable they are. While you will need an airport transportation service to get into the urban hub, once you’re there, they are incredibly walkable. This makes sense since European cities are much older than North American ones; Naples was founded in 1285, during the Late Middle Ages.
Some of these attractions are among the popular tourist destinations of this beautiful city, while others are somewhat more obscure. Whether you can make it to these places or not might be a conversation between you and your accountant, but if you can, we recommend you check out these unusual things to do in Naples.
Explore Medical History at the Pharmacy of the Incurables
Behind the doors of the Pharmacy of the Incurables lies one of the world’s most important early hospitals, a tribute to the world of early modern medicine. The Pharmacy of the Incurables began as just that, a pharmacy. Then over time, it became a pharmaceutical laboratory and a hospital, and finally a museum of the time when medicine went from being guesswork to modern medical science. Pharmacy of the Incurables is a unique snapshot of that heady time in modern science and worthy of anyone’s visit.
Take a Walk under Naples
The Catacombs of San Gennaro are one of the oldest Christian sites in Italy. Early Christians prayed and met here in these catacombs carved out of porous stone. The graves of the Catacombs of San Gennaro are a fantastic place to visit and marvel at the history of this place, formed centuries before the city of Naples. Once you’ve completed your catacombs tour, ascend to Rione Sanita above and enjoy its shops and trattorias. The neighborhood is famous for its orecchiette pasta and gelaterias, absolutely worth a visit.
Visit the In Ground Pools of Naples
Due to the aquatic nature of the city, Naples’ people love the water at all times of the year. The many in ground pools of Naples are a tranquil way to experience the cool relaxation of the water without taking the risks of swimming out into the ocean, especially on a choppy day. Though the sea will always be an attractive place to visit, and anyone visiting Naples should go to the coast and at least wade in the Mediterranean Sea, a choice swimming pool or hot tub is an underrated attraction of the place.
Take a Water Bike Tour of the Bay of Naples
The difference between the climate of Europe and equivalent latitudes in North America is the warmth of the Mediterranean Sea. Des Moines, Iowa, a midcontinental city in the United States, is at the same latitude and is much chillier than Naples, which is warm all year round. A unique way to experience this warm and welcoming climate is to take a water bike tour of the bay. Bay of Naples water bike tours use these unique watercraft to get you out and about on the legendary Mediterranean Sea, the cradle of European civilization.
Enjoy the Life of the City from a Tavern
Neighborhood taverns are a key part of European life. A public house or tavern is more than just a place to drink. They are central locations to the city, where all classes mingle and neighborly bonds are formed. Sometimes neighborly fights are fought, but that, too, is part of the release valve of modern life.
Even as little as twenty years ago, cash was the rule at these places but with modern payment processing offering increasing flexibility, taverns are more and more accepting debit transactions. Take advantage of some of these tiny places that have been around for up to a millennium or more.
Taste the Tradition of Ragu Napoletano
Ragu Napoletano is one of the traditional food delights of Naples. A long-simmered meat and tomato sauce, Ragu Napoletano is familiar in principle to Americans, but how it’s served is different and delightful. Compared to an American meat pasta sauce, which is served in totality on a dish, the tomato and olive oil base of ragu Napoletano is tossed with pasta and served as a first course, while the meat is sliced and served as the second course. Experiencing this delight of Naples should be on everyone’s to-do list.
Discover Wine Coolers in the Streets and Hills
No, not the beverage that was created in the US in the 1970s and 80s by mixing wine with lemon-lime soda. These wine coolers are natural caves and artificial cellars built in Naples to keep wine cool so that Neapolitans of all classes could drink fashionably chilled wines in the hot months of the year. Enoteca dai Tosi is a winery built into a cave. Just three hours from Naples, it’s well worth the trip to sit in these sculpted, postmodern spaces and drink the finest product of central Italy. Enoteca dai Tosi opened its designer doors in 2017. Currently closed to tourists due to the pandemic, they plan to reopen soon, however.
Hunt for Naples’ Best Pizza
Scattered around the Centro Storico area of the city, the historic center of Naples, the many pizzerias of Naples are a global treasure. Pizza Napoletana was said to have been invented in 1865 as a celebration of unification, as the colors of the pizza – red tomatoes, white mozzarella di bufala, and green basil – were those of the tricolor chosen by the united kingdom. While this tale may have been slightly fancified for the sake of history, Neapolitan pizza is an important ancestor of America’s most popular dish.
Everyone loves pizza, and Neapolitan pizza with its blistered crust and discs of cheese, fired in an oven for just 90 seconds at an eye-watering 800 degrees, is an experience that one simply must seek out if you’re in Naples. Three of the most prominent are Gino e Toto Sorbillo on Via Dei Tribunali, L’Antica Pizzeria de Michele on Via Cesare Sersale, and Starita on Via Materdei. Wherever you go, be sure to experience pizza here in its most primal form. You will be glad you did.
Visit the Fontanelle Cemetery
Founded in the 1500s, the Fontanelle Cemetery is a charnel house and ossuary in the Materdei area of the city. When the Spanish arrived, there were already questions in the city about how to handle the dead as the city’s cemeteries were filling up and the tradition of having one’s bones interred in the churches simply begged more questions about how to create space in church catacombs already overflowing with the dead. Fontanelle Cemetery was a place to inter the bones of the earlier death, a process quietly begun by churchmen desperate to gain more space to respect the wishes of their parishioners.
In 1872, under Father Gaetano Barbati, a project began to disinter and catalog the chaotic skeletal remains over the centuries, including a plague mass grave from 1656, after which Fontanelle became the unofficial resting place for the city’s immigrants. Today the cemetery has been restored and is a historical site, an exciting but macabre visit for those interested in the neverending history of death.
The Royal Palace of Naples Shows The History of Spanish Rule in Italy
The Royal Palace of Naples was the residence of the Spanish regent of southern Italy. From the early 1700s to 1861, Spain ruled much of Italy south of Rome as the Kingdom of Southern Italy and then as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies as it began to be pushed out in the 19th Century. In 1861, King Victor Emmanuel won his final victory over Spain and unified the country, and the Palace of Naples, once the seat of the Spanish government and a thorn in the side of Italy, became the summer home of Victor Emmanuel.
After his death, the Italian government decided that the palace would cease having any governmental functions and it was transferred to the National Library, becoming a museum. It became a meeting place for Italian patriots and a vital center for urban life. The museum offers both guided and self-guided tours. Its director, Mario Epifani, says it “spans the centuries telling its story and challenging us to question ourselves about our own identity.”
Attend an Opera Performance
The designer doors of Opera San Carlo first opened in 1737, before the famous operas of La Scala or La Fenice. Built for the Royal Palace of Naples, it was known as the Real Teatro di San Carlo during Bourbon Spanish rule of southern Italy and was renamed Teatro di San Carlo after the unification of Italy in 1861. It was around this time that Naples lost its primacy as the musical center of Italy, costing the opera much of its prominence. The boxes’ elaborate red (or gold, in the royal box) curtains and the elaborate stucco painting on the ceiling are just two of the many features that make Opera San Carlo an unforgettable experience.
Take a Tour of Naples’ Doll Hospital
Ospedale delle Bambole began one day in the late 19th Century when puppet theatre master Luigi Grassi was approached by a woman who needed a doll repaired for her child. The artisan, who wore a white coat for cleanliness, approached the assignment with the seriousness of a doctor and over time, his business of repairing dolls and toys took on a significance of its own. Today it is still a functioning repair shop for all kinds of toys. The Doll Hospital also gives tours Monday through Saturday. It’s best to call to make sure the hospital has time because like any hospital, its patients come before visitors.
Trace the Cult of Capuzzelle, the Neapolitan skull cult
Naples is a city of modern light and color, but it’s also an ancient city and like any ancient city, it has beliefs and practices that seem strange to the modern world. One of those is the cult of capuzzelle, a secretive group that flourished from the 1600s to the 19th Century. The cult of capuzzelle believed that the souls of the dead were concentrated in their skulls. Skulls were the home of the pezzentelle, the penitent souls who had not yet crossed from purgatory into heaven, and according to the tradition, praying to the skull could alleviate the suffering of the dead and create favor with God.
The Church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio is one of the centers for this cult in modern-day Naples. This church persists despite official disapproval of the Catholic hierarchy of its beliefs and rites, yet the belief of the people who attend it sustains the practice in the face of official approval. The church opens its doors to all and holds Mass in addition to their specific rites of penitence for the dead. This should be however taken with the understanding that the esoteric beliefs represented are those of real people. Tourism is great, but tourists need to hold respect for the people they’re visiting foremost.
Naples is a thoroughly modern city with a vibrant culture. Its nearness to Rome means that it is close to the beating heart of Italian life, and its position on the coast makes it a wonderful, warm place to visit all year round. The esoteric and exciting attractions of this city are sometimes obvious and sometimes hidden. All of this makes Naples a place where any tourist should go before they die.
Visiting a European city is always having one foot in the ancient and one foot in the modern. Cobblestone streets just meters from modern highways are the norm, not the exception, and more often than not the visitor will have to abandon their vehicle entirely to make any significant headway in a visit. You’ll be glad you did though. These cities are worth the effort.