36 Hours in Naples, Italy

A city of glorious but tattered beauty, known for its vibrancy and, yes, a frisson of menace, Naples is now humming with visitors. In this Mediterranean capital watched over by the still-kicking Vesuvius volcano, tourist numbers have more than doubled since 2010, crime has dropped (notably, the murder rate is down 44 percent in 2018 over the previous year, according to the Ministry of the Interior), and the intransigent piles of trash are far fewer. Elena Ferrante’s beloved Neapolitan Novels (and the ongoing HBO adaptation of them) — along with the gritty “Gomorrah” books, movie and TV series — has roused curiosity about a destination long considered little more than a steppingstone to Capri, Ischia and Amalfi. And while the Museo Archeologico, with its extraordinary collection of antiquities, remains a bit neglected, most of the city’s art, culture and social scene are on an optimistic bender, and the charms of Naples — the Baroque excess, the indulgent cuisine, the mesmerizing fugue state of it all — beckon as they did in the city’s Grand Tour glory days.

Naples is a city of masquerades, of staged operas and tromp l’oeil pomp. Acquaint yourself with the pageantry at the Villa Pignatelli, a house museum built as a private mansion in 1826, which harks back to the end of Naples’ heyday during the Bourbon reign here, when the city was one of Europe’s most dazzling capitals. It’s not quite the Reggia di Caserta (the 1,000-plus room palace 18 miles outside Naples, built on the model of Versailles), but this neo-Classical jewel is a sumptuous introduction to the florid tastes of the city’s golden age, with its gilded chandeliers, frescoed Pompeii-style bathroom, intricate boiserie panels and spectacular English garden, all putting on the airs of earlier illustrious eras. Admission: 5 euros, or about $5.50.

The Chiaia neighborhood offers a slew of Italian luxury brands, but also some distinctively local shops, like Livio De Simone, a fabric printer since the 1950s. The house’s nearby atelier silk-screens a line of dresses, bags and textiles whose bright, geometric patterns carry over to the store’s ceramics made in nearby Vietri. In this city renowned for sartorial men’s wear, custom-fitted suits and shirts may require time, but Naples’ artisan tie makers offer quicker gratification, as at Ulturale, where handmade, tailored neckwear is available in a rainbow of classic versions with good luck charms sewn inside. For an even more colorful adventure, stop into Dr. Vintage, where the owner, Rosario Recano, regales visitors with tips for his city while showing off his pristine secondhand designer collection. And jewelry lovers can tuck over to Leonardo Gaito on Via Toledo, a family-run shop that’s been around since 1864, where new works from local artisans complement antique creations.

On Via Toledo, the main street known as Spaccanapoli (“Naples splitter”), take the funicular to the upscale neighborhood of Vomero, a long sleepy enclave that’s home to a handful of spirited destinations. Start with Riot Laundry Bar, a concept store run by a young team, and a magnet for the reawakened music scene in Naples. Beyond the street wear and ecological jeans on offer, there’s an energetic ground-floor bar (beer, 5 euros) and Futuribile, a basement record shop with Italo disco, boogie and 1980s-era albums recorded in Naples. Opening at 8 p.m. up the block, Archivio Storico is improving the art of drinking in Naples with cocktails (around 10 euros) based on antique Neapolitan recipes as well as classic American styles, served in an underground network of intimate grotto rooms.

Just behind the waterfront promenade, Casa di Ninetta serves what the owner, Carmelo Sastri, calls “my mother’s and my grandmother’s home-cooking” in this decade-old operation run with his sister, the well-known Italian singer and actor Lina Sastri. Under an ornate, late-19th-century ceiling, with classical music in the background, the restaurant prepares magnificent renditions of Neapolitan traditions, like bocconcini di baccalà (fried codfish balls; 10 euros), and the dense onion ragù of pasta Genovese (11 euros). Cleanse your palate with a basil amaro from nearby Capri (6 euros), and stroll along the seaside to appreciate the ancient block of Castel dell’Ovo illuminated on the water.

Perhaps the least healthy but happiest way to start a day in Naples is with a sfogliatella, a pastry pocket of fresh ricotta with candied fruit and frolla (smooth) or riccia (ridged) shell, all made crumbly with lard. (Note to vegetarians and vegans in Naples: Expect lard where you would least expect it.) Scaturchio, making the same flawless recipes since 1905 in this Piazza San Domenico Maggiore location, serves an extraordinary sfogliatella riccia (1.70 euros) with a gossamer crust and a delicate orange-flecked cream.

Naples was a magnet for new art in the 1970s; after a long lull, the city’s art scene is buzzing again, epitomized by last year’s opening of an exhibition space by the London-based Thomas Dane gallery inside the 19th-century Villa Ruffo. Also in the Chiaia district, the Galleria Lia Rumma has presented the works of Anselm Kiefer, Mario Merz, Marina Abramovic, Alfredo Jaar and other groundbreaking artists here since 1971. Another pioneering gallerist of the 1970s, Giuseppe Morra, opened the Casa Morra in 2016 to exhibit his extensive personal collection inside a crumbling 18th-century palazzo.

The family-run Trattoria San Ferdinando offers a cozy respite from Naples’ hectic streets. At this establishment, whose butter-yellow walls are hung with copper pots and antique musical scores, the menu changes daily “according to nature,” as the owners like to say. The excellent fish-focused offerings may include dishes (around 12 euros each) like bass carpaccio marinated with oranges and lemons, or zigoli pasta with zucchini flowers, mussels and a light basil pesto. Desserts, like the velvety ricotta cake with orange marmalade, are equally enchanting.

Naples’ religious sites are marvels of artistry. Steps from the Duomo, the often-overlooked Donnaregina convent complex encompasses the soaring naves of two churches — a 14th-century, intricately frescoed Gothic church, and an extravagantly gilded Baroque church in multicolored marble — as well as the Museo Diocesano, housing ecclesiastical artworks, mostly from the Naples school of painters, which includes the 17th-century painters Luca Giordano and Andrea Vaccaro. A few steps away, the 14th-century Santa Chiara cloister encircles a citrus garden ornamented with majolica-tiled columns and benches. Hand-painted by the ceramists Donato and Giuseppe Massa in the mid-1700s, the tiles, festooned with flowers, vegetables and storytelling scenes, were the exclusive delight of the nuns who lived there in seclusion for nearly 200 years, until monks took their place and opened the grounds to the public in 1925.

It’s a tenacious fight for the top coffee spot in Naples — the city is often said to serve the best espresso in Italy — where the local method produces a dense syrup of an espresso shot, often with a hefty dose of sugar already mixed in unless otherwise specified, and served alongside sparkling water to cleanse your palate beforehand. For an espresso in what is surely the most exquisite cafe in town, grab a red velvet cane chair in the gilt-edged rococo environs of Gambrinus (4 euros for a table-service espresso; 1.20 at the counter).

For all its bygone splendor, Naples is a casual city, dominated by street food and cheap bars. For an authentic taste of it all, head to Via Tribunali, the principal thoroughfare for pizza, peppery Neapolitan taralli, and deep-fried everything. At the friggitoria (fried food stand) of Di Matteo, the cuoppo, or paper cone, of deep-fried items like potato fritters, polenta and eggplant is an unmissable Naples delicacy. Down the road, enjoy a pre-dinner drink at Perditempo, a scruffy, beloved local bar and an unpretentious literary cafe hosting occasional book readings, but more frequently blasting reggae music into the crowd gathered streetside.

In a convivial dining room embellished with its original 1941 frescoes of Naples and portraits of bygone Italian celebrity regulars, Mimì alla Ferrovia serves dishes that have themselves barely changed over time, with an equally immutable and formally dressed staff. A dynasty of four family generations of owners and three in the kitchen put continuity at the heart of this restaurant in the central (and sketchy) train station neighborhood. Serving mostly locally caught Mediterranean fish, the chef, Salvatore Giugliano (grandson of the restaurant’s first chef), has tweaked the traditional recipes, excelling with bass ravioli with butter, broth, shrimp and squid (12 euros), and a ricotta of the region’s special buffalo milk topped with his housemade Vesuvian tomato jam (2 euros).

To truly appreciate Naples, old and new, head into its subterranean belly. Since 1995, metro stations have been embellished with more than 200 public artworks; next year will see a new Duomo station by the architect Massimiliano Fuksas that pays homage to the Roman temple discovered amid the excavations. And at 130 feet below, wonders of the ancient world are revealed, as the Napoli Sotterranea organization’s tour (10 euros) takes you into a maze of caves that stretches over 280 miles, carved into the volcanic tuff bedrock by the Greeks in the 4th century B.C. The 90-minute tour guides visitors past a Greek-Roman theater where Nero once performed, and through the archaic hollows where Neapolitans took shelter during World War II air raids.

A new shuttle service running from Piazza Trieste e Trento to the Museo Capodimonte (16 euros round trip, including museum entrance) makes this under-visited treasure trove more accessible. The gargantuan castle, begun in 1738, was constructed as a hunting lodge for the Bourbon king Charles III. Perched on a hilltop with views across the city to Capri and Ischia, Capodimonte is surrounded by the 300 acres of woods and parkland that originally served as royal hunting grounds. Inside, the staggering collection of art includes masterpieces by Titian, El Greco, Caravaggio and Raphael.

No one comes to Naples to get skinny, and the pizza, invented here in the 19th century, is still probably better than anywhere else. At Concettina ai Tre Santi, the chef Ciro Oliva may be the most talented pizzaiolo in town, the fourth generation of a family dynasty running this folksy dining spot in the working-class Sanità neighborhood. For the very hungry, the chef proposes the hedonistic 12-course pizza-tasting menu (45 euros, call ahead), alongside single pies (8 euros) all made with local ingredients, and a well-researched wine list that includes a decadent Pertois-Moriset Champagne. Menu highlights include the Parthenope, a fried pizza stuffed with buffalo ricotta, smoked ricciola, seaweed, orange zest and ground pepper. No reservations, but it’s worth the wait.

Airbnb offers affordable options throughout the city (average rate, $73), with plenty of stylishly modern apartments in the swankier Chiaia neighborhood.

The new wave of tourism has produced an elegant crop of small-scale modern hotels, like the eight-room Artemisia Domus (from 119 euros a night), which opened inside a former fourth-floor residence in 2018, rebuilt with wood beams, the remains of a fresco, and a few other original details intact. Some stairs are involved, but the hotel rewards you with spacious rooms, some with a sauna or Jacuzzi.

Located in Naples’ pretty, seaside Posillipo neighborhood, Primo Piano Posillipo (from 105 euros a night) — conceived by the architect Giuliano Andrea dell’Uva, and opened in February — is a colorful vision of contemporary style, showcased in its four airy rooms, including one with a stunning Mediterranean view.

For traditional grandeur, the 137-year-old, nine-story Grand Hotel Vesuvio (rooms with seaview balconies, from 290 euros), on Naples’ pedestrian waterfront, overlooks the Castel dell’Ovo and the Bay of Naples. Its upholstered walls, Murano chandeliers and liveried staff suggest the old-school sophistication of another age.

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