“Naples is a paradise where everyone lives in a state of intoxicated self-forgetfulness, myself included. I seem to be a completely different person whom I hardly recognize. Yesterday I thought to myself: either you were mad before, or you are mad now.”Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Even a short weekend in Naples can transform you. It certainly did Goethe.
The product of over 27 centuries of history, Naples is a colorful mosaic — a vibrant clash of different cultures and styles. The very cobblestones of Naples are part of its cultural heritage, along with the sights, sounds and smells of its historic center, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It would take a lifetime to experience everything Naples has to offer, but here’s a weekend guide that will give you a first taste of Napoli and its people.
Arrive and check into one of the best hotels in Naples. Start the day with a stroll along the lungomare, the city’s waterfront, which boasts one of the world’s most famous landscapes. This view has entranced artists for millennia. Today, you’ll spot newer ships on the aquamarine sea, but the panorama has stayed the same. Mount Vesuvius is visible from every part of the city, not looming or threatening, but as a calming presence that fully belongs to the landscape. From Via Caracciolo you can also spot the other side of the Gulf all the way to the city of Sorrento, another touristic magnet.
Halfway down the lungomare you’ll stumble upon Castel dell’Ovo, the most ancient castle of the city, situated on the small island of Megaride. Legend says this is where the city of Naples was first founded. You can stop for lunch at one of the many restaurants in the characteristic Borgo Marinari, a fisherman’s island right by Castel Dell’Ovo, which is connected to the mainland by a short bridge. After lunch, make your way back towards the center of the city.
Piazza del Plebiscito gives yet another unusual but beautiful mix of past and present. The square is flanked by the Palazzo Reale, now turned into a national library where you can consult over one million historical copies of ancient books. Cross the street to reach Teatro San Carlo, the first opera theater in Europe. Stendhal recounts in his travel log that upon seeing the opera house, he remained speechless, and that nothing in all of Europe came even close to its magnificence.
Just outside the square, visit Gran Caffè Gambrinus for a taste of true Neapolitan coffee and traditional pastries. Founded in 1860, the coffee shop is older than the Italian state. Notice the Art Nouveau decorations inside. From here, keep walking north along the bustling Via Toledo, a shopping street dotted with street food and pastry shops. Highlights include the grand Galleria Umberto I and Pintauro, a historical pasticceria that is famous for its sfogliatella. Continuing on Via Toledo, the inconspicuous Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano houses artistic treasures inside, like Caravaggio’s painting The Martyrdom of St. Ursula.
Via Toledo also prides itself in having one of the most beautiful metro stations in Europe. It’s worth buying a ticket to head underground to marvel at the blue mosaic scene inspired by the Mediterranean Sea.
Start your day in Piazza del Gesù Nuovo. An obelisk demands attention at the center of the square. To its right, enter the unusual Church and notice its interior with the many frescoes.
In front of it, the Monastero di Santa Chiara has a beautiful cloister that you don’t want to miss. The whole complex was almost entirely wiped out by bombs in 1943, but it has been rebuilt and remains one of the city’s most popular attractions. You are now walking Spaccanapoli: everything in this long street is so intrinsically Naples, from the cafés and ancient artisan studios to the very stones beneath your feet.
After a ten-minute walk, you’ll find yourself in Piazza San Domenico, with a church of the same name. Pop inside before making your way down a nearby street to the Cappella Sansevero, where the legendary sculpture Cristo Velato is held. One of the main attractions of the city, this marble statue is a glorious work of art to behold. The veil draped over Christ’s body is so well-made that a legend circulated that the author of the statue had actually used alchemy or magic to turn a real veil into marble.
To have a perfect weekend in Naples, you must stop for a pizza on Via dei Tribunali — possibly more than once. Sorbillo and Di Matteo are two of the best pizzerias in Naples. If you’d rather have pasta, stop at a nearby trattoria and order scialatielli ai frutti di mare, a popular local dish served with fresh seafood.
Continuing along Spaccanapoli, you’ll reach San Gregorio Armeno. This long, narrow alley is known for its presepi (nativity scenes), a longstanding Neapolitan tradition. You’ll notice the artisans don’t limit themselves to classic scenes from the Bible. Many figurines depict personalities from the entertainment industry as well as soccer players and politicians. Popular miniatures feature Barack Obama, Diego Maradona and Greta Thunberg.
Then head underground to discover a whole new world beneath the Church of San Lorenzo. You can visit two levels of the city below ground, revealing the original Greek city of Neapolis and Roman ruins. Shops, houses and even an amphitheater show what the city looked like in ancient times.
Venture a bit further to reach the Duomo where the Treasury of San Gennaro, the patron Saint of Naples, is kept. The Treasury is worth more than all the jewels of the British Crown. Every year, San Gennaro “performs” his miracle on three established days every year: a vial of his blood, solidified by the centuries, will melt. If it doesn’t, the faithful in Naples take it as a great omen of doom for the city. Whenever the blood doesn’t melt, catastrophic events take place within that year, like a cholera epidemic in 1973, an earthquake in 1980, and more recently, the COVID pandemic in 2020.
Start your morning at the Certosa di San Martino, a hidden gem with commanding views of the city. With a church, cloister and museum, there are many beautiful paintings, sculptures and frescoes to see. Next to the Certosa is the medieval Castel Sant’Elmo, the largest of the seven castles inside the city of Naples. The top floor is an immense, star-shaped open balcony that dominates the city from its highest point. From there you can truly witness the magnitude of Naples and feel at one with the city itself, with its people and history.
Then go enjoy some sunshine — this is the city of the sun and the sea, after all! — in Villa Floridiana, a park that used to be the small private residence of a queen of Naples in the 1800s. Today the palace has a ceramics museum and immense gardens where kids play and students study in the grass.
For lunch, taste the homey cuisine of the family-run trattoria La Cucina Di Elvira. Here, Enzo the owner will serve you a complete menu of starters, primo and secondo at an unbeatable price.
After lunch, make your way back down to the sea to visit the elegant Posillipo neighborhood. Its ancient name, Pausyllipon meant “pause from pain” because its viewpoint was so cathartic. This is where the Roman nobles had their villas, with views of the three main islands: Capri, Ischia and Procida.
If you’re visiting during the summer months, you can go for a swim! Bagno Elena, a small cove set beneath a 19th century seaside villa, is a beautiful option. With a car or taxi you can reach two more destinations along the coast. The fisherman’s bay of Marechiaro is a favorite weekend hangout for Neapolitans, and the Gaiola park has rocky platforms and crystalline sea — it’s a popular spot with Neapolitan youth.
The best place to watch the sunset in Naples is Parco Virgiliano. Another favorite spot with the locals, it has a small ancient arena inside and a modern stadium where you can jog and do sports. Grab a spritz at one of the cafes and admire Naples and the sea for the last time.