In this part of our “One Day” series, we’re looking how to spend one day in Naples, Italy. Naples is arguably the most vibrant city in Italy with a population of around 1 million inhabitants. Jacky and I set off on our four day trip to Naples full of anticipation and the slightest bit of apprehension. We absolutely loved every bit of our trip and Naples is now one of our all-time favorite places.
While one day in Naples is certainly not enough time to explore everything the city has to offer, you will still have plenty of time to see and experience some of the top things to do in Naples. For your convenience, this post includes a free map of the top sights in Naples. And now, off you go 🙂
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Why You Should Visit Naples
Unfortunately, Naples has usually been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons and has garnered a reputation for being a crime-riddled, indigent and filthy city. While it is definitely saddled with its share of problems, Naples is looking better than it has in a long time. Tourist numbers have been on the rise of late, so better get there soon.
Founded by the Greeks in the eighth century BC, Naples has been under Byzantine, French, Spanish, and Austrian rule, each of which left its mark. This has blessed Naples with a rich array of cultural assets and must-see attractions for tourists, rivaling those in Rome.
Naples is also a gastronomic powerhouse with a delectable range of seafood and pastries. But more than anything else Naples is known as the birthplace of pizza and is home to some of the best pizzerias in the world. This signature dish is taken very seriously by the locals and a visit to Naples just for eating pizza won’t leave you disappointed.
Is Naples Safe?
Petty street crime is a big problem in Naples, and tourists are frequent targets. Be vigilant, keep cameras concealed, avoid obvious map reading, and secure bags and purses, especially on buses and the metro, and outside restaurants. Overall, we felt relatively safe in Naples and violent crime isn’t as big a problem as the media may have you believe. Jacky was very apprehensive about visiting but was truly surprised by the city once we got there.
What to Do in One Day in Naples
Nearly all the attractions we’ve included are within a comfortable walking distance of each other. Some parts of Naples have a steep hilly terrain which can make walking cumbersome, especially if you have weak knees or foot problems.
You can also opt to use public transport to get around Naples. There is a wide array of transport options to get you around the city such as buses, trams, metro, and funicular railway. A single ticket costs 1.30 EUR and is valid for 90 minutes whereas the day ticket offers unlimited rides for 3.60 EUR. Tickets can be purchased from the machines at the metro, funicular and train stations or from tobacconists.
Try Neapolitan Pastries
Kickstart your one day in Naples by treating yourself to a hearty breakfast with some Neapolitan delicacies and a shot of espresso. Naples is the last place you want to be if you’re on a diet with such an alluring variety of pastries and sweets.
Sfogliatella is a shell-shaped, cheese-filled Italian pastry native to the region of Campania and is ubiquitous throughout Naples’ cafes and pasticcerias. It is made from flaky dough and is traditionally filled with sweet ricotta, semolina, and candied orange peel. We were both quickly hooked and consumed several during our time in Naples.
A baba is a mushroom-shaped small yeast cake doused in a liquor syrup, usually rum, but also limoncello. It is sometimes topped with whipped cream, custard, and seasonal fruit. Baba didn’t sit too well with Jacky but I gorged on at least two a day during our stay in Naples.
Sfogliatella Mary or Sfogliatella Attanasio are two of the best places in Naples to try sfogliatella and baba (we have marked them on the map for you!).
National Archaeological Museum of Naples
The National Archaeological Museum of Naples is one of the most prominent museums in the world for archaeology, especially of the Roman age. Jacky and I were so besotted with this museum that we didn’t want to leave.
The museum is divided into three main sections. The amazing Farnese collection, whose name comes the family who created it during the Renaissance, includes sculptures and antiques. I was particularly impressed with the gargantuan Farnese Hercules and the Farnese Bull, the latter is widely considered the largest single sculpture ever recovered from antiquity.
The second section of the museum is dedicated to the frescoes and mosaics removed from house walls, and precious objects from the ancient Roman towns of Pompeii, Stabiae and Herculaneum. The intriguing R-rated Secret Cabinet is also found in this section and includes phallic shaped oil lamps, frescoes of couples engaging in sex, and scenes of fornication. The most scandalous statue here is that of the half-man, half-goat Greek god Pan copulating with a female goat. The third section is dedicated to the antiquities and hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt.
The entrance to the museum is 12 EUR, but it is totally worth every penny. You can check opening times on their website.
Take a Stroll in the Historic Center of Naples
Naples’ historic center landed itself on the UNESCO World Heritage site list in 1995. It’s the heart of the city and a place not to be missed. The area is home to a ton of historic and monumental churches, meaning there’s something to marvel around nearly every corner.
I could easily have spent a day strolling through the labyrinth of cobbled streets and narrow alleys, browsing the small shops and engaged in people-watching. You’ll witness street musicians, beautiful churches, artists’ workshops, hordes of locals watching football, and so much more.
The dimly lit streets effuse all sorts of odors, not all pleasant. Laundry is strewn from balconies flailing like celebratory banners, votive candles glow in wall niches and I loved how you can gaze into people’s homes and catch families dining and chatting in their apartments. The historic center was how I always pictured Naples to be, chaotic and teeming with life. It is perhaps the most characteristic part of the city.
A particular highlight here is Spaccanapoli, which literally means ‘Naples Splitter’. It is an ancient street left over from the original Greco-Roman city of Neapolis. Spaccanapoli is a sequence of streets (Via Benedetto Croce, Via San Biagio dei Librai and Via Vicaria Vecchia) that cut through the core of the city’s historical center, splitting Naples in two.
There are close to 500 historic churches in Naples, most of which are ornately decorated and full of religious art. The Naples Cathedral (also known as Cathedral of San Gennaro) is the most important one. Originally constructed in Gothic style in the 13th century, Naples cathedral was redecorated in the late 17th century in Baroque fashion. The cathedral contains some stunning frescoes, marbles, and paintings.
Naples cathedral is most famous for housing two vials of the blood of the city’s patron saint, San Gennaro. The blood is brought out thrice a year for the infamous blood liquefaction ceremony, on the first Saturday in May, 19th of September, and the 16th of December. On these dates, the dried blood liquefies or sometimes doesn’t. Legend has it that if the blood doesn’t liquify on those dates, it will be inauspicious for the city of Naples. On occasions when the blood didn’t liquify, it brought doom to Naples such as an earthquake in 1980 that killed 2,000 residents or an outbreak of the plague in 1528.
Naples Cathedral is open daily from 8-12:30 & 16:30-19:30. Free entrance.
San Carlo Theater
Milan’s La Scala might be the most famous opera house in Italy but the San Carlo Theater (Teatro di San Carlo) in Naples is older and more beautiful. This majestic Neoclassical structure was constructed in only nine months after an 1816 fire burnt down the original. It is well renowned for its atmosphere and acoustics. The opera house is like a five-story horseshoe of boxes with red upholstery, and decorated in gold leaf with sumptuously painted stage curtains. It is impossibly beautiful and I was most impressed with the royal box and the ceiling fresco representing Apollo presenting poets to Athena.
You can either see a performance here or go for the guided tour like we did. We really enjoyed our tour as our guide Alessandro, a stage actor himself, told us some fascinating facts behind the history of the San Carlo theater in an animated fashion. Several guided tours are available daily in English and Italian. You can check out timings and prices here. You’ll want to reserve about an hour for this tour.
Royal Palace of Naples
The Royal Palace of Naples is a great example of the Bourbon dynasty in its pomp. It was built in the early 17th century as the King Philip III of Spain was supposed to be coming to visit Naples and it was deemed that the other royal residences were not suitable for a king to stay in. It was redecorated and renovated by successive rulers and is filled with salons designed in the most extravagant 18th-century Neapolitan style. On the facade stand eight marble statues of prominent kings who ruled Naples from the 12th century to the unification of Italy.
Weave your way through some 30 grandiose and extremely seductive rooms where Neapolitan royalty ruled and entertained in the 18th and 19th centuries. We were completely blown away by the large and eclectic trove of Baroque and Neoclassical paintings, frescoes, chandeliers, opulent furniture and also the gold reliefs lining the ceilings. It’s difficult not be impressed by the sweep of the marble double staircase, the ritzy private theater, and the ridiculously large, tapestry-hung Hall of Hercules.
The best thing of all was that the palace was virtually empty when we were there meaning that we could see all the exhibits properly. The palace is open on all days except Wednesday from 9:00-20:00. Entrance costs 6 EUR.
Piazza del Plebiscito
The Piazza del Plebiscito is a large and elegant piazza (public square) in the historic center of Naples. Of all the piazzas we saw in Naples this was easily our favorite. It is named after the plebiscite held in 1860 that united Naples with the Kingdom of Italy and its House of Savoy. The square is defined by the grand, sweeping colonnade of San Francesco di Paola, a 19th-century church constructed in the Neoclassical style inspired by the Pantheon in Rome.
An interesting fact is that the square was used as a public parking lot from the 1960s to 1994 when it was restored and opened to the public. Piazza del Plebiscito is completely closed to traffic and Neapolitans use it as a gathering place.
Galleria Umberto I
The Galleria Umberto I is a public shopping gallery in Naples that is lined with elegant shops and cafes. Don’t go here for shopping though. Instead, be awed by ornately decorated Neoclassical fronts and the elegant glass-iron covered passage following a cross shape, with each of its four arms opening onto a street on one end and meeting at a rotunda. The vaulted glass ceiling and its giant 56-meter dome create a fascinating sense of light and space. A beautiful mosaic of the zodiac spans out from the gallery’s central point. The gallery was built in the late 19th century and its architectural elements are reminiscent of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan.
Toledo Metro Station
Some of the best sights in Naples lie underground. The Toledo metro station on the L1 line of the Naples metro is an architectural wonder that should not be skipped. Designed by Spanish architect Oscar Tusquets Blanca, Toledo metro station opened in 2012 after many delays and was paid by public funding. This metro station is often called the most beautiful metro station in Europe.
When you head down the escalators you get the impression that you’re descending underwater. This is due to the design of the floor and the walls augmented by deft plays of light and the magnificent use of blue mosaic tiles. On your way up you see warm and golden tones indicating that you’re rising above the sea floor. An oval-shaped opening also alternates between a blue and turquoise glow. I’ve seen a couple of impressive metro stations in Europe, most notably in Stockholm, and this is definitely among the very best. There are also various other interesting artworks like a mosaic that depicts scenes from Neapolitan life. We escalated and de-escalated a couple of times to enjoy all the features.
Sunset views from Castel Sant’Elmo
Nestled in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius on the Gulf of Naples, Naples has one of the most beautiful natural settings of any city that I’ve seen. Head to the Castel Sant’Elmo, a star-shaped fortress atop Vomero hill that offers the best views of the city. You can walk around the entire battlements for a 360-degree view of Naples and beyond. The most stunning view is over to Mt. Vesuvius and the Gulf of Naples to Capri. You can also get a perfect view of Spaccanapoli slicing its way through the core of the historic center. I recommend going in the late afternoon just before sunset. The vista is equally amazing when the city lights up.
Castel Sant’Elmo has been a fortress and a prison and now contains a decent modern art museum and exhibition center. It is open daily from 8:30-19:30, Entrance costs 5 EUR. We highly recommend that you visit the castle shortly before sunset to get the most beautiful views.
Grab a Pizza
No trip to Naples would be complete without eating an authentic Neapolitan pizza, the dish the city is best known for. Nowhere else in the world will you get such delicious pizza. Authentic Neapolitan pizza is prepared according to stringent criteria such as only using particular varieties of tomato and buffalo mozzarella cheese.
The main problem is choosing the right pizzeria as the options are extensive. Of course, you’ll get good pizzas throughout Naples but some places are superior to others. We dined at several top-notch pizzerias during our visit. Pizzeria Gino Sorbillo, located in the heart of the historic center was one of the best. Many Neapolitans regard it as the best place to get a pizza in Naples. There’s inevitably almost always a queue, which can take sometimes take up to an hour but is well worth the wait. You can opt for classics like the margherita and marinara or go for more creative options. Either way, you won’t go wrong with any choice and will leave you very satiated afterward.
Sorbillo is open Mon-Sat from 12:00-15:30 and 19:00-24:00.
Stay a Little Longer
Ideally, we would recommend that you spend at least 2-3 days in Naples. There are many great sights which we had to exclude from our one-day tour, such as the Capodimonte Museum, the Bourbon Tunnel and the Catacombs of San Gennaro. And don’t forget that you can also visit the historic cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum on a day trip from Naples!
Where to Stay in Naples
The best place to stay in Naples would be in the historic center or in the vicinity somewhere as many of the star attractions are close by. By staying here you’ll also get to experience Naples at its most vibrant.
Hostel: Hostel of the Sun, great option just outside the historic center close to the harbor.
Budget: B&B San Gaetano, excellent low budget option in the historic center.
Mid-range: B&B Le 4 Stagioni Dante’s Suites, top-notch selection just outside of the historic center overlooking Piazza Dante.
Splurge: Grand Hotel Oriente, a superb choice just outside the historic center, two minutes from Toledo metro station.
Now, what do you think? Is Naples on your bucket list? Or is there anything else that shouldn’t be missed during one day in Naples? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!