Neapolitan vitality is something pretty special. Italy’s third largest metropolis has the exact assets that make a city great – a complex and electrifying fusion of ancient history and modernity – along with a unique vibrancy, offering everything typically Italian you’d expect from a first city like Rome, and surrounded by natural energy with its volcanic outposts.
Think Naples is just a stopover on the way to Capri or the Amalfi coast? Wrong. Read on for our top things to do in Naples for budget travellers, to learn why it needs to climb up your list this summer.
Bag a bed at our hostel in Naples.
Make the pilgrimage to pizza perfection
Think you’ve tasted good pizza? For the unilluminated, come to Naples, the home of pizza where they do it properly. Listen out for the crackling of a wood fire oven, look out for huge queues – they go down quickly, and follow your nose to a pizzerie for a freshly baked pizza napoletana margherita or a pizza napoletana margherita DOC (with buffalo mozzarella). These guys take their pizza so seriously that in 2004, a regulation was put in place to outline the requirements for a pizza verace napoletana (a real Neapolitan pizza).
Head to L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele for a slice of the divine and unbelievably cheap.
Uncover history in the nucleus of ancient Neapolis
Naples’s Centro Storico, the city’s precious and crumbling centre, was founded by the Greeks and carried forward by the Romans. The streets aren’t perhaps as well-preserved as some ancient districts, but this gives them a ruinous charm, so wander around to embrace old meeting new, with the area’s great selection of eateries and smatterings of colourful merchandise adding to the buzzing atmosphere.
Enter the epicentre of coffee and gelato culture
If pizza comes first, coffee must follow. Short and strong with lots of sugar is the way to take it here, with cautionary tales hitting the news of unlucky folks drinking ten expressi in one day, keeling over and dying. Maybe you can have too much of a good thing – but one or two is heaven on earth.
Try Bar Mexico on Piazza Dante; coffee is good everywhere here so you can barely go wrong, but here you get great value for your euros, with retro packaging too.
Then onto pudding, in the form of bewilderingly delicious ice-cream – gelato, a Neapolitan speciality with an overwhelming choice of flavours – all of which are done well. Try the famous Gay-Odin, with bizarre and wonderful flavours starting from a sweet €1.70.
Hit the underground art scene for the price of a metro ticket
Head down to the city’s underground metro system, grab a ticket, and make your way around Naples’s labyrinth of platforms for showcasing street art. Start at Piazza Dante, just down here you’ll find internationally renowned artists have made their mark – Joseph Kosuth has a fifteen metre neon sign down here quoting Dante’s Il Convivio, and Jannis Kounellis displays fragmented train tracks stuck to the wall, running over shoes.
Be sure to linger at the jaw-dropping Toledo stop designed by architect Oscar Tusquets Blanca, with an ethereal escalator illuminated by glimmering panels climbing into a Mediterranean seascape.
Local beats and budget night life
Everyone, backpackers included, is spoilt for choice when it comes to post-sunset activities in Naples. For a start, you’ve got a whole bay of coastal bars and clubs to check out near to our hostel in Naples, but A Pigna d’Uva is a threadbare hangout which we highly recommend – it looks really basic, temporary and a bit shabby, but wine by the plastic cup starts at €0.70 and it’s an excellent place to soak up some local atmosphere.
Famous DJ Alex Colle also comes from Naples – and although he’s now gone international, he frequently comes back to the city to grace its people with deep house and techno to get crowds going.
Survey the city from fortified Castel dell’Ovo
Make a trip to the oldest castle in Naples, the ‘Castle of the Egg’, out in the bay on the tiny island of Megaride, connected to the mainland by road. Only ten minutes from Naples – Mergellina hostel, this 12th century Norman structure was given its name by the famous Roman poet Virgil, who reputedly buried an egg in a glass jar beneath Castel dell’Ovo , and as long as it stayed intact, the city and castle would too.
Thankfully, they are both still intact – and you can climb to the top of Castel dell’Ovo’s ramparts for magnificent views of Naples.
Embed your memories with a visit to former volcano Vesuvius, and its buried city of Pompeii
Pompeii and Herculaneum were overwhelmed by the eruption of Vesuvius on 24th August AD 79, before which the towns hadn’t realised they were living next to a ticking geological time bomb. 2,000 years later, the volcano looks very different, but the attitudes of the local people are much the same – unconcerned by threats of another eruption due to surrounding fertile soils, which make for great wine, great tomatoes, and great business.
A day trip to the sites of Pompeii and Vesuvius is not to be missed, and the ruins are easily accessible by train from our hostel. Though Pompeii itself doesn’t offer much for visitors as it stands, the sight of Vesuvius towering over the bay, and the urban context for the towns surrounding the volcano is fascinating enough to compensate: surrounding lava fields from the eruption lie wild and deserted, whilst the museum Antiquarium di Boscoreale documents daily life in Roman times.
Discover ancient death traditions
Most of Naples’s strange, ancient death rituals have become lost beneath the fabric of time, but some locals still observe fascinating and morbid traditions when dealing with the dead. One cult activity, capuzzelle, involves people adopting and taking care of skulls in the city’s underground tombs, bringing gifts such as flowers, clothes and pillows to the heads of the deceased. In return, the skulls protect their caretakers.
It’s more than worth the admission of €5 to see the catacombs of Santa Maria della Sanità – with about 40,000 skulls and human remains waiting for some TLC.