16 Things Naples is Known and Famous For

An unforgettable though underrated city, Naples is known for being the birthplace of pizza, for its instantly recognizable cityscape with Mount Vesuvius as a backdrop, and for its archaeological and architectural treasures.

Piazza del plebiscito.

The largest city in southern Italy is also famous for its exciting cultural scene, thanks to its inventive and fascinating residents.

Understanding Naples is probably impossible; you’re supposed to feel it instead, as you do with any masterpieces. Shall we do it together?

1. Mount Vesuvius

I’m not sure why the Greeks founded what eventually became Naples (then called Parthenope) so close to an active volcano — despite the huge relevance of the next item on our list.

In 79 CE, Mount Vesuvius infamously buried the entire resort town of Pompeii and all its residents under six meters (19.7 ft) of ash and debris. Don’t panic, though: the volcano is technically considered dormant (i.e. “sleeping”) because its last explosion happened in 1944.

Vesuvius volcano from the air

To be clear, Mount Vesuvius could actually go off at any minute. But minor earthquakes and the release of a column of smoke would precede the explosion by weeks or perhaps months, which would enable a total evacuation of the area.

Meanwhile, we can marvel at its imposing presence as a major part of Naples’ cityscape since its founding. The more adventurous of you should tour the main crater and have the entire city at your feet as you climb.

Pro tip: The sun rises from behind the Vesuvius in Naples, so absolutely watch it if you don’t mind waking up in the wee hours (or if you haven’t gone to bed yet!).

2. The Gulf

Apart from being economically important to the city and its surroundings, the Gulf of Naples is home to dazzling stretches of coastline, including the iconic islands of Capri and Ischia and the Sorrento Coast (i.e. the “other side” of the Amalfi Coast).

Ancient Greeks were so obsessed with finding prime locations for their ports that the combo gulf + volcano apparently seemed more attractive than dangerous to them.

Gulf of Naples

Yet I bet these two monumental features of the Neapolitan landscape are at least partly to blame for locals’ taste for romanticism and drama.

The port established by the Greeks went on to become one of the largest in the Mediterranean for over 2,000 years, but these days the flow of passengers there (2nd in Italy) is much more relevant than freight traffic (10th nationwide).

3. Pizza

Neapolitans have been full-blown foodies before it was cool. Buffalo mozzarella and tomato sauce were invented in the city, so it’s no wonder the greatest dish combining these two (pizza, of course!) also hails from Naples.

Interestingly, Neapolitan pizza is likely different from any pizza you’ve tasted abroad. Its crust is salty, crunchy, and thin (thickening toward the edge). It’s typically less cheesy too, as the balance between all the ingredients is the no. 1 priority of Italian cuisine in general.

Pizza making in Napoli, Italia

Whereas in Milan people will line up for half an hour to grab gelato (which doesn’t make much sense in my opinion), the wait time for takeout pizza in Naples is definitely worth it.

In the most traditional pizza places in town (e.g. Di Matteo, L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, and Gino Sorbillo), folks will actually crowd around the front door to curb their cravings. Don’t shy away, though!

4. Historic architecture

Naples boasts an extremely diverse building stock spanning two millennia. You have Greek and Roman ruins, medieval castles, Baroque churches, neoclassical palaces,… and modern skyscrapers sometimes at a short distance from one another.

New Church of Jesus (Gesù Nuovo).
Editorial credit: Serge Yatunin / Shutterstock.com

The city was the birthplace of a distinctive brand of Baroque architecture as well, which is characterized by dramatic façades, elaborately ornate interiors, and strong colors — an over-the-top style for an unapologetic town.

Naples is really so jam-packed with history that even its underground is a world in its own right. It features a network of tunnels that have served as aqueducts, catacombs, air-raid shelters, and military structures across the centuries.

5. La Canzone Napoletana

The Neapolitan music tradition, aka the Canzone, is one of the oldest genres of urban music on Earth. It may date as far back as the 13th century, yet it took its modern shape around the mid-19th century.

The Canzone was influenced by dancing rhythms like tarantella and opera buffa, a comical form of opera that was also created in Naples.

Enrico Caruso star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood
Enrico Caruso was Canzone’s biggest star of all time and even earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Editorial credit: Hayk_Shalunts / Shutterstock.com

At some point, lyrics started turning more nostalgic and pessimistic. The devotion to the city, though, remained unchanged.

Neapolitan music then kept a consistent exchange with pop music (both Italian and foreign) and continues to evolve to this very day.

6. Castel Nuovo (and all the other castles)

While Naples is extremely religious and boasts countless stunning churches, monasteries, and palaces, the castles dotting the city are its most famous landmarks.

First and foremost, there’s Castel Nuovo (or the “New Castle”), which perfectly represents the transition between the medieval walled city and the luxurious Renaissance one.

Castel Nuovo (Maschio Angioino) in Naples during a sunset

Since the former fortress was built in the 13th century, the name “new castle” may sound ironic. Yet that references the fact that Naples already had two older castles, Castel dell’Ovo and Castel Capuano.

By the way, Naples is the sole city on the planet to have as many as seven castles within its borders. This underlines how rich and powerful it used to be, as rulers constantly feared the possibility of an invasion.

7. The archaeological heritage

The neighboring ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum may be more famous as archaeological sites than Naples itself, yet the city houses one of the largest collections of archaeological relics on Earth.

Besides the rich underground (which might be as big as Rome’s in terms of visitable area), Naples is home to the 200-year-old National Archaeological Museum, the most important of its kind nationwide.

Ruins of the Macellum, the ancient Roman market.
Editorial credit: Pier Giorgio Carloni / Shutterstock.com

One of the main attractions in the museum is the so-called Secret Cabinet and its collection of ancient erotic artworks and artifacts.

The scandalous section was subjected to state censorship until as recently as 2000, as visits were only allowed upon request before then.

You should know, however, that several objects on display at the Secret Cabinet might be upsetting, as they’re far from abiding by modern sexual mores.

8. Neapolitans

Residents are one of the highlights of every city, but Neapolitans are really the lifeblood of their hometown. They’re opinionated, passionate about Naples, cheerful, and welcoming.

When you visit, notice how locals treat you almost like they’re telling you “Thank you for acknowledging this is the most beautiful city in the world. I absolutely agree”.

A group of retired men and friends, playing a game of cards in Sorrento. I love their expressions, each one different.

That said, you don’t even have to interact with Neapolitans to admire them (most aren’t fluent in English anyway). Just watch them go about their business and you’ll feel immediately happy.

In a way, the very existence of Neapolitans is a blessing. After all, humankind would be a pretty sad species without pizza.

9. Quartieri Spagnoli

Sooner or later, all major European cities ended up tearing down poor neighborhoods that were too centrally located for the elites’ liking — but not Naples.

The Quartieri Spagnoli (Italian for “Spanish neighborhoods”) were built in the 1500s to accommodate Spanish soldiers stationed in town, during the time Naples was ruled by Madrid.

Famous quarter Quartieri Spagnoli in Naples, Italy

It wasn’t long before the area got overcrowded and its narrow streets became synonymous with crime and poverty.

Although Quartieri Spagnoli isn’t exactly the safest district in town (particularly come nightfall), its historic landmarks and intense cultural scene make it worth a tour with a local guide. This is hands down the most emblematic Neapolitan neighborhood.

10. Nativity scenes

Because the world begins and ends in Naples, nativity scenes created in the city are set there, not in Bethlehem.

They’re also usually transposed to the 18th century, a time when this peculiar art form took on a monumental scale and started including the supposedly vibrant city life around the birth of Jesus.

Neapolitan nativity scene
Editorial credit: AlePana / Shutterstock.com

Each type of food merchant is even said to represent a different month (e.g. the butcher for January and the baker for June).

For a glimpse of Neapolity nativity art in all its glory, head to Via San Gregorio Armeno in the city center, which is just crammed with specialized shops.

Alternatively, the former Carthusian monastery of St. Martin (currently a museum) has an entire section devoted to this all-Neapolitan art.

11. Urban issues

Daily life is not all roses in Naples. Like much of the south of Italy, the city suffers from outdated infrastructure, inefficient public services, and social inequality.

Often simply called “the southern question” within the country, the development gap between the industrial north and the rural south was widened following the unification of Italy in 1861.

Man riding on a scooter in a narrow street full of trash in Naples, Italy
Editorial credit: Juraj Kamenicky / Shutterstock.com

While these problems are unfortunately one of the things Naples is known for, they shouldn’t affect your travel plans or the wonderful time you’re bound to have there.

After all, petty crimes are as much of an issue in Naples as they are in almost any big city across the globe.

12. Coffee culture

Italians in general are obsessed with coffee. Neapolitans, in turn, have made coffee brewing into an art form.

One of the earliest coffeemakers was invented in the city in the early 19th century. Naples then started a trend that eventually caught on worldwide.

Cup of fresh espresso coffee in a cafe with view on Vesuvius mount in Naples, Campania, Southern Italy

If you’re a fan of coffee, Naples will be like heaven to you. But remember locals enjoy their drink very dark and strong like any espresso worth the name.

In case that’s a bit much for you, ask for a lungo, which is more watery. It’s still served in a tiny cup, though, which might prove too strong for tons of folks anyway.

13. San Gennaro’s treasure and blood

The Christian martyr Januarius, or Gennaro in Italian, is virtually unknown outside of Italy. But Neapolitans take him for a sort of holy brother that is always there to comfort and help them out.

The devotion is so intense that the 700-year-old custom of donating money, jewelry, and artworks to San Gennaro’s treasure is still alive and well.

The treasure is indeed enormous: its true worth can’t be estimated. The relics can be seen, however, at the Museum of the Treasure of San Gennaro.

The bust of San Gennaro and the ampoule with blood, during the procession of the patron saint through the streets of Naples.
Editorial credit: M. Cantile / Shutterstock.com

Yet that’s not even the most astonishing thing about San Gennaro. Three times a year, followers and looky-loos gather at Naples Cathedral to watch the saint’s alleged blood melt on its own.

Some will go as far as guessing the city’s fate in the short run based on how long it takes for the blood to melt.

14. Napoli and Diego Maradona

The Neapolitan pantheon has room for secular characters as well. Right beside San Gennaro, there’s Diego Armando Maradona, patron saint of the Napoli soccer team.

Proof of how deeply locals worship the Argentinian player is the shrine that the owners of Bar Nilo built in his honor (pictured below) while he was still alive.

Altar of Maradona outside the bar Nilo,
Editorial credit: Antonio Gravante / Shutterstock.com

Napoli’s golden age in the 1980s (when Maradona was playing there) may be long gone. But the team remains one of the five most popular and successful in Italy and a strong unifying force in the city.

15. Veiled Christ

Naples is of course a major hub of religious art, and the Veiled Christ sculpture is definitely the high point of it. It’s hard to believe how it still flies under the radar of most foreigners who travel to the city.

Naples Campania Italy
Editorial credit: marcobrivio.photo / Shutterstock.com

The hidden gem has been intriguing visitors since its completion in 1753. The perfection of the marble veil over the whole body (and especially the face) of Jesus can inspire even the least religious people.

In fact, according to an urban legend that the statue originated, the veil was originally made of fabric, then turned into marble through alchemy. That does sound less impressive than someone having the skills to sculpt it from marble so flawlessly!

16. Pastry tradition

Naples has been baking pastries for about three centuries. The best thing about that is that amazing pastry shops are now all over the place.

Although the city’s refined dessert tradition owes a lot to French pâtisserie, local pasticceria has made a name for itself both nationwide and abroad.

Neapolitan pastry shop with the counter full of delicious typical sweets such as sfogliatella, babà, zeppola and others, for sale in the streets of the city.
Editorial credit: Gennaro Leonardi Photos / Shutterstock.com

Highlights include the rum baba (a moist, bite-sized cake of French origin), sfogliatella (a shell-shaped croissant filled with either whipped cream, chocolate, or jelly), and zeppola (the lovechild of a cronut and a cupcake).

Conclusion

Panoramic view of the city of Naples through the arch of the medieval fortress Castel Sant'Elmo.

19th-century French writer Stendhal was so moved by the beauty of Florence that he felt sick. Still, it was Naples that he labeled the most beautiful city in the universe.

The size of the universe keeps me from agreeing with him, but I do think Naples is a strong contender for the title of most stunning city on Earth.

Were you familiar with all these unique things Naples is known for? Let me know in the comments which of the city’s features surprised you most!

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