Whatever you might have heard about Naples, whatever idea of the city you might have formed from reading about it and seeing it portrayed in movies, I can almost guarantee it will turn out to be wrong. To some, this is the birthplace of pizza, to others it is an enclave of art an philosophy, the former capital of its own kingdom or the site of the world-renown Orientale University. Some are scared of including Naples in their tour of Italy, based on the city’s reputation for wild misrule, others are drawn to its romantic and exotic atmosphere. It is impossible to define Naples, it eludes categorisation and stereotypes slide off its magnificent back like melting snow on the cap of mount Vesuvius. Over the decades it has charmed artists, intellectuals and revolutionaries: Oscar Wilde, Jean Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemingway were hopelessly in love with Naples, albeit for very different reasons. We shall not attempt to offer you a complete guide for your trip to Naples, but rather – as we did for Rome – a selected list of hidden treasures and secret pleasures that aren’t usually included in mainstream tourist routes.
1. Visit the Flavian Amphitheater
Granted, the Flavian Amphitheater is not, strictly speaking, in Naples, but in Pozzuoli, about 14 miles west of the main city. Nevertheless, this magnificent landmark deserves to be number one on the list of the most underrated attraction in the Naples area. Naples offers so much to the discerning visitor, that it is a virtually impossible task to fit everything worth seeing into a few-day schedule. And yet I warmly recommend you set aside at least half a day to visit one of the biggest intact roman arenas in Italy. The biggest is of course the Colosseum (which, incidentally, is also called Flavian Amphitheater) and the second in size can be found in Santa Maria Capua Vetere, 25 miles from Naples. The one you will find in Pozzuoli was built in the I century under emperors Vespasianus and Titus. It is particularly dear to the people of Naples and Pozzuoli, since it was the setting for the martyrdom of the two saint patrons of these cities, Saint Proculus and Saint Januarius.
2. There’s more to Naples than pizza. Try a Panuozzo
Again, you might have to drive about 20 miles south of central Naples, to Gragnano, in order to enjoy the best Panuozzo in the world. This delicious street-food delicacy, which most tourists are not aware of, is basically a pizza-dough sandwich. It is cooked twice in a wood oven: once to allow the dough to leaven, then the loaf is sliced, filled and cooked again in order to allow the cheese-based ingredients to melt. The main characteristic of a panuozzo is its intimidating size. It is a tough challenge to get through a whole panuozzo, particularly if you fill it with provolone cheese instead of mozzarella.
3. Visit Baia Archeological Park
You might have guessed: this is not in the city centre, not even close. After all, if it were within walking distance of Piazza Plebiscito, it could hardly be called a “hidden treasure”, could it? Have you ever heard someone bragging about going to a luxury spa, one that counts celebrities among its customers? Well, if you visit Baia Archeological Park, you will always have the ultimate card to play in that kind of conversation, as these baths have witnessed the ablutions of the forefathers of western thought. Cicero and Horace, among others, came here to find solace from the exhausting labour of building the foundations of our civilisation. This impressive and well-preserved complex also includes places of worship, such as the temples of Venus, Mercury and Diana.
4. It’s not all about ancient history: discover contemporary art at the CAM
It would be a mistake to imagine Naples as a frozen postcard or a quaint setting, made out to feed a few stereotypes. While the vestiges of its impressive history are as ubiquitous as the locals’ legendary humour, the cultural scene is as lively as anywhere. The Casoria Contemporary Art Museum (also known as CAM) is a hub of artistic innovation, with an impressive collection of over 1000 artworks by contemporary painters, sculptors, photographers and video and multimedia artists. The CAM has a mission: being a beacon for experimental artists, in order to create art that truly reflects its time. Workshops and other educational projects are as vital a part of the museum’s life as is its permanent collection. The works exhibited here are incredibly diverse, encompassing a vast retrospective of contemporary Neapolitan artists, as well as an impressive collection of works from the far east.
5. Don’t miss the flea market in Poggioreale
If you heard someone say that they are going to Poggioreale, you should be aware that they generally mean “going to jail”. This neighbourhood’s best known landmark happens to be the local prison and the geographical name has merged into a synonym for the infamous building. This is regrettable, because there are plenty of other things that you might choose to do in Poggioreale and one of these is visiting one of its weekly markets. If you are looking for vintage furniture and general antiques, for instance, you should definitely go to Poggioreale on a Sunday and stroll through the colourful stands looking for a unique souvenir of your stay.