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You know instantly when you're docked in Naples. First of all, where else is there a Norman castle overlooking the port, a royal palace above the castle and a fortress, Castel Sant'Elmo, right on the top of the hillside overlooking them all? But beyond these historic fortifications, there is the unmistakable shape of Vesuvius. Very few volcanoes look more like those of your imagination than Vesuvius. Amazingly, suburbs climb up its flanks; if Vesuvius explodes again, 600,000 people will have to be evacuated from the city.
Over the centuries, Naples was ruled by many European families. You'll see some of them represented by statues on the facade on Palazzo Reale: Charles V of the Hapsburgs, Charles III of the Bourbons, Joseph Murat of the Bonaparte family and finally Victor Emmanuel II of the House of Savoy who became king of Italy in 1861. Unfortunately, with the Italian capital moving to Turin, then Florence and finally Rome, Naples lost much of its importance. A civic decline set in during the 19th century, and the city has yet to recover. The historic center still has far too many boarded-up palazzos.
The city is home to architectural highpoints -- the Gallerias Principe di Napoli and Umberto II, the royal palaces, churches and former convents -- but there are also some unfortunate 1970's-style apartment blocks that wreck the view up to Vesuvius or down to the sea. This is a city of broad corsos (avenues) as well as narrow alleyways. Judging by the gesticulations of those who drive around its streets, it's also a very passionate city. Naples is unmistakably less self-conscious than Rome or Florence and more real than Venice.
The port of Naples serves as a gateway to key destinations -- Pompeii, Sorrento, Ravello, Positano, Capri and Ischia -- but it is also a city to be enjoyed in its own right.
Take a deep breath, plunge in and enjoy.
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Other Western Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Barcelona • Cannes • Capri • Corsica (Ajaccio) • Elba • Florence (Livorno) • Fuerteventura • Genoa • Gibraltar • Ibiza • Korcula • La Palma • Lanzarote • Las Palmas • Lisbon • Madeira (Funchal) • Malta (Valletta) • Marseille • Monaco • Naples • Nice • Palermo • Palma de Mallorca • Portofino • Rome (Civitavecchia) • Saint-Tropez • Sardinia • Sete • Seville (Cadiz) • Sorrento • Taormina (Messina) • Tenerife • Tunis (La Goulette) • Venice • Villefranche
Limoncello is a favorite drink of the area. The strong Italian liqueur is derived from the bright, plump lemons that prosper in the southern part of the country. Actor Danny DeVito bought a lemon farm near Sorrento so he could produce his own. Bartenders have experimented with cocktails like the Limoncello Mojito.
The Amalfi coastline southeast of Naples is famous for its hand-painted ceramics known as maiolica. You'll find some on sale in Naples, but the best shops are around Vietri and Amalfi.
Gay Odin is a 19th-century chocolatier with a number of shops in Naples where you can buy a traditional wooden box with a local scene on the lid and fill it with chocolates. Prices range from 12 to 65 euros. (Vico Vetriera 12; +39 081 417843; open Monday to Friday 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
The top tie-maker in Naples, E. Marinella, sells to all the country's serious politicians. If you want to power-dress Italian-style, visit this lovely little shop. Prices range from 100 to 135 euros per tie depending on length. (Riviera di Chiaia 287; +39 081 764 3265)
Italian is the primary language spoken; English is neither widely spoken nor easily understood, except in major tourist areas. If you want to know whether the person you're speaking to will converse in English ask, “Parliamo Inglese?” It's always appreciated if you ask.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the euro; for the latest exchange rate, visit www.xe.com and www.oanda.com.
There are plenty of ATM machines and exchange bureaus, both at the port and in town. Via Santa Brigita, which begins just above Castel Nuovo, has a lot of banks with cash machines.
If you are visiting Pompeii, you'll find ATM's very close to the ticket office. On a hot day, you'll definitely want euros on hand for a gelato, a bottle of water or a refreshing lemon granita.
Where You're Docked
Most ships berth at Stazione Marittima, which is centrally located just below Castel Nuovo and ideal if you plan to take the hydrofoil to Capri, Ischia or Sorrento. You can walk right into town from there and be at Piazza del Plebiscito in a few minutes.
On busy days, ships also dock at Molo Pisacane to the east of Stazione Marittima, and shuttle buses are available to transfer passengers to Galleria del Mare inside the Stazione Marittima.
Galleria del Mare/Stazione Marittima is the distinctive 1930's port building that was extensively refurbished and reopened in 2012. As well as functioning as the terminal building, it also contains 52 shops.
On Foot: Naples is famous for its lack of traffic lights and its macho style of motoring. The best way to get around is on foot, but be careful when crossing roads. Cars tend to drive around you rather than stop at crossings (which are marked in white on the road). Fortunately, much of the center of Naples has been pedestrianized since the early 2000's.
By Taxi: Plenty of taxis line up at the port, but make sure you negotiate the price or insist that the meter is running before setting off. Reliable local companies include: Radio Taxi Free (+39 081 5515151), Radio Taxi La Partenope (+39 081 0101), Radio Taxi Cotana (+39 081 5707070), Radio Taxi Napoli (+39 081 5564444) and Consortaxi (+39 081 202020).
By Public Transit: A new Metro system will make a huge difference when it is completed, but every time excavators have moved in, a new important archaeological site has been found, which stops the work. It should be functioning by 2014.
Beyond the city limits, public transportation in the form of trains and hydrofoils is convenient and efficient. You can be in Rome by train in 75 minutes. The hydrofoil is a quick way to reach the islands of Capri and Ischia or the charming seaside city of Sorrento. To book, call +39 081 497 22 22/38.
If you're venturing beyond the city, though, Naples is one of those places where it really pays to take your ship's shore excursion, just for ease of transportation if nothing else. Car hire is not recommended because of the behavior of other drivers in Naples, and the farther you get along the delightful Amalfi coast, the slower, steeper and more winding the roads get.
Watch Out For
Naples owns a bad reputation for pickpockets and muggers. In fact, it is no worse than many European cities, but there are less-safe areas. When exploring the Santa Lucia district or shopping on Via Toledo, you should exercise normal care -- do not put your camera down, leave your handbag open or flash your Rolex and you will be fine. The Centro Storico (historic center) is more bohemian and less predictable. As this is where you find the National Archaeological Museum, it should not be avoided, but stick to the main streets.
Beware of street vendors selling seemingly expensive goods (handbags, DVD's, cellphones) for knock-down prices on white sheets laid out on the pavement. You might get a bargain price on your faux Gucci goods, but you and the vendor may be arrested if the police swoop. Buying from these unlicensed vendors is illegal. Usually, they work in teams with a lookout, and the moment the police arrive, everything is swept up in the white sheet, and the vendors leg it.
Pompeii is one of the most important historic sites in Italy. It is thanks to Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum that we know so much about everyday life in the Roman world. Until 79 A.D., Pompeii was a prosperous city with 20,000 residents. The eruption of Vesuvius that year buried the town, preserving buildings, pottery, mosaics and even the remains of Pompeiians for more than 1,700 years. The city of Pompeii was rediscovered in the mid-18th century as a result of excavations bankrolled by the king of Naples. Today, visitors can wander the streets of this ancient, doomed city. Sites of interest include several temples and bath houses, the open-air forum, the plaster casts of Pompeiians who collapsed and died in the streets, plus many houses and small shops. There is even a brothel with 10 rooms and stone beds. (+39 081 857 5111 ; open November to March daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., last admission 2:30 p.m., and April to October daily from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., last admission 6 p.m.)
The sea port of Herculaneum was also destroyed during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. This smaller town of about 5,000 inhabitants has only been partially excavated, but more everyday objects have been left "in situ." Houses still contain carbonized doors and wooden beams, furniture and papyrus scrolls. (Open April to October daily from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., November to March from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Take a bus ride up to Vesuvius itself. Eavbus departs every day from 9 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. from Piazza Piedigrotta (the last departure from Mount Vesuvius is at 2 p.m.) It takes 90 minutes from Naples to the crater (1,000 meters above sea level). You hike the last section along a slippery path across volcanic rocks.
The primary tourist attraction in Naples is the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, also known as the National Archaeological Museum, which displays artifacts taken from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Visiting Pompeii on its own will give you no idea of the richness and sophistication of the life that was lived there up until 79 A.D. Make sure you visit the Casa Segreto (the secret room) where erotic statues, frescoes and mosaics are housed. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, visitors had to apply for the key. Now, it's full of giggling school parties.
The museum also features a world-class collection of classical sculpture, Egyptian antiquities, paintings, murals and mosaics. This is one of the few attractions where a cab from the ship is the best bet; plan to pay about 15 euros each way. (Piazza Museo 19; +39 081 442 2149; open Wednesday to Monday from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.)
Other historic sites in the city include the 13th-century Castel Nuovo (Piazza Municipio; +39 081 795 7722; open Monday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.), which can be admired for its white marble triumphal arch, and the Palazzo Reale di Capodimonte (Via Miano 2; +39 081 749 9111; open Thursday to Tuesday from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.), which is an 18th-century palace built by the Bourbons when they wanted to make Naples a powerful and impressive kingdom. This hilltop palace features splendid ballrooms and bedrooms and is also the location for an excellent collection of Renaissance art, including works by Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.
Shopping in Naples is a favorite pastime. The city's retail hub is a relatively easy 10-minute walk from the Stazione Marittima. Head past Castel Nuovo and up to Via Chiaia, a (mostly) pedestrian street lined with shops and bars. Via Chiaia, Piazza dei Martiri and Via Calabritto are the best places to browse if you are looking for the big-name Italian designers -- Prada, Armani, Gucci, Ferragamo. Also, don't miss poking around the designer shops on Via Carlo Poerio.
Librerie Feltrinelli (Via Santa Caterina a Chiaia 23; +39 081 240 5411) is a huge, multilevel bookstore that is part of a well-known Italian chain. The shop has books in English as well as Italian and is good for introductions to Italian art and culture.
Right around the corner is Vinarium (Vicolo S. Maria Cappella Vecchia 7; +39 081 764 4114), a workman-like wine bar-cum-shop that specializes in wines from Campania (Naples is part of this region) and also Sicilian wines. Many of these vintages are made by small producers that you'll not find outside of southern Italy.
Marinella (see Souvenirs) is at the bottom of Via Calabritto. Marinella's main competitor is Ulturalecravatte (Via Carlo Poerio 115; +39 081 248 1151,), which is a new company making ties with lucky charms sewn inside them. (Neapolitans are very superstitious.) Lello Pagnotta (Via Carlo Poerio 96; +39 081 7646995;) is a remarkably inventive furrier who makes fur stoles that can double as handbags and even fur finger-rings.
Been There, Done That
The island of Capri, just across the Bay of Naples, is the St. Tropez of Italy, much visited by the stars of Hollywood and Italian cinema in the '50s and '60s. It was also visited by writer Oscar Wilde after his imprisonment. One hotel threw him out after the guests petitioned for him to leave, but another took him in and erected a plaque to commemorate its kindness. Capri also is a great place to shop if you have a serious amount of money.
Less costly is a local boat trip to the Blue Grotto (regular departures daily from 9 a.m. throughout the day, from Marina Grande). Also, check out Villa San Michele, an 18th-century home of a Swedish physician with lovely furnishings, great art and some gorgeous gardens. (Via Axel Munthe 34, Anacapri; +39 081 837 1401; open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
To get to Capri or the neighboring island of Ischia, head across the cruise terminal to the hydrofoil station. The trip across the Bay of Naples takes 50 to 90 minutes each way.
Whether by shore excursion or hired driver, head to Sorrento, the "capital" of the gorgeous Amalfi coast. (Some ships actually call at Sorrento, but stops there are highly unpredictable, particularly if weather is blustery.) This is a grand resort with superb old-world hotels on the top of its cliffs but also narrow Roman streets behind. Galleria Russo (Via Tasso 43; +39 081 878 1748) is an art gallery that is well worth visiting for genuine local paintings. Beyond Sorrento, the roads get very slow, but foodies should head for Don Alfonso 1890, which is said to be the best restaurant in Italy (Sant'Agata Sui Due Golfi; +39 081 878 0026). Positano, Amalfi and Ravello are all wonderful -- but be sure you can get back to the ship in time.
Naples is famous for its of three classic Italian staples: pizza, pasta and pomodoro (tomatoes). Its residents also enjoy great seafood from the Bay of Naples. Although there are some very expensive restaurants in the city, Neapolitan cuisine is essentially peasant food in origin.
Vegetables are served as antipasti, and desserts consist of basic dishes like baba (a small cake soaked in a liquor like rum), sfogliatelle (filled pastries in the shape of a shell) and zeppole (donuts). Mozzarella made with buffalo milk is the best of the local cheeses.
Neapolitans claim to have invented thin-crust pizza, and Antica Pizzeria Brandi is adamant that it invented pizza margherita, named in honor of Queen Margherita, wife of Umberto I. This is a good place to stop off while shopping and represents the full-on Neapolitan tourist experience. The house wine has a picture of Queen Margherita on the bottle. A photo of famed opera singer Luciano Pavarotti hangs inside the front door, and a guitarist is sometimes on hand strumming "O Sole Mio." Brandi also does pasta, but pizza is its forte. (Salita S. Anna di Palazzo 2; +39 081 416928; open Tuesday to Sunday 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 to 11:30 p.m.)
If you want to eat where the locals eat, try Ristaurantino dell'Avvocato, a relatively new enterprise by a former lawyer, Arcangelo Raffaele Cardillo, who is passionate about food and serves some splendid dishes. The menu is divided in two: pesce (fish) and terra (meat). It's a small, modern, tidy place. Book ahead if you can. (Via Santalucia 115; +39 081 032 0047; open Tuesday to Saturday noon to 11 p.m., Sunday and Monday noon to 3 p.m.)
In the historic center, Pizzeria Di Matteo can claim that President Bill Clinton ate there during the G7 Summit in 1993. It's a solid traditional pizzeria set among Naples' old food markets. (Via dei Tribunali 94; +39 081 455262; open 9 a.m. to midnight, closed Sundays and two weeks in August)
Along the waterfront by Castel dell'Ova and just across the road from Grand Hotel Vesuvio are a cluster of excellent seafood restaurants around what was once a harbor for fishing boats. Try Zi Teresa (Via Borgo Marinari 1; +39 081 764 2565; closed Mondays) with its great view of the Castel dell'Ova (so named because the poet Virgil is supposed to have buried an egg underneath it). La Scialuppa Borgo Marinari Banchina 1; +39 081 764 5333; closed Mondays) and Ristorante Ciro (Borgo Marinari 29/30; +39 081 764 6006; closed Wednesdays for lunch but open for dinner) are equally good. For an aperitif, ask directions from any of these three to Nase Cane, a hole-in-the-wall bar that belongs to the descendants of the original Nase Cane, a Neapolitan fisherman with a very small nose, resembling a dog's snout (nase cane), hence his nickname and that of the bar.
Staying in Touch
Internet cafes flourish throughout the city; look for Sirena Services (Via Depretis 78), Orchid Box (Via Medina 33), Optima Spa (Corso Umberto I 174), Paf.Com (Via S. Brigida 39), D.M.G. Internet Point (Via Sedile di Porto 63) and Internetpoint BDC (Via Sergente Maggiore 54).
Napoli Wi-Fi is a citywide service that covers Piazza Municipio, Molo Beverello, Piazza Bellini, Piazza Dante, Via Port'Alba and Citta della Scienza.
To check whether you're in range, simply log on to the network Comune-NA Piazze WIFI and register by typing in your mobile phone number. In response, you will receive a text with a username and password. This will enable you to navigate free of charge for three hours per day.
Editor's Note: Because of an anti-terrorism law passed in Italy in 2005, all passengers wishing to use the Internet in a public facility must present an internationally recognized document (or a passport) to the establishment providing public communication services.
Best for First-Timers: Let someone else do the driving. The all-day "Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast" trip typically features a bus ride along the scenic coastline, quick stops in Sorrento and other towns such as Amalfi, and lunch.
Best for History Buffs: Take a half-day tour to either the excavations at Pompeii or the ruins of Herculaneum, typically separate excursions. All-day tours will combine visits to the archaeological sites with scenic drives along the Amalfi Coast or cruises to Capri.
Best for Repeat Visitors: An all-day excursion to Capri includes a cruise to the island through the Bay of Naples and a bus ride to Anacapri to visit Villa San Michele. Back in Capri Town, you'll get a guided walk through La Piazzetta, free time for lunch and shopping, and a tour of the Gardens of Augustus.
Best for Active Travelers: Mount Vesuvius is the only active volcano located on the European mainland; tours transport you via 4x4 mini-bus almost to the top of the mountain, and you hike up the rest of the way. Some tours include a visit to a nearby winery. (This is not an appropriate tour for young children or anyone who is mobility impaired.)
For More Information
On the Web: Italian Government Tourist Board and Italian Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Italy Ports
Independent Traveler: Europe Travel Guide
--by Adrian Mourby, Cruise Critic contributor