Asked to name a favorite Italian city, few would pick noisy, crowded traffic-choked Naples, Italy's third largest city just south of Rome.
Yet here we are, sipping a spritz and lemon granita at a sidewalk table as motorcycles whiz by, and happy music blasts from inside a cafe on the edge of the Spanish Quarter.
Rome has its antiquities. Florence has its art. Naples' draw has always been its setting, with Vesuvius, still an active volcano, looming behind a sparkling bay and busy working waterfront. Most visitors head for the National Archaeological Museum to see its collection of artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum, towns buried by the volcano's eruption in 79 A.D., then use the harbor as jumping-off point for trips to the islands of Capri and Ischia.
Now more travelers are discovering the city itself as it welcomes tourists with crowded but safe, well-lighted streets, open-air restaurants, walking tours and Airbnbs. Its reputation for scooter-riding bag snatchers lives mostly in the past, helped by television personalities such as Stanley Tucci who featured its fried pizza in the first installment of his popular CNN travel show "Searching for Italy."
|Crowds on Via Toledo waiting for fried pizza|
|Street food is best eaten on the street|
We make it a point to spend a few days in Naples whenever we're in Southern Italy. On this trip, Naples was the jumping off point for a trip to Lecce, a lovely Baroque town in Apulia five hours south by train in the heel of Italy's boot.
Ruled first by the Greeks, then Romans, Normans, Spanish and French, Naples is divided into 21 zones, each with a collection of monuments, palaces and Gothic and Baroque-style churches whose plain facades hide interiors filled with frescoes, paintings and elaborate marblework.
Having seen all the major sites on past trips, we settled in here in the Spanish Quarter, a warren hilly, narrow streets and slim houses, built in the 16th century to house Spanish occupying troops. Just a few steps west of the chic shops on Via Toledo, the "Quartieri Spagnoli " is a traditionally poor area that's rapidly gentrifying. The modest Il Convento hotel where we stayed in past years now quotes rates of $200 and up. The Hosteria Toledo, a corner restaurant that was once a favorite, gets bad reviews. American-style eggs and pancakes are on the menu at Birdy's Bakery, a breakfast spot in the nearby Chiaia neighborhood.
|Our neighborhood market: Part vegetable stand, part religious shrine|
But authenticity is there to discover. Our Airbnb on the fifth floor (no lift) of a stone building required four keys to enter. Laundry flaps from our neighbors' balconies. Wandering through the Pignasecca street market, we found traditional Neopolitan pastries such as fiocchi di neve, little brioche snowballs filled with cream. The best cafes are in a funicular ride away in Vomero, a quiet, upper-class neighborhood high above fray, appreciated by locals for its cooler temperatures and parks. The best pizzas cost no more than 10 euros, and nowadays, go way beyond the traditional Margherita (Buffalo mozzarella, tomato sauce, olive oil and basil) to vegan and gluten-free offerings with toppings such as ricotta cheese and zucchini flowers.
|Fiocchi di neve|
A street in the Spanish Quarter looking towards the Galleria Umberto, an 1887 indoor shopping mall with an arched glass and iron dome.
|Castellammare cable car|
An easy day trip out of Naples is a train ride along the Sorrentine coast to Sorrento. Most people use the Circumvesuviana line from Naples Centrale station to go to Pompeii, but if you've seen Pompeii, then consider visiting some of the other towns just past the ruins You'll have the train to yourself since almost everyone gets off at Pompeii. Two of our favorites were Castellammare di Stabia and Sant'Agnello.
Castellammare was built over the ruins of the ancient Stabiae: like Pompeii, a village totally destroyed in 79 AC by the eruption of Vesuvio.The cable car takes about eight minutes to reach the top of Mt. Faito, 4,500 feet above sea level, opening up sweeping views of the town, the Gulf of Naples and Vesuvius. Locals enjoy the park for picnics and walks in the cool mountain air during the summer.
|The walk from Sant' Agnello with Vesuvius in the background|
Sant' Agnello is the last town before Sorrento heading east on the Circumvesuviana. If you're up for a scenic walk, exit the train here and follow a path along the coastal road all the way to Sorrento. The walk is a little over a mile and takes about 30 minutes. Along the way, you'll pass luxury hotels perched on the cliffs overlooking the sea and fancy beach clubs below.
|La Marinella Beach Club|
|Sorrento: Gateway to the Amalfi Coast|
By now you'll probably have had your fill of crowded trains, so take a high-speed ferry back to Naples from Sorrento's Marina Piccola port. You can walk to the port from Piazza Tasso by descending about 100 steps, or take a bus. The ferry ride takes about 45 minutes, time enough to have an Aperol Spritz onboard while you pass by Vesuvius, and consider what life is like for the three million people who live close enough to be affected by another eruption.