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3 days in Naples: a guide by an Italian expat (+Cilento)

Updated: May 12, 2022

Head of a woman entering a beautiful theatre
Teatro San Carlo in Naples

As a treat after such an intense year of work on interesting and demanding projects as a copywriter and content writer, this past July I finally made it to visit Naples. While planning my visit, I collected suggestions from friends that are actually from Naples, so I was prepared by insiders. Once back, I packed this itinerary, and here is what you’ll find:

3 days in Naples: a guide by an Italian expat (+Cilento)

  • must-see places in Naples - 3 days visit

  • must-eat food in Naples and where to find it

  • a few historical and cultural references to better understand Naples, if it makes sense

  • tips for a visit to Pompei archeological park

  • a relaxing place in Agropoli

  • the place where I had the most giant mozzarella I’ve ever seen.

Ready? Jamme! (which in Neapolitan dialect it means: “Let’s go!”)

Seriously, is it possible to visit Naples in 3 days?

Not really. It sounds quite a challenge to condense a visit to this incredible city in such a short time. It would mean compressing Western history (but not only) in 72 hours, from the Greeks to the Romans, from French Middleage conquerors to Spanish Borbonic kings (1734), getting to the very hot topic that is the Italian unification in 1861 and looking at all the contradictions of such a fascinating and complex place.

Yes, the Italian peninsula has been a single country only for 160 years, and yes, squeezing a visit to Naples in just 3 days is not enough. It’s like having a big hot crunchy pizza in front of you and just smelling it - and then leaving the table. However - back to reality - we had only 3 days so we tried to make the most of it.

Another disclaimer, and this one is dedicated to my friends from Naples and all the ones who’ve been so kind as to give us some advice: sorry if I won’t make justice to your stunning city. I’m just doing my best.

3 days in Naples: day 1

Chiaia, fried pizza, Piazza del Plebiscito, Galleria Umberto, via Toledo

We were staying in Exe Hotel in a neighbourhood called Chiaia (meaning "beach"). I found it a very elegant area, full of independent charming shops and sophisticated cafès. We had a fried pizza (pizza fritta) at Antica Friggitoria Masardona. It took us hours to digest it but boy it was worth it! We literally needed to lock ourselves in our room and leave our stomachs in peace and do their job.

After a few hours, we started exploring. My husband wanted to visit the Marinella, the famous tie and elegant clothing seller, whose main shop is in Chiaia.

We had a walk by the main streets reaching the key places everybody says you can’t miss. The first one is obviously Piazza del Plebiscito, where the royal palace is, and the massive san Francesco da Paola church with its massive colonnade (the pictures shows it aty night, I know).

piazza del plebiscito in naples by night with people passing by
Piazza del Plebiscito by night

On a side, the famous Gran Caffé Gambrinus serves coffee and other typical Neapolitan delicacies such as sfogliatelle since 1860, first to the Neapolitan literary, artistic and political elites, then to pretty much everyone stopping by.

Just behind the Piazza, you’ll find Galleria Umberto (1887-1890), which looks very similar to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan. A tall Art Nouveau decorated complex of arcades and columns with shops and cafès, designed, executed and named to honour Umberto I. The king of Italy provided a huge improvement to the miserable state of the area, but he probably wanted to remark the Savoyard ownership of the city, too.

Before you get in, if you look afar from Piazza San Carlo, you’ll see the Maschio Angioino (or Castel Nuovo), which was the castle of the French conquerors in the Middle Age. And in front of the Galleria, there’s the stunning Teatro San Carlo, built by the Borbonic conquerors to remark their ownership of the city (indeed) and to get (indeed) the favour of the people.

Basically, just with a glimpse around, you have a quick sight of all the sovereigns that ruled (and taxed) Naples. Actually, you won’t see the Greeks and the Romans, but that’s just because they are under your feet: in fact, from Piazza del Plebiscito it’s possible to join a guided underground walk tour discovering the undercovered and disappeared Naples.

We’ve also hit via Toledo, the main high street with all the chain shops and people having walks and showing off. Via Toledo is actually a border to the hill hosting the infamous Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish neighbourhoods). I can’t quite describe it because no words would make justice to the Neapolitan spirit which you can really breathe there. You get a feeling of all the injustice perpetrated throughout the centuries against the people, but you also get the idea of how the people then tried to trick, cheat and fool the power in order to stay afloat.

graffiti in quartieri spagnoli naples with kids playing football
Graffiti in Quartieri Spagnoli in Naples

Hanging clothes and Italian flags decorate the narrow streets, all over the place. The flags are not political - they are just because the Italian football team had recently won the European Cup! Kids are riding motorbikes uphill (what’s a helmet?), honking their horns just to warn everyone: “I’m coming, clear the street off for me NOW if you don’t want any trouble”.

At sunset, we reached Belvedere San Martino and enjoyed a drink looking at the view and seating outdoors in a lovely Piazza.

3 days in Naples: day 2

Teatro San Carlo, Santa Chiara Monastery, funiculì, Nennella

On our second day, we escaped the heatwave by visiting Teatro San Carlo. It is the oldest continuously active opera house in the world, built in 1737, decades earlier than La Scala in Milan. The place is breathtaking, and impressive are the ceiling and the golden palms.

Every opera box in the theatre has a mirror where the people could see whether the king was applauding the performance or not, as no one could start applause before the royals.

Detail of a golden palm tree decoration in teatro san carlo in naples
Teatro San Carlo in Naples - detail of a palm tree decoration

We headed then to the baroque Gesù Nuovo church, then to the Cappella Sansevero with its Cristo Velato (Veiled Christ) sculpture, and the Santa Chiara Monastery and its cloister, all in the same area.

The cloister is very iconic and dear to the Neapolitans. What happens is that you walk in the middle of brightly coloured Rococo style majolica tiled columns and decorations showing plants, lemons and secular scenes.

We sat in an air-conditioned room (important) to watch a video guide explaining the history of the complex and - also - the meaning of a famous Neapolitan song I’ve always heard around but never really paid attention to. It’s about the story of a Neapolitan who migrates to northern Italy. In World War II, the monastery gets violently bombed. The damage is huge, and the church is unrecognisable. The singer cries with his whole heart how much he longs to go back, but he’s scared of being devastated by seeing the Santa Chiara Monasetry’s state after the bombing. Here is the song, "Munastero 'e Santa Chiara". I find it very emotional and poetic. As an expat, I can relate to the nostalgia and that sense of time passing by. Years fly, while you miss a home that keeps changing, and won't ever be the same you left.

tile coloured columnade garden in santa chiara monastery in naples
Santa Chiara monastery in Naples

Back to our itinerary: after the monastery, we took the Mergellina funicular to go uphill and reach the Belvedere di Sant’Antonio a Posillipo. The funicular ways are pretty iconic of the city too. And they have A SONG EVERYBODY IN THE WORLD KNOWS (yes, you can sing it out loud, no one will judge you!)

View of Naples with boats, the bay and the volcano
View of Naples from Belvedere Sant'Antonio a Posillipo

As we climbed down the hill we headed to the Mergellina neighbourhood, because my husband had an address note leading there. It was the address of the place where his grandmother, who recently passed away, has been living before moving to Milan with her family when she was only 3 years old. It’s been hard to find the place, but that gave us a chance to explore the area. The address took eventually to a very elegant palazzo overlooking the coast walk. Getting there and imagining what it meant for her family to move from Naples to Milan in the 30s, was very moving.

Dinner time: we couldn’t miss Trattoria da Nennella, in Quartieri Spagnoli. Everyone told us so. Not because it’s fancy (hahaha), and not only because it’s good typical food (it is!) but because at some point someone would start to sing and dance and literally EVERYBODY would follow the crowd in making music and having fun. It happened, and it was such an experience! We’ve been seated indoors, and the show was mainly in the outdoor patio, so we missed a bit of the thing - so my advice is: ask for an outdoor table if you want the full experience.

After that, we had a short walk through the area - not recommended if you are alone, just in case - and we found some kind of temple of Maradona, and more interesting graffiti.

graffiti with maradona and cristo velato on a tall wall of a house in naples
Maradona sanctuary and Cristo Velato style graffiti in Quartieri Spagnoli, Naples

3 days in Naples: day 3

Pompei, the Amalfi coast drive and Salerno

Time to head to Pompei, but not before a delicious sfogliatella and cappuccino for breakfast in Chiaia.

We drove to Pompei (around 40 mins drive) and as we got to the site, the mess started. We’ve been trying to book a visit with a guide I was in contact with, but she couldn’t make it. The tickets are quite expensive and no guide is included.

We got in and tried to make a sense of a visit on our own searching on the internet, but after 10 minutes we realized the area was so big and the things to see were so many, it was impossible to do it without a guide.

Trees and a view of the Vesuvio vulcano and Roman theater at Pompei archeological park
Pompei archeological park entrance

So we trusted a man that was walking around the ticket area trying to gather a few people and create a group to bring into the site. We had concerns about how long our visit would have been, how pricy and how long to wait for a group to form. This guy (called Michele) made reassurances and promises, and in the end… he made us do ALL HE WANTED. He let us wait for more than an hour before starting, he made it to set a 2 hours visit while we told him we had just 1 hour, he made it to be paid as much as he liked. So, this is so cliché of the people from Naples. BUT Lord it was worth it! We had the most amazing visit.

He really made us immerse in the Roman city, he told us not just the dates and the notions, but a lot of anecdotes, a lot of interesting information on how people used to live, what they used to think, what they used to eat… it makes history so real when you realize ancient Romans used to have figs, honey and walnuts for breakfast, just like I have in autumn (plus: add oatmeal, and litres of coffee!).

We've been there 2 hours in 40 degrees - for real - walking by those ancient streets and being able to make all the questions we wanted - there was always an interesting answer to anything from Michele. My husband and I both ended up the visit so happy. Michele really told us a story, and let us feel part of it. So - putting the clichèe aside, I loved it.

We had a sandwich outside the site and started driving towards the Amalfi coast drive. Our final destination was Agropoli, so we had to cross the Salerno peninsula. You can do it the shorter way, or the scenic longer one. Guess what we chose… We cherished the view and just stopped outside the Amalfi city centre to have a look at the main piazza, climb the stairs all the way up to Sant’Andrea church, and have a glimpse of what the Amalfi coast is. Actually, I visited it twice in the past, but it was the first time for my husband and since we travelled all the way there, it would have been a shame not to stop at Amalfi just to have a look. Then we kept driving towards Salerno, where we met a friend of ours who lives there and had a pizza (of course) with him.

view from up high the cliff in amalfi coast
Amalfi Coast: the only picture I took

We got to our place in Agropoli and collapsed on the bed with our eyes full of beauty, and our tummies full of carbs.

Naples and Cilento: day 4

The beach in Agropoli

The last two days were our days of rest. We were staying at San Francesco Resort. It used to be a monastery and - actually, the atmosphere is still very relaxing and meditative. There is a small private beach off the cliff which you can reach by a short walk or by requesting a lift by the resort’s cart.

pedestrian path leading to the beach
San Francesco Resort a Agropoli: the cart's path to the beach

I don’t need to tell you the sea was amazing and everything was so peaceful. We’ve been treated like royals, since the first breakfast on a balcony overlooking the bay.

At sunset, we climbed the stairway leading to the Medieval town centre of Agropoli, had a delicious fish dinner at Barbanera’s, and had a night walk towards the Castello Angioino Aragonese and the narrow romantic streets. There were tourists (ouch) and music everywhere. A quintessential Italian summer night.

Naples and Cilento: day 5

Paestum: giant temples and giant mozzarellas

On day 5 we broke our relaxation to go searching for the famous cuoppo at Friggitoria Pesciolino at the riviera part of the Agropoli beach. What is a cuoppo? It's a big paper wrap filled with a lot of fried seafood. A lot. A lot.

For our last holiday night, we've been sent by our Salernitan friend to Pizzeria Il Tempio in Paestum. Google Maps didn't make it easy for us. At some point we found ourselves wandering through an offroad path in the middle of tomato greenhouses in the darkness and boy it was scary… as we found our way, we suddenly were hit by the sight of a giant Greek temple, right there, just at the corner of the street. It was so solemn, so big and so beautifully lighted… and it was there since 500 bc. That was sudden and breathtaking.

paestum greek temple by night from afar
Paestum Temple by night - breathtaking!

Another big and breathtaking thing was the giant buffalo mozzarella we got at the place our friend recommended. I’ve never seen such a thing. And that was only the antipasto! But it was enough, we couldn’t go on. We went home declaring we would not have any pizza or mozzarella at least for a year.

And then on day 6, after packing, we left and stopped at a buffalo mozzarella shop on the way and bought some to bring with us. We ate it the day after, appreciating how easily fats make you change your mind.

While driving north and leaving Campania, we’ve been talking for hours about the many puzzling aspects this visit made us reflect on. We find ourselves wondering very often in our everyday life what Italy is, what’s its future, and what we are grateful for, as we come from there. We wonder what makes Italy a country, given the north, the south and the centre are so different. And what does it mean to be under someone else’s power for centuries, and never be able to shape your own way - supposing you want to.

We tried and find answers by listening to a few interviews and podcast episodes on our way back. My thoughts are not clear about these topics, but honestly, they don’t have to. I was just happy I had the chance to enjoy so many incredible things and I promised myself to be back for a deeper visit, trying to better understand some of the contradictions of that impossible yet fascinating place.

street art poster of garibaldi coming out of a toilet vase
Garibaldi: Neapolitan street art doesn't buy unified Italy

It’s part of the Neapolitan spirit to love and hate your own myths. In such a relationship, we can never separate love and hate and vice versa. It’s a whole: you hate and love the sovereign, you hate and love your woman, you hate and love your children, you hate and love your city.

In case I didn’t make this clear enough, writing is my job. If you are looking for someone to write your company’s website, blog, branding projects or advertising, have a look at my website

Don’t hesitate to contact me for collaborating together, both in English and Italian.

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