Rick Steves Rome 2016 - Rick Steves, Gene Openshaw (2015)
NAPLES AND POMPEII DAY TRIP
While the Eternal City can keep you busy for ages, here are two excuses to leave Rome for a day. The trip south to Naples and Pompeii is demanding (four to five hours of train travel round-trip). But you’ll be rewarded for your time with a chance to wander ancient Rome’s most evocative ruins and go on an urban safari in what is perhaps Europe’s most intense city.
If you have a week in Rome and are interested in maximum travel thrills, take a day trip to Naples and Pompeii. (See map on here.) Note that Naples’ Archaeological Museum is closed on Tuesday. Pompeii is open daily.
If you like Italy as far south as Rome, go farther south—it gets better. If Italy is getting on your nerves, don’t go farther. Italy intensifies as you plunge deeper. Naples is Italy in the extreme—its best (birthplace of pizza and Sophia Loren) and its worst (home of the Camorra, Naples’ “family” of organized crime).
Neapolis (“new city”) was a thriving Greek commercial center 2,500 years ago. Today, it remains southern Italy’s leading city. Naples impresses visitors with one of Europe’s top archaeological museums (showcasing the artistic treasures of Pompeii), fascinating churches that convey the city’s unique personality and powerful devotion, an underground warren of Greek and Roman ruins, fine works of art (including pieces by Caravaggio, who lived here for a time), and evocative Nativity scenes (called presepi). Naples, of course, makes the best pizza you’ll find anywhere, and tasty pastries as well (try the crispy, ricotta-stuffed sfogliatella). But more than anything, Naples has a brash and vibrant street life—“Italy in your face” in ways both good and bad. Walking through its colorful old town is one of my favorite experiences anywhere in Europe.
Naples—Italy’s third-largest city, with more than one million people—has almost no open spaces or parks, which makes its position as Europe’s most densely populated city plenty evident. Watching the police try to enforce traffic sanity is almost comical in Italy’s grittiest, most polluted, and most crime-ridden city. But Naples surprises the observant traveler with its impressive knack for living, eating, and raising children in its streets with good humor and decency. Overcome your fear of being run down or ripped off long enough to talk with people. Enjoy a few smiles and jokes with the man running the neighborhood tripe shop, or the woman taking her daycare class on a walk through the traffic.
The pulse of Italy throbs in Naples. Like Cairo or Mumbai, it’s appalling and captivating at the same time, the closest thing to “reality travel” that you’ll find in Western Europe. But this tangled mess still somehow manages to breathe, laugh, and sing—with a joyful Italian accent. Thanks to its reputation as a crime-ridden and dangerous place, Naples doesn’t get nearly as many tourists as it deserves. While the city has its problems, it has improved a lot in recent years. And even though it’s a bit edgy, I feel comfortable here. Naples richly rewards those who venture in.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
A blitz visit to Naples and Pompeii looks something like this:
Catch the express train from Rome to Naples Centrale train station, where you’ll head downstairs to transfer to the commuter train to Pompeii.
Tour Pompeii, grab a quick lunch (it’s best to bring a picnic), then catch the commuter train back to Naples.
Visit Naples’ Archaeological Museum during the heat of the day (closed Tue).
Take my self-guided “Slice of Neapolitan Life” walk.
Finish with a pizza dinner as the city comes to life in the early evening.
Hop on the train back to Rome.
Arrive in Rome.
Orientation to Naples
Naples is set deep inside the large, curving Bay of Naples, with Mount Vesuvius looming just five miles away. Although Naples is a sprawling city, its fairly compact core contains the most interesting sights. The tourist’s Naples is a triangle, with its points at the Centrale train station in the east, the Archaeological Museum to the west, and the Piazza del Plebiscito (with the Royal Palace) and the port to the south. Steep hills rise above this historic core, including San Martino, capped with a mighty fortress.
Central Naples has multiple TIs, none of them particularly helpful—just grab a map and browse the brochures. There are TIs in the Centrale train station (daily 9:00-18:00, near track 23, operated by a private agency, tel. 081-268-779); by the entrance to the Galleria Umberto I shopping mall, across from Teatro di San Carlo (Mon-Sat 9:00-17:00, Sun 9:00-13:00, tel. 081-402-394); and along Spaccanapoli, across from the Church of Gesù Nuovo (Mon-Sat 9:00-17:00, Sun 9:00-13:00, tel. 081-551-2701). For information online, the best overall website is www.inaples.it. At www.inaples.it/eng/quinapoli.htm, you can download the PDF version of the monthly Qui Napoli booklet, which lists museum hours, events, and transportation info. A print version is occasionally available at TIs.
ARRIVAL IN NAPLES
Express trains from Rome arrive at the slick, modern main station, Napoli Centrale. It has a small TI (near track 23), an ATM (at Banco di Napoli near track 24), a bookstore (La Feltrinelli, near track 24), and baggage check (deposito bagagli, near track 5). Pay WCs are down the stairs across from track 13. Shops and eateries are concentrated in the underground level. Immediately downstairs is the Garibaldi train station, which you’ll use if you ride to Pompeii (see next page).
Getting Downtown from the Station: The best bet for reaching most sights is either the Metro or a taxi. In the lower-level corridor (below the main Centrale hall), look for signs to Metro lines 1 and 2. Line 1 is handy for city-center stops, including the cruise port (Municipio), the main shopping drag (Toledo and Dante), and the Archaeological Museum (Museo). Line 2 is slightly quicker for reaching the Archaeological Museum (ride it to the Cavour stop and walk 5 minutes). For tips on navigating the Metro, see “Getting Around Naples,” later.
A long row of white taxis line up out front. Taxi fares are fixed and should not exceed €12 or so to downtown or the Archaeological Museum. Ask the TI inside the station for the going rate so you’re less likely to get overcharged.
CONTINUING TO POMPEII ON THE CIRCUMVESUVIANA
Naples and Pompeii are connected by a commuter train—the Ferrovia Circumvesuviana—handy for tourists, commuters...and pickpockets (www.vesuviana.it). Note: When coming from Rome, don’t be tempted to take a Trenitalia connection to the stop called “Pompei,” which leaves you at a station in the ugly, modern city center—a long walk to the actual site. It’s better to simply get off at Naples’ Centrale Station and transfer to the Circumvesuviana.
There are two trains per hour to Pompeii—just take any train marked for Sorrento, and get off at the stop called Pompei Scavi-Villa Misteri (about 40 minutes, €2.60 one-way, not covered by rail passes, skip the day pass except on weekends when it’s half-price).
At Naples’ Centrale Station, follow Circumvesuviana signs downstairs and down the corridor to the Circumvesuviana ticket windows and turnstiles. When you buy your ticket, ask which platform your train will depart from (“Quale binario?”; KWAH-lay bee-NAH-ree-oh)—trains marked Sorrento usually depart from platform 3. Insert your ticket at the turnstiles and find your platform (down another level). As you board, double-check with a local that the train goes to Pompeii, as the Circumvesuviana has several lines that branch out.
The Circumvesuviana also has another station in central Naples (called Napoli Porta Nolana, across from the Porta Nolana fish market), but there’s no reason to use it unless you happen to be nearby.
When returning to Naples on the Circumvesuviana, remember that the name of the Circumvesuviana stop at Centrale Station is “Garibaldi.”
Theft Alert: While most travelers visit Naples completely safely, err on the side of caution. Don’t venture into neighborhoods that make you uncomfortable. The areas close to the train station are especially seedy. Walk with confidence, as if you know where you’re going and what you’re doing. Touristy Spaccanapoli and the posh Via Toledo shopping boulevard are more upscale, but you’ll still see rowdy kids and panhandlers. Assume able-bodied beggars are thieves.
Stick to busy streets and beware of gangs of hoodlums. A third of the city is unemployed, and past local governments have set an example that the Mafia would be proud of. Assume con artists are more clever than you. Any jostle or commotion is probably a thief-team smokescreen. To keep bags safe, it’s probably best to leave them back in Rome or at the left-luggage office in Centrale Station.
Always walk on the sidewalk (even if the locals don’t) and carry your bag on the side away from the street—thieves on scooters have been known to snatch bags as they swoop by. The less you have dangling from you (including cameras and necklaces), the better. Keep valuables buttoned up.
Perhaps your biggest risk of theft is while catching or riding the Circumvesuviana commuter train. At the train station, carry your own bags—there are no official porters. If you’re connecting from a long-distance express, you’ll be going from a relatively secure compartment into an often crowded and dingy train, where disoriented tourists with luggage delicately mix with the residents of Naples’ most down-and-out districts. It’s prime hunting ground for thieves. While I ride the Circumvesuviana comfortably and safely, each year I hear of many travelers who get ripped off on this ride. You won’t be mugged—but you may be conned or pickpocketed. Be ready for this very common trick: A team of thieves blocks the door at a stop, pretending it’s stuck. While everyone rushes to try to open it, an accomplice picks their pockets. Especially late at night, the Circumvesuviana train is plagued by intimidating ruffians. For maximum safety and peace of mind, sit in the front car, where the driver will double as your protector, and avoid riding it after dark.
Traffic Safety: In Naples, red lights are discretionary, and pedestrians need to be wary, particularly of motor scooters. Even on “pedestrian” streets, stay alert to avoid being sideswiped by scooters that nudge their way through the crowds. Keep children close. Smart tourists jaywalk in the shadow of bold locals, who generally ignore crosswalks. Wait for a break in traffic, cross with confidence, and make eye contact with approaching drivers. The traffic will stop.
GETTING AROUND NAPLES
Naples’ entire public transportation system—Metro, buses, funicular railways, and the single tram line—uses the same tickets, which must be stamped as you enter (in the yellow machines). A €1 single ticket (corsa singola) covers any ride on one mode of transportation (bus, tram, funicular, or Metro line 1), with no transfers; Metro line 2 has its own €1.20 version. If you need to transfer, buy the €1.50 90 minuti ticket. Tickets are sold at tabacchi stores, some newsstands, and occasionally at station windows; Metro stations have clunky coin-op machines. A giornaliero day pass costs €3.50 and pays for itself with three rides, but can be hard to find; many tabacchi stores don’t sell them. For general information, maps, and fares in English, visit www.unicocampania.it. For schedules, your only option is the Italian-only site www.anm.it.
By Metro: Naples’ subway, the Metropolitana, has three main lines (linea). Station entrances and signs to the Metro are marked by a red square with a white M.
Line 1 has several stations that are very useful for tourists. From the Museo stop (Archaeological Museum), line 1 heads to Dante (at Piazza Dante, between the museum and Spaccanapoli), Toledo (south end of Via Toledo, near Piazza del Plebiscito), Municipio (at Piazza Municipio, just above the harbor and cruise terminal), Università (the university), and Garibaldi (on Piazza Garibaldi in front of Centrale Station).
Line 2 (technically part of the Italian rail system) is most useful for getting quickly from the train station to the Archaeological Museum: It runs from Centrale Station to Piazza Cavour (a 5-minute walk from the Archaeological Museum); it also stops at Montesanto (top of Spanish Quarter and Spaccanapoli Street, and base of funicular up to San Martino). The new line 6 is not yet complete; it will begin at Municipio and head west—unlikely to be of much use to tourists.
By Funicular: Central Naples’ three funiculars (funicolare) carry commuters and sightseers into the hilly San Martino neighborhood just west of downtown. All three converge near Piazza Fuga, a short walk from the hilltop fortress and monastery/museum. The Centrale line runs from the Spanish Quarter, just near Piazza del Plebiscito and the Toledo Metro stop; the Montesanto line from the Montesanto Metro stop and Via Pignasecca market zone; and the Chiaia line from near the Piazza Amadeo Metro stop.
By Bus: Buses are crowded and poorly signed—not a user-friendly option for uninitiated newcomers.
By Tram: Tram line #1 runs along Corso Garibaldi (at the other end of the big square from Centrale Station) and down to the waterfront, terminating by the ferry and cruise terminals (direction: Stazione Marittima).
By Taxi: Taxi drivers in Naples are notorious for overcharging. A short ride in town should cost €10-12. Ask for the tariffa predeterminata (a fixed rate). A TI can tell you what a given ride should cost. There are some legitimate extra charges (baggage fees, €2.50 supplement after 22:00 or all day Sun and holidays). Radio Taxi 8888 is one reputable company (tel. 081-8888).
Tours in Naples
Pina Esposito has a Ph.D. in ancient archaeology and art and does fine private walking and driving tours of Naples and the region (Pompeii, Capri, the Amalfi Coast, etc.), including Naples’ Archaeological Museum (€60/hour, 2-hour minimum, 10 percent off with this book, mobile 338-763-4224, firstname.lastname@example.org).
The team at Mondo Guide offers private tours of the Archaeological Museum (€120/2 hours) and city (€240/4 hours), and can provide guides or drivers throughout the region (tel. 081-751-3290, www.mondoguide.com, email@example.com).
Mondo Guide offers my readers special shared tours of Naples and of Pompeii, as well as other trips in the region. For details, see the sidebar.
Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tours
CitySightseeing Napoli tour buses make three different hop-on, hop-off loops through the city. Only one of these—the red line, which loops around the historical center and stops at the Archaeological Museum—is particularly helpful. The bus route will give you a sense of greater Naples that this chapter largely ignores (€22, ticket valid 24 hours, infrequent departures, buy from driver or from kiosk at Piazza Municipio in front of Castel Nuovo near the port, scant recorded narration; for details, see brochure at TI, tel. 081-551-7279, www.napoli.city-sightseeing.it). The same company offers another route, traversing the historical center in an open-top minibus (€7, €25 combo-ticket with the main route, 40-minute loop, departs in front of the Church of Gesù Nuovo).
Mondo Guide’s Tours of Pompeii, Naples, the Amalfi Coast, and Capri for My Readers
Mondo Guide, a big Naples-based company, offers co-op tours for Rick Steves readers. These include a private, professional guide at a fraction of the usual cost (because you’ll be sharing the expense with other travelers using this book). A schedule of offerings is on their website, www.mondoguide.it (look for the “Shared Tours for Rick Steves” tab; use your credit card to reserve a spot, then pay cash to the guide). Pre-registration is required, and tours depart only if at least six people sign up. You’ll be sent an email confirmation as soon as it’s sure your tour will run. If there’s not enough demand to justify the trip, they’ll notify you three days before the departure date. Confirmed departures are continually updated on the website (tel. 081-751-3290, mobile 340-460-5254, firstname.lastname@example.org). Note that you’ll have to make your own way to the starting point for each tour. Tours run April-October and include Pompeii (€15, doesn’t include €11 Pompeii entry, daily at 10:30, 2 hours, meet in Pompeii at Hotel/Ristorante Suisse) and a walking tour of Naples (€25, daily at 15:00, 3 hours, meet at the steps of the Archaeological Museum—not included in the walk). They also offer an Amalfi Coast minibus tour and a Capri boat trip, both departing from Sorrento (see website for details).
Naples’ Archaeological Museum Tour
Naples’ Archaeological Museum (Museo Archeologico), worth ▲▲▲, offers the best possible peek at the art and decorations of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the two ancient burgs that were buried in ash by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. For lovers of antiquity, this museum alone makes Naples a worthwhile stop. When Pompeii was excavated in the late 1700s, Naples’ Bourbon king bellowed, “Bring me the best of what you find!” The finest art and artifacts ended up here, and today, the ancient sites themselves are impressive but barren. This self-guided tour covers the highlights.
Cost and Hours: €8, sometimes more for temporary exhibits, free first Sun of the month, Wed-Mon 9:00-19:30, closed Tue. Early and temporary closures are noted on a board near the ticket office. In July and August, expect many rooms to be closed due to lack of staff.
Getting There: To take the Metro (Metropolitana) from Centrale Station, catch a line 2 (linea 2) train heading in the direction of Pozzuoli (generally departing from track 4). Ride one stop to Cavour. Walk five minutes uphill through the park along the busy street. Look for a grand old red building located up a flight of stairs at the top of the block.
If taking the Metro back to Centrale Station, it’s faster to catch a train in the Cavour station, rather than at the connected Museo stop (which is on a different line).
Figure on €12 for a taxi from the train station to the museum.
Information: The shop sells a worthwhile National Archaeological Museum of Naples guidebook for €12. Tel. 081-442-2149.
Tours: My self-guided tour (below) covers all the basics. For more detail, the decent audioguide costs €5 (at ticket desk). For a guided tour, book Pina Esposito (see “Tours in Naples,” earlier).
Baggage Check: Bag check is obligatory and free.
Photography: Photos are allowed without a flash.
Eating: The museum has no café, but vending machines sell drinks and snacks at reasonable prices. There are several good places to grab a meal within a few blocks; see here.
Entering the museum, stand at the base of the grand staircase. To your right, on the ground floor, are the larger-than-life statues of the Farnese Collection, starring the Toro Farnese and the Farnese Hercules. Up the stairs on the mezzanine level are mosaics and frescoes from Pompeii, including the Secret Room of erotic art. On the top floor are more frescoes, a scale model of Pompeii, and bronze statues from Herculaneum. WCs are behind the staircase.
✵ From the base of the grand staircase, turn right through the door marked Collezione Farnese and head to the far end—walking through a rich collection of idealistic and realistic ancient portrait busts—to reach the farthest room (Sala XIII).
Ground Floor: The Farnese Collection
The museum’s ground floor alone has enough Greek and Roman art to put it on the map. This floor has nothing from Pompeii; its highlight is the Farnese Collection, a grand hall of huge, bright, and wonderfully restored statues excavated from Rome’s Baths of Caracalla. Peruse the larger-than-life statues filling the hall. They were dug up in the 1540s at the behest of Alessandro Farnese (by then Pope Paul III) while he was building the family palace on the Campo dei Fiori in Rome. His main purpose in excavating the baths was to scavenge quality building stone. The sculptures were a nice extra and helped the palace come in under budget on decorations. In the 1700s, the collection ended up in the hands of Charles, the Bourbon king of Naples (whose mother was a Farnese). His son, the next king, had it brought to Naples.
✵ Quick—look down to the left end of the hall. There’s a woman being tied to a snorting bull.
The tangled Toro Farnese tells a thrilling Greek myth. At 13 feet, it’s the tallest ancient marble group ever found, and the largest intact statue from antiquity. A third-century A.D. copy of a lost bronze Hellenistic original, it was carved out of one piece of marble. Michelangelo and others “restored” it at the pope’s request—meaning that they integrated surviving bits into a new work. Panels on the wall show which pieces were actually carved by Michelangelo (in blue on the chart): the head of the woman in back, the torso of the aunt under the bull, and the dog. (Imagine how the statue would stand out if it were thoughtfully lit and not surrounded by white walls.)
Here’s the tragic story behind the statue: Once upon an ancient Greek time, King Lycus was bewitched by Dirce. He abandoned his pregnant wife, Antiope (standing regally in the background). The single mom gave birth to twin boys. When they grew up, they killed their deadbeat dad and tied Dirce to the horns of a bull to be bashed against a mountain. Captured in marble, the action is thrilling: cape flailing, dog snarling, hooves in the air. You can almost hear the bull snorting. And in the back, Antiope oversees this harsh ancient justice with satisfaction.
At the opposite end of the hall stands the Farnese Hercules. The great Greek hero is exhausted. He leans wearily on his club (draped with his lion skin) and bows his head. He’s just finished the daunting Eleventh Labor, having traveled the world, fought men and gods, freed Prometheus from his rock, and carried Atlas’ weight of the world on his shoulders. Now he’s returned with the prize: the golden apples of the gods, which he cups behind his back. But, after all that, he’s just been told he has to return the apples and do one final labor: descend into hell itself. Oh, man.
The 10-foot colossus is a third-century A.D. Roman marble copy (signed by “Glykon”) of a fourth-century B.C. Greek bronze original (probably by Lysippos). The statue was enormously famous in its day. Dozens of copies—some marble, some bronze—have been found in Roman villas and baths. This version was unearthed in Rome’s Baths of Caracalla in 1546, along with the Toro Farnese.
The Farnese Hercules was equally famous in the 16th-18th centuries. Tourists flocked to Rome to admire it, art students studied it from afar in prints, Louis XIV made a copy for Versailles, and petty nobles everywhere put small-scale knock-offs in their gardens. This curly-haired version of Hercules became the modern world’s image of the Greek hero.
✵ Backtrack to the main entry hall, then head up to the mezzanine level (turn left at the lion and go under the Mosaici sign).
Mezzanine: Pompeiian Mosaics and the Secret Room
Most of these mosaics—of animals, musicians, and geometric designs—were taken from Pompeii’s House of the Faun (see here). Walk into the third room and look for the 20-inch-high statue in a freestanding glass case: the house’s delightful centerpiece, the Dancing Faun. This rare surviving Greek bronze statue (from the fourth century B.C.) is surrounded by some of the best mosaics of that age.
A museum highlight, just beyond the statue, is the grand Battle of Alexander, a second-century B.C. copy of the original Greek fresco, done a century earlier. It decorated a floor in the House of the Faun and was found intact; the damage you see occurred as this treasure was moved from Pompeii to the king’s collection here. Alexander (left side of the scene, with curly hair and sideburns) is about to defeat the Persians under Darius (central figure, in chariot with turban and beard). This pivotal victory allowed Alexander to quickly overrun much of Asia (331 B.C.). Alexander is the only one without a helmet...a confident master of the battlefield while everyone else is fighting for their lives, eyes bulging with fear. Notice how the horses, already in retreat, add to the scene’s propaganda value. Notice also the shading and perspective, which Renaissance artists would later work so hard to accomplish. (A modern reproduction of the mosaic is now back in Pompeii, at the House of the Faun.)
Farther on, the Secret Room (Gabinetto Segreto) contains a sizable assortment of erotic frescoes, well-hung pottery, and perky statues that once decorated bedrooms, meeting rooms, brothels, and even shops at Pompeii and Herculaneum. These bawdy statues and frescoes—many of them once displayed in Pompeii’s grandest houses—were entertainment for guests. (By the time they made it to this museum, in 1819, the frescoes could be viewed only with permission from the king—see the letters in the glass case just outside the door.) The Roman nobles commissioned the wildest scenes imaginable. Think of them as ancient dirty jokes.
At the entrance, you’re enthusiastically greeted by big stone penises that once projected over Pompeii’s doorways. A massive phallus was not necessarily a sexual symbol, but a magical amulet used against the “evil eye.” It symbolized fertility, happiness, good luck, riches, straight A’s, and general well-being.
Circulating counterclockwise through this section, look for the following: a faun playfully pulling the sheet off a beautiful woman, only to be grossed out by a hermaphrodite’s plumbing (perhaps the original “Mamma mia!”; #12); horny pygmies from Africa in action (#27); a toga with an embarrassing bulge (#34); a particularly high-quality statue of a goat and a satyr illustrating an act of sodomy (#36); and, watching over it all with remarkable aplomb, Venus, the patron goddess of Pompeii (#39).
The back room is furnished and decorated the way an ancient brothel might have been. The 10 frescoes on the wall functioned as both a menu of services offered and as a kind of Kama Sutra of sex positions. The glass cases contain more phallic art.
✵ So, now that your travel buddy is finally showing a little interest in art...finish up your visit by climbing the stairs to the top floor.
Top Floor: Frescoes, Statues, Artifacts, and a Model of Pompeii
At the top of the stairs, go through the center door to enter a grand, empty hall. This was the great hall of the university (17th and 18th centuries) until the building became the royal museum in 1777. Walk to the center. The sundial (from 1791) still works. Look up to the far-right corner of the hall and find the tiny pinhole. At noon (13:00 in summer), a ray of sun enters the hall and strikes the sundial, showing the time of the year...if you know your zodiac.
To your left, you’ll see a door marked affreschi. This leads to eight rooms showing off the museum’s impressive and well-described collection of (nonerotic) frescoes taken from the walls of Pompeii villas. Pompeiians loved to decorate their homes with scenes from mythology (Hercules’ labors, Venus and Mars in love), landscapes, everyday market scenes, and faux architecture. Continue around this wing counterclockwise (with the courtyard on your left) through rooms of artifacts found at Pompeii. At the far end is a scale model of Pompeii as excavated in 1879 (plastic di Pompeii). Another model (on the wall) shows the site in 2004, after more excavations.
✵ Eventually you’ll end up back in the great hall.
Step out to the top landing of the staircase you climbed earlier. Turn left and go down, then up, 16 steps and into the wing labeled La Villa dei Papiri. This exhibition shows off artifacts (particularly bronze statues) from the Herculaneum holiday home of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. In the second room (numbered CXVI), look into the lifelike blue eyes of the intense Corridore (athletes), bent on doing their best. The Five Dancers, with their inlaid-ivory eyes and graceful poses, decorated a portico. The next room (CXVII) has more fine works: Resting Hermes (with his tired little heel wings) is taking a break. Nearby, the Drunken Faun (singing and snapping his fingers to the beat, a wineskin at his side) is clearly living for today—true to the carpe diem preaching of the Epicurean philosophy. Caesar’s father-in-law was a fan of Epicurean philosophy, and his library—containing 2,000 papyrus scrolls—supported his outlook. Back by the entrance, check out the plans of the villa, and in the side room, see how the half-burned scrolls were unrolled and (with luck) read after excavation in the 1750s.
✵ Return to the ground floor. The exit hall (right) leads around the museum courtyard and to the gift shop.
For extra credit on your way out, find Doriforo. He was last spotted on the right as you walk down the exit hall. (If he’s been moved, ask a guard, “Dov’è il Doriforo?”) This seven-foot-tall “spear-carrier” (the literal translation of doriforo) just stands there, as if holding a spear. What’s the big deal about this statue, which looks like so many others? It’s a marble replica made by the Romans of one of the most-copied statues of antiquity, a fifth-century B.C. bronze Greek original by Polyclitus. This copy once stood in a Pompeii gym, where it inspired ancient athletes by showing the ideal proportions of Greek beauty. So full of motion, and so realistic in its contrapposto pose (weight on one foot), the Doriforo would later inspire Donatello and Michelangelo, helping to trigger the Renaissance. And so the glories of ancient Pompeii, once buried and forgotten, live on today.
A Slice of Neapolitan Life Walk
(See “A Slice of Neapolitan Life Walk” map, here.)
This self-guided walk, worth ▲▲▲, takes you from the Archaeological Museum through the heart of town and back to Centrale Station. Allow at least three hours, plus time for pizza and sightseeing stops. If you’re in a rush, do it in half the time by walking briskly and skipping Part 2.
Naples, a living medieval city, is its own best sight. Couples artfully make love on Vespas surrounded by more fights and smiles per cobblestone than anywhere else in Italy. Rather than seeing Naples as a list of sights, visit its one great museum and then capture its essence by taking this walk through the core of the city.
Part 1: From the Archaeological Museum to Piazza Bellini and Piazza Dante
The first two parts of this walk are a mostly straight one-mile ramble down a fine boulevard (with a few colorful detours) to the waterfront at Piazza del Plebiscito. Your starting point is the Archaeological Museum (at the top of Piazza Cavour, Metro: Cavour or Museo; for a self-guided tour of the museum, see earlier). As you stroll, remember that here in Naples, red traffic lights are considered “decorations.” When crossing a street, try to draft behind a native.
✵ From the door of the Archaeological Museum, cross the street, veer right, and enter the fancy mall. (If the mall is closed for renovation, simply loop around the block to its back door.)
Galleria Principe di Napoli: This was named for the first male child of the royal Savoy family, the Prince of Naples. Walk directly through it, enjoying this fine shopping gallery from the late 19th century, similar to those popular in Paris and London. This is “Liberty Style,” Italy’s version of Art Nouveau (named for a British department store) that was in vogue at a time when Naples was nicknamed the “Paris of the South.” Parisian artist Edgar Degas left Paris to adopt Naples—which he actually considered more cosmopolitan and sophisticated—as his hometown.
✵ Leaving the gallery through the opposite end, walk one block downhill. At Via Conte di Ruvo, head left, passing the fine Bellini Theater (also in the Liberty Style). After one block, turn right on Via Costantinopoli, continuing directly downhill to Piazza Bellini. As you walk, look up to enjoy architecture built in the late 19th century, when Naples was the last stop on Romantic Age travelers’ Grand Tour of Europe. (From a tourism perspective, Sorrento only rose with the cultural and economic fall of Naples in the decades following Italian independence, around the early 20th century.)
Soon you’ll run into the ragtag urban park called...
Piazza Bellini: Walking between columns of two grand churches, suddenly you’re in neighborhood Napoli. A statue of Sicilian opera composer Vincenzo Bellini, who worked in Naples in the early 1800s, marks the center of the park. Survey the many balconies—and the people who use them as a “backyard” in this densely packed city. The apartment flats were originally the palaces of noble families, as indicated by the stately family crests above grand doorways. At the downhill end of the square, peer down into the sunken area to see the ruined Greek walls: tuff blocks without mortar. This was the wall, and you’re standing on land that was outside of the town. You can see the street level from the fifth century B.C., when Neapolis—literally, “the new city”—was founded. For 2,500 years, laundry has blown in the breeze right here.
✵ Walk 30 yards downhill. Stop at the horseshoe-shaped Port’Alba gate (on the right). Spin slowly 360 degrees and take in the scene. The proud tile across the street (upstairs, between the two balconies) shows Piazza Bellini circa 1890. Learn to ignore graffiti (as the locals do). Pass through the gate, and stroll past the book stalls down Via Port’Alba to the next big square...
Piazza Dante: This square is marked by a statue of Dante, the medieval poet. Fittingly, half the square is devoted to bookstores. Old Dante looks out over an urban area that was once grand, then chaotic, and is now slowly becoming grand again.
Originally, a statue of a Spanish Bourbon king stood in the square. (The grand orange-and-gray building is typical of Bourbon structures from that period.) But with the unification of Italy, the king, symbolic of Naples’ colonial subjugation, was replaced by Dante, the father of the unified Italian language—a strong symbol of nationalism.
The Neapolitan people are survivors. A long history of corrupt and greedy colonial overlords (German, Norman, French, Austrian, and Spanish) has taught Neapolitans to deal creatively with authority. Many credit this aspect of Naples’ past for the strength of organized crime here.
Across the street, Caffè Mexico (at #86) is an institution known for its espresso, which is served already sweetened—ask for senza zucchero if you don’t want sugar (pay first, then take receipt to the counter and hand it over). Most Italians agree that Neapolitan coffee is the best anywhere.
✵ Walk downhill on...
Via Toledo: The long, straight street heading downhill from Piazza Dante is Naples’ principal shopping drag. It originated as a military road built under Spanish rule (hence the name) in the 16th century. Via Toledo skirted the old town wall to connect the Spanish military headquarters (now the museum where you started this walk) with the Royal Palace (down by the bay, where you’re heading). As you stroll, peek into lovely atriums, an ancient urban design feature providing a break from the big street.
After a couple of hundred yards, you’ll reach Piazza Sette Settembre. In 1860, from the white marble balcony of the Neoclassical building overlooking the square, the famous revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi declared Italy united and Victor Emmanuel II its first king. Only in 1870, a decade later, was the dream of Italian unity fully realized when Rome fell to unification forces.
✵ Continue straight on Via Toledo. About three blocks below Piazza Dante and a block past Piazza Sette Settembre, you’ll come to Via Maddaloni, which marks the start of the long, straight, narrow street nicknamed...
Spaccanapoli: Before crossing the street—whose name translates as “split Naples”—look left (toward the train station). Then look right (to see San Martino hill rising steeply above the center). Since ancient times, this thin street has bisected the city. It changes names several times: Via Maddaloni (as it’s called here), Via B. Croce, Via S. Biagio dei Librai, and Via Vicaria Vecchia. We’ll return to this intersection later.
✵ If you want to abbreviate this walk, turn left here and skip ahead to Part 3. Part 2, described next, is a bit of a detour, and requires backtracking uphill (or a short taxi ride) later. But if you have time, it’s worth the effort.
Part 2: Monumental Naples (Via Toledo, the Spanish Quarter, and Piazza del Plebiscito)
✵ We’ll detour off of Via Toledo for just a couple of blocks (rejoining it later). At the Spaccanapoli intersection, go right (toward the church facade on the hill, up Via Pasquale Scura). After about 100 yards, you hit a busy intersection. Stop. You’re on one of Naples’ most colorful open-air market streets...
Via Pignasecca Market: Snoop around from here if you are so inclined. Then, turn left down Via Pignasecca and stroll this colorful strip. You’ll pass meat and fish stalls, produce stands, street-food vendors, and much more. This is a taste of Naples’ famous Spanish Quarter, which we’ll experience more of later in this walk.
✵ Via Pignasecca meets back up with Via Toledo at the square called...
Piazza Carità: This square, built for an official visit by Hitler to Mussolini in 1938, is full of stern, straight, obedient lines. The big building belonged to an insurance company. (For the best example of fascist architecture in town, take a slight detour from here: With your back to Via Toledo, leave Piazza Carità downhill on the right-hand corner and walk a block to the Poste e Telegrafi building. There you’ll see several government buildings with stirring reliefs singing the praises of lobotomized workers and a totalitarian society.)
In Naples—long a poor and rough city—rather than being heroic, people learn from the cradle the art of survival. The modern memorial statue in the center of the square celebrates Salvo d’Acquisto, a rare hometown hero. In 1943, he was executed after falsely confessing to sabotage...in order to save 22 fellow Italian soldiers from a Nazi revenge massacre.
✵ From Piazza Carità, continue south down Via Toledo for a few blocks, looking to your left for more...
Fascist Architecture (Banks): You can’t miss the two big, blocky bank buildings. First comes the chalky-white BNL Bank. A bit farther down, past the Metro, imagine trying to rob the even more imposing Banco di Napoli (Via Toledo 178). Step across the street and check out its architecture: typical fascist arches and reliefs, built to celebrate the bank’s 400th anniversary (est. 1539—how old is your bank?).
The street here was pedestrianized after the Toledo Metro stop opened in 2012. Now the street is even more popular for strolling, property values have risen, and international brands have moved in.
✵ On the next block (at #184) is the...
Banca Intesa Sanpaolo: This fills an older palace—take a free peek at the opulent atrium. In the entry hall, you can buy a ticket for the Galleria d’Italia Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, a small collection located in the upper two floors. The gallery’s only piece worth seeing—on the second floor—is a great late Caravaggio painting. The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula shows a terrible scene: His marriage proposal rejected, the king of the Huns shoots an arrow into Ursula’s chest. Blood spurts, Ursula is stunned but accepts her destiny sweetly, and Caravaggio himself—far right, his last self-portrait—screams to symbolize the rejection of evil. The rest of the second floor holds opulent chandeliered apartments, a few Neapolitan landscapes, and little else. The first floor has temporary exhibits (€5, closed Mon; entry includes audioguide, a look at old Naples paintings, and a fine WC).
✵ Feeling bold? From here, side-trip uphill a couple of blocks into the...
Spanish Quarter: This is a classic world of basso (low) living. The streets—which were laid out in the 16th century for the Spanish military barracks outside the city walls—are unbelievably narrow (and cool in summer), and the buildings rise five stories high. In such tight quarters, life—flirting, fighting, playing, and loving—happens in the road. This is the cliché of life in Naples, as shown in so many movies. The Spanish Quarter is Naples at its most characteristic. The shopkeepers are friendly, and the mopeds are bold (watch out). Concerned locals will tug on their lower eyelids, warning you to be wary. Hungry? Pop into a grocery shop and ask the clerk to make you his best prosciutto-and-mozzarella sandwich (the price should be about €4).
✵ Return to Via Toledo and work your way down. Near the bottom of the street, on the right at #275, is Pintauro, a takeaway bakery famous for its sfogliatelle. These classic, ricotta-filled Neapolitan pastries are often served warm from the oven and make a tasty €2 treat.
Just beyond, on the right, notice the station for the Centrale funicular. If you have extra time and enjoy city views, this can take you sweat-free up to the top of San Martino, the hill with a fortress and a monastery/museum looming over town. Across the street is the impressive Galleria Umberto I—but don’t go in now, as you’ll see it in a minute from the other side.
For now, just keep heading down the main drag and through the smaller Piazza Trieste e Trento to the immense...
Piazza del Plebiscito: This square celebrates the 1861 vote (plebiscito, plebiscite) in which Naples chose to join Italy. Dominating the top of the square is the Church of San Francesco di Paola, with its Pantheon-inspired dome and broad, arcing colonnades. If it’s open, step inside to ogle the vast interior—a Neoclassical re-creation of one of ancient Rome’s finest buildings (free, daily 8:30-12:00 & 16:00-19:00).
✵ Opposite is the...
Royal Palace (Palazzo Reale): Having housed Spanish, French, and even Italian royalty, this building displays statues of all those who stayed here. Look for eight kings in the niches, each from a different dynasty (left to right): Norman, German, French, Spanish, Spanish, Spanish, French (Napoleon’s brother-in-law), and, finally, Italian—Victor Emmanuel II, King of Savoy. The statues were done at the request of V. E. II’s son, so his dad is the most dashing of the group.
✵ Continue 50 yards past the Royal Palace (toward the trees) to enjoy a...
Fine Harbor View: While boats busily serve Capri and Sorrento, Mount Vesuvius smolders ominously in the distance. Look back to see the vast “Bourbon red” palace—its color inspired by Pompeii. The hilltop above Piazza del Plebiscito is San Martino, with its Carthusian monastery-turned-museum and Castle of St. Elmo. The promenade you’re on continues to Naples’ romantic harborfront—the fishermen’s quarter (Borgo Marinaro)—a fortified island connected to the mainland by a stout causeway, with its fanciful, ancient Castel dell’Ovo (Egg Castle) and trendy harborside restaurants. Farther along the harborfront stretches the Lungomare promenade and Santa Lucia district.
✵ Head back through the piazza and pop into...
Gran Caffè Gambrinus: This coffee house, facing the piazza, takes you back to the elegance of 1860. It’s a classic place to sample a crispy sfogliatella pastry, or perhaps the mushroom-shaped, rum-soaked bread-like cakes called babà, which come in a huge variety. Stand at the bar (banco), pay double to sit (tavola), or just wander around as you imagine the café buzzing with the ritzy intellectuals, journalists, and artsy bohemian types who munched on babà here during Naples’ 19th-century heyday.
✵ A block away, tucked behind the palace, you can peek inside the Neoclassical...
Teatro di San Carlo: Built in 1737, 41 years before Milan’s La Scala, this is Europe’s oldest opera house and Italy’s second-most-respected (after La Scala). The theater burned down in 1816 and was rebuilt within the year.
Beyond Teatro di San Carlo and the Royal Palace is the huge, harborfront Castel Nuovo, which houses government bureaucrats and the Civic Museum. It feels like a mostly empty shell, with a couple of dusty halls of Neapolitan art, but the views over the bay from the upper terraces are impressive (€6, Mon-Sat 9:00-19:00, closed Sun).
Cross the street from Teatro di San Carlo and go through the tall yellow arch into the Victorian iron and glass of the 100-year-old shopping mall, Galleria Umberto I. It was built in 1892 to reinvigorate the district after a devastating cholera epidemic occurred here. Gawk up, then walk left to bring you back out on Via Toledo.
✵ For Part 3 of this walk, double back up Via Toledo to Piazza Carità, veering right (just above the first big fascist-style building we saw earlier) on Via Morgantini through Piazza Monteoliveto. Cross the busy street, then angle up Calata Trinità Maggiore to the fancy column at the top of the hill. (To avoid the backtracking and uphill walk, catch a €10 taxi to the Church of Gesù Nuovo—JAY-zoo noo-OH-voh.)
Part 3: Spaccanapoli Back to the Station
You’re back at the straight-as-a-Greek-arrow Spaccanapoli, formerly the main thoroughfare of the Greek city of Neapolis.
✵ Stop at...
Piazza Gesù Nuovo: This square is marked by a towering 18th-century Baroque monument to the Counter-Reformation. Although the Jesuit order was powerful in Naples because of its Spanish heritage, locals never attacked Protestants here with the full fury of the Spanish Inquisition.
If you’d like, you can visit two bulky old churches, starting with the dark, fortress-like, 17th-century Church of Gesù Nuovo, followed by the simpler Church of Santa Chiara (in the courtyard across the street). Both are described in more detail later, under “More Sights in Naples.”
✵ After touring the churches, continue along the main drag. Since this is a university district, you’ll see lots of students and bookstores. This neighborhood is also famously superstitious. Look for incense-burning women with carts full of good-luck charms for sale.
Farther down Spaccanapoli—passing Palazzo Venezia, the embassy of Venice to Naples when both were independent powers—you’ll see the next square...
Piazza San Domenico Maggiore: This square is marked by an ornate 17th-century monument built to thank God for ending the plague. From this square, detour left along the right side of the castle-like church, then follow yellow signs, taking the first right and walking one block to the remarkable Cappella Sansevero. This Baroque chapel is well worth visiting (described later, under “More Sights in Naples”).
✵ After touring the chapel, return to Via B. Croce (a.k.a. Spaccanapoli), turn left, and continue your cultural scavenger hunt. At the intersection of Via Nilo, find the...
Statue of the Nile (on the left): A reminder of the multiethnic makeup of Greek Neapolis, this statue is in what was the Egyptian quarter. Locals like to call this statue The Body of Naples, with the overflowing cornucopia symbolizing the abundance of their fine city. (I once asked a Neapolitan man to describe the local women, who are famous for their beauty, in one word. He replied simply, “Abundant.”) This intersection is considered the center of old Naples.
✵ Directly opposite the statue, inside of Bar Nilo, is the...
“Chapel of Maradona”: The small “chapel” on the right wall is dedicated to Diego Maradona, a soccer star who played for Naples in the 1980s. Locals consider soccer almost a religion, and this guy was practically a deity. You can even see a “hair of Diego” and a teardrop from the city when he went to another team for more money. Unfortunately, his reputation has since been sullied by problems he’s had with organized crime, drugs, and police. Perhaps inspired by Maradona’s example, the coffee bar has posted a quadrilingual sign (though, strangely, not in English) threatening that those who take a picture without buying a cup of coffee may find their camera damaged...Capisce?
✵ As you continue, you’ll begin to see shops selling...
Presepi (Nativity Scenes) and Corno: Just as many Americans keep an eye out year-round for Christmas-tree ornaments, Italians regularly add pieces to the family presepe, the centerpiece of their holiday decorations. Stop after a few blocks at the tiny square, where Via San Gregorio Armeno leads left into a colorful district with the highest concentration of shops selling fantastic presepi and their tiny components, including figurines caricaturing local politicians and celebrities. Some even move around.
Another popular Naples souvenir that you’ll see sold here—and all over the city—is the corno, a skinny, twisted, red horn that resembles a chili pepper. The corno comes with a double symbolism for fertility: It’s a horn of plenty, and it’s also a phallic symbol turned upside-down. Neapolitans explain that fertility isn’t sexual; it provides the greatest gift a person can give—life—and it ensures that one’s soul will live on through the next generation. Interestingly, in today’s Naples just as in yesterday’s Pompeii (where bulging erections greeted visitors at the entrance to a home), fertility is equated with good luck.
Back on Spaccanapoli and a bit farther along, on the right at #87, the D’Auria shop sells some of the best-quality presepi in town, many of them the classy campane version, under a glass bell.
✵ As Via B. Croce becomes Via S. Biagio dei Librai, notice the...
Gold and Silver Shops: Some say stolen jewelry ends up here, is melted down immediately, and gets resold in some other form as soon as it cools. Look for compro oro (“I buy gold”) signs (for example, in the window of the shop at #95)—a sign of Italy’s economic tough times.
✵ Cross busy Via Duomo. If you have time and aren’t already churched out, consider detouring five minutes north (left) up Via Duomo to visit Naples’ Duomo; just around the corner is the Pio Monte della Misericordia Church,with a fine Caravaggio painting (both described later, under “More Sights in Naples”). Afterward, continue straight along Via Vicaria Vecchia. As you stroll, ponder Naples’ vibrant...
Street Life, Past and Present: Here along Via Vicaria Vecchia, the street and side-street scenes intensify. The area is said to be a center of the Camorra (organized crime), but as a tourist, you won’t notice. Paint a picture with these thoughts: Naples has the most intact street plan of any surviving ancient Greek or Roman city. Imagine this city during those times (and retain these images as you visit Pompeii), with streetside shop fronts that close up after dark, and private homes on upper floors. What you see today is just one more page in a 2,000-year-old story of a city: all kinds of meetings, beatings, and cheatings; kisses, near misses, and little-boy pisses.
You name it, it occurs right on the streets today, as it has since ancient times. People ooze from crusty corners. Black-and-white death announcements add to the clutter on the walls. Widows sell cigarettes from buckets. For a peek behind the scenes in the shade of wet laundry, venture down a few side streets. Buy two carrots as a gift for the woman on the fifth floor, if she’ll lower her bucket to pick them up. The neighborhood action seems best at about 18:00.
A few blocks on, at the tiny fenced-in triangle of greenery, hang out for a few minutes to just observe the crazy motorbike action and teen scene.
✵ From here, veer right onto Via Forcella (which leads to the busy boulevard that takes you to Centrale Station). A block down, a tiny, fenced-in traffic island protects a chunk of the ancient Greek wall of Neapolis. Turn right here on Via Pietro Colletta, walk 40 yards, and step into the North Pole, at the...
Polo Nord Gelateria: The oldest gelateria in Naples has had four generations of family working here since 1931. Before you order, sample a few flavors, including their bacio or “kiss” flavor (chocolate and hazelnut)—all are made fresh daily (Via Pietro Colletta 41). Via Pietro Colletta leads past two of Napoli’s most competitive pizzerias (see “Eating in Naples,” later) to Corso Umberto I.
✵ Turn left on the grand boulevard-like Corso Umberto I. From here to Centrale Station, it’s at least a 10-minute walk (if you’re tired, hop on a bus; they all go to the station). To finish the walk, continue on Corso Umberto I—past a gauntlet of purse/CD/sunglasses salesmen and shady characters hawking stolen mobile phones—to the vast Piazza Garibaldi, with a shiny new modern canopy in the middle. On the far side is the station. You made it.
More Sights in Naples
The following churches are linked—in this order—on Part 3 of my self-guided walk, earlier. The fish market is located near the end of the walk.
▲Church of Gesù Nuovo
This church’s unique pyramid-grill facade survives from a fortified 15th-century noble palace. Step inside for a brilliant Neapolitan Baroque interior. The second chapel on the right features a much-adored statue of St. Giuseppe Moscati (1880-1927), a Christian doctor famous for helping the poor. In 1987, Moscati became the first modern doctor to be canonized. Sit and watch a steady stream of Neapolitans taking turns to kiss and touch the altar, then hold the good doctor’s highly polished hand.
Continue on to the third chapel and enter the Sale Moscati. Look high on the walls of this long room to see hundreds of “Ex Votos”—tiny red-and-silver plaques of thanksgiving for prayers answered with the help of St. Moscati (each has a symbol of the ailment cured). Naples’ practice of using Ex Votos, while incorporated into its Catholic rituals, goes back to its pagan Greek roots. Rooms from Moscati’s nearby apartment are on display, and a glass case shows possessions and photos of the great doctor. As you leave the Sale Moscati, notice the big bomb casing that hangs high in the left corner. It fell through the church’s dome in 1943, but caused almost no damage...yet another miracle.
Cost and Hours: Free, daily 7:30-13:00 & 16:00-19:00, Piazza del Gesù Nuovo, www.gesunuovo.it.
Church of Santa Chiara
Dating from the 14th century, this church is from a period of French royal rule under the Angevin dynasty. Consider the stark contrast between this church (Gothic) and the Gesù Nuovo (Baroque), across the street. Inside, look for the faded Trinity on the back wall (on the right as you face the door, under the stone canopy), which shows a dove representing the Holy Spirit between the heads of God the Father and Christ (c. 1414). This is an example of the fine frescoes that once covered the walls. Most were stuccoed over during Baroque times or destroyed in 1943 by Allied bombs. Continuing down the main aisle, you’ll step over a huge inlaid-marble Angevin coat of arms on the floor. The altar is adorned with four finely carved Gothic tombs of Angevin kings. A chapel stacked with Bourbon royalty is just to the right.
Cost and Hours: Free, daily 7:30-13:00 & 16:30-20:00, Piazza del Gesù Nuovo. Its tranquil cloistered courtyard, around back, is not worth its €6 entry fee.
This small chapel is a Baroque explosion mourning the body of Christ, who lies on a soft pillow under an incredibly realistic veil (by Giuseppe “Howdeedoodat” Sammartino, 1753). It’s also the personal chapel of Raimondo de Sangro, an eccentric Freemason, containing his tomb and the tombs of his family. Raimondo’s mom and dad are buried on either side of the main altar, and Raimondo himself lies buried in a side altar (on the right). Like other 18th-century Enlightenment figures, Raimondo was a wealthy man of letters, scientist and inventor, and patron of the arts—and he was also a grand master of the Freemasons of the Kingdom of Naples.
His chapel—filled with Freemason symbolism—is a complex ensemble, with statues representing virtues such as self-control, religious zeal, and the Freemason philosophy of freedom through enlightenment. Among Raimondo’s inventions was the deep-green pigment used on the ceiling fresco. The inlaid M. C. Escher-esque maze on the floor around de Sangro’s tomb is a Freemason reminder of how the quest for knowledge gets you out of the maze of life. This tilework once covered the floor of the entire chapel. Downstairs, see two mysterious skeletons Raimondo created to illustrate how the circulatory system works. Though it’s a pricey private enterprise, the chapel is worth a visit.
Cost and Hours: €7, buy tickets at office at the corner, Mon and Wed-Sat 9:30-18:30, Sun 9:30-14:00, closed Tue, no photos, Via de Sanctis 19, tel. 081-551-8470, www.museosansevero.it. Good English explanations are posted throughout; when you buy your ticket, pick up the free floor plan, which identifies each of the statues lining the nave.
Naples’ historic cathedral, built by imported French Anjou kings in the 14th century, boasts a breathtaking Neo-Gothic facade. Step into the vast interior to see the mix of styles along the side chapels—from pointy Gothic arches to rounded Renaissance ones to gilded Baroque decor. Explore the two largest side-chapels—each practically a church in its own right. On the left, the Chapel of St. Restituta stands on the site of the original, early-Christian church that predated the cathedral. On the right is the Chapel of San Gennaro—dedicated to the beloved patron saint of Naples—decorated with silver busts of centuries of bishops, and seven paintings done on bronze. The stairs beneath the altar take you to a crypt with the relics of St. Gennaro and (across the room) a statue of the bishop who rescued the relics from a rival town and returned them to Naples.
Cost and Hours: Free, Mon-Sat 8:30-13:30 & 14:30-20:00, Sun 8:30-13:30 & 16:30-19:30, Via Duomo.
Pio Monte della Misericordia
This small church (near the Duomo, and run by a charitable foundation) displays one of the best works by Caravaggio, The Seven Works of Mercy, which hangs over the main altar in a humble gray chapel. It’s well lit, allowing Caravaggio’s characteristically dark canvas to really pop. In one crowded canvas, the great early-Baroque artist illustrates seven virtues: burying the dead (the man carrying a corpse by the ankles); visiting the imprisoned and feeding the hungry (Pero breastfeeding her starving father—a scene from a famous Roman story); sheltering the homeless (a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago, with his floppy hat, negotiates with an innkeeper); caring for the sick and clothing the naked (St. Martin offers part of his cloak to the injured man in the foreground); and giving drink to the thirsty (Samson chugs from a jawbone in the background)—all of them set in a dark Neapolitan alley and watched over by Mary, Jesus, and a pair of angels.
Cost and Hours: €7, includes audioguide, Thu-Tue 9:00-14:30, closed Wed, Via dei Tribunali 253, tel. 081-446-944, www.piomontedellamisericordia.it.
Porta Nolana Open-Air Fish Market
Naples’ fish market squirts and stinks as it has for centuries under the Porta Nolana (gate in the city wall), immediately in front of the Napoli Porta Nolana Circumvesuviana station and four long blocks from Centrale Station. Of the town’s many boisterous outdoor markets, this will net you the most photos and memories. From Piazza Nolana, wander under the medieval gate and take your first left down Vico Sopramuro, enjoying this wild and entirely edible cultural scavenger hunt (Tue-Sun 8:00-14:00, closed Mon).
Eating in Naples
CHEAP AND FAMOUS PIZZA
Naples is the birthplace of pizza. Its pizzerias bake just the right combination of fresh dough (soft and chewy, as opposed to Roman-style, which is thin and crispy), mozzarella, and tomatoes in traditional wood-burning ovens. You can head for the famous, venerable places (I’ve listed five below), but these can have long lines stretching out the door, and half-hour waits for a table. If you want to skip the hassle, just ask a local for directions to the neighborhood pizzeria. An average one-person pie (usually the only size available) costs €4-8; most places offer both takeout and eat-in, and pizza is often the only thing on the menu.
Near the Station
These two pizzerias—the most famous—are both a few long blocks from the train station, and at the end of my self-guided Naples walk.
Antica Pizzeria da Michele is for pizza purists. Filled with locals (and tourists), it serves just two varieties: margherita (tomato sauce and mozzarella) and marinara (tomato sauce, oregano, and garlic, no cheese). Come early to sit and watch the pizza artists in action. A pizza with beer costs around €7. As this place is often jammed with a long line, arrive early or late to get a seat. If there’s a mob, head inside to get a number. If it’s just too crowded to wait, the less-exceptional Pizzeria Trianon (described next) generally has room (Mon-Sat 10:30-24:00, closed Sun; look for the vertical red Antica Pizzeria sign at the intersection of Via Pietro Colletta and Via Cesare Sersale at #1; tel. 081-553-9204).
Pizzeria Trianon, across the street and left a few doors, has been da Michele’s archrival since 1923. It offers more choices, higher prices (€5-8, plus a 15 percent service charge), air-conditioning, and a cozier atmosphere. For less chaos, head upstairs. While waiting for your meal, you can survey the transformation of a humble wad of dough into a smoldering, bubbly feast in their entryway pizza kitchen (daily 11:00-15:30 & 19:00-23:00, Via Pietro Colletta 42, tel. 081-553-9426).
On Via dei Tribunali
This street, which runs a couple of blocks north of Spaccanapoli, is home to several pizzerias that are more convenient to sightseeing. Three in particular are on all the “best pizza in Naples” lists...as you’ll learn the hard way if you show up at peak mealtimes, when huge mobs crowd outside the front door waiting for a table. Gino Sorbillo is a local favorite (closed Sun, Via dei Tribunali 32—don’t confuse this with his relatives’ similarly named places on the same street, tel. 081-446-643). At Pizzeria di Matteo, people waiting out front line up at the little window to snack on deep-fried goodies—arancini (with rice, gooey cheese, peas, and sausage), frittatine (balls of mac and cheese plus sausage), and crocché (croquettes)—for €1 apiece (sometimes closed Sun, Via dei Tribunali 94, tel. 081-455-262). Pizzeria I Decumani has a bit nicer seating and is perhaps less chaotic (closed Mon, facing Piazza San Gaetano at Via dei Tribunali 58, tel. 081-557-1309).
EATING NEAR THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM
La Stanza del Gusto, two blocks downhill from the museum, tackles food creatively and injects crusty Naples with a little modern color and irreverence. The downstairs is casual, trendy, and playful, while the upstairs is more refined yet still polka-dotted (€7-9 panini, €10-18 secondi; fixed-price meals: €35 five-course vegetarian, €65 seven-course meat; Tue-Sat 12:00-15:30 & 19:30-23:30, closed Sun-Mon, Via Santa Maria di Constantinopoli 100, tel. 081-401-578).
Caffetteria Angela is a fun little eating complex: coffee bar; tavola calda with hot ready-to-eat dishes (€3-5); and a tiny meat, cheese, and bread shop with all you need for a cheap meal to go. It offers honest pricing and simple, peaceful, air-conditioned indoor seating (open Mon-Sat 7:00-21:00, Sun 9:00-14:00, 3 blocks below museum at Via Conte di Ruvo 21, between Via Pessina and Via Bellini, tel. 081-033-2928).
EATING NEAR THE STATION
Da Donato, an excellent, traditional, family-run trattoria on a glum street near the station, serves delicious food in an unpretentious atmosphere. While you could easily make a meal of their €6-8 pastas and/or €9-15 seafood secondi, the best approach is for two people to share the astonishing antipasti sampler—degustazione “fantasia” della Casa Terra e Mare—for €25. You’ll get more than a dozen small portions, each more delicious than the last. A version without seafood is €15 (Tue-Sun 12:30-14:30 & 19:30-22:00, closed Mon, Via Silvio Spaventa 39, tel. 081-287-828).
The recommended Antica Pizzeria da Michele (and the nearby “second fiddle” Pizzeria Trianon) are also relatively near the station—see descriptions earlier.
Stopped in its tracks by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, Pompeii offers the best look anywhere at what life in Rome must have been like around 2,000 years ago.
A once-thriving commercial port of 20,000, Pompeii (worth ▲▲▲) grew from Greek and Etruscan roots to become an important Roman city. Then, on August 24, A.D. 79, everything changed. Vesuvius erupted and began to bury the city under 30 feet of hot volcanic ash. For the archaeologists who excavated it centuries later, this was a shake-and-bake windfall, teaching them volumes about daily Roman life. Pompeii was accidentally rediscovered in 1599; excavations began in 1748.
By Train: Pompeii is roughly midway between Naples and Sorrento on the Circumvesuviana train line (2/hour, 40 minutes from Naples, trip costs about €2.50 one-way, not covered by rail passes). Get off at the Pompei Scavi-Villa dei Misteri stop; from Naples, it’s the stop after Torre Annunziata. From the Pompei Scavi train station, it’s just a two-minute walk to the Porta Marina entrance: Turn right and walk down the road about a block to the entrance (on your left).
Pompei vs. Pompei Scavi: Remember, Pompei is the name of a separate train station on the national rail network that’s a long, dull walk from the ruins. Make sure you’re taking the Circumvesuviana commuter train to Pompei Scavi (scavi means “excavations”).
By Car: Parking is available at Camping Zeus, next to the Pompei Scavi train station (€2.50/hour, €10/12 hours); several other campgrounds/parking lots are nearby.
Cost: €11, possibly more during special exhibits, free first Sun of each month.
Hours: Daily April-Oct 8:30-19:30, Nov-March 8:30-17:00, last entry 1.5 hours before closing.
Closures: Be warned that some buildings and streets are bound to be closed for restoration when you visit. If you get totally derailed, just use the map and numbers to find your way.
Crowd-Beating Tip: Up to 15,000 visitors are allowed on the first Sun of the month when it’s free—and packed. I’d make a point to avoid Pompeii on that day.
Information: Ignore the “info point” kiosk at the station, which is a private agency selling tours. Once at the site, pick up the free, helpful map and booklet at the entrance (ask for it when you buy your ticket, or check at the info window to the left of the WCs—the maps aren’t available within the walls of Pompeii). Tel. 081-857-5347, www.pompeiisites.org.
The bookshop sells the small Pompeii and Herculaneum Past and Present book. Its plastic overlays allow you to re-create the ruins (€12; if you buy from a street vendor, pay no more than that).
Tours: My self-guided tour in this chapter covers the basics and provides a good framework for exploring the site on your own, as does my free Pompeii audio tour.
If you want a guided tour, your best bet is to join the Mondo Guide tours for Rick Steves readers (€15, doesn’t include €11 Pompeii entry, daily at 10:30, reservations required, meet at Hotel/Ristorante Suisse, just down the hill from the Porta Marina entrance; see here). Stepping off the train, you’ll be accosted by touts for the “info point” kiosk, which sells €12 tours that depart whenever enough people sign up.
Private guides (around €110/2 hours) of varying quality—there really is no guarantee of what you’re getting—cluster near the ticket booth at the site and may try to herd you into a group with other travelers, which makes the price more reasonable for you. Alternately, book either of the following guides in advance and mention this book. For a private two-hour tour, consider Gaetano Manfredi, who is pricey but brings energy and theatricality to his tours (€170 for up to 4 people, www.pompeiitourguide.com, email@example.com). Antonio Somma mainly specializes in Pompeii (from €120—varies with season and number of people, also offers transport around the region, mobile 393-406-3824, tel. 081-850-1992, www.pompeitour.com, firstname.lastname@example.org). The Naples-based guides recommended on here can also guide you at Pompeii. Parents, note that the ancient brothel and its sexually explicit frescoes are included on tours; let your guide know if you’d rather skip that stop.
Audioguides are available from a kiosk near the ticket booth at the Porta Marina entrance (€6.50, €10/2 people, ID required), but they offer basically the same info as your free booklet.
Length of This Tour: Allow two hours, or three if you visit the theater and amphitheater. With less time, focus on the Forum, Baths of the Forum, House of the Faun, and brothel.
Baggage Check: The train station offers pay luggage storage (downstairs, by the WC). Or use the free baggage check near the turnstiles at the site entrance.
Services: A pay WC is at the train station. The Pompeii site has three WCs—one near the entrance, one in the cafeteria, and another near the end of this tour, uphill from the theaters.
Eating: The Ciao cafeteria within the site serves good sandwiches, pizza, and pasta at reasonable prices. Several mediocre restaurants cluster between the entrance and the train station. Your cheapest bet may be to bring your own food for a discreet picnic.
Starring: Roofless (collapsed) but otherwise intact Roman buildings, plaster casts of hapless victims, a few erotic frescoes, and the dawning realization that these ancient people were not that different from us.
Pompeii, founded in 600 B.C., eventually became a booming Roman trading city. Not rich, not poor, it was middle class—a perfect example of typical Roman life. Most streets would have been lined with stalls and jammed with customers from sunup to sundown. Chariots vied with shoppers for street space. Two thousand years ago, Rome controlled the entire Mediterranean—making it a kind of free-trade zone—and Pompeii was a central and bustling port.
There were no posh neighborhoods in Pompeii. Rich and poor mixed it up as elegant houses existed side by side with simple homes. While nearby Herculaneum would have been a classier place to live (traffic-free streets, fancier houses, far better drainage), Pompeii was the place for action and shopping. It served an estimated 20,000 residents with more than 40 bakeries, 30 brothels, and 130 bars, restaurants, and hotels. With most of its buildings covered by brilliant white ground-marble stucco, Pompeii in A.D. 79 was an impressive town.
As you tour Pompeii, remember that its best art is in the Archaeological Museum in Naples (described earlier in this chapter).
(See “Pompeii Tour” map, here.)
✵ Just past the ticket-taker, start your approach up to the...
The city of Pompeii was born on the hill ahead of you. This was the original town gate. Before Vesuvius blew and filled in the harbor, the sea came nearly to here. Notice the two openings in the gate (ahead, up the ramp). Both were left open by day to admit major traffic. At night, the larger one was closed for better security.
✵ Pass through the Porta Marina and continue up to the top of the street, pausing at the three large stepping-stones in the middle.
Every day, Pompeiians flooded the streets with gushing water to clean them. These stepping-stones let pedestrians cross without getting their sandals wet. Chariots traveling in either direction could straddle the stones (all had standard-size axles). A single stepping-stone in a road means it was a one-way street, a pair indicates an ordinary two-way, and three (like this) signifies a major thoroughfare. The basalt stones are the original Roman pavement. The sidewalks (elevated to hide the plumbing) were paved with bits of broken pots (an ancient form of recycling) and studded with reflective bits of white marble. These “cats’ eyes” helped people get around after dark, either by moonlight or with the help of lamps.
✵ Continue straight ahead, don your mental toga, and enter the city as the Romans once did. The road opens up into the spacious main square: the Forum. Stand at the right end of this rectangular space and look toward Mount Vesuvius.
The Forum (Foro)
Pompeii’s commercial, religious, and political center stands at the intersection of the city’s two main streets. While it’s the most ruined part of Pompeii, it’s grand nonetheless. Picture the piazza surrounded by two-story buildings on all sides. The pedestals that line the square once held statues (now safely displayed in the museum in Naples). In Pompeii’s heyday, its citizens gathered here in the main square to shop, talk politics, and socialize. Business took place in the important buildings that lined the piazza.
The Forum was dominated by the Temple of Jupiter, at the far end (marked by a half-dozen ruined columns atop a stair-step base). Jupiter was the supreme god of the Roman pantheon—you might be able to make out his little white marble head at the center-rear of the temple.
At the near end of the Forum (behind where you’re standing) is the curia, or city hall. Like many Roman buildings, it was built with brick and mortar, then covered with marble walls and floors. To your left (as you face Vesuvius and the Temple of Jupiter) is the basilica, or courthouse.
Since Pompeii was a pretty typical Roman town, it has the same layout and components that you’ll find in any Roman city—main square, curia, basilica, temples, axis of roads, and so on. All power converged at the Forum: religious (the temple), political (the curia), judicial (the basilica), and commercial (this piazza was the main marketplace). Even the power of the people was expressed here, since this is where they gathered to vote. Imagine the hubbub of this town square in its heyday.
Look beyond the Temple of Jupiter. Five miles to the north looms the ominous backstory to this site: Mount Vesuvius. Mentally draw a triangle up from the two remaining peaks to reconstruct the mountain before the eruption. When it blew, Pompeiians had no idea that they were living under a volcano, as Vesuvius hadn’t erupted for 1,200 years. Imagine the wonder—then the horror—as a column of pulverized rock roared upward, and then ash began to fall. The weight of the ash and small rocks collapsed Pompeii’s roofs later that day, crushing people who had taken refuge inside buildings instead of fleeing the city.
✵ As you face Vesuvius, the basilica is to your left, lined with stumps of columns. Backtrack to the three stepping stones we saw earlier to go inside. (If it’s fenced off, peer through the gate.)
Pompeii’s basilica was a first-century palace of justice. This ancient law court has the same floor plan later adopted by many Christian churches (which are also called basilicas). The big central hall (or nave) is flanked by rows of columns marking off narrower side aisles. Along the side walls are traces of the original marble.
The columns—now stumps all about the same height—were not ruined by the volcano. Rather, they were left unfinished when Vesuvius blew. Pompeii had been devastated by an earthquake in A.D. 62, and was just in the process of rebuilding the basilica when Vesuvius erupted, 17 years later. The half-built columns show off the technology of the day. Uniform bricks were stacked around a cylindrical core. Once finished, they would have been coated with marble dust stucco to simulate marble columns—an economical construction method found throughout Pompeii (and the Roman Empire).
Besides the earthquake and the eruption, Pompeii’s buildings have suffered other ravages over the years, including Spanish plunderers (c. 1800), 19th-century souvenir hunters, WWII bombs, wild vegetation, another earthquake in 1980, and modern neglect. The fact that the entire city was covered by the eruption of A.D. 79 actually helped preserve it, saving it from the sixth-century barbarians who plundered many other towns into oblivion.
✵ Exit the basilica and cross the short side of the square, to where the city’s main street hits the Forum. Stop at the three white stones that stick up from the cobbles.
Glance down Via Abbondanza, Pompeii’s main street. Lined with shops, bars, and restaurants, it was a lively, pedestrian-only zone. The three “beaver-teeth” stones are traffic barriers that kept chariots out. On the corner at the start of the street (just to the left), take a close look at the dark travertine column standing next to the white one. Notice that the marble drums of the white column are not chiseled entirely round—another construction project left unfinished when Vesuvius erupted.
✵ Head toward Vesuvius, walking along the right side of the Forum. Immediately across from the Temple of Jupiter is a building with four round arches. Go in the door just to the right, and find two glass cases.
Fish and Produce Market Plaster Casts of Victims
As the frescoes on the wall (just inside on the left) indicate, this is where Pompeiians came to buy their food—fish, bread, chickens, and so on. These fine examples of Roman art—with their glimpses of everyday life and their mastery of depth and illusion—would not be matched until the Renaissance, a thousand years after the fall of Rome.
The glass cases hold casts of Pompeiians, eerily captured in their last moments. They were quickly suffocated by a superheated avalanche of gas and ash, and their bodies were encased in volcanic debris. While excavating, modern archaeologists detected hollow spaces underfoot, created when the victims’ bodies decomposed. By gently filling the holes with plaster, the archaeologists were able to create molds of the Pompeiians who were caught in the disaster.
The Eruption of Vesuvius
At about 1:00 in the afternoon on August 24, A.D. 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted, sending a mushroom cloud of ash, dust, and rocks 12 miles into the air. It spewed for 18 hours straight, as winds blew the cloud southward. The white-gray ash settled like a heavy snow on Pompeii, its weight eventually collapsing roofs and floors, but leaving the walls intact. And though most of Pompeii’s 20,000 residents fled that day, about 2,000 stayed behind. Then, at around 7:30 in the morning, another pyroclastic flow headed south and struck Pompeii, dealing a fatal blow to those who’d remained behind.
✵ Exit the market, turn right, and go under the arch. On the pillar to the right, look for the pedestrian-only road sign (two guys carrying an amphora, or ancient jug; it’s above the REG VII INS IV sign). In the road are more “beaver-teeth” traffic blocks. The modern cafeteria is the only eatery inside the archaeological site (with a coffee bar and WC upstairs).
Twenty yards past the cafeteria, on the left-hand side at #24, is the entrance to the...
Baths of the Forum (Terme del Foro)
Pompeii had six public baths, each with a men’s and a women’s section. You’re in the men’s zone. The leafy courtyard at the entrance was the gymnasium. After working out, clients could relax with a hot bath (caldarium), warm bath (tepidarium), or cold plunge (frigidarium).
The first big, plain room you enter served as the dressing room. Holes on the walls were for pegs to hang clothing. High up, the window (with a faded Neptune underneath) was originally covered with a less-translucent Roman glass. Walk over the nonslip mosaics into the next room.
The tepidarium is ringed by mini statues or telamones (male caryatids, figures used as supporting pillars), which divided the lockers. Clients would undress and warm up here, perhaps stretching out on one of the bronze benches near the bronze heater for a massage. Look at the ceiling—half crushed by the eruption and half intact, with its fine blue-and-white stucco work.
Next, admire the engineering in the steam-bath room, or caldarium. The double floor was heated from below—so nice with bare feet (look into the grate across from where you entered to see the brick support towers). The double walls with brown terra-cotta tiles held the heat. Romans soaked in the big tub, which was filled with hot water. Opposite the big tub is a fountain, which spouted water onto the hot floor, creating steam. The lettering on the fountain reminded those enjoying the room which two politicians paid for it...and how much it cost them (5,250 sestertii). To keep condensation from dripping annoyingly from the ceiling, fluting (ribbing) was added to carry water down the walls.
✵ Today’s visitors exit the baths through the original entry (at the far end of the dressing room). Hungry? Immediately across the street is an ancient...
After a bath, it was only natural to want a little snack. So, just across the street is a fast-food joint, marked by a series of rectangular marble counters. Most ancient Romans didn’t cook for themselves in their tiny apartments, so to-go places like this were commonplace. The holes in the counters held the pots for food. Each container was like a thermos, with a wooden lid to keep the soup hot, the wine cool, and so on. Notice the groove in the front doorstep and the holes out on the curb. The holes likely accommodated cords for stretching awnings over the sidewalk to shield the clientele from the hot sun, while the grooves were for the shop’s folding accordion doors. Look at the wheel grooves in the pavement, worn down through centuries of use. Nearby are more stepping-stones for pedestrians to cross the flooded streets.
✵ Just a few steps uphill from the fast-food joint, at #5 (with a locked gate), is the...
House of the Tragic Poet (Casa del Poeta Tragico)
This house is typical Roman style. The entry is flanked by two family-owned shops (each with a track for a collapsing accordion door). The home is like a train running straight away from the street: atrium (with skylight and pool to catch the rain), den (where deals were made by the shopkeeper), and garden (with rooms facing it and a shrine to remember both the gods and family ancestors). In the entryway is the famous “Beware of Dog” (Cave Canem) mosaic.
Today’s visitors enter the home by the back door (circle around to the left). On your way there, look for the modern exposed pipe on the left side of the lane; this is the same as ones used in the ancient plumbing system, hidden beneath the raised sidewalk. Inside the house, the grooves on the marble well-head in the entry hall (possibly closed) were formed by generations of inhabitants dragging the bucket up by rope. The richly frescoed dining room is off the garden. Diners lounged on their couches (the Roman custom) and enjoyed frescoes with fake “windows,” giving the illusion of a bigger and airier room. Next to the dining room is a humble BBQ-style kitchen with a little closet for the toilet (the kitchen and bathroom shared the same plumbing).
✵ Return to the fast-food place and continue about 10 yards downhill to the big intersection. From the center of the intersection, look left to see a giant arch, framing a nice view of Mount Vesuvius.
Aqueduct Arch—Running Water
Water was critical for this city of 20,000 people, and this arch was part of Pompeii’s water-delivery system. A 100-mile-long aqueduct carried fresh water down from the hillsides to a big reservoir perched at the highest point of the city wall. Since overall water pressure was disappointing, Pompeiians built arches like the brick one you see here (originally covered in marble) with hidden water tanks at the top. Located just below the altitude of the main tank, these smaller tanks were filled by gravity and provided each neighborhood with reliable pressure.
✵ If you’re thirsty, fill your water bottle from the modern fountain. Then continue straight downhill one block (50 yards) to #2 on the left.
House of the Faun (Casa del Fauno)
Stand across the street and marvel at the grand entry with “HAVE” (hail to you) as a welcome mat. Go in. Notice the two shrines above the entryway—one dedicated to the gods, the other to this wealthy family’s ancestors. (Contemporary Neapolitans still carry on this practice; you’ll notice little shrines embedded in walls all over Naples.)
You are standing in Pompeii’s largest home, where you’re greeted by the delightful small bronze statue of the Dancing Faun, famed for its realistic movement and fine proportion. (The original, described on here, is in Naples’ Archaeological Museum.) With 40 rooms and 27,000 square feet, the House of the Faun covers an entire city block. The next floor mosaic, with an intricate diamond-like design, decorates the homeowner’s office. Beyond that, at the far end of the first garden, is the famous floor mosaic of the Battle of Alexander. (The original is also at the museum in Naples.) In 333 B.C., Alexander the Great beat Darius and the Persians. Romans had great respect for Alexander, the first great emperor before Rome’s. While most of Pompeii’s nouveau riche had notoriously bad taste and stuffed their palaces with over-the-top, mismatched decor, this guy had class. Both the faun (an ancient copy of a famous Greek statue) and the Alexander mosaic show an appreciation for history.
The house’s back courtyard leads to the exit in the far-right corner. The courtyard is lined with pillars rebuilt after the A.D. 62 earthquake. Take a close look at the brick, mortar, and fake-marble stucco veneer.
✵ Sneak out of the House of the Faun through its back door and turn right. (If this exit is closed, return to the entrance and make a U-turn left, around to the back of the house.) Thirty yards down, along the right-hand side of the street are metal cages protecting...
Original Lead Pipes
These 2,000-year-old pipes (made of lead imported from Britannia) were part of the city’s elaborate water system. From the aqueduct-fed water tank at the high end of town, three independent pipe systems supplied water to the city: one for baths, one for private homes, and one for public water fountains. If there was a water shortage, democratic priorities prevailed: First the baths were cut off, then the private homes. The last water supply to go was the public fountains, where all citizens could get drinking and cooking water.
✵ If the street’s not closed off, take your first left (on Vicolo dei Vettii), walk about 20 yards, and find the entrance (on the left) to the next stop. (If the street—or the house—is closed, turn right instead, and skip down to the next set of directions.)
House of the Vettii (Casa dei Vettii)
Pompeii’s best-preserved home has been completely blocked off for years; unfortunately, it’s unlikely to reopen in time for your visit. The House of the Vettii was the bachelor pad of two wealthy merchant brothers. If you can see the entryway, you may spot the huge erection. This is not pornography. There’s a meaning here: The penis and the sack of money balance each other on the goldsmith scale above a fine bowl of fruit. Translation: Only with a balance of fertility and money can you have abundance.
If it’s open, step into the atrium with its ceiling open to the sky to collect light and rainwater. The pool, while decorative, was also a functional water-supply tank. It’s flanked by large money boxes anchored to the floor. The brothers were certainly successful merchants, and possibly moneylenders, too.
Exit on the right, passing the tight servant quarters, and go into the kitchen, with its bronze cooking pots (and an exposed lead pipe on the back wall). The passage dead-ends in the little Venus Room, which features erotic frescoes behind glass.
Return to the atrium and pass into the big colonnaded garden. It was replanted according to the plan indicated by the traces of roots that were excavated from the volcanic ash. Richly frescoed entertainment rooms ring this courtyard. Circle counterclockwise. The dining room is finely decorated in black and “Pompeiian red” (from iron rust). Study the detail. Notice the lead humidity seal between the wall and the floor, designed to keep the moisture-sensitive frescoes dry. (Had Leonardo da Vinci taken this clever step, his Last Supper in Milan might be in better shape today.) Continuing around, you’ll see more of the square white stones inlaid in the floor. Imagine them reflecting like cats’ eyes as the brothers and their friends wandered around by oil lamp late at night. Frescoes in the Yellow Room (near the exit) show off the ancient mastery of perspective, which would not be matched elsewhere in Europe for nearly 1,500 years.
✵ Facing the entrance to the House of the Vettii, turn left and walk downhill one long block (along Vicolo dei Vettii) to a T-intersection (Via della Fortuna), marked by a stone fountain with a bull’s head for a spout. Intersections like this were busy neighborhood centers, where the rent was highest and people gathered.
With the fountain at your back, turn left, then immediately right, walking along a gently curving road (Vicolo Storto). On the left side of the street, at #22, find four big stone cylinders. (If Vicolo Storto is fenced off, continue down the street and take the next possible right, then right again—looping around the closed-off block.)
Bakery and Mill (Forno e Mulini)
The brick oven looks like a modern-day pizza oven. The stubby stone towers are flour grinders. Grain was poured into the top, and donkeys or slaves pushed wooden bars that turned the stones. The powdered grain dropped out of the bottom as flour—flavored with tiny bits of rock. Each neighborhood had a bakery like this.
Continue to the next intersection (Via degli Augustali, marked REG VII INS XII, where there’s another fast-food joint, at #33) and turn left. As you walk, look at the destructive power of all the vines, and notice how deeply the chariot grooves have worn into the pavement. Deep grooves could break wagon wheels. The suddenly ungroovy stretch indicates that this road was in the process of being repaved when the eruption shut everything down.
✵ Head about 50 yards down this (obviously one-way) street to #44 (on the left). Here you’ll find the Taberna Hedones (with a small atrium, den, and garden). This bar still has its original floor and, deeper in, the mosaic arch of a grotto fountain. Just past the tavern, turn right and walk downhill to #18, on the right.
Possible detour: If the road past the tavern is blocked off, here’s another way to reach the next stop: First, backtrack to the Forum—go back the way you came, turn left at the bull’s-head fountain, then turn left again at the aqueduct arch. Back in the Forum, head down to the far end and turn left onto the main street, Via Abbondanza (which we looked down earlier—remember the beaver teeth?). Follow this, turning left up the street after the second fountain (marked REG VII INS I, with a small Vicolo del Lupanare sign). This leads to the entrance of the...
You’ll find the biggest crowds in Pompeii at a place that was likely popular 2,000 years ago, too—the brothel. Prostitutes were nicknamed lupe (she-wolves), alluding to the call they made when trying to attract business. The brothel was a simple place, with beds and pillows made of stone. The ancient graffiti includes tallies and exotic names of the women, indicating the prostitutes came from all corners of the Mediterranean (it also served as feedback from satisfied customers). The faded frescoes above the cells may have been a kind of menu for services offered. Note the idealized women (white, which was considered beautiful; one wears an early bra) and the rougher men (dark, considered horny). The bed legs came with little disk-like barriers to keep critters from crawling up.
✵ Leaving the brothel, go right, then take the first left, and continue going downhill two blocks to the intersection with Pompeii’s main drag, Via Abbondanza. The Forum—and exit—are to the right, for those who may wish to opt out from here.
The huge amphitheater—which is certainly skippable—is 10 minutes to your left. But for now, go left for 60 yards, then turn right just beyond the fountain, and walk down Via dei Teatri (labeled REG VIII INS IV). Turn left before the columns, and head downhill another 60 yards to #28, which marks the...
Temple of Isis
This temple served Pompeii’s Egyptian community. The little white stucco shrine with the modern plastic roof housed holy water from the Nile. Isis, from Egyptian myth, was one of many foreign gods adopted by the eclectic Romans. Pompeii must have had a synagogue, too, but it has yet to be excavated.
✵ Exit the temple where you entered, and go right. At the next intersection, turn right again, and head downhill to the adjacent theaters. Your goal is the large theater down the corridor at #20, but if it’s closed, look at the adjoining, smaller, but similar theater (Teatro Piccolo) just beyond at #19. (Once inside the small theater, you may be able to find a path to the big one.)
Originally a Greek theater (Greeks built theirs with the help of a hillside), this was the birthplace of the Greek port here in 470 B.C. During Roman times, the theater sat 5,000 people in three sets of seats, all with different prices: the five marble terraces up close (filled with romantic wooden seats for two), the main section, and the cheap nosebleed section (surviving only on the high end, near the trees). The square stones above the cheap seats once supported a canvas rooftop. Take note of the high-profile boxes, flanking the stage, for guests of honor. From this perch, you can see the gladiator barracks—the colonnaded courtyard beyond the theater. They lived in tiny rooms, trained in the courtyard, and fought in the nearby amphitheater.
✵ You’ve seen Pompeii’s highlights. When you’re ready to leave, backtrack to the main road and turn left, going uphill to the Forum, where you’ll find the main exit. For a shortcut back to the entrance area (with the bookstore, luggage storage, and quickest access to the train station), when you are halfway down the exit ramp, take the eight steps on the right and follow the signs. Otherwise, you’ll end up on the main road—where you’ll head right and loop around.
However, there’s much more to see—three-quarters of Pompeii’s 164 acres have been excavated, but this tour has covered only a third of the site. After the theater—if you still have energy to see more—go back to the main road and take a right toward the eastern part of the site, where the crowds thin out. Go straight for about 10 minutes, likely jogging right after a bit (just follow the posted maps). You’ll wind up passing through a pretty, forested area. At the far end is the...
If you can, climb to the upper level of the amphitheater (though the stairs are often blocked). With Vesuvius looming in the background, mentally replace the tourists below with gladiators and wild animals locked in combat. Walk along the top of the amphitheater and look down into the grassy rectangular area surrounded by columns. This is the Palaestra, an area once used for athletic training. (If you can’t get to the top of the amphitheater, you can see the Palaestra from outside—in fact, you can’t miss it, as it’s right next door.) Facing the other way, look for the bell tower that tops the roofline of the modern city of Pompei, where locals go about their daily lives in the shadow of the volcano, just as their ancestors did 2,000 years ago.
✵ If it’s too crowded to bear hiking back along uneven lanes to the entrance, you can slip out the site’s “back door,” which is next to the amphitheater. Exiting, turn right and follow the site’s wall all the way back to the entrance.