Naples is dirty, rubbish-strewn, full of shouting locals and Mafioso bosses wearing sunglasses, but it also has a strange charm. Go there, and fall in love
There's no question about it: Naples has a dark underbelly. It is notoriously corrupt and run by the blood-thirsty Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia (so 'see Naples and die' has rather unfortunate connotations for some). And piles of filthy litter often line the streets (a result of an ongoing bitter dispute between the Camorra, once again, and the local authorities), harbouring rats and germs.
But Naples also has many positive aspects that make it a fascinating, vibrant, quintessentially Italian of Italian cities. To begin with, it has a fabulous setting on the north side of the Bay of Naples, a giant natural amphitheatre with towering Mount Vesuvius to the left, the Sorrento peninsula to the south, and the distant island of Capri twinkling out in the sea. The view was, in fact, the original inspiration for the 'die' expression: you had no further reason to live once you had seen this sight.
But inland has immense appeal too. Head first for the Centro Storico, the historic heart of the city, which consists of a grid of narrow cobbled streets and alleyways that Neapolitans madly speed down on their Vespas and in their battered Fiats. It is divided in two by Spaccanapoli, the main alley running east to west, which dates from Graeco-Roman times. This is lined with traditional grocery shops stuffed with pasta of every shape and size and hidden historical gems such as the fabulous Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo, a fine example of Neapolitan Baroque architecture. Don't miss the Spanish Quarter either, an even steeper, more maze-like puzzle of streets decorated with Spanish flags and flapping Neapolitan washing that lies west of the Centro Storico.
There is some excellent shopping to be done in Naples too. While the city can’t quite compete with Milan, it is smaller and far more manageable. Via Toledo is Naples' Oxford Street and has all the leading, more affordable, chain stores combined with one-off Neapolitan clothes boutiques. For designer gear, go to Piazza del Martiri and Via dei Mille, which are close to one another in Chiaia, the posh residential part of the city near the lush Villa Communale gardens. Everything is there, from Fendi to Armani, Ferragamo to Gucci.
Eating is, of course, one of the top things to do in Naples. Don’t miss the world-famous Neapolitan pizzas that are like no other pizzas anywhere else – something to do with the volcanic minerals in the water, which make the tomatoes taste so good and the pizza dough so special, apparently. For a genuinely memorable pizza experience, go to Ristorante Rosati, the oldest and one of the best pizzerias, situated in the historic centre on Via Chiaia, which does a belt-tightening pizza tasting menu at lunchtime. Go hungry and expect to skip dinner.
For a high-end eating experience, don't miss George’s Restaurant in the palatial Grand Hotel Parker's on Corso Vittorio Emanuele - it does sophisticated fine Neapolitan dining with bay views to, well, to die for.
Other unmissable lunch and dinner stops include Ristorante Rosiello for a classic, family-friendly, small-children-running-round-the-tables, Italian eating experience. Just delicious. It's based up in the hills of Posillipo, to the west of Chiaia, an even leafier residential area with bougainvillea-lined streets and views across to the islands of Ischia, Procida and Capri.
Neapolitan nightlife is fun too. Neapolitans go out for aperitivi from Thursday to Sunday. The best area to head for is leafy Chiaia and its main boulevard, the Riviera di Chiaia. Aperitivo time is between 8.30pm and 10.30pm, but many bars stay open all night. Some also lay on live music, including the popular Farinella Bar, which is one of the hippest places to go. Alternatively, head to the tiny car-free island in the bay called Castel dell’Ovo, or Castle of the Egg. Around the castle is the attractive Borgo Marinari which incorporates a marina jammed with luxury yachts and lined with smart restaurants and bars. Cheaper eaterines and lively bars can be found in the bustling small square behind the marina, including Le Bar and Molinari Gaetana Bar e Caffè.
La Mela is a lively disco in the centre of Naples too, or head to a bar called L’Arenile, which is a popular nightlife destination in the summer, 15 minutes outside the city and right by the sea.
Of course, any trip to Naples should take in a detour to Vesuvius and Pompei, the ancient city destroyed when the volcano blew her top at approximately 3pm on 17 August AD79. Vesuvius is just 50 minutes or 35km away from the city, and is well worth a closer look. You can climb up to the crater, the only volcano in Europe where it is possible to do so, and peer into what is one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. The experts say it is due for another eruption some time between now and 2019, but don’t worry; there will be plenty of warning.
The Pompei eruption of AD79 had the power of two atomic bombs and killed more than 2,000 people. Everyone should go to this fascinating ancient city, walk down the streets and clamber among the impressively intact villas and Roman forum, imagining daily life as it must have been nearly 2000 years ago.
The thing about Naples is that it is very real and messy, not architectural perfection like Florence or crammed with must-see monuments like Rome. But it strangely manages to convert people to its charms. Go now, and see if you can resist.