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The Bluffer’s Guide to Naples

From Charles Dickens and Henry James to EM Forster and Hilaire Belloc, writers have waxed lyrical over the centuries about Italian cities. Few of them have cited Naples as the best of the lot, which just shows how little they knew about Italy. But luckily, that makes the capital of the Campania region a perfect bluffer’s destination. Not too many people can claim to know that much about it (which is something we’re about to rectify with this short but definitive guide.)

Naples, the best city in Italy… seriously?

Most definitely. Rome has the history, Florence has the art, Venice has the canals, Bologna has the cuisine, Milan has the fashion and design, but you can venture confidently that southerly Naples has something no other Italian city can lay claim to – the beating heart of a country whose long history is one of extraordinary culture, conflict, corruption… and a real lust for life (unless you get on the wrong side of Camorra, of whom more later). As one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in Europe, nothing prepares you for the intoxicating experience of Naples, except perhaps Mexico City, or Rio. Almost five million people live in the metropolitan area, and looking out over its sprawling comuni Vesuviani from the top of Mount Vesuvius, it feels at once ancient and modern, cultured and trashy, beautiful and ugly.  If the infamous mountain rumbles beneath you, don’t worry too much – it’s not quite ready to blow just yet. But it’s only a matter of time.

Ah, Vesuvius. What part does this towering memento mori play in the city’s psyche?

The German writer Goethe described Naples as a ‘paradise’ where ‘everyone here lives in a state of intoxicated self-forgetfulness.’ That’s the sort of quote all bluffers should drop into any conversation about Naples, even if they don’t know what it means. No-one else will either, but they will regard you with new respect nonetheless. It’s a reasonable guess though that he was referring to the brooding volcano which dominates the city, which can be seen from every part of it, and which buried nearby Pompeii nearly two thousand years ago. It is still active, and Neapolitans take pride in being blithely unconcerned about the incalculable damage it will cause when it next erupts. Which it will. (Have we mentioned that?)

The city sounds big. What should I focus on?

Head straight to the residential district of Vomero, via one of the city’s funicular railways. From the terraced gardens of the Certosa di San Martino art museum you see laid out below you the bay of Naples, and bordering it the chi-chi shorefront Chiaia, filled with pastel-coloured palazzos and definitely the place to start your evening passeggiata. This, as every bluffing Italophile will know, is a ritual which involves dressing up and walking very slowly through the centro storico (historic centre) of a town or city. This is where you’ll find Naples’ principal museums and palaces.


If you happen to chance upon the Via San Gregorio Armeno, a narrow street in the heart of the historic city, then you will have found the home of a thriving Neapolitan culture. On sale are thousands of figurines that make up parts of Nativity scenes, or ‘presepe’ in the native tongue. From your traditional Jesus, Mary and Josephs, and popular and political figures, to household objects and fruit, there isn’t much you’d struggle to find fashioned into a delightful miniature. Die-hard fans stock up on materials at this market-street to form fanciful scenes; some of the results of which are on display for you to admire. Look out for Obama nestled in amongst the three wise men.

Naples has something of a reputation for being dangerous and dirty – is it?

The dark, cobbled streets, and the reluctance to knock any buildings down regardless of their dilapidation make it feel more dangerous than it is, but after dark decades of Camorra-led crime, corruption and social deprivation, you can state with confidence that there’s a sense of change in the air. The Camorra, a Mafia-style organised crime ring is still operating, but its excesses have been curbed in the last few years. Do, however, keep your wits about you and your valuables out of sight, but Naples’s levels of muggings and petty crime are now comparable to those of any other big European city.

Cultural highlights?

You’ll need to know about the two musts, the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, and the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. The former is stuffed with works by the likes of Caravaggio, El Greco, Titian, Botticelli, Bellini and Raphael; and the latter, you’ll want to stress, is the biggest Roman architectural museum in the world – which is hardly surprising, given the proximity of the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum. It’s here that you’ll find the erotic frescoes and murals removed from Pompeii, but only if you’re over 18 – minors have to be accompanied by an adult or come bearing written permission. Some of it is surprisingly raunchy stuff.

History in 30 seconds?

Thirty seconds? That barely covers the last century’s Allied bombardment, German looting, volcanic eruption, outbreak of cholera and major earthquake. But here are the key things you’ll want to commit to memory. The Greeks founded Naples as Neopolis (‘New City’) in 470BC, and were followed by all manner of aggressors and would-be conquerors over the centuries, among them the Etruscans, Lucans, Samnites, Romans, Byzantines and Normans. But the strongest modern influences lie in the intermittent rule of the French and Spanish over the course of the last six centuries; by the 17th century, it was Europe’s second-largest city after London, and a major cultural centre. But with the arrival of Italian unification in 1860,  there followed a century of neglect and decline from prosperity to poverty as leaders set their sights on Rome.

Any famous Neapolitans?

If you haven’t heard of the illustrious ‘God-on-earth’ that is Diego Armando Maradona, then what volcano have you been hiding on? The mere mention of his name in a Neapolitan watering hole will receive cries to the heavens and knowing eyes swelling with proud tears. But isn’t he from Argentina you may ask? Well, technically yes. But the man who is thought to have single-handedly put Napoli on the footballing map, and who is so firmly held in the hearts of the Neapolitan populace, is most definitely an honorary national. He is best known for his successful (if a little controversial) footballing career, and worse known for his impressive €37million debt in back taxes. Mere trifle for a man who has shrine-esque museums being forged in his honour, and who men have been known to forego witnessing the birth of their child for, in order to watch him play.

If I only have time to talk wistfully about one thing?

Make it the best pizza you ever ate, a pizza napoletana margherita DOC. You can rave about the freshness of the buffalo mozzarella, the sweetness of the basil leaves, the dense flavour of the tomatoes and the lightest, crispiest base imaginable. Then you can point out why the only pizzas you should eat in Naples are the margherita or the marinara (tomatoes from Vesuvius’ slopes, garlic, oregano and olive oil). Then add that it’s pointless following guidebooks to find the best pizzeria, because discovering your own, perhaps a tiny shack with plastic chairs overlooking the sparkling Med serving just pizza al taglio, is the true way to pizza nirvana.

Maximum Bluffing Value

Point out that no other major centre of population in the world has anything like the same immediate proximity to a major volcano. And say that Vesuvius is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted within the last hundred years (the last big one in 1944). Vulcanologists are reasonably confident that a couple of weeks’ warning could be given before the next major eruption, but there’s no guarantee that that would convince the average Neapolitan that there was anything much to worry about. You might add that the blast that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum is estimated to have released a hundred thousand times the thermal energy released by the Hiroshima nuclear bomb.

Do Say  ‘It’s a city that embodies the idea of chiaroscuro in its mix of dark and light, rich and poor, squalor and beauty.’

Don’t say  ‘Can I have some pineapple on my margherita please?’

Happy Bluffing!

Ellen Tewkesbury