The Beautiful Anarchy of Naples, Italy

Naples, Italy, is a kind of old world stage: another time, another country. Another place.

Jason and I took the train into the city from a nearby town, Aversa, where we were staying with friends. We roamed Naples on foot for two whole days, and left feeling like we could have spent two entire weeks. It wasn’t nearly enough time, but it was grand.

Naples is, after all, the third largest city in Italy. It started out as a Bronze Age Greek settlement, and today is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and the densest city in all of Europe. Makes sense why it feels so similar to India (a place I’ve traveled extensively) — equally as old.

Home to the camorra (the local mafia), Naples has been notorious for crime and murder, but since the 90s, the city has cleaned up its act. Today, it has the second busiest Port in the world (next to Hong Kong), an extensive public transportation network, and boasts the largest historic district in all of Europe.

People shopping in Naples' historic center (Italy).
Shoppers and other pedestrians in Naples’ historic center (Italy).

It’s safe for visiting, for traveling, for wandering. And, with the right attitude, it’s a whole ton of fun. 

A few of the things we witnessed:

  • Baskets descending from top floors
  • Laundry hanging from balconies like flags, up and down side streets
  • People shouting and gesturing passionately
  • Stray dogs
  • Buildings half falling down, with grass growing out the sides
  • Fancy shopping districts
  • Scooters weaving willfully around traffic
  • A funiculare (cabled railway)
  • People, people everywhere

Not necessarily a friendly place (it’s a big city), and capable of being a bit hostile (customer service can be brusque), Naples is also a city of contradictions. You can easily enter a hole-in-the-wall bar for an average cafe and end up having a long-winded, ebullient conversation with the guy working there. You learn that his cousin lives in California, and he’s traveled there twice.

You wonder how to get him to invite you over for dinner.

Yet, in all, Naples is alive. It’s the most alive place in all of Europe. It’s not done up for the tourists — so if you’re looking for a polished, fancy, and unrealistically clean Italian city (like Siena, in Tuscany), stay away from Naples.

But if you’re looking (or willing) to be thrown smack in the middle of all the tumult and lawlessness and organized chaos you can find, into the middle of something so beautiful, the best way to experience it is by wandering the streets and observing things, watching people, smelling and listening and waiting — then book a trip to Naples. Subito!

Or better yet, once there, hop into a cab and ask to be taken to someplace — anyplace — on the other side of the city. Lean out the window and watch. Take pictures. Take mental notes. That’s one of the richest ways you can get to know this city. It’s meant to be sensed like this.

View of fruit & vegetable market in the streets of Naples, Italy.
The city is full of market stands like this one, the streets vibrant and alive with people. Yet, in the background, looms modernity.

Tuscany, of course, is Italy’s tourist Mecca. It’s the designer shoe in the shop window, a place where hoards of tourists flock every year.

But, after living in Italy for years, I can tell you: Italy gets so much more exciting than that.

Naples, on the other hand, is your favorite pair of worn work boots. The ones your feet settle into each day — you’ve had the soles repaired twice and a patch put over the left one where you sliced it open on a hubcap, once. The laces don’t match. They might even smell.

But you know them, they’re comfortable. And they will take you anywhere and everywhere you go.

That is Napoli. And it feels damned good.

For travel recommendations on visiting Naples, stay tuned for my upcoming post: Naples, Italy – What To Do And See.

Do you want to visit Naples? What interests you about the city? Or have you already been? Tell me about your most memorable experiences there, and whether — if you had the opportunity — you would ever go back. I love hearing from my readers! 

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