Italy barely counts as a country as far as most Italians are concerned. Only unified in 1861, the average citizen of Lombardy would assert that he or she has more in common with the burghers of Stockholm than they do with any denizen of Palermo or Reggio Calabria. To make the comparison over a lethally strong shot of espresso, with a diabetes-inducing hillock of sugar, naturally, would at least be polite table talk. Tell a man from Northern Italy that he and a citizen of Naples are one and the same, however, and his response is likely to be anything but polite.
The rest of Italy, you see, wants nothing to do with Naples, a city that is variously labelled as chaotic, corrupt, polluted and dangerous. And, in fairness, they are the type of pejorative that can be levelled at the southern city with an element of genuine verity. Gomorra, the savagely violent, critically acclaimed 2008 film about local warring mafia clans, was never once slated by film critics, or Italians in general for that matter, for exaggerating the violence and poverty that plague the squalid outer suburbs of this city.
And yet, Naples is not a no-go destination. If you’re brave enough to take it on, you will be handsomely rewarded with ancient catacombs, grand opera houses, Rococo architecture, sumptuous seafood and a miasma of Grand Master paintings. All of it laid out in a labyrinth of narrow streets in the shadow of an active volcano.
Perhaps more than any other city in Western Europe, Naples is a metropolis where knowledge equals power. Street signage is poor, traffic is as chaotic as in Lagos or Dhaka, and potholes in pavements are big enough to swallow entire fleets of Fiat Puntos.
In order to embrace this most spontaneous, impassioned, noisy and cacophonous of metropolises, it pays to live like a Neapolitan. Here are five, budget-friendly ways of doing so…
Stand up for your coffee
The easiest way for Neapolitans to spot a tourist is to watch them enter a café, after which they’ll look around and make a beeline for a table. A Naples native would never, ever do this.
Coffee in these parts should always be drunk standing up, leaning against the bar counter. It’s not just sociable. It’s also infinitely cheaper. You can expect the cost of your coffee to double, at the very least, should you choose to plant your rear.
You won’t need long anyway. Naples coffee is the strongest in Europe and thus served in tiny doses after the immense, gleaming coffee machines press down the ground coffee with water heated to around 95°C.
For the best coffee in the city, head to Caffe del Professore, near the elegant Piazza del Plebiscito, which sells 63 different blends of the stuff. If the standard, tiny espresso, always served with a tall glass of water to cleanse your palate beforehand, doesn’t appeal, then opt instead for a caffe alla nocciola – hazelnut coffee. And remember, always leave a 50-cent tip.
Get some green respite at Villa Comunale
During the summer, Naples’ streets simmer with more smoke and steam than the summit of Mount Vesuvius. For respite, do as the locals do and head to the upscale Chiaia neighbourhood, where you’ll find the bucolic Villa Comunale.
Originally opened just once a year on the feast day of the Virgin Mary, this Royal Park was constructed in 1781 with an enormous bowl, surrounded by four lions, as its centrepiece. The villa, known as the Fontana della Papareile, gleams in the sunshine, while a fine wrought-iron bandstand puts Britain’s seaside promenade efforts to shame.
Treat yourself to a €1 Aperol Spritz
It’s nothing more than the Easyjet-orange liquor (gentian, rhubarb and cinchona) mixed with prosecco and soda water, but Aperol Spritz is to Naples what sangria is to Valencia, or Guinness is to Dublin.
Incredibly, in the hedonistic, free-for-all neighbourhood that is Quartieri Spagnoli, almost all the minuscule bars that spill out onto the cobblestones serve Aperol Spritz in plastic cups with a straw for just €1. On a weekend evening, things only really get going after 10pm. For the most potent spritz in the city, head to the shack-like Cammarota Spritz on Vico Lungo Teatro Nuovo, which will be packed to the rafters with students, eccentrics and artists.
Pay homage to Maradona
The gifted street kid from Buenos Aires was a surprise signing for Napoli in 1984. A bit like Lionel Messi signing for Aston Villa today. The club had won almost nothing prior to his arrival. During his seven-year tenure, Maradona hauled the club to two Serie A titles (they had to wait until 2023 to win their next) and the UEFA Cup in 1989 – arguably the club’s greatest-ever achievement.
Neapolitans worship more than 50 saints, but very few are idolised with the same devotion as Maradona. The club’s stadium is in the grim eastern suburb of Fuorigrotta. Even if you don’t have a ticket for a game, it’s worth heading there on a match day to soak up the atmosphere and the sea of blue-and-white shirts and scarves. That said, tickets are usually available at the club’s website in advance for all but the biggest games, with prices starting at around €40.
Browse for bargains at Pignasecca Market
This utterly chaotic slab of ancient Naples street life is absolutely unmissable. From trays full of (sometimes still wriggling) sea urchins and squid, to knock-off Italian designer sunglasses and handbags, to fresh fruit and vegetables, cut-price perfume and kitchenware, the market is open from 8am to 1pm every day of the week and is still a place where Neapolitans do their weekly shop. There are also more friggitoria (fried food) stands than you could shake a pork-filled arancini ball at.