Is Napoli, along with a few of its close-by famous tourist destinations, like Capri and the Amalfi Coast, one of the best places to experience la dolce far niente? But before that, what is the true meaning of the Italian idiom, which translates to “the sweetness of doing nothing”? Well, dolce far niente is a way of life, that many Italians like to follow. It’s living and enjoying the moment, without doing anything. No stress, no pressure, and there’s nothing else that’s more important than the moment itself. Time slows down and you admire the simplicity of life, while smiling without any reason. And for a whole week at the end of June, right before the peak season, I wanted to do exactly that.
Coming back to Napoli, here are a few historical and geographical facts that you might not know:
its area has been inhabited since 2000 BC, when the Greeks established a small colony. The settlement evolved into an ancient city that they called Neapolis, which meant “the new city”.
the Romans conquered it in 326 BC and used it as a resort, thanks to the position and climate.
during the Middle Ages, under the Spanish Empire, it was one of the largest cities in Europe.
nowadays, it is Italy’s third largest city and a major port at the Tyrrhenian Sea. Its location is truly unique, right between two very active volcanic regions: Mount Vesuvius and the Phlegraean Fields. This has been both a blessing and a curse, over the years. On one side, there’s the sea access and industrial potential, while on the other, the eruptions, the earthquakes and the constant fear.
Napoli might not have the touristy reputation of other Italian cities, but it still has one of the largest historic centers in Europe and a long food tradition. In addition, at short distance from the city you can find world-renowned destinations, such as the ruins of Pompeii, a flourishing city in the time of the Roman Empire, destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius, the island of Capri, a place where charm meets glamour, and the Amalfi Coast, known for its picturesque towns, cliffs and beaches.
Everything sounds promising so far, right? You might think that there’s nothing to not like. Well, there are a few downsides, too. Firstly, the city is chaotic, especially in the center – mostly due to the insane number of scooters and horn sounds, and might feel overwhelming at times. Secondly, driving a car can turn into an adventurous challenge, as Neapolitans tend to drive in a similar way to Sicilians.
Getting there and traveling around
Flying from pretty much anywhere in Europe to Napoli on a budget is probably one of the easiest things to achieve, even in the summer. That’s because Aeroporto di Napoli-Capodichino is the base for several low-cost carriers, so spending €50 to €100 for the plane tickets is doable, with decent planning. The airport doesn’t have yet a metro station, but there is a dedicated bus line, called Alibus, which connects it with the Central Station; the price for a single ride is €5. Taxis to the city center should cost between €16 to €20, but don’t be surprised if the driver will ask for more, especially if it’s late at night.
In order to reach Capri island from Napoli, I used this website to purchase my round-trip tickets for €42 (I left from Traghetti terminal at 8 AM and got back at Beverello terminal at 8 PM). The really awkward thing was that booking them online was actually more expensive than buying them at the counter, a situation I’ve never encountered before. And it was not linked to the extra fees the site charged. Strange policy… Anyways, a one way trip takes 50 minutes to one hour and 20 minutes, depending on the ferry type. I recommend taking the slow ferry at least once, because you’re allowed to stay on deck and enjoy the sea and the view. On the fast ferries, you have to stay inside in your seat at all times.
For traveling to the Amalfi Coast, I rented a car from Sicily by Car, via Rentalcars, which ended up being more expensive than expected. I paid €370 for a Mitsubishi Space Star Funky, for 4 days, with full protection included. That’s probably the highest amount I’ve spent on a rental, per day. But the small car was fine overall, and perfect for the narrow roads near the coast.
Napoli is famous for being the birthplace of modern pizza, in the early 19th century. Towards the end of the same century, pizza Margherita was invented, at Pizzeria Brandi. Legend says that it was made in honor of Queen Margherita of Savoy, after the Italian unification. That’s why its three major ingredients are in the colors of the national flag: tomato (red), mozzarella (white) and basil (green). Sicilian arancinis (deep-fried rice croquettes with different fillings) are also consumed on the streets, along with the local favorite: fried pizza. Salata caprese and ravioli capresi are both summer dishes, simple, yet nicely balanced and fragrant, typical on the island of Capri and amongst the Amalfi Coast towns.
In terms of sweets, my favorites were sfogliatella (cream pastry), babà (the Neapolitan version of baba au rhum) and gelato. Limoncello, a liquor made from the zest of the lemons, is widely produced around the Sorrentine Peninsula. It’s best served chilled, as an after-dinner digestivo.
Here’s a list of places that I recommend, where you can try the local cuisine:
Acunzo Pizza (Via Domenico Cimarosa 60, Napoli) – pizza
Pizzeria Imperatore 1906 (Via Duomo 218, Napoli) – pizza
Pasticceria Poppella (Via Santa Brigida 69/70, Napoli) – desserts
Scaturchio (Piazza S. Domenico Maggiore 19, Napoli) – desserts
Caffè Zambardino (Via Duomo 316, Napoli) – Italian breakfast
Gelateria Mennella (several central locations across Napoli) – gelato
Valenti (Via dei Tribunali 53, Napoli) – gelato
Ventimetriquadri (Via Gian Lorenzo Bernini 64a, Napoli) – specialty coffee
Sciue’ Sciue’ (Via Giuseppe Orlandi 73, Anacapri) – Italian cuisine
Pasticceria Bar Grotta Azzurra (Via Roma 59, Capri) – desserts
Porta Marina Seafood (Via Marina Grande 64, Sorrento) – seafood, right next to the sea
La bottega dei Ferrari (Piazza dei Dogi 24, Amalfi) – panini
Cioccolato Andrea Pansa (Via Lorenzo D’Amalfi 9, Amalfi) – gelato
The first four nights were spent in Napoli, at Duomo 34 Guest Room (Via S. Arcangelo a Baiano 34), a large apartment that was renovated and turned into three separate rooms with bathroom and balcony. Its location was perfect: in a traditional Neapolitan neighborhood, part of the historic center, close enough to most areas of interest. The fifth night was spent at Hotel Baia Di Puolo (Via Marina di Puolo 10) in Massa Lubrense, a place right next to the beach. A big plus for the beach with volcanic sand, not a common thing in the Sorrentine Peninsula, where most beaches have pebbles. Finally, for the last two nights I found on Airbnb a beautiful house in Nerano, with a spectacular view over the bay; and it was a complete steal, at €110 per night, for four people. As a side note, accommodation prices in towns like Positano or Amalfi were insane, I wasn’t able to find anything under €200 per night for a double room.
Guide to Napoli
I had seven days in hand to both discover as many new places as possible and to find out what dolce far niente is all about – and, of course, to experience it. I planned these as follows: two days for Napoli, one day for Capri, three days for the Sorrentine Peninsula and the Amalfi Coast, and one final day for Pompeii and the drive back. Now, let’s start with the top things to do and see in Napoli:
→ Centro Storico is the heart of the city, and has over 2700 years of history behind. Its uniqueness is defined by the level of conservation and use of the ancient Greek road layout. It is filled with narrow cobblestone streets, passageways, restaurants, cafes and stunning churches, with extravagant and striking interiors. To name a few of these churches: Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta (also known as Il Duomo), Chiesa di San Domenico Maggiore and Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo.
→ Despite its name, the hilly Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish Quarter) is the most traditional neighborhood of Napoli. Considered a dangerous district in the past, it has been revived thanks to street decorations, multicolored flags and murals. You’ll spot everywhere the well-known clothes hanging in the sun. Overall, I believe that it represents the soul of this city and of its people.
→ Via Toledo is a historic street, dating from the 16th century. It spans for 1.2 kilometers, separating Centro Storico from Quartieri Spagnoli, and it’s the city’s main shopping street.
→ San Ferdinando is another important neighborhood, home to several important landmarks, at a stone’s throw one from the other: Piazza del Plebiscito (the largest square in Napoli), Basilica di San Francesco di Paola (a reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome), Palazzo Reale, Teatro di San Carlo (the oldest active opera in the world, opened in 1737) and Galleria Umberto I.
→ Walking a bit more to the south from Piazza del Plebiscito, you’ll reach the Tyrrhenian Sea. The waterfront promenade goes for about three kilometers towards west. If you follow it, you will pass by Castel dell’Ovo, one of the seven castles of the city, before ending up at Villa Comunale, a former royal garden that’s now a park. Across from the park, it’s the only urban beach in Napoli, Mappatella. It was extremely crowded and didn’t look that nice, so it’s not worth taking it into account for sunbathing.
→ Chiaia is a district with many beautiful villas and palazzi, plus boutiques, designer shops, restaurants and elegant bars. There aren’t so many tourists around, so I found it perfect for a Sunday stroll.
→ The last neighborhood I’m going to talk about is Vomero, located in the hilly part of the city. From here, you will have a fantastic view over the center, the bay and Mount Vesuvius. It’s not an easy way up, but the experience is worth it. There is also a funicular, but if you’re in decent shape, I really recommend taking your time and following the Salita del Petraio steps to get to the top.
One day in Capri
To start with, one day (or, better said, almost 10 hours) might be insufficient to experience all that the island of Capri has to offer. It depends on the type of traveler that you are, your pace and how many things you wish to see or do. For me it was enough, despite missing on a few things, like the grottos (for which you need a boat) and Villa Jovis.
The island of Capri became a popular resort towards the end of the 19th century, when many European artists, writers and celebrities started residing or coming regularly here. That’s why nowadays it’s an expensive destination, with luxury stores and boutiques, very touristy and crowded especially during the day. It’s not necessarily my type, but it’s one of those places that you have to visit at least once in your life. My guess is that the vibe is completely different early in the morning or after the sunset, cause that’s when most tourists get back to the continent. Here’s what I did during the day:
→ Started with a bath at Spiaggia Marina Grande. It’s not the best beach, cause it’s all pebbles, but it’s conveniently located right next to the port and has turquoise waters.
→ Put on my hiking shoes – just joking, I had beach slippers, which I don’t recommend for what I was about to do – and started ascending towards Anacapri, on Scala Fenicia. This stone stairway was made by the ancient Greek colonists, and was the only way to get to Anacapri, until the 19th century. The view is breathtaking, but the stairs aren’t for everyone; the alternative is either the bus or a taxi.
→ Soaked in the moment at Villa San Michele, where the steps end. Built by the the Swedish physician and author Axel Munthe, it’s a marvelous scenic spot, with gorgeous gardens.
→ Discovered Anacapri, a municipality known for its lovely rural feel. It’s way less crowded compared to Capri, has lower prices, and many restaurants and boutique shops.
→ Took the bus from Anacapri to Capri (€2.2), which is packed with people all day long. The panorama from Piazzetta di Capri is nice, but not as nice as the one from Villa San Michele. Then wandered for an hour the small streets, filled with high-end shops and hotels, and descended to Marina Grande on foot. I used the alley that starts right next to the funicular station, and reached the port in 15 minutes.
Guide to the Amalfi Coast and the Sorrentine Peninsula
The Sorrentine Peninsula separates the Gulf of Napoli from the Gulf of Salerno and stretches from Castellammare di Stabia to Vietri sul Mare. The southern part is better known as the Amalfi Coast, an area listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site, thanks to the cultural history and topographical characteristics. Its scenic landscapes have always attracted the world’s wealthiest people, making it one of the most popular destinations and earning it the nickname Divina Costiera (Divine Coast). These were my stops:
→ Castellammare di Stabia is the entry point of the peninsula, a town with a pleasant seafront, colorful buildings and green wooded slopes to its south, but with a disappointing beach. Further west, just before Meta, there are several viewing points right next to the road, which offer a nice perspective of the northern seaside resorts and of the steep coastline.
→ The peaceful and quiet fishing village of Marina di Puolo has crystal clear waters and a black sand beach. There aren’t many people around, so at times you’ll feel like you’ve traveled back in time.
→ Nerano is another fishing village, larger and more lively than Marina di Puolo. It has a few pebble beaches, both public and private, with Spiaggia delle Monache being the nicest one in my opinion. But you can also follow a 2 km trail that starts right in the village center and ends at Baia di Ieranto, which is more of a secluded beach in a cove. I arrived late in the afternoon, and there were very few people around.
→ Time to move to the Amalfi Coast: Positano is definitely the most iconic village. Pretty much everyone has seen it online, it has been featured in many movies, so I am not even going to waste words writing about it. In my case, it was just a short stop, to admire its beauty and take some pictures. It has one big problem, though: lack of parking spaces (compared to the huge number of tourists).
→ Next it’s Amalfi, the historical and political center and the town that gives the name to the coast. Its location might not be as spectacular as Positano’s, but it’s still impressive, surrounded by large cliffs and coastal scenery. Piazza del Duomo is the main square and the starting point of discovering Amalfi. It’s dominated by the Duomo, the medievel cathedral dedicated to Saint Andrew, whose relics are kept here.
→ Ravello was the actual gem of the coast – now it seems silly, cause I was almost about to ignore it and not follow the curvy road up the mountain. Once at the top, you’ll find a peaceful little town, with an amazing panoramic view, luxurious villas and lush gardens. There are a few restaurants and cafes in the central square, perfect for wasting some time. Yes, much of the definition of dolce far niente.
Guide to Pompeii
After the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius (79 AD), Pompeii remained untouched until the mid of the 18th century, when a group of explorers began digging in the area, in search for ancient artifacts. The pyroclastic flow buried the city into six meters of volcanic ash and dust, which helped preserve buildings and artwork and kept Pompeii almost exactly as it had been two millenniums ago. Visiting the ruins is like going back in time. But only a third of the site has been explored up to this point, so archaeologists and scientists continue to unravel the mysteries of Pompeii.
I was a bit in a hurry, due to the flight, and only managed to spend inside roughly two hours, which is not much. The entire area is huge, not even a day would be enough to see every interesting part. The entry fee is €16, I am not sure if you really need to book tickets in advance; there was basically no line, only a few people. Here are some of the highlights:
→ Foro di Pompei (the social and civic center in Roman times)
→ Teatro Grande, Teatro Piccolo and Quadriportico dei Teatri
→ Anfiteatro (the oldest known Roman amphitheater in existence)
→ Lupanare (the brothel with erotic frescoes)
→ Casa del Fauno (the largest private house)
→ Orto dei Fuggiaschi (former vineyard containing the plaster casts of 13 victims)
→ At least a few tens of villas and houses, with mosaics, sculptures and even large gardens. These are open to the public only between specific hours.
It’s time to draw the line and answer the question: are Napoli, Capri and the Amalfi Coast some of the best places to experience la dolce far niente? Yes, I believe so! And let me tell you why: because the people, despite being hasty and looking agitated, enjoy every moment of their life, without being too concerned about tomorrow. Because the cities and towns have an outstanding history behind and remarkable landmarks. Because the villages are charming and picturesque. And because the food is delicious and the wines are of high quality.
Alla Prossima, Campania!