Italians make up the fourth largest group of Europeans who emigrated to America throughout the 19th and 20th century. An overwhelming majority of these (about 84%) came from Southern Italy and Sicily. This is due to the fact that the largely agricultural and overpopulated regions of the South were less industrialized and thus a lot poorer than those in Northern Italy.
So instead for going for the usual, overcrowded tourist places such as Venice or Florence, why not start your quest to find out more about the life of your Italian ancestors by discovering a typical South Italian gem such as Naples? Here are six tested-and-tried reasons for why I think that you should give Naples a try…
1. The charm of the South
There are many stereotypes of how North Italians (and the world) see Southern Italian cities like Naples. The most prevalent is probably that the Mafia still pretty much controls large parts of the South, especially the city of Naples.
I decided to go anyway… and was positively surprised how safe I felt there and how friendly the people of Naples welcomed me. In fact, they were a lot nicer than those in the tourist strongholds of Rome, Florence or Venice.
Maybe it’s because people of Naples are a bit different than the rest of Italians starting with the fact that they have their very own language which – owing to the city’s history – is a mix of Greek, Spanish and Latin. Even I could hear that this language sounded very different from mainstream Italian – although I only speak very little Italian.
I also met one or two locals who ONLY spoke the Neapolitan language and apparently no Italian at all (including the admissions guy at the castle). But somehow we managed to communicate with our hands. A technique which always works in Italy! 😉
2. The closeness to Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast
About a 1 and a half hour car drive or a two hours train ride, you will find the Amalfi Coast – one of the most beautiful holiday regions in Italy. In my opinion, it’s best to book a guided bus tour to get around because the streets here are very narrow and steep above the cliffs. If you feel confident enough though, you can of course rent a car and drive yourself. The equally beautiful island of Capri is not far from here either and you can easily take a day trip by boat.
The other must-see is of course Pompeii, the ancient Roman city that was buried under meters of volcanic ash after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Unlike any other place, you can still see very well-preserved buildings here. This allows you to really imagine what it must have been like if you had lived here during the Roman times – an era, which your Italian ancestors will also have lived through.
In terms of the tours I took, this Italy trip broke several records. My Pompeii tour was the funniest ever thanks to tour guide Francesco – an Italian original himself! I laughed so much at his outbursts of “Mamma Mia!” and “Fantastico”, that this tour is burnt into my memory for all time.
3. The relaxed pace of life, also known as “dolce vita”
The second record was the longest and quietest walking tour ever when the son of the hostel owner showed us hostel guests his city – but without the usual descriptions, anecdotes or any speech for that matter. However, we still enjoyed our long stroll (I think it was about 5 or 6 hours…) taking in the relaxed pace of Naples, which is generally a bit slower than in other parts of the country.
The highlight was our visit in a super cheap Pizzeria where you can not only make a bargain, but also taste the original Pizza Margherita that was invented in Naples. This was truly something that only a local could have shown us!
For more on Neapolitan pizza, scroll down to the money saving tips. 🙂
4. Culture and History that spans several millennia
Even though Naples has several great museums, the National Archaeological Museum is probably the most famous one – and it is truly great! You can see lots of artifacts and paintings from Pompeii here with some of them even looking like they were painted yesterday instead of 2,000 years ago. In terms of archaeological treasures, this museum is the most important in Italy and one of the most significant museums for this kind of art in the world.
What’s more, the historic city centre of Naples is a museum in itself. It’s listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and according to Wikipedia is the largest historic city centre in Europe!
5. Secret Naples
Another interesting experience in Naples is the Underground Naples tour. There is a whole hidden world underneath the modern city with large parts of it serving as former bunkers in WW2. We had a very knowledgeable, entertaining local tour guide, whose name was Gaetano.
One amazing thing he told us, for example, was that underneath a typical row of houses, there was a Roman Amphitheatre. This had only been rediscovered recently and when we went in there, many traces were still visible.
It can get quite chilly in the caves (so take layers) and those alley paths were really, really narrow. But it wasn’t like the tour guide hadn’t warned people with claustrophobia (that would include me!).
6. The (bargain) food!
As Naples is a lot less touristy than Rome or Florence, it’s a great place to save your vacation Euros. Nowhere else was the typical Italian food so cheap – and so real. You can get delicious and really fairly priced gelato ice cream at many different ice cream shops throughout the city – with lots of unusual flavors (like Nutella or Kinder chocolate!).
In Rome, you will search for an ice cream shop in vain as there are practically none. In Florence, you will find it, but you’ll get dizzy by the very steep touristy prices!
Then there is Pasta Napoli, probably my favorite dish in the world, which really tastes better here than anywhere else in the world.
Last but not least there is the Italian national dish pizza, which was actually invented here in Naples! As the legend goes, the Italian Queen Margherita visited Naples in 1889 and ordered a Pizza with the colors of the Italian flag. The simple, but effective ingredients of white mozzarella cheese, green basil and red tomatoes were thrown together and prego – the Pizza Margherita was born!
I don’t remember exactly, but the pizzeria we went to might have been Sorbillo. The pictures looked a lot like it and the price matches as well. It was 3 € only for a really big Pizza Margherita!
After all this, did you get a taste for Naples, too? If so, leave a comment below.
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Unless otherwise labelled, all photos in this post are copyright by Sonja Irani.