The enchanting historic centre of Naples UNESCO World Heritage Site
History and information on the historic centre of Naples
The city of Naples has a thousand faces. At every step, in every alley, on every square, it shows signs of the more than 27 centuries of history since the first Greek settlements in 470 BC.
Due to its strategic location, it has always been one of the most important port cities in the Mediterranean. Over the centuries, it suffered the rule of the Byzantine Empire, the Normans and the Angevins, and then increased its splendour during the two centuries of Spanish rule. Naples then became the capital of the Bourbon kingdom and emerged as one of the largest cities in Europe.
Why it is a UNESCO site
In listing the centre of Naples as a World Heritage Site in 1995, UNESCO praised the city for having been, since the Middle Ages, a crucial centre for art and architecture expressed in its ancient fortresses, in its complexes such as the 1600s Palazzo Reale, in churches and palaces commissioned by aristocratic families.
What to see in the historic centre of Naples
It is easy to get lost among the wonders of the historic centre of Naples, strolling through the streets and alleys in search of treasures. Prepare to walk through a multicoloured, history-rich mess, stopping to sample some of the delicacies the city has to offer.
Piazza del Plebiscito, in the western part of the city centre, welcomes you with the symbolic embrace of the iconic colonnade in which the Royal Papal Basilica of San Francesco di Paola is set, one of the most important examples of Neoclassical architecture in Italy, which is well worth a visit for its magnificent interiors. On the opposite side of the square stands the imposing Royal Palace, the historical residence of the Spanish viceroys. The complex includes the picturesque gardens, the Vittorio Emanuele III National Library with over 1 million books and the San Carlo Theatre. Founded in 1737, the San Carlo is the oldest opera house in the world still in operation.
Get lost along via Toledo one of the most important streets in Naples and one of the main commercial arteries. Built next to the ancient city walls in 1536, it connects Piazza Trieste e Trento with the imposing Piazza Dante, crossing the city from north to south.
A great example of the splendour of Naples during the Middle Ages is just a few steps away. Castel Nuovo, known as Maschio Angioino, is the medieval and Renaissance castle symbol of the city. It houses the Municipal Museum, rich in objects and paintings.
The Duomo, the name given to the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, is a magnificent example of Gothic and Neo-Gothic architecture and one of the most important religious buildings in the city. Inside, you cannot miss the Museum of the Treasure of San Gennaro, which houses the Saint's relics. It is here that three times every year, Neapolitans witness the ritual of liquefaction.
Not far away is another of Naples' treasures, the Sansevero Chapel Museum, which houses Giuseppe Sanmartino's Veiled Christ, one of the most moving sculptures in the world: a single block of marble, carved in 1753, depicts the lifeless body of Jesus on which a transparent shroud seems to lie. In the same area, walk down Via di San Gregorio Armeno and lose yourself among the many artisan workshops of nativity scenes.
Drop by the nearby Pio Monte della Misericordia and visit the small museum church inside to be amazed by Caravaggio's painting of the Seven Acts of Mercy, one of the most important paintings of 17th century Italy.
In Piazza del Gesù Nuovo stands the Baroque obelisk of the Immacolata, the last of the three great obelisks in Naples, together with that of San Gennaro, in Piazza Riario Sforza, and that of San Domenico, in Piazza San Domenico Maggiore. The Church of the Trinità Maggiore with its distinctive facade overlooks the square. The ancient Monumental Complex of Santa Chiara is just a few steps away. Built from 1310 onwards, the complex is a splendid Franciscan citadel.
If you visit the centre of Naples, you cannot miss the basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore with its 15th century bell tower and the church of San Domenico Maggiore, a splendid example of Gothic-Angevin architecture. Also not to be missed is underground Naples, with the ancient catacombs of San Gennaro dating back to the 2nd-3rd centuries AD.