HBO’s adaptation of Elena Farrante's My Brilliant Friend has sparked a revived interest in all things Neapolitan. But Farrante’s Naples reminds us there’s far more to the city than its signature dish’s Unesco world heritage status. Scratch beyond the surface of Naples’ chaotic, cobbled and gritty streets – you’ll find museums of curiosities buried down backstreets, stretches of serenity along its coastline and a labyrinth of ancient aqueducts beneath your feet. Here’s a guide for all the contrarians seeking an alternative experience of a much travelled, but often singularly explored city.
Unusual Things to do in Naples
1. Visit the Pharmacy of the Incurables
With its grand walnut cabinets and pocket-sized vials the Pharmacy of the Incurables’ 18th-century apothecary resembles a Hogwarts potion class. Situated in the grounds of a working hospital, this ancient pharmacy dating back to 1700 is one of the oldest in the world. It forms part of the Santa Chiara degli Incurabili convent, originally set up by Catalan noble woman Maria Lorenzo Longo, who dedicated herself to helping the sick and poor during an outbreak of the Plague in the city. The pharmacy is divided into a laboratory and presentation room containing ornate majolica vases, old ointments, syrups and powder – retracing Naples’ history of art and alchemy. Inside the hospital’s courtyard, opposite the Pharmacy, lies the Museo delle Arti Sanitare, documenting Naples’ medicinal discoveries and advancements through the ages, and home to many strange and hair-raising surgical instruments.
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2. See the spooky Doll Hospital
Burrowed down one of the Spaccanapoli neighbourhood's narrowest streets is Naples most unusual attraction - Ospedale delle Bambole (the Doll Hospital). This compact ‘clinic’ has been a ward for broken dolls for over a century and continues to receive them from across the globe. Opened in 1895 by theatre set designer Luigi Grassi, it is now tended by his great-granddaughter, Tiziana. Collector’s porcelain dolls, saint statues and teddy bears are delivered to this toy sanctuary for repairs – with each new patient being provided with a hospital bed, nurses and prescriptions. You can marvel at how Tiziana painstakingly revives these broken toys with exceptionally skilled craftsmanship in the laboratory. Whether you’ll enjoy this nostalgic trip back to childhood or find the hospital’s canopy of dangling body parts with glitching eyelids as unnerving as Chucky in Child’s Play, there’s only one way to find out...
Tinziana checking on her patients at the doll hospital © Siobhan Lawless
3. Hop on a water bike tour
New, unorthodox offerings from sources like Airbnb's Experiences are opening up unexposed parts of Naples to visitors. If you fancy working up an appetite for those famous three course lunches, why not give cycling fanatic Luigi’s Naples Water Bike Tours a whirl? On his surprisingly sturdy water bikes you'll head out into the bay, feeling miles away from the chaotic urban traffic. Prepare to come across hidden grottos, secret beaches and the attractive shoreline enjoyed by Naples’ elite. Luigi’s knowledgeable tour will give you historical context and a rare glimpse into this often unseen part of Naples.
A water bike tour is one of the most unusual things to do in Naples © Siobhan Lawless
4. Get a drink at an off-the-radar bar
For a drinking hole where you can drink in copies of Dante and Giovanni Boccaccio too – bury yourself in Libreria Berisio. Originally opened in 1956 in Naples’ historic centre, Libreria Berisio extended their offering to cocktails and wine in 2014. Expect a lively, hipster crowd over the weekend nattering away to a backdrop of indie tunes. Alternatively, swing by Otto Jazz Club and sample from their over 200 strong cocktail menu while soaking up jazz, blues and Neopolitan folk. Its cosy, intimate and entrance is free – although it’s only open on Saturday evenings. Bourbon Street, open from Thursday to Sunday, brings a touch of New Orleans to Naples – expect impressive live jazz performances, friendly staff and an extensive drinks menu.
Libreria Beriiso attracts trendy locals - and visitors in the know © Siobhan Lawless
5. Join a literary walk
If Elena Farrante’s Naples is calling your name, the new literary walk Neapolitan Novels: My Brilliant Friend lets you follow in the Italian novelist’s footsteps. Neopolitan Novels, the four-part coming-of-age series by Farrante, follows two women through their lives from childhood to old age. Meticulously including the names of each street and square the girls visit, Farrante has enticed readers to see a more rustic side of the city which traditionally kept visitors at bay. Art historian and Naples native Atontella’s tour simultaneously explores this, while bringing Lila and Elena’s adventures to life.
6. Taste traditional ragu
When you’re so full of pizza your gut might explode – fear not, because Naples has stellar options for when you need respite from all that dough. Tandem Ragu's rich and traditional Neapolitan ragu is slow cooked for 6 to 8 hours, so by the time it reaches your lips mingled with silky pasta, it instantly melts in your mouth. Situated in the heart of the Historic centre and claiming to be the first restaurant entirely dedicated to Neopolitan ragu, you’ll need to ring up and reserve a table here because it's usually busy (with good reason). If you can't get a table here, try one of Tandem’s four other branches for the ultimate Sunday Gravy.
Dinner is served at Tandem Ragu © Siobhan Lawless
Nestled among the backstreets of the Spanish quarter is the noisy, no-thrills and unapologetically Neapolitan, Trattoria Da Nennella. Expect considerable queues outside and fast service from rambunctious, wildly gesticulating waiters inside. You might even see a local performers who frequently come in to entertain diners. Trattoria Da Nennella does delicious and budget-friendly best. Their pasta e patate con la provola (pasta, potato and cheese) is a signature, but their cuts of meat with Mediterranean marinades just as tasty.
7. Walk beneath the city
In the heart of the Historical Centres lies Napoli Sotterranea – otherwise known as Naples Underground, where you can descend 40m below street level to uncover the city’s underworld. Who knew you would be exploring Naples from the bottom up? Take a two-hour guided tour and travel back in time to unearth Naples’ ancient labyrinth of Greek aqueducts, pagan burial chambers, the remains of Nero’s lost theatre and World War II air raid shelters. Part of the tour takes place by candlelight and through extremely narrow passages – so if you get claustrophobic it might be best to sit this one out.
Military vehicles in the basements of Naples Italy © FPWing/Shutterstock
8. Join the hunt for the best pizza
While it might seem sacrilege to visit Naples without scoffing a pizza at Sorbillo or Da Michele, many locals attest you don’t have to wait two hours before eating the “best pizza” of your life. Why not toddle three minutes down the road from Sorbillo on Via dei Tribunali to find Pomod’oro Pizzeria – whose beautiful pizza oven and kitchen ceramics are worth admiring in their own right. Here you can feast on a first-class pizza, with a signature Neapolitan thin, chewy, herb-infused base with a gluttonously thick crust for as little as four euros, while beating all the hysteria. Pomod’oro’s young owner Salvatore Serino came from a family of pizza makers before working as a chef at Franco Manco in London – where he met his infectiously lovely partner Mary. Later both moved back to Naples where Salvatore fulfilled his dream of opening a pizza restaurant. Dining at Pomod’ore Pizzeria is like being welcomed into Mary and Salvatore’s home.
Pomod’ore Pizzeria's cosy kitchen © Siobhan Lawless
Top image: The entrance of Naples's underground ruins, Napoli sotterranea © photoNN/Shutterstock