Located under the shadow of Vesuvius, Naples is the most vibrant city in Italy—a steaming, bubbling, reverberating minestrone in which each block is a small village and everything seems to be a backdrop for an opera not yet composed.
It's said that northern Italians vacation here to remind themselves of the time when Italy was molto Italiana—really Italian. In this respect, Naples (Napoli in Italian) doesn't disappoint: Neapolitan rainbows of laundry wave in the wind over alleyways, mothers caress children, men break out into impromptu arias at sidewalk cafés, and street scenes offer Fellini-esque slices of life. Everywhere contrasting elements of faded gilt and romance, grandeur and squalor form a pageant of pure Italianità—Italy at its most Italian.
As the historic capital of the region known as Campania, Naples has been perpetually and tumultuously in a state of flux. Neapolitans are instinctively the most hospitable of people, and they've often paid a price for being so, having unwittingly extended a warm welcome to wave after wave of invaders. Lombards, Goths, Normans, Swabians, Spanish viceroys and kings, and Napoleonic generals arrived in turn; most of them proved to be greedy and self-serving. Still, if these foreign rulers bled the populace dry with taxes, they left the impoverished city with a rich architectural inheritance.
Much of that inheritance is on display in the Centro Storico neighborhood, where the Piazza del Gesù Nuovo and the surrounding blocks are a showplace for the city's most beloved churches. Compared to most other great metropolises of the world, Naples has little tourist infrastructure, forcing you to become a native very quickly, which you will if you spend enough time wandering through the gridlike narrow streets of the old center.