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10 Best Churches and Cathedrals in the Bay of Naples

Neapolitans and a succession of mainly foreign dynasties have created some captivating places of worship.

In a city with over 500 churches—it’s been called La città delle cinquecento cupole (City of 500 Cupolas)—there’s a sacred space around every corner. And with over 2500 years of human settlement, Napoletanos have created a singular and powerful fusion of Roman Catholicism with myriad native pagan cults. You can explore the Gulf of Naples’ layers of history, culture, power and religiosity among devotees present and past in these dazzling churches.

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PHOTO: Isogood_patrick/Shutterstock
1 OF 10

Gesù Nuovo

WHERE: Naples, Italy

Heralding the start of many a Spaccanapoli walk through the Centro Storico is the sight of the austere diamond-pointed facade of the former Palazzo Sanseverino. Once inside there’s much to take your breath away, from the ornamental sumptuousness of the vault frescos to the emotional intensity of the worshipers in its atmospheric corners and chapels. Save some time for the curious chapel dedicated to San Giuseppe Moscati (1880-1927) a renowned doctor known for his miracle cures. Here you’ll find walls of touching metallic ex-voto hearts, bodily organs, and limbs imploring saintly benediction. The shop sells shiny new versions for those seeking divine intervention.

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PHOTO: Giuseppemasci/Dreamstime
2 OF 10

Duomo

WHERE: Naples, Italy

Get a feel for the Neapolitans’ fatalistic pagan-influenced relationship with the world, its deadly hazards, and deities by spending some time in the colossal Duomo. Naples’ cathedral is dedicated to the martyred early Christian San Gennaro, who was decapitated in 305. Three times a year, devotees focus intensely on an old vial supposedly containing the blood of the saint and protectorate of Naples. Whisper it: the brown substance that liquefies in the vial, when handled and waved about by the archbishop’s hands, may not be blood after all. It’s fine because Neapolitans embrace the profane as much as the sacred. Either way, liquefazione symbolizes respite from the ever-looming disasters of famine, plague, revolt, earthquake, eruption, or defeat of the city’s beloved soccer team SSC Napoli.

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PHOTO: ho visto nina volare from Italy [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons
3 OF 10

Pio Monte della Misericordia

WHERE: Naples, Italy

Down the quiet end of dark, narrow, sticky, and slightly unnerving via dei Tribunali is this charitable body with an adjoining octagonal church. In 1601, seven wealthy men established an almshouse and Pio Monte della Misericordia charity for Naples’ poor and destitute. Head through the arched loggia to the church bathed by shards of streaming natural light and gawk at one of Caravaggio’s most powerful and brooding masterpieces. The Seven Acts of Mercy (1607) altarpiece, with its angel-borne virgin with Christ child transposed into the chiaroscuro reality of a Naples street scene peopled by vulnerable and struggling characters, looms over the church’s baroque opulence.

INSIDER TIPTake a break from the religious sights along Spaccanapoli with a visit to the presepi (crib or nativity scene) craftspeople on Via San Gregorio Armeno.

 

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PHOTO: Henryk Sadura/Shutterstock
4 OF 10

San Giuseppe dei Ruffi

WHERE: Naples, Italy

Designed by Baroque master architect Lazzari, this 17thcentury church in the Centro Storico is worth seeking out for its over-the-top splendor and unique Messa (Mass). Devotees and the curious rise early to witness nuns in white and red habits process under the impressive cupola adorned with Francesco de Mura’s dreamlike painting Paradise. What sticks in the throat are the sweet sounds of the nuns singing early morning mass, reverberating around the cavernous space. Set the alarm early as Mass begins daily at 8 am sharp.

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PHOTO: Cezary Wojtkowski/Shutterstock
5 OF 10

Santa Chiara

WHERE: Naples, Italy

One of the most photographed and much-loved expressions of Neapolitan gioia di vivere (joy in life) can be enjoyed at this 14thcentury church complex built by the Angevins. Take time out and stroll around the adjoining cloisters. The vibrant majolica-tiled columns and seats depicting fruits of the fertile Campania soil and rural landscapes are perfect for quiet reflection after the hustle of Spaccanapoli.

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PHOTO: Roman Babakin/Shutterstock
6 OF 10

Santa Maria Assunta

WHERE: Positano, Italy

The mere sight of that splash of the yellow, green, and blue majolica tiles atop the dome of Santa Maria Assunta is enough to lift the spirits. The instantly recognizable dome and its cute cupola above can be seen all over the pastel-hued Positano, from the famous beach to the farthest scalinatella stairway high up on Path of the Gods. Inside, the 18th–century stucco work may be a tad underwhelming, but deep in the crypts, the recently excavated remains of the original 13th-century church, funerary seating, and Roman villa frescoes are breath-taking.

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PHOTO: AdryPhoto1/Shutterstock
7 OF 10

Duomo di Sant’Andrea

WHERE: Amalfi, Italy

Originally conceived and erected in the 9th century, this prime piece of Arab-Norman extravagance was financed by Amalfi’s once-mighty maritime trading republic that sailed east, so Byzantine influences abound. It’s been embellished many times since with a number of styles from Romanesque to Gothic, so there’s much detail to get lost in here. Beyond the richly decorated facade and bronze doors, take time to linger in the Chiostro del Paradiso’s lush palm-fringed gardens enclosed by interlaced Arabic arches. Go to the crypt to venerate Sant’Andrea bones and skull pilfered from Constantinople during the Crusades.

INSIDER TIPEscape the crowds and heat in Amalfi by walking up the hill along Via delle Cartiere to the Valle dei Mulini (Valley of the Mills), where old paper mills sit astride the lush and cool Canneto River.

 

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PHOTO: Olena Kosynska/Shutterstock
8 OF 10

Duomo di Ravello

WHERE: Ravello, Italy

Up in lofty and lovely Ravello, leave the melee of coaches and day-trippers through a tunnel that leads to a more relaxed piazza. Eyes are drawn to the fresh, simple white-gleaming Romanesque cathedral with its 13th-century campanile. Beyond the rare and rather hefty bronze door (made in 1179 and apparently one of Italy’s finest), the calming vibe continues inside this light-filled space. Within these cool stone walls, it’s an intimate and refreshingly understated affair. Most captivating of all are the naïve and endearing cartoonish mosaics of biblical scenes and mythical creatures, including Jonah casually praying; or is that him waving from the gaping mouth of a whale? In a twin mosaic and follow-up scene, Jonah is comically gobbled up, head-first, all legs akimbo by the blue-green whale.

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PHOTO: Ernestina Russo/Cetrella
9 OF 10

Santa Maria a Cetrella

WHERE: Capri, Italy

Reaching this humbly rough-hewn church founded in the 14th century takes a bit of hoof-work, but it is well worth the pilgrimage as the views and atmosphere are spectacular and serene. Lying in the Valletta di Cetrella, the most hassle-free route is via the chairlift from Anacapri to Monte Solaro, then taking a path through pine and chestnut woods to this hidden gem. You’ll be rewarded with a place made for quiet reflection amid the flowery meadows (there’s a hermitage here), and it’s a fine spot to have a picnic, with lovely views down to the Faraglioni rocks.

INSIDER TIPOn this excursion up Monte Solaro, don’t forget to pack a picnic and cool drinks; weather permitting, you’ll want to relax, explore, and survey the sublime views for at least an hour or two.

 

10 OF 10

Santuario del Soccorso

WHERE: Ischia, Italy

Sunset is often the magic hour to saunter along the Forio coastline and hang around this whitewashed church on a promontory.  It’s perhaps Ischia’s most gorgeous setting. Take a pew on the terrace to watch the 14th-century church blush as the burning embers of the day sink into the Mar Tirreno. The complex was originally part of an Augustan convent and contains a wooden crucifix that was found by sailors washed up on the nearby shore during a storm in the 15th century; it’s since become the focus of veneration as a protector of seafarers.

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