To experience the true essence of Naples, you need to explore the Centro Storico, an unforgettable neighborhood that is the heart of old Naples. This is the Naples of peeling building facades and hanging laundry, with small alleyways fragrant with fresh flowers laid at the many shrines to the Blessed Virgin. Here the cheapest pizzerias in town feed the locals like kings, and the raucous street carnival of Neapolitan daily life is punctuated with oases of spiritual calm. All the contradictions of Naples—splendor and squalor, palace and slum, triumph and tragedy—meet here and sing a full-throated chorale. But the Centro Storico is not simply picturesque. It also contains some of Naples' most important sights, including a striking conglomeration of churches—Lombard, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical. There are the majolica-adorned cloister of Santa Chiara; the sumptuous Church of the Gesù Nuovo; two opera-set piazzas; the city duomo (where the Festa di San Gennaro is celebrated every September); the Museo Cappella Sansevero; the greatest painting in Naples—Caravaggio's Seven Acts of Mercy altarpiece—on view at the museum complex of Pio Monte; and Via Gregorio Armeno, where shops devoted to Presepi (Nativity scenes) make every day a rehearsal for Christmas. And even though this was the medieval center of the city, the city's flagship museum of modern art, the Museo Madre, is here and night owls will find that many of Naples' most cutting-edge clubs and bars are hidden among its nooks and alleys. For soccer fanatics, there is even a shrine to Diego Maradona.
Because many churches open at 7:30 and close for the afternoon around 1, it's imperative to get an early start to fit in as many sights as possible before the midday break. Many shops close for three hours, from 1:30 to 4:30. By 4 many of the churches reopen. Plan on a good two hours to walk this route, plus some time for each of the principal churches you decide to visit. But since the Centro Storico is the most memorable part of Naples, take a full day if you can, and wear comfortable shoes.