There are so many things to see in Naples that there’s a real risk of forgetting one of the important ones: the Cathedral, Castel dell’Ovo, Castel Nuovo, the National Archaeological Museum, Piazza del Plebiscito, the Veiled Christ… the list could go on and on. But beyond the absolute must-see main attractions, one of the experiences that you can’t miss here at the foot of Vesuvius is a visit to underground Naples.
It’s a genuine city beneath the city, created from digging up the tuff stones that were used to build the town standing over it.
Featuring cisterns, tunnels and wells, exploring this subterranean land is a truly thrilling experience.
A tour lasts an hour and a half and you get to see just 1km of the 400km that criss-cross Naples… imagine the incredible story hidden beneath your feet!
Myths and legends linked to underground Naples
Underground Naples is a parallel city, created at the same time as the actual city, that stretches out underneath the entire historic centre at a depth of over 40 metres. It’s linked to myths and legends that are still perpetuated today in the collective imagination of the Neapolitan people. Here are a couple of examples of stories that have been passed down from generation to generation.
The munaciello is a mischievous sprite that’s said to live in underground Naples and enter the homes of Neapolitans to play tricks or leave gifts.
He knows the network of tunnels lying beneath the surface of Naples inside out, allowing him to move around the entire city. It’s said that he’s particularly susceptible to feminine charms… But be warned: not everyone can see him. According to certain legends, the munaciello is the ghost of the son of Caterina Frezza, a Neapolitan noblewoman forced by her father to become a nun. He supposedly lived in the convent with her, dressed as a monk, and would sneak outside the walls to go on little raids, until he died in mysterious circumstances.
Many people are convinced that they keep seeing the ghost of the munaciello flitting in and out of people’s houses. But it could in fact be the pozzaro, the man who was responsible for supplying water to wells. When he didn’t get paid for his services, he sought revenge by playing tricks on the residents of the houses. He had a natural talent for speleology and wore a sort of robe to protect himself from the humidity. It’s easy to see why he could enter people’s houses and be mistaken for a ghost!
The origins of underground Naples
Underground Naples exists because of the particular morphological and geological characteristics of the Neapolitan area, whose light, crumbly tuff rock was used to build almost all the houses in the city’s historic centre.
It’s thought that the first excavations date back around 5,000 years, almost to the end of the prehistoric era.
It was the Greeks, in the 3rd century BC, who opened the first underground quarries to extract blocks of tuff. The rock was used to build a city – Neapolis (New City) – and the underground tombs that can still be seen today at the Catacombs of San Gaudioso and San Gennaro in the Rione Sanità neighbourhood.
Later, in the Augustan Age, the Romans built the first underground tunnels and cisterns, creating a whole series of aqueducts fed by water from the Serino springs, 70km from the centre of Naples.
These cisterns remained active until the cholera epidemic of 1885, when they were abandoned in favour of the new aqueduct that’s still in operation today.
Underground Naples made a comeback during the Second World War, when the tunnels and cisterns were used as safe havens and air-raid shelters by residents. Throughout Naples, 369 cave shelters and 247 bunkers were set up, traces of which can still be seen today in the form of abandoned toys, bombs and tanks.
In short, visiting underground Naples is like taking a journey back in time through 2400 years of Neapolitan history, from the Greek era to the modern age.
Comfortable non-slip shoes (preferably trainers) and a sweatshirt (even in summer) are recommended for the tour because of the high humidity underground.
Once you’ve crossed the tuff threshold, you begin your descent into the Neapolitan underground down a very atmospheric flight of stairs.
This is where it gets exciting.
The route has been fitted out with lighting, but there are some tunnels that are so dark and narrow that you’ll need a candle, and with every visitor carrying one, the experience is even more spellbinding.
The route isn’t suitable for those who suffer from claustrophobia because, once you’re halfway through, you can’t go back the way you came and have to carry on.
In the first cistern, you’ll immediately notice the graffiti along the walls and the Second World War-era toys, left behind from when people took refuge in the caverns from the bombing.
Along with toys, you’ll also spot the remains of beds, classic cars and even some defused bombs.
Carrying on along the route, you’ll come to an area where an experiment is under way: the creation of an underground greenhouse. However, the experiment has not been successful because the plants grown in these caverns – illuminated by artificial light and watered only with moisture from the subsoil – survive for just one year!
The next part of the route is very impressive, passing through an extremely narrow, unlit tunnel, across one of the largest cisterns and then into the former pantry of the Santa Chiara Monastery.
You’ll then encounter several cellars, some of them private, before returning to the surface.
But the tour isn’t over when you’re back at ground level.
The guide will take you behind the main entrance, in Vico Cinquesanti, to show you a typical Neapolitan basso: a ground-floor dwelling with a single room that’s very common in the historic centre of Naples.
Move the bed and there’s a tunnel, down which you’ll travel to enter the cellar of the house where, to your amazement, you’ll find the outer walls of the ancient greco-roman theatre.
Unfortunately, at the moment, you can only see 1/5 of what the theatre once was, as the remaining parts are in the cellars of private homes and excavations have been suspended.
Practical information about underground Naples
Visiting underground Naples is a unique, exciting experience for all ages. Despite the fact that this tour is completely out of the ordinary, it’s in fact suitable for children, adults and seniors. It’s important to know that this is a safe tour that complies with all the regulations in force, and is completely feasible even for people who aren’t particularly agile. The steps are low, there are handrails alongside the stairs and in general the spaces are wide. The narrowest tunnel is optional, so if you don’t feel comfortable doing it you can wait outside for around 10 minutes. Wear comfortable shoes, relax and enjoy the adventure!
There are several entrances to underground Naples, although they aren’t connected to one another so you’ll see a different section of the tour depending on which starting point you choose.
The main official entrance is right in the historic centre at 68 Piazza San Gaetano, near Via Tribunali, on the corner of the famous “shepherd’s street” Via San Gregorio Armeno.
As well as the main entrance in Via Tribunali, there’s another entrance to underground Naples on Via Chiaia behind Caffè Gambrinus. There’s also one on Riviera di Chiaia: from the Morelli car park, you can enter the 431-metre Bourbon Tunnel, which passes underneath Pizzofalcone hill, linking the Largo della Reggia (now Piazza Plebiscito) and Piazza della Vittoria.
Opening hours and prices
For all the official information, don’t forget to take a look at the underground Naples website, as the opening hours and prices could vary and the Covid restrictions in place could affect the opening of the site. We can however give you a general idea.
Underground Naples can only be accessed with an authorised tour guide. Tours are available in different languages and take place in small groups. Guided tours run every hour and you’ll need to book in advance.
Tours in Italian take place every day, all year round, at the following times: 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, 13:00, 14:00, 15:00, 16:00, 17:00, 18:00; if you book in advance and have at least 10 participants, it’s also possible to take a tour at 21:00 on Thursdays. If however you’d prefer a tour in English, these are the times available: 10:00, 12:00, 14:00, 16:00, 18:00. Booking is only required for groups of more than 10 people. If you’d like a tour in another language or at another time, you can contact the association via email and they’ll certainly try to help you.
For the official prices, please email email@example.com.
How to get there
If you’re coming from Central Station (Piazza Garibaldi), take metro Line 1 towards Piscinola and get off at Dante. From here, a short walk along Via Port’Alba, Via San Pietro a Maiella and Piazza Miraglia will lead you to Via Dei Tribunali – Piazza San Gaetano. From Naples Airport, take the ANM ALIBUS bus that stops in front of the Banco di Napoli and get off at Piazza Garibaldi. From here, follow the same instructions as from the train station. If you’re arriving by boat, walk to the corner of Via Depretis and Piazza Municipio, then take the R4 bus towards Ospedale Cardarelli and get off at Piazza Dante (fourth stop).
Want to come prepared for your holiday in Naples? Start getting to know this splendid city better and soak up the lively atmosphere by discovering the books and films that tell its story.