If you haven't spent time in Naples, you will never fully experience Italy in all its glorious and infuriating reality. This city - the former seat of Bourbon royalty who ruled the south of Italy for more than 100 years - is a pure, fierce distillation of the country and its character. It will delight and shock you in equal measure with its beauty, vivacity, chaos and poverty.
One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth, the historic centre of Naples follows the grid of the ancient Greek city of Neapolis. Walking around this area today - which is tightly packed with stunning Baroque churches, crumbling 18th-century palaces, cafes, food vendors, street performers and narrow shops selling everything from fresh octupus to handmade paper - brings to mind the rhythm, smells and atmosphere of a north-African city such as Marrakech. Naples is a city of the south, not the north, in more than just a geographical sense.
A comfortable bed
For a convenient location in the centro storico (the historical centre), try Constantinapoli 104 (www.costantinopoli104.com; 00 39 81 557 1035), which has 19 rooms in a Liberty-style villa with stained-glass windows, a pretty garden and a small pool. Doubles cost from €190 (Dh906).
The waterfront along via Partenope boasts some of the city's biggest hotels, as well as unforgettable views of the sea and Vesuvius, mainland Europe's only active volcano. The Excelsior (www.excelsior.it; 00 39 81 764 0111) is the city's grandest old hotel. Marble floors, twinkling chandeliers and silk furnishings all contribute to a sense of old-world elegance and tradition. Doubles start from about €250 (Dh1,191).
If you're on a tight budget, bed and breakfast at I Visconti (www.napolibandb.it; 00 39 81 552 9124), in the heart of the centro storico, is a great choice. Pretty rooms, breakfast, free Wi-Fi and super-friendly service is all yours for €65 (Dh310) for a double room.
Find your feet
The centro storico is dominated by two ruler-straight roads: the Via dei Tribunali and Spaccanapoli - the central axis of the city.
There is plenty here to occupy you in the morning: ornate, dusty churches filled with skulls and relics (Neopolitans are superstitious, and obsessed with memento mori), independent shops, and squares echoing to the sound of locals chattering and gesticulating wildly. There's food and drink at every step, from elegant outdoor cafes serving exquisite sfogliatelle pastries, such as Scaturchio in Piazza San Domenico, to tiny, noisy, narrow pitstopsserving the city's famously strong, sweet espresso.
Set aside an afternoon for the Archaeological Museum north of Piazza Dante, which is packed with treasures from Pompeii and other Roman sites.
Head along via Toledo towards the sea, and you'll reach Piazza Plebiscito, a vast semi-circular square dominated by the neoclassical church of San Francesco di Paola. To the left is San Carlo opera house - the oldest, and prettiest, in Europe. You can take an excellent guided tour for €5 (Dh24). By then, you'll be ready for an ice-cream, a seaside stroll and plenty of people-watching along Via Partenope.
Meet the locals
One of the advantages of Naples is that there aren't many tourists. Piazza Bellini is one of the city's most pleasant, peaceful and civilised squares, especially in the evenings when the Intramoenia Caffe Letterario fills up with students, university professors and courting couples.
For authentic, noisy, nutty street life, visit a city market. Try La Forcella, near the main train station off Corso Umberto, which opens each day at 9am. Haggle - it's all part of the street theatre.
Book a table
Naples is where pizza was born, and the Neapolitan pizza is still the best, known for its meticulously made dough that results in an easily digestible, wafer-thin crust.
For a slice of history, head to Trianon (via Colletta Pietro, 46, near Piazza Garibaldi; about €10 [Dh48] a head), which has been serving homemade pizza since 1923. For fresh fish, visit Dora (via Fernando Palesciano, 30, in Mergellina; about €75 [Dh357] a head). Try the local speciality pezzogno (sea bream) or seafood linguine.
Chiaia, an elegant area near the sea, is where you will find the city's best boutiques, offering designer-label goods and fine local tailoring.
Men should head for E. Marinella (0039 081 245 11 82, www.marinellanapoli.it), a gentleman's shop established in 1914 that sells handmade silk ties. Anna Mattuozo (www.annamatuozzo.it; 0039 081 663874) on Viale Gramsci is considered by the locals to make the world's finest ladies' shirts.
Naples produces huge amounts of illegal designer knock-offs. These fakes, however, are made to the most exacting standards and are sometimes indistinguishable from the real thing.
What to avoid
Naples' reputation for bag snatching and petty thievery is, sadly, rooted in truth. You need to take care. Don't walk around with valuables on show, and wear your bag strapped across your body, not hanging from your shoulder, to avoid scipattori- bag snatchers on scooters. Take particular care at the train station in Piazza Garibaldi.
The Museo di Capodimonte (Porta Piccolo via Miano, 2) houses an enormous collection of old-master paintings set in an 18th-century royal palace high above the city in a large, formal park. The star of the show is Caravaggio's Flagellation. Other fine museums worth seeing are Castel Sant'Elmo and Certosa-Museo di San Martino in Vomero.
Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies to Rome from Dh3,410, including taxes, in six hours. Naples is just an hour away by train (www.trenitalia.com).