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Discovering Naples underground with Napoli Sotterranea

While it might seem hard to believe, today’s bustling city of Naples stands above ancient tunnels, aqueducts and other Roman ruins that most people don’t even know about.  Recent discoveries and excavations have created a perfect way to see the Naples underground and literally step into the past. From the Napoli Sotterranea and the Basilica San Lorenzo Maggiore to the Galleria Borbonica, there is a tour satisfy your curiosity. 

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naples tours

Naples underground

Apparently, only few other cities in the world have an underground as extensive as Naples.  Supposedly, over 60% of the city sits on top of tunnels and caverns. Only about a third of it has been uncovered, which means there could be other secrets hidden beneath.

What makes Naples underground tunnels so cool is that they are old. Like 2,500+ years old. Long before then, the geothermal pressure in this area has created numerous veins of tuff. Tuff is a durable volcanic sandstone that is a result of compacted ash from a volcanic eruption. It is also very durable yet easy to mine. This made it a favourable building material by the Greeks who inhabited the area all those years ago. They quarried the tuff, creating huge caverns that were then used as water reservoirs for the people living above.

After the Romans conquered the Greeks, they added aqueducts to improve the reservoirs and cisterns for their own use. I mean, you can’t be surprised at that as Roman-engineering prowess is legendary. Thanks to them, the Naples underground tunnels are here for us to explore.

growing basil underground
Underground greenhouse

Other uses for the tunnels              

The original tunnels and reservoirs were for storing water supplies. In modern times, they played a more practical role.

During the mid-1800s, Ferdinand II of Bourbon, ruler of Naples at the time, asked for an escape tunnel in fear of a rebellion. The tunnel was to connect the Royal Palace with today’s Via Morelli. Although the tunnel wasn’t finished before the fall of the Bourbons, a portion of it connected into the network of existing cavities.

During the Second World War, the damage from heaving bombing unearthed the forgotten cavities below, allowing locals to use the Naples underground tunnels as bomb shelters. With fresh water supply, thanks to the Greek and Roman engineering, they were a perfect place to stay safe from the mayhem above ground.

As Naples was one of the most heavily bombed cities in Italy, the tunnels became homes for people whose homes suffered damage in the raids. After the war, some portions of the tunnels served more of a storage function for garbage and unwanted items. 

tunnel
Channeling my inner Indiana Jones

Underground Naples attractions

With this many tunnels, cavities and old ruins, there are numerous ways to see them. As far as the underground Naples attractions go, we managed to see two of them, the Napoli Sotterranea and the San Lorenzo church. Both are located in the Piazza San Gaetano.

Napoli Sotterranea

There are two different entrances to the Napoli Sotterranea tour. We did the one with the entrance hidden in a small alleyway beside the Basilica of San Paolo Maggiore in the Piazza San Gaetano. If the long lineup doesn’t provide you with a clue, the large sign with what looks like a head holding its breath will. Congratulations, you’ve found the entrance to the underground.

Napoli sotterranea

Underground cisterns and tunnels

As you make your way down a tunnel of about 136 steps, you end up130 feet/40 meters underground and over 2,400 years back in time. The walls and walking surface are smooth and illuminated, which makes it harder to believe that Greeks and Romans carved this stuff out so long ago. You are walking around what used to be a reservoir for over 23 centuries. Just like that.

There are also reminders from the war – abandoned children’s toys and missiles that never went off – that let you imagine what it was like for those that were hiding from the bombs. There are a number of experimental projects, like growing plants and flowers and a War Museum.

The best part of this tour, however, is the trip inside the walls where you will find a water basin still operating like it was designed centuries ago. This part of the tour is optional, as you have to make your way through a low passage into a long, narrow and dark tunnel.  You get a candle-like light and you have to walk sideways to get through. As the tunnel in this part has a very high ceiling, I didn’t find it scary or confining. If you choose not to go through, you can wait for your group without having to leave the tour.

naples underground tunnels
Cisterns from a time gone by

Roman theatre

The Romans built many spectacular theatres, but what makes this one so special is the fact that Emperor Nero performed here. Nero, known for eccentricities, mean streak and narcissistic personality, fancied himself an artist. His performances were legendary, but not because of his talent. He forbade anyone from leaving during his performances, which often rambled on for days. It’s said that women would go into labour and men would fake their deaths just to escape.

To visit this part, you actually have to leave the underground tunnels and walk over to a different street until you’re standing in a narrow street, looking up at the apartments around you, wondering if you’re in the wrong place.

You step inside the ground level apartment, typically Neapolitan in style, that doesn’t seem like anything special. Until you are shown the way into what lies beneath. Right under the apartment are part of what was one of the most spectacular theatres at the time and Nero’s dressing room. Apparently, the family who owned the apartment discovered it accidentally, after attempting to fix some pipes. They didn’t realize the importance of what they found and even used the space as living quarters and a storage for their scooter. Talk about sitting on a treasure.

naples underground
Just an average apartment sitting on top of a Roman theatre
Remnants of Roman theatre
underground tour naples
Just your "average" basement

What you need to know

You don’t need to book tickets ahead of time, unless you want a private tour or are a group of 10+ people. English tours are every two hours between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. We ended up joining a tour in Italian so we didn’t have to wait very long. Tour in other language can be arranged directly with the tour company.

Tickets: €9

Piazza San Gaetano, 68

www.napolisotterranea.org

Naples underground tunnels

Napoli Sotterranea II

This Naples Sotterranea tour begins in an unlikely place, a bar in the Spanish quarters of the city. Through a winding staircase, you make your way into the Naples tunnels through layers of time. 

From the days of ancient Greeks and Romans through the centuries and into the darkness of the war. Here you get a closer glimpse into the lives of people who lived in this vast subterranean space. Through a collection of stories, etchings and carvings left behind the people of Naples and their stories come to life as you explore the giant caves and tunnels.  

What you need to know

Open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. most days with tours approximately every two hours.

Piazza Trieste and Trento Meet at Bar Gambrinus

www.lanapolisotterranea.it

Courtyard of San Lorenzo Maggiore

San Lorenzo Maggiore

The church of San Lorenzo Maggiore is almost directly across the Baroque style Basilica of San Paolo Maggiore in the Piazza San Gaetano. It dates back to the 13th century and had numerous renovations and additions over the centuries. While the building and the adjoining cloister are quite beautiful to see, what’s hiding underneath is incredible.

Heavy bombings during World War II damaged the area around the complex. The subsequent attempt to fix the structural damage revealed the remains of an ancient city buried underneath. What they found was a 3rd century forum and a marketplace. Buried by a mudslide, it lied forgotten under the church for centuries.

The forum

As you descent down the stairs, you step back about 1,600 years. Perfectly preserved streets, storefronts and vendor stalls, not unlike the ones found in Naples today, give you a glimpse into the past. As you walk along the ancient street, you can see where a bakery, bank and laundromat once were. It’s unreal to think that you are walking on the same street the ancient Romans once went about their business.

The mudslide preserved the tuff used to build the forum so well that it’s hard to believe just how old this place is. You could almost mistake it for a movie set. When you realize that they removed about 1.4 million cubic feet of mud that covered it, it doesn’t seem that surprising that nobody knew of this place for so long.

ancient bakery
ancient street

The museum

After you visit the excavation site, visit the museum on the upper floor. Here you’ll find displays of the many of the items recovered from the forum. There is also a fascinating rendering of what the place looked like during the Roman times.

Grids and pictures show you the buildings during antiquity and there are even images of the damaged courtyard with glimpses of the roman ruins. If you’re a history buff like me, you can spend hours in this small place just discovering what you are seeing and how it looked like before.

Before we came here, I noticed something odd about the other church across from this one. The blue Basilica of San Paolo Maggiore has two seemingly random columns that don’t quite fit with the rest of the design. The church, built on the ruins of the ancient Dioscuri temple, incorporated six columns left from the temple into its design. After the earthquake in 1688, only two of the Corinthian columns remain. You can see what is looked like here in the museum.

church with columns
Basilica San Paolo Maggiore
before
Roman Naples

What you need to know

 You can visit the excavation, the museum and the rest of the building on your own, but there are also guided tours available. You can also download a guide on your phone, which has sufficient information about the place.

Tickets: €9

Open daily 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Via dei Tribunali, 316

www.laneapolissotterrata.it

Galleria Borbonica

Thanks to a paranoid royal with a need for an escape, Galleria Borbonica is not as old as the Greco-Roman aqueducts, but offers an interesting insight into the Naples tunnels. There are four tours to choose from, depending on your preference.

Standard tour

This tour takes you into the 18th century world of Bourbon monarchy and the work of architect Enrico Alvino. Building of the escape tunnel led to the discovery of existing cisterns that needed creative bridges to bypass them without disturbing the water supply to the city. 

During the war, these areas became bomb shelters for residents. Today, they are filled with old cars and bikes, under a layer of dust and garbage dumped here illegally for decades. The Bourbon Tunnel was once a police car pound and it seem that once your vehicle got here, it wasn’t coming back. 

Viator

Via delle Memorie

Walking through the last 500 years of history, the tour takes you from the Palazzo Serra di Cassano and its history, to a basement of an ancient building and an aqueduct system dating back to 15th/16th century.

A quick stop at the War Museum with a glimpse of what was found in the subsoil sheds more light on the life of Neapolitans of the years gone by. You also visit a part of the Bourbon Tunnel and the abandoned cars.

tunnel under naples

Adventure tour

Descending into the aqueduct system equipped with a torch and a helmet, you’ll discover what it took the caretakers to maintain the ancient aqueducts. With a quick stop in the Bourbon Tunnel with abandoned cars, a huge water tank and abandoned subway project, the last part of the tour is on a small raft.

Speleo Tour Light

Here is your opportunity to cave your way through the ancient aqueducts, 15th century cisterns and narrow tunnels. Equipped with a caving helmet with a headlamp you will discover mysterious symbols carved on the water tanks as well as religious ones carved by those who maintained these places in past centuries.  

What you need to know

Tour

Ticket

Entrance

Days

 

Times

Standard Tour

€10 adults

€5 under 13

Free under 10  

 

Via Domenico Morelli, 61 and

Vico del Grottone, 4

Fri, Sat, Sun

Holidays

10 a.m.

12 p.m.

3:30 p.m.

5:30 p.m.

Via delle Memorie

€10 adults

€5 under 13

Free under 10  

Via Monte di Dio, 14

Fri, Sat, Sun

Holidays

 

11 a.m.

4 p.m.

Adventure tour

€15 adults

€5 kids

Via Domenico Morelli, 61

Sat, Sun

Holidays

 

10 a.m.

12 p.m.  3:30 p.m.

Speleo Tour Light

 

€15

Via Domenico Morelli, 61

Sat, Sun

11 a.m.

4 p.m.

Tour in English are only offered for groups. Not all tours are accessible. Some tours require reservations in advance. Check www.galleriaborbonica.com/en/tours for detailed tour information and reservations.

naples during war times

The underground tours of Naples are just as unique as the tunnels themselves. I loved discovering a part of the city that probably many locals haven’t even seen. How cool is that?

Viator

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Ipanema beach travel blogger

About the author:

Travelling in the footsteps of history and blogging about it. Forever Indiana Jones wanna be. Come along for the ride!


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43 thoughts on “Discovering Naples underground with Napoli Sotterranea

  1. Amy Dodd

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    Wow I wouldn’t have guessed that you could do this in Naples! It looks like an incredible experience and I am going to add it to my list of things to do when visiting. 🙂

  2. The Passport Symphony

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    I really love this (at least for me) new side to the city. It’s really fascinating to learn about the history of these tunnels! Would love to do the Via delle Memorie tour some day.

    1. kasiawrites Post author

      It totally gave me a new perspective on Naples! I’m really glad we did the tours and I would love to do them all!

  3. Alexander Popkov

    That’s interesting! I have a weird fascination with undergrounds. they hold a special atmosphere, especially if they are ancient.

    1. kasiawrites Post author

      Always love a fellow history buff 🙂 I don’t think these tours have been offered for a very long time. Definitely worth doing if you’re there again!

  4. Christina Broadbent Erickson

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    I love the history here as well as the descriptions.

  5. Anjali W

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    This is such an interesting underground tour in Naples. It’s good to know about the history of the tunnels there. Thanks for all the information too. This is going to be handy whenever I travel to Naples (Hopefully soon!)

    1. kasiawrites Post author

      Thank you! It really was a great way to learn about the history of the city! I really recommend it 🙂

  6. dreambookandtravel

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    To say I was surprised to read this is an understatement! Such a cool thing to do, so well written! I will surely include this in future itineraries in Naples! thank you!

    1. kasiawrites Post author

      Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂 We were surprised as well and it was better than we imagined! Highly recommend it.

  7. Alex Trembath

    This is super interesting and really shows another side to the city. Fascinating to learn about the history of the tunnels as well as the attractions. This really makes me want to visit Naples! Would love to do the Via delle Memorie tour.

  8. Alexander Rivera

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    We haven’t been fortunate to visit Italy as of yet. Hope to visit soon. I will add this tour to our itinerary. It looks very intriguing and something we would love. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Kemi

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    I saw all these on your IG stories and I loved it! Amazing what engineering marvels those Romans built that we still use centuries after and I like that it’s been repurposed for other uses like the herb planting and adventure tours. At least, no hope of any collapse…I hope. Something to see in Naples and that apartment is like a standard NYC apartment lol.

    1. kasiawrites Post author

      I’m so happy to hear that you liked the IG stories! It was def the coolest type of thing we have ever done. It’s amazing to walk through something that is so old! Pretty incredible for sure!

  10. Sydney | A World in Reach

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    This looks like a really cool tour! I bet it was pretty creepy down there haha. Hopefully I’ll be able to visit Naples soon and I’ll have to make sure to keep this in mind!

    1. kasiawrites Post author

      It actually wasn’t creepy! That is always my thought too and I was pleasantly surprised! I wish we had time to do more of them, but even the ones we did were spectacular! I highly recommend it 🙂

  11. Noraly

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    What an extensive post, I loved it. I have to admit I didn’t knew that Naples had such a large cistern and tunnel complex AT ALL. Thanks for getting me enthusiastic for it, it definitely looks like an awesome thing to do/explore in Naples!

    1. kasiawrites Post author

      Honestly, neither did we! It was such a cool thing to discover and one of our fave tours to far! Definitely recommend the underground tours!

  12. AlwaysCarryOn.com

    Literally had no idea about any of this side of Naples! I really want to go to Naples, and use it as a base to visit Pompeii, but haven’t gotten around to it. Will bookmark this for future 🙂 x

    1. kasiawrites Post author

      Glad you found it useful! I will be writing a blog on Pompeii alternatives if you’re interested. 😄

  13. Matija

    Oh wow, I didn’t know about this, so basically you are walking around in endless tunnels that have so much history, they kinda remind me of the catacombs of Paris, but less skeletons, and more of a helping look to the citizens.

    1. kasiawrites Post author

      Exactly! These tunnels were created as water cisterns so a totally different function. There are some that were used later on for similar use as the catacombs but are not accessible to the public. There could be some private tours but I am not 100% sure

  14. Tisha

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    This is very thorough. Thank you for explaining the historical background and posting present day pictures!

  15. Jess

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    So cool! I never knew this about Naples. Thanks for sharing all of this detailed info on the tunnels!

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