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 step into the past. From the Napoli Sotterranea and the Basilica San Lorenzo Maggiore to the Galleria Borbonica, there is a tour to satisfy your curiosity.
The Greeks have lived here long before the Romans came along. In the undergrounds, you can see the legacy they left in the area thousands of years ago. It’s quite humbling to think that we are walking on the same paths as people have done in the past. A very distant past.
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Apparently, only a few other cities in the world have an underground as extensive as the Naples underground. Supposedly, over 60 per cent 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. It’s easy to see why it became such widely-used building material.
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The Greeks that inhabited this area all those years ago were fond of using tuff. They quarried the tuff, creating huge caverns that were then used as water reservoirs for the people living above. It was quite practical at the time.
After the Romans conquered the Greeks, they added aqueducts to improve the reservoirs and cisterns for their use. I mean, you can’t be surprised at that as Roman-engineering prowess is legendary. Just look at Rome. Thanks to them, the Naples underground tunnels are here for us to explore.
Other uses for the Naples underground
The original Naples underground tunnels and reservoirs were used for storing water supplies after the tuff was removed. In modern times, they played a more practical role even as far back as the Second World War.
During the mid-1800s, Ferdinand II of Bourbon, who ruled Naples at that 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 freshwater 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.
Naples underground attractions
With this many tunnels, cavities and old ruins, there are numerous ways to see them. As far as the Naples underground 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.
Naples underground with 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.
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 several experimental projects, like growing plants and flowers and a War Museum.
The best part of this Naples underground 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.
Roman theatre in Naples underground
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. 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 storage for their scooter. Talk about sitting on a treasure.
Napoli Sotterranea 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 languages can be arranged directly with the tour company.
Piazza San Gaetano, 68
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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.
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 were a 3rd-century forum and a marketplace. Buried by a mudslide, it lied forgotten under the church for centuries.
The forum in Naples underground
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.
Naples underground – 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 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 it looked like here in the museum.
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.
Open daily 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Via dei Tribunali, 316
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 underground tunnels. There are four tours to choose from, depending on your preference.
This tour takes you into the 18th-century world of Bourbon monarchy and the work of architect Enrico Alvino. The 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 seems that once your vehicle got here, it wasn’t coming back.
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 the 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.
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 an abandoned subway project, the last part of the tour is on a small raft.
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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
|Standard Tour||€10 adults
€5 under 13
Free under 10
|Via Domenico Morelli, 61 and
Vico del Grottone, 4
|Fri, Sat, Sun
|Via delle Memorie||€10 adults
€5 under 13
Free under 10
|Via Monte di Dio, 14||Fri, Sat, Sun
|Adventure tour||€15 adults
|Via Domenico Morelli, 61||Sat, Sun
12 p.m. 3:30 p.m.
|Speleo Tour Light||€15||Via Domenico Morelli, 61||Sat, Sun||11 a.m.
Tours in English are only offered for groups. Not all tours are accessible. Some tours require reservations in advance. Check www.galleriaborbonica.com for detailed tour information and reservations.
Final thoughts on visiting the Naples underground
Naples is a large city, full of history that goes beyond the standard info most guide books provide. You can do a lot here. From food and walking tours to shopping and sightseeing. They all will give you an insight into Naples, but to see the city how it once was, it’s really worth going underground.
If you enjoy visiting Roman ruins in Italy, you might enjoy Ostia Antica and Herculaneum!
Naples is not as polished as Milan or Florence, but it has its own vibe that is so different from the other Italian cities. In the summertime, you’ll find that it is a popular tourist destination. With quick route access to the nearby islands of Capri and Ischia, Naples is also a great base for trips to the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii and Herculaneum.
If you find yourself in Naples, make sure you make time for pizza and explore the city that hides beneath the modern one. 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?
For more ideas on Italy, check out the post on my favourite Italian coastal towns!