Hidden in the slopes of Cappodimonte in Naples, are the San Gennaro catacombs. The catacombs of Naples are one of the most important palaeo-Christian burial sites in Southern Italy. Built into the hillside, these catacombs are home to burials dating from the 2nd Century AD. Now, you can visit the tombs and experience the atmospheric tunnels as you walk amongst the grave.
The Bay of Naples has more than just the famous sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum – read my tips for visiting Pompeii here!). The streets of Naples are built upon layers of history – walking around Naples, you will see historic buildings, each with years of history waiting to share its story. Even eating pizza or pasta, you can experience Naples rich heritage. The history doesn’t end at street level – under your feet is a hidden city, some with an eerie and macabre story to tell.
Where To Find The Catacombs di San Gennaro
The San Gennaro Catacombs are on the slopes of Capppodimonte, and is accessible by foot, car or bus.
I walked from the Naples Archaeological Museum, which was a hot up hill walk, but was worth it for the views, and easy to follow with very little turns. Alternatively you can hop on a bus from the Archaeological Museum. There is a bus stop at the catacombs (stop number 3250 – Basilica dell’Incoronata – Catacombs of San Gennaro), and lines 168, 178, C63 and R4 will take you up the hill.
The Catacombs also have free parking, so if you’re travelling by car, you can park hassle free.
The History of the San Gennaro Catacombs
The San Gennaro catacombs houses an underground graveyard dating back to the 2nd century AD. The tombs started as the burial place for a noble family before expanding to a Christian burial place in the 4th century.
The deepest part of the catacombs contains a grave and basilica of Sant’Agrippino. The upper parts of the catacombs became the burial place of bishops – when San Gennaro’s (the patron saint of Naples) remains were moved here in the 5th century, consecrating the catacombs as a site of pilgrimage.
Frescos and The Thoetecnus Family
My favourite thing to see in the catacombs was the beautiful frescoes that adorned some of the tombs. Most interesting was the story of the Thoetecnus family. The fresco dates back to the 6th century, and shows high status family. Interestingly, there are three layers of plaster on the fresco, showing that each time a family member died, they were able to repaint the fresco to include each person.
I booked onto an afternoon tour, where there was a small group of us shown around the different levels of the catacombs by a tour guide. She was amazing at explaining different points of significance, and answering any questions we had. The catacombs are currently closed Monday – Thursday. When open, tours are hourly, and tickets will gain you entry to the San Gennaro catacombs and the San Gaudioso catacombs.
Mass is still observed in the Basilica, so you can experience the ceremony whilst surrounded by sacred remains.
Visiting the remains at the Cimitero Delle Fontanelle
All of the remains are removed from the catacombs now, so you won’t be seeing bones when you’re down there. However, the visit is so atmospheric, you really get the sense of how sacred this place is. The Cimitero Delle Fontanelle is a short walk from the Catacombs (and they’ll even give you a handy map with directions). Here, thousands and thousands of bones are collected and displayed.
Tips for visiting the San Gennaro Catacombs
Some tips to bare in mind if you visit: you’re underground, so of course it gets a little chilly. For a Brit on holiday this might not seem too cold (my Scottish body still had me sweating throughout), but taking a jumper / shirt would suffice for those who may feel the cold at 15 degrees. Also, the tour finishes at another end of the catacombs, leaving through a modern church and at a hospital. Have a map handy, or be prepared to call upon a taxi, as you’re no longer in the tourist area of Naples and you may get lost.