Photo by Eduardo Castaldo/HBO
Photo by Eduardo Castaldo/HBO
“My Brilliant Friend” tells the fictional story of two childhood friends, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, navigating the complexities of growing up in 1950s Naples.
The stars of HBO’s hit TV series “My Brilliant Friend” aren’t just the characters, they’re real-life locations you can visit in Italy.
Note: Though COVID-19 has stalled a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.
Set largely in and around Naples, HBO’s critically acclaimed TV series My Brilliant Friend highlights the gritty, unpolished beauty of the Italian city. Based on Italian author Elena Ferrante’s beloved four-part series known as the Neopolitan Novels, the story reflects on the perils that two childhood friends face growing up in post-war Naples. The acclaimed TV show premiered on HBO in November 2018 with an eight-episode season adapted from the first novel of the series (from which the show takes its name). The subsequent season is based on the second book in Ferrante’s series, The Story of a New Name. (It premiered on March 16, 2020; the season finale airs on HBO on May 4, 2020.)
Over the course of these first two seasons, the drama unfolds against an alluring backdrop of sprawling piazzas, bustling city streets, and a craggy island surrounded by turquoise water.
While much of My Brilliant Friend was shot on sets in the southern Italian city of Caserta, many exterior shots from the first two seasons were filmed on location in Naples. The sixth episode even takes viewers to Ischia, a handsome volcanic island in the Tyrrhenian Sea reachable in 90 minutes by ferry from Naples. If you want to channel Ferrante’s world, these are the spots to see:
In the novel, the neighborhood where main characters Elena “Lenù” Greco and Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo grow up is left unnamed, although it’s thought to be based on the working-class Rione Luzzatti zone. Located to the east of the city center, Rione Luzzatti’s streets consist of Fascist-era housing blocks and unadorned architecture that, to some, can feel uninviting. But the area’s vendor-filled streets offer visitors an authentic look at life for average Neapolitans, beyond the well-heeled areas of Chiaia and Volmero.
Article continues below advertisement
Rione Luzzatti is also home to Biblioteca Andreoli, a public library that features a My Brilliant Friend–themed mural created by the official set photographer from the HBO series production, Eduardo Castaldo. In January 2019, Castaldo used enlarged cut-outs of images from the show to create the public artwork, which shows a young Lila and Lenù heading for the library’s doors while Maestro Ferraro, the girls’ childhood librarian, sits on a bench by the entrance. In the mural Ferraro holds a portrait of a real-life librarian, Agostino Collina, who founded the Biblioteca Andreoli in the 1940s.
Behind this well-preserved medieval gate is a bustling outdoor market that encapsulates the fast-moving daily life in Rione Luzzatti. Walking through cramped alleyways, visitors will overhear vendors bargaining in thick Neapolitan dialect and might glimpse local women hanging laundry, gossiping, and even arguing from their balconies—just as they do in Ferrante’s tale.
On the centrally located Via Vesuvio, this old-school Italian bakery is famous for pagnutielle, a typical Neapolitan street snack made from eggs, ham, and cheese. The main characters in My Brilliant Friend often order similar pastries (both in the book and onscreen). Sample the traditional treat yourself for about €1 at Il Pasticciello.
Originally built in central Naples during the 15th century, the Church of the Sacred Family was transported brick by brick to Rione Luzzatti after it was decided in the 1920s that the neighborhood needed a place of worship. According to Danielle Oteri, local tour guide and author of Ferrante Fever: A Naples Travel Guide Inspired by Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels (Bowker, 2018), the Sacra Famiglia’s majolica-style dome is characteristic of the traditional tile-topped churches found along Italy’s Amalfi Coast.
Just southwest of Rione Luzzatti in the Mercato district, the unassuming Pizzeria Carmnella serves a pie dedicated to Elena Ferrante. Topped with ricotta, ragú, Fior di Latte mozzarella, and fresh basil, the €8 pizza includes the classic ingredients many Neapolitans eat at a traditional Sunday lunch.
Two episodes of the show’s second season are dedicated to the two protaganists’ summer in Ischia, an island in the Gulf of Naples (about an hour by ferry from Naples). Often referred to as the lesser-known Capri, Ischia is a popular vacation spot for Neapolitans and other Europeans who come for hot springs, wineries, fortresses, and pristine beaches. The island’s main town is split into two parts: Ischia Porto (where passengers arrive by ferry from Naples) and the slightly larger village of Ischia Ponte. Highlights include Castello Aragonese, Cartaromana Beach, and the Tower of Michelangelo (a 15th-century fortress house where Michelangelo reportedly lived).
Article continues below advertisement
This half-moon-shaped stretch of sand is the idyllic setting for two pivotal scenes from the series—it’s where Elena realizes her ability to swim and is also the site of her first kiss. Maronti Beach is accessible via a steep, winding road that can be traveled by car or on foot. Visitors can also take a water taxi from Sant’Angelo, a whitewashed village of gelaterías and ceramic shops, for about €3 each way. From Maronti Beach, the Cavascura thermal hot springs are just a short walk.
Opened in the 1950s by Italian movie producer and magazine publisher Angelo Rizzoli, L’Albergo della Regina Isabella was Ischia’s first luxury property to entice celebrity clientele, among them Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Guests can book a “Following in the Footsteps of Elena Ferrante” package that includes a guided tour of the island, visiting locations described in the novels and a Ferrante-inspired creative writing workshop led by a literature professor. Prices vary.
In the show’s second season, some scenes are also set in Forio, an area on Ischia’s western coast where Lila shares a holiday home with her husband. The verdant, volcanic Mount Epomeo serves as the backdrop for many sites in Forio that make appearances in Ferrante’s story, such as the 18th-century Palazzo Cigliano in the town’s historic center, as well as the nearby villages of Cuotto, Lacco Ameno, and Serrara Fontana.
Much of Mount Epomeo’s hikeable hillsides, which tower 2,589 feet above Ischia, are covered with trees and vineyards. Scrambling to the top takes about an hour if you start in the village of Fontana (as Elena and her love interest, Nino, do in the second novel). Just a 20-minute drive west toward the coast, the bay of Citara is one of Ischia’s most popular wellness destinations. The Poseidon Thermal Gardens overlook the bay and offer 22 different pools thought have healing volcanic properties.
On April 30, 2020, My Brilliant Friend was renewed for a third season on HBO. The episodes—which will be based on the third novel in the quartet, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay—won’t air for a while. Still, the good news is that you can look forward to more southern Italy on your TV screen.
This article originally appeared online in December 2018; it was updated on May 4, 2020, to include current information. Products we write about are independently vetted and recommended by our editors. We may earn a commission if you buy through our links.
Sign up for the Daily Wander newsletter for expert travel inspiration and tips
Please enter a valid email address.
more from afar