What is Pompeii?
Pompeii is an ancient city found near Naples, frozen in time, and unique in the sheer scale of it.
From its beginnings in 600BC, Pompeii was a thriving city and commercial centre with a population of some 20,000 people.
The city has everything you would expect to find in a modern city (just in the original ancient version) – homes, opulent villas, theatres, temples, a stadium, baths, take away food stores, markets and even a brothel.
Most ancient cities have long since been destroyed or built over – Rome, Naples and Athens are examples of modern cities growing from and over their original counterparts.
For all that was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, an incredible amount was also preserved. Walls, furniture, sculptures and more still managed to be preserved by the ash and pumice that covered the city.
While many of the smaller mosaics and artefacts have been moved to museums in Naples, there is still many pieces of ancient life here to see. From jewellery, tools and furnishing, to the frozen casts made from human remains in pumice. (Just looking at the casts gave me chills!)
It is a city well worth taking the time to explore, regardless of whether you are staying in Rome, Naples or Sorrento.
How do you get to Pompeii?
Whether you are staying in Naples or Sorrento, Pompeii is easily accessible by public transport as it is connected within metres of a train line.
Something to keep in mind, is that most of the ticket shops (usually part of the tobacconist – look for the red T sign) only take cash.
From Naples, take the direct train from Naples Central Station on the Circumvesuviana-Naples-Sorrento line. The direct train takes about 25 minutes, but if you find yourself on a standard train service then it will take about 40 minutes.
The station you want to end up at is called ‘Pompei Scavi-Villa Dei Misteri’, it is only a short walk to the entrance of the Pompeii Archaeological park.
If you are coming from Rome, take a high-speed train from Rome to Naples, then swap to the Circumvesuviana from Naples to Pompeii.
If you are not comfortable taking local public transport, then there are also group tours by bus which take care of the transport side of things for you.
Such as this highly rated Pompeii Day Trip from Rome
If you are driving, then a helpful tip is to avoid the first car park (called Zeus) as it charges €5 an hour, instead go a little further out to a car park called Scavi. It is free to park and is only a 5-minute walk from the entrance.
Tickets & Entry into Pompeii
It is very easy to purchase tickets for the Pompeii Archaeological Park, by either pre-purchasing them online or in person at the entrance.
If you choose to buy the tickets at the entrance, then please sure you do not buy tickets from the people standing along the road or at the train stations (they can be very persistent in trying to get you to buy from them).
Only buy from the registered ticket counter (tickets are 16 Euro) or purchase online if that is easier for you.
Thankfully Pompeii is still open for business, though there are limitations on the number of people who can enter (better for photo opportunities!) and a requirement to pre-purchase tickets online.
The official online ticket seller for the Pompeii site is Ticketone.it.
How to Visit Pompeii
There are two ways to visit Pompeii – either on a self-guided tour, or with a tour group.
I have personally done both, the first time in a small tour group and the second time on my own (which to be honest is my go-to habit when visiting new places!)
The reason I like tours (in particular walking tours) is partly because there is only so much a guidebook can tell us, and partly because a great guide can immerse you into the culture and history of the area you are exploring.
But that is completely a personal preference and of course, budget.
There is absolutely nothing stopping you from staying in Pompeii once the tour has ended, and go back to the areas that interested you to explore at your own pace.
Self Guided Tours of Pompeii
When you arrive at Pompeii and you are planning on exploring the ruins yourself, make sure to ask for a map. They also have an audio you can stream and listen to while walking.
It will take you about 3-4 hours to explore Pompeii on your self-guided tour, without rushing anywhere.
There is a café and drinking water fountains available, so you will be able to top up your water bottle. Make sure to wear comfortable shoes and a hat, there is very little shade here even in the colder months!
Guided Walking Tours of Pompeii
The walking tour I joined, and now recommend, in Pompeii was by Take Walks called the ‘The Best of Pompeii Tour: Unveiling the Buried City’.
Our tour guide was able to immerse us into the history of Pompeii, with anecdotes and descriptions. It felt like listening to a story rather than a lecture, so definitely one of the best walking tours I’ve
It will take about 3 hours with a maximum group size of 15.
From the ancient fast food restaurants (take out was a thing even in the ancient world!), to the temples, bath houses, shops, brothel (complete with frescoes to advertise services on offer), and the plaster death casts, you will see all the main sites and more in Pompeii.
If you really want to delve into the historical details, then a guided tour by an archaeologist may be of more interest to you – such as this very highly recommended Small Group Tour with an archaeologist.
The top 15 must see sites in Pompeii
No matter which option you choose to take to explore this city, see if you can tick off the following 15 sites:
- Foro (Forum)
- Teatro Grande (Theater)
- Casa Del Menandro (House of Menander)
- Orto Dei Fuggiaschi (Garden of the Fugitives)
- Anfiteatro (Amphitheater)
- Via dell’Abbondanza
- Terme Stabiane (Stabian Baths)
- Lupanare (Brothel)
- Casa dei Vettii (House of the Vettii)
- Casa dei Dioscuri (House of the Dioscuri)
- Casa del Fauno (House of the Faun)
- Casa Del Poeta Tragico (House of the Tragic Poet)
- Necropoli di Porta Ercolano (Necropolis)
- Villa dei Misteri (Villa of the Mysteries)
- Antiquarium (Museum)
What is Herculaneum?
Herculaneum was a small fishing town that was also destroyed in the same eruption as Pompeii.
It is often forgotten, as it is a much smaller site due partly to having been a much smaller town compared to Pompeii, but also because most of it is buried about 20 meters below the town of Ercolano.
Because it did not suffer from the various stages of destruction that Pompeii did, and was instead covered by volcanic ash and pumice in one eruption. The mainly pyroclastic material that covered Herculaneum also preserved the town in a much better condition than Pompeii.
What that means for you is that you will be able to see original wooden beams, papyri, furniture, and even vibrant colours painted on walls and mosaics.
Herculaneum was however, evacuated when Mount Vesuvius started erupting. Unfortunately, not everyone escaped, and the people left behind waiting for the boats to return for them had hidden in the storerooms just before the beach. You will see the casts of the remains of the approximately 300 people who had died there in these rooms.
How to visit Herculaneum
Like Pompeii, you have the option of exploring Herculaneum on your own, or with a tour group.
Herculaneum is a much smaller site and can be easily covered in less then 2 hours without rushing. As an added bonus it does not attract the same level of tourist crowds as Pompeii, so you can really take your time without feeling crowded.
Herculanueum is accessible by the same train line (Circumvesuviana Line) as Pompeii, just get out at Ercolano Scavi and walk straight down the street (Via IV Novembre) towards the water.
The park gates open out to a long walkway that you follow until you reach the site office – perfect for a bird’s eye view of the ruins.
Tickets are 13 Euro.
Take a Self Guided Tour of Herculaneum
When you arrive at Herculaneum, make sure to ask for a map.
It will take you about 1-2 hours to explore on your own. The areas of the town that have been excavated are very compact and easy to navigate.
Guided Walking Tours of Herculaneum
If you want to make the most of the time at the site, then I recommend joining a guided tour group, such as the Herculaneum small group tour which includes the entry ticket and a local archaeologist as a guide.
What are the top things to see in Herculaneum?
No matter which option you choose to take to explore this city, see if you can tick off the following 12 sites:
- Fornici (Boat Houses)
- Casa dei Cervi (House of the Deer)
- Casa Del Rilievo Di Telefo (House of the Relief of Telephus)
- Casa Di Nettuno Ed Anfitrite (House of Neptune and Amphitrite)
- Casa Sannitica (Samnite House)
- Casa Del Atrio A Mosaico (House of the Mosaic Atrium)
- Casa Del Tramezzo Di Legno (House of the Wooden Partition)
- Terme Del Foro (Thermal Baths)
- Sede Degli Augustali (Hall of the Augustals)
- Casa Dello Scheletro (House of the Tragic Poet)
Can you visit both Pompeii & Herculaneum in one day?
Of course! It will mean a lot of walking though, so make sure to have comfortable shoes on and plenty of water and snacks with you.
If you want to avoid the crowds at Pompeii (and the worst of the afternoon heat), then I would recommend visiting Pompeii first, finding somewhere for lunch then continuing to Herculaneum.
There are also tour groups that will combine both together, which is perfect for when you are short on time and want to make the most of the experience. If a combined tour interests you, then have a look at this highly rated Small-group tour of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Helpful things to know when planning to visit
- Wear comfortable shoes. The ground is uneven, and if it is raining the stones can get slippery. Your feet will thank you!
- Check open hours for both sites, and in particular if there is a site within either Pompeii or Herculaneum that you really want to see, make sure it is not closed for restoration.
- It can get hot in summer – so bring a hat, wear sunscreen and bring plenty of water. July and August are the hottest months to visit, and since Pompeii has next to no shade, you will feel the heat.
- No large bags are allowed inside either location. There are lockers that you can hire to store your bags while you explore.
- Bring snacks! A lesson learned from years of travel – snacks can be an absolute lifesaver and they are cheaper to purchase from the main cities then outside Pompeii.
- Masks are now mandatory in both sites, so make sure you have one with you as well as hand sanitiser.
My Final Thoughts
The last time I visited was in February 2016, and I was staying in Naples. I went to Herculaneum first, then had lunch at a café outside Pompeii, then at the end of the day (about 5pm) took the train to Sorrento which was also the end of the train line, and had pizza on a park bench overlooking the bay watching the sun set. By the time I got back to Naples I was absolutely exhausted, but the entire day was amazing which made it all worth it.
Personally I preferred Herculaneum over Pompeii. Apart from being easier to navigate, it was also quieter (not as many tourists) and in much better condition.
What do you think? Have you visited either site? I would love to hear your thoughts, so please leave a comment below.