Travel back to the time of the Romans at the ancient city of Pompeii, Italy. This world famous archeological site reveals a way of life that was destroyed when the volcano Vesuvius erupted in AD79. Our guide includes top things to do in Pompeii, the pros and cons of guided tours and tips on visiting Pompeii from Naples.
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When the volcano Vesuvius erupted catastrophically in 79AD it obliterated the entire Roman town of Pompeii under deep layers of lava and volcanic ash. The devastation was so complete that the site wasn’t excavated until it was accidentally re-discovered in the 1700s. Since then, bit by bit, archeological digs have been revealing the city of 2000 years ago. The lack of air and moisture under the ash has preserved it in incredible detail. Roman streets, homes and shops, paintings and plumbing, even graffiti are all on view at Pompeii today. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site that has captured imaginations all over the world and is a must-see if you’re visiting Southern Italy.
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A guided tour of Pompeii – do you need one?
My student sons and I visited Pompeii when we were staying in Naples. I’d decided in advance to book a guide but it’s very much an individual choice. We noticed lots of group tours, big and small, as well as private guides, but that doesn’t mean you can’t manage without. We stayed for half a day which is enough time to take in the highlights. But there’s plenty to see to fill one, two or more days at the site.
Do it yourself tour of Pompeii
If you prefer to explore on your own, download an app and/or rent an audio guide for 8 euros. Here’s the official map of the site to give you an idea of its scale and major sights. I’d also strongly recommend that you do some reading in advance. Pompeii can seem overwhelming when you arrive and a rough idea of the city plan and the sights that interest you would be a big help.
To be honest I think this is quite a daunting task if you’re visiting with children or teens. Pompeii is a huge site, the size of the original town itself, but without any signposts worth speaking of, let alone explanatory information. It is also largely – obviously – in ruins. On top of this the ongoing preservation and excavation work means that some areas might be unexpectedly closed off. You’ll need to be good at following maps and also be able to use your imagination to visualise what each area once looked like.
But the pluses of a DIY visit are that you can wander at your own pace and choose quieter areas to escape the crowds. Click below to get your entrance tickets in advance.
Choosing a Guide for Pompeii
After tackling Rome without a guide I’d already decided to bring in some expert help at Pompeii. We don’t always book tours but in this case I felt we’d need it. We were lucky enough to find a private guide in Naples and I was very glad we did.
A private tour isn’t cheap but we spotted the benefits right from the start. The official guide badge magicked us to the front of the ticket queue at the entrance. It also smoothed over the issue that Ed had brought his student ID card rather than passport as proof of age (there’s a reduced rate for EU citizens under 25).
Even in September crowds gathered in the popular areas. But a small group of four can be agile so our lovely guide whisked us from one quiet location to another, making sure we were always out of range of the larger tour groups. The official guides know which areas are closed off so can tailor their tours accordingly.
We discussed what we’d most like to see and our guide chatted knowledgeably and enthusiastically about every point of interest, painting an imaginary picture of how each area once looked. This was what I enjoyed the most about the experience. It’s great to have a friendly expert on hand who can decode the ruins and reveal all sorts of details about life in a Roman town and the excavation work too. Three hours passed effortlessly and I don’t think we would have seen or appreciated half as much on our own.
Our guide can’t be booked online but this sounds like a similar experience: book a private guide for a tour of Pompeii click here.
Or click to book a 2.5 hour small group tour.
You can also join an inexpensive group tour with an official guide when you arrive at the site. The official Pompeii guides, authorised by the Campania region, are to be found inside the site at the Porta Marina ticket and information office. As we haven’t tried this I don’t know in practice how many are available but this could be a good option for an overview.
What to see in Pompeii
Pompeii is an entire ruined city, all 170 acres of it. There are literally hundreds of things to see but the main attractions include the Forum with its temples, basilica and market halls, the two theatres, a huge amphitheatre, public baths, grand houses with decorative wall paintings, shops, a laundry, the brothel, the list goes on. We didn’t see the Garden of the Fugitives, a poignant site which contains plaster casts of the voids made in the ash by the bodies of victims killed in the eruption. These haunting figures remind us of the horror of that day. The small museum on site has more plaster casts and artefacts too, though most of the moveable treasures have been taken to museums, in particular Naples’ Archeological Museum.
Our guide showed us a great cross section of the town in half a day, but we could have easily stayed much longer. These are a few of our highlights but it’s not a complete list – you’ll find plenty of your own too.
Walk along the roads
It’s the first thing you notice: these are the same roads and footpaths used by the Roman townspeople. You can see the grooves worn into the paving stones by cart wheels.You’ll also spot stepping stones used by pedestrians to avoid the general filth and sewage that gathered in the streets. Look out for the lead piping along the edges of buildings that carried water around the town.
Pause at the shop fronts
Kitchens weren’t really a thing for anyone but the rich so poorer people bought takeaway food. You can see the counters that held pots containing provisions and the grooves in the thresholds for wooden doors.
Go to one of the public baths
Everyone went to the public baths, which had separate rooms for men and women. In the Forum baths an elaborate brazier created underfloor heating whilst grooves in the arched ceilings helped to drain away water droplets so that they didn’t fall on peoples’ heads. The niches in the picture probably held the customers’ clothes.
Visit a bakery
This one has millstones standing beside it to grind the grain. When the site was first revealed, archeologists found carbonised panini bread in the ovens.
Check out the gladiators’ quarters
There’s much controversy over the gladiators’ lodgings. Excavators found the body of a wealthy lady in this all-male zone, but no-one knows if she was visiting a gladiator or taking shelter from the eruption.
See Pompeii’s fashionable interiors
It’s astonishing how the brightly coloured frescoes and mosaics in some of Pompeii’s grandest establishments have survived 2000 years. The House of the Vettii is a great example, if you can stomach the enormous image of the fertility god, Priapus in the entrance hall. Cupid riding a crab in this photo is a detail in the atrium and it has expansive wall paintings of mythological scenes in very Farrow and Ball’y colours. Also do try to see the House of the Faun. Although the Faun statue himself, and the astonishing Alexander mosaic are copies since the originals are in the Archeological Museum in Naples.
Look inside the brothel
If the explicit imagery in some Pompeiian home decor is startling to modern eyes you can imagine what the brothels were like. Pompeii’s small Lupanare features a pictorial menu of activities on its walls. Bear that in mind when you decide whether to take a look inside with the family.
Don’t miss the guard dog
Dogs were man’s best friends, or at least guards, in Pompeii two thousand years ago. You can spot the mosaic lettering of Cave Canem or Beware of the Dog in several doorways.
One sight that’s stuck with me is the plaster cast of a big wooden door, taken from a void in the ash left by the original. I’d have walked past it if our guide hadn’t pointed it out. It looks like any old patched up door except the original of this one was 2000 years old. Our guided tour of Pompeii showed us that we’re very unlike the Romans in many ways, not least our views on privacy, what constitutes entertainment and how to live in a house. But in terms of constructing a door not much has changed!
Wear flat walking shoes with grippy soles. Those ancient cobbles are worn to a slippery shine in places.
Bring water bottles, you can refill them on site.
Don’t forget suncream and sunhats as there’s hardly any shade in Pompeii and it can get very hot.
Pack snacks or lunch Pompeii has one or two picnic areas.
Start early in the morning at opening time to avoid the crowds and the heat of the sun at midday.
Visiting with young children? Be aware that there’s porn style imagery in some of the frescoes as well as the brothel so do plan ahead if you’d rather avoid it.
Naples to Pompeii
The Pompeii archeological site is about 150 miles south of Rome and close to Naples on the west coast of Italy. It lies roughly halfway between Naples and the pretty holiday town of Sorrento. You can easily take a day trip to Pompeii from either, but we were staying in Naples so we organised our trip from there. How to get to Pompeii from Naples:
Naples to Pompeii bus
Most advice about transport from Naples to Pompeii will tell you to catch the Circumvesuviana train. But we travelled to the site from Naples with our guide who recommended that we take a bus instead. We caught a bus at around 9 am from the SITA terminal by the harbour, off Via Nuova Marina. The bus was only half full that day and it was a quick and comfortable 30 minute journey – with air-conditioning! As we were staying in the Centro Storico just a ten minute walk from the harbour this was much quicker for us than going to the railway station.
Local bus routes and times are subject to change. If you’re staying in Naples my best advice is to ask for more details at a tourist info office or go to the terminal at the harbour in advance. NB we didn’t try to catch a bus back as we went on to Vesuvius then returned to Naples by train.
Naples to Pompeii train
We also had two choices of train to Pompeii from Naples. The Circumvesuviana, a rattly, hot and crowded stopping service, runs two or three times an hour and takes around 40 minutes. At Garibaldi Central station follow signs to the Circumvesuviana platforms on the lower level. The stop you need is Pompeii Scavi.
From March to October you can also take a tourist train called the Campania Express. It costs around 8 euros and takes about 30 minutes to Pompeii. Buy tickets at least 20 minutes in advance from the Circumvesuviana ticket office. We caught this train when we went to Herculaneum. After buying our tickets we waited with other passengers for an official who took us to the platform. The big bonus here is that the carriages are air-conditioned and you will get a seat. For more info check the EAV Campania site.
Facts about Pompeii that might surprise you
- Many people who lived in Pompeii actually escaped the eruption because they left the city before it happened. Months of earth tremors preceded the blast and people may have moved out because of this. As many as 20,000 people might have lived in Pompeii whereas 1500 to 2000 people died in the disaster.
- No one in Pompeii realised that Vesuvius was a volcano until it erupted. Several earthquakes shook the region in the years leading up to 79AD but the volcano had been quiet for a long time.
- Pompeii streets may have operated a one-way system. Patterns of wear on the kerb stones show that carts went in a single direction down certain streets.
- A recent excavation has revealed a scribbled charcoal message on a wall that includes a date. This suggests the eruption must have happened in November not August as is generally thought.
- Archeologists have been able to work out what plants were growing in Pompeii at the time of the eruption by making plaster casts of seed and root cavities. They’ve used the information to re-plant some gardens.
Visit Vesuvius. We spent the morning at Pompeii then caught a train to Ercolano for lunch and a bus to Vesuvius. There is time to visit both Pompeii and Vesuvius on the same day. If you’d prefer an organised trip this option includes coach travel, a guide and time for lunch:
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