The Ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum (Ercolano)

The ruins of Pompeii are undoubtedly on a majority of travelers’ must-see lists. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, burying and preserving an entire civilization in the Campagnia region in southern Italy is a story related in history books the world over. We were thrilled to have the opportunity to visit this incredible site during a trip to the Amalfi Coast. Here are some pointers for when you plan your visit to this archaeological gem of a destination.

Pompeii in the summer
A typical summer visit to the ruins of Pompeii

Do: Keep expectations low

We believe the key to any good trip, especially a trip to a well-known destination, is to keep expectations low. We’d known about Pompeii since we were very young, and unfortunately had extremely high expectations of this archaeological site. This is not to say that Pompeii did not impress us. It was incredible to experience the fossilized city, taking in the small homes, community gathering places, and even artwork, preserved through hundreds of years of decay.

Visiting Pompeii

You essentially walk through a town-city, passing the fossilized homes of Roman families and noblemen alike, taking in the different bedrooms, and even gladiator quarters if you’re lucky. You’ll find the House of Loreius Tiburtinus, with it’s beautiful, extensive artwork still preserved, and the House of Menander among others. It is incredible to see how much of this town has been excavated. You can spend a full day at Pompeii if need be, but the average tourist spends 2-3 hours exploring this incredible town-city. However, we do recommend that you keep your expectations low when visiting Pompeii, as it is never going to be a trip back in time to ancient Rome (it’s just the closest experience you can find to traveling back in time!)– and it probably will have a good number of tourists whenever you choose to visit.

Do: Remember that certain sites may be closed when you visit

It is more likely than not that many homes and sites within the city will be closed for preservation or renovation when you visit. They keep a good number of sites open for visitors of course, but we note this so you’re not disappointed when certain quarters are closed during your visit! The same applies when visiting Herculaneum (see below).

Visiting the pompeii ruins
The numerous streets of Pompeii

Do: Try to visit in the Spring or Fall

The summer heat can be unbearable as you explore the walkways of the Pompeii, and can even take away from your experience as you may be inclined to leave much sooner than you’d ideally want to. Given the vastness of the ruins of Pompeii, you want to spend at least 3 hours there – but you find tourists leaving much earlier due to the heat. Visiting in the spring or the fall can help you explore more, longer, at a more comfortable temperature.

Pompeii ruins exploring

Do: Keep in mind that there is usually an exhibit at the entrance

We were very confused when we first walked into the ruins. We were expecting something similar to the ruins of Akropolis, where you walk through the ruins of a temple from beginning to the end. Instead, we found ourselves inside an air-conditioned hallway, depicting the history and art of Nefertiti (albeit an interesting subject of course!) At the end of this walkway are the many entrances to the city of Pompeii. The exhibits can change, and the hall itself can be temporarily removed from time to time, but it is good to keep in mind when planning your trip to this much-anticipated destination the world over.

Pompeii ruins entrance
You can get a bit lost as you exit the exhibition; the entrances to the ruins can look like this.

Do: Take some time (inside the exhibit if possible!) to go through the map of Pompeii

Let us reiterate: Pompeii is vast. There are many entrances to the city, and you’re better off circling which areas you’d like to visit beforehand, instead of trying to play it by ear. This way you can make the most of your visit, and won’t get too frustrated by the end of it, trying to navigate the little town by-ways in the summer heat.

Pompeii ruins

Pompeii amphitheatre

Do: Keep in mind that it is a quick trip from the Amalfi Coast or Naples

We strongly recommend visiting Pompeii if you visit the Amalfi Coast or Naples. We rented a car to drive the Amalfi Coast, and drove to Pompeii – without the aid of a GPS! You can easily navigate here with the help of the signs on the highway. The same applies if you’re staying in Naples!

Note that you should drive to Pompeii by driving east on the main road interconnecting various towns on the Amalfi Coast; don’t be tempted to drive north off of the main road from Amalfi or any of the other towns as you will hit dead ends.

You can also take the train from Naples Centrale Station to Pompeii. We wish we could give you more information on taking a train here, but since we drove, you’re better off getting directions at the station or online in advance.

Pompeii ruins

Keep in mind: About parking

We were informed that parking can be nightmare at the entrance of Pompeii. We managed to find parking without any difficulty, at the main complex right in front of the main entrance to the site. The parking system is very interesting: while there are designated spots for parking allocated by the city, with corresponding meters for payment, there are a majority of other spaces “run” by local shop-owners, who sell water and other refreshments by the parking lot. This is not a scam; we didn’t have any problems parking here under their care – neither are their fares significantly more expensive than those lots controlled by the city. It’s just good to keep in mind when you find yourself looking for parking spaces closer to the ruins.

Do: Take plenty of water

Combat the vastness of the ruins and the heat if you visit towards the summer with plenty of water in your backpack.

Pompeii ruins
We got lucky and got a few shots without tourists, though we visited in June.

Do: Visit Herculaneum

The ticket to Pompeii (valued at 22 euro for adults – student discounts are available!) includes entry to Herculaneum. Herculaneum is often forgotten in the wake of its more famous neighbor, Pompeii. However, we personally enjoyed Herculaneum (also referred to as Ercolano) more than Pompeii. Herculaneum was another town flattened by an earthquake during the eruption of Vesuvius, where the remaining townspeople were smothered by the poisonous gas emitted during the eruption. The smaller size of Herculaneum makes it easier to navigate, and officials have made formidable efforts to excavate and renovate these ruins, even more so than Pompeii at certain times, in order to drive traffic away from its more famous rival. This is done mostly to preserve Pompeii and reduce the tourist footprint on the ruins. Excavation offers can nevertheless be slow.

Herculaneum ruins
We were so glad we decided to visit Herculaneum

Herculaneum is a must-visit in your quest to see the ruins of a Roman city. It attracts far fewer tourists than Pompeii, and has perfectly preserved homes and even bodies of its inhabitants, giving you a vivid, more navigable picture of life during this period of civilization. We could walk through the different stages of life and death in the city, as you could see the remains of people who had lived and fled to different parts of the city in order to escape the gas that inevitably, sadly, took the lives of so many.

View from the top, as you enter Herculaneum, You then walk down towards the streets of the city, preserved over centuries,

Do: Remember that this is a site to be respected

You will find many more remains of people in Herculaneum, even scores of skeletons of those who fled to the lower areas of the city in hopes of escaping the gas permeating the ground level walkways. We debated whether to even put the following picture up, being mindful of the respect that should be accorded to these lives lost. We decided to put it up in the end, as these areas are open to the public, but ask that you tread through this area being mindful, being conscious, of the plight and lives of these people lost.

The ruins of herculaneum
People trying to escape the noxious gas that permeated Herculaneum from the eruption of Vesuvius
Herculaneum ruins
There were many more chambers filled with skeletons of lives lost in Herculaneum.

Do: Visit earlier in the day

We managed to visit both Pompeii and Herculaneum in a day. We suggest visiting your first site by 09:00 AM at the latest, so that you will have enough time to visit both sites in one day. If not, of course you can visit Herculaneum on a separate day, at no extra cost.

Do: Look up directions beforehand

Unlike Pompeii, the ruins of Herculaneum are a little difficult to find. Getting off the highway towards Ercolano is the easy part; the entrance to the ruins themselves can be a bit hard to find, so we recommend looking up directions beforehand, especially if you don’t have a GPS. You can also ask for directions like we did from your friendly Italian café-owner or neighbor!

Herculaneum vases and ruins

Herculaneum ruins

Do: Explore the Ercolano area

There are a plethora of lovely cafes and restaurants in the Ercolano and Pompeii areas (outside the immediate vicinity of the ruins). We recommend taking the day to visit these ruins, and having lunch or dinner at one of these restaurants while you’re at it!

Herculaneum is a must-do if you are in the Campagnia region. If you are strapped for time and have to choose, we even recommend visiting Herculaneum over Pompeii, given its smaller, more navigable, well-preserved ruins. This region of Italy is well worth a visit if you are in the Naples or Amalfi Coast region (with plenty of folks taking trains from Rome or Florence if need be!) for its amazing cultural and historical significance.

The ruins at Herculaneum
The awe-inspiring ruins of Herculaneum

In summary:

Do: Keep expectations low.

Do: Visit in the spring or fall.

Do: Visit Pompeii and Herculaneum if you’re in the Naples or Amalfi Coast region! Drive east and then north from the Amalfi Coast access road, don’t drive north off of the main Amalfi road.

Do: Remember that certain areas may be closed for renovation and excavation at either of the sites.

Do: Remember that parking closer to the entrance of Pompeii can be difficult, but not impossible to find!

Do: Remember that there may be an exhibit at the main entrance to Pompeii.

Do: Plan your visit to Pompeii beforehand with the aid of the map (available at the ticket counter at the entrance).

Do: Remember that you ticket to Pompeii buys you access to Herculaneum. There are student discounts!

Do: Take lots of water!

Do: Visit Herculaneum.

Do: Make a day of it and explore the restaurants in the Pompeii/Ercolano areas.

Do: Look up directions beforehand to Herculaneum. Follows signs for Ercolano to get off the highway.

Do: Remember to respect the lives lost at these sites.

As always, be a conscious traveler: Take nothing, and leave nothing behind. Be conscious, be welcome! Read more about conscious travel here.

Pompeii ruinsPompeii ruins amphitheatre


14 Comments Add yours

  1. Cristina P says:

    I loved Herculaneum but Pompeii was interesting, too. We took the train (Circumvesuviana from Naples) and it was super easy access to both sites. And did them in one day (which I would NOT recommend to anyone lol).

    1. Interesting! We didn’t plan on visiting both on the same day but we arrived at Pompeii early and ended up having plenty of time to visit both places! I guess it depends on each individuals’ exploration style 🙂

      1. Cristina P says:

        I had to visit them on the same day as I was leaving the next day for the opposite coast. We left in the morning and came back as it was getting dark. And my FitBit was super happy with the 30k+ steps . My feet, not so much ;))) We love to walk a lot and take a ton of photos!

  2. lincalinca says:

    Thank you for the tips, this is on my agenda for July visit! Can’t pick the month, unfortunately, so I expect it to be unbearable, but what to do! I find the comments about Herculaneum especially useful, as I did not know about this place!

    1. Thanks so much! We didn’t know about Herculaneum too much beforehand either, but were so thankful we visited afterwards!! Enjoy your visit in July — take plenty of water and you’ll be fine!! 🙂

  3. Rajni.gandha says:

    Thank you for these tips! Would definitely want to visit someday!

    1. Do visit! They’re both incredible sites to see.

  4. It is funny, I like to read old National Geographic magazines and just finished reading an article about these two from 1984. Both these cities are high on my bucket list to see. I have heard from other friends that have travelled there that you should really keep expectations low!

  5. Great tips! I went to both years ago and preferred Herculaneum. Pompei is just SO vast and busy. Herculaneum was bite sized! We got drenched during a really impressive storm in Pompei!

    1. Thank you! We preferred Herculaneum too, for the reasons you mentioned! It’s much easier to take in, Pompeii is so vast!

  6. Greg says:

    Last year I had the opportunity to be in Naples and occasionally visited Herculaneum. I was there immediately after opening and I had ruins only for myself. Cool feeling 🙂