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To Visit Herculaneum or Pompeii? The (Archeological) Tourist Dilemma

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

Travellers to Naples, Italy, are often interested in visiting ancient ruins and flock to the archeological site of Pompeii to walk the cobbled streets of a city destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Pompeii was not the only ancient city destroyed (and preserved) by the eruption, nearby Herculaneum is an often over-looked archeological site with many ruins and wonders to entice visitors. If you're unable to visit both locations, which should you visit; Herculaneum or Pompeii?


House of Octavius Quartio, Pompeii, Naples, Italy
House of Octavius Quartio, Pompeii, Naples, Italy

Should you Visit the Archeological site of Pompeii?


Visiting Pompeii is a must if you want to be able to wander and explore for a full day (or days). There are three entrances to the site and it is highly recommended that you research what you want to see (if anything specific) in advance, to determine if they are closer to a specific entrance. The archeological site of Pompeii is very big, and it is nearly impossible to experience everything in one visit. The archeological excavations are ongoing at Pompeii and new discoveries are made daily.


Most visitors of Pompeii follow the main path along the stone roadways (sunken to allow for flooding, with large stepping-stones to cross without getting wet/dirty), and enter the open homes and buildings along the way. Depending on the state of the building, the ruined home may only be visible from the outside. Of those that you are allowed to enter, some may have a designated walkway, with areas blocked or inaccessible to the public. Most homes open to the public have a representative inside monitoring tourists. Some spaces along the path are plots of open ruins, where visitors are free to walk through unsupervised.


House of the Ara Maxima, Pompeii, Naples, Italy
House of the Ara Maxima, Pompeii, Naples, Italy

Walking through the ruins of Pompeii, it is a constant wonder how beautiful pieces of art, especially the delicate frescoes and detailed mosaics, managed to survive the catastrophe that befell Pompeii. The colours are so vivid, it is hard to imagine that they were once covered in layers of ash.


Hours, Cost and Accessibility of Pompeii:


During the spring/summer months, Pompeii is open 9a-7p, with the last entry at 530p. Tickets are available for purchase at the gates for $19 Euro. Guided tours with an archeologist are also available, with varying degrees of length and size. Each ticket is valid for one person, for one entry, meaning you may not leave and return same day. Food and drink is available on site, but options are limited and there are often long lines.


Due to the size of the excavated area of Pompeii, it is possible to spend a full day or even multiple days exploring the site. If you plan on spending more than one day visiting or want the freedom to come and go, the MyPompeii Card is the best option. It is an annual pass that can only be purchased online prior to the first visit. For $35 Euro, the MyPompeii Card allows unlimited access for less than the cost of two entry tickets.


Interior of the House of the Wounded Bear with walkway visible, Pompeii, Italy
Interior of the House of the Wounded Bear with walkway visible, Pompeii, Italy

Available for download (for free) is the MyPompeii App, an interactive map of the ruins, with information about the homes, including names, hours of operation and days they are open for public view. It is a good way to orient oneself and/or follow a path, as it is very easy to get lost or turned around among the many side streets. A downloadable/printable map is also available on the Pompeii site, which includes an accessible route for those using wheelchairs or unable to navigate easily over the stone path. This route follows and includes accessibility ramps that lead into specific excavated homes and over the stepping stones on the main path.


What to See and Do in Pompeii:


Each excavated home in Pompeii has remnants of painted walls, tiled or mosaic flooring, statues and/or beautiful gardens. Each is unique, but some of the more spectacular include the magnificent homes of Praedia of Giulia Felice, the House of Octavius Quartio, the House of Venus in the Shell, the gardens of the House of the Cornelli, the Lupanare (the "red light district"), the opulent House of the Vettii, the House of the Fawn, the gorgeous House of the Large Fountain and the newly excavated House of Leda and the Swan.


 

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At the Porta Marina entrance, there is a large gift shop. In addition to goods for sale, there are casts on display, some of small children and one of a horse. Casts are also visible in certain homes/areas around the site. The casts are the bodies of victims frozen in the same position as when the volcanic flow reached them. Having been covered by layers of ash, the shape of their bodies remained preserved even after decomposition. Many appear to be in defensive positions, with their teeth and bones sometimes visible.


Cast of a woman, Pompeii, Naples, Italy
Cast of a woman, Pompeii, Naples, Italy

If you’re able, take advantage of the late afternoon hours before the last entry to the site, as there are fewer people visiting and you’re able to capture beautiful photos in the light of the setting sun. In the summer months, the mid-day sun can be very intense, and it is important to dress appropriately and carry a water bottle or collapsible cup with you to take advantage of the many available fountains in Pompeii.


 

Should you Visit the Archeological site of Herculaneum?


Often overlooked, is the nearby city of Herculaneum. This ancient city and its people were also affected by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which left an archeological site is surprisingly well preserved.


Located only 17 km away from Pompeii, the ancient city of Herculaneum sat closer to the base of Mount Vesuvius, a seaside town with a small harbour. On the day of the tragic eruption, the wind direction blew the rocks onto Pompeii, causing mass destruction, but spared Herculaneum, giving its people a chance to escape, but the fast-moving pyroclastic flows that came later, buried Herculaneum in 25 meters of ash. Five times the amount of ash that covered Pompeii.


Entrance to Herculaneum with boathouses, Naples, Italy
Entrance to Herculaneum with boathouses, Naples, Italy

The Herculaneum archeological site is much smaller than that of Pompeii, with only a fraction of its original size uncovered. Most of Herculaneum remains buried, some of which is underneath the modern towns of Ercolano and Portici. With many buildings intact and second stories visible, Herculaneum feels more like a complete city. Though smaller, there are significantly less tourists visiting, leaving Herculaneum feeling more of a ghost town long abandoned.


Hours, Cost and Accessibility of Herculaneum:


Herculaneum is open 930am to 730pm, with the last entry at 6pm. Tickets can be purchased in advance or at the entrance on the day of the visit for $11 Euro. Guided tours with an archeologist are also available, in varying sizes and durations. The ruins of ancient Herculaneum are located lower than the current city, which provides an opportunity to see the excavated ruins from a unique high vantage point when entering.


Streets of Herculaneum, Naples, Italy
Streets of Herculaneum, Naples, Italy

Around the site, there are directional street signs and building signs on those open to the public, but they are small and subtle. Like in Pompeii, visitors are able to wander at will, but most of Herculaneum is much more accessible, with only the occasional rope or barrier to advise visitors not to venture any further. Visitors have direct access to rooms with phenomenal frescos, the ability to walk over and on top of mosaic floors and into private rooms and gardens.


Unlike Pompeii, there is no dedicated accessibility route in Herculaneum, but the main streets are smoother and better for wheelchairs. The route at the top looking down into the archeological site is accessible, as is the ramp that brings you into the site.




What to See and Do in Herculaneum:


Due to its size, Herculaneum is less restricted, less commercial, and much more intimate than Pompeii. One can take a half (or full) day to explore the entire site.


In Pompeii, the rocks destroyed most of the buildings, none of the second levels survived, but in Herculaneum, the conditions preserved not only strong structures, but wood, paper books/scrolls and organic materials, including food and human waste. In the nearby Villa of the Papyri (part of the original ancient Herculaneum), approximately 1,800 scrolls were found containing city records and poetry.


Mural in the College of Augustus, Herculaneum, Naples, Italy
Mural in the College of Augustus, Herculaneum, Naples, Italy

Of those who were unable to escape after the first eruption, many were trapped inside the boathouses, hiding and/or waiting for rescue. Dozens of skeletons were unearthed inside boathouses along the shore. This is, in fact, one of the first things you see as you enter the archeological site, a grim and shocking reminder of how ancient Herculaneum fell.


Similar to Pompeii, there are many building/homes open to the public, each unique and beautiful. A few of the more impressive buildings include; the luxury villa named the House of the Deer, the House of the Relief of Telephus, the Samnite House, he House with the Black Hall, the House with the Mosaic Atrium, the impressive College of Augustus (Sacello degli Augustali), with its unbelievably preserved frescos and the beautiful mosaics of the Central Thermae (baths).


 

Should you Visit the Archeological site of Pompeii or Herculaneum?


Ideally, both archeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum should be visited and explored, as they are individually unique, having experienced different effects of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. If you're planning on staying in Naples and want to see both, there are tours available that will combine the two locations. If you can (or want) to explore only one of the sites, choose based on the time you have or are willing to explore, your accessibility needs and how intimate you'd like the experience to be.


Pompeii is a large site with many access points and a large number of homes and buildings to explore, but the size can be overwhelming and the site sometimes overcrowded with tour groups. Herculaneum is much smaller with less buildings to explore, but sees much fewer visitors and allows greater access to impressively preserved rooms and artifacts.


Regardless of which you choose, both Pompeii and Herculaneum are bound to impress.

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