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Visiting the Secret Wonders of Herculaneum: The (Other) Archeological Site in Naples, Italy


Have you heard of Herculaneum?

Discussions of catastrophic volcanic eruptions, and specifically the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, generally touch on the ancient city of Pompeii and the tragedy that overwhelmed the city and its people. Often overlooked, is the nearby ancient city of Herculaneum, whose people were also effected by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and whose archeological site is surprisingly well preserved and full of secret wonders.



View of the archeological site of Herculaneum, Italy
View of the archeological site of Herculaneum, Italy


Admittedly, while planning our trip of a lifetime in Italy, we added Naples to the itinerary, knowing we would be stopping in Pompeii for two night. We hadn't initially planned to visit the archeological site of Herculaneum, but after hiring a car service to pick us up from Hotel del Sole in Pompei and drive us back to the Naples city center (before hoping on the ferry to the island of Capri), we opted to add a quick stop along the way to visit Herculaneum.


 

What's the difference between Pompeii and Pompei? Pompeii (with double "i") refers to the UNESCO World Heritage Site and ruins of the ancient Roman city, but Pompei (with single "i") refers to the modern Italian city, within the metropolitan city of Naples, Italy).

 



My Day Trip is a car-for-hire service by local drivers, that allows guests to add on a stop at nearby attractions or sites, with the added flexibility to decide how much time they want to allocate to each stop. We booked My Day Trip services a few times on this trip of a lifetime in Italy, and it was great every time.


Just before visiting Herculaneum, we booked My Day Trip from Naples to Pompei, stopping at the Vesuvius National Park in order to hike to the crater. To learn more about this adventure, read: Conquering the Summit: A Guide to Hiking Mount Vesuvius Volcano in Naples, Italy.


Our time was unfortunately limited and we only allocated a mere 45 minutes to walk through the archeological site of Herculaneum, knowing full well that we wouldn't have time to see everything.




Having now experienced the wonders of Herculaneum, and having been amazed by the ruins and artifacts, we wish we had left much more time to explore, and vow to return.




The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius: Herculaneum vs Pompeii


On the day of the tragic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, there were two main stages; the rain of pumice rocks and the fast-moving pyroclastic flows of hot ash and gas. During the first stage, the wind direction that day blew the rocks onto the ancient city of Pompeii, causing mass destruction, but spared the ancient city of Herculaneum, giving its people a chance to escape. The second stage, however, buried Herculaneum in 25 meters of ash, five times the amount of ash that covered Pompeii.


The bodies of those who tragically perished in Pompeii, those who were trapped and covered in the falling debris, left imprints in the ash as they decayed. These imprints were used to make the plaster casts over the bones, that you can see on display when visiting the archeological site of Pompeii.



Boat houses with skeletons, Herculaneum, Italy
Boat houses with skeletons, Herculaneum, Naples, Italy


In Herculaneum, those who were unable to escape in time, were exposed to the pyroclastic flow, which (very likely) instantly incinerated them. Dozens of skeletons were unearthed inside boathouses along the shore, the remains (and treasures) of those hiding and/or waiting to be rescued. This is, in fact, one of the first things you see as you enter the archeological site. It is a grim and shocking reminder of how ancient Herculaneum fell.


We were unsure what to expect when we visited Herculaneum, having researched some about the archeological site, but not extensively. After passing through the main entrance/shop area, we headed to the staircase that lead to the lower level. It is from this staircase that the old boat house come into view. The ruins of the ancient city of Herculaneum are located lower than the current city, which provides an opportunity to see the excavated ruins from a unique high vantage point when first entering.





The different conditions on the day of the eruption and level of ash coverage between the ancient cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii meant different levels of accessibility and difficulty in excavation. As a result, the Herculaneum archeological site is much smaller than that of Pompeii, with only a fraction of its original size uncovered. Most of ancient Herculaneum remains buried, some of which is underneath the modern towns of Ercolano and Portici.



The original shoreline of the ancient city of Herculaneum, Italy
The original shoreline of the ancient city of Herculaneum, Italy



Visiting Herculaneum: How to Purchase Tickets


We purchased our entrance tickets to the archeological site of Herculaneum in advance and knowing we were short on time, opted for priority tickets, which allowed us to skip the line and enter immediately. Tickets can be purchased at the entrance upon arrival, on the day of the visit to the archeological site, for $11 Euro each, but this does not include a guide and may require you to line up if the site is particularly busy.


Guided tickets are also available, which includes both private and small group tours, each with a local guide that would add valuable insight to your visit to the archeological site of Herculaneum.



LUXURY TRAVEL TIP: Why not take the story full circle with a luxury full day private Mount Vesuvius, archeological site of Herculaneum and Bosco di Medici wine tour? We had the pleasure of visiting the Cantina del Vesuvio Winery after our hike to Mount Vesuvius, and it was fantastic.


Located only 17 km away from the ancient city of Pompeii, the ancient city of Herculaneum actually sat closer to the base of Mount Vesuvius. Had the wind direction on the day of the eruption been different, may residents of Herculaneum would likely not have been able to escape the second stage. Herculaneum was a seaside town with a small harbour, that grew into a holiday destination for the wealthy citizens of Italy.



Detail of marble flooring, Herculaneum, Italy
Detail of marble flooring, Herculaneum, Italy



Visiting Herculaneum vs Pompeii: The Main Differences


After climbing down the staircase and reaching the lower level of Herculaneum, heading through the main walkway above the boat houses, we reached the Terrace of M. Nonius Balbus. Named after the politician who funded the terrace after an earthquake damaged the city, it centered around a large statue.


We were then able to wander through the archeological site at will. Noticeable when visiting the archeological site of Herculaneum, is how "complete" the town feels. Due to the wind direction on the day of the eruption, Herculaneum was spared the shower of boulders that devastated Pompeii and thus many buildings and homes in Herculaneum remain fully intact, with second stories are visible.


Similar to Pompeii, vivid paintings and frescos are visible on walls, beautiful marbled and mosaiced floors remain intact, and numerous artifacts were found. With significantly less tourists visiting Herculaneum, wandering the ancient streets felt more that of a ghost town abandoned, rather than an ancient archeological site post natural disaster.




The archeological site of Herculaneum, Naples, Italy
The archeological site of Herculaneum, Naples, Italy


There are directional street signs and name signs on each building that you can enter, but they are subtle and blend into the surroundings, adding to the ghost town feel. We followed the signs and wandered into buildings with near full access, las if we had discovered the ghost town and were exploring it for the first time, only the occasional rope or barrier to advise guests not to venture any further.



UNIQUE TRAVEL EXPERIENCE: Looking to see the ancient city of Herculaneum in a completely different light? Take the 3D Herculaneum tour, which, through augmented reality smart glasses, allows you to see what the homes in Herculaneum really looked like.


As visitors to Herculaneum, we had direct access to homes and rooms with phenomenal frescos on display, painted onto full walls. We walked over and on top of the original mosaic floors (which still seems so wrong) and ventured into private rooms and gardens. Security is on site to ensure guests do not go beyond where they are allowed or damage the site unnecessarily, but like they signs, they are not obvious and blend into the background.


We love visiting Pompeii and have spent days exploring every inch of the phenomenal archeological site, but Herculaneum felt less restricted, less commercial and much more intimate than Pompeii. To learn more about visiting Pompeii, read: Visiting Pompeii: Walking The Ancient City.




What is there to see at Herculaneum Archeological Site?


The House of the Deer


One of the first homes we entered was the House of the Deer, which was once a luxury villa. This private home featured beautiful mosaic and marble chipped floors, with hallways that wrapped around a central garden where many marbled statues were discovered.



The vivid colours in the marble and mosaics on the floors, and on the fresco walls were simply astounding.


We were able to roam the hallways and either enter or peer into the adjoining rooms, each decorated in vibrant colours with intricate details.


Click Here to access our Travel Italy - Herculaneum playlist on YouTube, with access to all videos taken while at the archeological site of Herculaneum, in Naples, Italy.


Two of the more famous statues found in The House of the Deer, are that of a drunken Hercules, fondling himself, which was found across from a statue of a Satyr carrying a wineskin. From a fountain pipe found running up the Satyrs back, it is believed the wineskin gushed water.




Many of the statues and paintings found during the excavation of both the archeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum were found to be sexual in nature. Unlike other artifacts found, these were often separated from other exhibits, and literally hidden away from the public.


Now they are houses in the National Archeological Museum of Naples, in the Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Cabinet or Secret Room). The exhibit features hundreds of sexually charged and obscene paintings and artifacts, taken mostly from excavations at the ancient Pompeii and Herculaneum sites. To learn more, read:




Satyr carrying wineskin, Herculaneum
Satyr carrying wineskin, Herculaneum
Statue found in the House of the Deer, Herculaneum, Italy
Drunken Hercules, Herculaneum

























The House of the Relief of Telephus


Opposite the House of the Deer is the extravagant House of the Relief of Telephus. With its large atrium, coloured columns and beautiful marbled masks hanging between the columns, it was a site to behold. With no barriers, we were able to get up close and admire the detail in everything. It was immediately very clear that the homes in the ancient city of Herculaneum were owned by the elite and wealthy members of society.


 

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The House of the Relief of Telephus, Herculaneum, Italy
The House of the Relief of Telephus, Herculaneum, Italy



Caupona (Restaurants)


Similar to ruins found at the archeological site of Pompeii, many shops and restaurants (or caupona) were discovered among the ruins of the ancient city of Herculaneum. With beautiful marbled tops and large canisters ready for storing and dispersing food, the caupona were the "fast food" of the ancient world.





While exploring the archeological site of Pompeii, we took the opportunity to lunch as ancient romans and visited a nearby restaurant, made to recreate the feel of an ancient caupona, like those found in Pompeii and Herculaneum. To learn more about this unique travel experience, read: Lunching as Ancient Pompeiians: An Honest Review of Caupona Restaurant in Pompei, Italy.



Caupona Restaurant, Herculaneum, Naples, Italy
Caupona Restaurant, Herculaneum, Naples, Italy



Villa of the Papyri


The different conditions on the day of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, provided very different levels of preservation between the two ancient cities. In the ancient city of Pompeii, the rocks destroyed most of the buildings, none of the second levels survived, but in Herculaneum, the conditions preserved not only strong structures, and second floors of most homes, but wood furniture, paper books and scrolls and even organic materials, included food and human waste.


The Villa of the Papyri, part of the archeological site of Herculaneum, is named after its unique library, where an astonishing 1,800 scrolls were found preserved (though carbonized) containing city records and poetry. The villa is considered to be one of the most luxurious in all of Herculaneum, once owned by Julius Caesar's father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus.


 

Update (February 2024): With the help of AI, scholars have been able to read part of a scroll found at Herculaneum. This article explains not only how they were able to read it, but has a video recreation showing how the library was covered and the scrolls were carbonized in the eruption.

 


Fountain detail, Herculaneum, Naples, Italy
Fountain detail, Herculaneum, Naples, Italy



The Samnite House


We also entered the beautiful Samnite House, noticeable from the ancient street, as it had an impressive marble chipped entrance that began on the front step. It then leads through a tall painted hallway into an large atrium. The upper section is closed with stucco columns and balconies affixed to the walls.


There is an open skylight with beautiful gargoyle decoration, and a small pool was centered on the in the atrium to collect any rain water that fell through the skylight. The details on the mosaics and painted walls are particularly beautiful. Click below to scroll through some of the photos from the Samnite House.








The Sacello degli Augustali


One of the most beautiful and impressive buildings we entered during our visit to the archeological site of Herculaneum, was the Sacello degli Augustali (Sacellum of the Augustales or College of Augustus).




A small building dedicated to the Gods, the Sacello degli Augustali consisted of one large room with two entrances.

The main room is split by large columns, near the back, between coloums, we discovered a smaller room containing a colourful painted altar with depictions of Hercules, Juno and Minerva.


The colours are astonishingly vibrant and the fresco details are delicate and soft. It is hard to believe they were painted centuries ago and buried under layers of ash. We could have stayed and admired the details for hours.


Click Here to access our Travel Italy - Herculaneum playlist on YouTube, with access to all videos taken while at the archeological site of Herculaneum, in Naples, Italy.





Near one of the entrances to the Sacello degli Augustali, lays the body of what is believed to be one of the employees of the religious center. He is believed to have died in the building, laying in his bed and is believed to be the only body found with parts of a preserved brain. Click below to scroll through some of the photos from the Sacello degli Augustali.






 

Did you know?

Eerie but utterly fascinating, the preserved brain found in this body discovered at Herculaneum had been turned to glass. According to the National Geographic, the glass shards are the first example of its kind ever found in any ancient (or modern) context.

 



Thermae (baths)


While wandering the ancient streets of the archeological site of Herculaneum, we noticed a sign indicating the Central Thermae (baths) and entered what appeared to be a rather open and empty courtyard. Unsure if there was more to see, we pressed on.



Across the open courtyard, we then passed through a small open arched doorway and entered a small room with an unbelievable mosaic floor. Stretched before us was a detailed mosaic in nautical theme, made entirely out of black and white pieces.


We were utterly shocked (and still are) that we were allowed to walk into the room and step directly onto the nautical mosaic floor of the women's bath.


Inside, we noticed a second open arched doorway on the left. This led to a second small room with a detailed geometric mosaic floor, also made entirely of black and white pieces, and yet another doorway to the left.


Walking across the pristine mosaics, feeling the cool shade inside, it was easy to imagine the women of Herculaneum sitting along the bench that wrapped around the room.




Above them a shelf also wrapped around the room, with pedestals that once held statues. The last doorway was roped off, but we could easily see it opened up to a large room with a tub at one end, likely used to heat the water for the baths. Click below to scroll through some of the photos from the Thermae (baths).





 

TIP: Italy can be very hot during the summer months, especially when exploring ruins. Be sure to dress for the heat in breathable cottons/linens, bring a hat, wear sunscreen and stay hydrated.

 



The House with the Black Hall


Nearby is the House with the Black Hall, so named for the rooms covered in stunning black frescos. One of the most luxurious villas at Herculaneum, the House with the Black Hall has carbonized wooden crossbars in the large entranceway. The villa housed many rooms, some extravagant with vaulted ceilings and elaborate frescos, wrapped around a beautiful garden courtyard.



The House with the Black Hall, Herculaneum, Naples, Italy
The House with the Black Hall, Herculaneum, Naples, Italy



The House of the Mosaic Atrium


We didn't manage to enter the House of the Mosaic Atrium and see the beautiful mosaic tiles, but we passed it and its beautiful garden on our way out of the archeological site of Herculaneum, wishing we could stay longer to explore.


Apparently the high heat has severely damaged the tiles, leaving the floor uneven and waved. It is said that among the frescos and artifacts, a small wooden cradle was discovered in the house, though it is unclear whether the baby or its parents survived.



Garden of the House of the Mosaic Atrium, Herculaneum, Italy
Garden of the House of the Mosaic Atrium, Herculaneum, Naples,Italy


There are many other houses and areas to see while visiting Herculaneum, notably the The House of Neptune and Amphitrite, with it's beautiful mosaic water basin placed in the inner garden, and The Skeleton House, with it's breathtaking lararium, made with marble and seashell mosaics.





 

Beware of Thieves:

Unfortunately for us, one of our bags was stolen while standing at a desk in the Termini Station in Rome, after we had visited Herculaneum, and with it one of our cameras and half of the photos we had taken thus far. Since our time was so short in Herculaneum, we decided to explore some homes separately, to cover more ground and share our photos and experiences after the fact. Sadly, because of the thief, we lost half of the photos that were taken at Herculaneum. A wonderful excuse to return.

 

We reluctantly left the archeological site of Herculaneum and the wonders found within, moving onto our next destination, the port of Naples and onto the island of Capri. We vowed then and there to return one day soon and give Herculaneum the time and patience that it deserves and truly explore every inch.

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3 Comments


Unwanted Life
Unwanted Life
Aug 12, 2023

I've never understood why Herculaneum takes a back seat to Pompeii. They were both affected, yeah the former only gets the tiniest of mentions. I only know about it because they talked about Herculaneum briefly in a Pompeii documentary. Such a shame. The ruins look amazing

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Kitti Bradley
Kitti Bradley
Aug 06, 2023

We definitely want to visit Pompeii in the near future but never heard of Herculaneum before. So I'm glad that I've found your post before planning our visit to Pompeii because now we can add Herculaneum to our itinerary too. Thanks for sharing

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Maryanne Leavey
Maryanne Leavey
Aug 06, 2023

Yes, I had never heard of Herculaneum but I certainly have now. What a fascinating place and sounds like it's well worth a visit. Great photos that really give me a good idea of what to expect when I visit. Thanks for sharing!

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