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One of Campania’s most important commercial centres, Pompeii was destroyed by Vesuvius alongside Herculaneum, a much smaller affair. Back in its heyday, Pompeii was a moneyed resort for wealthy patricians and a trading town that exported wine and fish. In effect, the eruption froze the town’s way of life as it stood at the time.
The excavations, which have continued more or less without interruption from 1748 to the present day, have probably yielded more information about the ordinary life of Roman citizens during the imperial era than anywhere else. Archaeologists discovered their social conventions, class structure, domestic arrangements and (very high) standard of living.
Some of the buildings in Pompeii are even covered with ancient graffiti, either referring to contemporary political events or simply to the romantic entanglements of the inhabitants. The full horror of their way of death is apparent in plaster casts made from the shapes their bodies left in the volcanic ash – with faces tortured with agony, or shielding themselves from the dust and ashes.
The site covers a wide area, and seeing it properly takes half a day at the very least. Since there is so much to see here, it is worth studying the site map, which you’ll find at every entrance – pins on the map indicate which areas are currently closed, as the site is in continuous restoration. Many of the most interesting structures are kept locked and only opened when a large group forms or a tip is handed over to one of the custodians.
Unlike Herculaneum, there’s little shade, and the distances involved are quite large: take breaks along the way. Flat, comfortable shoes are a must.
Vesuvius had been spouting smoke and ash for several days before the eruption on August 24. Fortunately most of Pompeii had already been evacuated when disaster struck. Out of a total population of twenty thousand it’s thought that only two thousand actually perished, asphyxiated by the toxic fumes of the volcanic debris, their homes buried in several metres of volcanic ash and pumice.
Pliny, the Roman naturalist, was one of the casualties – he died at nearby Stabiae (now Castellammare di Stabia) of a heart attack. But his nephew, Pliny the Younger, described the full horror of the scene in two vivid letters to the historian Tacitus, who was compiling a history of the disaster, writing that the sky turned dark like “a room when it is shut up, and the lamp put out”.
Entering the site from the Pompeii-Villa dei Misteri side, through the Porta Marina, the Forum is the first real feature of significance. It’s a long, slim, open space surrounded by the ruins of what would have been some of the town’s most important official buildings – a basilica, temples to Apollo and Jupiter and a market hall.
Walking north from here, up the so-called Via di Mercurio, takes you towards some of the town’s more luxurious houses. On the left, the House of the Tragic Poet (Casa del Poetica Tragico) is named for its mosaics of a theatrical production and a poet inside, though the “Cave Canem” (Beware of the Dog) mosaic by the main entrance is more eye-catching.
Close by, the residents of the House of the Faun (Casa del Fauno) – one of Pompeii’s most luxurious residences – must have been a friendlier lot, its “Ave” (Welcome) mosaic outside beckoning you in to view the atrium and the copy of a tiny, bronze, dancing faun (the original is in Naples) that gives the villa its name.
On the street behind, the House of the Vettii (Casa dei Vettii) is one of the most delightful houses in Pompeii and one of the best maintained, a merchant villa ranged around a lovely central peristyle that gives the best possible impression of the domestic environment of the city’s upper middle classes.
The first room on the right off the peristyle holds some of the best of Pompeii’s murals: the one on the left shows the young Hercules struggling with serpents.
There are more paintings beyond here, through the villa’s kitchen in a small room that’s normally kept locked – erotic works showing various techniques of lovemaking together with an absurdly potent-looking statue of Priapus from which women were supposed to drink to be fertile.
Cross over to the other side of the site for the so-called new excavations, which began in 1911 and uncovered some of the town’s most important quarters.
The Grand Theatre, for one, is very well preserved and is still used for performances, overlooking the small, grassy, column-fringed square of the Samnite Palestra – a refectory and meeting place for spectators from the theatre.
Walk around to the far left side of the Grand Theatre, down the steps and up again, and you’re in front of the Little Theatre – a smaller, more intimate venue also still used for summer performances and with a better-kept corridor behind the stage space.
Walk up from here to rejoin the Via dell’ Abbondanza, where there’s lots of interest – the Lararium has a niche with a delicate relief showing scenes from the Trojan War and the Fullonica Stephani is a well-preserved laundry, with a large tiered tub for washing.
Further still, the House of the Venus in the Shell is named after the excellently preserved painting on its back wall; while next door, the House of Octavius Quartio is a gracious villa fronted by great bronze doors, with paintings of Narcissus gazing rapt at his reflection in the villa’s lovely garden, which has been replanted with vines and shrubs.
Just beyond here is the town’s Amphitheatre – one of Italy’s most intact and accessible, and also its oldest, dating from 80 BC; it once had room for a crowd of some twelve thousand – well over half the town’s population.
Next door, the Palestra is a vast parade ground that was used by Pompeii’s youth for sport and exercise – still with its square swimming pool in the centre. It must have been in use when the eruption struck Pompeii, since its southeast corner was found littered with the skeletons of young men trying to flee the disaster.
One last place you shouldn’t miss at Pompeii is the Villa dei Misteri (Villa of the Mysteries).
Recently restored, this is probably the best preserved of all Pompeii’s palatial houses, an originally third-century-BC structure with a warren of rooms and courtyards that derives its name from a series of paintings in one of its larger chambers: depictions of the initiation rites of a young woman into the Dionysiac Mysteries, an outlawed cult of the early imperial era.
Not much is known about the cult itself, but the paintings are marvellously clear, remarkable for the surety of their execution and the brightness of their tones and colours.
There are a few hotels in the town of Pompeii, but most visitors will stay elsewhere and travel in on a day trip.
Accommodation prices in Naples may come as a refreshing change after the north of Italy, but they’re still not cheap, and you need to choose carefully from among the budget options around Piazza Garibaldi. A better bet is the lively and more atmospheric centro storico, with its good supply of boutique hotels and small B&Bs.
Topping the rocky cliffs close to the end of its peninsula, 25km south of Pompeii, Sorrento is the last town of significance on the southern side of the bay and is solely and unashamedly a resort. Nowadays it’s a strictly package-tour territory, with plenty of hotels and a good range of guesthouses. You can bag a bargain here as well.
Browse the best hotels near Pompeii.
Entry tickets for Pompeii cost €19 and include entry to Villa Regina in Boscoreale. Entry for Villa Of Poppea – Oplontis is €6 and for Libero D'orsi Archaeological Museum Of Stabia is €7.
Entry is free on the first Sunday of the month. Note that numbers are restricted to ensure a good flow of visitors through the site. Ticket desks shut for an hour if 15,000 visitors arrive before noon.
Pompeii is open daily from 9am to 5pm. Note, however, the last permitted entry is 3.30pm. The last entry for some of the villas, like Villa Regina (Boscoreale), Villa Arianna, Villa San Marco (Stabiae), and Villa Of Poppea is 4pm.
To be sure of seeing as much as possible you could consider taking a tour, although one of the pleasures of Pompeii is to escape the hordes and absorb the strangely still quality of the town, which, despite a large number of visitors, it is quite possible to do.
You can request a tour from either the Piazza Esedra or Porta Marina entrances anytime between 9am and 2pm. One benefit of a tour, if you group is small, is that staff use their discretion as to whether you can enter some of the smaller, often locked, buildings.
Pompeii does have a dress code. You won't be allowed to enter Pompeii in revealing clothing like swimwear or if you're shirtless. Visitors can't enter in ceremonial clothing either, such as masks and costumes. Travellers are also asked not to bring large backpacks, umbrellas or suitcases. The largest bag size allowed is 30x30x15 cm).
RoughGuides tip: There is a free storage area for oversized bags at the entrance.
The nearest major airport to Pompeii is Naples International Airport, 29km to the north.
The Circumvesuviana is the easiest way to reach Pompeii, linking Pompeii Scavi-Villa dei Misteri – just outside the western, Porta Marina entrance to the site – with Naples (35min) and Sorrento (30min).
There are two other train stations to the west of the site, just above and below the new city, with services to Naples (40min).
The best time to visit Pompeii is during the shoulder seasons of spring (April to June) and autumn (September to October) as the weather is milder – there isn’t a lot of shade here. During the shoulder seasons, hotels are easier to book and there are deals to be had as well.
During the summer months (July and August), temperatures can regularly top 30°C (86°F) and with the additional crowds, it can be an exhausting, less enjoyable place to visit.
Exploring the ruins of Pompeii involves a lot of walking, so it's best to start when the site opens in the morning. This will give you a head start against the tours coaches, too.
Find out more about the best time to visit Italy.
Plan your trip to Pompeii with our guide to Italy.