There’s nothing quite like a volcano to bring death and destruction to a town while ironically preserving it for tourists to walk around 2000 years later. You’d be forgiven for thinking only one town, Pompeii, was destroyed when Mt Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, but the small town of Herculaneum also met its unfortunate end, and if you’re travelling in Southern Italy you should definitely see them both.
We’ve all heard stories of mythical Pompeii, and if you haven’t you should probably check out the recent self titled movie. While that movie was a bit shit, it does give you a good idea of what life might have been like in the decadent age of the ancient Romans, and walking around the ruins of Pompeii will only confirm it. It may be a crumbling mess, but it’s still possible to get a fairly good look at the homes, restaurants and baths of its inhabitants. Some of the buildings are remarkably well preserved, and being able to walk through the house of an important person who died nearly 2000 years ago is a pretty amazing experience. You can walk down ancient streets, pray at the Temple of Apollo and stand in the middle of a perfectly preserved amphitheatre.
If you drift away from the more popular buildings you’ll find peace and quiet, but Pompeii does get pretty busy (and we visited in low season!). We thought we found a quiet spot inside one of the baths, that was until slowly, one by one, a tour group started filing through the narrow door. It was like on TV when clown after clown gets out of a small car, only it wasn’t funny (actually, clowns are never funny either). This would turn a lot of people off enjoying Pompeii, but it’s one of the top archaeological sites in the world, so expecting to have it all to yourself is a bit optimistic, and like I said, if you get out of the centre of town a bit (into the suburbs, I guess) you’ll be at peace once more.
Although some of the buildings were closed for renovations, there were more than enough ruins to keep us busy for a few hours. It was hard work walking in the late autumn sun, so I can’t imagine what it’d be like in summer (and the crowds would be far crazier as well), so low season seems like the time to visit.
Herculaneum is like Pompeii’s unpopular little brother; think Daniel Baldwin instead of the better known Alec. I hadn’t heard of Herculaneum before I started to research day trips from Naples, and although it is smaller and the buildings are slightly less impressive, it’s worth checking out for the artwork alone. There are some amazing frescoes and mosaics at Herculaneum, and they were better preserved than anything we saw at Pompeii. Another huge advantage is that the big tour groups tend to skip it, which means you don’t get the clowns climbing out of cars effect that you get at Pompeii. It’s an altogether more relaxing experience, so if you’re doing them both on a day trip I’d suggest going to Pompeii first and then head to Herculaneum in the afternoon.
Pompeii and Herculaneum can be visited using a combined pass that’ll set you back €20, or you can buy the Campania Artecard for €32 like we did. The Artecard gives you entry to 2 attractions (we chose Pompeii and Herculaneum but there are countless others to see in the Campania region), discounts for the other historical attractions and unlimited public transport for 3 days. If you’re staying in Naples and looking to do day trips to the archaeological sites and the Amalfi Coast, the Artecarde becomes really good value. You can ask for it at the train station, and there are also different versions of it if you’re staying longer or interested in visiting more museums.
Getting to Pompeii and Herculaneum
It’s easy to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum on a day trip from Naples, or from anywhere else in the Campania region. From Naples Central Station, take the Circumvesuviana (45 minutes to Pompeii, 25 minutes to Herculaneum), which is like a metro that runs from Naples to Sorrento, the gateway to the Amalfi Coast. Pompeii and Herculaneum (Ercolano) have their own stations, and the sites are only a few minutes walk once you get off the train. The trains run pretty regularly, and if you’ve navigated a metro system anywhere in the world before then it should be easy.
If you’re interested in history and want to see one of the most famous (deservedly so) ancient attractions in the world, make sure you don’t miss Pompeii, and if you’re in the area already it’d be crazy not to check out Herculaneum too; we’re glad we did!
Have you been to Pompeii and Herculaneum? What is the most interesting archaeological site you’ve visited? Let me know!
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