Visiting the ancient wonders of Pompeii and Herculaneum

When I visited Italy a few years ago we stayed in the wonderful and charming town of Sorrento, not far from Naples and over looking the bay. From its beautiful villages, Vespas buzzing like bees and the aroma of fresh Italian food filling the air, a shadow looms in the distance. The distinctive peak of Vesuvius, ominously sits, the weight of history adding to it’s presence. We all know the stories, the legend of what happened here thousands of years ago, but few know the volcano itself is still active. We explored both Pompeii and Herculaneum in search of the past and in spite of the future…

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,

Whilst in this wonderful part of the world there a many things one must see. Whilst here we scaled the active volcano itself as well as heading to the picturesque island of Capri and the ornate palace of Caserta made infamous by the Nazi rampages. (Posts coming soon about these) But more than ever there was one place which had fascinated me since I was a child. Somewhere I had read much about and sat defiantly on the bucket list. This place was Pompeii, and here was our chance to step back in time and visit this most interesting and tragic Roman town.

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,
The wonderful area of Sorrento in which we stayed… this church is in fact only a façade, the interior having been destroyed during the war but this beautiful exterior was saved and sits at the centre of the village.
 

Some history:

As designated UNESCO world heritage site the town of Pompeii was an ancient Roman city destroyed in dramatic fashion by the 79AD explosion of the nearby Mount Vesuvius. The city is believed to have been founded in around the 5-6BC and had around about 11,000 residence’s by the time of its tragic destruction 160 years later.

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,

One of the most striking features of Pompeii when discovered was the ash covered bodies which remained preserved within voids created by their eventual decomposition. Most of these would eventually be filled to reveal the terrifying last moments of these ancient people. It gives this place a real human element to it, mothers leaning over to protect their babies, groups of people huddled together covering their faces and screaming in horror as the 250 degree ash burnt them alive.

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,
Many of the “Bodies” are actually in Naples museum but some do remain at the site.
 
The site had been lost to the world for over 1,500 years, these apocalyptic events forgotten to most, until its accidental discovery in 1599 and further rediscovery over 150 years later in 1748. Tourism at Pompeii is not just a modern phenomenon; people have been travelling here to gaze back in time for over 250 years

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,

The buildings, objects, artefacts and details which give us an insight into this world of the past have been so well preserved because of the lack of air and moisture. Pompeii itself was a prosperous resort for the wealthy and featured theatres, villas, temples and an aqueduct system… as well as other establishments such as a brothel complete with penis arrows pointing its location out!! Those Romans!

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,

Exploring Pompeii:

Exploring this ancient city was a quite amazing experience, even if you are not fascinated in the history you cannot fail to feel like you have stepped back in time. You walk the cobbled streets, frozen in time, a unique opportunity to see the everyday life of this most famous civilisation. The well planned grid like layout, the impressive plumbing systems, underfloor heating, baths and restaurants. The advancements of the age a wonder to behold and an insight into the standard of living in such an era and also the ingenuity of the Romans.

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,

It’s a sort of strange visit; it’s hard to know how to feel. The idea that you are wandering the streets of a century’s old city, walking in the very footsteps of a civilisation you can hardly have imagined as is distance from your lifetime. At the same time you are in this place which bore witness to horror and despair, to the death of an entire city, its people burnt alive in the most unimaginable circumstances.

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,

It’s existence and our subsequent visit almost ironic, the very eruption which met Pompeii with its fate becoming the very thing which preserved it for generations of tourist and historians. The story of this city may have been lost for good had it survived like many others in the region, the unpredictable power of the earth sealing it in time.

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,

Slipping down one of the many side streets you are transported back 2000 years, face to face with the lives of the Romans we grew up reading about. The details of the place are the most penetrating, the Latin graffiti, the ruts in the stones carved by years of carts passing down these busy streets and the everyday things we take for granted such as lavatories, and kitchen utensils!

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,

Peering into the houses of people who lived over two millennia ago, Pompeii had been on the bucket list since I was a young child beginning to become enthralled by the history of the world! Pompeii is a moving and profound experience, both enchanting and haunting at the same time. If you love history as we do, you will find yourself in your element, exploring the past not through text books but through touch, sight and experience. Wonderful and unmissable.

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,

Getting to Pompeii:

Getting to the site is easy enough from both nearby Naples and Sorrento with the site having its own station. The line you will take is the Naples to Sorrento line with ‘POMPEI SCAVI’ station lying partway between the terminals. Be sure not to get off at “Pompei” as this is the nearby town and not the ruins, unless of course you would like to explore here also!

The “Circumvesuviana trains”, which more resemble a graffiti covered metro system than a train line is what you want to take. Just getting the train is quite an experience in itself and a great insight into local everyday life. The street art is pretty amazing too! The trains are cheap (around 3 Euros on way) and run twice an hour from 6 a.m. and 9:30 p.m., however it is often crowded. The journey takes around 45 minutes from Naples and 30 from Sorrento.

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,

Herculaneum?

Many people know of Pompeii but often not Herculaneum, a smaller but much better preserved site only a few miles from the more well-known ruins. In fact many people who do make the extra trip over to “Ercolano” in fact prefer it, it is much less crowded and due to its position was exposed to a different kind of volcanic destruction which preserved the town in a much different way.

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,

Pompeii was mostly affected by burning ash however Herculaneum was subjected to “pyroclastic flows” which preserved the higher floors of the cities buildings as well as wooden items, beams, beds, clothing and even food.

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,

It was also much wealthier than Pompeii and as such the excavated buildings are far more lavish and detailed than that of its more famous neighbour featuring gymnasiums, frescos, mosaics and even a waterfront villa said to be the home of Julius Caesar‘s father in law!

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,

It was also much wealthier than Pompeii and as such the excavated buildings are far more lavish and detailed than that of its more famous neighbour featuring gymnasiums, frescos, mosaics and even a waterfront villa said to be the home of Julius Caesar‘s father in law!

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,

Visiting Herculaneum:

As much I loved Pompeii I found the experience visiting Herculaneum to be that much more enjoyable and engrossing. I think part of this is because when visiting this much more preserved site we didn’t take a tour and instead explored on our own. I am mostly against tours and did at times feel a little rushed when visiting Pompeii and was thankful we got the chance to head back out on our own.

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,

One of the reasons for this was because we visited Pompeii alongside my family and they lack the confidence we do whilst travelling. However the scale of Pompeii does make the tour useful and although I would rather grab a map and discover its treasures at my own pace, we did see and learn a lot.

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,

I eventually managed to convince the family to come on an adventure and take the train to Herculaneum ourselves, and I know after their initial trepidation their time in Herculaneum was much more memorable than that of Pompeii. The site is much smaller and easier to navigate and the features that much more detailed, combined with the fact it’s a lot less busy and the whole experience feels more intimate and personal.

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,
The views over the city really show you how close the volcano is!
 
 The area surrounding the site also allows for panoramic views over the ancient city, the whole area feels much more like a living breathing town than Pompeii. More artefacts remain here and the buildings are much better decorated, colourful and detailed frescos and mosaics are commonplace. Staircases, balconies and even the markings of the ancient shoreline, hundreds of metres away from its current location are just some of the features.

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,
My mum and my nan, aren’t they funny!
 
Well worth the effort, I would suggest visiting both sites and taking a day for each one. As much as Herculaneum is more impressive in terms of details and preservation, the scale and drama of Pompeii is incomparable.

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,

How to get there:

Again the “Circumvesuviana” train is the best option for getting to the site which takes 40 minutes from Sorrento and 20 from Naples and is again on the Naples Sorrento line. Herculaneum is in the middle of the built up town of Ercolano and is only a short 10 minute walk from the railway station – so don’t be fooled by the taxi touts, the walk through the town is lovely!

Again trains go twice an hour between about 6 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. and will only cost you a few euros each way! Once you arrive in the town carry on to a small roundabout, cross to the main street opposite and follow the signs!

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,
Looking over the bay to Mt Vesuvius
 

General advice:

Wear good shoes! Pompeii is massive, you could go back for days and not see it all, the floor surfaces are also sometimes uneven so best to wear comfortable shoes!

Take a hat/ suncream/ water: These sites are hardly covered at all and often there will be little shade to hide from the baking Italian sun! Cover up and keep hydrated!

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Naples, Vesuvius, ancient roam, Romans, Italia, holiday, visiting Pompeii, How to get to Pompeii, tips, vacation, Sorrento, travel, travelling, Europe, backpacking,

Costs and Opening hours:

There are in fact 5 sites within this region to visit: Pompeii, Herculaneum , Oplontis, Stabiae, Boscoreale and it is possible to visit each individual or get a combined ticket for all:

Prices:

Pompeii: € 11,00
Herculaneum: € 11,00

The 3 sites in 1 day: Oplontis, Stabiae, Boscoreale: €5.50
The 5 sites: (3 consecutive days) € 20,00

Hours:

From 1 April to 31 October: 8.30 – 19.30 (last admission 18.00)
From 1 November to 31 March: 8.30 – 17.00 (last admission 15.30)

Boscoreale: from 1 November to 31 March: 8.30 – 18.30 (last admission 17.00)
The sites close on: 1 January , 1 May, 25 December

Have you visited either site, or even the others
we mentioned but missed? What did you make of them? 

See more photos on our facebook here:

See more from this country:

Nicola Hilditch-Short

Nic is one half of the Roaming Renegades, a passionate traveller, climber, adventurer, photographer and artist who has a B.A in Fine Art and M.A in Design & Art Direction.