Some cities have the tragic distinction of being synonymous with destruction: Chernobyl, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden to name a few. But perhaps there’s nowhere in history as famously annihilated as the lost Roman city of Pompeii. The story of Pompeii’s sudden doomsday demise has been romanticized in art for centuries and continues to ignite research and wonder the world over – nearly 2,000 years after the city was wiped off the Roman Empire’s map.
But it’s what was left intact when the dust settled that really makes this ancient archaeological site so uniquely breathtaking. The great irony, of course, was that the violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, which deep-fried everything within a 15-kilometer radius of the volcano, actually ended up preserving Pompeii and its unfortunate citizens who were unable to escape the inferno.
Frozen in time for millennia until it was rediscovered in the 16th century, what you see today when visiting Pompeii is a spectacular time-capsule of antiquity and an open-air history museum that affords an unparalleled window into everyday life in the Roman Empire.
Now, as the world of culture and travel awakens from the ashes of COVID-19, visiting Pompeii is once again possible. And if you were looking for a way to make up for the lost time of lockdown and travel restrictions, visiting a city which once lay undiscovered for centuries is a pretty fitting place to begin. So, excavate your wanderlust from the best-laid plans of 2020, here’s everything you need to know before visiting Pompeii!
Long before it became Campania’s overnight equivalent of Mordor, Pompeii was already one of the hottest spots in the Roman Empire. It had been first settled as early as the 8th century BC and passed through many centuries of Hellenistic, Etruscan, and Samnite cultural influence until the red-caped Romans showed up with their all-conquering swagger around 343 BC. Pompeii and the wider region were finally brought under Roman control by force in 89 BC, after a series of rebellions and wars. Without the benefit of hindsight, it’s not hard to see why the area was so fiercely contested.
Pompeii’s location about 23 km south of Naples, boasted a beautiful sunkissed coastline and rich volcanic soil that was high in nutrients (if not grim foreshadowing), which allowed bountiful olive groves and grape farms to flourish. Its ready access to the sea and the nearby Appian Way trade route also gave Pompeii a strategic importance. Under Roman control, it became an affluent port town and seaside resort for wealthy Romans to escape the big city and pursue a life of leisure.
A bustling hub of commerce and hedonism, Pompeii in its heyday was awash with lavish villas, luxurious bathhouses, 24-hour wine taverns, busy market stalls, bakeries, theaters, and brothels. Being a Roman city, it also boasted an impressive amphitheatre on the outskirts of town, where violent gladiator battles ensured the local masses and important emissaries visiting Pompeii were never not entertained. Aside from the occasional earthquake, life in the lost city was pretty cushy by ancient standards. At least it was for the average lifespan of 35 years that the non-gladiator classes enjoyed in those days. And you just couldn’t beat that peaceful mountain view…
There goes the neighborhood!
Mount Vesuvius is one of the most dangerous active volcanoes in the world. A known erupter, scientists estimate that Italy’s most fiery chasm has blown its lid at least 50 times in its 17,000-year history. Scarily, the blast that cancelled Pompeii in a hot minute wasn’t even the most powerful of all its eruptions. Still, the Pompeiian eruption of 79 AD unleashed the equivalent of 100,000 times the thermal energy as the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan in World War II, killing thousands and transforming the pastoral Campanian coastline into a smouldering moonscape within 18 hours.
The eruption and subsequent damage took place over two main stages. The initial blast occurred when tectonic activity caused seawater to leak into underground magma chambers, creating one big geological pressure-cooker under Vesuvius that no mountaintop could contain. The resulting explosion sent millions of tonnes of incandescent ash, pumice, toxic gases, and molten rock into the upper atmosphere at supersonic speeds. This formed a massive billowing column that stretched upwards for 22 kilometers and darkened the sky over Pompeii. Mondays, amirite?
What goes up must come down and it wasn’t long before a storm of white-hot ash and pumice began to rain down over the city. Bewilderment and god-fearing panic must have gripped the citizens as their breezy seaside town was bombarded from above with razor-sharp fragments of rock and scorching ashes, and shaken from below as more earthquakes hit. But it was during these first few hours that escape was actually still possible.
Mass evacuations took place as flames, larger rocks, and poisonous fumes began to engulf the area. Although an official death toll is unknown, it’s believed many – if not most – of Pompeii’s residents were able to escape as the city burned and crumbled around them. Some people chose to stay behind and take shelter in their homes, rather than braving the full-on armageddon raging outside. Totally understandable. Big mistake.
Phase 2: The Floor is Lava
The flaming hailstorm of semi-molten rock and searing ashes intensified for several hours, making escape less and less feasible. But anyone who was trapped and somehow still alive was in for some bad news. In the early hours of the following morning, the volcano cone itself began to collapse under the intense heat and pressure, triggering an even deadlier second phase: pyroclastic flows and surges. Goodnight Pompeii.
Pyroclastic flows are essentially avalanches of extremely hot ash, mud, and gas that flow down the mountainside and across the countryside at over a hundred kilometers per hour. With temperatures of around 300°C by the time the ash flows hit Pompeii, everything and everyone caught in the direct path would have died pretty immediately of heat shock. At least it was quick.
After about 18 hours, the eruption was over, but the landscape around Vesuvius had been dramatically altered, as a blanket of ash up to six meters deep smothered all evidence of life and civilization for miles around. It even added almost two kilometers of land to the coastline, and suddenly Pompeii was a seaside town no more.
The entire city, along with the other nearby towns of Herculaneum, Oplontis, and Stabiae were all completely enveloped. Pompeii lay buried and forgotten for centuries until its eventual discovery and excavation turned it into one of the most fabled and visited ancient historical sites in the world. There is nothing quite like visiting Pompeii.
Top Things to See when visiting Pompeii
Since systematic excavations of Pompeii’s ruins began in earnest in the 19th century, a 49-hectare area has been unearthed so far, standing more or less as it did when the pyroclastic flows rolled into town. Works continue to this day, yielding an evermore rich and detailed picture of the past. And given that there’s almost an entire third of the archaeological site still unexcavated, we can only imagine what other treasures still hide below the surface waiting to be discovered.
Until then, you’ll just have to make do with the sprawling ghost town of ancient wonders already uncovered. There’s more than enough to fill an entire day with incredible time-bending exploration. Some things are absolutely not to be missed, but whether you opt for a guided tour or a free-roaming self-guided experience when visiting Pompeii, you’re guaranteed to be left speechless again and again as you meander through the cobbled streets and ancient Roman architecture.
1. Pompeii Houses
Nothing gives you a window into someone’s world like walking around their home. And nothing puts you inside the mind of a well-to-do Roman quite like nosing around some grand luxurious villas while visiting Pompeii. The site is home to some seriously impressive homes, with stunning fresco art and eclectic architectural motifs spanning various centuries that divide Pompeii’s history up like the rings of a tree – often within the same building.
Continued works mean not all buildings are open for visits all the time, so check ahead to see what’s open during your visit and make sure you stop by for a snoop around these incredible ancient dwellings. The frescoes alone make house-hunting in Pompeii a must; here are some of the Pompeii houses to keep an eye out for.
2. House of Venus in a Shell
The Uffizi Gallery might house the world’s most famous painting of this Roman hero in a half-shell, but while Botticelli’s masterpiece, The Birth of Venus, might be slightly more detailed, it can’t claim to have withstood the fiery wrath of both Vesuvius and Allied bombing assaults. Nor can it boast a cherubic image of Cupid riding a dolphin, but that’s exactly what you’ll see at the House of Venus in a Shell.
Named for its stunning courtyard fresco of Roman goddess Venus reclining in her massive conch shell, this opulent house was one of the more recent houses to be excavated in Pompeii. It was discovered in the 1930s, and was excavated and restored in the 1950s after bombs damaged the dig site in World War II. It’s now one of the top villas to see when visiting Pompeii, and its namesake fresco is joined by other beautiful nature scenes and statues of mythological figures. But if you think this style of home decorating is a bit much, look away now!
3. House of the Vetti
You can’t talk about frescoes in Pompeii without mentioning the House of the Vetti. This large Domus is one of the most impressive and downright massive houses in Pompeii, with arguably the most flamboyant collection of frescoes anywhere in the city to boot. Amazingly, the villa was owned by the Vetti brothers, two former slaves who became freedmen, and wasted no time in becoming upwardly mobile wine merchants who were able to afford one of the swankiest villas in town. But how?
Following the earthquakes of 62 AD that leveled much of the infrastructure and architecture around Pompeii, many of the city’s wealthy tenants moved away to other towns that weren’t so seemingly beset by disastrous ground shaking (talk about foresight!). This exodus of wealth from the city caused a power vacuum and a period of social and economic reshuffling took place over the next decade. There was unprecedented mobility between the classes, and so even savvy ex-slaves could hustle their way to the top of the social ladder. And everyone needed wine…
In classic nouveau riche style, the Vetti brothers wanted everyone to know just how wealthy they were, and so they set about turning their villa into a walk-in gallery of majestic frescoes depicting a myriad of mythological scenes. These are some of the oldest frescoes in the world, and if you’re into the dramatic side of Greek mythology, it’s a rare treat.
You’ll see a baby demigod Herakles strangling a tangle of serpents, Ixion being tied to a flaming wheel by good ol’ Hermes, legendary hero Achilles on Skyros, a wrestling match between Pan and Eros, Dionysus discovering Ariadne, and lots more. It’s a veritable pantheon of ancient art, and truly one of Pompeii’s unmissable cribs.
4.The Villa of Mysteries
The most mysterious of all the villas excavated in and around Pompeii is the aptly named Villa of Mysteries. Located just outside the city, this opulent villa once backed onto the coast and enjoyed serene ocean scenery from its large upper-floor balconies. But these days, it’s located much further inland thanks to Vesuvius slapping a massive blanket of ashes to Pompeii’s shoreline that soaked up those sea views. Like the rest of Pompeii, the villa (and its mysteries) were lost for millennia.
The Villa of Mysteries was rediscovered in 1909, and apart from the amazingly well-preserved and eclectic mix of architecture, it was celebrated for the jaw-dropping fresco paintings that adorn the walls of one of its rooms. In contrast to the more usual Greek mythology which you’ll find in some of the other villas around Pompeii, the Villa of Mysteries depicts an altogether more… mysterious scene!
This giant wraparound wall painting takes up an entire room in the Villa of Mysteries, while its clever spatial features actually make the room seem much bigger, as the scene bleeds from one wall to the next with a panoramic continuity that was far ahead of its time, stylistically speaking. The dramatic blood-red scene depicts what appears to be the initiation of a woman into a Dionysian cult, with the god of wine himself slumped over in a drunken reverie, while a clamor of religious rituals and rites take place around him. It’s what you’d call a bold interior design choice.
Despite widespread devotion to the pursuit of wine and pleasure in Pompeii, this ritualistic depiction would not have been exactly legal at the time, as religion was tightly controlled in the Roman Empire. And so it’s thought this room may have actually been a secret venue where just such cultist rituals actually took place, as it’s hard to imagine someone would’ve gone to the trouble of having their house frescoed in legally dubious art if they weren’t all-in.
It’s impossible to know for certain whether the Villa of Mysteries was indeed a cult lair, but that doesn’t detract from the wow-factor that its incredible frescoes will leave you with. If anything, it only makes the place more… mysterious.
5. The Forum of Pompeii
Like all good Roman cities, Pompeii had a Forum. This large public square was the center of political, religious, and commercial life in the city, where men in togas conducted serious business. Now a derelict ruin, it’s a spooky place to explore as you walk in the sandals of crafty politicians and bellowing vendors from so long ago. Only a skeletal husk of the Forum’s grand architecture remains. But what does still stand paints a picture of what it was once like, with broken columns and cracked facades of once-grand temples, fountains, decorative arches, and porticoes. It’s all fixed in the ever-watchful gaze of Vesuvius, for added atmosphere.
Though it’s now a shadow of its former glory, the Forum is still an absolute must when visiting Pompeii. While the once-mighty Sanctuary of Jupiter and Temple of Apollo have certainly seen better days, with little remaining but their crumbled foundations and some truncated columns, they still offer an extraordinary portrait of daily life in ancient times as you wander freely about them.
On the southern end of the Forum, the magnificent Basilica is in slightly better shape. This monumental Greek-style building is where matters of law and justice were hashed out. It’s the oldest-known Roman basilica, with architecture that has since become a mainstay of churches and neoclassical buildings around the world. There’s a particularly good one in Rome, rumor has it…
But no visit to Pompeii’s Forum is complete without stopping by the granary storehouse. Once used to keep grain supplies as well as functioning as an open fruit and vegetable market, it’s now decidedly more interesting. The Forum granary now functions as a museum and houses the world’s largest repository of artefacts excavated from around Pompeii, with more than 9,000 precious items preserved and displayed in glass cabinets.
The exhibition includes terracotta crockery and everyday household items like oil lamps, wine jugs, pots and pans, as well as marble fountains and arches, and baths. But the most-photographed of all the granary’s wares are surely the macabre casts of the ossified victims, including one very good boy.
6. The Pompeii Bodies
Of all the remarkable remnants of the past that have been unearthed around the ruins of Pompeii, nothing is as haunting or indeed unique as the remains of the city’s inhabitants. Arguably the most memorable part of visiting Pompeii, the Pompeii bodies were discovered when archaeologists found cavities containing human bones in the dig site. Or more accurately, they kept finding cavities in the dig site wherever they located human bones.
These uncanny cavities were left behind when the soft tissue of each buried body decayed over time, leaving behind their skeleton. But the impression of each body remained imprinted in the calcified ash, which had set like concrete around them before they decayed.
Each hollow cavity preserved a three-dimensional negative imprint of the victims exactly as they were when the pyroclastic flows rolled into town. By pouring liquid plaster into these cavities, letting it set, and carefully excavating the results, archeologists uncovered not just the exact spot where people died, but a haunting sculpture of their final moments. With faces and postures contorted into twisted, unnatural shapes, the agony that each unfortunate soul felt as they succumbed to the disaster is pretty apparent. It’s a visceral and moving spectacle to see their torment preserved in suspended animation nearly 2,000 years later.
The plaster casts of Pompeii’s poor citizens give this ancient archeological site a sense of humanity that would otherwise be absent if all that remained was the architecture. Many of the 1,150 bodies which have been discovered were found in groups and pairs, making desperate efforts to save each other and take shelter from the toxic firestorm. Rich and poor huddled together, lovers embraced each other, and mothers shielded children. Some clutched good luck charms and others their valuables.
Remains of animals were also found, with livestock and pets unable to escape, and the aforementioned writhing dog in the Forum granary has come to be one of Pompeii’s most famous images. Hundreds of casts have been made, and you’ll find them at various locations around the site, including the Forum granary, the Garden of the Fugitives, the Stabian Baths, and many others.
Easily the most infamous of all Pompeii’s victims is the cast of a man found in what appears to be a slightly compromising position. However, Pompeii experts (who are no fun at all) dispute the idea that this man was engaged in some crafty last-minute self-love.They argue instead, that his clenched hands and reclined position are more likely just the unfortunate position the man crumpled into as his muscles contracted in the flesh-melting heat.
But this hasn’t stopped the legend of Pompeii’s ‘masturbating man’ from entering the legend of the lost city, and becoming the subject of more posthumous ‘eruption’ jokes than probably anyone else in history. Poor fella.
7. Pompeii Graffiti
People have been carving and painting images and words onto walls since cave-dwelling days. But did you know that what we call graffiti today was invented in Pompeii? Or at least the term ‘graffiti’ was coined in 1851, when archeologists discovered an unmissable phenomenon around the lost city: ancient messages etched on the walls, everywhere.
Italians are a famously expressive bunch, and all the evidence points to this being no different 2,000 years ago. But in the days before paper and Twitter, (or any convenient portable writing surface for that matter), Pompeiians turned to their walls to broadcast their thoughts to each other. These musings have quite literally been etched into history, and thousands of them are still visible on walls throughout the city today, revealing some of the most intimate and fascinating snapshots of the types of things people cared about in ancient times. So it helps to read Latin – or have a guide who does.
These days, graffiti is often thought of as a sign of urban decay and vandalism. But back in Pompeii, everyone was at it. These etchings cover almost every topic you could imagine, from public notices and political campaign ads to shop menus, lists of house rules in taverns, heartfelt messages (and quarrels) between lovers, poems, curses, and cute children’s drawings. Some are in amazing condition and reading the hand-written words of people who lived so long ago adds another layer of humanity to the experience of visiting Pompeii.
It’s also just funny to see how much remains the same after two millennia of cultural evolution. As perhaps most amazingly of all, one of the more common things you’ll see scratched into the walls of Pompeii is also still very well-represented in the sketchy wall-scrawlings of the modern era. There’s no subtle way to say it: Pompeii has its fair share of phalluses.
If history can teach us anything, it’s that humanity’s preoccupation with sex is nothing new. In addition to the alarming amount of penis graffiti on the city walls, archaeologists have also unearthed a trove of sculptures, statuettes, lamps, ornaments, amulets, and other artifacts that betray what might reasonably be described as a slight obsession with the male form.
8. Pompeii’s Brothel
Nowhere are the sexual mores of Pompeii more apparent than at its most-visited location. No, it’s not the world’s oldest amphitheatre, it’s not the opulent Roman bathhouses, or the incredible Forum either. Inevitably, the number-one attraction people flock to when visiting Pompeii is its brothel, the Lupanar Grande. Some things never change.
The oldest profession in the world was alive and thriving in ancient Pompeii, with the widespread presence of erotic art in many taverns around the city suggesting they served a dual function. But the Lupanar Grande is the city’s only known purpose-built brothel. That also makes it the only purpose-built brothel from the Roman era still standing today. So it’s most certainly a culturally and historically significant site.
But while some of today’s visitors are no doubt tempted to the Lupanar ruins by the desire to spice up all that archaeology with some racy, lower-brow giggles, the reality inside the brothel is a little sadder on closer inspection. Given that it’s essentially a 2,000-year-old sex dungeon, this should really come as no surprise. Graphic erotic art is emblazoned on the walls in the brothel’s waiting room, and Pompeii experts believe this was designed to titillate the clientele and provide an illustrated menu of the services which could be availed of, or even instructions for the less seasoned customers.
The explicit nature of these frescoes gives the initial impression of a sexually liberated society, where carnal pleasure was accepted as a normal part of life. But behind the veneer of exotic fantasy, the Lupanar Grande concealed a much darker reality of exploitation and sex slavery. It’s kind of a timeless microcosm of the shadier aspects of the sex industry in that way.
Slaves and the city’s poorest women worked here in narrow, windowless rooms with just enough space for one small stone bed. With little light or airflow, the squalid working conditions they must have endured are sad to contemplate. But graffiti left on the walls by the Lupanar’s clients chronicle what happened here in no short detail, with boastful posts of sexual prowess and detailed reviews of their ‘customer experience.’
All in all, the brothel of Pompeii provides a fascinating looking-glass into the past that lends insight into ancient norms that can help us reflect on the present too. At least some people are working to make the industry better these days.
9. The Thermal Baths
If your eyes need a bath after visiting the brothel, jump on into one of Pompeii’s four luxurious Roman bathhouses. If there was one thing the Romans loved more than gladiator deathmatches and depressing sex dungeons, it was the public thermal baths. These ancient wellness spas were central to life in the Roman Empire, and as with many things in the lost city, Pompeii boasts some of the best-preserved examples of them anywhere, despite the earthquake of 62 AD that severely damaged many of them.
There are three large public bathhouses in total in Pompeii: the Stabian Baths, the Forum Baths, and the Central Baths. They all shared a similar design, with spectacular art and remarkable engineering being the recurring theme at each. Majestic frescoes adorned the walls and ceilings, while decorative sculptures and terracotta statues of gods and heroes encircled the various bathing areas. Much of this ancient art and architecture survives to this day, and snooping around inside is a total must while visiting Pompeii.
Back in the day, there were warm water rooms (tepidarium), hot water rooms (caldarium), cool water baths (frigidarium) for chilling in, and even relaxation rooms, where one could enjoy a decadent post-bath massage, and perhaps some light refreshments. Braziers and furnaces were used to heat the water, which was collected from an aqueduct and channeled through lead pipes in the walls, heating not only the baths but the rooms themselves. Air vents were used to ensure proper heat circulation around the various areas, so it never got too stuffy.
In addition to providing some much-needed sanitation and personal hygiene for regular people in times when household plumbing was reserved for only the richest of the rich, public baths were the locus of social life in the Roman Empire, and Pompeii was no different. People from many walks of life would gather to gossip with friends, play dice games, relax and exercise together, as they shared in the luxurious novelty of being clean. Thousands of oil lamps were discovered near the baths, meaning they were open for atmospheric evening pool parties too.
The public baths were a unique part of Pompeian society, as they were one of the few places where the wealthy and poor would come together in a social setting. Men and women did have separate areas for changing and bathing, but otherwise, the baths were the great equalizer of an otherwise stratified society. The same can’t really be said for the site’s most grandiose piece of architecture.
10. Pompeii’s Amphitheatre
Violence was a feature of almost every ancient civilization. It sort of came with the territory of defending one’s territory. But nowhere in history was violence ever as shockingly brutal or dramatically choreographed solely for entertainment’s sake like in the Roman Empire. It seems crazy by today’s standards that people could be armed with swords and spikey tridents and forced to fight each other and ravenous animals to the death.
But that’s exactly what happened in Pompeii’s jaw-dropping amphitheatre, the oldest surviving Roman amphitheatre in the world and the first to have been built out of stone. An absolute must-see when visiting Pompeii, the amphitheatre might be slightly smaller than the mighty Colosseum in Rome, which was built 140 years later, but it still had the capacity for around 11,000 baying spectators. Needless to say, Pompeii’s amphitheatre is in significantly better condition too. Buried under several meters of compacted ash that sealed out all moisture, it was protected from the elements for thousands of years.
But keeping the rain out actually started well before Vesuvius. As on rainy days, or stifling hot ones, a giant awning known as a velarium was stretched across the roof of the arena. Because nobody wants to feel uncomfortable when they’re watching slaves lop each other’s limbs off! In contrast to the Colosseum, it has no underground section, so the fighters and animals entered through the grand arched doorway. But like the Colosseum, the arena floor was sometimes flooded so that mock naval battles could be staged. These tended to be the tamest events.
Usually, though, the amphitheatre was reserved for savage gladiator fights that pitted slaves and prisoners in mortal combat against each other for the viewing pleasure of the masses. Successful gladiators could become fan favourites, and ultimately were able to earn their freedom if they hit a hot enough kill streak, and their bloody exploits were documented with etchings on the inner and outer walls of the arena.
Gladiator fandom sometimes spilled over into crowd violence. In the year 59 AD, a bloody brawl broke out in the stands as spectators from Pompeii and neighboring Nuceria taunted each other during a gladiator event. The jeering escalated and things quickly evolved into a rock fight. Swords were drawn before long and a lot of people were killed and severely wounded in the fracas. This prompted Emperor Nero to issue a ten-year ban on all similar gatherings in Pompeii’s amphitheatre, and the event’s sponsors were forced into exile.
It’s worth pointing out that this was the same Emperor Nero who is believed to have murdered his own mother and at least two of his wives. He was also rumoured to have started the Great Fire of Rome so he could rebuild the city center as he pleased, before blaming it on Christians, and rather tellingly, having them burned alive as punishment… So perhaps cheery-old Nero only penalized the riot in Pompeii’s amphitheatre for not being bloody enough!
The amphitheatre has since been used for several high-profile musical concerts, with Pink Floyd’s 1971 Live at Pompeii live show documentary being the most famous. Frank Sinatra also performed here, and inside the amphitheater there’s a small exhibition of the various bands and musicians who have graced this most epic of stages.
The Amphitheater of Pompeii is not to be confused with the Theater Arena of Pompeii. This even older complex of three smaller theaters is located in the southwest of the city and was used as an entertainment center where theatrical performances and gladiator battles took place before the larger amphitheater was constructed. Built in the Classical Greek style, these magnificent buildings are another must-see when visiting Pompeii. They have also sometimes been used for opera performances in the modern era.
Before visiting Pompeii, get the inside scoop from a real guide
We asked veteran Pompeii tour guide Silvana Bocchetti for her unique insight on the best things to see while visiting Pompeii, and all the juicy insider knowledge you need to make the most out of your visit.
Could you tell us a bit more about what you do in Pompeii? What does that entail on a day-to-day basis?
I’m an authorised tourist guide of Regione Campania and every day I take groups – or also private clients – to the most famous sites of our Region. Obviously, Pompeii is one of the most popular and visited places, but also Naples with its Museums and its stunning historic centre, the Amalfi Coast and Capri register a very high tourist influx.
How long have you worked in this field?
I acquired my license as a tour guide in 1996, so I’ve been doing this job for 24 years.
What do you love most about your role?
What I enjoy most is connecting with people and my job allows me to meet and interact with people of different ages and nationalities every day. I try to pique their interest and curiosity and I love it when I see that they’re paying even more attention, when they become even more enthusiastic, so much that they ask me at the end of the tour… is it all? That was a quick two hours!
How do you keep things interesting for your tour groups?
As I said before, every tourist ends up visiting Pompeii for different interests. Pompeii is a city you could talk about for hours, about its history, about the wonderful and incredible culture of the Roman world, about its style and life, its traditions, its eating habits, and more.
Good guides must be well versed in history and art, but they also need to be good at reading the people in front of them and choosing the information to share that will mostly match their customers’ different interests.
What makes Pompeii such a unique historical site?
The famous statement made by the German writer Goethe after his visit to Pompeii answers this question really well: “Many disasters occurred in the world, but few have brought as much joy to posterity.” To that, we must add how the constant and meticulous care of this site adds to the experience of visiting Pompeii. There are always archaeologists and workers in Pompeii that monitor all its millennial buildings to preserve this wonderful artistic heritage as well as to guarantee visitor safety.
I always tell visitors to look carefully, because every single stone in Pompeii has something to say and we owe so much of the information we have to everything that this city keeps on telling us every day. You know, a part of the city actually still remains buried and work on this site continues – which means there are often new and exciting discoveries.
What do you consider the hidden gems in Pompeii, the things that people often miss?
One of Pompeii’s hidden gems is Villa dei Misteri (Villa of the Mysteries). It’s a very famous building, but it’s often looked over during a visit, because it’s a villa that was built outside the city walls and that’s why it’s not included in a regular visit. Its interior frescoes are wonderful!
What insider tips do you have for first-time visitors, what should they pay special attention to? What could you almost miss on your way out?
What I especially recommend to anyone visiting Pompeii is not to approach the city with a DIY visit. It would really be a pity. As I said, Pompeii has a lot to tell and without a minimum of information, you risk losing all the magic that the site offers. In my opinion, a guided tour or an audio guide is necessary to truly appreciate Pompeii.
What would you recommend for the following types of visitors: Quick and ambitious visitors (the person wants to be in and out of Pompeii in two hours), families, and history buffs?
For quick and ambitious visitors: I would definitely recommend a guided tour. In this way, you won’t waste precious time looking for routes on the map. The guide will know how to choose the monuments and the information you need, so you can get a full and clear picture of this wonderful city.
For families: Visiting Pompeii is also magical for children and has many suitable stories for them, too. Our guides know which itineraries are family-friendly, and which streets are less so… During our tour, we always give children an extra five minutes to rest, and at the end of the tour, they receive a photo book of the most beautiful monuments in the site, side-by-side with how they would have looked at the time of their greatest splendor.
History enthusiasts, you are in the right place! Pompeii is very big, and a part of the city is still being excavated. Just recently, new and wonderful domus have been opened to the public, so you will always find buildings that you have not seen yet. But really, if you are a history buff you can’t go wrong here.
When is the best time of year to visit Pompeii?
I don’t think there is an absolute ideal period for visiting Pompeii. This city has a different but always engaging charm in any season. During the low season, when the tourist flow decreases, the calm of the site makes us experience with greater intensity the tragic episode that decreed the end of an extremely lively and vital city.
The high season instead shows us the city as it should have been before the eruption. For instance, it’s lovely to get to the Forum – the central square of the city – and to see it as it should have been at the time: lively and joyful. Don’t be afraid of the crowd, for the queue at the ticket office can be easily cut in by buying a skip-the-line ticket. The site is so big that large crowds of people can rapidly scatter in the entrance.
Vesuvius last erupted in 1944, are there any concerns that the volcano will erupt again?
Vesuvius is still an active but carefully monitored volcano. In 1841 Ferdinand of Bourbon, the king of Naples, ordered the construction of an observatory, and we would say that volcanology as a scientific discipline was born in that period, and precisely in Naples. Today, we have a new modern and avant-garde Observatory that monitors the activity of the volcano.
So, we’re quite safe, thanks to the constant work of volcanologists, but mainly because we know a wonderful truth: Vesuvius loves those who love it and loves those who love Pompeii. We are sure that, as long as Pompeii continues to be a chosen and visited site, Vesuvius himself will keep on sleeping and protecting the city he decided not to destroy in 79 AD. It decided instead to preserve it over time.
Phew! Thank goodness for that!
Practical information for visiting Pompeii
How to get to Pompeii
Visiting Pompeii From Naples:
By far the easiest way to get from Naples to Pompeii is with a fully guided day trip. This takes all the legwork out of planning a route, and you’ll even get to visit Vesuvius too. You daredevil you!
If you’re dead-set on taking public transport, the easiest way to reach Pompei from Naples is the train. There are two main train types you can take, the Circumvesuviana and the Metropolitano.
Circumvesuviana trains run from Napoli Porta Nolana Station and Napoli Piazza Garibaldi Station in the direction of Pompei Scavi station every 30 minutes between 6:09 and 21:47. The last return train back to Naples from Pompeii Scavi station is at 22:24.
You can also take the Metropolitano trains leave every 30 minutes, from Napoli Piazza Garibaldi Station. These run between 6:27 and 22:05 , to Pompeii, with the last return train to Naples departing at 22:21 .
Visiting Pompeii From Rome
As with above, the most stress-free way to get from Rome to Pompeii is to take a guided day trip. Otherwise, you’ll first need to take a train from Roma Termini to Napoli Centrale, and then follow the above directions. However, make sure you choose a high-speed train and not a regional one, as you have a long day ahead of you and you don’t want to spend it sitting on trains.
Pompeii Opening times
The archeological area of Pompeii is open from 9:00 to 19:00 Tuesday to Sunday (closed on Mondays). Last entry is at 17:30.
Good to know
It’s best to pack light when visiting Pompeii, as luggage or bags larger than 30x30x15cm are not allowed onto the site. You can use a cloakroom at the entrance gates to store your belongings.
Needless to say, purposely defacing any of the archaeological site is a crime, punishable by being thrown headlong into Mount Vesuvius! Okay, that last part is made up, but a respectful manner is expected when visiting this treasured World Heritage Site.
Remarkable new discoveries continue to be made in and around Pompeii, with an ever-more-detailed picture of life in this ancient city emerging all the time. But whether you are moved by the dramatic tale of the city’s final hours of fire and brimstone, or its incredible window into the Roman Empire, the lost city is one of the most breathtaking and unmissable cultural experiences in the world.