Normally, time passes.
In most cases, a city evolves as the generations follow each other, the next leaving their mark on top of the previous.
Sometimes a city is abandoned, as history has shown us countless times. The elements then get their chance to mould what is left, gradually stripping away what was made by man and covering it with nature.
And this is why Pompeii is so special. Frozen in time, it neither evolved nor was abandoned. What it was in 79 AD is what it also became. Except, of course, without life.
Is a city still a city if it has no life? Is a city defined by the buildings and the urban layout or is it defined by the people who move throughout hit?
When Mount Vesuvius erupted, did it preserve Pompeii or did it destroy it? I wonder whether it can do both.
The story of Pompeii
As I walk through the streets of Pompeii, almost 2000 years after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, I think about this question.
Visiting Pompeii is certainly a remarkable experience and a must-do trip from Naples. I’ve been to a lot of ancient sites in my travels, a lot of ruins, but this is different. Never before has something that’s been struck by such disaster felt so complete.
In the time before the eruption, in the first century AD, Pompeii was a thriving city. It had more than 10,000 inhabitants and it was a wealthy centre because of the fertile agricultural land around it.
As we know, the volcano that gives the rich land takes away with the other hand. Despite earthquakes and tremors in the years leading up to the major eruption, many people didn’t move away. On 24 August in 79 AD, those who remained were suffocated by toxic gases and buried under metres of volcanic ash.
It’s this ash that I can thank for what what I am seeing today. It protected Pompeii from the moisture and the air that would normally damage a city. The ancient city stayed underground, preserved for centuries, until it was rediscovered in 1599 and then excavated properly for the first time from 1748.
Imagine what opening that time capsule for the first time must have been like.
A Pompeii visit
In some ways, we can imagine what it was like to find Pompeii. Pompeii may be one of the most popular tourist sites in Italy but your first visit always makes you feel like an explorer. Discovering Pompeii by walking through the entrance gates can have the same emotional effect as discovering it by digging down into the ground.
Either way, it is equal parts exhilarating and overwhelming.
Remember, Pompeii is a city and it is spread out over an enormous area. It can take a long time to walk through and see it. Even with a tour of Pompeii, it’s unlikely you will be able to see everything properly in just one visit
There are the highlights – the amphitheatre, the basilica, the temples, and the fora.
There are the dozens of houses that have been restored to much of their former glory and are worth exploring.
And then there is just the general layout of the city, filled with intersections offering new opportunities, and streets that must be traversed to see the best sights in Pompeii.
Self guided Pompeii tour
There is certainly an argument for taking a guided tour of Pompeii to really get the most out of your visit. I’ll come to that in a moment, because I first want to talk about a self guided Pompeii tour.
When you buy an entrance ticket for Pompeii, you’ll be given a map and you can also ask for a 150-page booklet with detailed information about the highlighted locations (you can see the map online here and read the booklet online here).
These will help you understand more about the site and give you a lot of the history and details you need to interpret what you’re seeing. But it still helps to know where you’re going.
Map of Pompeii
To assist with your visit to Pompeii, I have put together this map with my suggested itinerary. If you’re going to do a self guided tour of Pompeii, I hope you’ll find it useful.
But before starting, it’s important to know that there are two main entrances to Pompeii. There’s the Porta Marina entrance (and adjacent Piazza Esedra) at the southwest of the site, and the Piazza Anfiteatro entrance at the southeast of the site.
Porta Marina is the main entrance and it’s where you can get an audioguide. It’s also closest to the main attractions in Pompeii. However, this makes it much busier and the queues for tickets can be long during busy periods.
I would actually recommend using the other entrance at Piazza Anfiteatro. It’s much quieter and you’ll get in faster. Also, it is close to the Trenitalia station Pompeii which is a much nicer way to travel than the Circumvesuviana line (I’ll explain more about that soon too).
So you’ll see in this map of Pompeii, that the suggested route begins at Piazza Anfiteatro and loops around. If you prefer, you could start at the other entrance and do the loop anyway.
You will go past lots of things on this route and, depending on how many you stop at along the way, it will take you between three and five hours (just doing the walk alone at a brisk pace would take at least one hour).
There’s much more to see than I can tell you about, but I wanted to make mention of some of the highlights to check out as you go along. I have marked them on the map.
This large gymnasium is a square with sides of 140 metres each. It is from the 1st century AD and would have been used for training young people, physically and mentally. It has an exhibition in one of the porticos of frescoes from a building discovered near Pompeii.
The amphitheatre is quite significant because it is the oldest among those known in the Roman world. The stands could hold up to 20,000 people, who would have come to watch all sorts of violent shows. It is on the outskirts of the city to help with the flow of the crowds.
House of Venus in the Shell
You will see a lot of houses but, as this may be one of the first, it’s worth noting the layout. There is a central space, in this case a garden, and frescoed rooms come off it. You can still see quite a few of the artworks and the most significant is the one of Venus on the back wall.
House of Octavius Quartio
This is certainly a grand house and it’s layout is a smaller version of the aristocratic villas that were found in the countryside. The main building has some beautiful artworks but the highlight is the large garden at the back that stretches out with a water feature down the middle.
House of Sirico
The last owner of this house was a powerful man with connections in politics and trade. He used this space almost daily for entertaining and you can see that in the ‘exedra’ room where guests would have sat around on couches. The floor had find marble slabs and there were beautiful frescoes with mythological subjects inspired by the Trojan War painted on the walls.
House of Marcus Lucretius in via Stabiana
Here you can a house that has been created by combing two smaller adjoining houses. There are paintings of mythological creatures that have been preserved well, but the most interesting element is the garden. The elegant marble fountain is one of the highlights.
House of the Faun
This is one of the most famous houses in Pompeii because it is one of the largest and most opulent. You can see that straight away in the pillars and inlaid floor of the entrance. There are two atriums and two courtyards with private and entertaining rooms coming off them. The two most important elements are the statue of the faun and the floor mosaic of a famous battle.
House of the Tragic Poet
This is another famous house but for a completely different reason. It is the small image of a dog at the front of the house that makes it interesting because it also comes with the words “Beware of the Dog”. Perhaps the ancient Romans of Pompeii weren’t so different to homeowners of today!
It gets dark when you go inside the Forum Baths, one of the few spots of Pompeii that isn’t uncovered. These baths were built early in the city’s history and are quite complex. In the men’s area, you’ll find different areas for baths of various temperatures. The decorations in the rooms are also really interesting.
This space as once used as the fruit and vegetable market but it now holds something much more important. Under this roof are artefacts that have been found during the excavations of Pompeii. There are more than 9000 items, including pots, jugs, tables, baths, and even a dog!
Temple of Jupiter
The Temple of Jupiter is one of the iconic buildings of Pompeii – not just because of its scale but because Mount Vesuvius looms behind it. The temple dominates the northern part of the Forum and would once have had statues dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva.
Of course, the Forum itself is one of the most important parts of Pompeii. All the main public buildings would either have been situated on the square or would be found very close. It would also have been used for markets and other sorts of trading. Excavations show that it changed shape several times over the centuries.
Sanctuary of Apollo
The Sanctuary of Apollo is one of the oldest places of worship in Pompeii, with the current shape from around the 3rd century BC, and evidence of an older temple from the 6th century BC. It was built in an important location, that many people would pass through on their way into the main part of the city.
This incredible building would have been used effectively as a court – where justice was administered and important business decisions were made. The judges would have sat at the bench on the western side and the walls were decorated with stucco like large blocks of marble.
The Grand Theatre was the first large public building that was completely excavated at Pompeii, many centuries after the eruption. The auditorium of the theatre was made into the natural slope of a hill. The stage was used to perform comedies and tragedies in Greek and Roman styles. The nearby Small Theatre was used for other entertainment like mime shows, singing, and music.
Guided tours of Pompeii
So, I know there’s a lot of information there if you’re thinking of doing a self guided tour of Pompeii. But, as I mentioned, this is certainly a site where you will benefit from having an expert who can give you the context of what you’re seeing.
If you use the main entrance Porta Marina entrance, you should be able to hire a guide there. But you might find it easier to book a tour that will take the hassle out of hiring a guide – and some will also get you from Naples to Pompeii.
I would recommend using one of the following options:
However you visit Pompeii, however long you stay, remember that this really is a moment frozen in time.
We don’t get to see them very often. Most places have some form of evolution or damage. Of course, Pompeii was damaged – more than any city should be able to handle. But, in some strange way, it has left us with something that is also so perfectly undamaged.
I hope you are able to get the most out of your time at this amazing Roman city.
The other option is to catch the Trenitalia train to Pompeii station and then walk for about 10 minutes.
In my opinion, the Circumversuviana is awful and best avoided. It's crowded, hot, dirty, uncomfortable, and has a reputation for pickpockets. The Trenitalia train is much nicer and I think the walk is worth it. (Plus, with Trenitalia you will arrive at the entrance that has shorter queues to buy tickets.
From November - March, the site is open from 08:30 - 17:30 (with the last admission at 15:30).
You can also get a combined ticket for Pompeii, Oplontis and Boscoreale for €18 for full admission and €10 for a concession.
There are lots of things to see in the region and I would recommend basing yourself in Naples while you visit some of the other sites.
Here are my suggestions for good accommodation in Naples:
There are a few very good cheap hotels in good locations in Naples. I would recommend either Hotel Casablanca near the train station or Hotel Europeo Napoli in the historic centre.
For something with a bit more style, I would recommend either the historic NapoliMia Hotel de Charme or the more modern Palazzo d'Auria ApartHotel.
And if you're looking for a bit of luxury, two great options are the Palazzao Alabardieri or the Grand Hotel Vesuvio, which has a wonderful view.