It’s no accident that my most written about country on the blog is Italy. Somehow, even though I only made it there when I was 33, it has seeped completely under my skin. I’m spending my days planning fantasy itineraries, looking at homes for rent in Italy and imagining the instagram potential of Lake Como, and yet nothing quite gets my eyelashes fluttering like Pompeii did.
Six months after visiting it, I’ve finally got around to writing up my experiences. I’ve been obsessed with this place since I first learnt about it as a child, and although it took me until I was in my thirties to see it, for me it was worth the wait. I remember being in school learning about volcanos in geography class (was it just me, or was the word magma just really fun to say?!), and then in history learning about the power they had in shaping the future of a whole city.
I couldn’t believe that people were actually moulded into rocks formed by the lava. I couldn’t comprehend the sheer scale and enormity of it all.
History, and nature and the power of human evolution all collide at this spot. Despite my overwhelming emotion at finally getting to visit, I’ve written a honest post about all the info you need if you want to visit too!
The history of Pompeii
Pompeii is one of the best examples and best evidence for early Roman civilisation – providing amazing proof of their way of life, trades and customs, as well as some of the darker sides of Roman culture. Up until 79AD, Pompeii was one of the largest centres of Roman life, a port/sea town important for trade (sadly important for the sex trade too, as there were more brothels than bakeries in Pompeii to service the needs of visiting tradesmen from the port).
Like an Roman settlement, Pompeii was home to large, elegant villas of the nobility, as well as both family and peasant dwellings, businesses, town squares, places of worship and traditional thermal baths. And a swimming pool! But on that fateful day in 79AD when Mount Vesuvius erupted, time literally stood still. And despite being based on the sea, with the volcano came a tsunami so if they were not killed by hot ash, they drowned in the violent water.
The area was lost and disappeared for at least 1,500 years until its first rediscovery in 1599 and then a broader rediscovery happened almost 150 years later. the objects have been perfectly preserved due to lack of oxygen and moisture, giving us access to the most mind-blowing and amazing archeological site in existence.
Pompeii has been a tourist destination for over 250 years and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What can you see at Pompeii today?
Pompeii is actually one of five archeological sites you can visit, and the best known. Joined by Herculaneum, Oplontis, Boscoreale and Stabaie you can see the excavated ruins of typical Roman settlements.
The site is vast, and in fact it hasn’t all been excavated yet (for a more compact and finished site, you may want to try Herculaneum) but there is still a lot of detailed to be seen. During our time at Pompeii we saw a couple of traditional Roman theatres and an a amphitheatre, a huge range of different types of houses and businesses such as bakeries, lined along traditional roads. We saw inside a traditional thermal bath (not all Pompeians had running water in their homes, and this was a central point of Pompeii) and the Temple of Apollo, and we even saw the Forum, the centre of public life.
What struck me the most was the visit we took to some of the many brothels at Pompeii. Brothels were ten a penny at Pompeii, and visiting them was actually quite a strange experience. On the walls are scenes of sex acts that men could pay for, and the sad stone beds are indicative of a much worse time in our history for women. In fact, women had a life expectancy of just 20 years in Pompeii – I guess the eruption was not the only tragedy to befall this city.
As a side note, many of the things you might expect to see at Pompeii – preserved bodies, artefacts etc are not at the site any more, and have been moved to the Naples Archeological Museum for preservation and protection. I would really recommend a visit there, and I’ve documented all the details in my Naples City Guide.Where history and tragedy collide - but how exactly do you visit Pompeii and is it worth the hype?Click To Tweet
Pompeii survival tips
It seems odd to say this, but it is absolutely worth being properly prepared for any visit to the site, to ensure you make the most of your day. In many ways Pompeii is a sparse and open site with little in the way of facilities so it is worth bearing in mind. Here are some things that will really help your visit go off without a hitch.
- Bring cash to hire audio guides and buy water and snacks as credit cards aren’t accepted (at the time of writing).
- Dress appropriately – there is next to no shade at the site, and even in March the weather was relentless. Wear a hat, take sunglasses and wear thin layers if you are prone to sunburn.
- On the topic of sunburn, protect your skin – plenty of high factor sunscreen before you go and take with you to top up!
- Finally, carry water with you. Whilst there are a handful of water fountains, they are not easy to find if you are exploring alone and having a bottle of water within easy reach is something you’ll thank me for!
To tour or not to tour
When planning my trip to Pompeii, I heard a huge amount of conflicting advice on how to actually see the archeological site. Whilst I am a fairly independent traveller in many respects, I love booking on tours, especially walking based ones as I really like to know more about what I’m looking at and the real history and culture behind an attraction. I was repeatedly told to visit on my own, without a guide. Whilst I can see how some people would like to do that, I’m am so glad we booked a thorough organised tour for many reasons:
- Pompeii is a truly vast site with not a huge amount of signage or information. It can be really hard to know what you are looking at, and put it into the context of the disaster all those centuries ago.
- Often, parts of Pompeii will be closed off for visitors and there is no way of knowing until you trek there and realise something is blocked off. A good guide can navigate you round all this making the most of your time.
- The organised tour handled everything from hotel pick up and drop off, entry and lunch. There’s no denying that Naples is a bit of a crazy place, so it felt reassuring to have everything sorted out before we got there.
- For most visitors, 2-3 hours will suffice at the site, and on an organised tour you can combine into a full day trip with another site – perhaps Herculaneum, or like we did a trip to the top of Mount Vesuvius.
I booked our tour through Viator which was handled by local tour company Project Napoli. Our tour guide at Pompeii was absolutely incredible – extremely knowledgeable, funny and personable and as the only Brits on the we had a good time joking with her about odd British sayings. She told us that she takes tours there 6 days a week and truly loves her job and her passion for the area was wonderful to see. I couldn’t imagine seeing Pompeii without a guide now to be honest!
If you really do prefer to fly solo, there are options when you get there. You can book a cheaper guide at the gate – but these vary in quality and availability and in busy periods you may have a long wait. You can also hire audio guides at Pompeii itself – at the time of writing they accept cash only and you will need to leave behind some ID or a credit card to hire them.
Adult tickets for entrance to Pompeii are 11 EUR, and are available to book online.
The practicalities – how to get there and where to stay
Pompeii is located in the Campania region of Italy, in the province of Naples and is easily reached from both Naples and Sorrento. We stayed in Naples for 3 nights and made a city break there part of our visit, but if a beach break is more your vibe, Sorrento is just as convenient a place to rest your head. If you’re on a budget, Naples is definitely the cheaper option in terms of hotels and amenities.
If you are flying solo without a tour, or plan to pick up a guide at the entrance you’ll need to use public transport to get there, You could book a taxi from your hotel, but if I’m honest you might as well booked on an organised tour if you are going to do it this way, for all the difference in price there is. The Circumvesuviana train links Naples, Pompeii and Sorrento and is not part of the main Italian network so you can’t buy tickets online. They run frequently (every 30 minutes), but they are very crowded.
Looking for more resources and information?
There is so much information about Pompeii online, but Mary Beard, a professor of Classics and Ancient Literature has written extensively on the subject and that of wider Ancient Rome. These are all amazing options if you want to get to Pompeii geekery on (especially the DVD – it’s so cool!)
- Pompeii: the Life of a Roman Town by Mary Beard
- Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town by Mary Beard
- The Complete Pompeii by Joanne Berry
- Naples, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast by Lonely Planet