Since childhood, Pompeii’s fascinating and tragic story has captured our imagination. Maybe years of watching PBS and Rick Steves called to us. It seemed surreal, and we wondered if it was like how they depicted it. Pompeii was a grand Roman city frozen in time; how could we not realize our dream to visit? As a child, it seemed that dream likely would never be realized. Yet there we stood, just as ancient Romans did, in the streets of Pompeii.
The forecast called for torrential rain as if trying to challenge our commitment. The tickets were prepurchased, and we were determined. Nothing was going to deter us from this archeological wonder.
It seems an understatement to state that we were amazed the whole visit. Wishing, in the end, we had just a bit more time. Except for brief showers, the rain was minimal. It was near perfect, and it felt like we were transported back in time. To a time of a grand civilization, and we had been personally invited into their homes.
Pompeii is a massive archaeological site 30 minutes south of Naples and 40 minutes north of Sorrento in southern Italy’s Campania region. It sits on the southeast corner of the imposing Mount Vesuvius. Once a thriving and upscale Roman city, it was suddenly buried under several meters of volcanic debris after the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79 AD. The following day blistering deadly hot gases and super-heated rock rained down on the city. The city and its remaining residents were lost under meters of ash and pumice in a few short hours.
The area was still recovering from a devastating earthquake it had suffered 17 years earlier when they were hit with its final blow. The population of Pompeii at the time of the eruption was around 22,000 people. It is estimated that 2000 souls perished that fateful day within the walls of Pompeii.
For the next 16 centuries, the city of Pompeii disappeared as if it had never existed. There is little written evidence of its existence or the eruption that buried it, which is why it was forgotten for so long. It lay just beneath the surface, perfectly preserved in time, waiting to be unearthed and to tell its story.
Pompeii is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site with the smaller towns of Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata. The modern city of Pompei surrounds the archaeological site and has a population of over 25,000 (2011).
How was Pompeii discovered?
In 1592 during an underground aqueduct construction project, architect Domenico Fontana discovered the ancient city of Pompeii. He tunneled through a large part of the old city and its buildings, but he kept it quiet, and nothing came of his discovery.
The buried city of Herculaneum was discovered in 1709, and excavation began in 1738. Work to bring Pompeii back to light did not start until 1748. It was the beginning of the science of modern archaeology. Scientists recognized the immense value of this discovery and brought in experts to take on the delicate task.
When Pompeii was unearthed, they discovered a sophisticated Greco-Roman city frozen in time. Grand public buildings, spectacular squares, extensive markets, a vast amphitheater, lavish villas, and hundreds of homes from the 4th century BC were discovered. Inside were preserved remains of people sheltering from the eruption and bakeries with loaves still in the ovens. The buildings and their contents were a stunning revelation of the day-to-day life of this ancient world.
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What we have learned
The knowledge gained from these excavations continues to provide valuable information about this ancient civilization. The ash and pumice permitted no oxygen to enter, resulting in much being fully intact, including frescos and mosaics.
Those who lost their lives were also discovered. As they found skeletons, they noted a void within the volcanic ash and pumice surrounding them. The excavators began pouring plaster of Paris into the spaces. What formed was heartbreaking casts of people in the final moments of their life that reflected the tragedy and horror of that day. Mothers holding babies, people writhing in pain, a terrified four-year-old, groups tightly huddled together, and even couples holding each other. There have also been animals found, such as dogs and a horse.
These casts in recent years have been CAT scanned. They provided a wealth of information about the Pompeii residents. This includes age, sex, and health. It was reported that the radiologists were “extremely” moved by the experience. They felt connected as if these casts were their patients.
The impact of their story
Viewing these casts in person is as powerful as you can imagine. There is no doubt how terrifying and hopeless the situation was. It is evident in their faces and body language. It is remarkable and heartbreaking at the same time. Their stories are told in the most profoundly personal manner.
As much as we researched before our visit, it still did not prepare us for the reality of Pompeii. It is an experience unique to itself. You can wander through the very streets Romans did almost twenty centuries ago. The sidewalks have stepping stones to cross the roads during rain with modern drainage systems. To enter the lavish homes and examine the frescoes up close was remarkable. The markets must have been unique and plentiful. There were elegant public bathhouses and even a brothel.
It was off-season when we visited Pompeii, and rains threatened all day. As a result, we had much of Pompeii to ourselves, as you will note in the pictures. Walking down these long streets with no one in sight was a true gift to study and photograph in detail this fascinating city. It became easy to imagine the thriving city it once was. It is a vast site, and it can take a full day or two to do it justice. The site is about 163 acres, with a significant portion left to excavate. There is so much still to learn.
The archaeological site, from our perspective, is very well done. Once inside, the respect that Pompeii deserves has been accorded to it. There are no tourist shops, people selling items, or restaurants. There is only one small cafeteria on the immense site.
Buy tickets from Pompeii’s Official Ticket Site Ticketone
The entry price is 16 euros for Ages 25 and above. Ages 18-24 is 3.50 euros
Protecting and Keeping Pompeii for Future Generations
In normal times Pompeii gets millions of tourists a year. For this reason, it is a perfect example of how we need to focus on sustainable tourism.
At one time, Pompeii’s existence was threatened due to mismanagement, and a state of emergency was declared. In the subsequent years, significant and impressive efforts have been made to reduce the impact caused by mass tourism. It is challenging to strike the delicate balance between allowing tourism and preserving the site.
How can you help?
Visit in the off-season, and stay in the established areas and designated paths when exploring. Do not lean against walls to take pictures or rest. Pick up after yourself, and do not litter. Do not climb the ruins or touch the displays, and please do not enter a roped-off area to get that perfect shot. You can always ask staff to escort you if possible.
It may seem obvious, but please do not take any item out of the park, even the tiniest piece. You should leave with nothing more than what you entered with unless you paid for it. Visitors have been noted to pick off some mosaic tiles or other “souvenirs” for themselves. As outrageous as this is, it still happens much too often. Such egregious cases could lead the management of Pompeii to restrict access to several buildings prone to this. Let’s all give Pompeii the respect it so deserves.
How much time to give to see Pompeii
It would have been ideal to have one more day. We used an audio guide but will hire a professional guide next time. There is so much to learn, and it would be a great way to learn the details of what we were viewing.
We visited for about 7 hours with very few people present and could see about 70% of the site, and we are fast walkers. Some buildings were closed. Waits can be long to enter indoor areas when crowded, which would only add to your day.
Using a guide would likely add to the length of the day. Keep that in mind when looking at timing. The site, in American terms, is over 120 football fields in size. That makes quite a visual.
How to get to Pompeii
The best way to get to Pompeii from Naples or Sorrento is the local train called the Circumvesuviana. The best station for the ruins is Pompei Scavi – Villa Dei Misteri train station. Pompei Scavi –Villa Dei Misteri station is on the railway line from Naples to Sorrento.
An alternative to the Circumvesuviana train is the Campania express. These trains run on the same route as the Circumvesuviana but stop only at popular tourist sites like Naples, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Sorrento. The Campania Express trains have air conditioning, assigned seating, and luggage space but cost significantly more than the Circumvesuviana.
When the train is jam-packed, it draws pickpocketers. Keep your bag close and be aware of your surroundings. The trains otherwise are safe and convenient.
Pompei Scavi station is less than a five-minute walk to the Porta Marina main entrance to the ruins.
Go to the source for the most current info; Pompeii Official Site
There are three Pompeii entrances
Porta Marina is the main entrance to Pompeii, located directly across the road from the Pompeii Scavi train station. This entrance is the most popular with tourists, due to all the facilities available. You can access the information kiosk, hire audio guides, and shop for souvenirs here. Express access to Pompeii is open at this entrance. Since the other gates do not have all the above services, it’s the most crowded of the three gates, and you can expect longer wait times.
Piazza Esedra has a bookshop and restrooms. Although not very far from the Porta Marina entrance, the Piazza Esedra entrance is less crowded and is where group tours meet. It is the least serviceable of the three entries. Access is more manageable at this gate. Remember, this entrance offers no facilities like audio guide rentals and baggage checks.
Porta Antiteatro is located east of Pompeii, a 15-minute walk from Porta Marina. The Piazza Anfiteatro entrance is considered the best entrance for sightseeing since you’ll be led directly to the amphitheater, forum, and other essential places in Pompeii. You can rent an audio guide at this entrance and place your luggage in storage for free. There is an ATM, bookshop, toilets, and luggage lockers here.
Valuable Tips for your visit to Pompeii
- Get a map!! There are free maps at the entrances.
- Plan your approach and which sites are your must-dos.
- Wear good shoes.
- Wear sunscreen even on cloudy days. There is little shade in Pompeii.
- Seeing all three sites and the Volcano would be super rushed. You would barely see what is there at the sites. If you wish to see all, plan at least two days.
- Bring snacks. There is only a tiny cafeteria in the whole complex. During Covid, you were not allowed to eat inside the building.
- Villa dei Misteri is magnificent but a bit away from central Pompeii city. Check first to see if it is open. It is a long walk to the Villa. We walked there to find out it was closed, which lost us and others a good 30 minutes of our day.
- Bring water as there is only one small cafeteria to buy beverages in the complex. There are water sources to fill your bottle in the park.
- Pompeii is a blast to photograph, so bring a fully charged battery or a backup battery pack for your cell phone and camera.
- Avoid the guides who approach you outside the gates. If you wish to use a guide, only use official ones.
- Ignore ticket offices other than at the gates or the official one online for Pompeii. The ticket cost at the time of this article was 16 euros.
- If you are going during peak season, it is advisable to buy your tickets online. Lines are known to be very long, and they do limit admittance. Once they reach the max allowed, that is it! During Covid, this is especially important as they have significantly reduced their cap!!!
- Buy tickets at the official ticket site for Pompeii by clicking Ticketone. Prices are 16 euros for guests 25 and older and 3.5 euros for guests 18-24.
- Do your research before you go.
- Bring only a small bag into the ruins. It is a long day and could weigh you down after a while. More oversized items may be prohibited, especially if there are large crowds. Luggage lockers are available at the Porta Antiteatro entrance.
When to go
During peak months, Pompeii can be hot. Remember, you are walking on stone streets and are surrounded by stone. Lines can be pretty long, and there is a cap on how many they will allow into the park. We suggest buying your tickets in advance to avoid the long lines that occur or being denied entry. Ideally, buy directly from the official site. (Click here to jump to the link)
No time of the year should prevent you from visiting this fantastic site. In the summer, dress lightly, apply sunscreen, and bring water. In the winter, dress warmly and bring water. Pack an umbrella and poncho for the rain. We visited in the rain and were able to take shelter during downpours since there were few people at the site.
If you want to see the weather during a time of year you are considering visiting, check out this Weather Calendar.
Where to stay
If visiting Pompeii, there are endless choices as it is central to most major cities in the area. It is about 30 minutes south of Naples, 40 minutes north of Sorrento, and about an hour from Positano. We passed it heading from Naples but visited it from our Sorrento location the next day.
Any hotel you stay in near or in these locations will have you quickly reaching Pompeii. We drove in and had no issue with parking. Here is a link to Bookings.com which will provide hotels available in the area.
Visiting during Covid
As of August 21, 2021, all visitors over 12 need a Green Pass to enter Pompeii. This includes any of the archaeological parks. If you are from the US, your CDC Covid card is adequate documentation as of late 2021. All visitors must always wear a face mask. Temperatures are scanned upon entry. If you are not vaccinated, a recent negative antigen test is required. They do check!
When we were visiting, there were very few people in Pompeii. If we were not near anyone outdoors, we wore our masks below our chin as we saw staff do. We raised them as soon as we were within 20 feet of anyone. In all cases, when visiting indoors, masks are required.
Some sites within Pompeii were not open, such as the Villa of the Mysteri, which was disappointing after the long walk to reach it. We assumed it was due to staffing, as it seemed pretty low. We still had plenty to see.
To view current entry conditions to visit Pompeii during Covid, click here.
Facilities At Pompeii
Bathroom facilities and drinking water are available on-site, and signage is good to help you find it. There is only one place to get food, and it is a small cafeteria that does not permit eating inside.
Other Ancient City Sites
Herculaneum was also destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted, and it’s much quieter and smaller than Pompeii. Herculaneum is much better preserved, and many buildings still have their upper stories intact. The tragedy caused by the eruption feels even more potent at Herculaneum. Beside the shoreline were boathouses full of skeletons of people trying to shelter there.
You can get there by car from Naples and Sorrento. Also by bus and Circumvesuviana (the local train) from Naples.
Visiting Torre Annunziata
The main attraction here is the Oplontis Villa. It is located within the modern city of Torre Annunziata, about 3 kilometers from ancient Pompeii.
You can get there by car from Naples and Sorrento. Also by bus and Circumvesuviana (the local train) from Naples.
Visiting Mount Vesuvius
The Volcano, active to this day, has a massive presence throughout the region. At every angle, it sits in a beautiful but threatening way. The eruption that tore into the Mountain and buried Pompeii is still evident in the profile of the Mountain.
What is better than seeing the Volcano from a distance is to visit it up close and personal. It is an awe-inspiring experience. Visitors can go to the top of Mount Vesuvius and hike to the crater. We have heard you can smell the smoke that still rises from the crater.
The hike to reach the crater
The hike takes a bit over 90 minutes round trip. Bring good hiking shoes and water. Entry onto the mountain is pricey. On rainy days visitors are not allowed into the crater. The views are what people speak about most. You can take a bus from the Pompei Scavi Circumvesuviana station to Mount Vesuvius.
The preferred route is from the station at Ercolino; as you leave the train station, it is just outside the exit. You will find the Vesuvius Express office for the bus trips up the mountain on your left. It gets pretty busy with long lines and waits for the bus in peak times. It would be best if you kept a close eye on the time of your return. We have learned many stories of people stranded up there and paying steep fees to find a ride down.
For those with rental cars, you can access the mountain and crater on your own. The roads are steep, windy, and narrow. An experienced driver would be fine. The big issue is the parking lot is tiny and fills fast.
We did not take this tour and have heard mixed reviews, mainly about the long waits. The mountain itself seems to impress everyone.
Do your homework
To truly appreciate your impending visit, we strongly recommend that you research the history of Pompeii and the sites available. There are many ways to do this. Google Pompeii, but be prepared as you will find many tour group sites that we suggest you avoid. Purchase a book online or borrow a book from the library. Watch documentaries or YouTube travel videos on Pompeii. Below is a list of suggested books and videos on Pompeii.
- Pompeii: A Captivating Guide to the City in Ancient Rome That Was Buried Because of the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius during the Rule of the Roman Empire
- Lonely Planet Naples, Pompeii & the Amalfi Coast (Travel Guide)
- Moon Amalfi Coast: With Capri, Naples & Pompeii (Travel Guide)
- Rick Steve’s video on Naples and Pompeii
- Sound Cloud Audio Europe Rick Steves Pompeii
- Rick Steves post on Pompeii
- Encyclopedia Britannica Pompeii page
- Pompeii official site has some great info to prepare for your visit
The knowledge gained from these excavations provides valuable information about the Roman civilization and this ancient world. They had aspects of modernization we did not see again for many centuries. The amount of scientific knowledge lost from that period is staggering.
If you are ever in this region of Italy, take the opportunity to visit Pompeii. Its impact weeks later is still quite profound. If we had to summarize it in a few words, it blew us away. It was magnificent, poignant, and awe-inspiring. The memories it creates will stay with you for a long time. Pompeii is preserved for future generations to learn from its tragedy. Listen to their voices; their story is there if you are open to receiving it.
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