explore Pompeii, Italy

Explore Pompeii, Italy

Explore Pompeii in Campania, Italy, not far from Naples. Its major attraction is the ruined ancient Roman city of the same name, which was engulfed by Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tours are done by qualified archaeologists and guides.

Pompeii was a settlement since the Bronze Age. Romans took control of Pompeii around 200 BC and it grew to become a large town. On October 24, 79 AD, Vesuvius erupted, burying the nearby town of Pompeii in ash and pumice, killing around 3,000 people, the rest of the population of 20,000 people having already fled, and preserving the city in its state from that fateful day. Pompeii is an excavation site and outdoor museum of the ancient Roman settlement. This site is considered to be one of the few sites where an ancient city has been preserved in detail – everything from jars and tables, to paintings and people were frozen in time, yielding, together with neighboring Herculaneum which suffered the same fate, an unprecedented opportunity to see how the people lived two thousand years ago.

Get around

This is a walking site only. There are a few bicycles for rent, but the surfaces make them rather impractical. Note that walking the old Roman stone roads can be quite exhausting, especially in the heat of summer with loads of fellow tourists about. Everyone will be walking on cobblestones and uneven ground. The temperature is between 32 and 35ºC in the summer, and there are few shades. Make sure to take plenty of water. There are fountains with drinkable water inside the ruins. Watch your step as the old roads are uneven and have grooves in them where the carts ran, and the rocks are smooth and may be covered with fine sand. It is advisable to wear good footwear, sunscreen and hats. There is a lot to look at and it could take all day to see everything.

On buying your ticket you should receive a map of the site and a booklet listing the main attractions. However, these can be sometimes out of print or you may find that the only booklet available is in Italian. A map of the site is essential if you want to see a lot in as short a time as possible. Even with a map visiting Pompeii is a bit like a trip to a maze. Many of the roads, apparently open according to the map, turn out to be blocked off for excavations or repairs. You might think you are heading for the exit but then have to turn around and retrace your steps to find another route. The maps may contain small errors, and do not indicate which side of the block is the entrance. The map also does not emphasize the most important locations so you should plan ahead if you have a tight schedule.

What to see. Best top attractions in Pompeii, Italy

The amphitheater. This is in the most easterly corner of the excavated area, near the Sarno Gate entrance. It was completed in 80BC, measures 135 x 104 meters and could hold about 20,000 people. It is the earliest surviving permanent amphitheater in Italy and one of the best preserved anywhere. It was used for gladiator battles, other sports and spectacles involving wild animals.

The Great Palaestra (Gymnasium). This occupies a large area opposite the Amphitheatre. The central area was used for sporting activities and there was a pool in the middle. On three sides are lengthy internal porticos or colonnades.

House of the Vettii. This is believed to have been the home of two brothers who were freed slaves and became very affluent. It contains many frescoes. In the vestibule there is a striking fresco of a well-endowed Priapus, God of Fertility and among the frescos in other parts of the building are illustrations of couples making love, of cupids and of mythological characters. The atrium of the house is open.

House of the Faun. This is named after a statue of a dancing faun found on the site. It is considered to be an excellent example of the fusion of Italian and Greek architectural styles, and occupies an entire block.

Forum. This was the center of public life, although it is now to the southwest of the excavated area. It was surrounded by many of the important government, religious and business buildings.

Temple of Apollo. This is to the north of the Basilica on the western side of the Forum. It has the oldest remains discovered, with some, including Etruscan items, dating back to 575BC, although the layout we see now was later than that.

Theatre built in the hollow of a hill for acoustic advantage; it seated 5,000

Via dei Sepolcri (street of tombs) A long street with worn ruts from carts.

Lupanar.  An ancient brothel with pornographic frescoes over the entrance to each room, presumably indicating the services they offered. Even allowing for the smaller size of ancient Romans the beds seem rather small.

House of the Ancient Hunt. Attractive, open-style house with many frescoes of hunting scenes.

The Basilica is to the west of the Forum. It was the most important public building of the city where justice was administered and trade was carried on.

Forum Granary Artifacts like amphorae (storage jars) and plaster casts of people who did not escape the eruption are stored in this building, which was designed to be the public market but may not have been finished before the eruption.

There are several baths to be inspected. The Forum Baths are just north of the forum and close to the restaurant. They are well-preserved and roofed. Be careful not to miss them as the entranceway is a long passage with no indication of the delights inside. The Central Baths occupy a much larger area but are less well-preserved. Close to these are the Stabian baths which have some interesting decorations and give a good idea of how baths used to function in Roman times.

House of the Tragic Poet. This small atrium house is best known for the mosaic at the entrance depicting a chained dog, with the words Cave Canem or “Beware of the Dog”.

You will see in the ground there are small tiles called cat’s eyes. The moon’s light or candle light reflects off these tiles and gave light, so people could see where they were walking at night.

Bars and Bakeries You will walk past where their bars and bakeries once existed. The bars had counters with three to four holes in them. They have water or other beverages available in the holes. The bakeries’ ovens look similar to the old brick stone oven. The House of the Baker has a garden area with millstones of lava used for grinding the wheat.

Street There are tracks for the carriages in the street for a smoother ride. There are also stone blocks in the street for pedestrians to step onto to cross the street. The sidewalks are higher than the modern sidewalk because the streets had water and waste flowing through them. The stone blocks in the street were also as high as the sidewalk, so people did not walk in the waste and water. The stone blocks were also used for what we now call speed bumps. When the carriages were going through the city, they were going fast. To avoid people from getting splashed by the water and waste they had stone blocks in the street. This would make the driver slow down when they were speeding, so they could get through the blocks.

Villa dei Misteri (Villa of the Mysteries) A house with curious frescoes, perhaps of women being initiated into the Cult of Dionysus. Contains one of the finest fresco cycles in Italy, as well as humorous ancient graffiti.

In the modern town of Pompei:

There is a Sanctuary  (church) which is a place of pilgrimage for Roman Catholics. For others, it is not a must-see, but should you arrive or leave via the Pompei Santuario station on the Circumvesuviana, rather than Pompei Scavi, you may find it worth at least a brief look inside at this place of veneration of the Virgin Mary.

What to do in Pompeii, Italy.

Buy a guidebook. Get the official guide from the site bookshop next to the ticket office. Lots of guides and maps are available but this one neatly combines the two. Τhere is also an English language version of the guidebook.

Visit also the National Archaeological Museum in Naples (closed Tuesdays), where most of the best preserved mosaics and found items from Pompeii are kept. It is almost more helpful to do this first, as the site without the full guidebook is quite confusing unless you arrive knowing why it looks as it does and why the frescoes and artifacts are so important to understanding life in 79AD.

Visit also the sister site Herculaneum, which is only a couple of Circumvesuviana stops apart and suffered a similar fate to Pompeii. Though it is a smaller site it was covered by a pyroclastic surge (instead of the ash and lapilli that covered Pompeii). This allowed some second stories to survive.

If you have more days, visit also the wonderful villas: Oplontis (Torre Annunziata stop, one Circumvesuviana stop from Pompeii) or Stabiae (also by the same train).

Have a look at random villas, as sometimes even small side rooms have amazing frescoes (wall paintings).

Don’t miss the “Garden of the Fugitives” at the south-east side where plaster casts of several victims (sadly, including children) are on display where they originally fell The plants in this garden have been reconstructed to match ancient growth, based on the study of plaster casts of plant roots.

Walk outside the City Gates to the Villa of the Mysteries, one of the greatest houses to come down to us from the ancient world. Even on a very hot day, it is worth the walk.

Ask one of the Archaeologists working on one of the many sites “Hasn’t it all been dug?” (there is still 1/3 of the site unexcavated… and there is always more under the floor!)

Cash Only

An ATM is located in the ticket office area near the Pompei Scavi train station, there is no ATM inside the site and credit cards are not accepted, so make sure to bring enough cash for your needs.

There is a modern air-conditioned food court building in the centre of the site. Soft drinks, cafe, pizza, main courses, sandwiches, crisps, and other items are available for purchase. Credit cards are accepted. This will generally be your only lunch option within the site, though food is allowed inside, as you will see many Asian tour groups stopping to consume bento box type meals.

What to buy

Buy a tour guide book so you can read more about the interesting city history, building and artifacts. There is so much to learn from the Romans and to see how they lived.

What to eat

On the way from the station to the official entrance loads of shops try to sell stuff for very expensive prices but the food is not outstanding. Drinks, especially the freshly pressed orange and lemon juices, however, are fantastic especially in the heat, though slightly pricey.

You can get a very good panino (filled bread roll) from some of the stands.

There is a café and restaurant in the excavation area, just north of the Forum. Not surprisingly, this is rather expensive and not particularly good. Nonetheless, it is an OK place to take a break and recuperate, particularly with its air conditioning. If you don’t have time for a rest you can grab an ice cream from a service window that faces the street. The restaurant has toilets, seemingly the only ones on the site.

What to drink

Remember to take enough water to drink as it gets quite hot in the dusty streets. Keep your empty bottles for refilling as there are occasional water taps around the site dispensing rather odd-smelling water that, however, seems to be drinkable.

Lemon and Orange granita bought from outside the site are a tasty way to cool down.

Get out

  • Go by train to Naples, the birthplace of pizza. Some of the most highly rated pizzerias are just a few blocks from the train station.
  • Visit the sister site of Herculaneum
  • Head over to the underwater Archaeological Park of Baiae
  • Take a trip to the Amalfi Coast
  • Take a boat from Naples or Sorrento to the island of Capri
  • Buses leave for Mt. Vesuvius from the site.

Official tourism websites of Pompeii

For more information please visit the official government website: 

Watch a video about Pompeii

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