I would like to share with you the Italian historical site which left the strongest impression on me, Pompeii and how to get the most out of your visit there!
Pompeii is an ancient world frozen in time. It is a unique place where visitors have the honour of receiving the truest real-life glimpse into the past, right back into 79AD! About 3 million people visit Pompeii annually, from all around the globe, making this UNESCO World Heritage site one of the most visited archaeological sites in the world.
Pompeii is an archaeological site of tremendous importance due to the preservation that has allowed scientists to have access to a unique, tangible source of information for understanding all aspects of this ancient world. It is in fact, still being excavated to this date, with 20+countries involved in this near 300-year long excavation project. Interestingly, only 35% of the city is open to the public. So, there is a lot more to learn from this site.
Pompeii was the most fascinating place that I visited in Italy. My visit filled me with awe and an insatiable hunger to know more. The experience of walking down ancient streets, contemplating how people once lived was overwhelmingly enthralling. Discovering how sophisticated their society was astonished me! They had sewerage, a water system, paved streets, they exported wine, had fast food (Thermopolia), bars, restaurants, bathing complexes, theatres, stadiums, hotels, temples and artisanal stores. They had over 34 bakeries selling a large variety of bread, one even sold dog treats!
Pompeii requires and deserves planning
I rarely research or plan much before travelling because I like to have a blank slate for my impressions and experiences. But Pompeii is a place that requires and deserves pre-trip planning in order to get the most out of your experience.
I personally did (and favour) a self-guided tour of Pompeii due to its sheer size. I prefer to explore ‘on my own watch’ and rest when I need to. So, I am writing from this experience. I will comment about hiring a tour guide later in this post.
A Brief History
Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79AD. The eruption resulted in the death of citizens of Pompeii who didn’t flee and the whole city of Pompeii disappearing. The city was buried under layers of ash, pumice stones and other volcanic debris. This burial protected Pompeii from decaying from the exposure to the climate, weather, vandalism and looting. This is why Pompeii is so well-preserved.
Pompeii was rediscovered in 1748, when the King of Naples ordered excavations, years after a neighbouring village was discovered.
History of tourism in Pompeii
After its discovery, Pompeii was included on a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe which was a travel route taken by European aristocrats. Even Goethe, one of my favourite writers visited in 1787 and his visit also made quite the impression on him!
I find it especially interesting that pre-eruption, Pompeii was a wealthy city which was a popular travel destination, popular for its leisure activities and shopping. When you think about it, it is pretty cool that the city still lives on for travellers, for different reasons but wow, I can’t even imagine for how many years people have been travelling to Pompeii!
Planning your visit to Pompeii
Cost of visiting
At the time of our visit in October 2018, it cost 15€ per person, without any discounts to visit.
When buying a ticket at Pompeii you have to walk past shops and get almost to the point of entering, where you will see official ticket sales booths. I mention this in detail because there are scams in the area where tickets are re-sold by scammers for a bigger price.
How to get there
As we were doing a road trip we drove to the site and parked nearby, paying 5€ to park all day. We choose to park at one with lots of tour buses because we figured it must be legitimate. There are dodgy vendors in the area so beware.
There is a train station on the Naples-Sorrento train line about 50 metres from the entrance at Pompeii and multiple buses visit from Naples, Rome and other places. I personally like to use the website ‘Rome2Rio’ as it tells you the exact bus/train/tram you need to take from wherever you are coming from and the price displayed is normally accurate.
Note: Be aware of scammers at the train station. You do not need to take a bus to Pompeii from the train station, you can walk. There are scammers unnecessarily ferrying people onto buses, taking them a short distance to Pompeii.
When to visit
As mentioned, Pompeii is an extremely popular place to visit. In Italy, popular tourist sights tend to be busy all year round. Come early in the day (as soon as it opens: 9 am) to avoid dealing with heavy crowds for your entire visit. The crowds are unavoidable and they can grow huge, especially in the afternoon. There are a lot of very large group tours visiting at once and they can be hard to navigate around if you end up in an area of Pompeii that is popular to visit.
Have a ‘game-plan’
Pompeii is big! It was a city, after all. I recommend setting aside an entire day to see it. You will have a lot of walking to do, so it is ideal to have a nice amount of time to see points of interest and to rest your tired legs.
I recommend having a game-plan to ensure that you get the most out of your visit. Do some research and make a list of the sites that you wish to see, create your own itinerary. You might want to watch a documentary to get some ideas. I recommend plotting the places you wish to see out on a map, here is the one that is provided for free in the ticket area. I will share some of my favourite sites later in the post.
Bring a guidebook or printed info
As mentioned, you can pick up a free map in the ticket area but as you can see, it is simply a map for navigation. Unless you speak Italian fluently, you won’t understand the names of the points of interest (which are usually only on the map – not on signs, by the way) let alone know anything else about them. There are also itineraries on this map but again, this will only be helpful to you if you speak Italian. The itineraries are actually available on the official Pompeii website in English.
Throughout Pompeii, there are very few signs explaining anything. So, I highly recommend having your own source of information, either a guidebook or some other printed information to give you an understanding of the sites you are visiting. This free, printable PDF by The Board of Cultural Heritage of Pompeii could be a great option to guide your visit.
Alternative to self-guided tour – Having a guide
If you aren’t keen to navigate using a map or interested in doing any research in advance your best option will be to hire a tour guide. According to the reviews, I have read it is best to find a guide near the ticket booth, near the entrance. The tours normally last for 3 hours and if you have a group of people it costs between 15-20€ per person.
There are also audio guides available at the ticket box. If you choose to do this you need to leave your passport or some sort of ID as insurance and lineup again at the end of your visit to return the device.
What to wear
Pay attention to the forecast for the day. There is limited shelter, everything is mostly out in the open so be prepared to protect yourself against the elements.
Importantly, select your shoes wisely! There are a lot of uneven surfaces in Pompeii and you really need to be comfortable for hours of walking. I recommend wearing shoes appropriate for walking or running.
Instead of paying 10€ for a hot dog and a drink, I highly recommend coming prepared with snacks and water to sustain you for a day. We bought fruit and some other snacks along with a big bottle of water. There are a few stations on the site where you can refill water bottles.
Visiting Pompeii can be exhausting especially if you spend a full day there. I recommend staying nearby so you can easily return to your accommodation after a day of exploring. We stayed in Casola di Napoli which was a great base to visit Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast from. This sleepy part of Naples is the perfect place to try some authentic Italian food like pizza, roadside snacks and Graffe. We could actually afford to eat there without breaking our budget and let’s be real, you don’t come to Italy to not eat!
A note for parents considering bringing their children
Please think twice before bringing your baby, child or even teenager. We saw a few ladies struggling with trying to push strollers over uneven roads (they have to carry them essentially) and many parents struggling with unruly children. We even saw an American woman, publicly shaming her teenage daughter for being “ungrateful”, she told her mum that she was just “tired”. It is a big day for any human to explore Pompeii, whether they are a small child or an adult. It can be exhausting! I think at most it would be appropriate for a pre-teen or teen to visit and only if they are interested. Of course, I am not a parent and I’m not judging you for your choice, I just wanted to give the warning that visiting with children may be difficult.
The following were my favourite aspects of visiting Pompeii. If any of these points interest you, you might wish to add them to your itinerary.
Just wandering the streets
Seriously! It is so amazing that is possible in 2018 to wander a well-preserved ancient city. When you have the opportunity to learn about the history of Pompeii and see it with your own eyes, it really transports you back to another time.
The Cast Bodies
I have seen so many images of these casts, they have fascinated me since I learnt of their existence as a child. The casts of bodies were made by pouring cement into the hollow of the volcanic ash where bodies had disintegrated. There aren’t many casts because they eventually discovered that this process destroyed fragile remains of corpses thus damaging valuable information about the victims of Mt. Vesuvius.
Where you can see the ‘bodies’ in Pompeii
The plaster casts of the citizens of Pompeii can be found in multiple locations across the Pompeii city. On the map, there is actually a symbol of a body lying down indicating where the plaster casts (Italian: Calchi) are but they don’t seem to be accurately placed (places that have casts don’t always have these symbols). Please beware that they sometimes move the bodies for analysis or for tours, according to some reviews I read.
Names and locations where some of the plaster cast bodies can be found:
- The Garden of Fugitives (Italian: Orto Dei Fuggiaschi) holds the most plaster casts, with 13 of them being located here. Location: No. 16, Region I.
- The Villa of Mysteries (Italian: Villa dei Misteri). Location: No. 19, Region VI.
- The Stabian Thermal Baths (Italian: Terme Centrali). Location: No. 2, Region IX.
- The Marketplace (Italian: Macellum). Location: No. 12, Region VII.
- Forum Granary (Italian: Granai del Foro). Location: No. 7, Region VII.
- The Antiquarium. Location: No. 19, Region VIII.
- House of Sirico (Italian: Casa di Sirico). Location: No. 17, Region VII.
A glimpse into the ancient diets
Location: No. 6, Region II.
In The Palestra Grande, there were exhibitions about the diets of the citizens of Pompeii, it displayed some weathered but nevertheless, well-preserved foods (considering the amount of time that has passed). Remains of food included loaves of bread, bowls of soup, beans, chickpeas, lentils, barley, millet, onions, garlic, dried fruit and nuts. Finding this food indicated to archaeologists what was grown in the region as well as what was imported from Africa and other parts of Europe.
Antiquarium – The Museum
Location: No. 19 in Region VIII.
The Antiquarium is a small but interesting museum which explains some of what you see in Pompeii. There is a video playing on loop there which really helped to round up our understanding after a day of sightseeing in Pompeii.
They had a few pretty items on display such as jewellery and a colourful tiled part of a public bath. As mentioned earlier, it also houses some of the cast bodies. This museum opened a few years ago after being closed for nearly 36 years due to bombings during world war II and an earthquake in 1980.
I definitely recommend stopping here before you leave Pompeii, it is conveniently located near an exit.
The Amphitheatre (Italian: Anfiteatro)
Location: No. 5, Region II.
Constructed in 70BC, The Amphitheatre in Pompeii is the oldest in the Roman world. In ancient times, it hosted circuses and gladiator games. In recent times, Pink Floyd performed live on film with no audience in the amphitheatre in 1972. You can currently see an exhibition about the Pink Floyd performance at The Amphitheatre.
Villa of Mysteries (Italian: Villa dei Misteri)
Location: No. 19, Region VI.
There are multiple villas throughout Pompeii adorned with elegant frescoes depicting scenes from ancient times. One of the most famous villas is the Villa of Mysteries which has a 3-metre wide fresco which is believed to be depicting a woman being initiated into a Greco-Roman cult. Within this villa, there are also impressive paintings of Ancient Egyptian Gods.
The road leading up to the villa, Via Delle Tombe, felt a lot more regal than other parts of Pompeii due to the sizes of buildings and monuments. It is worth meandering around this spot to check out the little details.
Forum (Italian: Foro)
Location: No. 6a, Region VII.
The Forum was once the main square of Pompeii and was the heart of the city. Surrounding this square were government, religious and commercial buildings. Off the square, you will find The Temple of Jupiter, facing Mt. Vesuvius. It is an incredibly scenic view! This area is a great place to wander around, admire the ruins and contemplate how life was once in Pompeii.
Most of the issues that you will face when visiting Pompeii can be mostly avoided with planning, nevertheless, I want you to be aware of what you may come across.
Pompeii is a poorly run tourist site
Pompeii is very poorly run and is a prime example of chaotic, popular tourists sites in Italy. Given the amount of money that Pompeii makes on a daily basis, its immeasurable value and its worldwide fame, the state that it is in is appalling. I have never come across a popular destination like this that is clearly so neglected by its government.
There are no signs or information
There are virtually no signs or information anywhere with the exception of a few places. I even came across a number of empty sign holders. You are provided with a free map that is only in Italian and it can only be used for navigation, if you speak Italian then you can simply understand the names of places and get an itinerary. This means that unlike every other famous tourist attraction in Italy that you actually need to do preparation to have a good experience when you visit unless you hire a guide.
I’ve read lots of reviews on Trip Advisor of disappointed visitors who didn’t realise that you can’t simply roam around because without some external form of information as you will not understand what you are seeing. They had bad experiences. With preparation for a self-guided tour or by hiring a guide, you can have a really wonderful learning experience.
Not all exhibitions are open all day
Some exhibitions are only open for half the day, only in the morning or afternoon. I don’t understand how there isn’t enough money to have staff there all day to keep exhibitions open. This is why I recommend setting aside a whole day to visit, it gives you a better chance of seeing more.
There are scams that you should be aware of
You mainly need to be wary upon arriving near Pompeii, right up until you get to the entrance. Naples has the highest rates of organised crime in Italy and there are a lot of unsavoury people waiting to swoop like vultures on unsuspecting tourists. They hang around the train station and before the entrance of Pompeii.
The main scams to be aware of include: tickets being re-sold outside of Pompeii at inflated prices, fake tours and the scam where tourists are unnecessarily driven 50 metres by bus from the train station. Ignore people who try to usher you anywhere at the train station to buy tickets or tours. The scam artists are creative in this region so beware! Once you get out of your car, the bus or train just make your way straight to the ticket area and don’t purchase your ticket from anyone else but the person in the ticket box (you should be able to see metal entrance barriers and someone scanning tickets at this point).
Sales techniques of people in this region can be incredibly questionable too. Our car was even stopped in the middle of the road by a carpark vendor who was trying to get us to use his car park when we were leaving Pompeii.
Do I recommend visiting?
Pompeii is one of my most favourite places I’ve visited in Italy. And dare I say, my favourite historical site that I have ever visited. For history and cultural enthusiasts, it is an absolute must-see.
As mentioned multiple times throughout this post, I recommend doing a self-guided tour of Pompeii but only if you are willing to do some preparation. You need to spend at least an entire day to scratch the surface of this amazing place. If you are not willing to do any preparation, you definitely need to hire a tour guide otherwise there is virtually no point in visiting due to the very limited information provided on the map and the lack of signs. Without an external source of information; either a written guide, audio guide or actual human tour guide there is no way to make sense of what you are seeing 80% of the time.
For those who are looking for an adventure, you may also wish to visit Mt. Vesuvius, the volcano which caused the city to basically disappear for centuries. I recommend doing some research if you plan to do this.
For those who are super enthusiastic about the history of Pompeii, you may wish to visit the Naples Archaeological Museum. Some of the best artefacts (especially art) from Pompeii ended up at this museum and can help give visitors a better understanding of the history of Pompeii. It is particularly famous for holding a collection of ancient Roman pornography in ‘The Secret Room’. There are no cast bodies at this museum.
I hope you found this blog post helpful. If you have any questions to ask or tips to add please leave a comment down below!