Visiting Pompeii, Herculaneum, Vesuvius, and Naples
Everyone should have the pleasure of visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum at least once. I have had the good fortune to see them multiple times as I worked on my book Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii. Based on my travels there, I have these recommendations:
Traveling to Italy. The best (and least expensive) time to visit Pompeii is from November through April. Airfares are much more affordable, hotels drop their rates, and (most important) fewer busloads of tourists crowd the narrow streets of Pompeii. It's true that the weather can be more variable then, but you can also have splendid weather in the middle of December and January. It's worth the risk if money is a factor.
Choosing a place to stay. To visit Pompeii, you should plan to arrive shortly before the ruins open at 8:30 which means that it is most convenient to stay somewhere nearby.
If you wish to stay in modern city of Pompeii, my preferred hotel is the Hotel Amleto which is located on a side street near the Piazza Anfiteatro entrance. Typically Italian with its tiled rooms and wonderful breakfast (would you believe Nutella-filled croissants?) and a small roof-top terrace, this is no cookie-cutter Holiday Inn. It also has a private garage (parking is included in the room rate). And the staff is friendly and first-rate. I highly recommend it, having stayed there some five times myself. But don't just take my word for it. You can read what reviewers have said on TripAdvisor.
If you want a Holiday Inn type room, though, you'd be better off staying in Naples or Sorrento. Both are appealing bases for touring the area. Sorrento is somewhat quieter and more sedate (though these are relative terms), while Naples is bustling and lively.
Recommended Background Books about Pompeii
Arriving at Pompeii. If you stay in Sorrento or Naples, you can either drive to Pompeii and park (there are many parking lots across from the main entrance for about 5 euros a day) or you can take the Circumvesuviana train. Unless you are an intrepid and very adventurous driver, however, I would suggest not having a car in either of these cities.
On the other hand, it is very easy to hop on the Circumvesuviana train to get to Pompeii from either Sorrento or Naples. There are two Circumvesuviana stations in Pompeii, each serving a different line of the train: (1) If you come to Pompeii from Sorrento or if you take the Sorrento line from Naples, your stop will be the Villa of the Mysteries station (Pompeii Scavi), which is directly across the street from Porta Marina, the main tourist entrance to the archaeological site. (2) If you come from Naples on the Poggiomarino line, your stop will be the Pompeii City station, which is located more in the center of modern Pompeii (and much closer to the Hotel Amleto). In this case, you will walk straight out of the train station until you reach the cathedral square (you can't miss the imposing spire). Then turn right and walk along the main street until you reach the Piazza Anfiteatro, a much quieter entrance to the ruins (my preference). If you are at this entrance when the ruins open, you can avoid the crowds for an hour or so as you explore the eastern ruins.
Train fares are low and very reasonable (for example a daily ticket from Naples to Pompeii costs about €5.00 and includes unlimited metro rides as well).
Entering the ruins. For me, there is only one way to see Pompeii. Arrive shortly before the opening time outside the Piazza Anfiteatro entrance. This is far away from almost all of the tourist buses (which arrive at the Porta Marina entrance). When the ticket seller shows up (often after the designated opening time), you will still be one of the few people waiting to enter the ruins. Using the excellent map that's provided free for visitors, you can stroll into the uncrowded southern part of the ruins through the Nucerian Gate. Then head for the Garden of the Fugitives and then walk as far east as you can...to the amphitheater and any of the streets along its north side. For the better part of an hour, you may be able to feel as if you are in Pompeii alone.
A slight digression. To make the most of any visit to Pompeii, it is wise to do some reading first. Many people hold a number of misconceptions about the eruption in AD 79 (no, there wasn't any lava flow) and the eventual discovery of the ruins. There are no museum-like information placards posted in the ruins, so unless you are knowledgeable about Pompeii, your visit may not be very meaningful (one ruined building after another). I have provided some suggestions for supplementary reading. And if you are interested in the plaster casts, I recommend my own book, Bodies from the Ash, which provides a thorough discussion of the casts, both how they were made and how archaeologists have deduced information about Pompeian life from them.
Getting organized for a visit. These days it costs around €11.00 to see the ruins. Unless you are a member of the EU, there is no discount for seniors or students. Still, a non-EU family of four can visit Pompeii for less than half the price of an adult ticket to Disneyland...not a bad deal to my mind. My only complaint is that once you enter, you cannot leave without paying again (there are no hand stamps). This means that you should be very organized:
1. Bring a large bottle of water (if the day will be warm) and perhaps something to eat. A cafe is located north of the Forum (along with a small bookshop) in case you want to eat in the ruins.
2. Take a guidebook. Even if you have educated yourself about the ruins, a good guidebook is invaluable. Vendors sell them on the way into the ruins, but these are mostly just cheap tourist guides. You would be better served to plan ahead and buy one before you arrive at the site. I recommend this guidebook. However, even if you forget to bring a guidebook, you will find a good shop at the Porta Marina entrance, which sells a complete range of guidebooks (and various souvenirs) in all major languages.
3. Wear comfortable shoes. The main streets in Pompeii are treacherous with their undulating stones, and I have seen more than one person fall.
4. Plan to go back another day. One visit just whets your appetite for more. If I could, I would visit Pompeii every day--it is that fascinating a place.
5. And of course, bring a good camera, because you will want to take many photos and/or movies. It helps if your camera works well in low light (without a flash) since many rooms are dimly lit. Be prepared for lots of tourists in your shots, unless you arrive early in the morning.
6. If you especially want to see the plaster casts, it helps to know more about them ahead of time (since no information is provided in the ruins). You will find a wealth of information about their location in the ruins at another website I maintain (follow this link to the Plaster Casts of Pompeii). You will also find information in my book, Bodies from the Ash, or in a book entitled Pompeii's Living Statues: Ancient Roman Lives Stolen from Death.
Eating a meal in Pompeii. The ruins offer only one cafe (a branch of the Autogrill chain found on the autostradas in Italy). You will enjoy your food more if you plan to eat outside the site in modern Pompeii, which is filled with tourist restaurants and one McDonalds (between the cathedral and the Piazza Anfiteatro entrance); I recommend that you avoid these. One moderately priced restaurant is the Carlo Albertirestaurant on a street of the same name, just off the cathedral square. The pizza and pasta dishes are excellent. If you are on a budget, there is an adjoining storefront where you can order pizza to go; almost all pizzas were under €5 and worth every penny.
The Grand Tour. If you have made the trip to Pompeii, you should also plan to visit Herculaneum, Mount Vesuvius, and Naples:
If you plan to visit both Pompeii and Herculaneum, you can buy one ticket (valid for three days) that allows entry to these two sites as well as Oplontis, Stabiae, and Boscoreale (the adult price of about €20.00 is a slight bargain if you plan to visit two sites, but a huge value if you will visit all five; note you can only visit each site once during the three days).
To visit Herculaneum, it is probably easiest to take the Circumvesuviana to Ercolano. When you exit the station, walk down the hill, following the main road until it ends at the bottom. The entrance to the site will be in front of you. Because Herculaneum is much smaller than Pompeii, it is relatively easy to see in half a day (note that there is no food service within the Herculaneum archaeological site itself). It is also much less crowded. As in Pompeii, some buildings will be closed, and many that are open will be in disrepair.
Visiting Mt. Vesuvius
To reach Mt. Vesuvius, you can either drive or catch a bus from Pompeii (near the Porta Marina entrance) or Herculaneum (near the Circumvesuviana station) to Vesuvius. You will want to leave on an early bus (especially if it is a hot day) and take a good supply of water. The bus will deliver you to the Vesuvius parking lot (about halfway up the volcano). From there, you can climb to the top and (after paying a small fee) even walk along the rim of the crater. If it is a clear day, you can see to Pompeii and beyond. Even on a foggy or hazy day, it is still worth a visit.
I cannot cover the wonders of Naples in a paragraph or two, so I will simply urge you to visit the National Archaeological Museum (Museo Archeologico Nazionale). If you take the Circumvesuviana into Naples (and have purchased a one-day travel pass), you can use the Naples underground all day as well. Head for the Cavour station, which is the museum's stop. It is best to come to the museum after visiting Pompeii, since you will be amazed (having seen the ruined buildings) at what was salvaged from them. The museum's Pompeii exhibits are breathtaking and include frescoes, statues, ornamental objects, and everyday items. It is simply not to be missed (closed Tuesdays).