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. Based on my travels there, I have these
Traveling to Italy.
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
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.
Background Books about Pompeii
Arriving at Pompeii.
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)
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Wear comfortable shoes. The main streets in Pompeii are treacherous with
their undulating stones, and I have seen more than one person fall.
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.
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. For a
wonderful meal (especially if you like seafood), do not miss the
Ristorante on the Piazza Schettini (a block from the Hotel
Amleto). It is not inexpensive, though well worth one visit if your
budget allows (be aware that it is closed on Sundays and Mondays in the
As for more reasonable
fare, Pompeii 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
Alberti restaurant 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.
you have made the trip to Pompeii, you should also plan to visit
Herculaneum, Mount Vesuvius, and Naples:
Herculaneum. 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
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.
Mount Vesuvius. To each 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.
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