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Most people are familiar with Pompeii, but perhaps not as acquainted with Herculaneum, a nearby city that was also decimated by volcanic eruption during Roman Times.
Pompeii and Herculaneum were both ancient Roman cities that were destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. While they share similarities regarding their fate and the preservation of their ruins, both the Pompeii ruins and the Herculaneum ruins are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
There are some notable differences between the two sites. So, which should you visit during a trip to southern Italy, if you only have time for one?
Differences: Pompeii vs Herculaneum
Size and Population
The ancient city of Pompeii was larger compared to Herculaneum. Pompeii had a population of around 20,000 people, while Herculaneum was a smaller town with a population of approximately 5,000.
Location near Mount Vesuvius
Pompeii is located closer to the base of Mount Vesuvius and is slightly inland, while Herculaneum is situated closer to the coast, west of Pompeii.
Mount Vesuvius is still an active volcano. It poses a potential threat to the millions of people living in the surrounding area today.
Preservation of Archaeological Sites
Both cities were buried under volcanic ash and debris during the eruption. However, Pompeii was buried under a deeper layer of ash.
This contributed to the better preservation of its structures and artifacts. The ash in Pompeii protected the buildings, frescoes, and everyday objects from decay and vandalism.
Herculaneum, on the other hand, was buried under a thick layer of volcanic mud, which initially led to better preservation of organic materials, like wooden roofs and furniture. Herculaneum also contains many well-preserved buildings.
Pompeii and Herculaneum had slightly different architectural styles. Pompeii featured a more diverse mix of architectural influences, including Greek, Roman, and Hellenistic styles, reflecting its status as a larger and wealthier city.
Herculaneum had a more distinct Greek influence, as it was founded by Greek colonists. The ruins of many of the public buildings also have preserved second-floor dwellings.
Pompeii was rediscovered in the 18th century after a long time of obscurity. Excavation work began shortly afterward.
The site has been extensively excavated, and a significant portion of the city has been uncovered. Herculaneum was rediscovered in the 18th century as well but received less attention initially.
Excavation work at Herculaneum has been more limited compared to Pompeii, and a significant portion of the town remains buried under modern structures.
Despite these differences, both Pompeii and Herculaneum offer invaluable insights into ancient Roman life, architecture, and art. They provide a remarkable window into the past and are considered important archaeological sites.
The sites also serve as a poignant reminder of the power of nature and the significance of preserving our historical heritage.
What are the must-see sites in Pompeii?
The Forum: The central square of Pompeii, is where political, social, and religious activities took place. Explore the ruins of temples, basilicas, and other important buildings that surrounded the forum.
Lupanar (Brothel): A fascinating and explicit insight into ancient Roman life, the Lupanar is a preserved brothel with explicit frescoes and stone beds.
This site is one of the most popular in Pompeii. The best time to visit is early in the day before the crowds get too long.
Villa of the Mysteries: Located just outside the city walls, this villa is renowned for its well-preserved frescoes. The paintings depict a mysterious religious initiation ceremony and offer a fascinating glimpse into ancient Roman beliefs and rituals.
House of the Vettii: One of Pompeii’s most luxurious residences, this house showcases intricate frescoes, mosaics, and elaborate architectural details. It provides a glimpse into the lives of the city’s wealthy citizens.
Amphitheatre: As one of the oldest surviving Roman amphitheaters, it once hosted gladiatorial games, spectacles, and other events. Marvel at the grand structure, seating areas, and underground chambers used for staging the shows.
House of the Faun: This grand mansion is named after the famous bronze statue of a dancing faun found within its premises. The house features stunning mosaics, frescoes, and a large central courtyard.
Temple of Apollo: One of Pompeii’s most significant religious sites, the Temple of Apollo is a well-preserved structure dedicated to the god of light, prophecy, and music. Admire the architecture and explore the temple grounds.
Thermopolium: These ancient Roman fast-food establishments are similar to modern-day cafés. Visit the Thermopolium of Vetutius Placidus, where you can see the counters, storage jars, and remnants of preserved food.
House of the Tragic Poet: This modest-sized house is famous for its mosaic floor depicting a scene from a play. The phrase “Cave Canem” (Beware of the Dog) is inscribed near the entrance, providing a glimpse into Roman domestic life.
Garden of the Fugitives: Located on the outskirts of Pompeii, this area displays plaster casts of some of the victims of the eruption. The casts capture the haunting and tragic final moments of the city’s inhabitants.
What are the must-see Sights in Herculaneum?
The Suburban Baths: These well-preserved baths were a popular recreational area for the residents of Herculaneum. Explore the various rooms, including the caldarium (hot bath), tepidarium (warm bath), and frigidarium (cold bath).
The House of Neptune and Amphitrite: This luxurious villa is named after the stunning mosaic depicting the sea god Neptune and his wife Amphitrite. The villa also features beautiful frescoes and a private bath complex.
The House of the Deer: Admire the intricate mosaics and frescoes in this well-preserved house. The highlight is the mosaic of a deer being attacked by a hunting dog, from which the house gets its name.
The House of the Wooden Partition: This house offers a glimpse into the daily life of Herculaneum’s inhabitants. Pay attention to the remarkable wooden partition that once separated the living area from the private rooms.
The College of the Augustales: This building served as a gathering place for the local elite. It features well-preserved frescoes and statues, providing insights into the religious and social activities of the time.
The Villa of the Papyri: While most of this villa remains unexcavated, it is famous for the significant collection of papyrus scrolls found inside. It was a luxurious seaside retreat belonging to the family of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law.
The Boat Sheds: Explore the underground boat sheds that housed ancient vessels. These sheds offer a unique glimpse into the maritime activities of the time and provide evidence of the coastline’s retreat since the eruption.
The Herculaneum Conservation Project: This ongoing project aims to preserve and protect the ancient site. Visitors can observe the conservation efforts, including the delicate process of removing volcanic deposits from the buildings.
Which site gets more visitors?
Pompeii generally receives more visitors compared to Herculaneum. As one of the most famous and well-known archeological sites in the world, Pompeii attracts a larger number of tourists each year.
Its size, the extent of its excavation, and the sheer wealth of preserved structures and artifacts make it a popular destination for history enthusiasts, archeologists, and tourists alike.
The prominence of Pompeii in popular culture, including books, films, and documentaries, has contributed to its global recognition and popularity.
Additionally, its proximity to the city of Naples and other major tourist destinations in Italy, such as the Amalfi Coast and Capri, further increases the number of visitors to the site.
Herculaneum still attracts a significant number of visitors, but fewer than Pompeii. Both sites start getting more crowded in the late morning, as bigger tour groups arrive. It’s important to hit the most popular stops early, for this reason.
Should you go with a professional guide or an audio guide?
While we didn’t use a professional guide ourselves, we certainly walked by several groups of guided tours during our visits. The guides did have interesting tidbits that you won’t necessarily hear on recorded audio.
Tour guides can answer your questions which will give you a more personalized experience in that sense. And, for those who aren’t keen on navigating the train stations or directions in a foreign language, sometimes having a guided tour is just a more relaxing day.
There are numerous audio guides available for download on your phone, or you can rent an audio guide from the ticket office for an extra cost. There are placards with QR codes you can scan to get more information about the particular ruins you are looking at.
Can you visit both Herculaneum and Pompeii in a single-day trip?
Yes, it is possible to visit both Pompeii and Herculaneum in one day, although it makes for a full day. It requires careful planning and time management, too.
To hit both ancient cities in a single day, the best way is to start early. Begin your day as early as possible to maximize your time at both sites.
Plan your itinerary carefully. Prioritize the areas and highlights you want to see in both Pompeii and Herculaneum. Both sites are extensive, so it’s important to have a clear plan to make the most efficient use of your time.
Allocate a specific amount of time for each site based on your interests and the highlights you wish to see. Keep in mind that Pompeii is a large site and may require more time to explore thoroughly.
A general recommendation could be spending at least 3-4 hours in Pompeii and 2-3 hours at the Herculaneum site.
Visiting both Pompeii and Herculaneum in a single day will be a packed itinerary, and you may not be able to explore every nook and cranny of each site. However, with proper planning and efficient time management, you can still experience both archeological sites.
Pros and Cons – Herculaneum vs. Pompeii
Better Preservation: Herculaneum is generally better preserved than Pompeii. The volcanic material that buried it, mainly pyroclastic flow, preserved buildings, and even organic matter such as wooden furniture.
Intimate Atmosphere: Herculaneum’s smaller size and fewer visitors at any given time can create a more intimate and less crowded atmosphere, allowing for a deeper connection with the site.
Proximity to Vesuvius: Herculaneum offers a closer view of Mount Vesuvius, allowing visitors to appreciate the geological context of the disaster.
Smaller Scale: Some visitors might find Herculaneum’s smaller size less impressive compared to the vastness of Pompeii.
Fewer Structures: Herculaneum has fewer buildings and structures open to the public compared to Pompeii.
The ancient ruins of the Forum at Pompeii
Larger and More Extensive: Pompeii is a vast archaeological site with more structures, streets, and areas to explore, providing a comprehensive view of Roman urban life.
Iconic Ruins: Pompeii is home to some of the most iconic archaeological discoveries in the world.
Varied Architecture: The site showcases a wider range of architectural styles and building types, including temples, theaters, and houses.
Preserved Body Casts: One of the most striking features of Pompeii is the plaster casts made from the voids left by the victims of the eruption. These casts provide a hauntingly vivid depiction of the final moments of the city’s inhabitants.
Crowds: Pompeii can get crowded, especially during peak tourist seasons, which may hinder the visitor experience.
Less Preservation: While some structures and artifacts are exceptionally well-preserved, Pompeii has also suffered from exposure to the elements and mass tourism, leading to deterioration in some areas.
Longer Exploration Time: Due to its size, exploring Pompeii may require more time and physical stamina.
In summary, the choice between Herculaneum and Pompeii depends on your personal preferences. Herculaneum offers a well-preserved, intimate experience, while Pompeii provides a more extensive but often busier exploration.
Many visitors choose to visit both sites to gain a comprehensive understanding of the impact of the Vesuvius eruption on ancient Roman life.
Getting to Pompeii and Hercalaneum
Hours of Operation
Herculaneum: 9:30 AM to 7:30 PM
Pompeii: 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM (open for entry until 5.30 pm)
You can catch a train from Rome’s Termini Station to Naples’ Central Station (Napoli Garibaldi), which is the closest major city to Pompeii. The journey takes approximately 1 hour and 10 minutes.
From Naples, you can take the local Circumvesuviana train line (see below).
From Naples or Sorrento
Local (Circumvesuviana) train service from Napoli Centrale in Naples or Sorrento Station in Sorrento run frequently and are quite cheap. They take about 30 minutes.
They can also become very crowded during busy times and at peak season (April to October)For Herculaneum, get off at the Ercolano Scavi station, and for Pompeii disembark at the Pompeii Scavi-Villa dei Misteri station.
For a quicker and more comfortable trip to Pompeii, Catania Express is an option. For about 15 euros, this express train gets you to Pompeii from either Sorrento or Naples.
This option isn’t crowded, so you are almost guaranteed to have a seat. The train drops you right in front of the entrance to Pompeii and a short walk to the ticket office.
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