The ruined city of Pompeii lies at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, the volcano whose eruption erupted in AD 79 and then encased the city in six meters of ash and pumice. Excavated over several centuries, what we see today, together with the neighboring site of Herculaneum, provides the finest example anywhere of a Roman city and its way of life. It’s easy to see why this is one of Italy’s most popular attractions for tourists. Just 16 years before its destruction, Pompeii was badly damaged by an earthquake that the 20,000 inhabitants had not yet finished rebuilding. At the first sign of the eruption, people began to leave, so when the last flow fell like a tidal wave, only about 2,000 people remained trapped in the city.
Since Pompeii has since been abandoned, it began to resurface when excavations began in the 18th century, and about three-fifths of its total area (the city walls had a circumference of three kilometers) have since been recovered. Early excavators brought everything to the museum in Naples, but archaeologists since 1911 have left artifacts behind, making the more recently excavated areas the most interesting. Expect to be amazed at how vivid an impression of ancient life you get in its homes, shops and public places. The sense is inescapable that when the eruption came, everyone was in the middle of their normal daily business, never dreaming that their latest deeds would become a window into history. Pompeii can be easily reached from Naples or Sorrento and even as a day tour from Rome.
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As frightening as you are to explore this legendary city, it really is worth stopping in this museum first. Not only will you find helpful interpretive displays, but you’ll see many of the artifacts found during the excavations that were either too fragile or too weather-sensitive to stay in place. Some of them date back long before Roman times. Here you can see the tools of everyday life – rows of amphorae and other vessels, furniture and small household and commercial objects. Along with these are the plaster casts made of near-perfect molds left in the solidified ashes by the bodies of those caught in the sudden destruction. Because these spaces were found by excavators, they were carefully filled with plaster and formed images of the victims as they tried to escape. They bring those last moments into an eerie reality and make Pompeii more than just a historical relic.
The main piazza of a Roman city, the Forum is enclosed by colonnades and bounded on the north by the Temple of Jupiter , rising on a ten-foot base. On the corner to the right is the Macellum, a hall for selling food. Several shrines, temples and other buildings surround the Forum – the sanctuary of the Lares; the temple of Vespasian; a hall for the sale of wool; and the Curia, where the municipal council met. Close by, the basilicawas used as a market and court. To his left is the Temple of Apollo surrounded by 48 Ionic columns. One of the newer houses to open is that of Triptolemus, in front of the basilica. Dating back to the second century BC, this house clearly belonged to a prosperous and important family, as you can see from the two atria (courtyards) and two peristyles (columns with gardens).
Built into the sloping ground, the Teatro Grande (Great Theatre) could hold 5,000 spectators and is used for Son et lumière shows in the summer. The top row gives one of the best views of the city and Mount Vesuvius. The adjoining Teatro Piccolo (Little Theater), better preserved and the earliest example of an indoor Roman theater, dates from about 75 BC. It would have been used mainly for musical performances. To the east of the Little Theater is the Tempio di Giove Meilichio and the adjoining Tempio di Iside – Temple of Isis – you can still see an inscription scratched on the walls by the French novelist Stendhal in 1817. Take the shade in the trees inTriangular forum , intended mainly for theatergoers, through a fine passage to reach the barracks of the gladiators . Inscriptions recording their successes in gladiatorial games were found on the columns.
4 Terme Stabiane (Stabian Baths)
At the corner of Via dell’Abbondanza and Via Stabiana are the largest and best preserved baths of Pompeii. The entrance leads to the colonnaded palaestra, with a swimming pool on the left; on the right are the male and female baths, separated by the heaters for heating the water. Each facility has a circular cold bath (frigidarium), a changing room (apodyterium) with racks for clothes, a warm bath (tepidarium), and a hot bath (caldarium) heated by air ducts in the floor and walls. Gladiators trained in the gymnasium, which was also part of the Stabian complex.
5 House of Menander
The large, well-preserved House of Menander belonged to a wealthy merchant who announced his status right at the entrance, which was flanked by pillars with Corinthian capitals. The well-preserved atrium has a small temple in one corner and an intact wooden roof that extends to the opening in the center, where water is drained to collect in the pool below. Interior rooms are decorated with scenes from Homer’s Iliad, and the colonnade is surrounded by a beautifully painted colonnade. Adjacent to this is the charming little House of the Lovers , named for an inscription that translates “beloveds, like bees, wish life sweet as honey.” Further down Via dell’Abbondanza, on the left, is thethermopolium , a tavern fully equipped with drinking vessels, kettle, stove and lamp; the last customer’s money is still on the counter.
6 Nuovi Scavi (New Excavations)
At the end of Via dell’Abbondanza, on the right, is the beginning of the new excavations, where murals and furniture have been left behind. In many of the houses, the upper story, with its balconies and loggias, is preserved by beams, giving a better idea of what these looked like two millennia ago. Mosaics, statues, frescoes, and furnishings are still there, along with election posters and other loose inscriptions painted on the walls. This part of the city dates back to the last period of Pompeii, and most of the houses and shops belonged to merchants. Look for a hardware store and a fuller’s and dyer’s workshop (Fullonica di Stefano), with two restored pressing machines. In the Cryptoporticus house, a beautifully painted frieze in a doorway leading to the basement, illustrates scenes from the Iliad and other Homer poems. In the Casa della Venere (House of Venus) is one of the finest frescoes in Pompeii and shows Venus on a seashell.
Dating back to 80 BC, the massive amphitheater at the far end of Pompeii, which could seat 12,000 spectators, is the oldest surviving Roman amphitheatre. Just next to it is the palaestra , with colonnades around three sides and a pool in the middle. Beyond the Porta di Nocera, outside the city walls, is a necropolis (cemetery), just like those outside the walls of all Roman (and other) ancient cities.
8 House of the Vettii
The house of the Vettii in the Vicolo di Mercurio is one of the most interesting in Pompeii. This was home to two well-to-do middle-class brothers, and it shows that it wasn’t just the aristocracy who lived well in elegantly furnished homes. This house has some of the best frescoes, as well as a colonnade that still has the original marble decoration and the garden has been replanted so you can see what it was like when people lived here. The kitchen still contains cooking utensils. Due to their style, art historians believe that the interior fresco painting was done after the devastating earthquake in AD 62. The most famous frescoes are in the triclinium, where they completely cover the walls in faux panels depicting mythological scenes and a long frieze of cupids. The colors are particularly intense. The walls below the colonnade of the colonnade are also painted to imitate panels.
9 Western Houses
In the same neighborhood, near Porta Ercolano, there are several houses worth seeing. Opposite the House of the Vettii, the House of the Faun is the most palatial mansion in Pompeii, but unfortunately all of its art treasures – including excellent mosaics – have been disposed of in the museum in Naples. Next to Siricus’ house is a bakery on whose doorstep is inscribed “Salve lucrum” (Long live profit); maybe they brought in theirs on the fine paintings. Further along Via Stabiana, on the right, the House of Marcus Lucretius has well-preserved paintings and the House of the Silver Wedding has a good atrium and peristyle. The garden of the elegantHouse of the Gilded Cupids (Casa degli Amorini Dorati) still retains its original marble decoration. North of the Forum Baden , smaller and more modest than the Stabian Baden, is the lavishly named House of the Tragic Poet . On the threshold you will find one of Pompeii’s most famous mosaics, of a chained dog with the inscription “Cave canem” (Beware of the dog). On the north side is a fuller’s workshop, with two houses with beautiful fountains on the left.
10 Street of the Counts
Outside the walls of Pompeii, via Porta Ercolano, is a suburban district whose main street has been excavated. This street of the tombs is full of imposing funerary monuments, ranked with the Via Appia outside Rome as the most impressive surviving example of this Roman practice of building tombs along the public road. To the northwest is the large Villa of Diomedes , with an extensive garden enclosed by a long portico. Ironically, the house itself became a tomb in the volcanic eruption: in an underground passage, excavators found the bodies of 18 women and children. At the garden door was the body of a man with a key in his hand and a slave next to him with money and valuables.
11 Villa of the Mysteries
Also outside the main excavation area and past the Villa of Diomedes is the beautiful Villa of the Mysteries (Villa dei Misteri). Your ticket includes entry here. Built in the second century BC, this villa contains what many consider to be the finest surviving ancient wall paintings, preserved in all the brilliance of their original colours. The most notable of these is a 17-metre-long frieze in the great triclinium, so large that the figures are almost life-size. The villa is thought to have been converted into a Dionysian cult meeting place, and the scenes in these paintings depict followers involved in the mysteries of initiation.
Where to Stay in Pompeii for Sightseeing
We recommend these convenient hotels in Pompeii within walking distance of the city and ruins:
- Bosco de’ Medici: 4-star resort, peaceful countryside location, beautiful pool overlooking Mount Vesuvius, friendly staff.
- Hotel Forum Pompei: mid-range prices, spacious rooms, comfortable beds, nice garden with lemon trees.
- Hotel Diana Pompei: affordable prices, near the train station, helpful staff, family-run, colorful decor.
- Hotel Pace Pompei: budget hotel, excellent value for money, central location, welcoming hosts, multilingual staff.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Pompeii
- Tours of Pompeii:Combining the ancient city with a hike to the top of the volcano that destroyed it, the Mt Vesuvius and Pompeii Day Trip from Naples is a seven-hour small-group tour. During the air-conditioned coach ride from central Naples, your expert guide will provide the historical background for the two-hour guided walking tour of Pompeii; the tour also includes a traditional Italian pizza lunch. You can also climb the volcano to walk around the rim on the Pompeii Day Trip from Rome, a 13-hour guided tour that includes a stop in Naples for the famous Neapolitan pizza for a tour that brings ancient Pompeii to life. From mid-November to March, when the Vesuvius summit is closed,
- Tickets: If you want to visit both Pompeii and Herculaneum, the combined ticket is cheaper than two separate entrance fees.
- For your comfort : There is a free baggage check at the entrance, where you also have to collect the free map.
- Getting to Pompeii on Your Own: The Circumvesuviana trains connecting Naples and Sorrento stop in Pompeii.