Nearly every visitor to the Naples, Sorrento or Amalfi Coast region is going to want to visit Pompeii or Herculaneum.
After all, why wouldn’t you want to visit? Both towns are a snapshot in history: genuine Roman towns which were thriving in the times of the emperors, and which are probably your best opportunity to travel in time. Unless you have a time machine. Or you’re a Time Lord. In which case, please don’t go back and visit Pompeii or Herculaneum back in 79AD, because things got hella hot and crazy.
There’s no denying that the tragedy which destroyed both towns had a side benefit of preserving them for future generations to learn from. A trip to either site is going to give you an insight into Roman life that you’ll rarely be able to get anywhere else, not even in Rome itself (indeed, it’s possible to do a day trip to Pompeii from Rome, giving you that all-round Roman experience! Yay!). But how do you choose which to visit? Which one is better?
Pompeii or Herculaneum: which do I visit?
There’s a simple answer to the above question: both.
That might seem like an easy answer, but I can assure you that after four visits to both sites, it’s the only answer. Rather than see them in competition with each other, it’s far better to use each site to complement the other. They both have their unique aspects, and excel at certain things at which the other lacks. If you visit both sites, you’ll gain a much better understanding of how a Roman town looked and worked, how its citizens lived, than if you visit only one. Pompeii gives you the big picture; Herculaneum fills in the gaps with rich detail.
However! Unless you are hardcore into your history, it can be very hard to spare the time to visit both. The reason for this is that the region is absolutely blessed with beautiful sights and interesting places, all of which will be vying for your attention like a hyperactive child at a birthday party. Can you devote two days to the ruined towns when you have Positano, Capri, Sorrento, Naples, Amalfi and more tugging at your heartstrings? Plus there’s the criminally little-known Villa Oplontis. It’s difficult, unless you’re blessed with a lot of time there.
So, I’m going to break it down for you. As I said above, there are certain aspects which each site does a little better than the other. That doesn’t make it better than the other, but it might make it more suitable for your specific needs.
I’m going to go through these aspects one by one, and then I’ll point you towards some awesome FREE resources that’ll make your trip even better. I’m so nice to you, right?
Pompeii or Herculaneum: the choice is yours!
Best to visit in a single day: Herculaneum
Pompeii is fricking big. At the time of the eruption it had about 11.000 inhabitants, as well as a nice little industry in making garum, a fairly rancid fish sauce beloved of Romans.
Now, imagine walking around a town today, a town with roughly 11,000 inhabitants. If you were really interested in their lives, and wanted to knock on their doors and check out their houses, have a look at their civic buildings, maybe have a little poke around the local gym and swimming pool (ignoring their shrieks of “get outta here!”), how long do you think it would take? Definitely more than one day.
Pompeii is exactly the same: you can certainly cover the highlights in maybe around four hours, but you’ll be missing out on so much! Part of the joy of both sites is that you can see history from the ground up – not just the big flashy bits, but the simple houses, the backstreets, the hidden corners. But you can’t do it in a single day. I’ve been to Pompeii three times, and I still don’t feel like I’ve seen everything.
So if you want to feel like you’ve thoroughly seen a site, Herculaneum is the better pick. It’s much smaller, and easy to cover in a single day, even if you’re a hardcore historian.
Best for the iconic sights: Pompeii
One of the benefits of Pompeii being a big town is that it has some of your iconic, recognizably Roman buildings. If you ever wanted a selfie in a Roman amphitheater (who doesn’t!), then you’re in luck: Pompeii has two of them.
But even better than the rather general Roman buildings are the ones unique to Pompeii, rightly famous around the world. The Forum has a view which stretches all the way to Vesuvius, looming scenically over the town – it’s the picture you’ll see in every shop selling postcards in the greater Naples area. It also contains the famous plaster casts of the town’s victims, made during the excavations and eerily conveying the suffering and terror they must’ve gone through.
The “Cave Canem” (“Beware of the dog”) mosaic, another image of Pompeii you’ll see in the stock of every souvenir seller in town, is nearby, and it’s a short walk down a charmingly peaceful Roman road to the Villa of the Mysteries, a fabulously well-preserved house which has some startlingly bright paintings on the walls. When you’re walking through the ruins, it’s easy to forget that the Roman world was a colorful as ours – even the columns and statues would’ve been painted! – and the Villa of the Mysteries is a great place to take that in. The House of the Faun, with its bronze statue of the eponymous faun and a breathtaking mosaic of Alexander the Great, is rightly renowned.
But it wouldn’t be a trip to Pompeii without a visit to the Lupinarium – the brothel. You’ll queue to get into this one, and you’ll be surprised by how small it is, as you take in the stone beds and the Roman porno painted on the walls. But with its popular designation as a symbol of Roman debauchery, it’s as iconic as they come!
Best for preservation of objects: Herculaneum
Herculaneum might only be 15 kilometers away from Pompeii, but there’s a huge difference in the level of preservation of the two sites. Herculaneum has a lot of things that Pompeii doesn’t – buildings which are almost entirely intact, delicate items such as wood and even food which survived, two-storey houses. So what made the difference?
Put simply, it was the direction in which the debris from Vesuvius’ explosion traveled. Pompeii was right in the firing line: large chunks of rock rained down on the town (the eruption was so fierce that it blew the top off the volcano), causing huge structural damage to the town before it was buried. So that’s why Pompeii looks pretty broken in places, with missing walls and very few buildings above a single storey. Herculaneum avoided this rain of rock, and after suffering a pyroclastic blast which killed all of the remaining residents, it was quietly buried under a layer of hardened ash.
The layer of ash, which hid the town for centuries until it was almost completely built over, preserved everything underneath it. So you can go to House 22 and see some astonishing mosaics, or a beautifully intact shrine. You can see wooden screens and bed frames. You can wander into a house, and almost expect the owner to come and greet you.
If you want to see a Roman town almost completely as it was, Herculaneum wins.
Best for guided tours: Pompeii
I like a guided tour. Unlike Herculaneum, where you can pretty much navigate yourself around with an audio guide, Pompeii really lends itself to being led around by an expert.
Sure, this costs a little more, but it’s well worth it. For a start, you’ll be getting the most out of Pompeii if you’ve only got limited time. As we mentioned before, Pompeii is way too big for you to completely see in one day (unless you have some mad skillz and an extremely high fatigue threshold) – getting yourself a guide or joining a tour group gives you a guaranteed highlights package by someone who knows the site well. They know the best times to go to the Lupinarium to avoid the crowds; they know the quick routes between the main sites. If you want Pompeii’s greatest hits, a tour guide is a must.
The other advantage is getting the benefit of your guide’s wisdom. I personally hate audio guides; they dictate your route and pace, and they pretty much make certain that you’ll be constantly bumping into people doing the same darn route. What you get in information, you lose in flexibility. Tour guides will give you more information than the audio guides, will answer questions, and will get you around Pompeii with the minimum of fuss. They’re knowledgeable and experienced, and well worth their fee.
One note: don’t expect to be the only tour group in town. Pompeii is much more popular than Herculaneum, and accordingly gets far more crowded.
Best for shade: Herculaneum
When you visit Pompeii or Herculaneum, you’ll appreciate shade, water, and sunscreen like you never have before.
Both sites can be pretty wearing on the body – at the very least, you’ll be hopping on and off Roman paving stones (a word to the wise: do not wear high heels to either site, despite how cute they’ll look in your Instagram photos. You’ll be filled with instant regret, and a potential broken ankle). But Pompeii, thanks to its lack of anything higher than a single storey, suffers from a distinct lack of shade. In fact, it’s a bit of an oven. If you visit in the summer and don’t have a hat and some water, you’ll be feeling pretty cooked pretty quickly!
Herculaneum, in its sunken valley location surrounded by modern buildings (and the occasional elderly nonna who’ll be idly watching the tourists from her windows), has higher buildings which offer some blessed shade. Not to mention the buildings which still have their roofs! So it’s more comfortable by far in warm weather – as an added bonus, the cobblestones in Herculaneum are a bit easier to walk on, though I’d still advise flat shoes.
Best for losing yourself in the history: Pompeii
One of my favourite things to do in Pompeii is to get lost.
Whaaaa? I hear you say. But you’re always saying how much you love navigation apps! How can you like getting lost?
Well, hear me out here. Pompeii is a wonderful place to get thoroughly lost. You can’t go too far wrong, after all – it’s an enclosed site, and there’s always signposts/tour groups to follow back to safety. But getting lost in Pompeii truly immerses you in the time-travel experience. Forget the maps and apps for a bit, and just wander the streets, especially the quiet ones. That’s how it felt being a Roman.
If you get a street to yourself, you can almost imagine the sandals or leather boots slapping on to dusty cobblestones, or hear the oxen pulling carts along the road – you can still see the ruts cut into the stone where they worked. You can feel the sun warming your bare arms. You navigate your way around by marking your location relative to the Forum, just as the residents did. Hop across the pedestrian crossing stones, imagining the bilge on the cobbles below, the smells of stale water and hot food.
So you can see, getting lost in Pompeii can actually be one of the best ways to see the city, just as it was seen by its inhabitants.
But importantly for both sites…
Whether you’re visiting Pompeii or Herculaneum, there’s one golden rule to follow: be respectful.
Just because a tragedy is ancient, it doesn’t make it any less tragic. These were still living people, as real as you and everyone you know, who died pretty horribly. Don’t be like the guy I spotted at Pompeii, and take ‘amusing’ selfies in front of a corpse. Or don’t be like a group of girls who stood in front of the plaster casts, making distasteful jokes and comments.
We wouldn’t do it at the site of more modern tragedies, so don’t do it here.
Even if you get nothing else from this article, be sure to avail yourself of these freebies, because they will seriously improve your visit.
First off, how do you fancy a free guide to both Pompeii and Herculaneum, with in-depth info, which you can either keep on your phone or tablet as you go around the sites, or download to read before you leave? Say no more; your wish is my command! Click the following links for a free downloadable guide to Pompeii, and a free downloadable guide to Herculaneum.
Also, as my day job involves working at historic sites, I know my way around a history documentary. Yes, I watch this kind of stuff for fun. So here’s two of the best, from two of my favourite historians; the soothingly-voiced Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, and the downright awesome Mary Beard.
If you fall in love with Dr Beard by the time you’ve watched the above (spoiler: you will), you can also buy her extremely readable book on Pompeii before you go – it’s got lots of insights you won’t get from general guide books! It’s absolutely brilliant for finding out about day to day life in the town, and it won’t blind you with science. Check out the reviews on Amazon UK or Amazon US. Also have a look at her book SPQR if you want a general primer on all things Roman before your trip!
Maps, opening times, and ticket prices
Whether you want to visit Pompeii or Herculaneum, you’ll find either to be an easy day trip from both Naples and Sorrento. All you need to do is hop on a Circumvesuviana train – and as Naples and Sorrento are the two end points on that line, it makes it even simpler. If you’re in Naples, get on a train headed to Sorrento; if you’re in Sorrento, get on a train headed to Naples. Easy! Just alight at Ercolano Scavi station for Herculaneum, or Pompei Villa Dei Misteri for Pompeii.
Opening times and ticket prices
As with most historical sites in Italy, entrance in either Pompeii or Herculaneum is free on the first Sunday of the month. You can expect bigger crowds on these days, though!
Pompeii is open every day except 1st January, 1st May, and 25th December.
From 1st April to 31st October, the opening hours are 0900 – 1930.
From 1st November to 31st March, the opening hours are 0900 – 1700.
A single adult ticket costs €15.00, or €9 for concessions.
Herculaneum is open every day except 1st January and 25th December.
From 1st April to 31st October, the opening hours are 0830 to 1930.
From 1st November to 31st March, the opening hours are 0830 – 1700.
A single adult ticket costs €11.00, or €5.50 for concessions.
There we have it! I hope this article has helped your decision whether to visit Pompeii or Herculaneum – but take it from me; visit both if you can! If you’ve enjoyed this article, please let me know in the comments below! Or you can pin the below image to Pinterest so you’ve got it saved for later (definitely handy if you want to watch the videos! And you really should do that).
Most importantly, whether you visit Pompeii or Herculaneum, enjoy it!!
Please be aware that this article contains affiliate links – these incur zero extra cost to you, but help towards the running costs of this blog. Anything that’s left over gets spent on garum fish sauce. Omnom.