Guide to Pompeii: The city frozen in time

Vesuvius seen from Pompeii

Pompeii is a Roman city preserved in its entirety as if its inhabitants had just left fifteen minutes ago.
(Chateaubriand 1804)

The first thing I’ve been said when I was visiting Pompeii with the group of journalists who was with me on board the Norwegian Epic was “I had no idea that it was so big and well preserved.”
The archaeological site of Pompeii, a UNESCO heritage site since 1997, is a jewel of rare beauty in the South of Italy. For a long time it has been underestimated and almost completely neglected. In recent years, thanks to a series of new discoveries immediately made available to visitors, and to a better preservation policy, the trend seems to have reversed. The number of tourists is increasing exponentially, together with a series of initiatives aimed at enhancing this city frozen in time. One of the latest, the “Night of Pliny“, allowed visitors to enter the archaeological site at night with a 2€ ticket only. We were able to walk through strategically lit ruins, informative movies displayed directly on the ancient walls and an immersive experience of rare beauty. It was awesome. Finally Pompeii has been reborn.
Today, on average, it has been estimated that more than 3 million visitors each year access the archaeological site.

Pompeii the city frozen in time Ruins

The History of Pompeii

The first testimonies about Pompeii date back to the end of the 9th century BC. The city grew with the Greeks, who used it as a military outpost to control the land and the harbor. Not many people know that until at least 89 BC Pompeii was hostile to Rome: the city fought with all its forces against the invaders. When it fell, however, Pompeii was given Roman citizenship and was included in the Gens Menenia, an ancient patrician family existing since Romulus.
The Roman senators were fascinated by the mild climate and the fertile land. Therefore they began to build magnificent villas in this area. Some only got there for short or longer vacation periods. Some others, however, began to produce wine, honey and breed mites and eels.
Pompey had become a rich Roman city where the population lived in luxury.

Vesuvius seen from Pompeii

On August 24, 79 BC, according to Pliny the Young in is letters to his friend Tacitus, the Vesuvius interrupted the tranquility of the cities that slept at his feet. Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabia and other towns on the coast were destroyed in just one day.
The approximately 15,000 inhabitants of Pompeii had no idea that the Vesuvius was a volcano, and none of them was overly concerned about the earthquakes that preceded the eruption. After a first, tremendous explosion, many of the inhabitants fled Pompei to the coast. Thinking that the worst was over, however, they returned to their homes soon after. And that’s what killed them.

The archaeological site of Pompeii

The eruption of Vesuvius froze Pompeii in time.
The first excavations began at the thanks to Charles III of Bourbon. Many wonder how it was possible that nobody went to look for the people who were buried under the ashes, in one of the wealthiest Roman cities at the time. According to Giovanni, tour guide in Pompeii, this horror was simply forgotten for a long time. Nature made its course, covering those that once were opulent Roman villas with vegetation. It was also impossible to find the exact place where Pompeii once was. But when the first researchers finally started to dig, they discovered that grave robbers had already been there. For years, probably: there were many tunnels that led to the villas and so many objects had already been stolen.
Life in ancient Pompeii had stopped that fateful day. In the ovens they found bread, the chests were full of sesterces, there was still food in the pots. For over 1600 years everything had been left untouched (mostly).

 

Pompeii the city frozen in time bronze statue

 

The ticket to visit Pompeii costs €13 (reduced €7.50). It is possible to purchase a cumulative ticket which guarantees access to five archaeological sites (Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplonti, Stabia, Boscoreale) valid for three days, at €22 (reduced €12). On the first Sunday of every month the entrance to the archaeological site of Pompeii is free. Tickets can be purchased directly at the entrance to the excavations or online. Entrance times, from November 1 to March 31, are from 8:30 AM to 6:30 PM (last entry at 5:00 PM), and from April 1 to October 31 from 8:30 AM to 7:30 PM (last entry to 6:00 AM). Pompeii is closed on January 1, May 1, and December 25.

 

Pompei the city frozen in time narrow street

Suggested itineraries in Pompeii

The short itinerary lasts approximately two hours and you will see the main areas of the city’s life at the time. Starting from the Amphitheater, you can walk over to the Big and Small Theaters, the Spas at the Forum, the public administration buildings, the Basilica, the Temples of Isis, Jupiter and Apollo, the Public Liturgy, the Macellum, the Lupanare, the Casa del Fauno and the House of the Antique Hunting.

 

Come morirono i pompeiani?

 

Generally cruise companies that stop in Naples offer this “short” tour in the paid excursion catalog. Since you usually get back to the harbor in the afternoon, if you are not too tired I would recommend a short walking tour, as suggested in the itinerary for Naples from the harbor.

 

Pompei the city frozen in time stairs

 

The longer one takes more or less six hours and starts at Porta Marina, following the Abundance Road, famous for its fountains. Through this main street you can see the Amphitheatres, the Necropolis, the Garden of the Fugitives, the Garden House of Hercules, the Big and Small Theaters, the Stabiana Spas, the Eumachia Building, the Public Buildings, the Temples of Jupiter, Isis, Vespasian, the Triangular Forum, the Doric Temple, the Augusta Fort Temple, the Dioscuri House, the Meleagro House, the House of Europe Ship, the Larachi House of Achilles, the Small Fountain House House of Sallustio, Bakery and Villa of Mysteries.

 

Pompei the city frozen in time erotic art

Inside the archaeological site of Pompeii: highlights

  • Amphitheater: It’s one of the oldest buildings in the world, dating back to the 80 BC. Here the gladiators used to fight. This building could host up to 20,000 viewers. In 1971, Pink Floyd recorded a concert, Live at Pompeii, which is an important milestone in the history of rock. For obvious reasons, the public wasn’t present.
  • Big and small theaters: The two theaters are connected. In the big one, they used to play Plauto and Terenzio. The smaller one was in stead mainly used for musical performances.
  • Lupanare: “Lupa“, in Latin, indicated a prostitute. Lupanare was therefore a brothel, a building made up of a corridor with little small rooms. On the walls, erotic art frescoes explicitly depicted the services offered, so the customer only had to choose from the “catalog“, indicating the performance he wanted to receive and get in one of the tiny bedrooms with one of the prostitutes.
  • Villa dei Misteri: This villa is at a certain distance from the others and therefore I recommend that you visit it only if you have more than two hours, adding it to the short itinerary. It consists of over 70 rooms, decorated and frescoed.
  • Casa del Fauno: One of the largest villas in Pompeii, about 3000 square meters. It probably belonged to a Roman nobleman. They named it after the bronze statue of a Faun in the atrium, which welcomes visitors.

 

Pompei the city frozen in time Villa del Fauno

How did the inhabitants of Pompeii die?

Many of you will have heard of the “bodies” of Pompeii. Well, actually it’s only casts. In 1863, the works in the archaeological excavations were interrupted when they found a cavity with some bones inside. The director at that time decided to put liquid plaster inside this cavity: once it was dry and freed from debris, it turned out to be a human body.
The corpses of the inhabitants of Pompeii were covered during the eruption by ash, pumice stone and debris, which formed a shell, preserving their shape. Over time, organic materials decomposed, leaving only the shell, then covered by soil and other debris. Today thanks to these molds we can even see the expressions on faces that have now crystallized in time.

 

Pompei the city frozen in time corpse

 

In the past, everyone thought that the inhabitants of Pompeii died painfully by breathing hot ashes.
Recent studies have revealed that they were burned by exposure to high temperature, between 300°C and 600°C. The pyroclastic flow lifted up to about 30 km high. It fell on the city, hot and deadly, in just over a minute. In some parts of the city, you might notice broken rows of columns all at the same height: it’s the result of the violent impact with the pyroclastic flow.

 

Pompei the city frozen in time body of a kid


The death was thus immediate, it is likely that those men, women, children and animals have not even realized what was happening. In Pompeii, among the various casts, there is one of a small child, who may have been seven or eight years old, the most famous one, a man seemingly praying, and that of a dog. Like a photograph fixed in time, you can still se the chain collar that bound him, as he contorted desperately to try to escape.

 

Pompei the city frozen in time mold of a dog

Insider tips to Pompeii

  • If you visit the archaeological site of Pompeii between June and August (included), I suggest you go for the short itinerary. The Summer temperatures are indeed very high and it is not pleasant to walk for so many hours under the sun!
  • Wear a hat, especially in Summer. You will have to walk outdoors and there’s almost no shade at all. It is also useful to bring at least one bottle of water each: inside the archaeological site it is expensive and there’s only one shop where you can buy it.
  • You could be tempted by the market just outside the archaeological site. Or you might want to eat a hot pizza as soon as you get out. But keep in mind that the prices here are unreasonably high. To enjoy a good pizza margherita (paying it no more than 5 €!) it would be better to move to the city, even just walking away from the archaeological site. Sit in a nice pizzeria and enjoy a bit of cool. Even there you will be able to shot a video of the “pizzaiolo” preparing a pizza!
  • Recently some “centurions” appeared at the entrance of the archaeological site of Pompeii. These individuals earn money taking pictures with tourists and are in no way authorized by the authorities to carry out this activity. Do you really need a photograph with a stranger wearing a Roman plastic armor?
  • Inside the archaeological area, the stones of the ancient streets of Pompeii are often disheveled or slippery. You can still see the signs drawn from the wheels of the wagons. That is why it’s better to explore the area wearing a pair of comfortable gym shoes or trekking boots rather than a pair of sandals: getting hurt will ruin your day!
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29 Comments

  1. Jing

    You have written it very informatively that I won’t need a guide when I get there, which I hope I do. It also reminded me to see that movie about Pompeii. It was shown one time from our cable TV but I didn’t get to the start. 🙂

  2. I remember reading a National Geographic article about Pompeii as a kid and there was a full page picture of a mother shielding her child as the pyroclastic flow covered them it was sanctimoniously the most beautiful and tragic thing I had ever seen. The image is still… burned into my brain. Free Sundays sounds good but I was wondering if there was a way to pay twice as much and not have those three million other visitors.

  3. Ciao Dany,
    complimenti per il tuo articolo molto interessante sulla nostra bellissima Pompei, destinazione preferita tra i croceristi che passano per Napoli. E’ un peccato che le compagnie di Crociera prevedono una tappa così breve perchè la visita al sito archeologico di Pompei e anche agli altri siti meno conosciuti ma altrettanto stupefacenti come Ercolano, Oplonti e Stabia, meritano molto più tempo delle classiche 2 ore programmate per l’escursione. Si spera che almeno questi visitatori, colgano il fascino e la bellezza di questi luoghi tanto che desiderino ritornarci con più calma magari per un weekend. Sul nostro blog http://www.pompeiitaly.org approfondiamo i diversi itinerari tra Pompei, il Vesuvio e i luoghi nei dintorni. La prossima volta che sei da queste parti, contattaci se vuoi, sarà un piacere accompagnarti ad esplorare il nostro territorio. A presto

  4. Francesca

    I find it difficult sometimes to describe Pompeii to those who haven’t been there. It’s absolutely amazing – astounding, really. I can’t imagine seeing it at night. That had to be quite an experience!

  5. Clare

    I finally got to visit Pompeii 2 years ago and I loved it. It is such a great site but I was surprised how big it was and how easy it was to get lost. The Ampitheater was shut when I was there but we did manage to climb over a fence to get a view in!!

    1. Definitely! Here Summer can be a furnace, we easily go over 30-33°C and because there’s no shade, it’s not advisable to walk for too many hours in Pompeii! Besides, it’s full of tourists and more expensive! April was pretty warm this year and we got a nice weather, but Pompeii wasn’t so overcrowded! September or early October would also be good as prices go down. December is another very expensive month in Naples!

  6. That was my first thought looking at the pictures as well – I had no idea it is actually so big.
    The night visit sounds like a great option as well especially with such cheap tickets though maybe just for the experience as you probably won’t see everything.

  7. Sandy Dobbs

    Oh my goodness. I used to teach high school World History and the students were always fascinated with this place. The fact that they have cast settings of the people who died is both interesting and sad. Really enjoyed reading this!

  8. What an incredible experience to be there in person! I went to the Pompeii exhibition in Montreal last year and was really struck by the tragedy of it all. The mummified remains of loved ones comforting each other in their last moments was particularly hard to see – I can’t imagine how it must have felt to be there!

  9. kristelle

    im so sad that i didnt get to pompeii. we went to napoli and amalfi last summer and we were actually planning to visit there but we woke up late and afraid to miss our flight. now i regret it maybe soon

  10. Contrarian Travel Blog Geemiz

    That is a beautiful experience just walking on this beauty. 3 Million is massive, I wonder if there are times when the place is close just for it to relax 🙂 I sure do want to visit Pompeii.

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