Guide to Pompeii: The city frozen in time

This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)

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 heard when I was visiting Pompeii with the group of journalists who were with me on board the Norwegian Epic was “I had no idea that it was this big and well preserved.” They asked me for a guide to Pompeii, because with an ancient city this big, you’re likely bound to miss something, unless you know what the highlights are.


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. Luckily enough, in the last few years, also thanks to a series of new discoveries immediately opened 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 their experience. One of the latest news, 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. From gladiators fighting in the arena to flute players and shadows representing actors in the great Amphiteatre of Pompeii, it felt like the ancient city had been reborn. With the dark shadow of Mount Vesuvius overlooking the tourists and locals who decided to enjoy this uncommon experience, our politicians seemed to understand that there was still much to be done.


Today, on average, it has been estimated that more than 3 million visitors each year access the archaeological site. Every year more or less there are new discoveries… with the city growing bigger and bigger, maybe it’s true: a guide to Pompeii could be quite handy!
Many people decide to stay for a longer period in Naples to see all the wonders of this city and also to explore both Pompeii, Herculaneum and Mount Vesuvius.

 

 

There are a few ways to approach a visit to Pompeii. Either you can book one of the expensive Pompeii tours that travel agencies sell, with a private guide and everything else (if you are on a cruise then I’m sure your cruising company sells some too, straight from the port of Naples), or reach Pompeii yourself and then hire a guide there… or you can follow this guide to Pompeii and plan everything yourself. Not only saving money, but also putting together a customized itinerary according to the time you have. So if you are planning a trip to Naples, I strongly suggest you plan one full day in Pompeii (because you won’t want to rush it, otherwise you can consider also 3/4 of the day there) and one day on the Amalfi Coast: there’s so much to see and do!

 

Pompeii the city frozen in time Ruins

Guide to Pompeii: 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. Pompeii thus became a rich Roman city where the population lived in luxury. Think of it as a vacation place for the Romans, just like the Amalfi Coast is today for us who live in Naples.

 

 

Vesuvius seen from Pompeii

 

On August 24, 79 BC, according to Pliny the Young in his letters to his friend Tacitus, the Vesuvius interrupted the eerie quiet of the cities that slept by 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 so they weren’t overly concerned about the earthquakes that preceded the eruption. After a first, tremendous explosion, many people fled from Pompei, towards the safety of the coast. Thinking that the worst was over, however, they returned to their homes soon after. And that’s what killed them: had they remained on the coast or left with the many boats, there wouldn’t have been so many deaths.

Guide to Pompeii: The archaeological site of Pompeii

The eruption of Vesuvius froze Pompeii in time. Life in the ancient city of Pompeii crystallized to that fateful day. Many years later, those who were digging in the area still found bread in the ovens, sesserces (the Roman coin) in the shops, food in the pots in what we know today as the “food court” of the ancient Pompeii. 

 

But then how come that no one found Pompeii for over 1600 years? How could it be? After all, Pompeii was a quite popular city, one of the wealthiest of the Roman Empire, back then. How come no one ever got there to look for their friends?

According to Giovanni, a tour guide to Pompeii, there weren’t many survivors. And almost everyone chose to forget the horror. It was like no one even wanted to talk about Pompeii anymore. Nature took its course, covering the once opulent Roman villas with grass and trees. No one even knew where Pompeii was, exactly.
With Charles III of Bourbon, a team started to dig in the area, but for many years they had no luck. Once they found the first villas, yet, they realized that the grave robbers had already been there. For years, most probably, what today is one of the most important archaeological sites of the world had been well hidden by thieves that didn’t want it to be found. According to the first researches, so much had been stolen.

 

Pompeii the city frozen in time bronze statue

 

Guide to Pompeii: Tickets, prices and regulations

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: November 1 – March 31, from 8:30 AM to 6:30 PM (last entry at 5:00 PM), April 1 – 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.

 

For safety reasons, you can only bring inside Pompeii bags that measure 30x30x15 cm. If you have a bigger backpack you will be asked to leave it at one of the cloackrooms situated near each entrance. This service is free! So please in case someone asks you for money, warn the nearest officer: they are trying to scam you.

 

 

Pompei the city frozen in time narrow street

Guide to Pompeii: Map and suggested itineraries

As I promised you to the top of this guide to Pompeii there are at least two itineraries that you can enlarge or reduce according to how much time you have. Here you can download the map to the archaeological site of Pompeii, to be able to understand exactly where each building is.

 

The short itinerary lasts approximately two hours and you will see the main areas of the city life back then. Starting from the magnificent Amphitheatre of Pompeii, 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?

 

Cruise companies that stop in Naples generally offer this “short” tour in the paid excursions catalogue. Since you usually get back to the harbor in the afternoon, if you aren’t too tired I would recommend a short walking tour, as suggested in the itinerary to see Naples from the port. Of course I know that you have walked all day long in Pompeii (hopefully not when the temperatures were too hot!) but it’s definitely worth the walk, if only to take a few beautiful pictures and eat sfogliatella or Italian gelato.

 

Pompei the city frozen in time stairs

 

The longer itinerary in Pompeii takes more or less six hours and starts at Porta Marina, following the Abundance Road, famous for its fountains. Through the main street you will see the Amphitheatres (including the big Amphiteatre of Pompeii), 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.

Yet because you are on a self guided tour, you won’t have to necessarily stick to a specific route: download the above map, check it out and decide according to what you like. If it’s one of our scorching hot summer days, I strongly advise you to take the shorter route, unless you are used to walking under the sun for many hours.

 

Pompei the city frozen in time erotic art

Guide to Pompeii: the highlights you can’t miss

  • Amphitheatre of Pompeii: It’s one of the oldest buildings in the world, dating back to the 80 BC. Here’s where the gladiators used to fight. This building could welcome up to 20,000 people. In 1971, Pink Floyd recorded a concert, Live at Pompeii, in this Amphiteatre – it was (still is) an important milestone in the history of rock. 
  • 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 tiny rooms on both sides. On the walls, erotic art frescoes explicitly depicted the services offered, so the customer only had to indicate what he liked by pointing his finger at one of the paintings, before to be taken into one of the small rooms.
  • Villa dei Misteri: This villa is at a certain walking 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: it will take you some time to visit it!
  • Casa del Fauno: One of the largest villas in Pompeii, about 3000 square meters. It probably belonged to a Roman noble family. They named it after the bronze statue of a Faun in the atrium, which welcomes the visitors.

 

Pompei the city frozen in time Villa del Fauno

Guide to Pompeii: The “bodies” and… how did the inhabitants of Pompeii die?

Most of the times while visiting Pompeii the most asked question is… how did the people who lived here die?

Many of you have heard of the “bodies” at Pompeii. Hopefully you won’t be too disappointed in learning that it’s actually only casts. In 1863, the researchers who were in the area stopped digging when they found a strange cavity with human bones inside. The director decided to use liquid plaster to fill this cavity. Once dry, they removed the debris and realized it had the shape of a human body.
The corpses of the inhabitants of Pompeii were covered during the eruption by ashes, pumice stones and debris, which formed a hard shell, preserving their shape. Over time, organic materials decomposed, leaving only the shell, by then covered by Mother Nature. It’s only thanks to the genius who decided to fill the cavities with liquid plaster that we have been able to learn so much of what happened back then. Sometimes… even too much: the facial expressions of those who died in Pompeii have been crystallized in time and you can still see them clearly.

 

Pompei the city frozen in time corpse

 

In the past, everyone used to believe that the inhabitants of Pompeii had 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. It fell on the city, hot and deadly, in just over a minute. In some parts of the city, you can still see rows of columns all broken at the same height: it’s the result of the violent impact with the pyroclastic flow. Like a huge axe that fell on the city and destroyed everything on its path.
Their death was thus immediate, it is likely that those men, women, children and animals haven’t even realized what was happening. In Pompeii, among the various casts, there is one of a small child, who might have been seven or eight years old. The most famous one is probably that of a man seemingly praying, but there’s also a dog. Like a photograph fixed in time, you can still se the chain collar that bound him, as he desperately tried to escape it.

 

Pompei the city frozen in time body of a kid


Guide to Pompeii: how to get there

Trains or buses are your best option to get to Pompeii (unless of course you have hired a private taxi or a shuttle bus). The Circumvesuviana train station is in fact very close to one of the entrances.

 

How to get to Pompeii from Naples

From the Central Station of Naples, or any other Circumvesuviana station in the area, you can get a train to Pompei. The station you’re looking for is “Pompei – Scavi Villa Misteri” and you can buy a ticket TIC NA3, for 3,50€. The trip from Naples to Pompeii lasts about 35 minutes. Also make sure to check out the Art Stations in Naples because with the same ticket you’ll be able to enjoy public transport and contemporary art museums.

 

How to get to Pompeii from Rome

From Rome you can either get a bus to Naples, using a service like Flixbus (that you will have to book well in advance) for 17,90€, or a train. The bus ride will last 3.20 hours. As for the train, you have two options. Either a fast train to Naples, which costs about 35-40€ (check Italo or Trenitalia) but it will get you to the Central Station in 1 hour, or a regional train. With the latest option you will be able to buy online a ticket with Trenitalia at about 14,80€ that covers all the transfers from Rome to Pompeii. The whole trip will last 3.44h.

 

 

Pompei the city frozen in time mold of a dog

Guide to Pompeii: tips from a local

  • 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 isn’t 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’s also useful to bring at least one bottle of water for each person of the party: inside the archaeological site drinks are expensive and there’s only one shop where you can buy some.
  • 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 no more than 5€!) it would be better to walk to the city center, or even just away from the archaeological site. Sit in a nice pizzeria and enjoy a bit of  a/c air. Don’t worry, you will still be able to shoot a video of the “pizzaiolo” making pizza and maybe also to eat a Neapolitan “cuoppo”!
  • 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, nor licensed. Do you really need a photograph with a stranger wearing a cheap 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. I suggest you to wear a pair of comfortable sneakers or even trekking boots to avoid getting hurt: don’t wear flip flops or high heels!

 

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Visiting Pompeii can be expensive if you go on a pre-booked guided tour or if you intend to hire a guide on the spot. Yet with this Guide to Pompeii written from a local I'll show you how to avoid the tourist traps and what are the best self guided itineraries according to your time. With a map and updated information!

77 Comments

  1. Steph Dobson

    This is so informative. Thank you! My friend and I took a day trip to Pompeii from Rome and I remember it being so creepy with Mount Vesuvius in the background. Such an eerie place to visit for sure.

  2. Damien McGuigan

    Great guide to Pompeii. I loved Pompeii when I was there about 6 years ago. I suspect it has changed a little since then. I preferred to walk around on my own at my own pace and to take my time as I pleased but that is just me. I can see the value in a guide though to get extra, expert information. What do you think about people taking photos of the bodies? I felt a little uncomfortable myself but I had a friend who worked in a science background that would have been fascinated by them but because of health reasons they wouldn’t be able to manage to walk around Pompeii at all.

    1. Oh yes it has, there are new discoveries almost every year so it keeps getting bigger and bigger. Just like you I felt a bit uncomfortable at all the attention people give to the “bodies”, but one of the guides over there told me that people are just fascinated to learn about what happened. After all it’s like a clear picture of something happened so long ago, with all the casts showing what people were doing and how they “dealt” with this tragedy. Above all I think it’s an incredible historical “document”, we have the chance to learn so much from Pompeii! Here it’s pretty common to have schools visit Pompeii archaeological site: a much more interesting and “interactive” way to learn!

  3. Rosemary

    This is a great detailed description of Pompeii with the very helpful tips with the two itineraries. I hope to get to Pompeii soon to see this preserved Roman city. Definitively holding on this guide for my trip. Nice job!

  4. Michelle

    I visited Pompeii with a private guide, and it was amazing to have him there and answer all our questions. I don’t think I could have done it independently – there’s just so much info to process, and he could steer us towards the highlights without us having to worry about navigating or prioritising what we wanted to see. It’s such a vast place, I wish I could’ve spent more time there! I think we had about half a day and it definitely wasn’t enough!

  5. Jennifer

    We also visited Pompeii when we lived in Italy and chose to do a do-it-yourself your instead of paying for a guide. It’s better because you can easily get away from the mass groups and move at your own pace. It is a massive site with a lot to explore. I also like the free audio guides you can download to your phone before going so you know what you’re looking at and don’t miss important details.

  6. Lucy

    This was a very interesting read, even though I have been to Pompeii, but a long time ago, so it was was nice to refresh my memory. I went on a cruise and it was so hot as it was July, I would like to go back in spring and also see it at night.

  7. Nic

    What a great guide, I visited back in 2004 when I was a teenager with my parents. We went on a tour so it was great to learn about the history and know what all the buildings are, but I did feel rushed! I have always wanted to return with Paul and see it again and show him. It is such a wonderful place.

  8. Cathy

    I have not heard of Pompeii until I read your post. You wrote such a well written and detailed guide and I’ll surely get back here if I visit Pompeii. I would also like to take advices from locals, sometimes, they give the best ones tho they offer high prices on activities or other travel or tourist related.
    And what happened here in the past is such a heart breaking story.

  9. Cai Dominguez

    Wow! I think you covered almost everything about Pompeii very detaild and informative article. Made me feel that Im there while reading your article. Very interesting site and history that I would love to see and discover one day. Thank you for sharing

  10. Megan Jerrard

    Faboulous guide to Pompeii – I visited when I was backpacking through Italy way back in 2007, and it was an incredible experience, despite being a very touristy site. Agree with the tourists you heard re being awestruck at how well preserved the whole site is. We did it ourselves, and had a great time being able to freely wander through the town. I didn’t know you could visit at night though, that sounds like it would be quite the experience after dark!

    The casts were a lasting memory from my trip. Incredible to think that you can gain that much insight into the aftermath.

    1. The night visits at Pompeii are a recent thing, I think they started a couple of years ago and only during certain periods, but we found it awesome… and very cheap! With 2€ you get a night experience, sure, you won’t see the whole archaeological site but still!

  11. Medha

    Wow this is a very detailed and handy guide to visiting Pompeii. I remember going there 3 years ago and it was a brilliant experience, though I do regret not hiring a guide to explain the things in detail. I read about Pompeii in our history books as a child in school and since then the story stuck with me. It was such a shocking, saddening story that the moment I planned a trip to Italy, I knew I wanted to visit this place I’d read about as a child. It can be overwhelming to figure out where exactly to go and how so this guide you’ve put together is perfect for someone planning a visit.

  12. Julien Mordret

    First of all I wanna say congratulations for putting up such a complete and informative guide! Even though I have visited Pompei twice when I was younger, I learned a lot of things here. The frescoes are fascinating and the bodies give it a human face, we realize the extent of the disaster that happened there.

  13. Marya

    i was mesmerized on the part about how the facial expressions of those who died in pompeii have been crystallized in time. and that simply makes me want to visit pompeii if one day i go to italy.

    not only that i love history itself, but the way that they crystallize the facial expressions when they died though, it’d be probably a reminder for everyone alive that death could come to us anytime. 🙁

  14. Fiona Maclean

    I can remember being transfixed by the idea of Pompeii when I was studying Latin at school. It’s so macabre isn’t it! Particularly the casts of the bodies (which I thought were actually some kind of mummified bodies till I read your article). I’m ashamed to say, despite being from the UK so hardly a long way away, I’ve never been. Your guide is excellent and for those of us who prefer to do things in our own time a great resource.

    1. It is a bit macabre, but in my opinion only the area where the “bodies” are (and still… you have no idea how many people spend so much time in watching the casts!). The rest of Pompeii is impressive, like talking a walk through history. Everything is still as it was, I don’t think there’s anything similar in the world because it’s a picture of a long gone empire. I think you’d quite enjoy the visit!

  15. Erica Edwards

    This is so incredibly thourough! I wish I’d had a guide like this when I went a few years back! We were backpacking southern Europe at the time and sort of clumsily bumbled our way through Pompeii, but if I ever have the opportunity to come back I’ll definitely come back to this guide. Thanks 🙂

  16. Sandy N Vyjay

    Pompeii is one city that is really intriguing for me. On our last visit to those parts we missed going there due to time constraints, hope we get there some day soon. The history of the place is fascinating. How Pompeii met its end is so poignant.

  17. 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.

  18. 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

  19. 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!

  20. 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!

  21. Kerry Maskell

    This is fascinating, such a tragedy x I suppose the discovery that most of the deceased didn’t suffer was a slight comfort x I will share this post, very informative 🙂

  22. 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.

    1. The night visit was very nice! Only it is cheap because not the whole area is open. Last time we got to see the Amphiteaters (all of them) and a few other things, but it took us about one hour? Yet for 2€ it was definitely a good deal!

  23. Brianna

    I learned about Pompeii when I was really little and it has been on my travel wish list since then. Sounds like I’d be wise to plan a trip in the spring or fall though, to help escape from the heat!

    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!

  24. Edith Carolina Rodriguez

    This place must be incredible because of all it’s history! We love visiting places like this and hopefully we make it out here one day!

  25. 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!!

  26. Adelheid Sudibyo

    Whoaa… this city is indeed frozen in time. And somehow it also reminds me of Machu Pichu, but in Europe. Such amazing architecture, and your photos definitely captured it!

  27. 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!

  28. Jennifer Riley

    I missed this place when we were in Italy, but I would love to visit it. I have a fascination with all things volcanoes. It’s too bad so much stuff has been stolen over the years.

  29. 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

  30. 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.

  31. 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. 🙂

  32. Lois Alter Mark

    We visited Pompeii — on a cruise ship excursion, as you mentioned — a few years ago and found it fascinating. The history is sobering and I would love to spend more time there to really explore.

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