If you’re staying in Naples, a trip to Pompeii is an absolute must. This archaeological site is truly unique and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.
Pompeii is the only remaining tangible sign of what life was like for the ancient Romans just before the violent volcanic eruption in 79 AD destroyed the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae and Oplontis.
The discoveries made during the excavations instigated by Charles III of Spain provide some of the finest indications of life in Roman times and Pompeii is the best preserved city of that era; most of the finds (including frescoes, mosaics and statues, as well as simple everyday artefacts), are now held in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, with a smaller number in the Antiquarium of Pompeii.
Visiting the archaeological site of Pompeii is like stepping back in time, as the city itself became frozen in time on that day of the famous eruption in 79 AD, when ash and lava rained down from the sky and enveloped everything below: homes, inhabitants, roads, public buildings and objects from everyday life. It was as if everything were captured in a terrible snapshot that has survived to this day for us to see.
The ruins of Pompeii are open all year round and you can either simply purchase an entry ticket or opt for a guided tour with a private guide or a group tour.
The ancient city covers an area of around 66 hectares, whilst the excavated area covers around 44 hectares, where approximately 1,500 buildings were discovered, including domus (Roman villas) and monuments.
There are three entrances to the site:
- The Porta Marina entrance, near the train station on the Circumvesuviana rail network.
- The Piazza Esedra entrance, coinciding with the motorway exit.
- The Piazza Anfiteatro entrance, towards the modern town.
I would highly recommend taking a guided tour of the site as your guide will be able to explain all about the ruins in amazing detail.
What to see in Pompeii
The Roman Amphitheatre
The first recommended stop is the Roman Amphitheatre, situated right opposite the Piazza Anfiteatro entrance and 100 years older than the Coliseum. It was built around 70 BC by the duumvirs, or magistrates, Q. Valgus and M. Porcius, and is one of the oldest and best preserved amphitheatres in the world. It could hold over 20,000 spectators. Originally clad in marble, due to its size it was the first building to be plundered once the ruins had been discovered.
Plays and other public performances are still staged there today, mainly on summer evenings.
The Garden of the Fugitives
The Garden of the Fugitives was originally an old quarter of the ancient city of Pompeii, which was then converted into a vineyard in the years prior to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Its current name relates to the discovery of the bodies of 13 victims, who were apparently trying to escape to the Nocera Gate before they were encased in ash and lava, as can be seen in the casts created using the technique of pouring liquid plaster into the cavities.
The House of Octavius Quartio
Of all the Roman villas that you can visit in Pompeii, I have to mention the House of Octavius Quartio, which is a “miniature version” of the large villas of the aristocracy that were spread throughout the countryside outside of the city,and where you’ll find the frescoes of the Myth of Narcissus and Suicide of Pyramus and Thisbe.
The House of Venus in the Shell
Another domus worth visiting is the House of Venus in the Shell. Damaged by one of the bombs that fell on Pompeii in 1943 and excavated in 1952, this house appears to be built on the site of an earlier one, extending the peristyle and triclinium and changing the layout of the rooms, almost all arranged around the garden.
The house is famous for the scenes depicted on its south wall: a garden bursting with plants and copious fauna, with low latticework and other decorative features on three panels.
The Roman Forum
The spectacular Roman Forum, which makes any visit to Pompeii all the more enthralling, is of course unmissable. From here you can see Mount Vesuvius, majestically looking down on Pompeii, with its somewhat ominous air that allows you to imagine how the city felt before the eruption.
The Forum stands at the intersection of the main axes of the original urban hub and was the city’s main square, with no access permitted to carts or chariots: around it stood religious, political and financial buildings. From the 1st century AD, the Forum was used for celebratory events and was therefore surrounded by statues: on the south side stood the honorary statues, in front of the urban administrative buildings, whilst those of illustrious citizens could be found along the porticos. Only their bases can be seen today; the sculptures have not been found and may have been removed by inhabitants of Pompeii who returned after the eruption to take anything that they were able to recover. In the middle of the west side stands a rostrum.
The Thermal Baths of Pompeii
As in all Roman cities, Pompeii also had its thermal baths. The Forum’s “thermae”, also called the Fortune Baths or Stabian Baths, are a Roman thermal complex designed for the wealthiest members of society. The baths, a favourite Roman pastime, are divided into two sections: one for men and the other for women, with separate entrances. Each contained a series of rooms with different functions: the apodyterium, frigidarium, tepidarium and caldarium.
The Lupanar is one of the most famous and characteristic places on the entire archaeological site, even though it’s located on the periphery. This was the city’s ancient brothel, distributed over two floors with five small rooms on the ground floor and five above. Each room contains a stone bed on which matting or mattresses would be laid. At the entrances to each alcove are different paintings with erotic themes, probably depicting the type of service offered by the prostitute residing there.
The Villa of the Mysteries
Finally, make sure you visit the Villa of the Mysteries, one of the most mysterious and intriguing domus in Pompeii, dating back to the 1st century BC. The villa probably belonged to the Istacidii family, one of the most powerful in the city during the Augustan Age.
How to get to Pompeii
The Ruins of Pompeii are a few kilometres outside of Naples on the road leading to Sorrento, in the current town of Pompei, rebuilt right alongside the ancient city.
You can get there on the Circumvesuviana rail network, from the Napoli Piazza Garibaldi station, travelling towards Sorrento and getting off at the “Pompei Scavi” stop, or by private transfer or car from Naples, taking the motorway towards Salerno and exiting at Pompei centro.
If you’re planning to visit Naples, I would make sure you keep at least one day spare for Pompeii, which you can visit on a day trip from the city. Then don’t miss out on a visit to the fascinating Underground Naples in the city’s Old Town, steeped in myths and legends that will take your breath away!