I've been blessed with the opportunity to visit Pompeii several times and I have always been thrilled by the sheer size of the site, it's history and the preservation efforts. Pompeii is a UNESCO World Heritage site, located near Naples in Italy, and it is one of the most studied and visited archaeological sites in the world.
Despite having visited Pompeii numerous times, I am always entranced by the city. While I walk along the streets, in the footsteps of the people who lived there over 2,00o years ago, I always wonder about their daily lives.
The city is divided into several areas, each unique in purpose and culture. The ancient city is very large making it important to prioritize which areas you want to explore. Even after multiple visits, I have not seen a lot of the site, so keep your expectations realistic. You won't see the whole city in one visit, even if you arrive at opening and leave at closing. Prioritize the areas you really want to see. If it's your first visit, I strongly recommend using a guide.
The easiest way to reach Pompeii is by taking 35-minute Circumvesuviana train from Naples Central Station. Trains run frequently throughout the day, and tickets can be purchased at the station or online in advance. The station closest to the main (Marina) gate is the Pompeii Scavi-Villa dei Misteri -- a 5-minute walk.
It is also possible to book a private tour or shuttle bus from Naples. There are many tour companies that offer guided tours of Pompeii, some that include pickup from your hotel. If you choose to drive yourself, be aware that parking will be very challenging, especially in the high season.
There are three entrances to Pompeii: the Marina Gate, the Herculaneum Gate, and the Stabian Gate. The Marina gate is the main entrance. There is a lively market and several restaurants outside this gate. There are also public toilets located here that are often quite smelly and have long line-ups. There are several clean bathrooms located on site. The easiest to locate are near the gates and in the Chora Café.
You will get a paper map of the site for self-guided exploration but there are several guided tour options available, including group tours, private tours, and audio guides. It is possible to hire a guide right at the gates.
The current entrance fee for Pompeii is 18 euros per person, with add-ons to visit other sites in Pompeii, including the museum. Visitors can purchase tickets online in advance or at the ticket office near the main entrance. Pompeii is open daily from 09:00 to 19:00, with the last entry at 5:30 pm.
You will be doing a lot of walking on very rough and uneven stones so choose your shoes carefully. You will need sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat. There is very little shade and the heat radiates from the stone.
Remember to be respectful of the site and avoid touching or damaging any of the ruins. It is absolutely forbidden to take any rocks or stones from the site. Your tour guide will likely tell terrible tales of thieving tourists returning stones after years of horrific bad luck.
Food and Drink
There is no re-entry to Pompeii included in your ticket, so if you are staying longer you will want to find the Chora Café behind the Temple of Jupiter. Light meals, snacks and drinks are available with (air-conditioned) indoor and outdoor seating. The quality of the food served is just okay. During the hottest days, finding space inside will be challenging but if you are able to find a table, it is a great way to cool down and take a break. Like most tourist sites, the cost for food and drink inside will be higher, so budget travellers might want to consider bringing their own snacks and drinks.
Ancient Pompeii had a brilliant water system including aqueducts, fountains, and public baths that allowed the residents to enjoy hot and cold water in their homes, as well as in public baths. Today, there is some potable water available around the site but you'll need to look for signs before filling your water bottle. Water from many of the ancient fountains is not suitable for drinking.
The bustling market outside the Marine gate is home to dozens of vendors selling everything from souvenirs and clothing to food and drinks. It is a very lively market and vendors will call out to attract your attention. You'll find lots of items for sale of varying quality, including handmade crafts, jewellery, leather goods, and many, many phallic items of all sizes and materials. It's common to see phallic symbols throughout the ancient city and in the souvenir kiosks, so if you are travelling with children you might want to skip the market stalls.
If you choose to do some shopping here, it is expected that you will bargain with the vendors. The quality of the items on sale varies widely, so be selective. As with any busy tourist market, there may be some less scrupulous vendors. Be wary of any who seem overly pushy.
History & Culture of Ancient Pompeii
Pompeii was a major port city and holiday resort on the Mediterranean coast, with a population of approximately 11,000 permanent residents. Residents were wealthy merchants, tradespeople, and slaves from a variety of locations around the Empire. The city was famous for wine, olive oil, and textiles.
When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79CE, the eruption buried the city under ash and pumice in a matter of hours. This muddy stone mix helped preserve the site. When the city was rediscovered and excavations began, archeologists were thrilled to discover the well-preserved artifacts.
Most ordinary people in Pompeii lived in cramped apartment buildings called insulae. These apartments rarely had running water or any sanitation system. The wealthier elite, on the other hand, lived in grand villas with private courtyards and gardens, and most even had running water.
The plethora of recreational and entertainment areas suggest that Pompeii was a party town. The multiple public spaces, theatres, bathhouses, restaurants, and forums encouraged social gatherings. Gladiator games, chariot races, and theatre performances were also very popular.
What to See
Pompeii is huge -- I cannot stress this enough. The site covers about 170 acres, so plan your visit in advance to make the most of your time there. The city is divided into nine regions, each with its unique landmarks and buildings.
Keep your eyes peeled for examples of ancient tagging. Graffiti was common, with many examples found on the walls of buildings.
The Forum is the main gathering space in the city. Surrounding the Forum are other buildings, including the Temple of Jupiter, the Basilica, and the Curia. You'll also want to visit the remains of the Macellum, an ancient food market.
The Amphitheatre could seat up to 20,000 people for gladiator games and other public performances. It is remarkably intact. It is easy to imagine the stands full of spectators for a grand event.
The Villa of the Mysteries is a little further away, on the outskirts of Pompeii. The Villa includes many stunning frescoes with simply amazing colour. The most notable shows a woman's initiation into the cult of Dionysus. It's a bit of a trek to get there, but it's worth it.
The House of the Vettii was one of the grandest homes in Pompeii. The contrast between this comfortable and luxurious home and the humble homes of the rest of the population is huge. It is clear that the wealthy residents lived a very pampered life.
The public Baths of Pompeii, called thermae, were where people could relax, socialize, and bathe. Only the wealthiest residents had private baths. Originally these baths were filled with water diverted from the river but aqueducts were soon built to deliver the water more efficiently. Water was heated using pipes and braziers.
The Thermopolium, is the equivalent of today's fast-food restaurants, with serving counters with food and drink urns were kept warm or cool. Food remnants found in the urns determined that ancient residents could stop for a quick to-go meal of soups, salty fish, lentils, or baked cheese with a generous serving of spiced wine. Archaeologists have uncovered over 150 of these establishments in Pompeii.
The Lupanare, or brothel, is often a big draw for visitors and can get very crowded. Prostitution was legal and Pompeii had a thriving sex industry. Depending upon your tour guide (and the members of your group), you can get the PG-rated version or a much more detailed explanation of the city's sexual norms. There's a second floor that's usually less crowded and offers a different perspective on the ancient sex trade.
The walls are decorated with graphic erotic art depicting all parts of the sex trade, including a menu of services. The way to the brothel is marked on walls and streets with phallic symbols pointing the direction.
The Dogs of Pompeii
On my very first visit, I was surprised to see many dogs lounging in the small bits of shade available. I learned that dogs have a long history in Pompeii, dating back to ancient times when they were kept as pets and working animals. The dogs at Pompeii today are said to be descendants of those ancient pups.
But these dogs aren't just there for the delight of tourists. They also protect the site from rodents and other pests that could damage them. The dogs are trained to sniff out any signs of trouble and are apparently very successful.
These dogs are not feral, in fact, they are very well-cared for. The site has a dedicated team of volunteers who provide food, water, and medical care for the dogs. They also work to find loving homes for any puppies born on the site. Those who weren't napping in the heat were friendly and seemed to enjoy the attention, eagerly wagging their tails and nuzzling up for pats and scratches.
The modern city (comune) of Pompeii is an ideal base for visitors who want to spend more time exploring the area, with a range of shops, restaurants, and cafes, as well as several museums and cultural attractions. Although we enjoyed a lovely meal and had some wonderful chats with locals, we didn't find much to interest us in the modern city.
If you're looking for accommodation, there are several options, ranging from budget-friendly hostels to luxury hotels. While there are many great accommodation options in Pompeii, the hostel we chose left a lot to be desired - Otello Deluxe Hostel. Despite its name, our stay there was incredibly disappointing. The landlords were grumpy and unhelpful, and there were few of the amenities described in the listing - in fact, there was no pool as promised, the shower was constantly plugged, and the landlords turned off all lights and locked the exterior doors as soon as their (very loud) TV shows ended about 11:30 at night. Woe beholds the traveller returning after they had settled for the night.
However, one bright spot during our stay was a wonderful and memorable evening spent chatting with a visiting archaeologist doing research at the site. He shared interesting and often very amusing stories about the history of Pompeii and some of the behind-the-scenes drama regarding the ongoing work. It was a fascinating conversation that made the less-than-ideal hostel experience a bit more tolerable.
The sheer magnitude of the site can be overwhelming, but with some pre-planning, you will be able to see many of the most important and fascinating sights on a single visit. There's no shortage of incredible things to see and explore. And, of course, the presence of the site's friendly and hardworking dogs only adds to the unique charm of this remarkable place.
Special Shout-Outs to Travel Heroes...
I want to close today's blog by sending a couple of shout-outs to a couple of fellows we met along the way. The first was a shopkeeper. We bought some cheap wine to take back to our hostel. He insisted that we could not drink that wine without it being cooled (it was a scorching hot day) and was horrified that we had no way to cool it properly. He told us he would take care of it and to return in about an hour. Sure enough, he had our cheap plonk cooled down to the perfect temperature upon our return. The second was the amazing young man who rescued a bunch of random travellers at the Naples train station on one of my visits. To my eternal shame, I do not remember his name. We were all stuck in Naples because of protests on the main tracks. Like all the other travellers, we were hoping for advice from the ticket office but lines were deep and tempers were hot. As we stood around discussing options, this young Italian man shyly suggested that we could get commuter tickets from the convenience store in the basement. Overhearing our conversation in English, we soon attracted the attention of several international students. Soon, we were a group of 6. We got our commuter tickets and had enjoyed a delightful journey. ATB#1 and I were even offered a ride from the station to our hostel by our hero's sister. What could have been a frustrating day turned into an absolute delight.
Share a story about one of your heroes in the comments below -- let's recognize and celebrate the amazing people we meet along the way.
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