Pompeii Street

Day trip to Pompeii

Our day trip to Pompeii was a couple decades in the making. I’d wanted to visit the ill-fated city ever since I’d heard about the volcanic eruption in primary school. Growing up in a small town in Nova Scotia, Canada, I thought my chances of going there were next to nil.

20-something years and five trips to Italy later, 2018 would finally be the year!

Having already walked a lot on this trip, including a walk along the Path of the Gods on the Amalfi Coast and two days walking around the hilly island of Capri, the big question was: would my feet allow me to spend yet another day walking on 2,000 year old stones?!

So what happened to Pompeii?

Prior to the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79AD, the two cities of Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum were bustling with trade. At the time, Pompeii acted as an important coastal trading post. As Vesuvius erupted, the ash and mud covered the two cities, keeping them relatively intact until their accidental discoveries in the 18th century. Being buried in mud has its advantages as the cities were not pillaged over the centuries like many other cities after the fall of the Roman Empire. They were buried in mud and ash though, so you can’t have everything!

Excavations started back at the time of its rediscovery, and continue today. With an area of over 60 hectares, there’s still a lot of area undiscovered.

Keep in mind, despite years of excavations, this is a former disaster zone, with many of the buildings losing their roofs under the weight of the mud and ash. As you walk around the site, the condition of the buildings vary from complete structures to only walls and floors. With a little imagination, you can transport yourself back in time and picture what it would have been like to live as a first century Roman.

On a side note, the lack of roofs, trees and miscellaneous infrastructure means there is next to zero shade throughout the side. We visited at the end of April and it was pretty hot. Without any shade, the sun can be pretty unforgiving. Make sure to bring plenty of water and take your time to wander the ruins and take advantage of any shade you can find!

Pompeii Street
Using the cross walk, first century Roman style. The chariot tracks are still visible in the stone. Unfortunately chariot rides are not on offer.

What’s the best way to visit Pompeii?

If you’re looking for the easiest way to visit Pompeii as a day trip, consider an organised tour. However the connivence comes at a price, so it will be the most expensive way to visit Pompeii. That extra cost takes away the worry about organising the day, figuring out train schedules and you’re less likely to get ripped off. For many people, this is the way to go.

With the odd exception, I prefer to do things on my own. I weighed up the idea of booking an independent guide to walk us through Pompeii, but with our plans somewhat flexible, I didn’t want to be locked into a time. I’d also read that the guides at the site can be a bit hit or miss or make you wait a long time while they form a group, so I thought I’d take my chances and visit unassisted, equipped with a map and an audioguide.

There are always pros and cons to any approach, but I figured I could pass up having in-depth knowledge from a guide for the benefit of having a flexible schedule. Also, seeing as the eruption happened so long ago, where are the guides getting their stories from? Seems like a whole lot of guessing and making up stories to me!

Pompeii Forum
Mount Vesuvius looming ominously in the background. This is how quiet the forum can be at closing time – a benefit of planning an afternoon excursion.

To provide more context for what I was seeing, I visited the Naples National Archaeological Museum in the morning on the day I visited Pompeii. All the treasures taken from Pompeii during the excavations are kept safe in the museum. So if time allows, try to go to both if you can.

How to reach Pompeii without an organised tour

Starting in Naples, the trip to Pompeii is fairly easy and costs under 10 euros for a return trip. We took the metro to Napoli Centrale and then the Circumvensuia train to the Pompeii Scavi stop. NB – the train can be very busy and packed depending on the time and day of the week. We went at noon and we were able to snag a seat for the 30 minute journey.

Jumping off the train, we were immediately asked if we wanted to buy tickets to the archaeological site from the “Info Point”. We walked right on past them (the unofficial agents tend to add a mark up or try to sell you things you don’t need). The main entrance and the official ticket sellers are at the entrance to the park, which is located about a hundred or so metres from the train station. Prices are all clearly marked and there was no queue (it was early afternoon in early May).

We were off to take in Pompeii in all its glory, armed with a map of the site (ask when you get your tickets) and Rick Steves’ audioguide.

Our visit took us about 3 – 4 hours, including the colosseum, theatre and palestra. While a tour guide provides much more context, I found the audioguide gave the right level of information for the visit I wanted, not to mention I find Rick Steves’ audioguides quite entertaining as well. (He doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously).

Highlights

My number one highlight was simply being there and taking in the history. I caught myself looking off in the distance and seeing Mount Vesuvius, missing its top for the past 2,000 years. The people living and working in the area wouldn’t have had any idea what was happening and some people didn’t realise it until it was too late.

The Forum and the Temple of Jupiter

Located near the entrance, the forum was definitely the busiest part of the site. Besides the great views of Vesuvius, this part of the city included the Forum or main square area, Temple of Jupiter and the Basilica.

Pompeii Forum
First stop, the Pompeii Forum

Baths of the Forum (Terme del Foro)

A very well preserved bath house, complete with sauna room and in-floor heating.

Fast food shops, Roman Style

Masterchef style cooking hadn’t reached Pompeii, so many of its citizens ate at one of the many takeaway shops like this one.

Pompeii cafe
I wonder if they’d rotate between Indian, Thai and Chinese takeaway?!

Aqueduct Arch

One of the most memorable sites at Pompeii was the sophisticated plumping and water distribution system throughout the city. Giant arches like this one transported water to the masses as part of this ancient plumbing system. For current day visitors, there’s a tab nearby for filling up water bottles.

Aqueduct in Pompeii
My mom, while on the short side, provides a reference point to how big these things are.

House of the Faun

One of the largest properties in the city with an area of about 3,000 square metres, the House of the Faun was named for its bronze faun statue (the original is in the Naples Archaeological Museum). The floor mosaic of the Battle of Alexander (that we saw at the Naples Archaeological Museum) was also found at this property.

House of the faun statue
The House of the Faun statue. We saw the original in the museum the previous day.

Pompeii Brothels

The brothel came with a handy menu of services frescoed onto the walls. The stone bed and pillows didn’t look all that comfortable, and they were about a foot too short!

Pompeii Brothel Paintings
Handy menu painted on the wall
Pompeii Banana
Where’s the best place to eat a banana? Outside the brothel of course!

House of the Vettii

For me, this was one of the more impressive houses. It has a lot of frescoes including some in a strikingly bright red colour and an open aired courtyard.

House of the Wounded Bear

Named for the wounded bear fresco founded during the excavations.

Mosaic fireplace
Mosaic fireplace

Strolling Pompeii’s streets

Strolling along the cobblestone streets, you can see the tracks where chariot wheels had worn down the stone after hundreds of years. Wandering along the streets, you get a sense the Romans were a bit ahead of their time. This is seen through numerous examples such as the grid street plan, the raised sidewalks and the elevated walkways for pedestrians. Thinking about it, were they that different to how we live today? (minus the incurable diseases of course!)

Pompeii street
No cars allowed. The original pedestrian only street.
Pompeii street
With the streets flushed with water to keep them clean (well in the 100-sh BC level of cleanliness), pedestrians crossed the street on the raised stones.

The Colossuem

The colosseum was huge and fairly well intact. It’s set pretty much as far away from the entrance as you can get, so you may miss it if you’re not looking out for it. 

Pompeii Colosseum
Pompeii Colosseum

Views of the city

Views looking down at Pompeii
Views looking down at a small part of the city

Tips for visiting Pompeii

  • Make sure to bring plenty of water, or a bottle that can be refilled at one of the water fountains.
  • There are limited facilities within the historical site, including a single cafe and limited toilet facilities.
  • The site is ginormous and the walking is quite taxing since it’s mostly on stones. Don’t underestimate how much walking is involved and pace yourself accordingly.
  • Make sure to ask for a copy of the site map when purchasing your entry tickets. The map is invaluable to provide your bearings in a place where a lot of the streets look the same.
  • Enjoy and take in the history like no where else in the world!

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