Pompeii is on a lot of people’s travel bucket lists but can seem daunting to visit. Before I went in April I did a lot of research. Here’s some of the advice I found most useful, along with some tips from my visit.
1. Do take the train.
If you’re travelling from Sorrento or one of the other resorts along the coast, or from Naples in the other direction, it’s fine to take the Circumvesuviana local train to the ruins. You want Pompei Scavi – Villa Dei Misteri station not Pompei which serves the modern town. Pompei Scavi station is less than five minutes’ walk from the Porta Marina main entrance to the ruins. Keep your bag close and your wits about you and it’s perfectly safe and convenient.
2. Don’t take a big bag.
The level of strictness varies a lot but it’s best to assume that the staff won’t allow you to take big rucksacks into the ruins. As well as being for security, it’s also to reduce damage to the ruins themselves from people rubbing against the walls with their bags.
3. Do take a water bottle
There’s water taps all the way along the main thoroughfare where you can refill your bottle with safe drinking water for free.
4. Do protect yourself from the sun
On sunny days, take a hat, sunscreen and some kind of cover up. There’s very little shade (as most of the buildings don’t have a roof!)
5. Don’t worry about food and drink
There are cafes and ice cream/drinks stands and souvenir shops outside the ruins, but there’s also a reasonably priced cafeteria with a good variety of sandwiches, pizza slices, salads and snacks inside the ruins, just behind the Forum. There are toilets upstairs.
6. Don’t take one of the tours touted outside the ruins
– although they’re cheaper than the official guides they’re much larger groups (30+ people compared to around 15). There’s also a little office just outside the train station with an official-looking sign offering tickets – ignore it, the actual official ticket office is inside the gate.
7. Do take an official guide.
They’ll tout as you’re queuing for tickets *inside* the gate and wear a big official pass around their necks and offer tours in several languages. When we got in we were glad we’d gone on a tour as the ruins are huge and confusing with little signage – we wouldn’t have fully appreciated them even with an audio tour and definitely not with just the map and the guidebook. For 15 Euro you’ll get a 2 hour tour and a lot more out of your visit. We had a great guide who’d been a little boy when Vesuvius last erupted in 1944 and he really helped bring the city to life for us. You’ll move quickly and see a lot in two hours, but…
8. …don’t expect to see even the highlights in a couple of hours
With a 2 hour tour and 2-3 hours on your own you can get a taste for the city but it’s easily worth a full day. We arrived at around 10.30am and didn’t leave until closing time.
9. Do get a map
While you’re at the entrance, do pick up one of the free maps. There’s nothing else really to orientate you when you’re in the ruins and the grid system means it’s easy to get lost.
10. Do wear good shoes
The roads are dusty and uneven underfoot and some of the stones are slippy so you’ll want something comfortable with decent grip. If you wear sandals, expect your feet to be absolutely filthy when you leave!
11. Do take the time to get some background before you arrive
I watched a BBC documentary on YouTube and read Robert Harris’s Pompeii before we left – not academic at all but it really helped. If you want more in-depth discussion of the myths around Pompeii and how people may have actually lived, Mary Beard’s book Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town is excellent and easy to read.
12. Do get a different perspective
by visiting Herculaneum, a few stops along the Circumvesuviana train line from Pompeii. It’s much quieter and is better preserved with many of the buildings still with their upper storey intact. The tragedy wrought by the eruption feels even more immediate at Herculaneum – by the Roman shoreline are boat houses full of the skeletons of the people who tried to shelter there.
How to visit Mount Vesuvius
You can take a bus from the Pompei Scavi Circumvesuviana station to Mount Vesuvius but the easiest route is from the station at Ercolano. On leaving the station in the direction of the ruins you’ll come out in a little square. Head to the left and you’ll see the Vesuvio Express office for the bus trip up the mountain. Try to get to the office as quickly as you can – if you’re at the back of the queue and the bus fills up you might need to wait for the next one. The return trip cost us 20 Euro each including entrance to the crater. It’s not a guided tour, it’s literally just to get you to the start of the hike to the summit but we found it reasonably priced and efficient.
The bus takes around half an hour to wind its way up the lower part of the mountain. You’ll be let out at the upper car park and will have around an hour and a half to get up the mountain, look around and get down again to catch your return bus. If you miss it you’ll have to pay again or make your own way back.
From the upper car park it’s about a mile to the crater, all uphill. It’s a fairly shallow gradient but it’s fine, dusty gravel underfoot so can be tough going. If it would help, you can take a walking stick from one of the guys at the entrance in return for a tip. Wear shoes not sandals but don’t do what I did and wear your new white trainers – they’ll be covered in red Vesuvius dust and pretty much ruined by the time you get back!
There are a couple of souvenir shops which sell drinks and basic snacks, and another at the crater. There aren’t any public toilets anywhere on the volcano but if you’re desperate and ask nicely the shop at the car park may let you use their (non flushing!) toilet.
At the top, walk around the crater at least until you get to a jaggedy part with some steps as the crater looks different from different viewpoints. Try to spot Capri on the horizon and Pompeii below and look out for puffs of sulphury-smelling smoke to remind you that it’s still an active volcano!
Altogether our visit took around 4 hours.
Can I visit Pompeii, Vesuvius and Herculaneum in one day?
You could, just about, but it’d be a long day and very rushed. I don’t think it’s possible on a typical cruise ship schedule. We did it in two days – one full day for Pompeii and another where we visited Vesuvius in the morning and Herculaneum in the afternoon (travelling from Sorrento), and that felt about right to us.
Do you have any questions about visiting Pompeii, Herculaneum or Mount Vesuvius?