So you’re in the mood to visit some ancient Roman cities in Italy… But which one? Should you visit Herculaneum or Pompeii?
Back in November, Colin and I spent some time in Rome and Naples (eating all the things!) and took side trips to both Herculaneum and Pompeii. I had actually visited Pompeii back in 2014 but it was my first time to Herculaneum.
Both Herculaneum and Pompeii were wiped out when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. At the time, both were thriving cities and the way that they were destroyed left the cities partially in tact so they can still be explored today.
But they’re not just carbon copies of each other. Pompeii and Herculaneum are different and offer unique things to see. So which one should you visit?
To get to Pompeii, you take the Circumvesuviana train from Naples. We paid 11 euro for return tickets for both of us, and the journey was about 40 minutes. From the train station, you can easily walk to Pompeii.
When we got out of the train station, there were people ushering us into an office saying this is where we should buy tickets to Pompeii. Immediately, my spidey senses were tingling and I knew this didn’t feel right. We got upstairs and they admitted that this wasn’t the official Pompeii ticket desk but a separate tour office. And the tickets there cost more then they would at Pompeii! They tried to sell us special skip-the-line tickets but since we visited on a rainy day in November, there was no line to skip.
TIP: Ignore the people trying to sell you tickets and tours at the train station and carry onto Pompeii!
The entrance to Pompeii is about a block from the train station; you can’t miss it. Here you can buy your official tickets (we paid 15 euro each) and opt for a guide or audio-guide. Here’s another tip: Instead of paying for the audio guide, download the Rick Steve’s walking tour of Pompeii. This is what Colin and I did and it worked out great! Just like an audio guide, Rick tells you where to go and what to see, and then explains the history behind it all. It was a really enjoyable (and free!) way to explore Pompeii.
The first thing you’ll notice about Pompeii is that it is huge! It can be pretty overwhelming, which is another reason why an audio guide is a good idea.
Besides being impressed by the vastness, I loved learning about how advanced the civilization was with their sewage system, roads and signage. With the Rick Steves walking tour, we visited the bathhouses, restaurants, bakery, and other important houses. The brothel is always a big hit for Pompeii visitors – to the point where it’s roped off and there’s often a line to enter. Luckily, there was no line when we visited.
Sadly, it was pouring rain during our visit. This was great in that it meant next to no crowds, but it’s still not super fun to be exploring in the rain. We dried off for lunch at the cafe located inside Pompeii. Despite being the only food option, I was actually impressed with the choices and prices.
After lunch, we ventured even farther through Pompeii to find the small theatre and large amphitheatre (where Pink Floyd once played). We also met a stray dog who followed Colin around! We walked through some exhibits and saw a few more of the preserved bodies that Pompeii is so famous for.
On the way home, we had to wait a while for the next train back to Naples and it was standing room only.
PS: If you are planning to visit both Pompeii and Herculaneum (also called Ercolano), there appears to be a combo ticket you can buy. We didn’t know about this and ended up buying full-priced tickets for both. Be smarter than us!
To get to Herculaneum, we boarded the same Circumvesuviana train from Naples, this time paying just 8 euro for return tickets for the both of us. It only took about 20 minutes on the train to reach the station for Herculaneum. From the station, it’s a downhill walk on the main street to reach the site. Unlike Pompeii, Herculaneum isn’t right next to the train station.
Luckily, we had some sunshine when we went to visit Herculaneum, which was a nice change from our soggy exploration of Pompeii. And even though the weather was great, Herculaneum was even more empty than Pompeii had been on a rainy day. In fact, we often had huge sections of the site to ourselves.
Sadly, there’s not a Rick Steve’s audio tour for Herculaneum so we were on our own. But we did see a guided tour meeting up as we were leaving, so it’s possible to tour with a guide.
Herculaneum is a much smaller site than Pompeii and as you approach, you can see the site below you. The first thing we did was check out the old port where 300 people died trying to escape Vesuvius. To make that fact crystal clear, skeletons now sit in the exhibit. At first, we weren’t sure if the skeletons were fake or not and they totally creeped me out!
From there, we walked through the streets of Herculaneum. While Herculaneum doesn’t have the size of Pompeii or special buildings like an amphitheatre, it does have a lot of detail. At Herculaneum, everything seems to be better preserved. You can admire the detailing on the walls or in the tile work, and buildings still have their second story.
We really enjoyed wandering around Herculaneum, taking in the details and having so much of it to ourselves. The only thing we didn’t love? Walking back up that hill to the train station! It’s not a big hike or anything, but it definitely is uphill.
Bottom line: Should you visit Herculaneum or Pompeii?
Despite an entire blog post dedicated to this question, it’s hard for me to answer definitively! Of course, if you have the time and the interest, I think it’s worthwhile to visit both. I’m not a huge history buff but we visited both on our trip to Naples and I highly enjoyed them.
But if you only have time for one, I think the decision comes down to a few factors.
If you want to visit the more well-known site and be able to tick that off your bucket list, definitely visit Pompeii. If you have more time to explore and want to take in a larger area, Pompeii is for you. Pompeii is great for a big picture look at a large city with lots of areas to roam and explore. If you really just want to be blown away by how huge a society got wiped out by a volcano, Pompeii will deliver that. On a visit to Pompeii, you likely won’t be able to see everything because there’s just so much to see. There are many diverse ruins to take in and interesting buildings if you wander off the main drag to look for them.
Herculaneum is better if you want a more detailed and small-scale look at ancient life. Everything about Herculaneum is smaller – from the size of the site, to the size of the crowds, and even the shorter distance from Naples. If you’re short on time or hate crowds, Herculaneum might be a better choice. If you’re okay to explore a smaller area in favour of seeing more detailed and better preserved ruins, then I think you’ll enjoy Herculaneum more than Pompeii.
It really comes down to what you want out of your experience. Personally, I had a better time at Herculaneum. I think it helps that it was a bright and sunny day, whereas we visited Pompeii in the rain. I liked exploring without the crowds and being able to take in the fine details that are better preserved at Herculaneum. But I also don’t think the trip would have felt complete without a visit to Pompeii where the sheer size of the site is so impressive. Plus, I loved our free audio guide of Pompeii for the great context and route through the site.
So really, you have to visit both!
Would you rather visit Herculaneum or Pompeii?