Pompeii vs Herculaneum: Pros, Cons, How to Visit



If you are trying to make the most out of your Italian vacation, you may be wondering if there is time to visit both ancient cities of  Pompeii & Herculaneum. (Are vacations in Italy ever really long enough?) Even though the two cities were destroyed as a result of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, the experience of visiting both of these places is remarkably different. Many people choose to visit both on a guided tour and sometimes see Mt. Vesuvius as well! Read on to learn where, how to see one or both sites, and why you’ll be glad you made the time to visit these astonishingly preserved ancient Italian cities.

Depending on how much time you have to spend between Naples and Sorrento during your trip, you may have to choose between one historical site and another. If you have only one day to visit the area, for example, it may prove to be too much to visit both Pompeii & Herculaneum. Here are some things to think about as you plan your trip to the Gulf of Naples and these Italian towns.

Where is Pompeii?

pompeii-feature
Pompeii

Long before it was covered in a blanket of pumice and ash, Pompeii served as a strategic trading post for the Oscans in the 8th century BC. Over time, the settlement was occupied by the Greeks, Phoenicians, and ultimately the Romans.

This major Italian landmark now rests on the coastline between Naples in the north and the lovely Amalfi Coast town of Sorrento in the south.

What happened at Pompeii?

Thermopolium of archaeological remains of Via della Abbondanza street
Thermopolis, Pompeii

After Mount Vesuvius erupted, the two-day volcanic explosion sent a relentless volley of pumice stones raining down over Pompeii, at least partially destroying many buildings.

Approximately 1,150 bodies have been discovered at the site as a result of the deluge, the few remaining citizens who were not able to evacuate in time.

After the two-day deluge, a haze lay over the Naples Gulf as nearly 6 meters (approximately 20 feet) of layered tephra settled over Pompeii, burying the ruins and bodies below.

Why Visit Pompeii?

garden of fugitives pompeii
Garden of the fugitives, Pompeii

There is a reason that the ruins of Pompeii are on so many itineraries – the extensive site allows you to see almost an entire city before it fell silent. In walking the ancient, cobbled streets, it’s possible to spend hours exploring its many iconic and unique sites.

It also has more excavated public buildings than Herculaneum and of course, it includes the plaster casts that show the expressions on the faces of Pompeii residents as they died trying to outrun the lava. The clever technique, invented in the 19th Century by Guiseppe Fiorelli, of pouring plaster into the indentations of volcanic ash, has become a large part of Pompeii’s attraction.

With such a large site, a guided tour can make the best use of time. You can make sure you don’t miss out on the major sites and you can cover the large city on foot in the most effective way (with the least walking!) If your time is short, or if you are trying to see Pompeii and Herculaneum in one day, a tour of Pompeii is money well spent.

Many of the tours are by archaeologists, or you can choose one that suits your time frame and your pick-up and drop-off points.

To summarize some of the pros of visiting Pompeii:

  • Much larger site than Herculaenum, with more buildings excavated
  • Fewer tourists
  • Better preserved
  • Closer to Naples
  • Takes less time to visit and so is better for visitors with limited time
  • Beautiful frescos
  • Plaster casts add a level of ‘reality’

How long do you need at Pompeii?

pompeii ampitheater
Anfiteatro, Pompeii

Because of the extensive nature of the unearthed ruins at Pompeii, it is quite possible to make an entire day out of your visit. There are three suggested routes you can possibly take, each walking you past different sites.

It is worthwhile to get one of the professional tours offered inside the site for historical context or to book one of the excellent tours before you go.

The guides not only help you from getting lost but can really help to bring the ruins to life with their knowledge. Tours typically clock in around two hours, so in theory, this could make for a condensed visit in and of itself.

However, it is not possible to see all the noteworthy sites at Pompeii in two hours. For a full guide to the different walking itineraries and best tours of Pompeii, read Visiting Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius: tickets, travel tips, tours, highlights.

How to Book Your Tickets for Pompeii

Purchase your online downloadable electronic tickets online here, with the guarantee that you can cancel, completely freely, up to 24 hours before your entrance time. 

There are two extremely popular entrance  tickets to Pompeii with thousands of positive reviews:

  1. Pompeii Reserved Entry Ticket

With over 5,200 reviews, this is the most popular entry ticket to Pompeii. The best features of this ticket are:

  • Price – at only US$26 it’s a great price for the convenience of an electronic ticket
  • Cancel for free with a 100% refund, no questions asked, up to 24 hours in advance
  • Instant confirmation
  • Download onto your phone to show at the entrance gate or print your ticket
  • Booking fee included in the ticket, there are no other charges.

2. Pompeii: Fast Track Ticket Entrance with Audio Guide

With over 2000 reviews, this is my preferred ticket. It’s $6 more than the reserved entry ticket, but these tickets are Skip the Line tickets, meaning you will get into the site with the minimum time queueing.

The best features of the Fast Track Ticket Entrance are:

  • Skip the Line ticket gives you priority entrance without queueing with the General Admssion queues
  • Price – at only US$31.90 it’s a great price for the convenience of a skip-the-line electronic ticket
  • Cancel for free with a 100% refund, no questions asked, up to 24 hours in advance
  • Instant confirmation
  • Download onto your phone to show at the entrance gate or print your ticket
  • Audio Guide included with your ticket
  • Booking fee included in the ticket, there are no other charges

What to bring to Pompeii

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Bathhouse, Pompeii

If you are planning for a full-day affair, it’s best to bring sacked lunches to be enjoyed at one of the several picnicking areas on site. Otherwise, there is a small café serving snacks and light lunches to provide you with fuel to continue your explorations.

Make sure you have sunscreen, a water bottle, and a cap. There are spigots along the routes for filling up water bottles, free of charge. Close-toed shoes are recommended, as the site is very dusty—sandals make for filthy feet at the end of the day!

Where can I stay overnight to visit Pompeii?

While it is possible to stay as far away as Rome and still visit the archaeological sites of Herculaneum or Pompeii on a day trip, traveling by train to the sites takes several hours and may eat into a significant portion of your touring time.

As such, many folks prefer to stay in nearby Naples or the beautiful Sorrento as their home base during their travels, as it cuts down on time spent on the train en route to the conservation sites.

Less time commuting means more time exploring!

There is also a lovely, simple hotel right across from the Pompeii archaeological zone – the Hotel del Sole, Pompeii Ruins– You can have breakfast looking out over the ruins and that’s a pretty special occasion!

Where is Herculaneum?

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Herculaneum wall fresco

While both Herculaneum and Pompeii fell as a result of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, they both suffered relatively different fates. Whereas Pompeii crumbled under a shower of pumice stones, in comparison Herculaneum is remarkably well-preserved.

Nestled against the base of Mt. Vesuvius near Naples, Herculaneum was a once richer city in comparison to Pompeii. Frequently used as a vacation destination for the Roman elite, this port town was a hub for trading valuables and selling fine wares.

Today, few of the ruins have been excavated and are available for visitation. Much of the preserved city still lies beneath the modern city. Conservation efforts are focused on preserving and elevating what has already been exposed for the public, however, rather than digging up more ruins.

What happened at Herculaneum?

herculaneum skeletal remains
Skeletal remains, Herculaneum

After the initial violence of the eruption sent a barrage of stones towards Pompeii, Herculaneum was rapidly flooded with a surge of extremely hot, toxic pyroclastic gas.

Those who remained died instantly, some still clutching their coins and jewelry. They lay there until they were ‘discovered’ again in the 18th Century.

How long do you need at Herculaneum?

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Street in Herculaneum

Because there are significantly fewer exhumed sites to see at Herculaneum, as much of the city still lies hidden underground, it is easily done in several hours, maybe adding another hour for leisurely exploration.

Unlike Pompeii, Herculaneum does not have a food vendor on-site or a place to sit and eat a packed lunch. Your best bet for food is along the walk from the train station to the entrance of the site, where you will find several cafes.

If you are, in fact, attempting to visit both Pompeii and Herculaneum in one day, a good strategy is to visit Pompeii first and experience a guided tour for historical context, lunch on site, then finish your day at Herculaneum.

It is important to note that these two sites share a grisly story—both are rife with human remains as those left behind attempted to protect themselves or flee. While it is physically possible to visit both sites in one day, the gory background does carry some emotional weight.

Why visit Herculaneum?

house of the wooden partition herculaneum 2
House of the Wooden Partition, Herculaneum

There are some serious perks to visiting the Herculaneum ruins on what was the ancient shoreline of the Gulf of Naples. First of all, the crowds are significantly smaller. This makes for a more intimate touring experience, and really allows the visitor to feel immersed in the eerily well-preserved buildings harkening to bygone Roman times.

The experience of visiting Herculaneum has been likened to that of stepping into a living museum, so it really is a one-of-a-kind place to visit while you’re in the area.

Herculaneum was covered in pyroclastic material from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. This is a different kind of volcanic material from the ash that covered Pompeii and it means that many more wooden and organic objects were carbonized and preserved. So you can see doors roofs, beds, papyrus, and even food from 79 AD!

Whether you are interested in surviving tokens of Roman opulence or catching glimpses of human skeletal remains buried in stone in the ports at the edge of the town, Herculaneum is sure to transport you and capture your imagination.

To summarize just some of the pros of visiting Herculaneum:

  • Smaller
  • Fewer tourists
  • Better preserved
  • Closer to Naples
  • Takes less time to visit and so is better for visitors with limited time
  • Amazing frescos
  • More objects made from wood and also organic material has survived
  • Feels like stepping into a living museum

How to book your tickets for Herculaneum

Purchase your online downloadable electronic tickets online here, with the guarantee that you can cancel, completely freely, up to 24 hours before your entrance time. 

There is really only one entrance ticket that is booked by thousands of people every year and it’s this one:

Herculaneum Priority Entry Ticket

The best features of this ticket are:

  • Price – at only US$20 it’s a great price for the convenience of an electronic ticket
  • Cancel for free with a 100% refund, no questions asked, up to 24 hours in advance
  • Instant confirmation
  • Download onto your phone to show at the entrance gate or print your ticket
  • Booking fee included in the ticket, there are no other charges.

CHECK AVAILABILITY: HERCULANEUM PRIORITY ENTRY TICKET

Which gets more tourists, Herculaneum or Pompeii?

ville dei misteri pompeii
Fresco painting on the wall of Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

Each UNESCO World Heritage Site not only has great historical relevance to Italy, but they differ in their size and their state of preservation. Pompeii and Herculaneum attract a different range of visitors.

Pompeii averages 3.5 million tourists a year, for example, whereas Herculaneum attracts around 300,000 visitors. It may be that Pompeii attracts more visitors every year because it was the first of the two sites to be excavated, and because it is extensively so. As opposed to Herculaneum’s 16 or so sites to explore, Pompeii boasts over 100.

So, Which is Better: Herculaneum or Pompeii?

palaestra complex herculaneum 2
Palaestra complex, Herculaneum

Because the exposed ruins at the Herculaneum conservation site are fewer than those of Pompeii, some visitors make the mistake of skipping this preserved city.

However, while Herculaneum may have fewer buildings unearthed, those that are on display are well worth a visit.

Due to the volcanic eruption’s relatively gentle interaction with Herculaneum, the ruins are spectacularly well-preserved – in fact, they’re in a better level of preservation than Pompeii.  Red paint can still be viewed on ancient columns as well as frescos, and even preserved food.

Two-story remains can still be seen, and many structures still have their roofs–unlike the ruins at Pompeii. The seafront area and the urban areas have good preservation, especially the upper floors. Ancient Roman life is almost tangible in this eerily preserved place, and many visitors claim that it feels like stepping back in time.

If it’s the grisly aftermath of the violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius that you are after, don’t think the plaster body casts of Pompeii’s deceased citizens are the only sobering reminder of the natural disaster: Herculaneum hosts hundreds of human skeletons in its port warehouses which were presumably attempting to flee by boat. Some of them have become rather famous, including the iconic “Ring Lady.” Additionally, due to its lesser-known reputation, Herculaneum is better to visit for those looking to avoid crowds. Especially for those with Covid concerns, this is a definite plus!

Comparing Pompeii to Herculaneum truly is an apples to oranges comparison. While both towns were decimated by the same event, their respective tombs are breathtakingly different. If you can fit both destinations into your travels, it is worth the trip to do so!

And if you’re truly inspired to see the ancient sites that existed in this part of the world before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, it’s also worth fitting in a visit to Torre Annunziata to see the spectacular frescoes of Villa Oplontis

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Best Combined Tours of Herculaneum and Pompeii

How to get to Herculaneum and how to get to Pompeii

circumvesuvia railway line naples
Circumvesuviana line, Naples

While there are car park areas relatively near both ancient towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii, many tourists choose to take the Circumvesuviana train from Naples or Sorrento to the two historical sites. This saves headaches driving in a foreign country and finding parking. Taking the train also saves you taxi fare.

Unfortunately, tickets for the Circumvesuviana train cannot be purchased online, but you can easily purchase a ticket from a station in Naples or Sorrento for €3.60.

DEPARTING FROM SORRENTO

Simply get on the train from the city center and depart at Ercolano Scavi station for Herculaneum or Pompei Scavi-Villa dei Misteri station for Pompeii. Check out the schedule for the Circumvesuviana here.

If you’d like to be sure you’ve got a ticket and will arrive without any stress, purchase a Half-Day Herculaneum Express by Local Train ticket online before you leave home!

DEPARTING FROM NAPLES

While it is possible to hop aboard the Circumvesuviana at the Napoli Garibaldi station, this is a popular stop and has a tendency to fill up fast. Stepping aboard the stop before at the Napoli Porta Nolana station ensures your spot on the train. Arrive at Ercolano Scavi station for Herculaneum (just one or two stops away, depending on which station you depart from), and Pompei Scavi-Villa dei Misteri for Pompeii.

Further resources