Herculaneum Ruins: How and Why to Visit in 2022

Herculaneum Ruins: How and Why to Visit in 2022

When most people think about touring Italy, visiting the ruins of Pompeii often comes to mind—but many have never heard of the ancient city of Herculaneum, remarkably preserved by the same volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii in 79 AD. Buried beneath 66 feet of ash, pumice, and detritus, the ruins at Herculaneum include preserved organic material like human remains, food, wood, and papyrus scrolls as well as marble sculptures, frescos, and shops still complete with their fittings. Frescos, murals, and several major buildings are almost entirely intact and preserved! Take a step back in time and walk through these amazingly well-preserved Roman streets for a glimpse of ancient life like no other!

Where is Herculaneum?

herculaneum-street
Street in a classical grid style, Herculaneum

Located in the modern town of Ercolana, Campania, the ruins of Herculaneum lay nestled at the foot of the infamous Mount Vesuvius, close to Naples.

It is estimated that over 75% of the town remains buried by volcanic material, though restoration efforts have been focused on improving areas that have already been exposed rather than unearthing more archaeological material.

This has proved frustrating for some archaeologists who want to excavate the Villa of the Papyrus because it contains carbonized papyrus scrolls – 2000 of them, and is the ancient Mediterranean’s only library.

There are still a few hundred intact scrolls and Ercolana’s authorities argue that there’s no need to look for the entire library by excavating more of the Villa. Make sure you see the Villa of the Papyri on your visit, it might one day reveal some of the greatest literary works of the ancient world!

How Far is Herculaneum from Rome?

herculaneum-bath-house-mosaic-floor
Herculaneum Bath House Mosaic Floor

Herculaneum is only a short train ride away from modern-day Naples, a slightly longer train ride to Sorrento, and a couple of hours away from Rome by fast train. Keep reading for more information on getting to the ancient city of Herculaneum!

A Snapshot of the history of Herculaneum

7th Century BC

A Holiday Destination

According to legend, Herculaneum was founded by the ancient Greek hero Heracles (Hercules in Latin), after whom the town was named. A holiday destination for affluent Romans (on what was once the ancient shoreline) this coastal town was likely founded by the Oscans or Etruscans around the 7th century BC. There is also some evidence it was a Greek dependency of Naples in the 6th or 5th century.

7th Century BC
4th Century BC

The Samnites

Herculaneum was ruled by the Samnites from the 4th century BC.

4th Century BC
89 BC

The Romans

Herculaneum became a Roman municipium in 89 BC.

89 BC
62 AD

The Earthquake

After a destructive earthquake in 62 AD, like Pompeii and Torre Annunziata, Herculaneum was still in the process of rebuilding when Mount Vesuvius erupted and blanketed the city in ash.

62 AD
79 AD

Eruption of Mount Vesuvius

Unlike nearby Pompeii that bore the brunt of the mountain’s deluge of falling rocks, Herculaneum residents were killed by a blast of hot, noxious gas and ash which hit the city at 100 mph and 250°C. This pyroclastic surge killed the remaining citizens who had not already evacuated, followed by blankets of ash flows.

79 AD
mid-18th Century

Excavations (18th and 19th century onwards)

The pyroclastic material that covered Herculaneum preserved much of the fallen town and protected it from looters. According to lore, the ancient ruins were discovered in 1709 during the drilling of a well. De Alcubierre, a Spanish military engineer was directed by Charles III of Bourbon to begin major excavations in 1738. This set off a frenzy of Herculaneum-inspired neoclassic decorations in Europe. Regular excavations have been occurring ever since the early 20th century.

mid-18th Century
1997

UNESCO listing

Herculaneum receives a UNESCO World Heritage listing.

1997
2001

Herculaneum Conservation Project

Herculaneum Conservation Project begins.

2001

Pompeii and Herculaneum: Which one should I visit?

I’ve written a complete comparison article to the two ancient sites here:

And of course, for true archaeology buffs, there is also the third city destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius – Oplontis, in nearby Torre Annunziata.

Is Herculaneum open for visitors?

house-of-relief-of-telephus-herculaneum
House of the Relief of Telephus

Yes. Herculaneum was closed during the pandemic but opened again in April 2021. While it used to be open for visitors most days out of the year (with the exception of several holidays), Herculaneum is now closed on Wednesdays.

Like all of Italy’s major tourist attractions, post-pandemic the site is very crowded so get there early!

It is open every other day of the week from 9:30 am to 7:30 pm from April 1-October 31, with the last person admitted at 6 pm. From November 1-March 31, visitors are welcome between the hours of 9:30 am to 5 pm, with the last person admitted at 3:30 pm.

How many hours should I spend at Herculaneum?

palaestra-complex-herculaneum
Palaestra Complex

Unlike the myriad unearthed streets of Pompeii, the exhumed ancient streets of Herculaneum are easily visited in half a day, or even as little as two hours. (Pompeii, in comparison, could just as easily become an all-day or two-day affair.)

Due to Herculaneum’s proximity to Mount Vesuvius, some tourists enjoy visiting the mountain and Herculaneum on one day, and Pompeii on another.

If you are planning on seeing Herculaneum and Pompeii, I think seeing Pompeii first means that you will find Herculaneum more enjoyable. Check out the pros and cons of Herculaneum and Pompeii here.

Herculaneum Map

Like Pompeii, Herculaneum is divided into regions and the signs bear little resemblance to the map directions!

Map of Herculaneum
Map of Herculaneum

Herculaneum Tickets

As with all most UNESCO sites that get hundreds of thousands of visitors a day, you can queue at the ticket office in the heat or get a fully refundable online ticket in advance.

The most trusted, booked, and well-reviewed Herculaneum ruins ticket is the Herculaneum Priority Entrance 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
  • The booking fee is included in the ticket, there are no other charges.

CHECK AVAILABILITY: HERCULANEUM PRIORITY ENTRY TICKET

For those wishing to monitor any updates regarding visitation and hours, check out Herculaneum’s official website here.

Audio Guide

Next to the Ticket office is an Information window where you can purchase an Audio Guide of the Herculaneum ruins for 5€.

Why you should visit Herculaneum

Atrium of the Samnite House
Atrium of the Samnite House

UNESCO states that Herculaneum is special and unique because here you can see “rare and beautiful sculptures, mosaics and mural paintings.”

Due to the volcanic eruption’s Herculaneum, the ruins are spectacularly well-preserved. Red paint can still be viewed on ancient columns, colored marble cladding, as well as frescos, wooden furniture, and even preserved food.

Two-story remains can still be seen, and many structures still have their roofs. Ancient Roman life is almost tangible in this eerily preserved ghost city, and many visitors liken the experience to visiting an ancient town that is at the same time, a living museum.

Top Herculaneum highlights

Because of the limited number of exposed artifacts, it is possible to tour all of Herculaneum within a day. From ancient villas and luxurious houses with their marble tables, and fountains, to the organic remains (including the gruesome skeletal remains), here are some of the top sites to fit into your visit.

herculaneum-fresco-house-of-the-augustals
Hall of the Augustals

Hall of the Augustals

Once the gathering place for followers of the cult of Emperor Augustus, this structure boasts two frescos of Hercules—one of the town’s namesakes entering Mount Olympus, and one of Hercules wrestling Achelous.

Bath Houses

These 1st-century rooms were divided into men’s and women’s bathhouses, complete with de-robing rooms (apodyterium,) hot rooms (caldarium), warm rooms (tepidarium), and cold rooms (frigidarium). Boilers heated hot air that was funneled beneath the floor and through ducts sealed within the walls. Beautiful floor mosaics survive to this day—particularly in the women’s bathhouse.

Trip Anthropologist
Mosaic floor of bath house
Trip Anthropologist
Atrium of Samnite House

Samnite House

One of the oldest preserved structures in Herculaneum, this house was built in the 2nd century BC. It is known for its Greek-style atrium, cocciopesto floors, and marble rainwater pool.

House of the Wooden Partition

Named for the wooden partition that still hangs in its original location, this house was once a private meeting place. The wooden partition has a series of folding panels, complete with brass handles and hooks for hanging lanterns.

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House of the Wooden Partition

Trip Anthropologist
House of the Deer

House of the Deer

One of the most opulent waterfront structures of its time, the House of the Deer is believed to have been occupied by a Q. Granius Verus due to a loaf of bread discovered within bearing his seal. The grounds feature an atrium and associated suite of rooms, a terrace with panoramic views, a garden, and the nearby cryptoporticus.

House of the Black Room/Salon

Also known as the House of the Black Hall, this impressive structure was once one of Herculaneum’s largest mansions. The main entrance features a large, well-preserved carbonized beam, leading to an expansive atrium complete with a marble-lined impluvium, a kitchen, a tablinum, a central garden, and more. It’s named for a panel of black decorative frescos interspersed with columns that support its vaulted ceiling.

house-of-the-wooden-partition-herculaneum
House of the Black Room/Salon

Trip Anthropologist
House of Relief of Telephus

House of the Relief of Telephus

One of the largest houses excavated at Herculaneum, the ruins here were originally designed in an effort to afford as many rooms as possible with an ocean view. It is named for the relief on the south wall of its atrium, depicting Achilles and his mother as they healed the wound of Telephus, the Mysian King, in exchange for guidance on the way to Troy.

How to get to Herculaneum

Ercolano Station
Ercolano Station

While there is a car park located somewhat near the site, it is easiest to get to Herculaneum by train.

This is best done by catching the Circumvesuviana train running from Sorrento to Naples, with stops at Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Train from Naples to Herculaneum

Heading from Naples, hop aboard the train at Napoli Centrale and depart at the Ercolano Scavi station. The ticket office and entrance for the site are directly downhill at about 10 minutes walk.

If you are visiting during peak hours, it may be prudent to step onto the Circumvesuviana train one stop before Napoli Centrale, at Porta Nolana—this ensures you have a spot aboard the train. The train ride lasts 25 minutes or longer, depending on which station you clamber aboard.

Train from Sorrento to Herculaneum

Likewise, heading from Sorrento, simply take the train from the city center and exit at the Ercolano Scavi train station. This train ride takes about 45 minutes.

Eating at Herculaneum

There is nowhere to purchase food within the proper site of Herculaneum. Additionally, there are no picnic areas to sit and enjoy a bagged lunch.

Fortunately, there are ample restaurants and cafés in Ercolano for a hearty lunch and a small vending machine outside the grounds for those craving a bite. Another option is to pack a lunch and eat during the train ride.

What should I carry with me to Herculaneum?

  • As you can see from the section above, you may want to bring some food.
  • Definitely carry a water bottle! There are places to refill it within the archaeological park.
  • Bug spray – all year round!
  • If it’s summer – a sun hat or cap and sunscreen.
  • Your smartphone to show your electronic tickets
  • For EU citizens, bring an ID card or passport for a concession ticket or free admission.
  • Camera – optional

Further Resources