If you come to Naples, you shouldn't miss two important sights – archaeologically interesting Pompeii and the only active volcano on the European mainland, Mount Vesuvius. Both places are intertwined because the volcano determined the faith of the Roman city of Pompeii.
On the 24 of August of the year 79 A.D., Vesuvius erupted and covered the nearest city, Pompeii, with pumice stones and a veil of smoke. The natural disaster killed more than 2000 men, women, and children and ravaged the city. However, Pompeii was buried by volcanic material and ash, but it wasn't completely destroyed. This is why the site is interesting from the archaeological point of view. It preserved typical Roman arrangement of streets, houses, establishments, public areas, etc. It helps us to understand better the life in ancient Roman times.
How to get there
The best way to get to Pompeii or Herculaneum is with the train called Circumvesuviana. There are few stations in Naples, but the most practical one is on Piazza Garibaldi near the Central Station. A one-way ticket to Pompeii costs 3,20€ and to Herculaneum 2,50€. The journey with the Circumvesuviana train is a special experience. The train is really old and full with confused tourists, lively and passionate Italians, and gypsies playing popular songs on accordion (for example, „Despacito“). Very folkloric and typical for Southern Italy.
To Pompeii or Herculaneum
The trains from Naples are frequent, they go every 30 minutes. To Ercolano Scavi, (this is the stop for the Herculaneum archaeological site) the train ride lasts about 15 min. To Pompeii, you'll travel a bit longer (about 35 min). From both train stations, you'll have to walk 5-10 min until the entrance to the archeological site. The entrance fee for Pompeii is 15€, and for Herculaneum 11€. Be careful! Don't bring big luggage with you because they won't allow you to enter the site or they'll ask you to store it in their luggage deposit.
To Mount Vesuvius
I would advise you to visit Pompeii in the morning and Mount Vesuvius in the same afternoon. You'll need about 4h for Pompeii and 1,5h to walk around Vesuvius. Near the train station of Circumvesuviana in Pompeii, you'll see the buses taking you to Vesuvius. The price for an EAV bus is 2,70€ (one way) and it goes every 50min. The touristic bus „Busvia Vesuvio“ costs 22€ (the ticket to the crater included).
If you decide for Herculaneum instead and want to reach Vesuvius from there, it's also an option. In front of the train station Ercolano Scavi, there are touristic buses „Vesuvio Express“ that go to Vesuvius every 40min. The ride lasts about 30-40min and costs 20€ (the ticket to the crater included). Both buses will take you almost to the crater of the volcano, where you'll show your entrance ticket. In case you're coming by EAV bus from Pompeii, you have to buy the ticket to the crater separately for 10€.
On 24th of August of 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius blew its top and the shower of volcanic ash, pumice stones, and poisonous sulfuric gases started to fall on Pompeii. In the 16th century, two letters written by an 18 years old Pliny the Younger to Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus were discovered. In the letters, Pliny describes the catastrophe that occurred in Pompeii and Herculaneum (the next day) in late August 79 with lots of details. Pompeii was left buried and forgotten until the 18th century when the archeological excavations began. Thanks to them, we are able to take a peek into life in ancient Roman times.
The admission fee to Pompeii costs 15€ and you can buy the ticket at Porta Marina. Porta Marina was once the entrances to the city from the harbor, now the main entrance to the archaeological site. We had two maps of the site (one inside our Lonely Planet guide book, the other one we got in the tourist office near the train station), but neither one was sufficient and we kept losing ourselves on every corner. Only later we discovered that you can use Google Maps on your mobile phone, which served us perfectly during our tour.
1) Temple of Apollo, Temple of Isis & Temple of Jupiter
The Temple of Apollo is the most important and the oldest temple in Pompeii from the 2nd century B.C. Some of its fragments even date from the 6th century B.C.! You can find it near the Basilica. The temple stands on the Italic style podium surrounded by a portico with 48 Doric columns. Inside the temple, you'll find copies of the two bronze statues - Apollo with a bow and the Goddess Diana. The originals of the statues are stored in the National Archeological Museum in Naples.
The Temple of Jupiter, at the southern end of the Forum, was the temple dedicated to the most important trio of Roman Gods – Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. Next to the temple stands a well preserved Forum granary. It was once a storehouse of threshed grain, now storage of hundreds of Roman amphoras and body casts of people who died in the eruption of Vesuvius.
The Temple of Isis was completely rebuilt after the earthquake of 62 A.D. and it served for cult rituals to the Goddess Isis. The temple is situated on a tall podium in the middle of the courtyard. You can still find some of the frescoes around the temple, but most of the finds are exhibited in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.
2) The Basilica
The Basilica of Pompeii wasn't a religious center as in its today's meaning, but the house of law from the 2nd century B.C. It's located right next to the Forum and surrounded by partially preserved 28 wide columns. In the center of the Basilica, you can find a small elevated platform, which was the seat of a judge. Curiously, there are no remains of stone stairs for a judge to descend from his seat. The reason is that not everybody liked the judge's decisions and, for its own safety, he probably used wooden mobile stairs.
The Forum was the main square in Pompeii, on which the most important municipal, religious and commercial buildings were located. The three sides of the Forum are surrounded by travertine stone colonnade, while the fourth one offers a view of the Jupiter temple. All around Forum you can see the bases of many statues that once stood here – of emperors and influential citizens. The statues were damaged in the earthquake of 62 A.D. and moved elsewhere. Not all are the statue bases, some of the pedestals were used for public speaking, as well.
Macellum was the town's market on the north-eastern side of the Forum. It contained many stores where people could buy the food they needed. The Macellum was built in the Augustan age.
Probably the most popular tourist attraction in Pompeii is the Lupanar or a brothel. There is usually a line of people waiting to enter the whorehouse of the Roman era. Pompeii had many other brothels situated above taverns or houses, but this one's „furniture“ and wall frescoes explicitly confirms us its role. Inside, you can see small beds in separate rooms which were used by prostitutes and their clients (often merchants and traders from other cities). But every tourist comes here to see wall frescoes of sex scenes and different sexual positions.
On our way to Lupanar, we saw a Phallus engraved in the pavement. You can see many Phallus decorations on the walls of houses, as well. There are many theories and explanations about it. The most logical one is that it served as direction marks that led visitors to the Lupanar. But, as we know, the Phallus was a symbol of virility, fertility, and life in the ancient Roman period. Thus, it was supposed to bring good luck to the houses with Phallus decorations.
6) Terme Stabiane
There was three bath complex in Pompeii (Terme Stabiane, Forum Baths, and Central Baths), but I visited only one of them - the oldest one. Terme Stabiane date from the 2nd century B.C. It's a large complex of 3500 m2 divided into three parts: a courtyard used as a gymnasium, baths for men and baths for women. The baths itself have three classic Roman chambers – frigidarium (cold bath), tepidarium (warm bath) and caldarium (hot bath).
7) Family Houses
House of a Faun is one of the largest and most interesting houses in Pompeii. Little is known about its owners and its name comes from a small statue of a dancing faun in one of the two atriums of the house. It looks like the house was divided into two smaller houses with its own typical Roman parts (atrium, peristyle, cubicula, tablinum, etc.). One side of the house was probably residential, while the other was used by servants. At the residential entrance, you'll see a well preserved mosaic floor with greeting sign saying „HAVE“, the frequent motive on postcards. An important mosaic depicting the battle of Issus between Alexander the Great and King Darius of Persia, can be found in the central part of the house.
Surely the most famous floor mosaic from Pompeii is the one with a dog and a sign „CAVE CANEM“. It can be found in the House of the Tragic Poet, an imperial house opposite the Forum Baths. The name of the house comes from a mosaic with a theatrical scene found in one of the rooms.
But probably the most interesting house that I saw is a small House of the Ceii near Terme Stabiane. The house contains a stunning landscape picture in worm tones depicting scenes of wild beasts hunting and many other colorful pictures representing nature, young Bacchus with wine, Egyptian motifs, etc.
There are many other interesting houses in Pompeii with preserved parts of the house, columns or decorations which you'll see strolling down the stone streets of an ancient city of Pompeii (for example, House of Menander, House of the Lovers, House of the Hanging Balcony, House of the Vettii, etc.).
A short walk from the House of Menander, following Via di Castricio street, you'll reach the oldest stone amphitheater in the world, the Pompeiian Amphitheater dating from the 1st century B.C. The amphitheater had a capacity of 20 000 spectators who enjoyed gladiator fights. During hot summers, the seats were covered by a canopy to protect the audience from burning sun.
The difference between Pompeii and Herculaneum
Unfortunately, I didn't have time to visit Herculaneum archaeological site this time. I was there a long time ago on my high school trip. You're wondering what's the difference between Pompeii and Herculaneum? Well, Pompeii is definitely larger and more important archaeological site, while Herculaneum is much smaller, but better-preserved site. While Pompeii was a typical Roman merchant city, Herculaneum was some kind of a resort town for rich patrician families. In the eruption of Vesuvius in 79, Pompeii was covered with 4 m of volcanic rock and ash while Herculaneum laid buried under the 20-25 m of pyroclastic flow material (mud, lava, gas, etc.). This is why in Herculaneum, the two-stored houses still stand, the house decorations remained intact, even some of the wooden features and food stayed preserved.
Herculaneum archaeological site
I would advise you to visit both archaeological sites (if you have enough time, of course), but not on the same day because this can be pretty tiring. You can combine one archaeological site with a climb to the Mount Vesuvius crater. For me, the better combination would be Pompeii and Vesuvius (the local bus from Pompeii to Vesuvius is cheaper) in one day and to leave Herculaneum for the next day (it's closer to Naples). The entrance fee to Herculaneum costs 11€ and you'll also get a free map of the archaeological site. You'll find more information about Herculaneum on this page, as well as a 2-3-hour-suggested itinerary.
Mount Vesuvius is one of the two active volcanoes in Europe (next to Mount Etna on Sicily) and the only one on the European mainland. It's 1281 meters high with a symmetrical central cone and steep slopes.
The bus will take you to a parking lot about 1000 – 1050 m high. The ride by bus can be pretty scary, especially if you get into a traffic jam. At about 800 m high, there were cars parked anywhere on the slopes of the volcano (it's allowed to park here for 5€/day), buses ascending and descending the sheer road and nobody to control the traffic. We suddenly stopped and remained standing next to the precipice for 10 minutes because no-one wanted to move and let us pass (the bus in front of us, that was descending, continued forward right onto us, instead of letting us pass!). Terrible! However, I suppose those situations don't happen so often.
A walk around the crater
From the parking lot, there is a 15 min walk uphill to reach the entrance of the Mount Vesuvius National Park (proclaimed in 1995) and the second souvenir shop/café. From there, the undemanding trail around the crater begins. You can walk around the volcano, take photos with the crater (although the crater is not enclosed, it's strictly forbidden to climb on the rocks around it!), which offers pretty much the same view from any part of the trail, or relax with a hot drink (about 3€) in one of the three cafés along the way.
The biggest problem in the Mount Vesuvius area is that there are NO TOILETS anywhere. Or they don't let you use it. It seems pretty strange that the shop assistants are standing there the whole day without using a toilet. Imagine a 30 min ride from Herculaneum (I came from there), a 1,5 h walk around the crater of Mount Vesuvius and a 30 min ride back to Herculaneum with at least 0,5 L of water and a coffee – you'll definitely need a toilet. Well, there is actually one barely functioning toilet (without toilet paper and running water) at the parking lot, where you have to buy something in the souvenir shop or café to use it.
All in all, even if the walk around the Mount Vesuvius crater is not that exciting as I expected, it's one of the must-see places around Naples. If you climb to the crater, your reward will be a breathtaking view of the entire Bay of Naples and Pompeii ruins.