Exploring the Cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy
|The remains of a street in Pompeii. All photos in this feature are property of Jessica Spiegel. Please do not use without permission. All rights reserved.
And now "Exploring Pompeii and Herculaneum...
Building interior at Herculaneum still unbelievably intact.Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.
Most people are familiar with the story of Pompeii, the ancient Roman city buried under a cloud of hot stone and ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD – but nothing quite prepares you for seeing the excavated ruins of the city for yourself. Pompeii is one of the most-visited tourist sites in Italy, but travelers aren't always prepared for what they'll see when they arrive. Not only that, most people aren't even aware of the other nearby ancient city that was also buried in the same volcanic eruption – and much better preserved than Pompeii. Here's a brief overview of the two archaeological sites, with some visitor tips at the bottom.
Tourists come to Italy, at least in part, for the history. It's great to tour the Colosseum in Rome or gaze up at David in Florence's Accademia, but it's another thing entirely to walk on ancient Roman streets. A visit to Pompeii allows for just that experience. Pompeii was a huge city in 79 AD when Vesuvius erupted, and although many people died, the initial blast was such that it didn't hit Pompeii with its full force for several hours. As a result, experts now believe that roughly 90% of the residents had fled the city by the time the city was well and truly buried by the pyroclastic flow of ash.
Plaster cast of just one of many Pompeii residents who fell victim to the devastation. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.
Baths off the Forum at Pompeii. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.
|Sculpture details of the baths off the Forum at Pompeii. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.
Before the hot ash arrived, the city was primarily being hit by volcanic stones. As the stones piled up on rooftops, buildings began to cave in. This is why most of the structures we can see at Pompeii today often have walls intact but not the rooftops (and in some cases those have been rebuilt by archaeologists).
Building interior at Pompeii. Note the recently-added rooftop mentioned above. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.
The pyroclastic surge that hit Pompeii covered the city in tons of ash, and the city would wait until 1749 to be unearthed once again. The ancient city covered more than 160 acres; only 2/3 of it has been uncovered so far, and it's still a huge site to visit.
Building interior at Pompeii with mosaic flooring. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.
Close up detail of back wall of room above at Pompeii. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.
Great Theatre at Pompeii. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.
The ancient ruins of Herculaneum contrasts sharply with the modern city backdrop. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.
While Pompeii is something of a household name, nearby Herculaneum (Ercolano in Italian) isn't nearly as well known. The city was buried (and preserved) by the same volcanic eruption that buried Pompeii, although the initial blast was in the opposite direction of Herculaneum. Very little ash fell in the city to begin with, but most of the city was evacuated anyway as residents watched an enormous column of smoke and ash shoot into the sky. Several hours later, when the weight of the ash in the column grew too heavy, the whole thing collapsed. The result was the pyroclastic surge of hot ash that swept through Herculaneum and buried the city and all the people left in an instant.
Ancient fountain sculpture in the Suburban Baths at Herculaneum. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.
Although most of the residents of Herculaneum got out, several hundred died when the ash cloud collapsed. Herculaneum was discovered in 1738, even before Pompeii, but it wasn't until 1981 that archaeologists finally found skeletons at the site. Those who didn't flee apparently huddled along the shoreline in a series of caves they probably hoped would protect them, and that's where archaeologists found their remains. Herculaneum had been a smaller city than Pompeii – it was a seaside vacation town for the wealthy – and the excavated site is far smaller than Pompeii. There's an even greater percentage of the ancient city left uncovered at Herculaneum, as so much of the modern city lies on top of it. It would be impossible right now to excavate the rest of ancient Herculaneum without destroying the modern city above it.
|More Herculaneum. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.
Another major difference between the two sites was the manner in which they were buried. Whereas the buildings at Pompeii were getting pelted by pumice rocks for hours before the cloud of ash buried what was left, resulting in many buildings collapsing before the ash even fell, Herculaneum didn't get any of that kind of beating. The ash cloud that fell resulted in a very quick burial of the city, which is why the site is so much more well-preserved now.
|Cobble-stoned street in downtown Herculaneum. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.
Most travelers in Italy don't go south of Rome, so many try to squeeze in a visit to Pompeii as a day trip from Rome. This is do-able, but it makes for an incredibly long day. If that's still your aim, it may be easier to book a guided day trip from Rome so as to avoid dealing with the logistics of transportation.
Visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum is far easier as a day trip from either Naples or Sorrento. There are guided day trips that leave regularly from either city, but it's also easy to do a DIY tour of both sites. Depending on how active you want your days to be, you can visit both sites in one day or take one per day to spend more time in each. The latter option is especially warranted at Pompeii, which is enormous. As mentioned, Herculaneum is both smaller and better preserved than Pompeii, so while Pompeii has the name recognition many travelers find Herculaneum the more interesting site to visit. It can be easier to imagine Herculaneum as a thriving city, especially when you walk into houses with staircases, fireplaces, mosaics, and balconies still intact.
It's worth noting that many of the mosaics and statues at both sites are replicas, with the originals hanging in the fabulous National Archaeological Museum in Naples (a visit to which is highly recommended). Also note that if you like Herculaneum for its lack of crowds, you might like the even less popular cities (also buried by Vesuvius) of Oplontis and Stabiae.
|Clay jars stored in one of the ancient remains at Herculaneum. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.
About the Author: Jessica Spiegel is a freelance writer and social media consultant based in Portland, Oregon.