Pompeii vs Herculaneum? This is the question that popped up when I was planning my trip to Naples. Which ancient city is the best to visit?
Of the places destroyed by Vesuvius, Pompeii is by far the most famous. The site is much larger, has plaster casts of the victims on display, and some steamy frescos in the brothel. How could Herculaneum possibly compete with that?
What Herculaneum lacks in size and bodies, it makes up with an impressive level of preservation. Its structures are more fully intact and colorful mosaics have survived relatively unscathed. Here you will find a more complete picture of ancient Roman life.
Obviously, if you have time, you should visit both sites. The ruins are different enough that you won’t feel like you’re having the same experience twice. But if you are short on time or only moderately interested in Roman history and want to visit just one, which should it be? Pompeii or Herculaneum? Read on for detailed descriptions of each place to help you decide.
Why Visit Pompeii
When Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it buried Pompeii under several meters of ash and burning pumice stones. At the time, Pompeii was a thriving port city home to around 11,000 people. They were going about their day when suddenly there was a loud boom and a dark cloud shot 14 km into the sky above the volcano. Many residents fled the scene, but some made the fateful decision to shelter in place. By the end of the day, the city and its remaining inhabitants were gone.
The ruins of Pompeii, tucked under a protective blanket of volcanic matter, were left undisturbed for over 1,500 years. Once excavations got underway, archeologists unearthed a complete city frozen in time. As they kept digging, they discovered human-shaped cavities in the compacted ash where bodies of the victims had lain and decomposed. The scientists filled these spaces with plaster to create casts of Pompeii’s citizens in their final moments. The largest collection is in the Garden of the Fugitives (Orto dei Fuggiaschi), but several are placed around the ruins in the buildings where they perished. You can also see several casts in the gift shop next to the Via Plinio entrance.
Expect a crowd of tour groups waiting to parade through the Lupanare, or brothel. Note that there isn’t all that much to see here besides a few bedrooms and a half dozen faded frescos. All the really scandalous stuff was moved to a private room of the Naples Archeological Museum.
In fact, many of the best treasures from Pompeii were relocated to the Archeological Museum for safekeeping. A lot of the artifacts came from the wealthier villas, such as the House of the Faun and the House of Menander. At the House of the Tragic Poet, look for the “beware of dog” mosaic covering the floor by the front entrance. This is one of the best pieces left intact at the site.
Even with the empty rooms and faded colors, it’s hard not to be awed as you walk along the cobblestone streets. Vesuvius looms peacefully in the distance, visible at every turn.
Pompeii is about 40 minutes from Naples by train, and the site is so enormous that you will need several hours to do it justice. Plan for at least half a day.
Fun fact: you can refill your water bottle at several fountains around the ruins. The water is safe to drink.
Why Visit Herculaneum
Herculaneum was a small fishing village turned resort town for upper class Romans. At the time of the eruption it had a population of around 4,000. Located near the volcano’s base, Herculaneum was in the direct path of the lava flow, which swallowed the town whole. The ruins weren’t discovered until 1709, and serious excavations didn’t begin until the 20th century. This left the town truly frozen in time.
Buildings here are more complete, with second stories and some roofs. One home boasts a preserved wooden door and bed frame. In the bath complex, you’ll find benches and storage shelves lining the walls beneath a fully intact vaulted ceiling.
But it’s the vivid color of the frescoes and mosaics that is most remarkable. The heat of the lava seared the pigments, keeping the original hues and brightness. Don’t miss the House of Neptune and Amphitrite for some of the most exquisite examples.
Around 300 of Herculaneum’s residents ran down to the beach, trying to escape the lava by boat. But they were overtaken by poisonous gases before they could make it to safety. Their skeletal remains are in the boathouses, next to what used to be the original shoreline.
Only a fraction of the ancient ruins have been unearthed as the rest sit below the modern city of Ercolano. The Bourbons, who funded the early excavations, had tunnels dug beneath the city in the 18th century. Archeologists found a large portico dedicated to Augustus, with colossal marble and bronze statues of the emperor. (These all now reside in the Naples Archeological Museum.) Just imagine what’s left to be discovered!
Herculaneum is about halfway between Naples and Pompeii, and its smaller size makes it easy to navigate. If you have limited time, this is probably your best bet.
Since both archeological sites are located on the same train line, it’s technically possible to visit them both in one day. But I think it would be exhausting, and the second site wouldn’t be appreciated nearly as much. (Check out my three day Naples itinerary to see how I recommend breaking up the visits.)
So who comes out the winner in the Pompeii vs Herculaneum battle? Which ancient city would YOU most like to visit?
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