Unearthing Pompeii and Ercolano

Archaeology holds all the keys to understanding who we are and where we come from.

Sarah Parcak

When people think of Naples, they often think of Pompeii first (or pizza). Most forget about Ercolano, or Herculaneum in English. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, both cities were tragically buried. Archaeologists were able to unearth these lost cities, giving us a chance to walk the streets and see how these people lived. It is the archaeologist Sarah Parcak that said, “Archaeology holds all the keys to understanding who we are and where we come from.” 

Just a warning that if you plan to visit these sites anytime from June to August, you’ll be walking along the ancient streets with hundreds of your closest friends. It gets really busy during this time of the year and on top of that, it is also very hot with limited covering from the sun, so make sure you bring sunscreen. For any time of the year, bring comfortable shoes. The walkways have been restored to the way they were in ancient times, meaning they’re often very uneven and a lot of areas have large steps. 

There are three ways to get to Pompeii and/or Ercolano: you can do a guided tour that includes transportation there and back, you can drive yourself, or you can take the train at Garibaldi train station in Naples. If you take the train, get off at the Pompeii stop for Pompeii or Portici-Ercolano for Ercolano. We recommend doing a tour that includes transport to and from Naples, or taking the train.

If you don’t go with a tour group, get the audio guide at the ticket booth or download Rick Steve’s free app and his Pompeii walking tour ahead of time. These options let you go at your own pace and explore any areas you want. With the tour group, you might not have enough time to see everything, so just keep that in mind. 

Pompeii used to be a major city before the disaster, with a population of roughly 20,000. The people thought Mount Vesuvius was a mountain since it was covered with trees and grass. When they felt an earthquake on that fateful day, they didn’t realize it was an omen of something much more deadly. When Mount Vesuvius erupted, it covered Pompeii and its inhabitants in a thick coat of ash. The ash also rubbed off a lot of the paintings and frescoes on the walls of the city. Take it all in as you walk around looking into buildings that used to be successful businesses. Take a look into the citizens’ homes, and within their homes look at the beautiful frescoes. All of this will shed light on the city and the people, even with its dark past. 

Give yourself enough time to explore Ercolano as well. It is not as popular as Pompeii, but it was our favorite! The city is not as big as Pompeii — or at least not all of it has been excavated. We were able to look down a hole that showed us the rest of the city underneath. There is still so much to unearth, and a lot of the city is under apartment buildings around the site. They might end up excavating the rest of it, but keeping the apartments where they are, similar to what they did for Naples Unburied (see our Naples walking tour). 

Take one of the small booklets at the main entrance. It has helpful descriptions and a map of all the highlights. We found this to be a great guide for looking around, but you could also get a tour guide. Make sure you also spend time at the top where there’s museum that displays a lot of jewelry and other artifacts. The building next door also has a ship that they excavated.

A lot of people don’t realize Ercolano was also drastically affected by the Mount Vesuvius eruption. Instead of the hot ash that rained down on Pompeii, Ercolano faced red lava that rushed down onto the city. While terrible for the residents at the time, once the lava cooled it actually helped to preserve the paintings, frescoes, and buildings, so you get to see more intact homes rather than ruins. These homes were inhabited by the wealthy and Ercolano was considered more of a resort town. The area had less people, but each person owned a lot of land. Ercolano might lack in dimension and population, but it makes up for it in historical portrayal. 

To top off your archaeological visit, stop off at the National Archaeological Museum in downtown Naples. Download Rick Steve’s tour of the museum on his app before you go. He designed it so you get to see the whole museum, highlighting key objects as you go. We love using his walking tours because he makes it so simple. Every tour includes a map and each section of the tour has picture(s) of what he’ll be talking about, so you can make sure you are in the right place. This museum is really great and provides helpful context for Pompeii and Ercolano.

We will always remember our visit to Pompeii, Ercolano, and the National Archaeological Museum. We were able to walk through these historic places and truly experience them, rather than flipping through pages of a book. Pompeii and Ercolano reached an untimely demise, but their life and story will live on forever. 

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