When I was in elementary school, every week we would receive a copy of the Weekly Reader, a mini-magazine of sorts printed on recycled paper and filled with articles written specifically for young kids. The article topics ranged from news and current events to fictional stories and historical articles. I was never a very big fan of the news or historical pieces and usually skipped straight to the fictional stories. However, I can clearly remember one time in particular when one of the nonfiction articles managed to capture my attention. I’d like to say it was because of a sudden interest in all things history, but that didn’t come for me until much later in life. Instead it was the lead photo that grabbed my attention, and not because it was particularly beautiful or interesting, but because it scared the ever-living crap out of me.
It was a photo of the mummified remains of the people who had been caught in the town of Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupted, effectively burying the entire city and its inhabitants under tons of volcanic ash. I read the whole article and then spent the rest of the day in fear until I could get home and verify with my mother that there were indeed no volcanoes (even dormant ones) anywhere near us in the state of Tennessee. Thanks to childhood irrational fears, that little piece of Italian history managed to stick with me well into adulthood when my enthusiasm for learning about the past finally kicked in. When the opportunity came up to actually visit the ruins of Pompeii, I jumped on it for both my adult and childhood’s sake.
In case you’re not familiar with the history surrounding the ancient city of Pompeii, it was a bustling, prosperous Roman town until the volcano it was built near the base of, Mount Vesuvius, erupted in 79 AD. After the eruption, the city was completely buried beneath volcanic ash and forgotten for 1,500 years. It wasn’t until the 1700’s when a real effort to excavate the ruins began. The same ash that destroyed Pompeii also ended up preserving it as well, so what remains today is a unique, relatively well-preserved glimpse into ancient Roman life.
There is a lot to see here, and if you’re interested in seeing everything that is open to the public, you’ll likely be spending at least a couple days in the ruins. However, there are areas that are better preserved than others and things that are just more interesting than others, so if you prefer to see only the highlights of Pompeii, you can do so in under half a day. Print off a free map of the ruins here, and then use the following guide to Pompeii’s highlights to help you decide what to see!
14 Important Things to See in Pompeii
The amphitheater in Pompeii is the oldest of its kind that is still able to be visited today. Like the Colosseum in Rome, this was where the residents of the city held their gladiator games and circus performances which were two of the most popular forms of entertainment back in those times.
When the ruins of Pompeii were being excavated, plaster was poured into the crevices where human remains had been removed. These casts provide a shockingly detailed look at the positions people were in at the time of their death, so seeing them is both fascinating and sobering. Located inside the Amphitheater when we visited, this exhibit moves around and is not always open, so for a place to see permanent casts of the victims of Vesuvius, visit the Garden of the Fugitives.
Located in the center of town, the Forum was the heart of Pompeii and the place where all of the city’s main temples and public buildings were located. Things not to miss here would be the Temple of Jupiter on the northern side of the Forum and the Temple of Apollo, the oldest building in Pompeii.
The Forum Baths
Located close to the Forum, these are the best preserved thermal baths in Pompeii. Since very few residents of Pompeii could afford to build their own baths, most people visited the public bath houses. Separated into male and female quarters, the Forum Baths contained changing rooms, cold baths, lukewarm baths, and hot baths. (Honestly, who chooses to take a cold bath?!)
The Large Theater
The Large Theater was the biggest venue for entertainment in Pompeii outside of the Amphitheater and could seat up to 5,000 people. This theater was most commonly used to perform comedies and tragedies and had a beautiful view of the mountains to the south of Pompeii as a stage backdrop.
Located behind the Large Theater, the Gladiator Barracks were originally used as a shelter for the theater spectators during intermissions or inclement weather. Later, this area became a training school and place of residence for the town’s gladiators.
Much smaller than the Large Theater, but still similar in design, the Odeon (or Small Theater) could hold 1,000 spectators and could be covered during bad weather. Performances here were usually small plays, musical events, and mime performances.
When Pompeii was an active town, multiple buildings in the city served as brothels, but today only one remains in good enough condition to see what sex for money looked like in the first century. Separated into small, private sections with stone beds and what can only be described as ancient porn painted on the walls, the Brothel is, not surprisingly, one of the most crowded places to visit in all of Pompeii.
The Large Palaestra
The Large Palaestra was once a place of learning and physical training for the city’s youth. Surrounded on all sides by high walls and columns, the square in the center once contained a swimming pool, but is now an open, grassy area. A museum featuring some of the recovered artifacts and paintings found nearby is located in the covered walkways surrounding the center of the palaestra.
Older than the Forums Baths, the Stabian Baths are not quite as well preserved, but are still worth visiting for a look at the intricate design of the rooms. The ceilings were my favorite in here.
House of the Faun
One of the largest homes in Pompeii, the House of the Faun gets its name from the small statue situated in the fountain at the front entrance to the home. Even though it’s now in ruins, you can still see just how grand this place must have looked back before Pompeii’s destruction. This was my favorite of the homes we visited in the city.
Various Other Pompeii Houses
Far too many to list singly, which and how many homes you decide to visit in Pompeii depends entirely on how much time you have. Located off the main streets, many homes have markers and can be dropped into for a quick look. Others are a bit more hidden and take more time to visit. I recommend checking out the list here before you go and deciding which ones sound the most interesting and making a point to at least visit those!
Villa of the Mysteries
Located in what was a suburban area outside of Pompeii, the Villa of the Mysteries is in much better condition than most of the other places in Pompeii. Thanks to its positioning outside the city, the villa received minimal damage in the eruption of Vesuvius and many of the paintings and frescoes here have been extremely well-preserved. This is also where a number of bodies were found as people tried to escape Pompeii.
Mount Vesuvius can be seen from most areas inside Pompeii, but one of the best spots to get a good, unobstructed look (with an attractive foreground) is just outside the Amphitheater. The walls surrounding Pompeii in this area have crumbled just enough to provide a clear view across the vineyards to Vesuvius.
Tips for Visiting Pompeii in the Summer
The summer months of June, July, and August mark the high season in Pompeii. They are also the hottest months of the year in Italy, so here are a few tips to make your visit more enjoyable!
Save some time by purchasing your tickets online. Tickets can be bought directly from the Pompeii Archaeological Site’s website here. Otherwise, no matter what time you arrive, you’ll be waiting in a very long line to buy tickets…in the hot sun…with no shade. I know this from experience, unfortunately.
Arrive as early as possible. Opening time would be best. This is always the case when you’re going somewhere popular during high season to avoid crowds, but in this case you also need to arrive early to avoid as much of the mid-day heat and sun as possible.
Bring bottled water. And bring lots of it. There are a few cafes where you can buy water, but they aren’t always convenient, so its best to bring your own.
Bring protection from the sun. This includes sunscreen and a hat and a shirt that covers your shoulders. There is no shade in Pompeii, and that summer sun is strong!
Wear comfortable shoes. Flats or sneakers would be best. You’ll be doing a lot of walking, plus the streets of Pompeii are awfully uneven. On that note, always watch where you’re walking!
Visit for free on the first Sunday of every month. But be aware these days will be the busiest!
Hire a guide or be your own. Not a lot of information is provided in the ruins, so if you don’t have some sort of guide, you won’t know what you’re seeing. Private and group tours are available, or you can use an audio guide for a smaller fee. Another option is to print off at home or purchase a map and a guide book from the ticket counter and be your own guide. (If you go this route, it’s best to have an idea beforehand of the things you’d most like to see. There’s so much here it can be a little overwhelming!)
Plan for more time than you think you’ll need. Pompeii is a busy place, and you’ll have to wait to see some of the most popular areas. Plus, you’ll probably end up wanting to see more things here than you originally planned for, so best to leave yourself plenty of time.
If you want to see more, visit Herculaneum. We didn’t get to do this on our trip, but the town of Herculaneum is in even better condition than Pompeii, so it’s definitely worth a visit. Tours to Mount Vesuvius are also available if you don’t mind visiting a still-active volcano. :)
For more things to do in this region, check out How To Spend 5 Days On Italy’s Amalfi Coast!
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