I had wanted to visit Pompeii ever since the day in third grade I was handed a Weekly Reader and first read about this fascinating piece of Italy’s history. A terrifying tale of a volcanic eruption and a whole city preserved for centuries underneath tons of ash – I was hooked from the get-go. When the opportunity came up to visit Pompeii while we were touring the Amalfi Coast, I jumped on it for both my adult and younger self’s sake. Getting to see history come to life in person here was everything I’d hoped it would be.
The following Pompeii guide is designed to help you decide what to see on your own visit as well as provide tips for planning a day at the ruins. I hope you’ll enjoy visiting this ancient site as much as we did!
Why Visit Pompeii?
In case you’re not familiar with the history surrounding the ancient city of Pompeii, it was once 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 entire city and its inhabitants were tragically buried beneath layers of volcanic ash and forgotten about for over 1,500 years.
It wasn’t until the 1700’s when a real effort began to excavate the Pompeii ruins. The same ash that destroyed the city 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’s open to the public, you’ll likely be spending at least a couple of days inside the ruins. However, there are areas that are better preserved than others and things that are just more interesting, so if you prefer to see only the highlights of Pompeii, you’ll likely need less than half a day. (We spent just over three hours inside and saw most of everything we wanted to see.)
Many people who visit Pompeii do so as part of guided group or private tours, but it’s also possible to take a self-guided tour of Pompeii as well. If you want to walk through the ruins on your own, you can print off a free map here, and then use the following list of things to see in Pompeii to help you plan your day!
Top Things to See on a Self-Guided Tour of 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. Seeing them is both fascinating and sobering.
Located inside the Amphitheater when we visited, this exhibit moves around and isn’t always open, so for a place to see permanent casts of the victims of Mount Vesuvius, visit the Garden of the Fugitives instead.
Located in the center of the city, 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, the Forum Baths are the best preserved thermal baths in Pompeii. Since very few people living in the city could afford to build their own baths, most people visited public bath houses instead.
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 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 theater spectators during intermissions or inclement weather. Later, this area became a training school and place of residence for the city’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 contained a swimming pool at one point, but is now an open, grassy area.
A museum displaying several recovered artifacts and paintings found nearby is located in the covered walkways surrounding the center of the palaestra.
Much 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 designs of the rooms. The ceilings were my favorite thing to see in here, but remnants of the beautiful reliefs that once adorned the walls of the baths are worth a look as well.
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 the city’s destruction. This was my favorite of the houses we visited.
Other Pompeii Houses
Which and how many houses you decide to visit in Pompeii will depend 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 this list of Pompeii’s houses before you go. Then you can decide which ones sound the most interesting and make a point to at least visit those. Some popular choices are the House of Menander, the House of the Lovers, and the House of the Tragic Poet.
Villa of the Mysteries
Located in what was once a suburban area outside of Pompeii, the Villa of the Mysteries is in much better condition than most of the other houses and villas in the city.
Thanks to its positioning outside the city, the Villa of the Mysteries received minimal damage in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and many of the paintings and frescoes here have been extremely well-preserved. This is also where a number of bodies were, sadly, found as people tried to escape.
Mount Vesuvius can be seen from most areas inside Pompeii, but one of the best spots to get a good, unobstructed view of Mount Vesuvius (with an attractive foreground) is just outside the Amphitheater. The walls surrounding the city in this area have crumbled just enough to provide a clear view across the vineyards to the volcano.
Tips for Visiting the Pompeii Ruins
Save some time by purchasing your tickets online. Tickets can be bought directly from the Pompeii Archaeological Site website here. Otherwise, no matter what time you arrive, you may end up waiting in a very long line to buy tickets. I know this from experience, unfortunately.
The cheapest way to get to Pompeii from Naples or the Amalfi Coast is the Circumvesuviana train. Trains leave every half hour and let out at Pompeii Scavi. The station is just steps from the entrance to the ruins.
The summer months of June, July, and August are peak season in Pompeii. They are also the hottest months of the year in Italy. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit, but prepare yourself for crowds and lots of sweat.
Arrive as early as possible if you’re visiting in peak season. Opening time would be best. This is good advice any time you’re visiting somewhere popular during peak 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 you can.
Bring bottled water. There are a few cafes where you can buy bottled water, but they aren’t always convenient, so its best to bring your own.
Bring protection from the sun. This includes sunscreen, a hat, and a shirt that covers your shoulders. There is hardly any shade here, and the sun is strong, especially in the summer.
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. It’s super easy to turn an ankle if you step into one of the many holes in the streets.
You can visit for free on the first Sunday of every month. But be aware, these days will be the busiest!
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 it’s best to leave yourself plenty of time.
If you want to dig deeper into the history of Pompeii, hire a guide. Not a lot of information is provided inside the ruins, so it’s helpful to have a guide if you want to know more about what you’re seeing. Small group tours are a great option, or you can rent an audio guide for a small fee. Alternatively, purchasing a Pompeii guide book with your ticket would also help. (If you go the audio or guide book route, it’s best to have an idea beforehand of the things you want to see. There’s so much it can be a little overwhelming!)
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’re interested in visiting a still-active volcano!
- Visit the official website for the Pompeii Archaeological Site
- Find Pompeii on a map: Via Villa dei Misteri 2, 80045 Pompei
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