Herculaneum vs Pompeii

Herculaneum, with its beautifully preserved Roman ruins, offers an atmospheric and uncrowded alternative to its better-known rival, Pompeii

ABOVE Tourists crowding around a body cast at Pompeii, Italy
ABOVE Tourists crowding around a body cast at Pompeii, Italy


LOCATION Herculaneum is in the Bay of Naples, 5 miles (8 km) south of Naples and 10 miles (16 km) north of Pompeii


6th century BC


Jan: 54°F (12°C); Apr: 65°F (18°C); Jul: 85°F (29°C); Oct: 71°F (23°C)

The small Roman town of Herculaneum was obliterated by the same fateful explosion of Mount Vesuvius that wiped out Pompeii in AD 79. And for many people, it is Herculaneum that offers the more concise and moving monument to the great Vesuvian eruption.

Its ruins might be less extensive than those at Pompeii, but they are far better preserved. Many of the buildings have weathered the centuries so well that they look virtually the same as they would have done millennia ago. A remarkable wealth of decorative detail and everyday objects have also survived, including superb mosaics and murals, wooden benches, and even fragments of glass, creating a touchingly vivid and immediate sense of the lives of the people who lived here.

Herculaneum initially escaped the volcanic inferno that enveloped Pompeii, and it was not until much later in the eruption that mud and lava flows from Vesuvius swamped the town, followed by a devastating flow of scalding gas and pumice, which killed all those who had not already fled. But a fortuitous combination of natural phenomena during the eruption gave rise to Herculaneum’s remarkable state of preservation.

The deluge of mud from the volcano filled the buildings, which prevented them from collapsing, and the intense heat of other volcanic debris left all exposed wood in a slightly charred condition, much of which has survived intact. Finally, a 82-ft (25-m) layer of tufa rock was formed from solidified mud – compared to a mere 13 ft (4 m) of tufa at Pompeii – and this solid blanket created an airtight seal over the city for 1,700 years, until the remains of the town were accidentally discovered in the early 18th century by laborers digging a well.

As you wander around the ancient city’s dusty streets, in and out of the haunting, echoey ruins of fine Roman villas and courtyards, it is easy to imagine Herculaneum as it once must have been – a flourishing residential center.

The town was much smaller and wealthier than Pompeii, and although it lacks the large public spaces and imposing civic architecture of its bigger neighbor, the architecture generally exhibits far higher standards of craftsmanship. The town’s two lavish public baths, for example, date from 10 BC and boast original doors, detailed stuccowork, and wooden benches and shelves. Incredibly, there are even shards of glass in some of the window frames.

Other notable sights include the grand House of the Mosaic Atrium, with its dazzling geometric tiled floor and superbly decorated courtyard. There is also an eerily well-preserved line of shops, including a baker’s, a weaver’s, and a dyer’s.


Getting There and Around The nearest airport is at Naples, and there are regular buses from here to the site. Herculaneum is also easily reached by train on the Circumvesuviana line. Head to Ercolano station, which is 25 minutes from Naples and 40 minutes from Sorrento.

Where to Eat Unsurprisingly, as the city that claims to have invented pizza, Naples has an excellent range of places to eat. Try the legendary Da Michele at Via Cesare Sersale 1, one of the city’s most famous pizzerias, founded in 1870. Only two types of pizza are on offer here – margherita and marinara. You cannot make reservations and there’s almost always a line, so allow plenty of time.

Where to Stay Most visitors stay in Naples or Sorrento. In Naples, the unusual Hotel San Francisco al Monte occupies a converted 16th-century monastery. The former monks’ cells have been beautifully transformed into luxury rooms.

Facilities include an open-air bar and a swimming pool.

When to Go Herculaneum is open year- round, although July and August can be unpleasantly hot.

Budget per Day for Two US$250 including transport, food, accommodations, and admission.


THE BUILD-UP The remarkably intact ruins of Pompeii make up one of Europe’s most compelling archaeological sites, offering a fantastic insight into life at the height of the Roman Empire, as well as a chilling parable of a flourishing civilization suddenly extinguished by unforeseen natural catastrophe.

THE LETDOWN With around 2.5 million visitors a year, Pompeii is now the most popular tourist site in Italy, and at busy times the crowds can be oppressive. The site is also very spread out, and can be tiring to explore, especially in the hot summer months. Some of Pompeii’s ruins have also been severely compromised by badly executed 20th-century restorations that aimed to recreate the “atmosphere” of the ancient city by rebuilding walls and roofs, often using unsightly concrete and steel.

GOING ANYWAY? Don’t try to rush Pompeii: it’s a big site, so devote a whole day to exploring the place, aiming to be at the most popular sights at the beginning and end of the day. Be selective, too, rather than trying to charge around seeing absolutely everything, and have a look at the site map before you set off in order to check which parts of the city are currently closed for restoration.

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