To See & Do
- The amphitheatre. This is in the most easterly corner of the excavated area, near the Sarno Gate entrance. It was completed in 80BC, measures 135 x 104 metres and could hold about 20,000 people. It is the earliest surviving permanent amphitheatre in Italy and one of the best preserved anywhere. It was used for gladiator battles, other sports and spectacles involving wild animals.
- The Great Palaestra (Gymnasium). This occupies a large area opposite the Amphitheatre. The central area was used for sporting activities and there was a pool in the middle. On three sides are lengthy internal porticos or colonnades.
- House of the Vettii. This is believed to have been the home of two brothers who were freed slaves and became very affluent. It contains many frescoes. In the vestibule there is a striking fresco of a well-endowed Priapus, God of Fertility and among the frescos in other parts of the building are illustrations of couples making love, of cupids and of mythological characters. This house has been closed to the general public for the last 10 years.
- House of the Faun. This is named after a statue of a dancing faun found on the site. It is considered to be an excellent example of the fusion of Italian and Greek architectural styles, and occupies an entire block.
- Forum. This was the center of public life, although it is now to the southwest of the excavated area. It was surrounded by many of the important government, religious and business buildings.
- Temple of Apollo. This is to the north of the Basilica on the western side of the Forum. It has the oldest remains discovered, with some, including Etruscan items, dating back to 575BC, although the layout we see now was later than that.
- Theatre. Theatre built in the hollow of a hill for acoustic advantage; it seated 5,000
- Via dei Sepolcri (street of tombs) A long street with worn ruts from carts.
- Lupanar An ancient brothel with pornographic frescoes over the entrance to each room, presumably indicating the services on offer. Even allowing for the smaller size of ancient Romans the beds seem rather small.
- House of the Ancient Hunt. Attractive, open-style house with many frescoes of hunting scenes.
- The Basilica This is to the west of the Forum. It was the most important public building of the city where both justice was administered and trade was carried on.
- Forum Granary Artifacts like amphorae (storage jars) and plaster casts of people who did not escape the eruption are stored in this building, which was designed to be the public market but may not have been finished before the eruption.
- Baths. There are several baths to be inspected. The Forum Baths are just north of the forum and close to the restaurant. They are well-preserved and roofed. Be careful not to miss them as the entranceway is a long passage with no indication of the delights inside. The Central Baths occupy a much larger area but are less well-preserved. Close to these are the Stabian baths which have some interesting decorations and give a good idea of how baths used to function in Roman times.
- House of the Tragic Poet. This small atrium house is best known for the mosaic at the entrance depicting a chained dog, with the wordsCave Canem or “Beware of the Dog”.
Other things to look for when walking around are:
- The Ground surface You will see in the ground there are small tiles called cat’s eyes. The moon’s light or candle light reflects off these tiles and gave light, so people could see where they were walking at night.
- Bars and Bakeries You will walk past where their bars and bakeries once existed. The bars had counters with three to four holes in them. They have water or other beverages available in the holes. The bakeries’ ovens look similar to the old brick stone oven. The House of the Baker has a garden area with millstones of lava used for grinding the wheat.
- Street There are tracks for the carriages in the street for a smoother ride. There are also stone blocks in the street for pedestrians to step onto to cross the street. The sidewalks are higher than the modern sidewalk because the streets had water and waste flowing through them. The stone blocks in the street were also as high as the sidewalk, so people did not walk in the waste and water. The stone blocks were also used for what we now call speed bumps. When the carriages were going through the city, they were going fast. To avoid people from getting splashed by the water and waste they had stone blocks in the street. This would make the driver slow down when they were speeding, so they could get through the blocks.
Outside of the city walls:
- Villa dei Misteri (Villa of the Mysteries) A house with curious frescoes, perhaps of women being initiated into the Cult of Dionysus. Contains one of the finest fresco cycles in Italy, as well as humorous ancient graffiti.
In the modern town of Pompei:
- There is a Sanctuary (church) which is a place of pilgrimage for Roman Catholics. For others, it is not a must-see, but should you arrive or leave via the Pompei Santuario station on the Circumvesuviana, rather than Pompei Scavi, you may find it worth at least a brief look inside at this place of veneration of the Virgin Mary.
- Plan your visit beforehand on Google Maps or Google Earth, or re-live it afterwards. Streetview coverage exists for part of the city and there are 3D models of many of the buildings. Bing Maps also provides fairly detailed oblique views of the city.
- Buy a guidebook. Get the official guide (pompeii: guide to the site, published by Electa Napoli) from the site bookshop next to the ticket office. Lots of guides and maps are available but this one neatly combines the two. Currently (5 May 2014), the English language version of the guidebook is back in stock. The past and present book (“Pompeii As it was in the past and as we see it today” printed by Mondadori, is a useful alternative except the names on the map are in Italian and in this book are in English so can cause confusion.
- Visit also the National Archaeological Museum in Naples (closed Tuesdays), where most of the best preserved mosaics and found items from Pompeii are kept. It is almost more helpful to do this first, as the site without the full guidebook is quite confusing unless you arrive knowing why it looks as it does and why the frescoes and artifacts are so important to understanding life in 79AD.
- Visit also the sister site Herculaneum, which is only a couple of Circumvesuviana stops apart and suffered a similar fate to Pompeii. Though it is a smaller site it was covered by a pyroclastic surge (instead of the ash and lapilli that covered Pompeii). This allowed some second stories to survive.
- Have a look at random villas, as sometimes even small side rooms have amazing frescoes (wall paintings).
- Don’t miss the “Garden of the Fugitives” at the south-east side where plaster casts of several victims (sadly, including children) are on display where they originally fell The plants in this garden have been reconstructed to match ancient growth, based on the study of plaster casts of plant roots.
- Walk outside the City Gates to the Villa of the Mysteries, one of the greatest houses to come down to us from the ancient world. Even on a very hot day, it is worth the walk.
- Ask one of the Archaeologists working on one of the many sites “Hasn’t it all been dug?” (there is still 1/3 of the site unexcavated… and there is always more under the floor!)
Cash Only – An ATM is located in the ticket office area near the Pompei Scavi train station, there is no ATM inside the site and credit cards are not accepted, so make sure to bring enough cash for your needs.
Stay safe – Mt Vesuvius is an active volcano and can erupt at any time. Scientists have devised a system to detect impending eruptions, though, so feel free to browse Pompeii’s ruins without fear of falling ash and lapilli (pumice)! It’s more likely that you should be trying to protect yourself from pickpockets. The site attracts a huge array of international visitors every day, and this money attracts some thieves, so keep your valuables protected, particularly near the entrances and the train station.
If you come by car, be aware not to park at the parking place near the entrance to the archaeological site. It is a tourist trap! Though there is no price displayed at the entrance of the parking, you’ll be surprised when finding out that it costs €2 per hour when trying to leave, and you cannot leave unless you pay. This means that if your visit to Pompeii lasts a whole day (which a site like this certainly deserves) you may end up paying as much as €20 or more. There are much cheaper parking places just few hundred meters down the hill in the town, and if you stay at one of Pompeii’s hotels they normally offer free parking at one of these.
Tickets – One-day tickets are €11 per adult; €5,50 for EU citizens between 18 – 24 and school teachers; EU citizens below 18 get in for free (valid proving age document needed). A five-site pass costs €20. This includes Herculaneum and is valid for 3 days. As entrance to Herculaneum is also €11, buying this ticket saves you €2 even if you visit Pompeii and only Herculaneum and none of the other sites. The “Campania ArteCard”, which costs €30 offers free admission to numerous sites in the region if you are planning to be in Campania for several days. The site is open daily from 8:30 to 19:30 (November to March from 8:30 to 17:00) and the last ticket is sold 90 minutes before closing. It is closed on 1st January, 1st May, and 25th December. The first Sunday of the month, Entrance is Free (started in August 2014). Telephone: 081-857-5347.
Audioguides are available either at the train station InfoPoint or at the official entrance for €6,50, €10 for two, ID is required. They are not available at the secondary Eastern entrance by the Ampitheatre – which is the entrance nearest the modern day town centre if you are walking.
Unofficial audio guides are on offer at one of the market stalls near this entrance. They will be offering a free map, which upon accepting, draws you into an opportunity to sell you the €5 audioguide. The standard sell will be that there are minimal markings, numbers, and signs of explanation inside. These are all false. However, as stated in the previous paragraph, there are no official audioguides in the nearby ampitheatre entrance, so this traveler suggests getting an unofficial one from the stalls if you do not want to walk all the way around to the other entrance. There are ample signs and numbers inside the site however, and many guides leading groups around that you can eavesdrop onto. The ampitheatre entrance also provides a map with each ticket, which the other entrance may not provide (on account of tourists that entered through the other entrance asking where my Red map came from).
Take note that audioguide maps are not the same and the official audioguide comes with more audio points of interest. It’s a good idea to check out both options before deciding. Pompeii may take several hours to explore so make sure to ask about the audioguide battery life before your purchase. Tour guides also cluster near the entrance and offer their services. It’s a good idea to talk to one for a couple of minutes before deciding, to make sure you can understand their accent when they speak English. You can join a tour group with the train station InfoPoint for €12 (not including entrance fee) or €10 at the official entrance.
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The Roman Empire • Locations & Activities