Herculaneum is a fascinating site, overshadowed by Pompeii to its south, Herculaneum is lesser visited, yet it’s said it offers a far better insight into Roman life in 79 AD than Pompeii. This post will include everything you need to know before visiting Herculaneum including tours, tickets, useful tips and the best way to get there.
Herculaneum was an ancient city of 4,000–5,000 inhabitants in Campania, Italy. It lay 5 miles southeast of Naples, at the western base of Mount Vesuvius, and was destroyed together with Pompeii, Torre Annunziata, and Stabiae by the Mount Vesuvius eruption of 79 AD.
The town of Ercolano now lies over part of the site. The excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii began in 1738 and continue today concentrating along the ancient shoreline. Collectively, the ruins of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Torre Annunziata were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.
Located in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, Herculaneum was an ancient Roman town destroyed by the volcanic pyroclastic flows in 79 AD. Unlike the more famous Pompeii site, which was mostly covered in ash and pumice pebbles to around 10 metres, the pyroclastic rock that buried Herculaneum solidified up to 25 metres high in some places. This led to a unique phenomenon of preservation providing not only solid structures of building but also various organic artefacts such as plants, fabrics and even food (carbonised loaves of bread left within ovens).
Visiting Herculaneum is a great alternative to the more popular and crowded Pompeii and will give a more realistic and detailed view of what it must of been like for the inhabitants during this time.
Warning: This post contains pictures of skeletons!
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Most people will arrive via the entrance bridge which gives amazing views across the whole site. Once inside you can either hire a private tour guide, audio headsets or use the free walking tour. Whichever option you choose, you will start by walking down through the tunnel towards the old port warehouses that once opened up onto the beach. Personally I chose to use the free walking tour which included a booklet detailing all the various ruins. Although check the map carefully as it’s easy to miss out a few segments and you’ll end up backtracking a few time like me!
The Barrel Arches:
These vaulted rooms were used as port warehouses and boat storage and support the imposing structures of the terraces above! It is here that around 300 skeletons were found along with valuables such as necklaces and coins. It is thought the people killed here had run to escape via the shoreline, but where beaten back and died from the high temperatures of the blazing clouds erupting from Vesuvius.
I thought it was quite sad seeing these remains all bunched up together; I couldn’t help but imagine how terrifying it must have been for these people trying to escape the inferno of the volcano and knowing they wouldn’t be able to escape!
Terrace of M. Nonius balbus:
Walking back up towards the ramp brings you to a large open square surrounded by the Suburban Baths. Within this piazza stands the funeral alter of the local senate M.Nonius Balbus, who rebuilt the city after the disastrous earthquake of 62 AD. Unfortunately you can’t enter the baths but you can look through the windows and get a glimpse of what they would of been like.
Once out into the city streets you can really get a glimpse of what it would of been like living in this ancient city. The streets themselves form a grid like structure with cobbled streets lined with houses, shops and other buildings.
Here are some of my favourite buildings within the city:
House of Relief of Telephus:
This house was believed to belong to M.Nonius balbus and is the second largest in all of Herculaneum. Built in a scenic position on a slop leading down to the marina, the house was built on 3 levels and housed a rich collection of sculptures. The atrium had Greek like columns supporting the upper levels of the house.
Looking at these colourful columns it’s easy to imagine how extravagant this building was. Looking closer around the remains you will also find the faint remains of paintings along its walls.
This was the local pub; marble covered counters housed large jars that were used to store food and drink.
Hall of the Augustals:
This building was the forum where all political, religious and commercial life took place. It had a quadrangular layout with walls separated by arches and four central columns. Along its walls you will find many painting relatively still intact. Whilst here you could watch first hand some of the restoration works being carried out. It was fascinating to watch how painstakingly slow the process was and the attention to detail that was involved by the restoration team.
House of Neptune and Amphitrite:
This was probably one of my favourite parts of Herculaneum as the painting and mosaics were so well preserved! The name of this dwelling derived from the glass paste wall mosaic depicting Neptune and Amphitrite which adorned the east side of the room.
The Food Shop
The food shop was found in a great state of preservation. As you can see from the picture below, it was furnished with wood shelving which still shows the scars of the once burning building.
House of the Mosaic Atrium
This was an aristocratic residence built in a scenic position within the town. It housed both painted decorations and a grand mosaic atrium which had a black and white checker board design. You can’t go inside the house as the structure is still unsafe, but you can still imagine how this building would have once been a beautiful place to live at that time.
House of the Bronze Atrium
In one of the smaller homes, you will find this bronze herm, thought to be the homeowner. I found this face really intriguing as I wondered the fate of this individual. Did they manage to escape or did they succumb to the inferno that erupted over the town?
The House of Argus
The name of this house comes from a painting that is no longer present depicting Argus guarding lo, who was a nymph beloved by Zeus. The house itself was large and had large columns surrounding its gardens. It was here that excavators found an actual pantry, with flour and loaves ready to bake, as well as terracotta pots containing legumes, olives, almonds and fruit.
Here are some more pictures taken around the Herculaneum site:
As you exit the archaeological site, there is a small museum that houses many of the artefacts found within the site such as jewellery. Although small, the museum gives visitors an opportunity to learn more about the people of Herculaneum and how they lived there lives.
The Boat House
Just before the exit there is a small building that houses a well preserved Roman boat. This 9 metre boat was found near the Barrel Arches. Inside was the remains of two bodies, a number of swords, scalpels and coins were also found close to them.
How to get to Herculaneum:
Visiting from Naples:
Herculaneum is approx 15 Km away from Central Naples. The easiest and cheapest way to get to Herculaneum is by train. From the Napoli Piaazza Garibaldi station, take the local Circumvesuviana train to Portici-Eroclano which takes around 20 minutes. You can either buy your tickets from the station or use the Train line app. The cost when I visited in May 2019 was about €2.20 each way. Once off the train it’s just a short walk down hill to the site. For convenience if you are worried about getting lost, I recommend using Maps.me. It’s a free mobile app that you can use to find your way around anywhere, just download any required maps whilst you have WiFi.
Visiting from Sorrento:
To go to Herculaneum from Sorrento, you can take the train from Sorrento to Portici-Eroclano. The train from Sorrento to Herculaneum will take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and costs around €4 each way.
Visiting from Rome:
It is possible to visit Herculaneum from Rome in a day. I recommend going as early as possible as it’s a lot of travel. To go to Herculaneum from Rome, you can take the train from Rome Termini to Naples Centrale and then transfer onto the Napoli Circumvesuviana train to Portici-Eroclano. The train from Sorrento to Herculaneum will take anywhere from 2-3 hours and costs around €50 return.
Driving to Herculaneum:
If you have access to a car then it is definitely feasible to use it to take you to the site. From Naples, you’re looking at a twenty to thirty minute drive depending on traffic. From Rome, you’re looking at anywhere from two to three hours to the archaeological site. Parking is available at Herculaneum.
Looking for somewhere to stay in Naples? If so, I recommend Booking.com for budget hotels or Hostelworld for hostels. If you are looking for something more luxurious then I recommend using Hotels.com as you will get one free nights’ accommodation for every 10 nights booked!
Tours to Herculaneum:
If independent travel isn’t your thing then there are a multitude of tours offered in and around Naples that will take you to Herculaneum. For the best value tours I recommend using Get Your Guide, here are some of the more popular Herculaneum tours offered:
When to visit Herculaneum:
Herculaneum can be visited all year round; however it can get busy in the summer months. If like me you don’t like crowds then I recommend visiting Herculaneum in the shoulder season. I personally visited in May 2019 and there where hardly any people about at all. It felt like the perfect time to wander around this archaeological wonder!
Summer (01/04/ to 31/10) – 08.30 – 19.30 with last admission at 18.00
Winter (01/11 to 31/03) – 08.30 – 17.00 with last admission at 15.30
Closed on 1st January and 25th December.
Admission price: Adults €13, free for children under 18.
For tickets you can buy on the day or you can buy online, however there is an €2 reservation fee. Online bookings can be made here.
Bring your passport or ID with you If you’re an EU citizen as you may qualify for a ticket discount at Herculaneum. If you’re 18-24 and an EU citizen or if you’re over 65 and are an EU citizen, you’ll receive a discounted, or even free, admission to the site.
Tips for visiting Herculaneum:
- If you don’t want to get lost following the free guide like I did then make sure you also pick up a free map!
- If you want to know a bit more of the history of Herculaneum then you can rent an audio guide on site at a cost of 5€. You can also sometimes rent a private guide that can show you around and explain about the ruins and history of the Roman town, the cost is negotiable with the individual guides themselves.
- If you’re staying a few days in Naples and want to see Pompeii as well, then you can buy a ticket that covers both sites, as well as Oplontis, and Boscoreale for 22€. Visiting the sites in Stabiae is free. These tickets can be purchased at both Herculaneum and Pompeii.
- If you’re vulnerable to mosquito bites then make sure you bring some bug spray! There are a few areas within the site that have stagnant water which is a breeding ground for those pesky bugs!
- If you want to take lots of fabulous photos, make sure you bring a wide angle lens as a lot of the buildings within the site are very close together making it difficult to get some good shots.
- Make sure you wear comfortable shoes as the ground can be very uneven and is mostly cobbles.
- If visiting Herculaneum in the summer months make sure you bring plenty of water and a sunhat.
- When on the trains be wary of pick pockets! Naples like other big cities in Europe is full of them.
If you are the slightest bit interested in history then I fully recommend a trip to Herculaneum. The site itself is so well-preserved that is humanises the people of Herculaneum and really takes you back in time to the Roman days.
Have you visited Herculaneum? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments below.
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Thanks for reading,