Pompeii, Italy: Ancient Roman town buried by Mount Vesuvius

Photo of Pompeii (Campania region)

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Pompeii, as well all know, is a town in Italy that was buried by several metres of volcanic ash and lava when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD and remained buried until it was rediscovered more than 1500 years laters. Large parts of the town have now been excavated to reveal in great detail the lives of people in Ancient Roman times.

At the time it was buried Pompeii was quite a large and busy town that had already stood here for about 600 years and had about 10000 residents. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most visited attractions in Italy.

Visiting Pompeii

While we can tell you about the individual highlights and sites of interest in Pompeii such as the temples, the frescoes and the fitted kitchens, what is harder to describe until you visit is the atmosphere in the town, and the curious sense that Pompeii might actually have been occupied until very recently, with the residents all leaving the town just before your visit...

So it is not really any one particular monument or building that is the appeal of a visit to Pompeii, but rather the site as a whole.

Typical street through Pompeii

Most of the houses have no roofs and significant parts of the walls are missing, the temples are usually now just a series of columns, and the various buildings that line the roads through the town are often very damaged. But somehow as you look at the parts that are remaining - the wall paintings and worn cobblestone streets, the baths and salons, you stop noticing the parts are missing and get drawn into the artefacts that remain, gaining the real sense that you are walking through a 'living' Roman town.

It is interesting to know that Pompeii was first rediscovered in 1599 during excavations to divert a river, but these excavations were quickly filled in again and forgotten: perhaps because they discovered frescoes of a sexual nature? Pompeii was then re-excavated in 1748, and bacame a popular visitor attraction very soon after...although the erotic nature of many of the paintings has cause rather a lot of discussion and concealing of frescoes over the last 200 years!

Important monuments at Pompeii include the Temple of Jupiter and the Temple of Apollo, built in the 2nd century BC and once the largest religious structure in Pompeii. Other large and communal monuments include the Sports Centre (called the Palaestra) and a Theatre, several smaller temples and a few Public Baths.

The houses and more modest buildings are just as interesting as the famous monuments, because you can see the room layouts which gives you a feeling what life was really like for normal people in Pompeii, and because there are several very interesting frescoes to be seen adorning the walls of the houses

Wall painting of Venus in Pompeii

As you explore you will see lots of examples of graffiti, shop signs, fragments of statuary and other small details that help bring life to the town. You will also see the aquaduct, part of a system that carried water to the public baths and also the homes and businesses in Pompeii.

More disturbingly, for example in the "Garden of the Fugitives", you can see the plaster casts made of the bodies of those killed during the town's burial in ash. These are a very poignant sight and again help to bring the history of Pompeii to life.

Maintaining the site for the future

It should also be pointed out that visitors in the 1960's could apparently see about three times as many buildings on the site as we can see today, for various reasons related to protecting the site which have led to large parts of Pompeii now being closed to visitors. I can't comment on the 'missing' part but can assure visitors that the part we can still visit today is very extensive.

More worryingly, exposing the ruins to the weather and to people, and poor quality excavation works in the early days after its discovery, has also caused many problems for Pompeii. A great deal of money is required to maintain, protect and renovate an entire town, and Italy (for the time being at least) does not have the necessary funds.

Kitchen and ovens

So although Pompeii seems to visitors to be fixed in a point of time 2000 years ago, in fact it was fixed in time and protected by lava until 250 years ago but has been in decline since excavations began. One hopeful possibility - almost a third of the original city has not yet been excavated and might perhaps best be left covered for the time being and for future generations to explore.

Will Pompeii erupt during my visit?!

Mount Vesuvius is just a few kilometres away and clearly visible from Pompeii, and is still an active volcano which could erupt again at any time, with equally devastating force. It last erupted in 1944 (but not with such force as in 79 AD).

This future eruption could potentially repeat the 'Pompeii' effect on Naples or any of the many other towns in the region. Experts do agree however that the residents of Pompeii had plenty of warning to leave the town, but about 2000 of them thought the eruption was not too serious at first, choosing not to leave their homes - and then got submerged in the so-called "pyroclastic surge" (a mix of broken rock and poisonous gas) that rolled down the mountain at great speed several hours after the ash cloud was first seen.

So if you see a large ash cloud 10 miles high appear over the volcano you might not want to hang around too long...otherwise you should be alright!

Pompeii visitor information

The easiest way to reach Pompeii is to take the train that travels between Naples and Sorrento and stops at the site. The site is open 8.30-17.00 from November to March and 9.30 - 18.30 from April to October. Last admission is 1.5 hours before closing time, but really you should allow a whole morning or afternoon for a visit.

You can hire a guide at the entrance gate (agree prices and make sure they can speak your language properly before agreeing) or hire one of the audio guides (small pre-recorded machines you listen to as you explore Pompeii) from the ticket office - this is cheaper than a 'real' guide and a popular and efficient way to discover the site.

You can buy a combined ticket that also includes admission to Herculaneum and three other historic sites nearby. It is worth buying this ticket even if you only plan to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum and not the others.

You can find more local travel ideas in the Naples guide and the Campania guide.

See also:

Map of Pompeii and places to visit

Places to visit near Pompeii

Herculaneum

Herculaneum

Herculaneum near Naples was a town buried by the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD

Herculaneum guide

Positano

Positano

Positano is a very scenic (and very steep!) village at the west of the Amalfi coast

Positano guide

Ravello

Ravello

Ravello is best known for its villas and gardens with stunning coastal views

Ravello guide

Amalfi

Amalfi

Amalfi is one of the principal scenic villages in the heart of the Amalfi Coast

Amalfi guide

Sorrento

Sorrento

Sorrento is a popular resort and base for exploring the Amalfi coast

Sorrento guide

Atrani

Atrani

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Atrani guide