Stories of people & places, festivities & traditions from my travels around the world
10 tips for enjoying Pompeii
(particularly if you are visiting with children)
by Lucy Hornberger
Pompeii is probably the world's most famous archaeological site. Rediscovered in 1748 and still only two-thirds excavated, this extraordinary treasure house of first century Roman life welcomes over 2 million visitors every year. Nevertheless, it's a tricky place to get the best out of, and many visitors end up wandering the site aimlessly, overwhelmed and slightly disappointed.
The reasons for this are 3-fold:
- The site is huge! You can't hope to see it all on one visit, and you'll be miserable if you try.
- The majority of the site really is a ruin - and a depressingly unkempt and dilapidated one.
- The presentation is poor - little sense of what was found where, and almost no signage of any kind, let alone anything informative and interpretive.
Add to this the crowds, lack of facilities, and the summer heat, and it's no surprise that many people leave after a couple of hours, glad to have 'ticked it off'.
But it doesn't have to be like this! Here are 10 tips to help you prepare for your trip to Pompeii, and find the magic when you're there!
1. Plan ahead and know what to expect
Guidebooks tend to suggest that Pompeii is so remarkably preserved that blink, and it could almost 'come back to life'. This is highly misleading!
Pompeii today exists in an extremely ruined state: great swathes of the site are merely brickwork - uninterpretable to the non-specialist. What's more, the site is almost completely stripped of its wonderful artefacts, and sadly very few have been replaced with copies.
The key is to do a little homework on the site prior to your visit , be prepared to use your imagination, and hit the highlights first before the endless foundations and masonry start to get to you.
Target these impressively preserved parts of Pompeii first:
- The amazing vaulted Forum Baths (behind the cafeteria) with intact decorative stucco on the ceiling and niches to hold bathers' personal belongings.
- The House of the Faun, home to the much photographed statue of a faun and the extraordinary Alexander mosaic (both originals are in the Naples National Archaeological Museum)
- The House of Menander
- The theatre and nearby temple of Isis
- The amphitheatre (if you haven't seen one elsewhere)
- Hunt out some of Pompeii's ancient 'fast food joints' (complete with marble counters inset with large ceramic jars from which the food was served). Perfect for a little imaginative play with kids!
NB: the famed plaster cast bodes are done roughly, falling apart (are they perhaps casts of the original casts?), miserably displayed and covered in dust. Worth seeing, but hard to count as a highlight.
2. A decent guidebook is an essential.
Pick up a free site map and booklet at the info point at entrance, but don't neglect to take a guidebook (if you've left it to the last minute, there's a small but well-stocked book shop at the main entrance). There is an audio guide available, but we didn't much like it - long on scholarly detail and very short on those little details that can bring history alive.
Guidebooks are very much a matter of personal taste, but we enjoyed Rick Steves' Pompeii 'mini tour'
(NB: also in his Rome
guidebook) which takes the reader around the most important buildings and features - great for engaging children, and for the casually interested who want to see the good stuff without getting bored or overwhelmed.
We also used a wonderful book of photos of the site today overlaid with transparent sheets showing what it likely looked like in Roman times. It's called 'Pompeii: As it was in the past and as we see it today', by Luca Mozzati and published - in several languages, including English - by Italian publisher Mondadori. It is available at the Pompeii site bookshop, and from bookshops in Naples and Rome, and occasionally comes up online on Amazon Marketplace. Not just for children, but fascinating for adults too!
Guides: to hire or not to hire?
Licensed guides patrol the entrances to Pompeii, and there's no doubt that being shown around by an expert can be a great way to explore the site, especially if you have limited time. Downsides are that the fees are pretty high, unless you are in a larger group, and despite being licensed, there's no guarantee that the guide you pick (or more likely, who picks you!) is actually going to be very good. While it seems churlish to criticise their English, many have a strong accent, which coupled with fast and furious delivery (after all, they've said all this a thousand times before...) can make listening to them hard work. Many also lack the common touch, regurgitating information like a talking text book. That's not to say that there aren't some great ones, but overall, if you are interested in hiring a guide for Pompeii, it makes sense to ask for recommendations on travel forums such as Fodors
or Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree
, check them out as thoroughly as possible, and make a booking in advance.
3. Get there early
Consider arriving at 8:30am when the site opens, as being first in line means a few hours of relative quiet and a greater chance of that delightful feeling of having the place to yourself (the ubiquitous cruise ship tours mostly don't hit the site until later in the day). Having said that, be aware that from time to time, and entirely without prior notice, the site will be closed for 'staff meetings' until 11am. Why this happens is not entirely clear, but it seems to be a form of industrial action on the part of the staff (there are rumours that their payment isn't always forthcoming).
4. Use the main gate
Despite the queues, I strongly recommend that you do enter through the main gate, especially if you have children with limited attention spans. That way you pass through the city's main gate, the Porta Marina (look out for the well-preserved stone boat mooring rings - on the left as you head from the site entrance up to the gate), and swiftly arrive at the forum and buildings of major interest (see boxed text above). I say this with authority, as on our first visit we thought we'd be clever and enter at the far end of the site, by the amphitheatre. It was beautifully quiet, but meant that we - and especially the kids - were seriously running out of steam by the time we eventually got to the centre of the town and the really interesting bits.
5. Expect part closures
Don't be surprised if some of the more famous buildings are closed, and whole streets cordoned off with ramshackle metal barriers. And any route you choose from the map, especially beyond the main areas, will likely need to be adjusted due to these closures. Needless to say, closures are not marked and there are no diversion signs - you have to work it out for yourself!
6. Don't miss the Villa dei Misteri
This large and beautiful villa is on the outer limits of the site (beyond the old city walls) and therefore receives fewer visitors than it deserves. It is one of the most intact structures in Pompeii and justly famous for its wonderful frescoes.
7. Wear comfortable shoes
I really can't stress this enough! The site is vast, and you'll be doing a lot of walking on the original Roman cobbles, which are uneven (it's easy to trip), and very hard on the soles of your feet. The cobbles also mean that it's no fun to be lumbered with a buggy or stroller (there's a baggage check at the main entrance). Use a backpack or sling for babies, encourage toddlers to walk, or be prepared to carry them!
8. Other necessities
Don't forget: a water bottle - easy to re-fill at the many original Roman street fountains (still working thanks to modern - non-lead! - piping); a picnic to allow you to avoid the mediocre and over-priced offerings in the one, small cafeteria on site (although the pizza slices would be OK for hungry kids, at a pinch); a sun hat in summer and a raincoat or umbrella if it's likely to rain (there is very little shade or shelter around the site). You may also wish to consider taking a thin scarf as protection against the mini dust storms that blow up around the site from time to time.
9. Toilets are few and far between
Toilet facilities on the site are absolutely minimal (above the cafeteria behind the forum), mostly out-of-order and often have substantial queues. Use the toilets at the station (not free), and again at the site entrance prior to entering (free), whether you need them or not!
10. Visit Herculaneum
If you loved Pompeii, then you'll love Herculaneum (Ercolano) even more! And if, despite following this tips, Pompeii leaves you feeling overwhelmed, frustrated and disappointed, then Herculaneum will restore your delight in things Roman. While not as famous as Pompeii, many of the buildings are in a far better state of preservation, the site is a great deal smaller, and the crowds are thinner. Highly recommended!
True enthusiasts - and those with time on their hands - will also enjoy visiting the lesser known Vesuvian sites of Oplonti, Stabia and Boscoreale (and if you're in Rome, don't miss Ostia Antica, a wonderful and easily accessible 'mini Pompeii'.
An extra note for families with younger children: the brothel (and market stalls outside the site)
We had planned to avoid the brothel (Lupanare), but due to numerous street closures (see no. 5) we found ourselves channelled straight through it, and unable to avoid it without backtracking a long distance. It is a tiny building, exceedingly crowded when we were there, and the frescos are fairly high up and difficult to see clearly in the gloom (maybe take a torch if you're especially interested?), so we left our boys to come up with their own interpretation - which, happily, was that it was a little hotel.
Worse are the many of the souvenir stalls outside the site - quite a few of the postcards are x-rated , and erotic art calendars and copies of the sexier frescos are prominently displayed. There are also plenty of winged phalluses, which we find funny, but which some may find 'a bit much' with kids.
The famous CAVE CANEM (beware of the dog) mosaic at the entrance to the House of the Tragic Poet.
Pompeii's Forum Baths (terme del foro) - one of the city's most intact buildings with stucco decoration on the ceilings and niches around the walls for bathers' belongings.
A book well worth getting hold of - the transparent overlays show major building and features as they likely looked in 79AD.
Pompeii now stands about 2km inland, so it comes as a surprise to see the stone mooring rings on the quay just outside the Porta Marina entrance.
Closed roads and cordoned-off areas are sadly a common feature of the Pompeii site.
Many of Pompeii's street fountains still provide water for thirsty passers-by, happily minus the original lead piping.
Wonderful wall mosaics and frescoes in Herculaneum.
Article & photos posted February 6th, 2016
Text and photos copyright © 2016 Lucy Hornberger. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited.