The Pompeii archaeological site ★★★

The Pompeii archaeological site, Pompeii, Italy (Photo )

The amazing ruins of a Roman port city

The Last Days of Pompeii, The Pompeii archaeological site, Pompeii, Italy. (Photo courtesy of Crew Creative, LTD and the Discovery Channel)
Alessandro Sanquirico's set design depicting the eruption of Vesuvius, the climactic scene of Giovanni Pacini's opera, L'ultimo giorno di Pompei which premiered at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples in 1825. This set design is from the 1827 La Sc, The Pompeii archaeological site, Pompeii, Italy. (Photo by Carlo Sanquirico (active 1820s–1830s) after Alessandro Sanquirico (1777–1849))
Last Days of Pompeii (1830–33) by Karl Bryullov, now in The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia, The Pompeii archaeological site, Pompeii, Italy. (Photo in the Public Domain)

A few blocks from the main, Porta Marina entrance you'll stroll into the Forum, the central square of any Roman city. Around the edges you'll see that there was once a two-story colonnade, its 470-foot length oriented so that, ironically, "scenic" Mt. Vesuvius serves as a natural backdrop. At the northern end of the eastern edge is a small room with a countertop embedded with bowl-shape depressions of increasing sizes. The Forum was also a central marketplace, and to forestall arguments between buyer and seller, these were used as the city's standards of measure.

Exit the Forum onto Via dell Abbondanza, detouring left down Via del Teatro to see the Teatro Grande, a 2nd-century BC theater that could seat 5,000. Under the stage lay a reservoir so that the scena could be flooded for mock naval battles (some suggest the water also helped amplify the acoustics during performances).

Nearby on Via Stabiana is the Odeon or Teatro Piccolo, a much smaller theater (seating 1,000) used mainly for concerts.

The House of Menander has painted scenes from the Trojan cycle in some rooms, and a floor mosaic of the Nile in the peristyle (the family who lived here were all found together, huddled in one room, killed when the roof caved in on them).

Past the intersection with Via Stabiana, long Via dell Abbondanza marks the site of the "New Excavations," undertaken since 1911. Many of the houses on both sides of this street retain their second stories, and while those on the north/left side haven't been excavated much beyond the facades, those on the right have and—unlike in much of the older, more famous excavations (north of the Forum; we'll get there in a minute)—as many of the frescoes, mosaics, and statuary as possible have been left in place rather than shipped off to a museum.

Among the houses along this street, be sure you pop into the House of D. Octavius Quartius, with lots of good frescoes and replanted gardens; and the House of the Marine Venus, with a large wall painting of the goddess stretched out on a clamshell.

Near the end of the street, turn right to walk through the Great Palestra—a huge open space shaded by umbrella pines where the city's youths went to work out and play sports (many came here seeking shelter from the eruption; their skeletons were found huddled in the corner latrine)—to the Amphitheater. Built in 80 BC, this is the oldest amphitheater in the world, and could hold 12,000 spectators who, according to the records, were just as wont to break into a brawl in the stands as watch the gladiators fighting on the field below.

Just south of the amphitheater—right by the new, secondary site entrance/exit—is the new, vaguely donut-shaped glass buildings in which you can peer at the plaster casts of bodies. During the early excavations, archaeologists realized that the ash had packed around dying Pompeiians and hardened almost instantly. The bodies decayed, leaving just the skeletons lying in people-shaped air pockets under the ground. Holes were drilled down to a few and plaster was poured in, taking a rough cast of the moment of death. Some people writhe in agony. A dog, chained to a post, turns to bite desperately at his collar. One man sits on the ground, covering his face in grief.

Return down Via dell Abbondanza to Via Stabiana. On the northwest corner sit the Thermae Stabiane, a series of baths with stuccoed and painted ceilings surviving in some rooms and a few glass caskets with more twisted plaster cast bodies of Pompeii victims.

Head up Vico del Lupanare on the other side of these baths to the acute intersection with the overhanging second story, the *Lupanar. This brothel left nothing to the imagination. Painted scenes above each of the little cells inside graphically showed potential clients the position in which the whore of that particular room specialized. Until a few decades ago, only male tourists were allowed in to see it.

Continuing north to the heart of the Old Excavations, be sure to stop by the House of the Vettii, one of the most luxurious mansions in town (it belonged to two trading mogul brothers) and in a wonderful state of preservation. Behind a glass shield at the entrance is a painting of a Priapus, a little guy with a grotesquely oversized male member—here shown weighing the appendage on a scale.

This was not meant to be lewd, but rather was a common device believed to ward off evil spirits and thoughts. Painted putti and cherubs dance around the atrium while the rooms are filled with frescoes of mythological scenes and characters. Don't miss the "Sala Dipinta," where a black band around the walls is painted with cherubs engaging in sports and in the various trades in which the Vettii probably had investments.

Though the House of the Faun is huge and famous, most of its treasures were long ago shipped off to Naples' Archaeological Museum, including the Alexander Mosaic and the namesake bronze statue in the atrium's fountain (here replaced by a copy).

The House of the Tragic Poet is closed, but between the bars of the gate you can still see the most famous mosaic in Pompeii: a fearsome chained dog with a spiked collar and the epithet Cave Canem ("Beware of the Dog").

The nearby Forum Baths retain ribbed stucco on some ceilings and a strip of tiny telamons along one wall.

Walk north along Via Consolare to exit the ruins (hold on to your ticket) and follow the path for five minutes to the suburban Villa dei Misteri (Villa of the Mysteries), which you get into on the same ticket. Built around the 2nd century BC, this villa was converted into a center for the Dionysian cult, and the walls are gorgeously and skillfully painted with life-size figures engaging in the Dionysian Mysteries of an initiate (though these paintings have helped modern scholars guess at the nature of these rites, we still don't know exactly what was involved). The scenes play out against a background of such deep, intense red that the color used is still called "Pompeiian red."

 
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  • , The Pompeii archaeological site, Italy (Photo )
  • The Last Days of Pompeii, The Pompeii archaeological site, Italy (Photo courtesy of Crew Creative, LTD and the Discovery Channel)
  • Alessandro Sanquirico
  • Last Days of Pompeii (1830–33) by Karl Bryullov, now in The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia, The Pompeii archaeological site, Italy (Photo in the Public Domain)
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Tips

Free or reduced admission with a sightseeing card

Get into The Pompeii archaeological site for free (and skip the line at the ticket booth) with:

» more on discounts & passes
Last entry is 90 min before closing

Be warned that the entrance closes 90 minutes before the site itself.

How long does Pompeii take?

Pompeii takes a good, full day to explore. At the very least, it takes three to four hours , minimum, to pop into the major sights (it's a city, remember, so there's a lot of walking to be done).

Be prepared for crowds

Especially on weekends (they average 4,700 visitors a day, up to 22,000 people on holidays).

Bring bottled water

Alongwith a brimmed hat, and sun block—it's hard to escape the sun at Pompeii, and the dust is everywhere.

Maps and Navigation

The map the ticket office hands out is pretty good for finding every site in the ruined town, but Pompeii is one place where investing in a nice guidebook full of color photos at the gift shop before you explore is worth your while to get detailed background.

Get the audioguide

Grab an audioguide at the entrance for €8 (two can share one for €13).

There's even a kiddie version written for youngsters (at last check it cost €5).

With these, you can either follow one of several set itineraries, or just use it on a sights by sight basis as you wander through the ghost city, punching up the background info on just the bits that interest you.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
     
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
     
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
     
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
     
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
     
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
     
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
     
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
     
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah


* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).

 

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