We knew we wanted to visit either Pompeii or Herculaneum while we were in Naples, but which one? In the end we chose Herculaneum (Ercolano in Italian) partly because it's smaller than Pompeii and therefore more easily walkable. While generally lesser-known than Pompeii, it's considered to be better preserved than Pompeii. We learned that the ash from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD crushed Pompeii but Herculaneum received a "pyroclastic flow" of hot gasses which carbonized and therefore preserved the city better than the ash that Pompeii received.
It's easy to visit both Mt. Vesuvius and Herculaneum in one day and I imagine you could visit Pompeii and Herculaneum in one day, but it would be a long day with a lot of walking, and I wouldn't recommend it. We took the Circumvesuviana local train from Naples. Its terminus in Naples is Porta Nolana and its second stop is the main train station, Garibaldi which is where we boarded. We visited on a Sunday in March and were able to easily find seats.
There are two Herculaneum stops, Ercolano Scavi (the first stop) and Ercolano. "Scavi" means "excavations" in Italian and that's the stop you want. It only takes about 15 minutes from Naples and costs a mere €2,20 one way. The train stops in a little square where you buy tickets for the bus which takes you to the base of Vesuvius. We originally planned to visit Ercolano first, but were advised to go to Vesuvius first since we arrived late morning and the entrance to Vesuvius closes earlier than Ercolano. Ercolano is a direct, five-minute walk from the square.
This is where you get off the train.
The ticket to Vesuvius costs €20 which includes €10 for the bus ride and €10 for the entrance to the Vesuvius trail. The bus takes you through the town of Ercolano and deposits you after about 20 to 30 minutes at the base where you begin your walk up. The summit of Mt. Vesuvius is 4,200 feet. The walk up is about a mile and it's gravel the entire way.
The lower half is switchbacks and the top half is straight uphill. It took me about 30 minutes, but it took Katie about half that time. The day we visited was the only day of our trip that was cool and cloudy. Despite the fact that the view from Vesuvius would have been amazing had it not been for the clouds, I was thankful that it wasn't hot and sunny!
Katie's shoes weren't blue by the time we finished!
This was taken from the Vesuvius trail during a brief break in the clouds. Naples is to the right, across the bay.
The crater. Pretty cool! I never thought I'd be looking down the throat of this infamous volcano!
It's interesting to see the wispy clouds move over the crater.
Vesuvius has erupted many times. Accounts of the number killed as a result of each eruption vary. The printed guide we received at the site says that the famous eruption in 79 AD killed 2,000 while a violent eruption in 1631 killed as many as 6,000 people. The most recent eruption occurred in 1944 during World War II, destroying the town of San Sebastiano and killing 26 people. Vesuvius is not considered extinct and experts feel confident that another violent eruption is likely to take place. The good news now is that modern technology often warns us of impending eruptions.
Herculaneum, or Ercolano in Italian, with about 4,000 - 5,000 inhabitants in 79 AD, was much smaller than Pompeii, and a wealthier city, evidenced by the abundance of marble and mosaics. We happened to be in Italy during culture week. The museums were free, so there was no charge to enter the ruins of Ercolano. The usual rate is about €13.
In recent history, Herculaneum experienced years of neglect, but in 2001, the Herculaneum Conservation Project was created. Thanks to a public-private partnership with the British School in Rome, students are taught how to properly conserve this historic gem.
The day we visited, there were very few tourists and it felt as though we had it to ourselves. Now that I've seen it once, I want to go back to explore it in more detail. Docents are available at the desk where you buy your ticket and I would hire one the next time.
House #22 is called the house of Neptune and Amphitrite due to the beautiful mosaic with their images. It was my favorite structure in Ercolano. Unlike other structures where there are no barriers, you can get only as close to this mosaic as this photo shows in this house, understandably.
More from the house of Neptune and Amphitrite. Imagine what it would have been like to live among these mosaics and statues!
When the citizens of Ercolano saw that the eruption of Vesuvius was barreling toward them, many of them ran toward the sea to escape in stone boathouses which they thought would protect them. It was thought for years that they died instantly from the intense heat of the pyroclastic surge, but further research shows that the heat they experienced, although extremely high, wasn't high enough to kill them instantly partly due to the small protection that the boathouses provided. Either way, it must have been terrifying.
The skeletons, about 340 of them, weren't discovered until 1981 and archeologists have learned a great deal about Herculaneum and its people from them. It was surreal to see them just as they died.
A typical street in Ercolano. Notice the face carved into the stone in the foreground.
I certainly wouldn't turn down an opportunity to visit Pompeii and I hope to see it someday, but I'm glad we chose Ercolano!
➜ Top Tips
Ercolano is easy to walk around on your own, but a docent would make for a more meaningful visit.
Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes!
Depending on how much of a history buff you are, you could easily spend two hours or more at Ercolano.
Dress appropriately for Vesuvius. The day we were there it was warm in Naples, but with no sun, it got cold at Vesuvius.
Take care walking down the trail; the gravel is loose and slick.