The Pompeii ruins are one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world and are one of Italy’s many UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The ancient city was buried by ash from an eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius – you can see it looming ominously over the ruins during your visit. Visitors to the ruins can take a guided tour or explore independently, though I highly recommend taking a tour. This guide has all of the best things to do in Pompeii on a day trip, including some of the options you have for tours. Keep on reading for all of the info and tips you need to plan the perfect visit to Pompeii.
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Things to do in the Pompeii archaeological site
Whether you’re on your own or part of a tour, you’ll want to make sure that you hit all of the most famous sites in Pompeii. These include frescoes, houses, temples, and more. A tour guide will take you to the top sights, and they’re also highlighted in the guidemap you’ll get at the entrance. Here are a few of my favorite Pompeii points of interest:
This large open square was the heart of ancient Pompeii and shouldn’t be missed on any visit. The Forum’s most dominating structure is the remains of the Temple of Jupiter which (ominously in hindsight) was designed to align with Mount Vesuvius.
Pompeii’s Basilica isn’t a church, which is what I expected with a hint of confusion when I saw it labeled on the map. It was actually their Court of Justice where judicial processes were handled. It was my favorite part of the Pompeii ruins, and I even had it mostly to myself for a few minutes when I was there.
The main area of the ruins features two theaters – one large and one small – and while the smaller one is mostly roped off and in worse shape, the larger amphitheater is very impressive. Modern day shows are even held there. We were able to climb all the way to the top, which gives a view of Mount Vesuvius in the distance. The acoustic performance is also very good here and while I was at the top, someone began a short, impromptu opera performance that sounded fantastic all the way in the back.
Lupanar (aka the brothel)
This building was home to prostitutes and has several small rooms with built in beds. The walls feature small paintings depicting different sex acts that acted as sort of a “menu” for the patrons. It’s definitely NSFW and maybe not for kids.
This is one of the more impressive still-standing structures in the park. The baths were important culturally and had pools for both men and women. It’s cool to see how they were constructed, and if you have a good guide they’ll tell you how the heat was maintained.
House of the Faun
This upper class home is named after the faun statue featured as a prominent decoration. It’s one of the largest homes in Pompeii and was full of elaborate decorations like mosaics and beautiful tile work.
The Sanctuary of Apollo
Devotees of the god Apollo and his sister Diana (yes, Wonder Woman) worshipped in this place in ancient times. The temple shows the historic Greek presence, and featured elaborate columns and statues of Apollo and Diana. The originals are preserved in the National Archaeological Museum, but you can view replicas.
House of the Tragic Poet
This house is most famous for the mosaic depicting a dog with the words “cave canem” (beware of the dog). It’s become somewhat a symbol of Pompeii and can be found on many souvenirs.
A fruit and veggie market in ancient times, these buildings to the side of the Forum now contain over 9000 artifacts unearthed in the excavations at Pompeii. Most of them are stacked on shelves so you don’t get the best view of them, but you can still see much of the pottery. A few of the plaster casts made of the victims are on display, including one of a dog that was very sad.
Bakery of Propido Prisco
This well-preserved bakery contains the lava millstones that were used to grind the grain and the ovens that were used to bake the bread. It’s interesting to see how this most delicious and carb-y food was made in ancient times.
I’m not normally one for tours as I much prefer to explore places at my own pace, but I’d very much recommend joining one for Pompeii. While the guidemap does a good job identifying important sites, there isn’t much in the way of signage explaining what those important sites signified or the history around them. I definitely got more out of my visit that way. I would definitely say that taking a Pompeii guided tour (or at least paying for one of the audio guides) will make your visit a lot more meaningful. Check out one of the many tours offered. I selected three of the most high-rated ones, but there are dozens of options out there, including ones that provide bus transportation from other cities.
The Pompeii archaeological park’s hours vary by season. From April-October, they open at 9 am on weekdays or 8:30 on weekends and close at 7:30. During the winter season from November-March, the ruins close at 5pm. And honestly you won’t want to be fumbling your way over the cobblestones in the dark anyway, so it’s probably for the best. I’d recommend getting there as early as possible as crowds do thicken later in the day when day trippers from Naples and even Rome arrive.
Pompeii entrance fee
Current admission fees as of January 2019 are 15 euros. Reduced admission for those who qualify is only 7.50. Even better than that? Kids and teens under 18 are free, so this can really be an affordable family outing. On the first Sunday of each month, admission is free, though that is offset by the fact that crowds can get crazy. You can plan to visit then or avoid it depending on your tolerance for crowds and willingness to pay for regular admission. I’ve also read that the gates are shut for a couple of hours on these free days to allow the morning crowds to disperse before letting in an afternoon rush so beware of that and plan accordingly so you don’t get stuck milling around outside for a couple of hours.
Should you buy Pompeii tickets in advance?
In busy seasons, I would absolutely recommend this. You can buy tickets online on the Pompeii official site. You can probably get away without buying them ahead of time in slower seasons or if you stay nearby and plan to arrive right at opening though. When I visited on a slow January weekday, the ticket lines were only a few minutes long, but I’ve heard of lines stretching for over an hour during peak seasons. Also, occupancy in the park is capped at 15k people at a time so on crowded days, they may temporarily stop admissions until people leave. That sounds uncomfortably crowded anyway, so it’s probably for the best. You can book through the annoyingly unreliable official site (there’s a small processing fee) or check out one of these options through Get Your Guide.
How long should you spend in Pompeii
If you want to see absolutely everything, plan on staying in Pompei and spending the day from open to close or even visiting for two days in a row, but casual visitors will be able to see the highlights in one day. I spent a half day there, and between my tour and some independent wandering I did afterward, I felt like I saw everything on my list of places to see. I would’ve liked a couple more hours to see a bit more and hit the less commonly visited areas, but hit all of the highlights and I got a lot out of my visit.
Tips for visiting Pompeii
- It’s important to note that the modern city nearby the Pompeii archaeological site is spelled Pompei with only one i. The older Pompeii is only used for the ruins and the Pompeii Scavi train station. This can be important when it comes to navigation.
- Try to eat before visiting, though if you’re doing a full day you’ll likely need to grab lunch or at least a snack at some point. There is a café inside the Pompeii ruins, but even on the relatively slow off-season day I visited, it was absolute chaos and the pasta mediocre at best. I placed and paid for my order at the register and then the cook proceeded to reach directly over my head multiple times to take tickets from people behind me despite me trying to shove mine into his hand after the first couple of times it happened. By the time he decided to make my food, the drink I’d paid for was out of stock and I had to settle for something else. I then ate most my meal standing with my tray on top of a trash can because there were no tables available until a nice lady tapped me on the shoulder and told me that she and her group were about to get up so I could snag her spot.
- If you have a way to pack it, you can bring food and snacks into the ruins. There are a couple of designated picnic areas, which are the only places you’re allowed to eat outside of the restaurant. It’s a good way to save money and potentially have better food and come straight from an early morning flight from Venice that had me catching a boat at 5 am, I would’ve brought my own too.
- Do not climb on the ruins or walls. Not only could it get you kicked out of the park, but it’s just a bad idea to climb on historic ruins in general. I’m definitely in the background of some family’s photos giving major stink eye because I walked past while their kid was climbing on a broken pillar in the Court of Justice. This is why we can’t have nice things, people.
- After visiting the Pompeii archaeological site, I’d highly recommend touring the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale (the National Archeological Museum) in Naples. Unfortunately, when the ruins were discovered, many of the frescos and almost all of the artifacts were removed and scattered throughout Europe. The museum has an extensive collection of them and you’ll get a chance to appreciate the artwork more than you do at the ruins themselves. You can visit the museum in an hour if you only want to see the Pompeii artifacts, but I’d allow at least two if you want to explore the whole gallery.
- Large backpacks and bags aren’t allowed in the site, but there is a free cloakroom on site where you can store them.
- There are lots of stray dogs in Pompeii. I read that it used to be a bigger problem, but I still saw a few when I was there. The pups I encountered were good natured, but the website recommends keeping your distance.
Things to bring to the Pompeii ruins
- Bring lots of water with you. The ruins are enormous – you’ll be exploring a whole city – and there aren’t exactly a lot of drinking fountains available. I always take a water bottle like this one to keep it with me at all times.
- Wear sunscreen. While the building walls were preserved, most of them don’t have roofs, so you’ll spend most of your time out in the sun.
- Good walking shoes. You’ll likely be walking lots of miles as you tour the Pompeii ruins. Make sure you bring comfy shoes, preferably with good soles as the old streets can be very uneven in places. I tripped more than once
- Pack a rain jacket. If it rains during your visit, you won’t have many indoor spaces to duck into so come prepared.
Getting to Pompeii
Pompeii is located near the coast not far south of Naples. This will be your best target if flying or taking a train from elsewhere. From the Naples central train station, buy a ticket for the Circumvesuviana train on the route that takes you to the Pompeii Scavi stop. There’s no need to book your local train tickets in advance. You can purchase them at the train station leaving Naples when you’re ready to depart, though beware that the central train station there is like a maze and has terrible signage so you may want to arrive earlier than normal. I’ve been in airports, bus terminals, and train stations on six continents and never felt so hopelessly lost as I was in Naples Garibaldi. The train will be crowded. And probably smell bad. But it’s an affordable way to get there and drops you off almost right outside the archaeological park.
Check out some of my other posts about places to visit in Italy:
- Venice by Night
- The Leonardo da Vinci Museum in Venice
- Itinerary for Two Days in Rome, Italy
- Touring the Top Level of the Colosseum